Friday, October 31, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 31: Endings and Beginnings

Guillermo del Toro begins his introductory essay "Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors" as follows:

To Learn what we fear is to learn who we are.  Horror defines our boundaries and illuminates our souls, In that, it is no different, or less controversial, than humour, and no less intimate than sex.  Our rejection or acceptance of a particular type of horror fiction can be as rarified or kinky as any other phobia or fetish.

The series covers haunted houses, science fiction horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and swings from subtle to graphic.  With the exception of Ray Russell, I had read most of the selections before, but great fiction is well worth the re-read.

What I like best about the series is just how well the material was respected.  Having a small selection of horror in hardcover is pretty great, especially when introductions, annotations and even some filmographies are included.  Until now, the majority of my collection is mainly comprised of mass market paperbacks, as the genre tends to be left out of the hardcover market.

I do hope the collection gets expanded on, as I for one, would be happy to keep reading wherever it goes.

Thanks Penguin!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 30: American Supernatural Tales

The final book in the collection, American Supernatural Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi, is a really fun way to round out the collection.  Using short stories involving the supernatural from as far back as the early 1800s with Washington Irving (the fellow who wrote both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and moving right up to recent Bram Stoker ward winners like Stephen King and Caitlin R. Kiernan, the title works to introduce reads to some really great stuff as well as showing how the form has changed over the last nearly 200 years.

For me, horror has always worked best as a short story, pulling off terror and horror over the extended form of the novel can be trickily at best and tedious at worst.  This doesn't mean I'm not a fan of horror novels, it just means tat if you grabbed a bunch of horror short stories and a bunch of horror novels at random, I think you would find a high count of great ones in the short story collection.

The book obtains a lot of stories by personal favourite authors, like Fritz Lieber, Richard Matheson, and Caitlin R. Kiernan.  A great introduction to some really scary stuff and a fine way to round out the imprint.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 27: Mr. Sardonicus

So the only purchase I've made in preparation for this month was a $12 Blu-Ray of Mr. Sardonicus, the 1961 William Castle directed adaptation of Ray Russell's Sardonicus.

I had come across a picture of the makeup used for the title character as a child, but other than that unsettling image, I knew nothing about the film.

In terms of William Castle films, I enjoyed the 90s reboots made by Dark Castle of a number of Castle's original films (House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc.), and knew the director was famous for stunts related to his films, like on site nurses, buzzers under seats, or in the case of Mr. Sardonicus, an alternate ending for the film depending on the audience of each screening demanding a merciful or unmerciful ending for the main character.

The movie itself is pretty great, it actually uses aspects, scenes and theme from a number of Russell's fiction as seen in Haunted Castles, the leads are great, and I was happy enough to see director William Castle himself, that his films may be the focus of another October in the next few years.

If you have the opportunity, the film is pretty great, and for me, who has seen a lot of horror but never this one, it was a great treat.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 24: Haunted Castles

Of the six books in the 2013 Penguin Horror imprint, Ray Russell's Haunted Castles was the only one I had never heard of before.  In effect, I bought this book 50% because I had purchased the others and wanted a complete set, and 50% on trust in Penguin and Guillermo Del Toro.

The book itself is a collection of seven short horror stories written in the 1950s and 60s.  The most famous of these is one called Sardonicus, which was made into a film in 1961 by William Castle.  This movie, called Mr. Sardonicus had actually crossed my radar back when I was in elementary school and looking through a book on the history of horror cinema (yes, I was the monster obsessed kid in my class).  One of the images in the book is the makeup for the main character, Baron Sardonicus, a man whose face has been frozen in a permanent grin, and trust me, as a kid this makeup really freaked me out, but more on the film later, as I'll be checking it out this weekend.

The stories are all pretty great, my personal favourite was called Sanguinarius, which focused on Elizabeth Bathory, a woman famous for bathing in the blood of young girls.  The story, told from her point of view, was really great, and had a pretty great pay off as well.

Like science fiction author Frederic Brown, Russell seems like the type of Horror author that dedicated fans know well, but mainstream audiences may never have heard of - if you have the chance, definitely check out the book, it's well worth the read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 22: The Haunting

One of the best parts of rereading The Haunting of Hill House, as compared to say, Frankenstein, is that unlike the story of the monster, there is really no debate over which adaption is the best, the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise is not just the best version of Jackson's novel, but is probably one of the scariest movies I've ever seen.

I first saw the movie in my twenties and was shocked at how effectively it worked in delivering the story.  The only change I noticed between the two was a bit of reorganizing in scenes and the mild crush Eleanor has on Luke in the novel is transferred instead to one with Doctor Markway, which actually plays a little better for me.

The scares are genuine, work on a psychological level and when the big ones show up (no spoilers here), they are the kind of things that stick with you for days afterwards.

Honestly, it's one of my favourite horror movies, and is well worth the watch, but maybe not late at night...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 20: The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has long been a favourite horror story of mine. Although I’m a longtime fan of monster horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.), there is something really chilling about a well put together haunted house story that just sticks with you.

Jackson’s book is truly insidious, creating in the main character of Eleanor someone that the reader can immediately relate to and sympathize with, and then bringing her to Hill House, a place that is from sentence one, one of the spookiest places to exist in fiction.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Initially put forth as a doctor’s examination of a reportedly haunted house and the events he and his assistants find there, the story is one of the subtlest examples of horror you can find. The evil in the story builds, slowly but surely, and with the author’s straight-forward prose, you find yourself getting lost in the drama of the four leads just before something really horrible occurs.

As with the first three books in the imprint, the book is put together extremely well, and the introduction by author Laura Miller really got me interested in reading more of Jackson’s work that the two stories I know best (this one and the 1949 short story, The Lottery). The cover art for the book is by far the most chilling of the entire imprint to date, and the book does include a “further reading” section for readers interested in reading more works by or about Jackson.

Simply an excellent read.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 17: The Thing on the Doorstep

Following a reading of The Raven, the first thing that struck me about Lovecraft’s prose was just how modern and engaging it seemed; yes he sometimes got bogged down in detail, and his characters are not the most well drawn, but wow could that guy build a sense of dread. The collection contains two novellas “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness” and ten short stories, all of which work amazingly to showcase the sense of overwhelming dread and sheer terror he was so good at producing.

The book itself, although missing a filmography like Frankenstein, is by far the most annotated of the imprint so far, giving each story at least a four paragraph contextual description in the notes (discussing year published, written, and any information the author gave on inspirations for the story) as well as point by point notes for geographic, historic, literary, and folklore-based information which may be unknown to the casual reader. All in all the book is a great resource and introduction to the authors work, containing some of my more favourite stories (“The Temple” being an incredible standout, and a great introductory story for those who haven’t ever read Lovecraft before as well).

Of the series, it is by far the biggest text, and with all of the extra information given, including a “further reading” section both in general and for every story as well, it may be my favourite edition of the imprint so far.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 14: My Introduction to Lovecraft

As I begin to read the new Penguin Horror imprint of The Thing on the Doorstep and other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (and only now do I realize how I should have spent a little more time thinking of a title for this post),  I think of all the ways I could tackle this post - about how his writing was one of the first examples of horror I came across in my teens that really, seriously terrified me, or perhaps how, as a biracial reader, his all-too-common references to the evils of interbreeding really kind of make me sick, or maybe just how sad it must have been to have lived as hermetic a life as he did.

Let's go back to the beginning, where as an eighth-grader I came across my first example of his writing in an anthology of horror stories.  The story "Polaris" (1918) which not only terrified me in its implicitly, but in the fact that (sorry for the 96-year-old spoiler) it turned my understanding of how a story worked on its head.  The twist (and I don't want to wreck it if you haven't read the story) is something I've now seen in other places, but never as effectively, and as a kid the concept sat with me for weeks, insidiously eating at my mind while I tried to read other stories and ensured that I would continue to visit and revisit Lovecraft's work for the rest of my life.

In the end, I can't think of another writer who so strongly grabbed my attention, and introduced me to just how terrifying horror fiction can be.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 12: The Raven

Beginning the second of the Penguin Horror collection, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven: Tales and Poems, I was a little leery.  Although I did fine in English in High School, my university background is in Communications Studies, not English, and I've always felt Poe is much closer to LITERATURE, which makes me a little hesitant to review him.

Then I remember that I'm a blogger, and more importantly a life-long horror fan, so I should be a little easier on myself and realize that the worst thing that could happen is comments on my blog (which is - excluding spam - the best thing that can happen on a blog).

So let's go.  

As with the Penguin Horror Frankenstein, this edition is really gorgeous, the cover-image, the fact that it is a hardcover, and even the fact that the edges of all the pages are black add together to make a beautiful object.  Unlike Frankenstein, however, the book lacks in the extra materials department - no filmography, additional notes, chronological info, etc.  Just the opening essay, and an introduction by S.T. Joshi.  Informative, but as compared to the previous book, it pretty much sticks to the original material and that's it.

The stories are great - although it took me a while to get into the rhythms of Poe's writing, a number of the stories gave me chills (especially Berenic√© and The Tell-Tale Heart), and surprisingly a couple were quite funny.  Unlike a lot of horror I've read, the stories tend to be focused in a real world setting, with issues of madness, grief and guilt being the focus, rather than ghosts, goblins and other creatures of the night (although one story does have a mummy), and the poems are also quite a treat.

In the end, I missed the extra materials offered in Frankenstein and did wish that the book had contained the story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (one of my personal favourites), but as with any short story collection, certain stories get left out or added for editorial purposes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bookmonkey X Penguin Horror Day 8: Poe and I

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
As I’m currently working my way through the second book of the collection, The Raven: Tales and Poems, I thought I should focus today on my own history with the author.

Like most people, I’m pretty sure I heard “The Raven” at some point in Elementary school (and I’m also pretty sure quoted, under duress by Mr. Spock in an episode of Star Trek), and the simple idea of a man being driven from depression to madness just stuck with me. In my teen years I made my way through other some of his other works, like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and again and again, I was just struck by how simply he could move a character from concerned to stressed to madman in such a short piece of text.

Unlike any of the other writers on the list however, I have had the chance to check out the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia (which was pretty awesome, by the way) and I have to say there is something pretty unique about visiting the home of an author you've read a lot over the years.

One of the things I've always found most interesting about Poe's fiction (which may change once I've finished the book) is the fact that much of it works as psychological thrillers (a genre that didn't really exist at the time), in that rarely is the supernatural involved, and instead much of the drive of the various stories is coming directly from the (often guilt-ridden) mind of the protagonist.

Of the six books in the collection, this is one of the ones I was most interested in reading, as I was nervous about how readable the stories may be, and as I'm familiar with a number of the various twists and turns of the stories, whether they would still have the same impact for me.

I'll let you know how it works out on Friday.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror: Day 6: Me and the Monster

Of all the books available in the Penguin Horror imprint, Frankenstein is the one that shares the longest history with me. Since I was a little kid, enjoying The Hilarious House of Frightenstein on television, I was always intrigued by the creature. In the context of that show, it is actually just a prop, never doing anything but being background set dressing for the other characters, but always (in my young mind), bursting with the potential to rise.

I read the book for the first time back in junior high (middle school for my US readers), and having reread it three times since (most recently last week), I am always swept away in the epic tragedy of the story, if only Victor had attempted to help his creature, every horrible thing in the novel could have been avoided.

In terms of movies, everyone should see the 1931 James Whale directed classic Frankenstein as well as the 1935 follow-up The Bride of Frankenstein. Although the second moves away from the original source material, the two films together gave us some of the most iconic images of the creature, his bride and their world that have ever been put to film.

The 1957 Terence Fisher film The Curse of Frankenstein is still hands-down my personal favourite Frankenstein adaptation, although unlike the novel it doesn’t even attempt to make the doctor remotely sympathetic. Played by Peter Cushing as one of the most calculating bastards ever to grace the silver screen, the film sits highly in my favourite movies overall.

Although I have read a lot of Frankenstein-based fiction over the years, my current top incarnation of the character is the version used in Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten, which is itself a story about stories, and full of all sorts of twists and turns, but one of my favourites is the inevitably unintentional rising of the creature by the series main character Tom Taylor.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 3: Frankenstein

NOTE: I have chosen to look at each of the books in the Penguin Horror collection in the order described by series curator Guillermo del Toro in his Introductory essay Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors: on the Penguin Horror Series. 

Okay, so let’s talk about the book a little first.

The Story
For those who have not come in contact with the Frankenstein story, it’s pretty simple (sorry for the 195-year-old spoilers, but seriously what can you do?), you have a doctor who decides to create life, he does this by putting together parts for a variety of human bodies and creates an eight-foot tall monster that disgusts him so completely that he abandons it almost immediately after creating it.  The rest of the book follows his attempts to remove himself from any responsibility for the creature and the creature’s attempts to live in our world, and failing that, get some understanding from its creator.

Let's just say things do not work out well.

If you've never actually read the original novel, you are in for a huge treat – the story moves along incredibly quickly, is very readable and the tension that builds throughout is second to none.  As this was my fourth or fifth read through, I was pretty happy to come across this description that the doctor gives of his own upbringing (which to be fair, many a first-year English major has likely made this comparison before me):

I was [my parents] plaything and their idol, and something better – their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties to me.  With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control. (Chapter 1)

And with this sort of upbringing, you would think he would treat his own creation better, but if he had, where would our story be?

The Packaging

First of all, the fact that the book is a sturdy hardcover, with a wonderful cover by Paul Buckley, ensures that it has a prominent location on my living room bookshelf.  The Book comes with an introductory essay by del Toro, a wonderful introduction by author Elizabeth Kostova, and then a great number of extras, including a reading guide, a chronology of author Mary Shelley’s life, and a filmography looking into 21 selected Frankenstein films (more on this Monday)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror: Day One

So here we are again at the beginning of October, with a month ahead to examine another aspect of the horror genre. In the past I’ve done deep dives into series like Twilight, Hack/Slash, and Saw, and then over trends in horror like Reimaginings. This month I thought it would be best to go back to some of the roots of horror and hit some great literature at the same time. To do that, I’m going to spend the next thirty days diving into the six titles released under the Penguin Horror imprint last year.  This is largely for two reasons:

1) For my birthday two months ago, my friends and family got me the entire collection, and I thought it would be a nice excuse to use them.

2) As someone who has collected horror for decades, I have a massive collection of mismatched, creased, and roughed-up paperbacks and the idea of some very nicely put together hardcover titles in my favourite genre is too good to pass up.

The six titles: Frankenstein, The Raven, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, The Haunting of Hill House, Haunted Castles, and American Supernatural Tales, were curated by Award-winning filmmaker and longtime horror literature fan Guillermo del Toro, and as I’ve been enjoying his work in film since my wife and I first caught Mimic back in 1997, I thought I would give the collection he put together with Penguin books a shot.

The stories covered throughout the series cover 182 years of the genre (Frankenstein was published in 1818, and the final story in American Supernatural Tales, was published in 2000), but for a guy who has been reading horror pretty consistently over the last three decades of my life, the series seems like a pretty good place to visit (and in a few cases revisit).

So stick around for the next month, learn a few things about my love of the genre and perhaps even get bit by the horror bug a little yourelf…

NOTE: Thanks to my pal Mike for this month's great Paul Buckley-inspired banner art, which includes an image of the series spines I got from this great article about the cover illustrations done by Paul Buckley

2nd NOTE: I grabbed the fanned-out cover image from The Fire Wire Pop Culture blog in case you'd like to see close ups of each title.

Book Review: Greenmantle

After reading Jack the Giant Killer (1987) last month and absolutely loving it, I was kind of nervous to see how the next title would measure up. Luckily for me, Greenmantle (1988), is an incredibly effective book which mixes elements of Fantasy and Crime/Thriller together. The story focuses on Freddie Treasure, a woman who has just won the Wintario lottery and relocates to her childhood home with her teenaged daughter Ali. At the same time the story focuses on an ex-Mafia hitman and his attempt to escape his criminal past.

What I love best about this book was how much it made me think of books like American Gods, Fables, and The Unwritten, in that it plays around with how stories work, where they come from, and what they mean. In the case of Greenmantle, the story focuses on the great god Pan, and his various manifestations throughout mythology and the world. Tying this concept into a crime thriller and adding aspects of Fantasy (the story includes a number of classic Fantasy elements), sounds like it should have muddled up the plot, but the book works so well I was at times shocked at how nicely it all fit together. Add into that the fact that Frankie’s daughter listens to John Owczarek (one of the main characters in Mulengro) and reads Caitlin Midhir (the lead in Yarrow), and the book works both as a story in its own right and as a continuation of the amazing world de Lint works to create throughout his fiction.