OUTLAST: In Defense of the Jump Scare

The lowest hanging fruit, when it comes to poking fun at horror films, is to make a “look out for the cat!” joke. By which I mean the jump-scare is too often used as a pseudonym for the cheap scare.

Screw that noise. I like a good jolt. If the film is confidently put together and can pull its jump scares off: the more jumps the better.

Of course there is such a thing as a bad jump scare or poorly executed or overused scare. But badmouthing jump scares because of that’s like saying you don’t enjoy pizza because one time you had some at the bowling alley and it tore you up.

Usually these filmic punches don’t land because of lack of audience engagement. If you’re watching a film you don’t like, aren’t invested in, then you’re much less likely to care or buy in to the spookhouse trick. Non-diegetic music swelling as a character or camera movement telegraphs the moment a little too much creates a scare devoid of tension, jumps are a tool in the horror filmmaker’s belt, but there’s also an art to it.

Even when the scares are technically proficient, wonderfully executed, if they’re not grafted onto a movie that elicits serious dread from the viewer then the film can end up feeling breezy, a rollercoaster that you may have had fun on, but see no need to ride again or even think about once you’re done. For all of their polish, their wealth of great jump-scares, I find myself feeling this way about James Wan’s post-Saw films.

So I’m less a fan of jump scares and I am a connoisseur, a snob, a junkie. But junkies build up tolerance, connoisseur’s find their palates getting so refined that they can’t enjoy what they used to love. I think the same thing happens with horror fans. Which is why haunted attractions are so fun, when they’re done right, like, say, Philadelphia’s Terror Behind the Walls: they get you jumping, no matter your tolerance for cinematic shocks.

But haunted attractions are usually seasonal deals, where are we to turn for our fixes when the local haunted hayride ain’t running? Maybe video games.

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So now that I’ve written that long and rambling introduction, what does this have to do with Outlast? Everything. Well, almost everything. Outlast has a lot of positives going for it: incredible sound design, lush graphics, interestingly minimalist gameplay, but I would argue that that all these bells and whistles exist solely to service the scares. These tech achievements are especially impressive as this is no triple-A production: developer Red Barrels is a fairly small team.

After years of stagnation (or more specifically, the inclination to put more action into the survival horror genre, broadening the genre’s appeal but resulting in games that are more horror-themed than they are horrifying) horror gaming seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance right now. I say “seems” like, because I can’t be sure for myself: I’m not a PC gamer and most of these bigger recent hits (Amnesia, Slender) are exclusive to that platform, so was Outlast before it was ported to next-gen consoles earlier this year.

Boy, am I glad it made the jump to console.

Lights out and sound up, Outlast is probably the most frightening gaming experience I’ve ever had. It’s got atmosphere, it’s got tension, but where it really shines are its jump scares. It brought me back to the Resident Evil and Silent Hill of yore, although I think the first person perspective really adds something (something that Fatal Frame and its first sequel clearly understood some time ago).

Outlast is a product made by people who not only have a firm grasp on their medium but also the genre they’re working in. As great and reactive to any given situation as the soundtrack is: most of the game’s tension blooms out of the gameplay itself, or more specifically the restrictions that gameplay places on the player. This isn’t a game trying to be cinematic: it’s a game trying to scare you in a way only interactive media can.

Outlast tells the story of Miles, a reporter who’s caught wind of some strange (and probably super illegal) goings on at Mount Massive Asylum. Miles arrives to find that the patients have overtaken the hospital and are not just garden variety victims of abuse, but products of nefarious experimentation. While the central mystery doesn’t make a lot of sense until the later hours of the game, your motivation as the protagonist is always clear and believable.

As threadbare as the story can seem in the early half of the game, what is there is completely absorbing because it has such synergy with the gameplay.

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Instead of collecting coins, weapons, or other OCD-baiting ephemera, in Outlast players collect dossiers while trying to catch enough filmed evidence with their camcorder to build a good story in their notes. It’s the perfect intersection of dramaturgical motivation and game mechanic. Players aren’t searching for every bonus collectible to unlock a useless achievement (although they do that, too) but because our unraveling of the plot demands we be thorough going through the game’s environment.

Some stories in games suffer when they introduce a free-roaming first person perspective, because developers are giving the player the freedom to miss scripted events, Outlast solves this problem by having player’s perspective their only key to completion.

As a stealth-based game there is no combat. There’s not even any of the resource management that made the early RE games so tense. You only have one consumable resource: batteries that can be used to power the night-vision mode on your camera. Although I never once ran out of batteries, the game does string you along in sequences, artificially inflating the scarcity in some levels, making you think that you could run out of power at any point, could be left alone in the dark.

The main criticism most ‘hardcore’ (read: hairsplitting) gamers are going to have is that there’s technically not much game to Outlast, at least on the normal difficulty setting. Pants-pissing moments aside and much like a physical haunted house: the game’s fairly easy to beat by just ducking your head and running through.

But, for me, there was only one sequence where I wasn’t totally in love with Outlast and it was the game at its most ‘game-y’. It was a scene where I kept dying and had to rely on memorizing the patrol route of an enemy in order to get past him. In many traditional games, that frustration, repetition and subsequent triumph cycle would be extremely rewarding, but in Outlast dying a bunch of times only showed me the seams of the system. I wasn’t terrified anymore: I was playing the game like I would any other FPS, sans gun. On the tenth time going through those two checkpoints, the experience was equivalent to walking a haunted house with the lights on.

Outlast is relatively short, but it portions out its runtime exactly right. Around the last quarter of the game, where I was beginning to grow jaded, my brain realizing that 99% of scripted events wouldn’t kill me, didn’t pose a threat, the game switches tones to something closer to an episode of The X-Files and ties the story up in a compelling string of sequences that feel very different from the rest of the time spent in Mount Massive. The game was written by JT Petty, the filmmaker responsible for The Burrowers and S&Man, so that the story and script is smarter than your average game shouldn’t really surprise. I mean, I feel like I had known this some point (probably when the game was initially released for PC) but I had forgotten by the time I picked up the game, ending up pleasantly surprised as the credits rolled.

I can’t recommend Outlast enough. I really hope to see more from Red Barrels and that other developers take note and really try to scare us. 

Transitioning…

Maybe I’m just defensive of jump scares or hold them on a pedestal because I’ve got jump scare envy. You can do so much in novels, but no matter how many times you type “Boo!”: nobody’s going to jump. (I feel like I’m paraphrasing someone there, but I can’t remember who: sorry for stealing your idea, whoever!)

Speaking of which: I’ve got new books out. Well. Actually not me alone, these are my first two collaborations and they just happen to be coming out in close proximity to each other.

The limited edition signed hardcover of Jackpot, a book I wrote with Shane McKenzie, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty is now up for preorder from Sinister Grin Press. It’s about a serial killer who wins the lottery. It is most definitely meant for fans of extreme horror: for real, it’s WAY gorier and sicker than my other stuff, so don’t say I (or Jim Agpalza’s cover) didn’t warn you.

If you’re not a hardcover collector or a true-believer, there will be more affordable editions of Jackpot in the near future.

Also Cameron Pierce, Shane McKenzie and I’s crazy metatheatrical/satirical/parody thing Leprechaun in the Hood: The Musical: A Novel, which was serialized on reddit, is now available from Broken River Books (the same publisher as The First One You Expect!). The ebook is currently out while the paperback should be dropping any day (or even hour) now.

For those of you wondering when my next full-length, non-collaborative novel will be out, you only have to make it until December:

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Some Boring Self-Analysis and then an Offer to Punch Me in the Head

This is a long post, but bear with me, it goes somewhere. Also: parentheticals, sorry,so many parentheticals.

With most of my books the life cycle has broken down something like this:

I enjoy a nice little amount of positive press (mostly, but not entirely, in genre-specific venues), have an opening boom of my people (friends, family, my small group of readers) buy the book during that first month and then sales level out into a nice steady pace.

None of them do spectacularly, but all of my main titles (Video Night, Tribesmen, and now The First One You Expect) do sell consistently.

Not counting short story collections and pre-orders, that pattern applies to all of my books except The Summer Job, my second full-length novel. The book did have the opening boom (thanks grandma!) but then sales swiftly fell and stayed down.

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This baffles me.

Not only does it baffle me for selfish, narcissistic reasons, as I think the book is some of my strongest work available, but also for fairly objective reasons, as it doesn’t seem to follow the arc that all the other titles have taken.

The Summer Job got roughly the same amount of press as my other full novel (Video Night), received some high praise from some major outlets (Bloody Disgusting, John Skipp in Fangoria), Samhain did a decent job with advertising, and the book has even made an appearance on a best of the year list (specifically, a “best of the year, so far” list over at Complex). Yet the sales don’t stack up to my other stuff.

This could be a failing on my part (maybe I didn’t do enough to flog it, didn’t send it out to enough blogs or whatever or maybe I’m bad at that kind of thing), a failing on the book’s part, or some middleground between the two.

Or maybe there are other contributing factors:

  • The Summer Job has been criticized as having “less action” than Video Night, so maybe that’s a turnoff for the people who liked the breakneck pace of that earlier one, but, come on: this is not some ponderous novel about an upper-middle-class twenty-something moving to Brooklyn and dealing with their quarter-life crisis while drinking French press coffee. Stuff happens in this book, big, bad, for real scary stuff.
  • I’ve also heard from people who’re a bit turned off by the cover, thinking that the book’s somehow romantic or “erotic” horror. It’s not, so maybe there’s a problem with how it was branded.
  • The book doesn’t sell itself on any set (or at least salable) horror trope. There are no aliens, cannibals, zombies, or vampires, and that might be what’s making it such a tough-sell. If that’s the case, it’s a bummer because I really do love the subgenre it fits into, I’d categorize it as belonging to the folk horror or satanic panic genres.

I’m thankful to the people who have taken the time to write a review on amazon or Goodreads, to share a link, or tell a friend. There are quite a few of you out there and I don’t want this post to sound like I’m whining or somehow ignoring the enormous favor you’ve done for both me and the book. I appreciate everything and am sincerely touched by any feedback (positive or otherwise).

I mean, the book exists regardless of whether it has an audience or not. That’s something I’m happy about, proud of, because I now have this artifact on my shelf, something I can look at while I’m working on new projects and say, “oh yeah, that was a good one, glad I did it.”

But still…I’ve got this hankering for a mulligan, a chance to launch the book again and be on my A-game this time, promotion-wise (which I’m not even sure what that means, but it would probably have to do with being more obnoxious, sending out more emails, not something I’m a fan of).

I can’t have that launch again–and I’m not looking to dip into sensationalism here–but I can lay down an offer:

If you buy, read and then don’t enjoy The Summer Job: you can punch me in the head.

Nothing below the eyes or above the chin (I don’t want to lose any teeth and I feel like I’ve probably got a glass nose), but anywhere else on the head, temples included.

I’m kidding.

But, sincerely, if you actively dislike the book: provide me with proof-of-purchase and I’ll send you back the four bucks and change you paid for the ebook.*

Or I’ll send you one of my other books as a replacement.

Whichever you prefer.

Because I want to push sales, gather some momentum, this offer will be valid on books purchased from now until the end of August. 

I’m confident in this novel, and thus fairly certain I won’t have any takers for this offer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spread the word around and give people a chance to take The Summer Job taste-test for themselves.

I wouldn’t make an appeal like this just to make a few extra bucks (my royalties aren’t going to make me a millionaire, maybe not even a thousandaire), I’m doing it because I want to see the book get in more hands, hear what a broader audience has to say about it.

Thanks for you time.

*The fine print: don’t just buy it and quickly return it, I’ll be able to tell from your order number. All refunds will be sent in an envelope, snail mail, and I can’t promise I won’t have wiped my nose with the bills.

TRIBESMEN is Back!

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Yes. It did go somewhere.

For the last few months, the Ravenous Shadows version of my first book, Tribesmen, has been unavailable for purchase. I wasn’t sure anyone would notice, but I was pleasantly surprised when I started getting emails and tweets from people looking to pick up a copy, asking where it went. That interest for the book made me incredibly happy, and makes me doubly proud to announce that the novella is back and better than ever thanks to Deadite Press!

Tribesmen‘s glorious return, much like its first printing, is thanks to the Mighty Mr. John Skipp. After I obtained the rights back from Ravenous, Skipp brought the book over to Jeff Burk (editor to the stars!) at Deadite (a subsidiary of publisher Rose O’Keefe’s Eraserhead Press, so big thanks are due to her, too) and the result is this beautiful new edition.

Not only did he bring this and Jan Kozslowski’s Die, You Bastard! Die! over to Deadite (and if you’re not familiar with their output: 1. how? and 2. get acquainted!) he seems to have brought himself over as their new acquiring editor, too. Details here in Fangoria.

Just to be clear: if you already own Tribesmen all you’ll be getting with this new release is the new spiffy cover by Matthew Revert and some slight improvements to the text.

It’s the same book, so don’t double-dip unless you share the same ungodly collector’s compulsions that I have.

And if you love Revert’s cover, know that you’re in good company.

I know, linking to a tweet is probably tacky, but come on! Brian Keene! That’s cool!

I’ve got the paperback link up on the sidebar, but if you want options (kindle, nook, even ordering through Powell’s) this page will point you in the right direction. As with all my books, I really appreciate any feedback and word-spreading, so tell your friends!

Yeah. There’s not much to this post but me hawking my wares, but I swear: I’m really close to blogging something of worth again.

I’m super busy at the moment, but when I get the chance I’ve been “relaxing” by playing small chunks of Outlast. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, those quotes around relaxing are meant to cue you in that I’m not really relaxing, but paralyzed in abject terror while enjoying Outlast.

Anyway, the game’s got me thinking about how jump scares get a bum rap and how well-suited certain mediums are to delivering them. So maybe I’ll write that up later this week.

Or maybe I won’t.

DIY Until You Die: SPLATTERPUNK ZINE #5

I used to write a lot of short stories. I was told it was the thing to do, to get started. I’d send some of them out, if they seemed good enough. Sometimes they’d get published, sometimes they wouldn’t, but it got to the point where it felt like researching markets, then submitting to them, then waiting (and sometimes the markets folding before you even heard back, or worse, before you got paid) was taking up more time and energy than the actual writing.

So I stopped and started focusing exclusively on longer works. But the thing is, I was still kind of in love/spurned by the idea of writing short stories, good ones. A lot of my favorite writers work exclusively in that medium, and it had this allure to it, was something I wanted to get better at.

Fast forward to now, a bunch of novels and novellas later, and I find myself in a kind of “when it rains, it pours” situation with opportunities presenting themselves to write short stories. In the last couple months I’ve written three shorts, each one coming out toned and tight, better than any of the ones I started with years ago, each feeling like the best thing I’ve ever written.

One of those is still out in the wild, being poked and prodded, but two of them have become sure things and will see print. The first of them will be in the pages of Splatterpunk Zine.

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If you’re unfamiliar with the name, don’t worry, I was too. Earlier this year when I saw that some of my buddies, writers I admire, were having first-run stories in this little under-the-radar mag. Naturally curious, I ordered a couple of issues (it’s a British zine but neither postage nor wait time is unreasonable, which is a plus).

With its cut and paste DIY aesthetic, handsome original art accompanying every story, and premium writing: I became a fan, a vocal one. This led to editor Jack Bantry taking an interest in my stuff (a review of The Summer Job ran in issue #4, sadly sold out) and he reached out to see if I wanted to send him a story. DID I EVER!

It’s not only awesome to be appearing in an issue with biffles Shane McKenzie and John Boden, the queen of extreme Monica O’Rourke and future-editor Jeff Burk, but also humbling that Dan Henk’s amazing art for my story is gracing the cover.

When I first saw Dan’s art I was repulsed, gob-smacked by its brutality (all positives), but I also thought “wait a second, this story is like the most atmospheric, restrained thing I’ve ever written, how the hell is that the art that..oh wait.” Yeah, that image is in there, restrained and atmospheric or not. You’ve been warned.

You can place your order for an issue here. Do it soon, they do sell out.

Opening up and letting The Devil in with A FIELD IN ENGLAND

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It’s an odd sensation, enjoying a film so much but being hesitant to recommend it to people without knowing them.

A Field in England is fantastic, but it’s also probably not for everyone. 99% of the things I talk about on here (and yes, I’m aware that I’ve been posting at a nearly exponentially diminished frequency) are at least tangentially related to the horror. This film is not. So if your full-sleeve Freddy Kruger tattoo begins to itch at the very mention of venturing outside your genre: leave now.

A Field in England has its share of bloodshed, but it’s certainly not a horror film. Set during the English Civil War, A Field in England is a period piece, one that sees our protagonist shoving his face with magic mushrooms, but is played much straighter than its psychotropic advertising art might lead you to believe.

On Drafthouse’s stellar Blu of the film, there are a few moments in the extra features where the director lists his influences. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he didn’t mention any plays.

It’s not the period language that makes A Field in England feel like it could have been written for the stage, but instead the prevailing sense of absurdity in the first half of the film reminded me of Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter more than it did anything cinematic. Before the film mellows out, the first few minutes (opening in a literal, military barrage) are a barrage of dislocated space and time, partly due to the rush of in medias res dialogue and partly to Wheatley’s quick cuts and purposefully confused camera placement.

This confusion blooms into a kind of road-movie-without-the-road as all the action is restricted to a single field, our three strangers getting to know each other and much of the film’s humor and warmth coming from their absurd exchanges. Whitehead, our bookish protagonist, tries to explain his profession (alchemist, astrologist, etc.) to Friend, a well-meaning rube, but can’t get as far as stars. Friend has never heard of the stars, to which Whitehead replies “Have you ever looked up?”

Wheatley is once again joined by constant collaborators Amy Jump, James Williams and Laurie Rose, worth highlighting because Jump’s script is wonderful, William’s score is hypnotic and Rose’s cinematography is gorgeous. The lot of them form a kind of supergroup that makes each member just as important to the feel of Wheatley’s oeuvre as the director himself. Also returning are a number of actors, none more standout than Michael Smiley, whose O’Neil grounds the film as his goals are straight forward and recognizably villainous no matter how oblique the treasure he seeks or arcane the means of finding it.

The story is slight, but there is a story for those who are not put off/bewildered by some of the film’s arthouse trappings (tableau, black outs, and even a few songs, among other touches). At only 90 minutes, A Field in England moves at a pace that will be sumptuous for those that buy-in and (I’m guessing) drag for those who don’t. The film knows how to structure its escalation and reward patience, though, and it builds to a climactic shootout that has more in common with John Ford than any of the Bergman-esque musings in the 80 minutes prior. The black and white photography is beautiful and it’s definitely a film meant for the biggest screen you can find, it’s nice that the disc comes with a digital copy, but this is not ‘on the go’ watching for your ipad.

One of the things I’ve loved about Wheatley’s filmic output is that although the films share some thematic interests, they are all incredibly different in terms of execution and tone. During the interview included on the disc, Wheatley acknowledges the way that his first four films make a loose quartet and then cryptically hints that he may be moving in a new direction.

Could A Field in England represent the end of an era?

With his next film set to be an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, it’s possible. It’s Wheatley’s first adaptation, and knowing the demands of the story and the talent already attached, it should be a bigger budget than he’s seen. But there’s also a way that High Rise feels like a natural progression from Field.

The premise sounds Hollywood “high concept” when you reduce it to a logline: “a class war breaks out in a near-futuristic apartment complex.” But, Ballard’s novel is much more philosophically inclined than that sounds. First off, the “class war” is middle-upper vs. upper class, not what we’re used to seeing, and the titular high rise itself is more a symbol of the character’s anomie and the isolating effect of modernity than it is set dressing plucked out of Blade Runner.

The last filmmaker (in a long line that stretches back to when the book was originally published, I believe) was Splice-helmer Vincenzo Natali, a fine director, but maybe not a perfect fit for the material. If Field, with its deft juggling of the real and the hallucinogenic, the absurdist and the (deadly) serious, is representative of how Wheatley will approach High Rise, there should be a clear line connecting the adaptation with the rest of his work.

And where does he go after that? Hopefully to complete international renown, getting to make whatever he wants however he wants. After hearing that Wheatley worked on the season opener for the new Doctor Who, it’s easy to see his trajectory continue upward to bigger (and maybe more conventional) projects, but I hope that doesn’t stop him and his collaborators from doing what they do best.

If I may continue this line of armchair producing (or cinematic astrology, if we wanted to keep with the theme), I’d like to make a suggestion: if Wheatley is going to continue with adaptations and wanted to loop back around to discussing English folklore, then there’s probably no better material suited to him than Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Just a thought.

Here’s Richard Wells‘ alternate poster for the film, turning one of its live-action tableaus back into a woodcut, bringing everything full circle:

A FIELD IN ENGLAND Richard Wells

 

LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD: THE MUSICAL: A NOVEL and a Quick Update

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If you are at all familiar with the work of Cameron Pierce, you’re probably already aware that the dude can have some crazy ideas. When he asked Shane McKenzie and I to help him out with this book he was writing, we were both pretty quick to say yes. It’s called Leprechaun in the Hood: The Musical: A Novel and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Not only did we have a hell of a time writing it, we also agreed that an unorthodox novel deserves an unorthodox delivery system, so we partnered with Dreadit, the horror Reddit, to serialize the whole book for free. You can head over there and read the first part now or find out a bit more here, then check back every Monday for a new installment. If you like it, please spread the word.

In other news, my horror-soaked-noir novella The First One You Expect is now out from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books and the response has already been pretty overwhelming (in Spinetingler Magazine and HorrorNewsNet). 

But nowhere more than this double-header Fangoria (!) review from the mighty John Skipp where he not only has some kind words for First One, he also discusses The Summer Job.

I know blurbs aren’t supposed to be this long, but I think I’m going to insist that all future editions just put this on the back cover: 

“It’s like Jim Van Bebber’s THE MANSON FAMILY mates with THE WICKER MAN on the set of Ti West’s THE INNKEEPERS, starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansonn from GHOST WORLD.

This is not to say that it doesn’t play novelistically, cuz it does, actually invoking no one more than Ira Levin in its subtle unfoldment. Albeit with more disembowelment and burning-alive, to go with its loose and thoroughly believable 21st century characterizations. Awesome characters, all up and down.

But here’s the thing. I found myself not just reading the book but watching the movie it supplied to my head. Its narrative flows, and its people speak, and its images resonate like motion pictures, with a seemingly effortless discipline that bespeaks more skill than is obvious on the surface.

THE SUMMER JOB is a really fucking good book, and a definite expansion of Cesare’s cinematic wavelength. Whoever decides to make a movie out of this has a doozy of a challenge.” 

Listen to the man. Buy it! Or, ya know, option it if you’re like some movie producer or something.

Count Your Teeth If You Got ‘Em: THE HANGMAN’S RITUAL

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If you’re a horror person like me, Nick Antosca’s The Hangman’s Ritual draws you in with a cover blurb in which Brian Evenson likens the novel to Oldboy and the Saw-esque slasher The Collector. While that’s a beautiful quote and probably helps move books, it’s a bit of a disservice to the novella.

This is the second longer work I’ve read from this author where familiar setups and narrative tropes are reconfigured and used to great effect. In The Obese it was the Romero-ian siege story, stretched and molded into a delivery system for some very modern, very specific social commentary, which is kind of why the zombie story was invented, even if most of the folks working in the genre seem to have gotten away from that. In The Hangman’s Ritual we begin with the setup made familiar in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, a man held captive for an indefinite time in a secret prison, but invert it by focusing on a different character: the warden.

Our protagonist, Casper, a low level employee at a Hedge Fund (a business whose workings we’ll have about as much of a grasp on as our protag seems to, i.e. basically none) who is forced, through tragic circumstances, to change positions at the company, working as the concierge at his boss’s private “Hotel.” It’s the modern notion of being a slave to your job taken to its extreme, and the fact that Casper, a depressed alcoholic who is still admirably protective of his young son, seems to be a tiny bit duller than the reader only helps to heighten the tragedy and tension.

Two chapters in, it becomes clear that we can drop the Oldboy comparisons, apparent that Antosca is going to tell his own twisty-mind bender of a story. The Manhattan setting, instantly recognizable/believable for anyone that’s ever lived in NY or the surrounding area, helps to ground the story even as it climbs to its most allegorical heights (a villain with an office filled preserved insects in Lucite, a character’s solitary-confinement induced hallucinations that include a man made of feces).

Being a novella, it’s a quick read but there are plenty of novellas that don’t cover quite the same amount of ground that The Hangman’s Ritual does. Both the narrative and thematic content feels dense, but still it moves like lightning, easily finished in a day. Like any good mystery there are feints, reveals and reversals, some of which you might see coming but still have difficulty with until the end sets everything (well, everything narrative) in place for you.

Like its author, The Hangman’s Ritual is a book that skirts the borderlines of a few genres (horror, mystery, crime, all with a decided literary bend) but should appeal to fans of any of them. It seems like the kind of book destined for a film adaptation, one that might gloss over some of the complexities. Check it out now so you can have smug conversations with your friends that don’t read later. Highly recommended.

THE SUMMER JOB is available now!

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Yeah, this isn’t me reviewing anything, just me letting you know that my second full-length novel is out now. As I posted a couple weeks ago, the early reviews have been off the hook.

Books live and die on word of mouth, so if you pick up a copy (huge thanks for that) and enjoy it: please let others know about it. Honest reviews on amazon and Goodreads help me out immeasurably.

If you’ve got a nook, it’s available at Barnes & Noble’s website, too. Or, if you prefer to shop small, I’m sure your local bookstore would be happy to order you in a copy.

Thanks for indulging me!

The Devil’s Brew: HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2013)

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Adrián García Bogliano’s Here Comes the Devil is many things, but at its core it has the bones of a slowburn supernatural thriller.

At its core, being the key words there. That core is caked in inches, maybe even feet, of coagulated blood.

The film begins with soft-focus lesbian gyrations and severed fingers and only ramps up in explicitness from there, so the mix of gratuitous sex and violence combined with the plot’s more metered leanings may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Not me, though. I love films like this, films that refuse to be boring, that borrow and steal at every turn, but still end up feeling like a cohesive, original work.

And steal Here Comes the Devil does. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby dream sequence, Paranormal Activity shaking house scare tactics, a Park Chan-wook-esque justifiable (?) revenge sequence, a “just one more thing” sequence with a Columbo-ish detective, milky-eyed possession, it even lifts the “ghostly breast manipulation” gag from The Entity. But all of these detours into greatest-hits territory mesh together on Bogliano’s canvas.

In broad strokes, the film is about parents dealing with the return of their two pubescent children (a boy and a girl) after the kids go missing on a cursed hilltop for a day. When summarized like that, the film sounds like something we’ve seen a million times, but Bogliano adds enough detours, complications and reversals to the central mystery that the film goes at least a few places we haven’t seen before, some of them quite disturbing.

We get many traditionally, or at least stereotypically, American story beats transposed to a Mexican setting (Catholicism looming large in the opening sequence, with the mention of a priest, confessional, but its influence becoming less surface-level as the film progresses) by an Argentine writer/director, and the results are uniquely enjoyable. Enjoyable even if it does feel a bit like an exploitation gumbo, especially in the first half, where much of the pastiche is relegated.

Folks expecting their horror films to look a certain way (i.e. MTV slick and cut-laden) might be initially turned off by the film’s aesthetic. There are in-camera zooms, an abundance of split-focus shots and other techniques we’re not used to seeing in our horror flicks (in this decade anyway), but they give the film an almost subliminal throwback feel without the filmmaker having to resort to the hackneyed overlay of artificial weathering.

Stars Laura Caro and Francisco Barreiro do fine work, feeling naturalistic, even when Barreiro’s character has to be purposefully pig-headed (a recurring gag in the film has the couple’s room shaking, the lights flashing, with Felix trying to justify the cause as “people throwing rocks at the house”) and the kids end up sufficiently dead-eyed and creepy.

The film’s available to rent now On-Demand and is doing a limited theatrical run from Magnet Releasing. In what’s beginning to feel like a real dry-spell (at least for the last couple months, where I’ve seen a bunch of films, but didn’t like any of them enough to write them up), you could spend your money on far worse films than Here Comes the Devil.

It’s going to be a big month (i.e. a link dump), plus some thoughts about GOSPEL OF Z

So we’re less than a month away from The Summer Job dropping at all fine retailers on January 7th and the reviews have already begun to roll in. I’m proud of all my work but I think this is far-and-away my best book. I guess that’s not really for me to say, though. On with the links!

Big-time, high-profile website Bloody Disgusting and Ryan Daley started things off and I’m heartened, humbled by the four words that end the review: “Cesare’s best novel yet.”

Nick Cato covered it for The Horror Fiction Review (it’s near the bottom of the page). He had some very nice things to say, even though I was initially thrown by the “smell rating” that accompanies the review. Bottom-line: it’s an actual meter of the books aroma, he’s not saying that it “stinks” (har har).

Sean Leonard, writing for Horror News, offers up the most positive, glittering review I’ve ever received. Glad to see that someone enjoyed the Edible Arrangements gift basket that accompanied every review copy.

Blu Gilliand (always a hero for his praise of Tribesmen and putting Video Night on one of his year end “Best of” lists) wrote about the book for FearNet.

Yeah, I haven’t talked about movies on here for a good long time. But I did talk a little bit about movies (among other things) in this interview with Blu for Horror World, so that might be enough until I get back on here, ramble about something.

In the above interview we discuss a crime novella called The First One You Expect so it’s probably best I end this litany of self-promotion with a look at the cover (by the amazing author/artist Matthew Revert). This will be out in February from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books:

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As noted elsewhere by people not half as biased as I, my publisher Samhain has really been on fire lately. And the hits continue next month with the release of The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones. I’ve been an avowed SGJ fan for a while now, so it’s a real thrill to have a book coming out on the same day, from the same publisher, even if I am going to be trounced by his sales figures.

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I’ve gotten a chance to read it early and all I have to say is “Whoa!” Well, that’s not all.

I’ve made this confession before, but I could really care less about zombies. On the big screen we’ve never done better than Romero’s Dawn and we probably never will (because it’s perfect, that’s why). I’ve tried to watch The Walking Dead and couldn’t get into it although I dug the Telltale game (and the comic, once upon a time, even though I’m pretty sure I stopped reading in high school, while all the protagonists still had their limbs, so early, I guess). Whatever marketing synergy/shelf-appeal The Gospel of Z carries has zero effect on me.

Taking place a decade after the bulk of zombie canon, this is not an outbreak story, more of a near-future scenario featuring societal practices that would border on the absurd if they weren’t sold so well. Gospel offers us a world with perilously few people (and very few zombies, while I’m thinking about it), new religions (and cults), a scary-ass “is this kind of society really worth it?” military, suicide missions, flame throwers and exploding goats.

It’s scary, has some really great set-pieces that I could see Hollywood fouling up with CGI, but (like most Jones) never takes one foot out of the realm of “real meal” literature because it’s so well-written (and, in glimpses, very funny). Jones’s books are all very different from each other, it’s kind of his thing (that and they are copious) and this one is no different in the way that it has a very sci-fi feel to it, with its exhaustive invented (or at least specialized) vernacular, peculiar creatures and subcultures. There’s no way to really explain this without over-summarizing, but I think it would be best to say that The Gospel of Z takes a very simple premise (a man who’s got nothing to live for decides to see the girl he’s been living with one last time, even if she’s chosen to go off somewhere that nobody comes back from) and complicates it in the very best of ways.

At one time, apparently, the book was a lot longer than it is now. It’s not something I knew while reading it, but in hindsight it makes sense. Not in a bad way, though, but in a way that this version of reads like something that (if it were marketed as sci-fi, targeted to an audience who’s used to marketing shenanigans) would probably have been stretched into a trilogy (or quadrilogy or some other made up word) by a lesser writer. As it is now, it’s DENSE, almost a mythic reduction sauce, all the fluff melted away to make a book that you damn well better not try to read while you’re sleepy, because it’s certainly not going to hold your hand.

I guess that was kind of a non-review. You should buy this book.