Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Library Book Sale Finds: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time, squiders. It’s not my first Shirley Jackson book. I’ve previously read The Haunting of Hill House, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle is perhaps her most famous book. You can imagine my pleasure when I found a copy at a library book sale. Every October for the last few years I’ve said I’m going to read it, but I never quite make it around to it.

Except now I have! My copy is old, a paperback from 1963, which cost a whopping 60 cents at the time.

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Gothic horror
Publication Year: 1962

Pros: Just…a carefully wound mess where you can see the disaster coming and can do nothing to stop it
Cons: See above

I had a hard time picking a genre for this. Wikipedia has it listed as a mystery, which…no. Just no. It’s not a mystery. It has elements of horror and elements of Gothic novels, but it’s not quite those either.

In the book, we follow Mary Katherine Blackwood (or Merricat for short). She lives in a big, old house separated from the rest of the village with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian, both of whom never leave the property.

It’s hard to talk about the plot without major spoilers, so, uh, stop here if you haven’t read it, but it’s been out for 58 years and so I think we are perhaps past that at this point.

Mary Katherine, Constance, and Julian are the only remaining members of their once large and respected family. As the story goes on, we learn that the other members all died on a single night, when the sugar at the dinner table was poisoned. Constance was tried for the murder but ultimately acquitted. Mary Katherine was not present for the meal, having been sent to bed without dinner, and Julian ingested some of the poison (arsenic) but ultimately survived, though the incident left him physically frail and obsessively focused on the “Last Day.”

Mary Katherine is an interesting narrator. She has put elaborate rituals in place to keep her remaining family safe, including burying things around the property and keeping certain things in certain ways. It’s not clear if this is how she’s always been, or if it’s a reaction to the death of her family and the relative isolation she’s lived in since then. She does occasionally leave the family land to get food and books from the library, but the townspeople are cruel to her and she prefers not to interact with them if she doesn’t have to. Despite her odd way of looking at the world, she does seem to be an excellent judge of character and what’s actually going on.

The book culminates in the partial burning of their house and the hate of the townspeople, where they come in and destroy everything they can. Assured of the evilness of the outside, Mary Katherine and Constance barricade themselves inside the remaining portions of the house, and it’s implied they never leave the property again. The end is how urban legends are formed, with people leaving them food to assuage their own guilt and telling stories about the ladies that live in the house, and what they will do to people who upset them.

I will say that the twist about the poison was pretty obvious, in the end. I’m not sure it was meant to be a twist at all, though everything I’ve read about the book seems to treat it as such.

All in all, a fascinating and disturbing read. I can see why it’s endured.

Read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, squiders? Thoughts? Thoughts about Shirley Jackson in general, or Gothic horror (or whatever one would call this particular type of book)?

Foundational Books: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn

(What, they made a movie of this too? I missed that completely. Wonder if it was any good.)

You know I love ghost stories, squiders. And Mary Downing Hahn is perhaps the best children’s ghost story/horror author out there. (She was, at least, when I was a kid. I mean, I read the Goosebumps books, but they always felt a little silly, unless I was reading them in the dark, and then maybe it was completely plausible that the Christmas Tree was going to eat my family. Was that a Goosebumps book or a different, unrelated book? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter.)

And she’s still putting out new books, so maybe something has eclipsed Wait Till Helen Comes, but when I read this book as a kid, it was the pinnacle of paranormal horror.

(I re-read it a few years ago. It’s pretty dang terrifying even as an adult. Holds up well.)

The book is about Molly, whose mother has recently married Dave. Dave has a daughter from his previous marriage, Heather, and her mother was killed in a fire when she was little. Molly (and her brother) do not get along with Heather, who seems hellbent on getting her father back to being hers only, and the discord between the children eventually begins to strew discord between the entire family.

(Oh, it was a made-for-TV movie. That’s why I missed it.)

This is compounded when the family moves to a remote house that was once a church, complete with attached graveyard. Heather is befriended by the ghost of a young girl, Helen, who is more than willing to help Heather in her goals.

And if she has goals of her own, well, Helen makes that clear that it’s none of Molly’s business.

Aside from being creepy as all get-out, the book also hits on family secrets, which is a sweet spot of mine, as well as sibling relationships and making your own family.

I read other books by Mary Downing Hahn when I was a kid, though none have stuck with me quite like Wait Till Helen Comes. I’m considering picking up some of her newer stuff as well. There’s always a few books of hers in the Scholastic Book Fair when it comes through, and they’re always very tempting.

(Behind Wait Till Helen Comes, I think The Doll in the Garden was my next favorite of hers. We’re talking books from the 80s/early 90s, though. She’s been publishing consistently since then, including books coming out this and last year.)

Read Wait Till Helen Comes, squiders? Read Mary Downing Hahn (and if you have, what’s your favorite book of hers)? Who’s your favorite children’s horror author?

Pondering Pen Names and Horror

Hi squiders! It’s stupid hot here and I am getting nothing done except watching ghost stories on YouTube.

(I love ghost stories. As long as it is day time.)

If you guys have been around for a while, you know that I am…confused about the idea of pen names. I mean, not what they are or anything, but whether they’re worth using, and when you might use one if they are.

I think I might have finally figured out a decent use for one.

(Though I am still waffly on the subject.)

I write a wide spectrum of stuff, from science fiction to fantasy satire to romance (of a speculative bent, of course) to children’s, and I’ve never quite seen a good place to break things up. Is fantasy mystery far enough away from urban fantasy to deliver a break? Children’s stuff vs. adult stuff? (And where does the YA stuff then go in that break?)

(I’m still pondering about the children’s/adult split. Oh well.)

But I’ve been working on a lot of horror lately, specifically science fiction horror, and it came to me the other day that maybe THAT should be the split. Horror vs. everything else.

People either like horror or they don’t, and it might make sense to have a pen name where horror people know they’re getting horror and not anything else I come up with. I mean, there’s some leeway between fantasy and urban fantasy and science fiction, especially if you tend toward a common core, and readers are probably fairly happy to ride along that spectrum. But a horror reader may not like to read urban fantasy (or vice versa, honestly).

The question then becomes…is this worth a pen name? And if it is, what do I do with the other horror things that have been published under my normal name? (My very first sale was a ghost story, and there was that Lovecraftian anthology from last year, and…) Can I republish them under my new name? Is that a logistical nightmare?

Once again, everything is clear as mud. Any thoughts, squiders?

If you have any final thoughts on the nonfiction covers, please let me know! My hope is to have the first nonfiction book released by the 20th. It’s mostly done, so I just need to finalize everything and get it up.

And the Landsquid book is also going well–I should be ready to start querying by the end of next week at the very latest.

See you next week!

Foundational Books: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I am a secret horror lover, squiders. But only a very particular type of horror. You won’t catch me watching horror movies (I had to sleep with my TV on for three nights after seeing The Ring–because if the TV was already on it conceivably couldn’t turn itself on) and I don’t like a gore, but I love horror with a tinge of the supernatural–ghost stories, or tales of ancient, forgotten evil, doppelgangers, things of those ilk.

And among the first versions of this type of story I came across was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written in the 80s and early 90s. There’s three books with a different selection of short stories in each.

(Alvin Schwartz also wrote other horror short story collections for children, including In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which features one of most haunting stories I’ve ever read, “The Green Ribbon.” And, you know, non-horror short story collections for children, but who cares about those.)

I guess they made a movie of the book series this year? Because when I googled the title that’s what came up first. How do you do that, make a movie based off a collection of short stories? Anyway, the movie comes out TODAY which is a weird coincidence.

(I will probably not see the movie, because as noted above I don’t have a very high threshold for terror, and the nice thing about reading horror vs. watching horror is that you can control the amount of imagination you put into picturing things.)

These books were a great intro to the horror genre. All the stories are pretty short, so you could read one or two in a few minutes and then go find something else to think about to get said stories out of your head.

I would go on to read more horror as I got older, especially the Goosebumps series and another author I’ll discuss a little later on in this series, Mary Downing Hahn (specifically Wait til Helen Comes, which I re-read recently as an adult and is still terrifying), and this flavor of horror has certainly informed my own horror stories when I write them.

(I’m working on a haunted space station novella right now which is super fun, not going to lie.)

I haven’t re-read these as an adult–I don’t think I ever owned them, honestly, instead checking them out incessantly from the school library–but I would bet they hold up pretty decently.

Read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, squiders? Any stories stand out in your head? Recommendations for supernatural horror to read?

Too Much Coincidence?

If you’re on Pinterest, squiders, you know that it will notify you when someone re-pins one of the pins from your boards. I recently got a notification about this pin, which I had honestly forgotten about.

crrreeepppyyy

Picture seen here

This is one of my own photos that I’ve pinned. It may be the only photo of my own that I’ve pinned. In Sept of 2013, we went on a New England/Canada cruise, and at some point ended up in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I don’t quite remember how we got there–it was part of some shore excursion, maybe something having to do with maple syrup–but we were given an hour or so in which to wander the town.

I found myself drawn to a neat old white and red building on the top of a hill that just screamed that it was haunted. And when we got there, we discovered the cemetery. AND THEN we discovered that said building was a school, and that the hill was called…wait for it…Gallow’s Hill.

Playground/cemetery proximity

I mean, what are the odds? Who looks at a building next to a cemetery on a place called Gallow’s Hill and says, “Ah, yes, here is where I will put my school”? An elementary school, even.

This is a horror story waiting to happen, and I’m so pleased that that person re-pinned this pin because now I remember it, and I remember the pure glee of finding this place, and I remember the potential of this location.

But, seriously, squiders, what are the odds?

(I really love cemeteries and I am aware that’s weird, but gleeeeeeeeee.)

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero and Related Scooby Doo Thoughts

Have you seen Meddling Kids, squiders? The cover on my copy is neon pink and green, with tentacles, so it’s rather striking. I picked up the book because I enjoyed Cantero’s first novel The Supernatural Enhancements (2014, which I probably picked up because it was a novel told in letters and interviews, and I seem drawn to those even though the quality seems to vary wildly) and also because the premise seemed relevant to my interests: what if, one time, it wasn’t just a guy in a mask?

(Also, Cantero is from Barcelona, so English is not his first language, but you’d never know it.)

Meddling Kids explores the aftermath of the Blyton Summer Detective Club’s last case. While they caught a guy in a monster suit, there were other things on that isolated island, things that have haunted the kids over the past 13 years. NPR had a story about the novel a week or so ago, and all the comments were essentially that it sounded like a rip-off of Stephen King’s IT, which, first of all, heaven forbid that you read a book that has a similar concept to another that you’ve read, and second of all, having read Stephen King (though not IT specifically) I can’t imagine the books are AT ALL similar, but eh, whatever.

Meddling Kids does a good job of bridging between the obvious inspiration and darker themes of Lovecraftian horror. The book never gets too dark or too horror-y, and manages to wrap in your classic monster chase scenes and ridiculous traps in a way that makes sense and feels realistic. And while the Blyton Summer Detective Club is constructed of four kids and a dog, each are their own characters created for this story rather than being direct analogies to Mystery, Inc. (Kerri, for example, is both the beauty and the brains.)

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, so if it sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend picking it up.

And speaking of Mystery, Inc. and Scooby Doo, I know I’ve talked previously about how, despite the many incarnations of the show, the characters tend to remain stereotypes, though the stereotypes vary from version to version. However, at long last, I have found some exceptions to this rule, and that’s the modern Scooby Doo movies.

These are direct-to-video episodes, about 75 minutes in length, that stick to the original versions of the characters (rather than some of the newer television shows such as Mystery Incorporated). Not sure why, whether it’s because they’ve got fifty years of character familiarity behind them or because there’s less riding on them and so they’ve got more creative freedom, but each one tends to work on an actual character arc for at least one character (though of course, whatever progress has been made doesn’t carry over to anything else).

Cartoon Network shows these episodes periodically, and a handful are available on streaming at any point in time. The offspring were big into Scooby-Doo! Legend of the Phantosaur for a bit (ghost dinosaurs, who can blame them?) which is where I noticed this, because they give Shaggy the opportunity to be brave throughout. The offspring are onto Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo now, which again focuses on giving Shaggy a reason to be brave, as well as Daphne working on not always being the damsel in distress.

I’m not saying that they’re all amazing or that they’re great at the characterizations across the board, but it’s like someone finally realized that if they added an internal character arc it made the story more interesting.

(The first of these movies is Scooby Doo on Zombie Island which came out when I was a kid, and has always been one of my favorite versions, because it shows the kids post-Mystery Inc. and also features a mystery where it’s not just a guy in a mask. The offspring won’t watch it with me when it comes up on rotation because it’s “too scary.” Alas.)

Anyway! Read Meddling Kids or The Supernatural Enhancements, squiders? Let’s talk about them! Or let’s talk about Scooby Doo, because apparently I’m always up for that too.

The Fluidity of Genre

We’ve been going through genre conventions at my storycraft meetings, Squiders. We were supposed to do all three speculative fiction genres at a single meeting–horror, science fiction, and fantasy–but we started with horror and two hours later were still happily on horror, so we’ve broken it up. We did horror, and last night we did science fiction, and in two weeks we’ll do fantasy, and I had a request from one member to do a discussion on cross-genre, specifically spec fic romance, so we might as well just roll right into that one too.

The meetings have a very loose structure. We spend the first hour trying to agree on genre conventions, then we read through the Wikipedia article on said genre and fight with it (and also read the history part, and so last night I learned that “scifi” was originally–and potentially still?–a term for low brow, low quality pulpy sort of media, and “science fiction” is/was for serious, worthwhile media. Which seems on level with the Trekker/Trekkie semantics, but hey, whatever, we all like to feel superior somehow). And then we go through various lists of subgenres and fight with those too.

A subgenre, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is essentially a further breaking down of a genre. If you know you’re specifically looking for dragons and elves, it helps to know what subgenre you’re looking for, especially with the dawn of online retailers like Amazon who get a bit ridiculous in their breakdown. Several years ago I did a science fiction/fantasy breakdown of several subgenres, which you can see here (though I realize that I never did do a final update to the master list. One more thing to do).

For horror, we had a decent list of conventions (and I should point out that this is specifically for speculative horror):

  • Often no final resolution, leaves the reader in a state of unease
  • Protagonist is often shaken to core
  • Plays on fear
  • Incorporates elements of the unknown
  • Tends to twist common things into something terrifying
  • Often includes a betrayal of safety
  • Often includes themes of isolation

For science fiction, we all agreed on exactly one convention:

  • Has a connection to modern humanity

We couldn’t even agree that science fiction had to be about technology, especially since a lot of recent fantasy has become very technological in scope. So the best we ended up with, especially to separate science fiction from fantasy, is that there had to be a connection to now. Some thread of “us,” no matter how far in the future or jumping through the dimensions. Some way that “we” directly become “them.” In a fantasy world, you can have humans without having those humans have any connection to the real world or history or anything of that ilk.

That’s not to say that fantasy can’t have a connection to modern humanity, just that that was the one thread we could agree upon that defined science fiction. And even that is probably too limiting, because there are probably science fiction stories out there without a human being in sight.

At least we’re not the only ones confused. Wikipedia included one author repeating the general definition of pornography, i.e., I know it when I see it.

Even the lists of subgenres seem a bit confused. You have things like “cyberpunk,” which has clear themes and tones that are fairly universal throughout the subgenre, but also things like “time travel,” which sticks something like Doctor Who or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into the same category as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, The Time Machine, or Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. With a cyberpunk book, you generally know what you’re getting; a time travel book could fall anywhere in the fiction spectrum.

We’ve got a going challenge to try and organize the scifi books we own into seven subgenres, and then we’re going to share our subgenres at the next meeting and see what we come up with.

I almost feel like subgenres exist so we can try and get a handle on what a story is, but it may all be a lost cause.

What do you think, Squiders? Agree with the conventions we came up with? What conventions do you use to separate the major specfic genres? Do you agree with my cohort’s postulation that the speculative fiction genres are converging again into a single genre ala the 1800s, or is it more of a convergent evolution sort of thing?