Tag Archives: Horror

Ghost Story

So the other night I watched The Woman in Black and that started me thinking about ghost stories in general. For instance, I cannot figure out why people in ghost stories always run behind doors and lock them, they aren’t keeping out zombies. Ghosts can obviously appear behind you anywhere, they are haunting a location, that location is their playground, so beating a traditional ghost is simple… LEAVE! However, I am not actually hear to snark on the genre, it is too convention filled to mock. I like conventions in stories, like the grand sagas and ballads all had plot conventions. No, I found some parts of the film interesting from an altogether different viewpoint.

The Woman in Black is set in the late 1800’s and it set me thinking about this era, the Lunatic laws, the loss of faith in Europe, Matthew Arnold, and then back to the ghost story. The ghost in question was the mother of a little boy who was proclaimed a lunatic and had her son taken away. (See G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils)The film makes fairly clear that before her son was taken she was mostly normal, if a little obsessive. But as she is further and further removed from their son, she goes crazier and crazier until her son is lost in the marsh and his adoptive parents (her sister and brother-in-law) escape the car but desert the boy to the quicksand. So she hangs herself and becomes the ghost of the story, who is a ghost of horrible vengeance, who drives the children of the neighboring town to kill themselves.
Enter the hero, with his Victorian sentimentality. Once convinced his own son is in danger, he dredges up the body of the boy, and lays it in the tomb with his mothers body… which has no effect on the ghost at all. And thus we see the people of an industrial age, having lost their faith, and willing to believe in anything. The hero talks in vague terms about his dead wife waiting for him, and others toss about half-believed platitudes about souls going up to heaven, but no body believes anything, and everybody is grasping for something to believe.

Enter Matthew Arnold and Dover Beach.

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

So what interested me most about The Woman in Black was the final score. Ghost: at least 12, Sentimentality: 0. So I thought of another, this time American ghost story rather than a Victorian one. Bag Of Bones by Stephen King. (If you read it, it is pretty good just be ready to skip some pages when King gets horrible describing in minute detail the origin of the ghost.) In this case, the ghost takes a few children from each generation, all with names starting with ‘K’ as revenge for her child. However our hero is an impractical enough person to realize that a ghost seeking more and more vengeance cannot be satisfied. (A sentimental mistake of the Victorian lawyer who was the hero of The Woman in Black.) Our hero in this case, once he realizes that there is indeed a ghost, and a particular, very sweet little girl is the target (name starts with ‘K’ and descended from original villain from a century ago.) he comes up with a practical American plan, find the body of the ghost woman and pour lye on the bones… which works for the story. Ghost: Several every generation, Practical hero: 1. A much better score, for a different culture.
However, I leave you with a great very short ghost story. This one is quite good. (The ghost doesn’t do any killing… so there isn’t much scoring I can do…)
Andrew Klavan’s The Advent Reunion. Here is video one of about 6. Do listen, it is well done.

The Uncanny: Andrew Klavan

This is a good book by an author I recently discovered. The story dances a line between mystery, horror and thriller, and does so in the best of ways. The Uncanny is a story about vocation, about freewill and fate, about evil and deception, all wrapped up in a well written intriguing plot about good people doing battle with evil. The good people, though, are like good people really are: complicated, sinful, and good. This state of being that Martin Luther called being simultaneously saint and sinner.

The plot revolves around an evil modern cult leader, who has discovered that a particular alchemist’s magic does indeed procure eternal youth. However, there are a few ‘catches’ the major one being that it must be regularly re-used and if it is not reused in time the user dies horribly. Now there  are two parts to the system and the main problem is that a ‘blue crystal’ must be used for which the villain in this story only has a limited amount and no way of making more. This is because the recipe was lost… except that the recipe was preserved in a triptych of paintings that the villain is after.  I refuse to go further into the plot because I believe that based on the plot alone, the book is worth reading. It is rather uncommon to find new authors who tell unique stories. By that I mean that if I can predict the plot and its major twists and turns after reading the first 10% of the book, I am greatly disappointed. In this case, the plot twists, but not for the sake of twisting.

The other main reason that I admired this book, and by extension its author was the accurate and well said portrayal of many foundational Christian beliefs. It is not uncommon for authors to write either without showing their knowledge of their faith (if they are Christian) or showing a lack of knowledge of their subject (if they are not Christian). Here, however, is a story that is almost apologetic in its depiction of mankind, evil, and faith. It shows beautifully or at least realistically several key doctrines. Also, for the sake of the fiction, it is important to note that this is done effortlessly, and without any pretentiousness from the author or out of character monologue from the character.

For one example, the book cuts to the text of a medieval manuscript written by a previous user of the alchemists system for indefinite youth. This sub character writes about the effects of the stone, and very poignantly about damnation. In his writing, essentially his last words, he reveals his knowledge that he is damned, and also his knowledge that with repentance, Christ’s sacrifice and love would redeem him despite his horrible crimes (and believe me, they are vile) and he rejects salvation, through pride and fear and loathing of God, and willfully chooses damnation. This scene shakes the reader, makes the reader tremble with the awfulness of damnation, and effortlessly shows the orthodox Christian understanding that humans damn themselves.

Lastly, the characters are deep, and yet the book moves inexorably like a train, barreling down full speed down the tracks of the uncanny. I do recommend the book, but not for the faint of heart. Although it shows nothing nearly as bad as some books (like Stephen King’s dark half) it implies many evil things. I think it does an excellent job showing evil as evil as it really is, without showing too much, or subliminally inviting the reader to participate in the evil. But still, the alchemist is very evil, and the book has an aura of frightfulness and, well Uncanny about it. It is not long, so go forth, buy, rent from the library, and enjoy The Uncanny, give it to your friends and there will be much to talk about. (There is a theme here for me, I think, perhaps the best books are the one that you not only really enjoy reading, but that you want to spend hours discussing later…)

Stephen King

Obviously, Stephen King could have many blogs dedicated to nothing more than discussing and reviewing his books, their ideas and so forth. I am also quite sure that a good number of his works will appear here in the future. However, I have found that many people  (especially Christian women) immediately dismiss King as an author obsessed with horror and horrible things and therefore not worth reading. I have two different replies to this belief but for now, I will mention only one. (The other is its own point entirely.)

There certainly are many examples of vile and disgusting books by King, and many more that have so much objectionable content they seem to overflow with it. I attribute this to King having a split author’s personality. You could say that it depends on which King writes the book. Examples of books with nothing good in them, and with nothing true (in the ultimate sense) other than that man is evil, that they are not worth reading. Such titles include Cujo, Gerald’s Game, and Under the Dome. Unless the reader wishes to be revolted by the depths of human depravity and expects nothing more, these books can be safely left at the library. A slightly different case might be Pet Semetary a book so creepy it holds the award for being the only book to ever keep me up an entire night. Certainly the book had little in the way of redeeming characteristics, but it was well written, engrossing, and it showed the result of people trying to fight true evil on their own.

In stark contrast to these books, there are many books that are truly good. (I have not done a census, but I think these outnumber the other category.) In fact, there are books that King has written that really touch deep into the human soul. In his Dark Tower series King puts himself in it in the last book. (Probably to be discussed in its own review.) In it, King writes that his character has to keep writing the stories that the ‘Beam’ sings to him. For those who have not yet read the Dark Tower series, I certainly recommend it, but the beam is what hold all the various worlds together, King’s muse. And there are so very many times when reading King’s works that the reader can hear the song the muse has sung to him. This is an incredible talent and an absolutely amazing experience for a reader: something I would not miss at all. Books that sing the song of mankind, of its greatness, of its tragedy, of its ability and futility are rare, and King has several. Among those I found to be clearest are: The Eyes of the Dragon, The Green Mile, Lisey’s Story, The Dark Tower series (all 7!), Desperation The Shining, and others.

Of course there are some books between these two sides, and that leads me to my recommendation on how to read Stephen King. Pick up a book, any book, and read the first chapter, by then you should be able to tell which of King’s personalities wrote the book. If you don’t like it, throw it to the floor, if you think it is worth a shot, persist, and listen for the song of the beam!

If you have never read King before, I recommend starting with either The Eyes of the Dragon or The Green Mile. The former is very similar in style to C.S. Lewis, and the latter is deep and moving. Neither show King’s inclination for gratuitous horror or ‘literary elephantiasis’ as I think he put it himself.