Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

11161779Blurb:

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Review:

Typical Shirley Jackson, upending narrative conventions and beginning a story with a dynamite paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle’s genre is nebulous. How to classify this weird, weird little book? Unlike Jackson’s other famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, Castle is not a haunted house story, but the genesis of a haunted house story. Houses aren’t built haunted; they become haunted. The Blackwood House once stood tall above a village occupied by generations of the well-to-do Blackwood family until one day they are all murdered around the dinner table, killed by arsenic laced in a bowl of sugar, leaving only the surviving sisters Constance and Mary Katherine, fondly called “Merricat,” to live there.

Like all good haunted house stories, between the fall of Blackwood House from respected family manor to a burnt and boarded “castle,” there are plenty of narrative gaps; doors opened only a crack, big black spaces scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light. The history of the Blackwood House and its family is mysterious. Who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl? Why does Constance refuse to leave the house? Why is Merricat forbidden to cook dinner? Gaps in knowledge mean Blackwood House is the perfect target for imaginative village storytellers trying to solve those mysteries. Only instead of seeking true answers for the Blackwoods’ decline, they choose to populate the house with ghosts and witches and cannibalistic old maids.

Underneath its ostentatiously bizarre façade, Castle retreads the same old Shirley Jackson ideas. Conflict is mostly internal, dealing with the choice between being an individual and fitting in with society. Those who choose society fall victim to mob mentality, unable to properly decide what is right versus what everyone else is doing. Here everything is topsy-turvy. Villains can be heroes as long as they have strength of conviction. What is important is not if your actions are right or wrong, but whether these actions are motivated by your own decision-making. Happiness is not other people; horror lurks in a friendly neighborhood too. And happiness can be found inside a castle, inside a rotted old haunted house, because you are alone, isolated, and safe; nobody else can enter.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

752717Blurb:

The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories ’round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don’t know what she’s talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children’s uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.

Review:

Um, okay…

Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw is supposedly one of the most famous ghost stories there is, which is funny because most of the discussion on this book revolves around whether or not it’s even a ghost story! The story follows a possibly crazy but certainly unstable governess and her two angelic charges. The governess alleges seeing two ghosts on the estate and becomes convinced that the beautiful, perfect children are in communication with the ghosts.

Truly, it’s a very simple story, though Henry James’ impenetrable prose makes it much more difficult to decipher. I’m so glad that we no longer compliment writing for being good purely because the author uses words like portentous with aplomb. James prose obfuscates the actual story, which in almost any other case would be a serious flaw but here emphasizes the text’s ambiguity. Still, I do not pretend to enjoy reading 200 word long sentences.

It certainly is a fun little tale, but if you’re looking for ambiguous horror that rewards close and repeated readings, you can find better. My biggest complaint is how simplistic the possible readings are: either the governess is insane or she isn’t. For all the praise about its ambiguity, that seems quite black and white.

My favorite part is how children are depicted. Miles and Flora are described as cherubs, gorgeous children always eager to please with kind words, gentle hugs, and virtuosic music-making. But there’s an all too realistic darkness underlying them. Is their perfection a mere façade to impress adults as they surreptitiously misbehave? James captures something very terrifying and true about children. We like to think that we are operating on a higher mental level than them, that we are aware and they are unaware. But who can say what a child is thinking? For all the focus on the governess’s character, the two children are much more interesting and much more mysterious.

Overall, a nice horror story, though nothing exceptional.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

1140719Blurb:

“To anyone who wonders whether it is possible to survive adolescence, this is as much as I can offer of reassurance.” So begins Rachel Klein’s dark and disturbing first novel. Told through the page of a sixteen year-old girl’s journal, The Moth Diaries is an unsettling and provocative portrait of obsession and fear.

In the hothouse atmosphere of an exclusive girls’ boarding school during the late sixties, political activism, social revolution, and the war in Vietnam might never have happened. Nothing existed outside the girls and the school where it was all too easy to confuse fantasy and reality; friendship and lust; dreaming and wakefulness. And just as easy for the unnamed narrator, isolated with her increasingly obsessive musings, to imagine that a schoolmate was slowly destroying her friend and roommate. But what was the truth? That Ernessa was a vampire responsible not only for Lucy’s mysterious and wasting illness but for a series of other disasters at the school as well? Or that the narrator, fragile and unstable, had intricately constructed her own gothic nightmare? Thirty years later, rereading her journal, she is no more certain than we are.

Brilliantly conceived and compellingly readable, The Moth Diaries will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Review:

Probably the only thing you should know about The Moth Diariesis that when I sat down to write this review, I spent the first 30 minutes composing a nine part list of questions, subquestions, and subsubquestions about what the hell I just read.

I seriously have no idea. And I really really like that I have no idea.

A diverse mélange of genres—boarding school tale, coming of age story, vampire gothic (well, maybe…), psychological thriller—The Moth Diaries resists easy definition. What is this book? What is it even about? And most pressingly, what does it all mean?

Although this novel eschews certainties, I’ll venture to say that it’s about the tenuousness of teenage identity. As the 16 year-old unnamed narrator chronicles her junior year at boarding school, she constantly probes those common almost-adult questions: who am I, who do I want to be, who am I expected to be?

It’s also about jealousy. The hateful jealousy the narrator feels towards Ernessa, a new student who dazzles her peers with her deconstruction of Nietzsche and her apathy towards school rules, leads her to label Ernessa as a vampire. Whether or not Ernessa truly is a vampire—indeed whether or not Ernessa even actually exists—depends on your appraisal of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state as she grows more and more jealous. In many ways, Ernessa seems to be a facsimile of the narrator—both are intelligent Jewish girls with dead dads and accompanying outsider cachet—though Ernessa is the more content, confident facsimile. She is simply a better, truer version of the narrator, and this self-assuredness may just inspire the narrator to suffer a psychotic break and persecute Ernessa as an abomination, a supernatural other who sleeps in a coffin.

This jealousy is compounded by the microenvironment of the narrator’s boarding school. Most of the drama unrolls in a single dormitory hallway. And so the novel is about the destructiveness of isolated groups. A small social circle leads us to study others and ourselves too closely. No one can really like herself or other people when viewed so intimately. No one can contain jealousies in such a limited environment. The narrator’s delusions thus don’t seem delusional but reasonable. Perhaps anyone’s skin can adopt a pale, heliophobic sheen when being observed daily, for hours, at a distance of less than a few meters. It’s only normal.

The Moth Diaries is ambiguous, rewarding repeated close readings. Klein’s writing is exquisite. Ethereal yet harsh, it is the gospel of a girl, a faithful record of how she sees things to truly be. True or not, these are her words. The prose suffocates you with its terrible insularity. You are caught in the narrator’s nightmare. Whether the nightmare is real or self-created is unimportant, because you are caught in it.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

89723Blurb:

The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.

Review:

Read this book for one reaction: gasping “whaaaaaat!” or perhaps “whaaaaat?” (punctuation varies) after reading the final sentence of every story.

Shirley Jackson is the indisputable master of the “whaaaaaat!/?” Some stories end ambiguously, leaving you scrambling back through the pages searching for a clue or alternately racing to open Google to read others’ wise analyses. Other stories end completely and absolutely unambiguously, leaving you to question not what actually happened but to wonder how such a terrible ending could come to pass. (“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous tale, falls in the second type.) But no matter if the ending is ambiguous or unambiguous, what I want to emphasize is that Shirley Jackson knows how to end. I have now read dozens of her short stories and one of her novels and I am convinced that I know of no author who finishes every piece with such decisive flourish. 

It’s an incredible skill, knowing how to end something. I often find short stories forgettable. Any novel of 300 pages will indubitably engrave itself in my mind by mere virtue of the hours required to read it. A story of less than 20 pages, however, is at a clear disadvantage. A short story must shock to be memorable. Luckily for us, Jackson has one setting: shock the reader. On the last page, or more often, the last sentence. 

But her shocking endings are of the mild, ungratuitous variety. Two of my favorite stories–“The Daemon Lover” and “Like Mother Used to Make”–finish with the protagonists questioning their sanity and autonomy. They don’t run screaming to mental hospitals; rather, they stay quietly and desperately in their homes, wondering who they are and if this is–if this truly can be–their life.  To me, such an ending is much more powerful than any louder alternative. 

There is something so mundane to Jackson’s writing, which makes the fact that most of the stories are categorized in the horror genre more, well, horrifying. Because it suggests that the quotidian is horror. Jackson is wonderfully aware of the fact that the everyday lives of the normalest of the normal are the most frightening things in the world. No need for ghosts or murderers, everything you need is right there inside of us.

For Jackson, horror is the casual racism of a small New England town, the irrepressible distress of a 30 year old unmarried woman searching for a husband, the monotonous daily routine of a department store salesperson, a badly misbehaving child and his oblivious parents, the terrifying anonymity of an individual in a metropolis of millions. In short, horror is real life.

These stories have a rare rereadable quality. I know that I will reread this collection for the rest of my life, and at the end of every story, for the rest of my life, I will say “whaaaaat!/?”

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

8088Blurb:

There are places in the world where darkness rules, where it’s unwise to walk. Sunshine knew that. But there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years, and she needed a place to be alone for a while.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone. She never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.

They took her clothes and sneakers. They dressed her in a long red gown. And they shackled her to the wall of an abandoned mansion – within easy reach of a figure stirring in the moonlight.

She knows that he is a vampire. She knows that she’s to be his dinner, and that when he is finished with her, she will be dead. Yet, as dawn breaks, she finds that he has not attempted to harm her. And now it is he who needs her to help him survive the day..

Review:

For my sanity, I need to stop reading any books that are marketed towards fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because spoiler alert: none of these books are ever like Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sunshine is about a normal girl–seriously cannot express how numbingly normal this girl is–who, guess what!, is nicknamed Sunshine (gag) and finds herself tangled up in a supernatural battle after being kidnapped by vampires. 

Sunshine wakes up every morning at 4am to bake cinnamon rolls for the family bakery. Sunshine likes to spend time in the sun. Sunshine spends pages and pages describing her family, her friends, her cinnamon rolls, her cherry tarts, her apple pies, and her bakery’s customers even though it’s terribly uninteresting and nobody cares. Sunshine does not like to talk about the fact that she’s a powerful sorceress or the fact that she’s embroiled in a war between vampires and humans or the fact that she is party to a very tense, strange, and unexplained sex scene with a vampire midway through her story. Sunshine doesn’t like to talk about anything that is of actual importance or interest. Sunshine makes cinnamon rolls at 4am every morning, though, and Sunshine loves to talk about that. Sunshine manages to kill a vampire with a butter knife, which should be nigh impossible and definitely merits some investigation, but Sunshine doesn’t really mention it afterward. Sunshine is too busy baking cinnamon rolls at 4am.

Sunshine and Sunshine are deathly dull.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam

17415094Blurb:

Billionaire Saul Abercrombie owns a vast tract of land on the Pembrokeshire coast.  His plan is to restore the ancient forest that covered the area before medieval times, and he employs young arboreal expert Tom Curtis to oversee this massively ambitious project.
Saul believes that restoring the land to its original state will rekindle those spirits that folklore insists once inhabited his domain. But the re-planting of the forest will revive an altogether darker and more dangerous entity – and Saul’s employee Tom will find himself engaging in an epic, ancient battle between good and evil.  A battle in which there can be only one survivor.

Review:

I marvel at authors who can transform mundanities into atrocities. Axe-wielding murderers, spiky-jawed sharks, rabidly hungry wolves: these are everyday horrors, implicitly terrifying. But trees? What horror writer would ever endeavor to make trees—those limbed and leafy things we know from birth and walk beneath daily—as frightening as a deranged killer? Stephen King did it with the Overlook’s Hotel topiary animals in The Shining and F.G. Cottam does it here in The Memory of Trees.

He certainly creates an eerie atmosphere as the ill-fortuned protagonist replants an ancient Welsh forest, a well-intentioned act that awakens a centuries dormant curse. Among the yews and the elms and the willows, a decidedly malignant horror stirs, and it is this slow progression of evil that makes the novel quite the page-turner. Plotwise, I have very little to complain about. I found the ending underwhelming, but that’s expected. Horror novels normally revel in the exposition, the descent into madness, not the climax. I absolutely loved how Cottam chose to base the origins of the curse in medieval mythology. In fact, I would have preferred even more exploration of the history of the forest and its horrors.

What I appreciated less, however, was the writing. There are too many simple sentences and the dialogue is something awful. Particularly tiresome is Saul Abercrombie, the main character who desires to restore the forest, who frequently calls his hired arborist, “Tree Man”, and at the age of 70+ seriously uses phrases like “fucking cool” and “simpatico.” The lack of authenticity in the dialogue may derive from the weak characters who never feel real. They never seem to be anything other than players in a drama who have a role to fulfill. The writing is poorly worded to the point where some sentences require multiple readings before becoming comprehensible. For instance” “he did not delude himself he would enjoy the protection he did from the trivial nuisance Isobel Jenks had become when that confrontation occurred.” A few more thats and a few less sentence modifiers tacked on would have helped me decipher that monstrosity.

In spite of those misgivings, I enjoyed The Memory of Trees. I’m becoming convinced that horror is one of the hardest genres to write. Scary is scary—anyone with a word processor can do it. But to create a horror novel with a well-established backstory and an ingenious vector of terror? Well that’s rare and should be applauded.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

18002456Blurb:

Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins in this frightening novel written in the bestselling traditions of Stephen King and Scott Smith.

Boy Scouts live by the motto “Be Prepared.” However, nothing can prepare this group of young boys and their scoutmaster for what they encounter on a small, deserted island, as they settle down for a weekend of campfires, merit badges, and survival lessons.

Everything changes when a haggard stranger in tattered clothing appears out of nowhere and collapses on the campers’ doorstep. Before the night is through, this stranger will end up infecting one of the troop’s own with a bioengineered horror that’s straight out of their worst nightmares. Now stranded on the island with no communication to the outside world, the troop learns to battle much more than the elements, as they are pitted against something nature never intended…and eventually each other.

Review:

I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the queen, and to obey the laws of the Eagle Scout troop.

That is, unless a crazy tapeworm epidemic invades the Scout camping trip. Then all bets are off!

The Troop is a delicious horror novel combining my two biggest fears: genetically modified tapeworms and teenage boys. Five whippersnapper scouts head to a small island off the coast of Prince Edward Island for a camping trip but some evil tapeworms decide to ruin all the fun! For the scouts and their leader, that is. For us readers, the tapeworms are very very fun.

For a story whose main draw is its high gross-out factor, it’s really well-written. Nick Cutter incorporates external media like laboratory reports, military orders, and court records to show what happens off the island while the scouts are fighting for their lives on the island. The characters are interesting too thanks to well-chosen flashbacks. They are not merely walking bodies waiting to become corpses. Their personalities, though overly reliant on archetypes, i.e., the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, interact well, leading to wild clashes as their situation grows more dire.

Cutter’s prose is surprisingly elevated for this type of story. I like his writing better than Stephen King’s (whose Carrie inspired the external media approach), but it was perhaps overly poetic in places for a story about evil tapeworms. Cutter is great at maintaining the ick-factor throughout and continually pushing the plot forward. Most of the time I was thinking, “ewwwwwwwww!” but the good type of Ewww that glues your eyes to the page.

To recover from The Troop I treated myself to a big dose of this:

Prince Edward Island and environs, you are not dead to me. But if Mr. Nick Cutter ever wrote a sequel to this story, you might be.

3 out of 5 stars