They Don’t Come Home Anymore – T.E. Grau (Review)

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T.E. Grau has already carved himself a dark little niche in the busy hive of contemporary horror and weird fiction with only a debut collection to his name. I reviewed that collection about a month ago (you can read it here), and it’s a knockout, with a wonderful blend of Lovecraftian homage, as well some really original and harrowing tales.

So it’s cause for much excited wailing and gnashing of teeth when a new piece of Grau-crafted fiction is headed our way. This is Horror, an excellent publisher of short works in the genre – as well as being home to an awesome podcast, interviews and reviews – has produced Grau’s latest novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore. The quality on show here is apparent from that eye-catching cover, designed by the author’s wife, Ives Hovanessian, and with artwork by the ridiculously talented Candice Tripp.

The story itself focuses on Hettie, a quiet, odd adolescent girl stranded on the social outskirts, and the ramifications of her friendship with the most popular girl at school, Avery Valancourt.

Other than that, I won’t get too much into plot details because I think it’s best to experience the story without much of an idea of where it’s headed, but this is a wonderful novella about death and obsession and the more frightening and fallible crannies of the human condition. It delves into some really interesting psychological areas, but the story also feels like a study in the decay of the flesh, of all things material, all things human. Grau states at one point that “Death always makes the best stories”, and it’s certainly true in this case.

Grau holds back on key details, teasing out the mystery like the deftest of storytellers. This really feels like a story, too. A story being told, that is, like you’re in the room with the teller even as you lean forward into their tale and forget the real world for a moment. It’s the ease of Grau’s prose that largely accounts for this, making you look past, as the best stories do, its construction. Although there is a moment about halfway through when an apparent coincidence seems like a bit of a leap, it’s soon corralled into a more logical narrative device that re-submerges itself into the story’s flow.

Grau’s story-by-the-fire tone seems to give the novella the texture of a Stephen King, as well as an almost Gaiman-esque charm and whimsy underscored with darkness; a darkness that spreads as the narrative progresses, shedding the dreamlike tone for something more immediate and raw, but no less surreal. Ultimately though, these are just small nods in what is largely Grau’s creature; since his debut collection he has established a voice distinctly his own.

Part of this voice involves a strength for complex, original characters as well as the carefully crafted interplay between them. Grau highlights the little tragedies of human existence, the rough bits and the imperfections. He brings to light the idea that what we want is often what we never get, and everything else that happens falls somewhere on the spectrum between indifference and mortal danger. The character interactions also consistently engage the reader. Sometimes such scenes are silent and one-sided, heavy with unfulfilled expectation and the subsequent emotional blowback, as with Hettie and her “progressive” parents. Sometimes it’s more of a two-way street, the dialogue loaded with confession and braided together with sharp moments of body language.

In Hettie we have a protagonist full of doubts and quirks but also a ferocity, a drive that the author depicts without drama or preamble. It’s just another part of her, and she just… is. She’s very likable, but there’s also that understated darkness to her – which is maybe why we like her so much.

The young loner is a well-worn trope, and in lesser hands would have become an unwelcome one, but Grau brings Hettie to vibrant, fallible life. There’s a lot in this story, in fact, that could have turned out poorly if it had relied more on the traditional foundations of its characters and supernatural elements, but Grau takes every trope and twists it from tired cliché into something magical and new. Or not new, necessarily, but recalibrated. Honest and without frills. He strips everything down to the basics, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness as the words unfold on the page.

And what delightful words they are. His prose is, in a technical sense, as un-accessorised as his narrative, but he manages to give his writing an icebergian sense of depth. Grau peppers his scenes with bright little observations, teasing out the most interesting details of the mundane. Like so many lines in They Don’t Come Home Anymore, this description of a large, manicured lawn evokes both some excellent imagery, and pulls everything back to the often unpleasant intent of human beings: “A green so vibrant it hurt the eyes. No trees to dampen the sun or cast shadows. No flowers. This was a statement to space, and the ownership of it.”

I’m always fascinated with the way people speak in fiction, or more precisely the way writers construct dialogue, and I’m especially a stickler for contractions. Grau explores this in a nice little self-aware way, with characters occasionally commenting on it throughout the story. It’s just one more delightful detail, but also adds to the thread of gleeful, dark humour that runs through some scenes.

Teased with the kind of agonising restraint Grau exhibits in most of his work, the supernatural element, when it finally reveals itself, is a refreshing play on – again – a familiar trope. Grau embeds in it a sense of the cosmic that seems to situate the story within the larger thematic arc of his writing.

At its core, They Don’t Come Home Anymore comes across as the most twisted and startling and tender of love stories. It portrays the loneliness, the bitchiness and the tenderness of high school, and the more general complacency or malignance of human beings. It’s other-than-human elements, reimagined from familiar monsters you wouldn’t think had any blood left in them, are fleeting and sharply drawn. There are so many layers to Grau’s excellent novella, but even on a surface level it’s brilliant and, perhaps most importantly, immense fun.

 

 

 

 

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Film Review)

You’d think it would be damn near impossible to make a film about magical creatures and wizards in 1920s New York boring. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them marks a return to the big screen of the wizarding world J.K. Rowling made famous with her Harry Potter series. Those eight films, based on seven books, varied in quality but were mostly pretty good for big money-raking studio blockbusters. David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films – and did a great job, I think – returns to helm this first Potter-less expansion of Rowling’s universe. Rowling herself wrote the script here, which is partly based on her fake Hogwarts textbook of the same name and follows that book’s fictional author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he travels to New York with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts. After some lazy tropes result in said beasts escaping into the city, Scamander sets about retrieving them, whilst getting embroiled in America’s wizarding community.

I think the ambition this film occasionally exhibits in terms of its intersecting characters, and the larger plot arcs it seems to hint at are admirable, but there just isn’t enough of this stuff. Instead we get Scamander running around the city, meeting characters much more interesting than himself and recapturing one creature after another in what are mostly pretty dull or poorly executed set pieces (although one towards the end involving a teapot is quite well done).

One of the major problems with Fantastic Beasts is its protagonist. I don’t dislike Eddie Redmayne and he’s not a bad actor by any means. (Earlier in his career he had a fantastic role in 2010’s Black Death, which is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking film.) The problem is with the character he has to play, who’s about as charismatic as a dead fish. He has no motivation or personality besides his humanitarian efforts to help witches and wizards understand magical creatures rather than fearing them – which is a perfectly legitimate motivation to have, but there’s basically nothing else to him, aside from a few awkward tics that are supposed to read as idiosyncrasies but just seem like Rowling pulled them from her handbook of quirky character clichés. This results in a flat, dull character who comes off as a kind of diet Doctor Who.

Helping Redmayne in his quest are disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), her incredibly charming telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Dan Fogler’s sweet, bumbling No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle), Kowalski. There’s a lovely chemistry between Queenie and Kowalski that forms the emotional spine of the film; Sudol and Fogler are two of the best characters here, and will hopefully have a lot more to do in the inevitable sequels. Waterston is fine, but like Redmayne she doesn’t have much to work with. Hopefully Ridley Scott lets her stretch her legs in his upcoming Prometheus sequel.

Ron Perlman shows up briefly in mo-cap as a goblin gangster, and Samantha Morton does her best as the leader of an anti-magic group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Ezra Miller plays one of her foster children, Credence Barebone, who’ll no doubt have a much larger roll to play in the sequels, and hopefully get a better haircut.

Colin Farrell’s Auror Percival Graves is gravelly and menacing as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, but his character doesn’t unfold much beyond this, and is given short shrift with the ending’s spoilerific shenanigans. His character becomes so pointless by this time and really just serves to illustrate the wizarding world’s glaring ineptitude at dealing with the bad guys.

As everybody knows by now, Johnny Depp pops up briefly as dark wizard Grindelwald at the end, sporting weird hair and contacts and a lot of foundation, looking like the old piece of cheese at the back of your fridge. By this point in the film I was just begging for the credits to start rolling, and Depp does little beyond croak out a few lines, although it’s too early to judge how inspired (or not) his casting in the franchise will turn out to be.

Like I said, there are some really interesting ideas and characters in here, particularly Queenie, Kowalski and Ezra Miller’s Credence, but these are buried under the weight of tedium and mediocrity that is the rest of the film. It feels like Rowling’s saving all these bigger and better – and much more interesting – elements for the subsequent planned films in the series, which comes across as lazy and self-indulgent. Why waste so much of this first film doing close to nothing new or exciting?

One element that would have let me forgive a lot of the film’s misfires was the creature design, but even that is dull, uninspired, and overly reliant on a gratuitous use of CGI. They’re all just slight variations on an existing animal, mostly cute or noble or mildly odd, and the one malevolent creature – a parasitic magical anomaly called an Obscurus – is a seething dark mass of who cares. Admittedly, this does look a bit cooler when it comes into play during the film’s climax, but again there’s nothing original or eye-popping in here. I could feel Guillermo del Toro sadly shaking his head at this missed opportunity while I watched the tedium unfold on the screen. For all the money they must have spent on the special effects, there’s very little here that actually feels magical.

Speaking of which, Fantastic Beasts spends far too much time treating the more mundane elements of wizarding life – magically-assisted cooking and the effects of simple spells – like they’re marvels we’re seeing for the first time, forgetting that most of its audience have already sat through – and thoroughly enjoyed, for the most part – all eight of the Harry Potter films. In other words, we know how this world works. Rowling’s universe is not new; its rules have been established and we don’t need every shot or musical cue to focus in on what should, by now, be taken for granted. This was a real opportunity to focus on new elements in a revisited universe, especially given the change in time period and setting. Alas, it’s an opportunity the filmmakers didn’t take, instead playing it safe and sacrificing the movie’s heart.

Like Yates’ previous film, which managed to make a yawn-fest out of Tarzan (fucking Tarzan!), Fantastic Beasts continues the director’s recently acquired talent for turning potentially good, fun ideas into utterly boring movies, although I don’t think the screenwriters of both films should dodge their share of the blame. Ultimately, everything good about Fantastic Beasts feels like a series of unfulfilled promises in what’s mostly a big wet flannel of a film, with a two-hour running time that feels like five. Everyone on board had better get their shit together for the next four planned films, or we’ll have yet another dud blockbuster franchise on our hands.