NOT a ghost story, ghosts don’t know they’re dead: Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr

Laura Lee Bahr’s debut novel Haunt is the literary equivalent to a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe that analogy won’t hold up for everyone, but it certainly does for me because there’s no way in hell I’ll ever be able to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

I don’t mean to imply that the plot is based on an indecipherable puzzle (although there is a strong mystery thread that weaves through the pagecount). What I mean is that even when Haunt is at its most frustrating: it’s always fun.

What on the outset looks to be a multi-perspective story about the intersecting lives of three different characters turns into an ever-shifting (and ever-collapsing) meditation on storytelling, relationships, metaphysics and, ultimately, life itself.

The plot (as far as it is summarizable) concerns Richard, a broski from Middle America who’s recently moved to LA, Sarah, the spirit who haunts his apartment and Simon, the magnetically dashing journalist who’s somehow tied up in Sarah’s death (or is he?). If that sounds vague and confusing…it is. This is a difficult book to summarize not only because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because Bahr herself is constantly messing with the chronology, reliability and even the planes of reality within her novel.

In the introduction, editor John Skipp reveals that the book was originally intended to utilize a “Choose your own adventure” structure. I’m glad that the gimmick was jettisoned, because what Haunt is now is a multi-tiered adventure where you have no choice, even when one is being offered to you. It’s a puzzle where some of the pieces are missing and where some were never meant to fit together in the first place. The result is invigorating.

Bahr’s book is colorful, beguiling and intelligent without ever feeling snooty or overindulgent. It’s a book that straddles a number of lines effortlessly: it strikes just the right balance between highbrow and lowbrow; it never lets its perplexing nature overshadow the reader’s sense of forward momentum or atmosphere. As far as it dives into the surreal, Bahr’s prose always feels grounded, the way I feel art like this needs to be for maximum enjoyment (think David Lynch or earlier Darren Aronofsky).

Highly recommended for the adventurous readers among you (and I’d like to think that’s all of you, so don’t disappoint me).

Catching up with Andrew: Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)

I’ve been a fan of Jeff Strand’s work for a few years now, but I’ve never picked up his earlier work (hop in the ole time machine and read about my first exposure to Strand right here. Why was I underlining titles back then? Was it my 5th grade book report?). More specifically I’ve never read his Andrew Mayhem series of horror/comedy/thrillers. Last month saw the re-release of the first three Mayhem books in spiffy* new digital editions (that are intended to prepare readers for the forth), so I decided to give the first title a whirl.

I really had no idea what to expect with Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary). I’m not much a fan of ongoing series, so would it feel too TV-ish to me? Would Strand’s prose be as funny and dry as his later work? How would I be able to fear for a character’s safety when I know they’ll be around for at least three more books?

The answer: those were all stupid questions and I should stop being a doubting Thomas.

Graverobbers is a ghoulish rocket that runs on the propulsive combination of its ludicrous plot and the likeably doofy voice of its narrator. Andrew’s first adventure is as enjoyable as he is inept.

The book is labeled as an “Andrew Mayhem Thriller” but I think “Mystery” would give perspective readers a better idea what to expect. Andrew may be a schmuck, but he’s still a detective in the tradition of Sherlock, Marlowe, Spade and Lew Archer. The clue elements may not be as integral to the overall success of the book as its humor and gore are, but there’s a mystery going on here nonetheless.

If we need further evidence to prove that Strand’s playing around with the genre of Chandler and Hammett, there’s also that great hardboiled cliché of the protagonist getting knocked around. Andrew is pummeled, shot and stabbed for our amusement, so even if he can’t detect, he’s got that in common with his forebearers.

Even if when all this violence that is perpetrated on poor Andrew, we don’t feel that the stakes are quite high enough, Strand ratchets up the tension by throwing some innocents into the fold. Where the aforementioned detectives are all aloof lone-wolves, Andrew’s got a family to protect and we can’t help but fear for them.

Graverobbers Wanted
is three bucks, you should check it out.
If the sign of a good series can be measured in the amount of time it takes a reader to purchase the next book, then let it be known that I finished the transaction for Single White Psychopath Seeks Same a minute after reaching “The End.” If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

*With striking covers by Strand’s wife, author Lynne Hansen.

In Every Dream Home a Heartache: Dream Home (2010)

I’ve always been interested in the way different governments codify and deal with “extreme” media. Like most horror fans this means that I have a fascination with (and healthy fear of) censorship. Although many enjoy griping about America’s film certification board, the MPAA, it’s important to remember that it is an independent, not governmental body. In many countries this is not the case, and though there are many problems with the MPAA, it does not have the power to ban a film outright.

This stuff is not ancient history (the Thatcher-era “Video Recordings Act” was during the late 80s, and even this year the UK banned Human Centipede II claiming no amount of cuts would get the film certified) nor is it restricted to the Brits (see Australia’s recent crack down on violent video games) but I would argue that no area of the world has a more interesting ratings system in place than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s certification system (established in the late 1980s, before which there were no ratings but harsh restrictions on what could appear onscreen) is a series of categories capped off with the highly permissive Category III rating (Cat III). Cat III films require the viewer to be over 18, and although pornography is not permitted in HK (on the black market, such content is referred to as “Cat IV”) Cat III films are allowed to have a level of sex and violence (and often times a combination of the two) that would make any other ratings board balk.

Unlike the MPAA’s restrictive (and seldom used) NC-17, many films are produced specifically to carry the label of Cat III. Although many varieties of films find themselves carrying the label, within the HK horror genre, the certification led to the formation of a loose subgenre of cheaply produced HK splatter films. Films like Ebola Syndrome, Dr. Lamb and Daughter of Darkness consistently smash the boundaries of good taste, but have probably never been anyone’s idea of cerebral, highbrow international cinema. Ho-Cheung Pang’s Dream Home (2010) is not one of those films. It may be a Cat III horror film, it may contain stomach churning scenes of violence and brutality, but where the goal of the films mentioned above is taboo-breaking, Dream Home has satiric, intelligent and artistic aspirations…

But if that’s not your thing it also has a woman being suffocated using a vacuum cleaner, a plastic bag and a zip-tie. Yikes.

In fact, the violence in Dream Home is so extreme that cuts had to be made in Hong Kong just so it could be a Cat III film. If this doesn’t pique your interest, then you’ve probably haven’t seen some of these movies. I have no facts to back this up, but I have a feeling that the reason the HK ratings board was so hard on Dream Home was how GOOD the film looks.

This is one of the slickest horror movies you’ve ever seen, and the gorgeous photography only serves to enhance the unsettlingly well-executed gore effects. Speaking of gore, the FX are mostly practical with slight digital embellishments. Dream Home could be used as a good counteragument to those diehards who naysay digital gore. As with any tool, it just has to be used correctly.

The plot is simple: Cheng (the quite fetching Josie Ho) is a middle class gal with aspirations of being an upper-middle class gal. She’s going to get there by securing the apartment of her dreams (hence the title), but given HK’s economy and impenetrable housing market that’s easier said than done. In many ways this is the world’s first “real estate horror” movie, and to make it a lot less boring than it sounds the narrative is fractured. We jump back and forth in Cheng’s life, from her childhood to the point where she decides to take up arms (a box cutter, some zip-ties and her grandfather’s toolbelt) against the tenants of a luxury high-rise. This temporal hopscotch ensures that a splatter set-piece is delivered about once every ten minutes, keeping our attention.

I love the ideas that fuel the film, I love parts of the film, but I do not love Dream Home.

Like the best genre works, Dream Home is a movie that engages the world around it. It is a movie that not only offers entertainment (of a pitch-dark variety) but also societal commentary. Although it is steeped in localisms, you don’t have to know a bunch about the history of Hong Kong to enjoy it (in fact, there is a brief text primer on the Chinese “handover” and Hong Kong’s political and economic situation at the beginning of the film). If anything, it helps looking at the movie with American eyes: these desires and economic woes are universal.

Dream Home is a difficult movie to discuss, because I think I enjoy it a whole lot more in theory than I do in execution. It’s got problems. And chief among them is pacing. The movie starts with its best sequences, by the middle the audience can predict the ending (down to the final shot), and in the end the crescendo it tries to build to is the only action sequence that rings hollow.

So do I recommend you seek it out? Yes. With enough blood spillage to appeal to gorehounds and enough thought behind it that it will appeal to pseudo-academics like myself, the film is worth it although I doubt it will 100% satisfy either camp.

Dream House is on Netflix Instant in HD (which is probably as good/slightly better than the DVD if you have a fast enough connection). If you’re a Netflix ex-pat, there’s always Amazon.

It was released uncut stateside by IFC, so kudos to them (they also gave a release to the excellent Pontypool. It seems that as they decline as a network, they’re growing as a distribution channel). I don’t speak Cantonese, but I do have to say that the subtitles seem a little hinky. Then again, maybe that’s how the dialog sounds in it’s original language. Sadly there seems to be no blu-ray in any country, that’s a shame because the film is very nice looking.

How are they going to stay in this house for more than a season? American Horror Story and the “New TV”

If you haven’t noticed that television has changed over the last 6 or 7 years, then you probably don’t own a television. Thanks to HBO (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire), hour long dramas are no longer restricted to crime-of-the-week police procedurals and night-time soaps. And, more recently, thanks to shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica, they’re no longer limited to pay-cable either. With nuanced character work, complex narrative arcs that can take tens of hours to mature and evolve, and budgets to rival the best Hollywood can muster, in many ways this “New TV” is a genre all its own.

This year I haven’t seen every pilot, but most of the new shows I’ve sampled have been quite dismal. Many were even “didn’t make it through half an episode”-level dismal. Serial television is both a commitment and a gamble, not just for networks but for viewers. Not only is it incredibly difficult to line up all the variables and produce something worthwhile, but who wants to invest seven hours in something that may not even make it to a season finale? Or three hours, if you were one of the handful of people tuning in to NBC’s The Playboy Club?

So what does this idea of the “New TV” have to do with FX’s American Horror Story? Judging from the pilot, I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that I really enjoyed the pilot. This doesn’t tell us a whole lot about whether the show will evolve into one of the shining examples like I listed above, or devolve into the same-y crap that clogs our airwaves. Not too harp on the “what ifs” too much, but it must be said that I feel showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a history with such de-evolution. The first seasons of their pre-Horror Story shows (the ultradark, sexed-up soap Nip/Tuck and the still-running Glee) offered great promise upfront but ultimately delved into self-parody and banality in their later years.

But let’s look at the positives, shall we? We’ve been given one hour, and it’s a damn fine hour. American Horror Story’s first episode is an unholy patchwork of so many influences and references that a viewer has to ask themselves: at what number of influences does homage stop being a retread and enter back into the realm of wholly original? If there is such a point, I think Horror Story surpasses it.

I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Dark Shadows, which is valid, but there are also shades of Twin Peaks, Lar’s Von Trier’s The Kingdom, The Addams Family, Matheson’s Hell House. Most of all it reminds me of the 90s short-lived, but fondly-remembered (at least by me) series American Gothic.

These are all good influences, but Horror Story is also blessed (cursed?) with the one of the genre’s more recent, less-than-admirable trends: MTV-ization. By this I mean the frenetic, often distracting and nonsensical way that most ADD-addled material seems to be presented to young audiences these days. In the pilot, there’s not 30 seconds that go by without a jump cut, a trippy in-camera zoom, a subliminal flash of “disturbing” (and often arbitrary) imagery. Luckily, the rest of what’s on display is so pleasing that these stylistic annoyances are forgivable, and in some cases even enjoyable.

Ryan Murphy may not be a calm, metered director, but damn if he can’t write some of the best pulp dialogue. The script is chock full of snappy retorts, deliciously petty quips and crescendos with one knockdown Dynasty-level screaming match. The dialogue would be nothing if you didn’t have the right actors doling it out, and this is another area where Horror Story excels.

Led by the beautiful and talented Connie Britton (the slighted, tragic matriarch), the cast is a nice assemblage of talented familiar faces and some wonderful character actors. This variety of semi-self-aware high-pulp needs to be played serious, loud and seriously loud, and nobody in the cast seems to understand this better than co-stars Jessica Lange (an aging, bigoted southern Belle) and Dylan McDermmot (who is still probably flossing bits of the scenery out from between his teeth).

“But what about the horror? Will genre fans be happy?” You ask. “They should be,” I would answer. Beginning with a grisly pre-credits sequence that involves not only a creepy old house, an ominous little girl and pickled fetuses, but also glimpses of some kind of ghost/monster, the show continues to ladle on the shocks evenly over its runtime. Shocks that include—but are not limited to—a creepy gimp suit, a poltergeist pulled directly from Poltergeist, and a crispy Amityville-esque murderer. I think you’ll find something you’ll like.

Only time will tell if American Horror Story can stay the course, sustain its quality and become one of the few successful serial genre shows, but I, for one, am rooting for it. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.

The Value of Shock

Disclaimer: Yeah, there are like fifteen hundred other reviews of this book bouncing around the internet. I know. But I went to a store and bought this last week, so you’re gonna have to indulge me while I put down some thoughts.

There are very few nonfiction books written about horror films that aren’t either: a) breezy, fan-written overviews of the genre, which are generally full of hyperbole and geek-bias or b) so overly academic that they preclude enjoyment. In Shock Value, Jason Zinoman solves this problem by approaching his chosen material as both an intelligent fan (the guy wrote for the New York Times and Vanity Fair) and by focusing the majority of his attention on the interesting—and often untold—human stories behind the production of these films.

Zinoman’s area of interest is the dawn of “New Horror” in the 1970s. As you probably know, there’s not a whole lot left to say about Halloween, The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Rosemary’s Baby. These films have been poked and prodded, reconstructed and deconstructed under every possible critical and academic lens. Wisely, Zinoman chooses to take a closer look at the creators of these films over in-depth analysis of the films themselves. He examines both the cultural climate of the time in which these men were working and their relationships to each other (relationships which range from playful thematic discourse to professional symbiosis to downright adversarial). Through extensive and candid interviews with filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and a host of their collaborators Zinoman creates intriguing miniature portraits of the men themselves, but also to tell the larger story of the movement they forged. These are men we don’t hear from a lot (promo material for DVDs barely counts, and that’s not the kind of engagement they give Zinoman). Many of their stories are quite fascinating and will often offer deeper insights into their work.

Worthy of special mention is the large swath of time Zinoman takes discussing the life and work of the late Dan O’Bannon. It’s great that this lesser-respected, semi-kooky, but very important figure in genre cinema gets to tell his side of the story one last time in the pages of Shock Value. For me, this alone was worth the price of the book.

How much enjoyment you yourself will derive from Shock Value, probably depends on your level of open-mindedness and readiness to interact with a text that you may not agree with at all times. The hardest of the hardcore horror fans will probably find much of the ground covered to be familiar, and even if they don’t they will possibly take offense to Zinoman’s frank appraisal of horror post-the advent of New Horror. The author approaches the men he’s studying in a very smart way, and is very quick to point out how well-read his subjects were as young men. By the time he reaches his conclusion he makes two fairly controversial assertions. First he points out the unfortunate trend that many of these filmmakers were never able to top their early (and in most cases, first) works. This is unpleasant, but it’s also pretty objectively the truth. Zinoman then implies that the reason there has never been another boom in horror comparable with the 1970s, is because once the conventions of the genre were established, the genre fed on itself (and only on itself) until stagnation. Zinoman attributes this decline to the fact that while Craven and Carpenter took their ideas of what was frightening from the works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, younger filmmakers were getting their same conceptions exclusively from Craven and Carpenter.

If that last sentence raised your ire—if you’re ready to hurl lame insults like “elitist” and “portentous” at Zinoman—then maybe you won’t enjoy Shock Value. But you also might be the person who needs to read it the most.

All those “time outs” coming back to haunt you: Bloody Birthday

Two years ago, I did a post about some of my favorite “killer kid” horror films, the only reason 1981’s Bloody Birthday wasn’t on that list is because I hadn’t seen it. In fact, I didn’t even know it was an entry in the esteemed “murderous child” sub-genre. But the fine folks at Severin films have allowed me to set my facts straight. While the label has been courting classier and more high-profile projects as of late(The Stunt Man and Alejandro Jodorwsky’s avant-garde art-cult masterpiece Santa Sangre), their most recent crop of releases aims to explain to viewers that Severin has not gotten out of the cult horror re-release game.

Three children (two boys, one girl), born at the same time, under the same evil astrological convergence, start killing on the eve of their tenth birthday. Classic. The strongest aspect of writer/director Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday, is that it quickly dispenses with the pretense that you are watching a proper film. Right away the malevolent tots are offing people, and the film’s breakneck pace only slows during its somewhat anti-climactic final moments. The film follows the prototypical (at the time) slasher formula of, if not upping the ante, at least varying the mode of death for each victim, leaving the viewer in awe of the trio of kids and their resourcefulness.

Where the weighty and European Who Can Kill a Child? exploits its pint-size antagonists for maximum dread value, Bloody Birthday takes the more American (i.e. instant-gratification) route and frontloads the film’s more shocking moments, leaning on the “oh no, the child is pointing a gun at me” effect one too many times, until the result is camp. The final product is far more guilty fun than it should be and, as usual, Severin gives the movie an HD transfer befitting a film 10x its notoriety and merit.

The protagonists never feel truly imperiled, but the gruesome fun of the first two acts (which include the dispatching of not one, but two pairs of young lovers, an 80s slasher staple) make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Rounding out the disc is a lively interview with the film’s final girl Lori Lethin, a lengthy but rambling audio interview with Ed Hunt (interesting, but is also prime background noise for when you’re doing something else) and a “Brief History of Slasher Films” featurette, which is enjoyable but won’t tell you anything new if you’re already an aficionado.

This is a recommended release, I can’t wait to pick up Severin’s other recent discs.

Pleased to Meet You: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and It Came from Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones

Last weekend, whilst visiting my native Long Island, I attended the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Weekend. Stoker weekend is a semi-self-congratulatory, but fully awesome, writer’s convention and awards ceremony where I got to meet a bunch of people whose work I know and respect. A week later, looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that what I found just as satisfying as meeting those folks that I was familiar with was meeting writers whose work I had never given a chance. What follows are quick reviews of two such books, both of which I burned through in a couple of days (a sign of quality if I ever heard one).

I pride myself on having one finger on the pulse of horror at all times, so how the hell is this the first time I’ve picked up a book by Stephen Graham Jones? While many of the great horror writers seem preoccupied with either distancing themselves from their genre or legitimizing it, Jones jumps into the fray with a one two punch of high-literary sensibility and unapologetic pulp in It Came from Del Rio.

The story concerns a career criminal smuggler, Dodd, who is looking to retire after one last big job. Unfortunately for him the job is a doozey; one that leaves him genetically altered and concerns not only giant mutant rabbits, but radiation-sick chupacabras.

Del Rio is the kind of novel that sounds silly when summarized and puts the reader off guard with its title and lurid cover art (the subtitle is Part 1 of the Bunnyhead Chronicles, just in case the “It Came From” prefix didn’t do it for you), but pays big emotional and artistic dividends. The only corollary for Del Rio that I can think of is the work of Joe Lansdale (and not just because of the Texas connection). In fact, if you place this next to Lansdale’s The Drive-In, you could make a pretty good case that Jones is working in a brave new sub-genre: art-camp.

Both prosaically and structurally interesting (the book is broken down the middle for its two narrators, Dodd and his daughter Laurie) It Came from Del Rio is a quick read that sizzles with originality and genuine affection for the genre it is elevating to the level of high-art. I can’t wait to see what surprises the rest of Jones’ work holds.

Buy it right now from amazon!

I’ve seen both of Gillian Flynn’s books at my local bookstore, so when I was asked by one of the convention organizers if I knew her work I answered: “I’ve heard the name.” Not the best choice of words, because the next thing I know I’m being introduced to Flynn by said organizer as “a fan.” It was a little white lie on his part that was benign enough until Flynn asked me point-blank: “So you’ve read the books?” I can only assume that I turned all kinds of colors before confessing that “He may have overstated that ‘fan’ part a bit.”

It was only once I began reading Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, that I realized my embarrassment had yielded more than a funny story: I was indeed a fan.

A dark, neo-noir crime story that centers on a Chicago reporter’s return to her small hometown to investigate a series of murdered young girls, Sharp Objects is one of the most shocking and intelligent books I’ve read in a long, long time. To summarize is to bastardize, especially in a book where mystery is such an integral element to the work’s effectiveness, so I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Our reporter protagonist, Camille Preaker, is a reformed cutter. She compulsively carves words into her skin and throughout the narrative is constantly reminded of her scars and the words they spell. It’s a haunting device that works far better than it would at the hands of a lesser writer. Camille’s scars, unsurprisingly, stem from her childhood. Her past, the death of her beloved little sister and her strained relationship with her mother, are pieces of backstory that don’t strictly serve as characterization, but directly inform the plot in such a way that it takes the text far beyond the typical series of red herrings and reversals usually found in crime fiction.

Flynn excels in creating supporting characters that at once evoke disgust and pity. There are times, especially when the reader is completely unsure who is the killer, where certain characters are either complete sociopaths, or absolute victims of circumstance. These constant subversions of expectation are a neat trick, and one that never outstays its welcome thanks to Flynn’s clean pacing and insightful prose.

During one of the weekend’s panel discussions, Flynn downplayed the feminist overtones of her work, and even cited instances where she was labeled misogynist (the bulk of the books most reprehensible characters are women). It is my opinion that feminism is not a dirty word, and I would even go further and say that this is a great feminist text, precisely because Flynn allows much of the ugliness to be inflicted by women. Sharp Objects is a story where the only ‘sane’ and ‘normal’ character is the one with the most emotional and physical scars. Camille is a woman who has truly felt the hurt that society ladles on women but has reconfigured societal expectation (her mother and sister are perverted into monstrosities by the extremes of this expectation) into fortitude and altruism.

Sorry if I got too pseudo-intellectual for a second, but the bottom line is that this book is excellent.

I highly recommend that you pick it up.

A Tale of Two Women

Warning: this review doesn’t get too bogged down in plot synopsis as I’ve already done that in my review of the novel which you can read here.

Film adaptation is tricky business. If you’re too slavish in your retelling the film becomes pointless, as the story already exists in another medium, but if you diverge too far from the source material, the internet rises up and starts a petition (or what ever it is they do). Additionally, adapting your own work adds an extra dimension of risk (I know it has its defenders, but I’m 90% sure the shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games was just Haneke eager to hang out with Naomi Watts in her underoos). For all its perils, however, the risk of the screen adaptation is one of the many reasons Lucky McKee’s new film, The Woman, succeeds.

How can adaptation be a strength in and of itself, you ask? When said adaptation opens new avenues of understanding into both of the texts. The source material in this case is the recent Jack Ketchum/Lucky McKee novel The Woman. But while the novel is a bleak and unrelenting meditation on the depths of human depravity and the hypocrisy of “civilized” society, the film plays like a pitch-black serio-comic satire of suburban life and America’s reliance on the traditional view of patriarchy.

The miraculous part of these divergent tones (tragedy v. comedy) is that both the novel and film are virtually identical in plot and structure. There are small changes here and there, but the story plays out exactly the same up until the ultraviolent climax.

The two versions of The Woman feel like a case study in auteurship. By this I mean that, regardless of how integral the co-authors actually were in creating each version, the novel very much feels like Jack Ketchum’s The Woman and the film feels like Lucky McKee’s The Woman. There’s a level of artistic vision in each project that allows both to stand freely on their own.

McKee’s direction is tight enough that the dashes of humor and quirky flourishes never seem forced or out of place, and much of this seamlessness is due in large part to the film’s music. Written and composed concurrently with the film, the soundtrack is filled with lyrical and tonal juxtapositions that may be jarring at first (especially the “bow-chicka-wow-wow” love theme that accompanies in the scene where Cleek first discovers the feral Woman) but soon mesh and become inextricable from the final product.

Also worthy of praise is the cast. Rarely do horror films have casts where the entire ensemble is of note, but The Woman has one. Pollyanna McIntosh plays the titular, (mostly) non-speaking Woman with a mix of primal detachment and animalistic heroism. Long time McKee collaborator Angela Bettis is as alluring and neurotically supercharged as ever, an underutilized talent if there ever was one. It’s a tough job to play a character as loathsome and disgusting (and charismatic) as Chris Cleek without delving into camp, but Deadwood’s Sean Bridgers brings a manic “Ward Cleaver-meets-Charles Manson” vibe to the role that just works. The younger members of the cast are all great. Lauren Ashley Carter, Zack Rand and Shyla Molhusen (possibly the cutest child actor ever in a horror movie) are all young folk who play young folk very well—a legitimately rare talent.

McKee has been on everyone’s radar for nearly a decade (his first film, the excellent May was released back in 2002) and I believe with The Woman he has finally made good on his promise of greatness. McKee’s had some near-misses (there are parts of 2006’s The Woods that work, some that don’t) and false starts (he was removed from the flawed-but-good Jack Ketchum adaptation Red, before he could finish) along with some legitimate, good work (his Masters of Horror episode is among the best of the two seasons), but nothing that compares to this: his best film yet.

After fielding a question about his painful experience with Red, McKee had this to say during the Q&A regarding The Woman: “I just wanted to make my Jack Ketchum movie.” Well, you’ve done more than that: you’ve made what feels like the first Lucky McKee movie since May.

It’s a brave film, not just because of its extreme subject matter but also the risks that it takes with the genre. It’s a film that will probably alienate as many as it wows, “hardcore” horror fans included. In my opinion, there is no higher praise.

Highly recommended.

Only Women Bleed: The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

Has the whole world gone crazy? We as a culture/subculture/peoples have plenty of opportunities to ask ourselves this question on a daily basis. Here’s one more:

There is a new book co-written by Jack Ketchum out and the world hasn’t taken enough notice.

A new Ketchum book, let alone one co-authored by filmmaker Lucky McKee (the man behind the indie neo-classic May and is also responsible for what I feel is the best Ketchum screen adaptation: Red) is a reason to celebrate, people!

A quasi-followup to Ketchum’s Off Season and its sequel Offpring, The Woman‘s titular character is the lone surviving member of the cannibal tribe in the first book. At the beginning of the story The Woman, injured and alone, is found by Chris Cleek, a small town lawyer and closet psychopath. Cleek captures The Woman and brings her home where he keeps her in his fruit cellar and tries to “civilize” her with the help of his family. Any more synopsis is spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

Those who read that description and shudder that Ketchum and McKee will be content to settle for exploiting the ol’ horror chestnut of “modern man is the real monster” can breathe a sigh of relief. The authors take the trope of man’s bottomless capacity for cruelty and twist it, emphasizing the “man” part (and place it in direct contrast to “woman”) and creating a bold novel that simultaneously works on two levels as both a philosophical critique of misogyny and an explosive, disturbing horror novel.

The work’s staunchest detractors (aside from those violently off-put by the subject matter, but let’s not count them) will probably claim that this is Ketchum returning to the well-trod “woman is bound and tortured” setup one too many times. I can see value in this argument as The Girl Next Door and Right to Life share similar themes and plot conceits. The Girl Next Door is probably Ketchum’s most widely read and controversial book, but where The Woman owes most similarities is to the lesser-known novella Right to Life. Much of The Woman‘s middle section parallel’s Life‘s prisoner/captor dynamic pretty closely, but there are some fundamental differences that not only make The Woman a very different novel, but a much better one.

First and foremost among those reasons: the ending. The final quarter of The Woman is absolute dynamite, truly the most satisfying and legitimately scary (how many horror novels these days actually pull that one off?) climax that I’ve read in ages.

Secondly: its literary weight. Ketchum knows his way around a pen, and, looking at the evidence, McKee does as well. The prose in The Woman is a strong confident step above most of the genre. It’s a short book, but that’s because it’s not bogged down by excess fat or padding. Every word counts and while every passage may not ring as lyrically, the book has more than it’s fair share of beauty(and purposeful, abject ugliness). I read it on the Kindle, and while I do enjoy being able to save parts for later, it is very rare that my fingers get such a workout highlighting so many passages. American Pastoral and Horns are the only books I’ve used that function as much for and those things were behemoths.

Finally: The Woman, though upsetting and unnerving in many places, devotes very little of its page count to descriptions of Cleek’s cruelty. For me, this is a huge plus. Ketchum and McKee wrote a book that is more about the ideas of ugliness and destruction than it is about the actual acts. It is a book that launches these ideas into the air, bats them about, and takes an introspective look at the wreckage.

I wrestled with the idea of not reading this book, as McKee had filmed a feature adaptation around the time the novel was being written. What we have here strikes me as a chicken/egg type of question. Of two works created at the same time, which will emerge as the dominant form of the story? Does there have to be one? We’ll see.

I’m more than excited for the film adaptation, but I’m also glad I got to experience the novel with all its shocks and surprises intact.

You can start reading The Woman instantly if you get the ebook from Crossroads Press. Cemetery Dance is also offering a hardcover edition, with a bonus novella “Cow” (that’s one double-dip I’ll be partaking in).

Giveaway: Invest in Horror and Win Valuable Prizes!

Followers of my twitter know that I’ve been (politely!) spamming John Skipp’s Kickstarter project Rose: The 3D Zombie Puppet Musical. Well, with about 20 days to go, the film needs some more support if it’s going to get made.

Skipp describes the film as “Pee Wee’s Playhouse meets Night of the Living Dead.” For those leery of donating: check out the Kickstarter page, watch the video, read the literature and see that Skipp and the rest of the production have a game-plan and that this film has a great chance of kicking serious booty.

The production is offering some very cool incentives for all the different levels of pledges (from $1 to 5K) but I figured I’d try and do my part to sweeten the deal.

Anyone who pledges on the site (even a dollar) and leaves their name (the one you used to pledge, please) and email in the comments section on this blog will be entered to win the paperback version of John Skipp & Craig Spector’s splatter-punk classic The Bridge. Not only is this a great book, but because of the troubles of publisher Leisure Books this may be one of your last opportunities to own this edition.

As a bonus, if the contest receives more than 30 entries I will add a second prize: The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction #4, which is guest edited by Skipp. This is a weird wild issue that includes stories from frequent Skipp collaborator Cody Goodfellow, D. Harlan Wilson and others.

This is a community-based fundraiser, so I’m giving you one more way to increase your odds of winning. Anyone who copys and pastes the message below into their twitter will receive one additional entry:

Support smart indie horror! #zombiemusical #rose3d

One last thing, Kickstarter will only charge your credit card if the production team raise all the funds by Feb 24th. But, you will be eligible to win my contest regardless of the team reaching their goal or not. You, literally, have nothing to lose.

If you’ve already pledged just comment below and you’ll be entered. Spread the word!