Haunted Houses and Hell Cops

I love a good haunted house yarn. Nowadays there’s this delicate balance you have to strike: you gotta give people what they’ve come to expect, but if you give ’em too much of it you’ll end up writing Just Another Haunted House Novel. Scott Thomas’s Kill Creek gives us what we want and happily dodges the usual pitfalls. If I told you why it’s so different (or more accurately: just the right amount of different), I’d be giving away too much.

It’s about Sam McGarver, a horror novelist, who’s invited to an allegedly haunted house as part of an internet stunt. Early on, Sam stumbles into the interview room and gazes over three other authors’ books which have been put out on display next to his own. Thomas uses the moment to flesh out his other characters, merely by describing their book covers and writing styles. That’s pretty clever. Soon after, the writers realize the house has some sort of power over them.

Kill Creek

I had expected something fluffier, along the lines of Peter Clines’ 14 (a novel I enjoyed very much), and because I wasn’t in the mood for lite horror at the moment, I held the story at arm’s length until it slowly but surely dissolved its facade. I would have finished the second half in one sitting if it hadn’t been for my antihistamine-induced drowsiness. It manages to take what could have been an extremely hokey element (“What’s behind the sloppily bricked wall inside the house?”) and turn it into a genuine lever for suspense.

Kill Creek sort of reminded me of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, another debut novel which is less about a haunted house and more about a haunted object. At one point the main character sees the otherworldly entity that’s tormenting him, which (if memory serves me correctly) appears as an old man standing at the end of a hallway, legs fading out of the visible spectrum. The presence gives the hero a sinister smile as it dangles a razor blade from a necklace, the significance of which the reader won’t learn until later. I have 0% belief in the paranormal, but damn. Chills, my friend. Chills.

Sometime in the 90s, I saw Highway to Hell and absolutely adored it. More than twenty years later I finally ordered the Blu-Ray to see what my inner child has been yapping about for decades now. Kristy Swanson and Chad Lowe play a couple of eloping teenagers who happen upon a literal highway to hell. Satan, who takes a special liking to Swanson, agrees to let the teenagers return to the land of the living if they manage to win a car race.

The premise is all kinds of awesome, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. They really could have tightened the movie up in editing, as tons of shots go on just a little too long. Still, you can’t accuse the movie of not being ambitious, even if “hell” is just a plain ol’ desert full of lame sign gags. (The roadside casino in hell is called Hoffa’s. Funny? Not really.) Satan’s right-hand man is The Hell Cop, a surprisingly effective villain whose handcuffs are severed zombie hands which are linked by chain. A young Ben Stiller and three of his family members make cameos, while Gilbert Gottfried plays Adolf Hitler. Like the sign gags, the cameos aren’t as funny as they want to be, but they’re amusing nonetheless.

My biggest complaint is probably asking too much of a 90s B movie: I would have preferred it if they explained the setting more, which very spottily incorporates Greek mythology. Like, what’s the hierarchy in this version of hell? What are the rules? Why are biker gangs allowed to roam at will, mingling with Cleopatra and hex-protected cage dancers, while many others are ground up and used as road pavement? And what, exactly, happens when people “die” in hell? Do they go to… hell?

Doesn’t matter. I can’t dislike this movie, even if it is a little slower than I remembered.

Two more movies I enjoyed tremendously this week: The Killing of Sacred Deer and Raw. Neither one of these movies are what I would call crowd pleasers, but that’s what makes ’em special. Both are insidiously funny and pleasantly disturbing in entirely different ways. Raw will definitely make some viewers gag, and the soundtrack is killer (I’m listening to it right now, in fact).

Steer clear of Sacred Deer if you weren’t a fan of The Lobster, which was also directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. His movies seem to be abrasive to some. What I loved about his newest film is it seems to really take its time, but in retrospect it goes from absurd to flat-out insane pretty quickly.

In case you didn’t see my last post, Corpus Evil has been postponed. I thought it would be on sale by April 1st, but it looks like that’s around the time beta readers will get it, starting with my girlfriend. It’s pretty much as polished as I can get it without reader input, I just want to go through it a few more times and hopefully uncover some more mistakes.

I’ve finally started working on my next novel. I’m having trouble finding the tone, but other aspects are working out nicely.

Cold Moons and Back-Alley Abortions

I’ve got some bad news which is probably good news in the long run: I’m pushing back the release date for Corpus Evil. There are a hundred reasons for doing this, but the best reason is it’s simply going to be a lot better. I think I was also on the road to a nervous breakdown.

So consider the bevy of memorable characters Michael McDowell has introduced to me so far: the dimwitted Dean Howell, whose rifle explodes in his face shortly before he’s shipped off to The Vietnam War; he somehow becomes a dreadful presence in The Amulet even though he spends the entire novel in a coma, his face wrapped in bandages. His wife Sarah, who was too good for Dean to begin with, has to suffer the wrath of her lazy, gluttonous mother-in-law, Jo Howell. Jo blames everyone but herself for what has happened to Dean and it just so happens she has the means of making them pay.

Cold Moon Over Babylon introduced Jerry and Margaret Larkin, downtrodden siblings who were raised by their tired grandmother after their parents happened upon a sack of rattlesnakes. The family dynamics here feel like McDowell Lite, as if he were practicing for the larger and much more endearing cast of characters he would put on parade in The Elementals, which includes the comically cynical Luker McCray and his mischievous teenage daughter, India; I especially enjoyed the moments in which India’s foul-mouthed nature conflicted with her alcoholic grandmother, Big Barbara McCray, a southern aristocrat who dazzlingly skims the surface of Predictable Stereotype.

Gilded Needles

So it was inevitable I would read Gilded Needles this week, having no idea who or what McDowell would introduce next. (Summaries be damned, I’ve been going into his stories blind ever since I read the first one.) How do you top the Howells and the McCrays? How could it possibly get any better?

For the first time in my experience, McDowell moves his setting out of Alabama and into the dark, depressing streets of 1800s New York. Opium dens. Whorehouses. Highly illegal abortion operations. It’s the characters who live in this fully realized squalor who become the morally ambiguous heroes of Gilded Needles. The story pits Black Lena Shanks against Judge James Stallworth, the latter of whom has sentenced three of Lena’s family members to death. In retaliation, Lena’s family of misfits send the judge and his family invitations to their own funerals.

The supernatural elements are gone, but the gleeful absurdity of The Amulet kind of returns as the two families square off. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as fun as The Elementals, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s a helluva lot darker. There’s something especially satisfying about the huge cast of ruthless characters and how far they’ll go to exact their revenge on people who simply disliked them because they weren’t born into the same social class. Why so many of McDowell’s books stayed out of print for so long, I’ll never know, but let’s hope they’re here to stay.

Because I read and unexpectedly enjoyed Michael Crichton’s Sphere last week, I thought I’d check out the movie which was based on it. This was a mistake. I can’t remember the last time I watched such a dull, mediocre movie. I find it amazing that an actress as talented as Sharon Stone can appear in movies like this and appear to be both bored and incompetent. Samuel L. Jackson, who’s almost always interesting, also disappoints.

How do you make a story about a giant squid boring? By reducing the squid’s role almost entirely, that’s how. I’m sure it was probably because of budgetary reasons, but the film supposedly cost around $80 million, long before that kind of budget was the norm, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it should feel so cheap and small. This is The Abyss re-imagined without any of the awe, excitement, or groundbreaking special effects.

Doomed Boy Scouts and Alien Objects

Here’s everything I knew about Nick Cutter’s The Troop when I started it: it was a horror novel which people seemed to like. That’s pretty much it.

I thought it was going to be about a viral outbreak and, without giving too much away, it kind of is, but it’s more parasitic in nature… and kind of gross, too. In other words, it was right up my alley. It was a bit of a stretch to believe such a thing could find itself on the same island as a character like Shelley (this little fucker deserves a cell next door to Hannibal Lecter), but it was worth suspending my disbelief. If, like me, you had trouble enjoying Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, this is a much better version of that story.

The Troop

Growing up, I was inexplicably drawn to the cover of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama Revealed when I saw it sitting on the shelf of a book store one day. When I realized it was a sequel, I convinced my mother to order the first in the series, Rendezvous with Rama, at Steve’s Sundry (R.I.P.). The rest is history: I annihilated the series and I’ve been a fan of Clarke and science fiction ever since. I even loved the sequels as a kid (though I’ve never been able to get into them as an adult) and I’ve been forever chasing the high that first book gave me.

I love superstructures and I love big science fiction. The harder the better. I’m increasingly turned off by the self-aware geek-chic SF of today, which seems to be suffocated by pop cultural references and nostalgia. I want academic characters talking about real world theories and all the known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and everything in between.


Over the years, the itch has been scratched here and there. Asimov’s Foundation (though I somehow never read beyond the first book) did the trick. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers did okay, too (let’s just pretend the series ended there). More recently and unexpectedly, however, Michael Crichton’s Sphere kicked all kinds of ass for me, mostly because I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Crichton’s work… also because I have no idea what possessed me to read it. It’s kind of like Rendezvous with Rama if it had been written by James Cameron.

I’ll take it.

33 days until Corpus Evil releases!

My eyes are swollen, my head is light, and I feel like I’m being waterboarded with mucus.

Allergies, man. Who needs ’em?

Let’s get the promotional junk out of the way: We’re about a month away from the release of Corpus Evil. Mark your calendars. It’s gonna scare your tits off.

The Amulet

Considering my allergies have whooped my ass to the point of lethargy, I would rather talk about Michael McDowell’s The Amulet, one of the most entertaining—and absurd—pieces of horror I’ve ever read. His later novel The Elementals seems to crop up on Amazon every time I browse the fiction section, so it’s satisfying to see such an underrated writer trending so many years after his death. I couldn’t tell you which of the two books I enjoyed more. I expect to burn through the rest of his stuff before the end of the year.

Another book I enjoyed recently is Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. For years I’ve avoided it based on its reputation. I don’t care how fucked up a story is as long as it’s fun (read: not mean), but joyless stories which participate in debauchery for the sake of being extreme tend to bore me. Mercifully, The Girl Next Door doesn’t belong in the extreme category. Yes, what happens to the titular character is certainly extreme, but it’s not without purpose and it counterbalances Ketchum’s sentimentality for the time and place. It’s an honest, beautifully written story about a horrific act, and it doesn’t use “evil” as a lazy, catch-all excuse for why bad things happen to undeserving people.

I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I reeled from a book, not wanting to go any further. And when you get to that point (you’ll know which part I’m talking about), you’ll probably discover you can’t put it down, either. That’s some powerful stuff.

The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition (1971) [Book]

One of the reasons I like fiction so much is it helps me put all manner of cultural and historical tidbits into perspective. For instance, Leave it to Beaver went off the air in 1963, and less than eight years later William Peter Blatty gave us his blood- and vomit-drenched novel, The Exorcist. I don’t know why I find that to be such an astonishing fact, I just do.

To put it another way: the same decade America finally got sick of The Beaver’s shit, the country was captivated by a little girl who screamed obscenities and masturbated violently with a crucifix. Another oddly routed synapse in your brain might make the following connection: the novel came out only a decade after mainstream American movies broke their silly taboo of showing a toilet on the screen. That’s a long way to go in just a handful of years.

For many years I’ve been perplexed by the fact that William Friedkin’s film adaptation of The Exorcist never really moved me one way or the other. It’s a movie I should love, if my general taste in horror is any indication, and a movie I always wanted to love. My feelings toward the film are especially peculiar considering Rosemary’s Baby, which has a lot in common with The Exorcist, was love at first sight for me. (I’m also the only person I know who loved Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, but that’s a whole other post.)

I’m minutes away from giving Friedkin’s film another chance, but I wanted to record my thoughts on the novel before my next viewing of the movie blurs my distinction between the two. First off, I thought the book was fantastic. And not just fantastic, but cunting fantastic, to borrow an oft-used phrase from the dialogue. I wouldn’t say Blatty spends a whole lot of time fleshing the characters out, but they’re real enough and, more importantly, the ease at which we get to know them keeps the pace from slouching.

A note about the current edition: if Blatty is to be believed, the changes he made for the 40th Anniversary text are mostly superficial corrections he would have made the first time around if he didn’t have a deadline. There’s an added scene here and a bit of expanded dialogue there, but it’s my understanding that it’s more or less the same novel that came out in the seventies.

While the film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel (if my memory of the film serves me correctly, that is), the most noticeable difference is the somewhat reduced role of Lieutenant Kinderman, a point-of-view character who later becomes the main character of Blatty’s sequel, Legion. (Legion, by the way, would serve as the basis for The Exorcist III, a vastly underrated movie which knocked my socks off both times I watched it.) The second most noticeable difference is the very reason I prefer the book: it’s not made clear whether Regan MacNeil is actually possessed or suffering from a mental illness.

Yeah, William Peter Blatty seems to think telekinesis and ESP are completely possible things recognized by science in real life (which is how he explains the bed-shaking and the levitating for those who prefer the non-supernatural version), but he gets a pass because it was written in the seventies and everyone back then seemed to believe in weird stuff like that. As for the famous head-rotation which explicitly takes place in the film? In the novel, Regan’s mother only thinks she sees her daughter’s head spin around (she later doubts whether anything supernatural occurred at all). That scene always bothered me in the film because it’s not like we ever saw the demon spin her head back to reverse the damaged he’d done to her spine, but oh well.

Blatty goes out of his way to humanize his Jesuits, characters who too often become set dressings in stories like this. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, so stepping into the shoes of a priest burdened with Catholic guilt is a bit of a novelty. I think the priest-who-lost-his-faith routine is a bit old hat these days, but in the context of the story it works quite well and works towards a satisfying conclusion.

I especially like the emphysematic Kinderman, who’s somehow both sly and polite, often striking up friendly conversations with the people he’s investigating for murder. In fact, it was George C. Scott’s portrayal of Kinderman in The Exorcist III that made me want to check out the rest of William Blatty’s stuff (I almost started with Legion, but I’m glad I didn’t.)

If you can’t wait for the TV series to come back on the air this Friday, you can do worse than passing your time with the original novel. I’m off to watch the movie for the first time in years so I’ll probably blog about that sooner than later. After reading the book, I’m very excited to give the film another chance.

Just a reminder: Blindsight is free (legally so)

Peter Watts’ Blindsight is probably my favorite science fiction novel of the 21st century (Neal Stephenson’s Anthem is a close second). The official synopsis begs the question: Who do you send to meet the aliens when they arrive?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find–but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .

Yes, there’s hard science fiction and a vampire in Blindsight, because Blindsight is fucking insane. I haven’t read the sequel yet, but I’m kind of saving it until I get around to rereading Blindsight. Books like this just don’t come around very often.

Get the entire novel, free, here.

23 days until Ernest Cline’s Armada comes out… read the opening at io9

Here’s the sample of Armada @ io9. The full book comes out on Tuesday, July 14.

Armada seems to be exactly the kind of story I want to read in the middle of the summer. I’m still debating whether I want to read the sample or wait until I have the actual book in hand. I probably will read the sample before the night’s through, but I’m sure it’ll make the wait feel even longer.

I had thought Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels was exactly what I wanted to read this season (to be fair, the first half of it is pretty damn entertaining—I read it nonstop until Barker concocts a very flimsy reason to send Harry D’Amour into hell), but it’s just not what I expected from the guy who wrote the Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart. I said some time ago I was going to properly review Gospels here, but I just don’t have the energy for a full review.

I do want to say there’s some really good stuff in Barker’s latest book, but there’s a lot of mediocre stuff, too. It feels like Barker is getting kind of sick of Pinhead, but that doesn’t make sense as he’s trying to reboot the Hellraiser films himself. What really surprised me is D’Amour and Pinhead don’t seem like themselves (can’t quite put my finger on it, but I suppose the movies could be influencing my opinion a bit). I’m also perplexed whenever Barker seems to bake elements from some of the lesser sequels into the definitive canon.

I’d be lying if I said the second half of the book wasn’t a chore for me at points. If I came face to face with Pinhead, I’m not sure I would stand around so much, waiting for what happened next. And I’m entirely sure I wouldn’t take my jacket off and attempt to use it as a weapon on the famous hell priest… yeah, that actually kind of happens in The Scarlet Gospels.

It’s safe to say only hardcore Barker fans should attempt to read it.