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Scary

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I actually wrote a post about scary and creepy books that stay with me over the years. They are not ones with monsters and ghosts lurking on the pages but more atmospheric, full of creepy suggestion. Books that make my hair stand include The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, And Then Then Were None by Agatha Christie and most surprisingly, the one that never advertised horror, but surprise is in store at every turn of a chapter, Under the Skin by Michael Faber.

For the sake of contributing to this week’s BTT, I would add Stephen King’s The Shining. The evil is encroaching, and it could be that Danny’s shining has empowered it. The book does end with an explosive climax, pun intended, that sends me over the edge. It’s almost like fighting against unknown, unseen evil. The characters understand the hotel is evil; that it sought Danny, his power, and that it would do anything it could to get him. This book is a big spooker, atmospherically speaking, and haunts me tremendously.

Fear Factor

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It’s the time of the year for spooky reading. The most traditional Halloween reading would be the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Many horror movies later, surviving vampires, woman climbing out of television, grisly murder with an ice-pick, I have survived the genre. Ghosts and demons no longer scare me; nor does a monster lunging forward trying to eat my head off. I don’t want grisly murders; I prefer atmospheric horror in which one is stalked by an unknown but malevolent entity. The uncertainty is nail-biting, the ominousness stomach-turning.

My current read, Where Are the Children?, is one such book. The main character is haunted by the death of her two children about seven years ago and the shocking murder charges against her. She left California for the peace of Cape Cod, changed her name, dyed her hair, and started over. But her nightmare repeats as one morning her two children are missing. She’s battling against a sociopath, a kidnapper, and a killer.

Books that make my hair stand include The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, And Then Then Were None by Agatha Christie and most surprisingly, the one that never advertised horror, but surprise is in store at every turn of a chapter, Under the Skin by Michael Faber.

[645] Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin

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” She had been eating her meat rare; now she ate it nearly raw—broiled only long enough to take away the refrigerator’s chill and seal in the juices. ” (Part 1, Ch.4, 141)

The story of Rosemary’s Baby is very simple, despite its absurdly bizarre ending: In summer 1966, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are given the chance of an apartment in the much-coveted Bramford after being waitlisted for a long time. The only person who tries to talk them out of the move is Rosemary’s friend Hutch, who actually dies later when he’s within the hair of teling Rosemary the secrets of the building and its shady inhabitants.

One morning, when two or three weeks had gone by, she thought she heard a baby crying. She rayed off the television and listened. There was a frail faraway wailing. Or was there? (Part 3, Ch.1, 225)

Shortly after Woodhouses move in, Guy, a struggling actor, gets a major break in Broadway. The Castevets, their strange and overbearing neighbors, also take a special interest in Rosemary’s welfare after she becomes pregnant. They give a charm and daily drinks made from home-grown herbs. Everything seems to work in her favor until she becomes so emaciated from incessant grinding pain and lack of sleep.

You look like Miss Concentration Camp of 1966. Are you sure this doctor knows what he’s doing? (Part 2, Ch.5, 154)

Tension builds as Rosemary becomes more isolated during her pregnancy. She begins to suspect the Castevets’ motives but whatever evil force at work seems to have singled her out for the achievement of its goal. This creepy atmosphere is gradually escalating, as the setting changes from an idyllic yet blank family life into a nightmare. The book reflects on the wicked human nature and its inner demons, and shows it’s impossible for a humane and morally innocent person to survive in this world of evil. Much of the book is masterful. It’s creepy but not scary—creepy in the way that Rosemary has been chosen from the beginning, as if the apartment irradiates a magnetic field to absorb her. What happens to Rosemary is predictable. The ending is disappointing, with revelation full of unbearable cliché. That said, it was an important book to revive occultism in fiction.

245 pp. Pagesus Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[627] Watchers – Dean Koontz

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” From the first, the dog and The Outsider had possessed a special awareness of each other, an uncanny instinctual awareness of each other’s moods and activities even when they were not in the same room. Davis Weatherby had suggested, more than half seriously, that there was something telepathic about the relationship of those two creatures. (Part I, 5.6.224)

Part suspense fiction and part science fiction, Watchers in the core is a story of love and how it transpires our lives. Thirty six-year-old Travis Cornell, ex-Delta Force man, successful real estate broker, is a loner of a tragic past. Since adolescence, his brother and parents succumbed to illness or accident, one by one. On a day hike Travis stumbles upon a stray golden retriever that seems to possess an uncanny intelligence as well as a degree of self-awareness. The dog leads Travis to Nora, a beautiful former recluse who never experiences the warmth of companionship.

But at Banodyne, it harbored a fierce hatred of the dog, worse than what it felt toward people. When Yarbeck worked with it, constructing a sign language with which to communicate complex ideas, The Outsider several times expressed a desire to kill and mutilate the dog, but it would never explain why. (Part I, 6.6.295)

The golden retriever they call Einstein is the product of a top-secret genetic engineering experiment and the central character of the book. The K.G.B., through a hired professional killer who believes he can attain immortality by inhaling the last breaths of the dead, has just rubbed out all the scientists involved in the project, and Einstein, along with a monstrous creation bred to kill, are the escapees. The mutant killer, evil as Einstein is good, loathes its own ugliness and has a penchant for decapitation and a compulsion to gouge out eyes.

We have a responsibility to stand watch over one another, we are watchers, all of us, watchers, guarding against the darkness. (Part II, 9.2.526)

So Travis and Nora, against the pursuit of the crazy hitman, government agents, and the beast, assume a new identity—one that stands up to inspection—in order to protect the remarkable dog that has become more than just family and friends. Koontz is an amazing stylist and story-teller. Despite the sometimes pedestrian, heavy-handed writing, he keeps reader interested, intrigued, and guessing. Watchers is a pulse-pounding adventure, filled with many twists. Blending science fiction, horror, and thriller, it also concerns the importance and benefits of civilization, the longing for acceptance and a meaningful existence. The darkness is not so much the violence of the beast as the human beings who want to take over the world at the expense of animals.

611 pp. Penguin. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[626] Intensity – Dean Koontz

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” As hard as she tried, Chyna could see no beast in his eyes, only a placid blueness and the watchful darkness of the pupil, and she was no longer sure that she had seen it. He wasn’t half man and half wolf, not a creature that fell to all four in the light of the full moon. Worse, he was nothing but a man—living at one extreme end of the spectrum of human cruelty, but nonetheless only a man. ” (Ch.7, p.259)

Intensity is a very quick-paced, heart-in-the-mouth book. It starts out with Chyna driving up with her best friend Laura to Laura’s parents’ house in Napa. But things quickly go bad after dark. Up past midnight, gazing out the window, Chyna heard a soft thump—and her instincts suggest predatory presence in the house. A murderous sociopath has entered the house and kills everyone. She is spared only because the killer is not aware of her in the guest room. Her friend is sexually violated, and later kidnapped, trapped in the killer’s motor home. Until Laura, Chyna had lived secretly with her past—the haunting memories of a childhood that thwarts any emotional bondage with people.

Against the odds, she had already survived the events of the past few hours. The killer didn’t even know that she existed. She had made it. She was free. It was over. (Ch.5, p.134)

The violent pursuit of the killer takes Chyna out of her nutshell—into the motor home, hiding. On the way to his remote home in Oregon, Chyna gets out and hides behind the shelves of the mini mart, where Edgler Vess kills two more people. Instead of going away, Chyna feels a moral obligation to save this girl with an angelic face held captive in his house because she overhears the conversation between Vess and the clerks. The house is protected by four trained Dobermans. Chyna learns that all the killings were just arbitrary—outcome of casual conversations and chance encounter.

Sociopaths like this man were drawn to beauty and to innocence, because they were compelled to defile it. When innocence was stripped away, when beauty was cut and crushed, the malformed beast could at last feel superior to this person he had coveted. After the innocent and the beautiful were left dead and rotting, the world was to some degree made to more closely resemble the killer’s interior landscape. (Ch.6, p.215)

Intensity is very fast-paced and the plot lives up to the title. It does indulge in goriness. At the heart it reveals the mind and thoughts, as well as the meticulous calculation of a serial killer. However, it doesn’t offer explanation. Both characters are compelling: Chyna is a young psychology student and her nemesis, homicidal maniac Edgler Vess, who revels in sensations, be it ain or pleasure—in the intensity of experience. The worst horror is not the blood, but that the killer steals meaning from the unfinished lives of those he killed, and makes himself the primary purpose of their existence.

436 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Device Off”

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The local bookstore has this poster up, urging people to take off the TV and spend time with family and friends, and read a book. Fine by me, since I don’t wait much television these days except for news and National Geographic. It’s unseasonably dry and warm for Christmas this year in California, so I won’t be curling up under the blanket with the fireplace on. It’s official also no lighting the fireplace on Christmas Day because of Spare the Air Day. I will have a book, Intensity by Dean Koontz. Read about 70 pages of it over breakfast this morning. It chills me to the bone—as if my blood has turned cold.
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Chyna Shepard is a college student visiting the family of her friend, Laura Templeton, for a long weekend. Chyna, who was abused and neglected by her mother as a child, finds the Templeton house provides something she has yearned: acceptance. This comes to a violent end when a serial killer breaks into the house in the night and methodically kills all of the occupants except Laura and Chyna. All this takes place in the first gut-wrenching 70 pages of the book. While browsing the shelf full of Dean Koontz for Watchers, recommended by Tina at Book Chatter, I also picked up Intensity because the description sounds very . . . intense! I’m sure it’s by no means a seasonal read with the violent and suspenseful content, but this is what I need to while away the holidays.

What are you reading for the holidays?

[613] Ghost Story – Peter Straub

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” Wee see things, but we don’t believe them; we feel things—people watching us, sinister things following us—but we dismiss them as fantasies. We dream horrors, but try to forget them. And in the meantime, three people have died. ” (Part Two, III/9/317)

Despite the very simple title, Ghost Story, has an ambitious scope that Straub intends it to be a summation and continuance of its literary forbears. The book is straight out of the Gothic classic literary style. Two characters have names that pay tribute to masters of the genre. Evoked from the complex layers of this story are monstrous deeds, decades of guilt, revenge, and death.

Set in fictional Milburn, a small town in upstate New York soon to be under the siege of a terrifying Christmas blizzard, Ghost Story revolves around members of the Chowder Society, which meets over whiskey and cigars to keep one another company as age creeps up on them: Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and, until his death a year prior, Edward Wanderley. These men, in their 70s, are bound by a guilty past some fifty years gone that involves a dead woman and some feral children. Not only are they not appeased over time, history seems to have repeated itself with greater intensity.

The bedroom was cold, and almost bare. Two coats, Edward’s and the girl’s, were lain across an exposed mattress. But Ricky only saw Edward Wanderley. Edward was on the floor, both hands clutched to his chest and his knees drawn up. His face was terrible. (Part One, II/5/150)

The men begin to have spooky, prophetic dreams after Edward’s utterly unexpected, inexplicable death at a party, thrown by John Jaffrey, for a beautiful young actress named Ann-Veronica Moore. More to their horror, that mysterious actress vaguely reminds them of the wretched Eva Galli from fifty years ago. The men find in the town around them, and in Edward’s distorted, fear-stricken face in death, hints that their unholy past is catching up with them. In distress, they write to Edward’s nephew Donald Wanderley, who is, of all things, a horror writer whose past also reveals a relationship with a strange woman. Soon the Chowder Society and Donald realize their stories were not coincident but inter-related.

What transpires between these strange incidents leaves me transfixed, as the mysteries begin to reveal themselves at a slow but gripping pace. The avenger and her minions have come back; and the men are now launched into a time when madness offers a truer picture of events than sanity.

The book itself calls for reader’s patience, as the crisscrossing between characters early on can be confusing. Once the characters come into focus and a footing gained for the story, Ghost Story is a rich and chilling read. Past and present masterfully collide in this novel that addresses more about the sins of men and their scruple than about incomprehensible evil. The atmosphere is drenched in darkness and despair, prevalent in every page. It’s truly a sublime, powerful, and horrifying read.

Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paperback. 567 pp. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Horror Reads

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Plain old horror reads. Make you jump six inches when someone comes up behind you. Crawl under the cover, or leave the lights on.

(The) Ghost Story

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“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…”

Thus is the opening of Ghost Story. I am about a third of the way. The story proceeds through multiple facets and plot lines. Straub spins out his long novel in short chapters, mostly, crisscrossing between characters that, early on, can be confusing. There is the Chowder Society, which consists of four old men who are haunted by an inadvertent act of their youth. There is a mysterious girl arriving in town. Her aunt, Eva Galli, once lived in the fictional town of Milburn, where the novel is set. The inhabitants of Milburn will meet frigid, horrid deaths as they pay for a sin that was not theirs, against which they have no defense. Hmmm … this is the perfect book to read under the cover this Halloween!

[610] Ring – Koji Suzuki

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” The tape had been rewound. It was an ordinary 120 minute tape, the sort you could get anywhere, and, as the manager had pointed out, the anti-erasure tabs had been broken off. Asakawa turned on the VCR and pushed the tape into the slot . . . He had high hopes that the key to unlock the riddle of four people’s deaths was hidden on this tape. He’d pushed play fully intending to be satisfied with just a clue, any clue. There can’t be any danger, he was thinking. What harm could come from just watching a videotape? ” (Part 2, Highlands, Ch.2, p.75)

This is the original novel that inspires the seminal 1998 Japanese horror film, Ringu, which obviously has outfamed the book since, at the time of the movie, Ring was yet to be translated into English. Four teenagers die in inexplicable circumstances—sudden heart failure. The news story piques journalist Asakawa, who dismisses the possibility that the deaths are coincidence. It turns out that one of the victims is his niece, Tomoko, and she and her friends all watched a certain videotape in a mountain log cabin. Whoever watches this tape will receive a mysterious, fateful phone call that announces death in a week. The tape originally contained instructions to avoid this fate, but they had been recorded over with another TV program.

This video hadn’t been recorded by a machine. A human being’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin—all five senses had been used to make this video. These chills, this shivering, were from somebody’s shadow sneaking into him through his sense organs. (Part 3, Gusts, Ch.5, p.146)

Asakawa, who suspects that there is more to the world than modern science can account for the eerie aftermath of the tape, enlists the help of his friend Ryuji, a philosophy professor, as they rummage through history archives and travel to rural Japan to investigate the origin of the video.

The book is creepy, and it makes more sense reading the book before watching the film. But it’s also entertaining to delve into the novel and see the solid bedrock of the plot in place even though the outer layers are vastly different from the film. The protagonist is a male reporter rather than a female one in the film, with a spouse and a child, who also watch the tape, so that his entire family is doomed if he does not solve the riddle.

Innumerable evil spirits undulated like seaweed, hands outstretched toward the exit. He couldn’t drive away the image. A pebble fell into the ghastly shaft, barely a meter across, echoed against the sides of the well, and was swallowed into the gullets of the evil spirits. (Part 4, Ripples, Ch. 12, p.242)

The book provides a lot more details on the video’s origin, describing shot-by-shot the scenes of the video, including those that are either different or omitted in the film. The video in the book I find to be less scary, even though Suzuki builds tension brilliantly early on. The book’s presentation of the video also feels more like an intriguing puzzle than a sensuous demonstration evil, and the last two-thirds of Ring somewhat degenerates into wooden comments about the paranormal. Although the reading experience lacks the fearsome sensory assault that gives the film’s success, it still creeps me out and delivers a much more tragic story on the main antagonist’s life. It has more depth on what Sadako’s previous life was like. It makes readers sympathize with her fate and understand why she turned into a vicious, revengeful, unexorcized ghost.

This is the first of the Ring trilogy.

282 pp. Vertical, Inc. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]