Book Review—The Woman in Black

[The Woman in Black Cover]I am jaded. Having read great American horror such as Hell House, I always expect the worst when I pick up a new book about the paranormal—“the worst” being a good thing as it pertains to sheer, violent, depraved mayhem. Not that The Woman in Black is new. I saw the movie last year and finally decided to read the source material. And to be honest, the film’s director, James Watkins, did ratchet up the horror angle, doing some things that went beyond the book.

At the heart of it, this novel is a ghost story in the best sense—a good, old-fashioned fireside tale meant to chill rather than repulse. And the writing is splendid—something lacking in a lot of the horror fiction I’ve read by less-skilled writers. The author, Susan Hill, has a way of describing dark things that leaves the very walls dripping with dread. And her depiction of an older Arthur Kipps reflecting on his haughtier younger self is first-rate and absolutely rings true.

Don’t expect to be terrified by The Woman in Black. That’s just not how it’s done when you’re writing exceptional literary fiction. But if you enjoy a really well-written book that perfectly captures a time and place as dense and cloying as the fog surrounding Eel Marsh House, then you will enjoy this story immensely.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Synopsis
The classic ghost story from the author of The Mist in the Mirror: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town. Now a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Four

[I’m A Young Girl 2]
Photo courtesy of stephane via Creative Commons

For seven weeks, I will be posting chapters from my new satirical novel Chainsaw Honeymoon.

Blurb
Ruby Navarro, a bright, funny fourteen-year-old who loves horror movies, is on a mission to get her parents back together. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need her two best friends, her dog, an arrogant student filmmaker, and a computer-generated, chainsaw-wielding killer. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Four

It was hot in downtown LA—ghost peppers in a grease fire hot. In the distance, lines of cars clogged the swollen arteries of the Harbor Freeway. A solitary paletero with one leg shorter than the other was crossing the bridge at 3rd Street, the little bell on his cart tinkling merrily with the promise of delicious Mexican ice cream.

Eventually, he passed a tall, pretty redhead in a black cocktail dress, walking in the opposite direction. Her name was Laraine Moody, and the ice cream vendor could tell she’d been crying. When he saw the bruises on her pale, freckled arms, he knew what Ana Gabriel was talking about when she sang “Y Aquí Estoy.”

Through his large office window in the tallest building in LA, Warren Mudge peered through Nikon ProStaff binoculars and caught sight of the paletero as he vanished around a corner. Wiping a hungered droplet of drool from his lip, he realized he would have to hunt the little Mexican dude down later. The Chief Marketing Officer of Viper Leather Goods, Warren was in his mid-fifties and had a weakness for paletas—especially the pepino con chile y limón.

Though he was short, he did not suffer from achondroplasia. On the contrary, his body was proportional and muscled. He kept himself in shape by running, swimming, and climbing, and he adhered to a strict paleo diet—except for the paletas—while eschewing cigarettes and alcohol. Also, Warren was a skydiving freak and liked to escape to Elsinore Valley whenever he could.

As he leaned back comfortably at his luxurious antique walnut desk, Stacey Navarro knocked and came in, taking a seat opposite her boss. She noticed the newly framed photos of Warren’s most recent skydiving exploits hanging on the wall. She’d been meaning to tell him she had never been skydiving in her life and had no intention of starting, but now was not the time.

“Stacey, the marketing campaign is fantastic,” he said, waving his arms like he was giving a TED Talk. “So far, the UK, Benelux, and Saudi Arabia are seeing results.”

“Well, I learned from the best.” Stacey was nothing if not modest.

“Hmm… A man would’ve taken credit.”

“I know, Warren, but—”

“Close the door.”

She knew what was coming. And she wanted it, but at the same time, she didn’t. In the eighteen months she’d worked at Viper, Warren had promoted her twice and given her generous bonuses. He had always treated her with respect and courtesy. But somehow things had progressed to a new, almost uncomfortable level. Was she ready for this?

“Stacey, have you thought any more about the offer?”

The offer. He made it sound like he was buying an investment property in Montana. She looked at him, her eyes distant. In her mind, she pictured the wedding photo of Alan and her, which used to sit on the mantle, going up in flames. Please stop, she thought as he slid a handcrafted rosewood ring box across the desk toward her. Please, can you go back to being my boss?

For a long time, she stared at the box with the tasteful scrollwork. Somewhere far off, a lunatic had fired up a chainsaw, its angry whine echoing just outside the window, even though they were on a high floor. She reached for the present with trembling fingers. Opening it, she beheld a huge diamond engagement ring.

“Oh my,” she said.

Everything changed. Warren was no longer wearing a suit. He had on casual clothes, the kind you’d find at Barneys New York. The skydiving photos were gone, replaced by family portraits. Stacey saw herself holding a newborn baby and posing next to Warren. Ruby was standing on her other side, and everyone was smiling. Outside, it was raining, even though it hadn’t rained in LA for eons.

“I don’t want us to wait any longer,” he said from somewhere far away. “How soon can you make the divorce final?”

But Stacey could only sit there, as frozen as the precious gem in front of her.

* * *

It was the dwarf’s fault. Alan knew it in his soul. The homunculus in question was, of course, Warren Nathaniel Mudge. Mudge. It sounded like something that would clog your pipes, if you weren’t careful. Also, it rhymed with grudge. Which was perfect because now that Alan thought about it, he did have one nasty grudge against that evil mastermind. In fact, he would like to rip Mudge’s ears off and feed them to one of Rick Van Loon’s feral dates. It was because of that smirking, hunchbacked miscreant that Alan would lose the one great love of his life. That hirsute, grinning, piston-headed—

“Alan, are you even listening?”

He looked up from his half-eaten marinated skirt steak frites and stared cloudily into Stacey’s eyes. Those eyes. Perfectly blue with flecks of green. He adored those eyes. In fact, he had fallen in love with Stacey because of those eyes. That and so many other things.

When his hearing returned, he noticed that the BOA Steakhouse was unusually loud, as if each table were in a cheerleading competition at a Toastmasters convention. It was lunch time, and the place was packed, both at the tables and the bar. Runners with trays of food scurried past in a dizzy dance. Somewhere a glass shattered.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I—”

“I said, Warren asked me to marry him.”

“But we’re not even divorced!” The color had left his face. “And since when is he in the picture?”

“Keep your voice down.” Stacey, sounding as if she were addressing a misbehaving child, caught herself and softened her tone. “Obviously, this is going to take some time to figure out.”

Alan tasted vomit as he tried reasoning with her. “Hey, come on,” he said, trying on the million-dollar smile. “The guy’s been married—”

“Twice. I know. But he’s older, more mature. He’s a decent man.”

“Decent?”

“He wants a family.”

“So did Charles Manson. And look how that turned out. Besides, you have a family.”

“He wants me to quit my job and stay home.”

“I see what this is about. You think our marriage was a mistake.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“And I’m a schmuck because I believe everyone needs to work.”

“Alan…”

As a dessert tray flew by, he snatched a slice of mascarpone cheesecake, scraped off a glob of vanilla Chantilly cream with his forefinger, and dumped it on Stacey’s steak.

She stared at him, uncomprehending. “What’s this for?”

“It’s the icing on the steak.”

Immediately regretting what he’d done, he got up and threw down some cash on the table.

“You’re being unfair,” she said, her voice like shards of ice.

I’m being unfair?” Straightening his tie, he glanced around the room, then leaned in toward his wife. “I thought we had a shot. I guess I’m having a harder time ‘moving on.’”

“What? Alan, this isn’t a contest.”

He recognized the weariness in her voice. It was the same weariness he had picked up on when they were first having their difficulties a year ago. Had it been a year already? Ruby was fourteen! He took a last look at his soon-to-be ex-wife and walked out, muttering. Then, he remembered he didn’t have any cash for the valet.

Staring at the sugary white topping melting on her steak, Stacey felt frustrated and alone. She wanted to scream and suddenly hated the hairpiece of the man sitting across from her. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Why couldn’t people be civilized?

A memory came flooding back to her of a night eleven years earlier when she and Alan were lying in bed. Long before iPads had been invented, they’d settled the problem of what to watch by setting up two televisions side-by-side at the foot of the bed. She remembered he was watching The Apartment. She was multitasking, reading a book on infertility and half-watching the original A Nightmare on Elm Street—one of her favorites because it featured Johnny Depp in his pre-Jack Sparrow days.

“I heard something,” she said, yanking off her headphones.

Still wearing his, Alan sat in bed, engrossed in the scene where Jack Lemon finds Shirley MacClaine lying on his bed, unconscious from an overdose of sleeping pills. With mother determination, she got out of bed and rushed to Ruby’s bedroom. When she didn’t see her daughter, her heart skipped a beat. As she made her way down the stairs, she heard giggling coming from the home office. Rushing in, she found Ruby, three at the time, playing a computer game.

“Ruby, why aren’t you in bed?”

As Alan walked in, he yawned loudly. “What’s going on?”

Stacey glared at him, angry at his seeming lack of concern. “Your daughter is playing Warcraft: Orcs & Humans again.”

“Look, Daddy!” Ruby said, pointing proudly at the monitor.

“Are you kidding me?” He came over and squinted at the screen. “How did you manage to kill all those Orcs?”

Stacey rolled her eyes. “Alan, that’s not really the point.”

“I know, but—”

“Back to bed, Ruby. Now!” Stacey was pointing at the door.

“Come on, short stack,” Alan said, picking up his daughter and depositing her on his shoulders.

“Whee!”

Back in bed, Alan reached over to turn out the light, but Stacey set her book down and grabbed his arm.

“Ow! Look, it’s not my fault she keeps guessing my password,” he said.

“I want another baby.”

“Now? What about the schedule?”

Smiling, she climbed onto him and, switching off the light, kissed him. “Schedule, shmedule.”

Sitting glumly at her table at the BOA Steakhouse, Stacey could still feel that kiss, as well as a profound sadness. She would marry Warren, and Alan would find someone. They would have joint custody of Ruby. She and Warren would have children of their own, and so would Alan and whoever he wound up with—probably someone younger who attended barre classes. Everyone would get together on holidays, and Ruby would be well adjusted.

Why was she having so much trouble picturing Alan with someone else? Come on, Stacey, think. All those women who came into the dealership every day? She was perfectly aware they found him attractive. As she had. Short blondes with big breasts, tall brunettes with legs up to their eyeballs. Oddly, no redheads. Everything will be fine, she told herself. Alan would eventually meet someone. The important thing for him was to get back out there.

Still, was that the future she wanted? This wasn’t one of her promotions. Warren had proposed, for God’s sake. And another thing. Why had she been in such a hurry to tell Alan? To hurt him? Yes—no! The truth was, she had hurt him. Deeply. Surprisingly, it hadn’t been that hard to do. In fact, it had felt…good.

As Stacey looked down at her cold plate, she watched in silent dread as fresh blood oozed from beneath the meat, as if something had been sacrificed.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Ramirez.

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Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Three

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Two

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

Free fiction has an expiration date—and this one has definitely come and gone. Please feel free to explore this site for more great stories.

Book Review—The Haunted

[The Haunted Cover]Sometimes, my wife asks how I can read scary books just before going to sleep. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember and it’s never bothered me. Like most people, I read for pleasure. But as a writer, I also read for understanding. Usually, when I read books about the supernatural, I intellectualize everything down to the story, writing style, and authenticity of the characters. I may have to revisit that approach.

The Haunted is the true story of the Smurl family, devout Catholics living in Pennsylvania who find themselves being infested with a demon and other vengeful spirits. Based on everything I’ve read so far about demons, this situation can occur when someone invites the demonic into their home through the use of Ouija boards, spells, or cursed objects like the Annabelle doll. Not so with the Smurls. This family did none of those things, yet the demonic entered their lives and plagued them for years, terrorizing individual family members—and even the neighbors.

Despite everything that happens, the Smurl family remains rooted in their faith. It’s the main reason they were able to manage for so long, undergoing multiple exorcisms and hordes of tourists wanting a glimpse of “the dark side.” As for me, I am comfortable in my faith and have always believed the demonic will leave me alone so long as I don’t seek it out. After reading The Haunted, I’m not so sure anymore.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Synopsis
The world’s most famous demonologists, Ed & Lorraine Warren, were called in to help an average American family who were assaulted by forces too awesome, too powerful, too dark, to be stopped. It’s a true story, supported by dozens of eyewitnesses neighbors, priests, police, journalists, and researchers. The grim slaughterhouse of odors. The deafening pounding. The hoofed half-man charging down the hall. The physical attacks, a vicious strangling, failed exorcisms, the succubus… and the final terror which continued to torment the Smurls. In this shocking, terrifying, deeply absorbing book rivaled only by The Amityville Horror—a case also investigated by the Warrens—journalist Robert Curran digs deep into the haunting of the Smurl home in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, and the unshakeable family bonds that helped them survive.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter One

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

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