psychological horror

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In which Christopher Lee is amazing

I’ve always wanted to see the 1973 drama/thriller/sorta-horror classic The Wicker Man, and it ended up being a rollickingly fun watch for last week’s summer solstice.

In the film, straight-laced Sergeant Howie is dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison on Summer Isle, a remote Scottish island, only to find that not only does every villager on the island deny any knowledge of Rowan Morrison, but that his visit coincides with the island’s highly enthusiastic and – to the devoutly Christian Howie – unwholesome May Day preparations. Cue an increasingly frenzied search by the valiant but humorless Howie, a collision of equally blind faiths, and more references to to Celtic folklore and fertility symbolism than you can shake a Maypole at. There’s an inn named the Green Man; a sweet shop stocked with pastries and chocolates in the shape of women, leaping hares, and what look like rams’ heads; lots of nubile gamboling in graveyards and stone circles; a lush estate encircled by phallic topiaries… Oh, and Christopher Lee as the island’s erudite neo-pagan lord, who enjoys nothing so much as wearing a kilt and soliloquizing about the joys of the animal world while intercut with footage of glistening snails intertwining and set over a soundtrack of hypnotically pulsating drums and recorder.

Christopher Lee, plus kilt

No, I didn’t have too much fun watching this movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

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Date read: 2.17.10
Read from: The now-defunct scifi.com, or listen online at MindWebs
Reviewer: Emera

I originally found “Descending” through Ellen Datlow’s wonderful online selection of classic sci-fi short fiction, and was aggrieved to discover that with the passing of the original scifi.com, it’s now only available online with the help of the Wayback Machine. But to get on with the real thing –

I’ve always been vaguely leery of escalators (where are those steps really going, when they sink into one another at the bottom? – I had a childhood fear that my feet would get sucked in with them if I didn’t step off quickly enough); Thomas M. Disch’s “Descending” has ensured that I’ll never trust one again. “Descent” begins with an unrepentant debtor’s delinquent spree in a department store, and ends in a state of perfect horror. It’s pleasingly precise and surprisingly rich in its details both of setting and character, packing a huge amount of atmosphere and subtlety into just about 4000 words, and the humor is wicked and ominous. Great stuff – I’ll have to look up more of Disch’s work.

John Schoffstall provides a wonderful reading and historical contextualization of the story here – also brief and rich – and Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus follows up with a quick consideration of how the story works as a piece of short fiction here.

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Thomas M. Disch

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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Date read: 10.31.09 (unintentional, but awesome)
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

It’s raining, my socks are wet, and for these reasons I think I’d rather finish up my long-overdue review of Caitlín R. Kiernan‘s The Red Tree than do anything else.  And as there’s a red oak outside my window, I took a picture of it looking appropriately old, red, and potentially carnivorous at about the same time that I finished the book:

The review is spoiler-free, by the way.

The Red Tree is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I’ve already been itching to go back to it and let it screw with my head some more. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started it (probably something more lushly Gothic, like Alabaster), but what I read wasn’t what I was expecting, and then it was better than what I expected. It’s a jagged, rattling, hurtful book, and incredibly atmospheric. The horror is creeping and primal, almost inarticulable. People and paintings and animal bones appear and disappear; proportions and distances are warped; the brittle, chain-smoking protagonists labor under constant, sapping heat and suffer from surreal nightmares. At the same time, the emotions underlying it are so real: reading the book feels like holding an artifact of life, a snarled-up package of fury and self-hatred and despair. Yeah, it’s not the happiest book to read, but its painful authenticity is a large part of what makes it so compelling. There are no pretensions to darkness or the Gothic here, just a lifetime’s worth of the real thing.

After all, protagonist Sarah Crowe is a clear analogue of Kiernan herself: she’s a snarly, black-tempered writer of commercially unsuccessful dark fantasy who lives in Rhode Island, and she struggles with writer’s block and a seizure disorder. In Sarah’s case, she leaves the South to escape the memories of her failed relationship with an artist named Amanda, who committed suicide. Once in New England, she settles into an ancient farm house whose property is marked by a red oak of incredible age and size. Unsurprisingly, she develops a morbid fascination with the mythology surrounding the tree – in particular a half-finished manuscript left by the house’s last tenant in the basement – at the same time that a painter named Constance moves in upstairs. Cue much petty sniping, frustrated desire, and poorly concealed, creeping obsession.

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Date Read: 7.9?.09

 

Book From: Personal collection

 

Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Read the rest of this entry »

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