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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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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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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