Blog Archives

Book Review – Lovecraft Country

61gn-jq7-ql-_sx328_bo1204203200_Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, is an interesting book, both in concept and execution. Taking place in America, 1954, we follow the Turner family as they deal with racism and the supernatural threats that plague them. Throughout the book, we start realizing that one of those is much easier to deal with than the other.

We start with Atticus Turner, a young, black man simply trying to drive up North. Along the way, he’s pulled over for driving while black and there’s always the looming sense of dread just from the embedded racism that he’s trying to avoid. Eventually, he heads to Massachusetts to find his missing father and things start getting more eerie.

Now, I thought about saying, “Things start getting more Lovecraftian” but that wouldn’t be acute. See, all the racism that Atticus deals with while driving is already Lovecraftian, as the influential author was quite a bigot. When a white police officer threatens to shoot a black man if he doesn’t get out of town by sundown, that’s Lovecraft, even if he never wrote such scenes. When monsters and ghosts start showing up, they seem rather mundane to all the racial tension and, sometimes, almost act as a relief.

It’s relieving to deal with the supernatural because it’s not real. I know, for the most part, that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and inter-dimensional beings. I know that. But, in the real world, racism and bigotry are very much alive. As a country, we used to worry about witches and now’s it’s part of our history, but the hate and ignorance that permeates Lovecraft Country is part of our present. Ruff uses the supernatural as a hook to get readers who might not want to confront these issues.

In the book, ghosts can be reasoned with, monsters are indifferent. These scary, immortal threats might not be rational, as Lovecraft often had characters go insane when confronted with them, but in way, they act rational. Some feed, some kill, some of them are just lonely. But, they’re beyond petty things like hatred for different races. Racism, when compared to the threats beyond our own world, becomes the irrational.

Now, I had trouble getting into this book for two reasons. First, the stress of reading about a black family in the 50s was enough to make for slow, uneasy reading. Second, the book is told in parts. I couldn’t find a pace while reading because the first chapter is actually the first short story. Eventually, when I started realizing how the book was laid out, I found my rhythm and was able to cruise through the novel. Considering that Lovecraft mostly wrote short stories himself, you’d think I would have figured that out sooner.

In the process, the book became less creepy and more of an interesting cross between Lovecraft and The Twilight Zone. I didn’t find the overarching plot that connected the chapters to be that compelling, though the resolution is fun and brings all the different elements together. The individual stories, however, are memorable. Each follows a different member of the Turner family and shows a different aspect of 50s America and the supernatural elements of Ruff’s world. There’s talk of Lovecraft Country becoming a movie, but it  could make for a great HBO or Netflix anthology series.

I had started this for Halloween and it wasn’t a bad choice for the holiday, but it might let some people down if they’re looking for straight horror. Really, it’s more acute to call it urban fantasy, as nothing in it is much scarier than what you would find in a Jim Butcher book.  But, for a great example of how fantasy and science fiction can be a mirror into our world, how it can be a commentary on prejudices and our own faults, Lovecraft Country is easily recommendable.

Stream Recap – SOMA

soma___official_cover_art_by_sethnemo-d93l45jIn which I recap streaming a game I just completed. Please accept this stream recap.

Frictional’s SOMA depressed me and I found it hard to play for long stretches because of that. The tension of the horror elements, the grime of  the world and the hopelessness of the story left me having little initiative to keep going. Add in the fact that I’m worried I’m developing some sort of motion-sickness, first noticed while playing Dishonored, and it wasn’t a pleasant time.

Limbo was a depressing game but it had platforming elements to keep my brain occupied on something besides it’s oppressiveness. SOMA, like other so-called “walking simulators” has little in the way of actual “game. It’s immersive but that comes at a price. Like the main character, trapped at the bottom of the ocean, I felt like there was no escape. A tough sell for someone looking for escapism.

previewscreen_08-0Luckily, the story is well told and the voice acting is strong. But, the tension is raised by the monsters roaming around with you in this ruined science faculty. It’s not that I found the designs of these creatures to be incredibly upsetting, but the jump-scares that were set upon me made me feel anxious, which isn’t a state of being I love to be in. Sweaty hands from intense wall climbing and combat is one thing, but a queasy stomach because something is going to scream and chase me is another, less desirable thing.

I suppose that’s what makes for a fun stream. I don’t know how many other games have elicited a reaction so broad from me before. I’ve yelled and screamed before, but not in pure terror like I did in SOMA. I don’t know how much fun the monsters make a stream in the long run, since, after the initial scares, I had to spend most of my time just hiding and not looking at them.

maintenance-0The other problem, and this might be a technical issue on my end, is that the game is very dark, graphically speaking. Most of the tension, I would assume, would come from dark hallways and intense lighting. But, to get the game to be even visible on my Twitch, I had to raise the brightness all the way up, eliminating much of the atmosphere. Again, maybe I could have done something else to fix the problem, mess around with OBS a little more, but my days of being a technical problem-solver are coming to a close.

Either way, I’m glad I played SOMA and experienced it’s rich, sci-fi story first-hand. This is definitely the kind of tale I would have enjoyed in a movie or book. In game form, I still appreciated it, but it left me with a pit in my stomach. I doubt I’m going to go back and play-through Frictional’s Amnesia games, because I don’t think I could handle the tension. But, I’ll definitely be paying attention to what they do next.

You can find this stream and other videos here or watch live at my Twitch channel!

Book Review – Carrie

carrie-first-ed-coverIs Stephen King’s Carrie a horror story? Did I make the right choice, picking it as a Halloween read? Was it once a scary book that’s been tamed by time?

Carrie is well known enough now that talking about the plot seems silly, but let’s get through it anyway. Carrie is a girl with a crazy mom. Carrie has psychic powers. Kids at school are super mean to Carrie. The kids cover Carrie in pig blood. Carrie loses it. Bad times are had by all.

So, is the book scary? Not really. It reads more like a super hero book, like a dark comic book in novel form. Psychic abilities aren’t very frightening, even when used by someone losing their mind. Like super heroes in general, Carrie almost reads like a power fantasy. Yes, when she lashes out on her fellow students and her home town, she takes it too far and kills a lot of innocent people. But, it doesn’t come across as horror, more like a disaster movie. Carrie, near the end of the book, is more of a force of nature, even though she’s able to target a few people specifically. A storm with a vengeance, but still a storm.

The idea of her being a natural disaster is backed up by the way the story is told through police reports, through interviews and headlines. Carrie is mentioned and talked about like she was a hurricane that passed through town. Dangerous, but not human. It’s an interesting way to tell this kind of story, it just doesn’t scream horror.

Carrie’s mother might scare some, but I find fundamental religious zealots to be the least effective way to make someone scary or interesting. The mother is a cartoon villain, a person beyond reason or relatability. She’s not real, in or out of the book. And, again, that type of insanity is at the bottom of the interesting-barrel for me as a reader. It always strikes me as lazy, as a quick wave as to why someone would act a certain way. Carrie is least interesting when dealing with that part of the story.

Not to say Carrie isn’t entertaining. It is, in both its destruction and seventies’ aesthetics. But, it’s more thriller than chiller. It reads like a super villain origin, which is fun, but I’m not sure how this has become a horror classic. I’m not even sure how it became a hugely popular book, as it doesn’t strike me as particularly earth-shattering in it’s plot or style. But, maybe I’m in the wrong place and time. Maybe, back in the late seventies, this would have scared the heck out of me. Or, maybe, I would have treated it like a Doctor Doom comic book and wondered what I’d do with some nasty telekinesis powers of my own.

All the Books Show: Episode 112 – Spooky-lite

It’s a spOoOoOoOoOky episode! Because it’s Halloween month! Did you know I like Halloween? I do. You should know this by now.

We talk about this year’s additions to the horror genre, both Young Adult and regular Adult! You want scary teen adventures? How about There’s Someone Inside Your House? You want ghosts and evil spirits? Boom, here’s House of Furies, You want twins in danger and James Patterson’s name on a cover. Good news, we talk Crazy House.

jemc-cover-largeNic talks about three books and they’re possibly too scary. That The Grip of It sounds horrifying. Anything without skin is scary. Anything. Picture a duck. Do you have a clear image of a duck? Now, picture that duck without skin. And, yeah, it still has feathers. That’s terrible.

Even that cover is scary. WHY DOES IT KEEP SAYING, “A NOVEL”?!?

It’s also the one I might pick up if I had to choose. Crazy House too, maybe. I don’t love murder, so I doubt I’ll be reading There’s Someone Inside Your House, no matter how “subversive” it is. Everything’s subversive these days. Not this blog, though. It’s very traditional. Paragraphs and all, you know?

You can follow us on SoundcloudYoutube or iTunes and even Twitter! I’m sure there’s another, cool platform I’m forgetting but you can follow us on that too!

See you next week, podcats!

Book Review – Day by Day Armageddon

510vg5q2bdilJ. L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon is written as journal entries. The whole book is journal entries. Reading the book is liking reading a journal, because the book is written in journal entries.

I hope I got across that this book is written as journal entries because that’s the one and only interesting thing about zombie-tale Day by Day Armageddon. I’m not being too harsh either, since most of the marketing and blurbs about the book are about how it’s written. But, where as Max Brooks’ modern classic, World War Z, used a unique format to tell enthralling zombie stories, Bourne uses his style to hide a dull, plodding book.

The beginning of the book starts out strong enough, with an account of how the zombie apocalypse comes about and how it escalates. The cause and effect of the early chapters works because there’s momentum in the dominoes of the modern world toppling over. But, even then, cracks begin to show.

Bourne reveals his amateurish writing from the beginning. I don’t want to call it lazy, because laziness doesn’t complete a book. But, you can write a novel without having much skill in the art. There’s an overemphasis on descriptions, from locations to activities. As we follow our main character, every step he takes is accounted for, even if he does the same things everyday. Now, that could be interesting, as it could be an examination of how monotony can ruin a person’s psyche, especially in survival situations. That’s what Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is all about and it’s fascinating.

Unfortunately for Day by Day Armageddon, Bourne isn’t up to the task. He rarely brings psychological ramifications to light and, when he does, they’re random and thrown away quickly. Thoughts like “Why am I still trying to live?” and “What’s the point of tomorrow?” are ignored as quickly as they arrive. Either Bourne isn’t interested in that type of story, or he thinks these quick snippets are enough.

Now, not focusing on the psychology of the character would be fine if that’s not the type of story Bourne wants to tell. But, I’m not sure what he is trying to say. Day by Day Armageddon isn’t an action story and it’s hard to feel tension when we know the character had to survive to tell the tale. It’s not a book about relationships falling apart or the evil nature of humanity. None of the characters have enough depth to invest in and there’s no dialog to learn from. There is a group of survivors who show up and cause trouble for the main group, but they’re taken care of without much fanfare.

Without any unique perspective or point of view, Day by Day Armageddon is just a daily account of someone taking the bus to the office. Except, even that type of story could be interesting if it had the right focus. Here, we’re reading about survival without purpose. The book doesn’t end with a cliffhanger or closure, it just ends. There’s no inertia given for the reader to want to continue the series. Bourne shows he has the commitment to write a book and get the technicality of it down, but he doesn’t have the skill to make it something worth reading.

If you’ve read more than the first book, maybe you can tell me if he gets any better as a writer. I doubt it, but I won’t be finding out for myself. Day by Day Armageddon is a book I wouldn’t recommend, even if you were desperate for zombie fiction. Maybe, when this book was written in 2010, we had less options and would read anything we could find. Today, you could spend years reading zombie apocalypses and never need to pick this up.

George A. Romero – A Brief Retrospective

night3

When I first watched Night of the Living Dead, I was fifteen. I had only gotten into the world of zombie fiction earlier that year when I watched the first Resident Evil movie. The very concept of zombies was relatively new to me, and creeped me right out. Even with that fear, as someone who found the first Alien movie not scary or that great, I wasn’t expecting to be put on edge by an older horror film,  no matter the monster.

Watching George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead made me check my attitude at the door. It didn’t matter how old the movie was, it was still unsettling. The zombies were still creepy and only grew in number throughout the night. The building tension was just as palpable as I imagine it was at the drive-in during 1968. It also showed me what zombie fiction was really about, the living. The whole movie is a boiler because the occupants of the house are flawed, sometimes destructive people and just because there’s a horde of zombies outside doesn’t mean the survivors are going to work together. Technically, it’s an amazing achievement of budget constraints and independent film making. While aspiring directors may look to Scorsese or Tarantino for inspiration, what Romero did is both attainable and impressive. It helps that Ben is one of the great movie heroes of all time and the shambling extras make for convincing zombies.

gaylen-ross-david-emge-ken-foree-et-scott-hDawn of the Dead is all of that but bigger. While not as focused as the laser-sighted storytelling in Night, the sequel is great and stands on it’s own. Less frightening, its an examination of consumer culture, as well as the struggle to survive in a world that will never get better. The opening raid in the rundown apartment complex is brutal, but so is watching the relationships break apart. I’ve watched both Night and Dawn multiple times and they both bring something new to table with each viewing.

It was by luck that I came upon Day of the Dead on TV.  I was hooked by that creepy synth playing over the calls for any survivors during the opening credits. The story is maybe less focused and maybe the budget wasn’t up to the Romero’s vision. Taking place in an underground military base, the movie does have a sense of claustrophobia akin to Night. New to the table is the idea that zombies can be domesticated, maybe brought back from the brink. Of course, being the dark film this is, it doesn’t work out but the journey is still entertaining. The end is one of the best shock/relief moments of the series as well.

261025-1For my money, one of the most underrated movies is Land of the Dead. It made money at the time, riding the wave of growing zombie mania, and most critics liked it, but no one talks about it like the previous films. The focus on rich vs. poor in the undead landscape is just as depressing as the zombies themselves. And Dennis Hopper’s character, ruling over the high tower, might have been too ahead of it’s time. If this movie was released today, it would be considered a political attack on the current administration. Luckily, the themes are relatively timeless. And it has some of the most impressive zombie carnage the series has to offer.

Romero would go own to make more zombie movies, such as Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead and he has a whole career of non-zombie films that are worth checking out. But what I find so fascinating with the man is that he created a genre of film, of storytelling, and then used it to make the movies he wanted to create. Others might have decided to focus on the lore of these new worlds or made them into action films, like World War Z or the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. But not Romero.

night-of-the-living-dead-blu-ray-2

Romero wanted to tell stories about people, politics, race, consumerism and classism. So he told those stories, tricking viewers with zombie horror and gore. Creating a brand new genre wasn’t enough for him, he had to perfect it and show how many layers could be found within it. Heck, Night of the Living Dead could be done as a stage play and it wouldn’t lose anything in scale and would be just as compelling as Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Because of that, Romero made movies that will outlive him and remain watchable and timely. Because, while zombies may someday fall out of fashion, the ideas that fill his films will always be relevant. They’ll continue to inspire hopeful directors, writers and viewers. And they’ll continue to scare those who think age has weakened their potency.