Pet Sematary (Film Review)

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Stephen King adaptations have been coming thick and fast over the last few years, and show no sign of slowing down in the near future, with at least several films due for release in 2019 alone, including Mike Flanagan’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (based on a novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill). Even better is that most of the recent films and TV series have actually been very good, compared to the much higher ratio of bad King adaptations we were gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Often, the quality of these works is dependent on the quality of the filmmakers adapting King’s writing. Mike Flanagan made a wonderfully visceral and nasty film from one of the author’s more visceral and nasty books with Gerald’s Game; Andy Muschietti’s It was a great surprise, especially considering its troubled production (although I’d still kill to see Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for his intended epic two-parter, but that’s a whole other rant); and Aussie Zak Hilditch worked wonders with the more stripped-down thriller 1922, featuring an amazing, literally scene-chewing turn from Thomas Jane.

So when I learnt that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were attached to direct a remake/adaptation of King’s bleakest of books, Pet Sematary, I rushed to heap a hefty weight of expectation onto the film. The duo’s previous horror, Starry Eyes, is a nightmare in the best possible way, a slow-burn about a woman’s transformative quest for fame in a twisted, occult Hollywood. Some of the violence in Starry Eyes is truly toe-curling, and the whole thing is steeped in a nauseating sense of unease; it’s a film whose imagery still creeps back into my head from time to time, even after only one viewing.

Like Jordan Peele’s Us, released only the week before this, Pet Sematary’s focus is on family. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move down from Boston to a quiet rural town in Maine. Their new property encompasses a vast stretch of woods, within which is the town’s cutely misspelled “Pet Sematary”, the further reaches of wilderness beyond it blocked in by a towering deadfall of felled trees and branches. The road just in front of their house is also busy with speeding trucks. Both of these elements will come to tear the family apart, and also point to the fact that they must have had the worst real estate agent in the world.

When Church, the family’s cat, is killed by one of the aforementioned speeding trucks, crusty but kindly old neighbour Jud (a reliably superb John Lithgow) tells Louis about the resurrective properties of the “sour” land that lies beyond the pet cemetery’s deadfall. After burying the cat in this bleak and ancient place, Church comes back, but he’s not the same cat Ellie loved; he’s mangy and feral in both looks and temperament, scratching anyone who gets too close and ruining Louis and Rachel’s sex life with bloodied, half-dead birds.

Most of us know how this story escalates from pets to people, either from the book, the original 1989 film, or literally any trailer for this 2019 version. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the land beyond the pet cemetery is inadvisably utilised after a tragic (human) death, which precipitates further violence and mayhem.

It’s a well-made and well-acted film, efficient in its evocation of the Creeds’ spiralling predicament. But Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a little too efficient, and the film is frantically paced, excising character development in favour of the mounting scares which, despite looking fine, fail to actually induce terror. Where King’s book felt unrelentingly bleak (the author himself cites it as his darkest work), for all its supposedly grim subject matter, the film largely failed to rend my soul or raise my heartbeat. Scenes that should feel grand or awe-inspiring are brief, small and forgettable, and anything that does succeed just comes across as very bread-and-butter horror; good, but not much more.

I’m by no means a book-to-film hardliner, raging at changes made in the adaptation to the screen, and the different tact the directors have taken here in several key elements actually works to the film’s advantage in some ways, but one of the joys of King’s book, and arguably its thematic spine, is the surrogate father/son relationship between Jud and Louis, a bond we see barely fleshed out in the film – again, because it feels like it’s in too much of a rush to get to the nasty bits. But without significant investment in the characters, that horror’s bound to fall flat. I watched these people suffer trauma and heartache and eventually terrible fates, but I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t all that troubled, except by my glaring lack of reaction.

Other aspects seem shoehorned in just to give the audience a creepy vibe rather than because they actually fit into the story. There’s a cool Wicker Man vibe at the beginning, with a procession of kids heading down to the pet cemetery in creepy animal masks, but this local ritual is never further explored, and the sense of something larger going on – which is a staple of the novel, for me – fails to ignite. This is a shame, because given the quality of the directors’ previous Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary represents a step down for Kölsch and Widmyer.

Given the close release dates, I can’t help but compare Pet Sematary to Jordan Peele’s Us, which for me was a far superior horror film with not only a lot more to say, but, crucially, characters I cared a more about than I did the Creed family. Where Peele’s film was a fully realised work with many layers to unpack and an astonishing attention to detail, there’s so much in Pet Sematary that falls short, despite the great source material and the opportunities for some genuinely terrifying moments.

Where the family in Us had distinct personalities and interior lives, depicted through dialogue and body language, Pet Sematary’s characters seem flat and underdeveloped, coming across as cut-outs designed simply to put them through the wringer of this horror film’s trope-filled obstacle course. This is no fault of the performances, though. Jason Clarke does the best he can with the relatively bland Louis. Amy Seimetz is terrific as Rachel, whose traumatic childhood is touched on with some effective body horror, accentuated by her layered performance. John Lithgow is also great as Jud, even if his character is relegated to the role of Wise Old Exposition Man. Jeté Laurence does a lot of heavy lifting as Ellie, tackling one of the film’s more realised characters with her complex performance.

Like the characters, the world they inhabit feels a little off, and not necessarily in the right way. Months pass in the blink of an eye, but there’s no sense of a lived-in environment, which is partly the fault of the rushed story and the failure of the film to take its time with the characters. The barren landscape beyond the cemetery’s deadfall is also just too alien for somewhere on the other side of a big bundle of sticks, with its skeletal trees, swampy ground and a horizon constantly flickering with lightning. It all spells out its evil a little too loudly, and just doesn’t gel with the real-world setting of the rest of the film.

I haven’t seen the 1989 original so I can’t compare this version to that. My memory of the book is hazy at best, but certain scenes and emotions have stuck with me, distilled over the years into an impression that not only feels much more emotionally harrowing, but, through its dark and intimate character work, gives us a glimpse into a universe much more vast and alien and hostile than we can imagine. When King’s at his best this works beautifully, and Pet Sematary – the book – is a fantastic example of this. But this claustrophobic, character-centric horror that briefly flares into something more complex and incomprehensible isn’t remotely captured in Kölsch and Widmyer’s film, which is a huge shame and a missed opportunity. Pet Sematary isn’t a bad film by any means, and though it does try to impress with some interesting changes to the source material, its lack of guts is glaring, especially relative to other King adaptations and other recent horror films in general. As Jud tells Louis at one point in the film, sometimes dead is better.

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Us (Film Review)

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Jordan Peele was always going to face a steep climb if he wanted to top his incredible out-of-left-field directorial debut. Get Out’s teeth-clenching intensity and biting social commentary made it one of 2017’s most delicious horror films, even snagging several Oscar nominations and a Best Original Screenplay win.

No pressure for his next film, then.

In many ways, Us is the perfect follow-up, another magnificent horror film with another whopper of a premise and more deftly handled social commentary. Refreshingly, it’s also a showcase of Peele’s desire to do something different, to take more risks, and while certain aspects of the narrative have alienated some critics, I adored it. It’s such a pleasure to see a film not only so competently, passionately made, but one in which you can see the director flexing his muscles, reaching for something more. It’s an ambitious film, but for my money it works.

It also continues Peele’s penchant for casting predominantly black actors in major roles, and Peele himself has said that he doesn’t see himself ever casting a white lead, much to the displeasure of cry-babies everywhere, and my own unrestrained joy.

The less you know about Us going in, the better, but the basic plot follows the Wilson family: parents Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Abe (Winston Duke), and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). While holidaying in Santa Cruz, the Wilsons encounter a murderous, scissor-wielding doppelganger family – referred to as the Tethered – who seem intent on wiping out their better, saner halves. What begins as a home invasion movie soon spirals into something much more complex and layered, and Peele is a master at juggling each element without any one of them hogging the limelight.

As with Get Out, Us maintains a razor’s edge balance between horror and humour, often the most intense or violent scenes perfectly punctuated with a moment of levity that arises organically out of the situation. The horror precipitates the humour rather than the humour being something shoehorned in – it feels natural rather than written, the characters well aware of the absurdity of their situation.

The film also looks and sounds wonderful, with a luscious colour scheme, beautiful use of light and shadow, and a score by Get Out’s Michael Abels that crystallises the terror with its eerie vocals and pounding strings. Us is only Abels’ second film score, but this guy is a genius.

My investment in a horror film is predominantly dependent on my investment in its characters, and Us has some of the best. Some of the early scenes establish family dynamics in a way that, again, doesn’t feel written or performed, four characters bouncing off each other at the same time, critical aspects of their personalities conveyed as much through dialogue as action and body language. In fact, the performances here are all so good that you almost forget you’re watching a fictional construction. Obviously we know that Nyong’o and Duke have no need to prove their acting chops, but Shadidi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex (who I’ve not seen in a film before) are both amazing as the two kids, their performances dimensional and nuanced, the way they adapt to their horrific circumstances particularly endearing. It’s also just great to see a black family kicking arse like this. The supporting cast is excellent too, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as Adelaide and Abe’s rich white friends. Moss in particular seems to be having a lot of fun with a role that’s much more snarky and vacuous than her usual (excellent) work.

But the focus here is on the Wilson family, and particularly Nyong’o’s Adelaide. What’s more impressive is that the cast play both roles, each murderous double not just a copy of the other character but imbued with their own terrifying personality. The physicality of each of the Tethered here is impressive, exacerbating their monstrousness and giving us some truly unique horror icons. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win a flurry of awards for her role(s) here, I’ll burn down a building.

There’s a depth to the film’s construction that begs multiple viewings. Images and symbols recur with a deliberate rhythm throughout, and the sense of duality is far from limited to the central characters. Peele lays down a visual groundwork that hints at what we’ll bear witness to later in the story, whether we pick up those details or not. Little tics and twitches throughout the film telegraph story beats, character choices and thematic arcs in ways that delighted me. These don’t make the plot predictable or the scares generic, though. Instead they elevate the material because they’re deliberately placed breadcrumbs that highlight Us’s themes, while leading up to a final “twist” that doesn’t feel it’s trying to surprise us so much as confirming what we long-suspected, and serves as a rich patch of metaphorical soil audiences will be digging down into for years to come.

I’ve seen many reviewers complain that the film’s final act explains too much, but then the same was said of Ari Aster’s Hereditary: I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now. The explanation here isn’t ham-fisted at all, and hardly goes into the kind of detail that would render the horrors toothless – it has the opposite effect, if anything. Besides, as with nearly every other aspect of the film, the nature of the Tethered is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. Revealing some of the why of these murderous doubles’ motives isn’t a slip-up but a deep and deliberate part of the story. I’d argue that it makes Us more effective, and much scarier. Without spoiling anything, it takes the film into unexpected territory, tapping into the darker aspects of modern – and particularly American – society.

If this all sounds like I’m heading towards puerile notions like “elevated horror” to Us, please wash your ears out. The last few years of excellent horror films enjoyed by a wider audience than just genre fans have led the more snooty, snotty critics to scrabble for justification as to how a lowly horror film can also be a good one. And so we get terms like “elevated”, because genre films, as we all know, don’t actually have anything to say; they need to be more than just a good example of the genre, they need to transcend the common muck in order to be worthy of critical acclaim and serious discourse. The idea that recent knockouts like Us, Hereditary and The Witch are somehow the exception rather than the rule does a disservice to the potential of a damn good genre film, and particularly horror in this case. These films are the embodiment of horror, good horror, sure, but horror doing exactly what it does best: scaring the shit out of you and saying something interesting in the process.

Us does all of these things, and it does them beautifully. It’s also subversive and original, and it’s setting a great example for the longevity of the genre, and not just in terms of quality. Financially, it had the highest grossing opening ever for an original horror film, at US$71 million. For studios whose only language is money, this is great news for the genre. On top of which it’s simply a joy to see such a brilliant film get the attention it absolutely deserves. Excuse me while I go watch it several more times.

Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley (Review)

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I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, his follow up to the beautiful and quietly menacing debut that was The Loney. Like that first book, Devil’s Day is ensconced in the English countryside, in this case an isolated farming community in Lancashire that clings to ritual and tradition.

Narrator John Pentecost is returning to his family farm in the Briardale Valley, pregnant wife Kat in tow. His return is precipitated by both the death of his grandfather, the Gaffer, and the yearly titular ritual of Devil’s Day, where the villagers sing songs and tell stories about the time the Devil came down to the valley to make mischief.

This is a book that, like The Loney, is in no hurry, and has little concern for the machinations of a flashy or action-packed plot. That kind of story can be hard to pull off, but Hurley is adept at keeping the reader’s attention. I was rapt with Devil’s Day from the opening line to the last. I enjoyed The Loney, but this felt like a much more accomplished novel, and the folk horror element is what really did it for me. Hurley’s restraint and subtlety is still as applaudable as ever, but the feel in Devil’s Day, of stories and folktales creeping across the landscape into reality – or rather, as in a lot of cases, already an ingrained part of that landscape – is palpable and sets a shiver crawling across your skin.

Although a slow-burn, this is a very precise and well-crafted book. There isn’t an ounce of spare flesh to be found. The prose is neither indulgent nor workmanlike. It has that evocative, tactile tone of a masterful storyteller, to the point that you forget you’re reading a book. Take this passage, where a young John is out amongst nature; Hurley gives us all these wonderful bright details, lending his own style of imagery to the scene:

“Things fled as I slithered down through the dry mud. Birds dissolved into the undergrowth and the eel that lay curled up like a question mark just under the surface of the water shivered aware in a ring of ripples. Nothing wanted to stay, not the damselflies or the dippers, or the kingfisher that unearthed itself from the dark, rooty banks on the other side and skimmed away with the current, burning a blue stripe in the air.”

I could read that over and over, and still find something new to smile about every time.

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the setting here is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. The terrain and the weather shape the characters’ lives in ways both mundane and profound.

Just as the landscape shapes the characters, so does the past. It’s always needling into the present, informing and shaping it, pricking it with unease. The Gaffer’s aphorisms or lessons punctuate the story so that even in death we’re not without him. His presence underpins John’s narration, as well as his thoughts and feelings about the farm and his obligations to it.

The characters – even the fleeting, incidental ones – are never anything less than startlingly real; crafted with a crispness that puts Hurley’s skills as a writer on full display. The characters here are very traditional, which can really grate sometimes with their staunch religious beliefs, and their “he’s a pouf” and “don’t be a sissy” attitudes. They’re hardscrabble people with proudly calloused hands and a get-shit-done attitude. On the farm, work trumps everything, overcomes everything. Loss, disaster, even the Devil comes second to the necessities of farm life. Everything carries on, through death, weather, hardship, and the Devil’s sneaking tricks.

As we meander through this glacial story of rural family history and ritual set against the rugged English countryside, something a little insidious starts to creep into John’s tone. In his head, this is not just a visit but the start of something more permanent. Despite Kat’s objections, it’s his firm belief that they’ll soon settle down on the farm, that they’ll abandon their urban lives and jobs for this far simpler and harsher one maintaining the family farm.

John’s quiet but unwavering insistence that this is less a choice than a familial obligation is unsettling, but given the retrospective nature of the narrative, also sadly inevitable. This obsession with the legacy of obligation Kat inherits by dint of starting a family with John really alienates him from the reader – or this reader, anyway. As Kat becomes increasingly unsettled – and, to be honest, me with her – John’s lack of sympathy is stark in its absence. Everything’s a “useful lesson” for Kat or something that she’ll become accustomed to and appreciate, no matter how uncomfortable or out of place she feels. That we know she does come around and that they raise their first child on the farm doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking, this woman caught in the web of a family’s hardscrabble (although not unhappy) way of life.

Kat’s the outsider here, and the reader’s way in to the story. She’s uncomfortable as I was with some of the family’s odd traditions and practices, as well as their occasional bluntness towards her. And when the horror element does edge its fingers around the doorframe, it’s Kat who reacts the most to it, her burgeoning sense of dislocation one that I vehemently shared.

As with The Loney, I did find myself wishing for a little more of the horror, or some culmination of the supernatural, but Hurley doesn’t work that way whether I like it or not. Devil’s Day is more about the people and the place, their past and present and inevitable future, than it is the overtly supernatural. It’s ultimately about the lengths people will go to protect not just their traditions but their family livelihood, their way of life.

Nothing here, from the characters to the harsh terrain to the ambiguity of certain events, is meant to be any shade of comfortable; this is a challenging book, but a riveting, beautifully crafted one. It reinforces what The Loney first showed us: that Andrew Michael Hurley is a unique and gifted writer, whose work I will continue to eagerly devour.

 

The Void (Film Review)

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When I first saw the incredible trailer and luscious promotional artwork for Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s 80’s horror throwback The Void, my expectations were set dangerously high. And why shouldn’t they have been? Not only did it look fantastic, but the past few years have been inundated with some astonishing and original horror films – The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Get Out, Bone Tomahawk – and this trend doesn’t look like it’s going to dry up anytime soon. Sure, there are some stinkers out there too, but there was no reason to believe that The Void might fall in with that crowd.

I won’t go into any detail about the plot, since there really isn’t that much of one anyway, beyond the basic scenario of a group of characters trapped in a hospital, assailed from outside by white-robed cultists and from inside by gelatinous horrors and a madman with a propensity for self-mutilation.

The Void isn’t exactly a bad film, but for me the disappointment started to soak through as its 90-minute run time dragged on. Its most glaring problem is that it just isn’t very original. With its aesthetic and its – admittedly quite good – practical creature effects, it wears its influences on its sleeve. The problem with this is that I was regularly reminded of all the far superior horror films it’s clearly been inspired by: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Prince of Darkness, Event Horizon, The Beyond.

The thing with homage-style films is that they can be great fun even if they don’t end up subverting the thing they’re emulating. Take Adam Wingard’s 2014 film The Guest, a brilliant 80’s style retro action thriller/slasher. It works so well not simply because it has a great script and is well made, but because it’s fun. Unfortunately, fun isn’t a word I’d use to describe The Void.

It has all the components of a potentially mind-blowing horror film – murderous cults, gelatinous creatures, body horror, monstrous pregnancies, alternate dimensions – but it never really does anything interesting with them, and it never seems to work on its own merits. Everything here feels too subdued, like it’s too afraid to be its own film. It’s not as weird as it could be, not as violent, not as moving or atmospheric or even cosmic. Again, the practical effects are admirable, but the creature design is dull, the scene set-up pedestrian, and the constantly flickering lights infuriating. None of the elements seemed to come together for me, or not enough to make a coherent, flowing story. The script is severely lacking in both direction and three-dimensional characters, and the acting is wooden at best. The human villain is a one-note nutjob with a flimsy, bordering-on-ludicrous motivation that only gels with his actions on the most superficial “let’s-try-this-because-it’s-gross” level. Even the score is barely noticeable, and that was the one area they at least could have let rip with the Carpenter worship.

I think the problem here is that the directors seem like they’re trying to build a mythology for their film, with the triangle motifs and the multidimensional elements – the hallucinatory shots of desolate landscapes, galaxies and pulsing flesh are beautiful, and by far the best part of The Void – but they end up cramming in a whole bunch of things that don’t necessarily work in and of themselves. Internal logic is nowhere to be found. There’s no rhythm or harmony to the story or its characters, which are forced to co-exist in a world that has a lot of potential, but ultimately isn’t very believable or engaging.

It’s possible I’m being too harsh on this because I was so excited to see it, and by the look of a lot of reviews it’s been receiving, I expect most people to disagree with me, but with the horror genre experiencing a renaissance of gripping, original work that isn’t just limited to film, this kind of messy pastiche of beloved influences just isn’t good enough.

By the end of The Void, it became disappointingly apparent that this is one of those cases where the promotional material ends up being far better than the film itself.

Bait Hides the Hook: Laird Barron’s Swift to Chase (Review)

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Part of me wondered whether I should post anything about the latest Laird Barron because for a moment I thought, what else is there really left to say about the guy that hasn’t already been said, that I haven’t already said, that we don’t already know? He’s a visceral, commanding, awe-inspiring writer who just keeps pushing the boundaries of genre writing. So far, so Barron. Anyone familiar with his name or work knows this already.

But I wrote this review anyway, and I’m posting it, and, sure, it might fall into that pattern I seem to have established where I read a book I love and then extol its virtues in a thousand-odd-word post – which, in my more self-loathing moments, feels like it probably comes across as just an exercise in how many adoring adjectives I can fit into a sentence. But it’s not that at all. Those adoring adjectives aren’t an exercise in anything except how I honestly feel about the noun I’m attaching them to.

Also, fuck all that doubt. If you like something, if you love something, if it fills you with joy or wonder or awe or terror or adrenaline, and if it makes you feel like there are still new things to be discovered in the world and new ways and angles to look at it, then you need to shout about that and share it with as many people who will listen. Plus, if this review compels just one person to pick up Barron’s – and any of his vast number of brilliant contemporaries’ – work for the first time, then all that seemingly redundant gushing is worth it.

But enough about that. Adoring adjectives await…

If you thought you knew what to expect from Laird Barron, his latest (fourth) collection – and sixth major publication – Swift to Chase, tears down all those preconceptions. He breaks a lot of new ground here, especially in terms of technique, structure and style. His Old Leech Mythos – which makes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos look like the Teletubbies – is present and accounted for, but Barron attacks it from some unexpected angles. He seems to be going out on an experimental limb both with the individual stories as well as the larger picture that’s pieced together as you move through the collection.

The opening story, “Screaming Elk, MT”, introduces recurring badass Jessica Mace, and there’s nary a mention of Old Leech and Co., though it’s not exactly devoid of mortal harm, scheming sleazebags and otherworldly terror. It’s a great, compact piece of writing that cuts to the bone, and to the chase.

If I have a complaint about this story, it’s that this is (spoiler alert) one of the few Barron tales where the protagonist escapes largely unharmed, and the monster seems to be vanquished a little too easily, let alone at all. More often than not, Barron’s antagonists are as insurmountable and eternal as the universe from which they spring, and there isn’t a sliver of hope to be glimpsed for the human characters, alive or not. Jessica Mace, on the other hand, seems to unpick that weave, and although she’s not without her share of suffering and madness, there’s still something of her left to keep going.

In a lot of ways, Screaming Elk sets the tone for the rest of the collection inasmuch as it’s a character-driven piece with great pacing and a fast, canny narration. Regarding the latter, Barron doesn’t waste his words, but his prose is far from frugal. It’s lean, dangerous, whip-smart and prison-hard.

Barron’s use of language has always been one of his best assets, but here there’s a sense of . . . snazziness and wit, which I won’t say was absent from his previous work, but has certainly evolved into something more complex in Swift to Chase. His antagonists, particularly the prolific Children of Old Leech, have always possessed a certain black wit, a predatory playfulness that seems inherent to their immortal, hedonistic race. His human characters aren’t exactly dead-eyed chumps either, but the black humour is on much more prominent display in this collection than I’ve noticed in Barron’s work before.

I laughed out loud more than once at the acerbic one-liners scattered throughout these stories, their deadpan delivery an organic part of the narration rather than an overt joke or attempt at humour. Which I guess is another of Barron’s strengths; marbling his stories with so many elements that work with a beautiful synchronicity but never overpower the narrative’s momentum.

For me, the part of any Laird Barron story that sticks in the mind is usually the scare, the moment of alien horror, the big monster scene and the skin-crawl that leads to it. But what stayed with me here was the people and their electric interactions. The horror elements are as chilling as always, but the most memorable parts of Swift to Chase are its moments of human nuance, of bonding or treachery or tension. Dialogue and body language fizz off each other with an amazing energy few writers can equal.

This definitely isn’t to say that there are no moments of sheer awesome weirdness on display here, though. There’s a glorious B-movie ambience to “the worms crawl in,”, a story whose several twists and turns aren’t even the coolest things about it. A reimagining of the mythic Wild Hunt that knocks that last Witcher game’s version on its arse, “Frontier Death Song” is just begging (in my head, anyway) for a blood-soaked film adaptation. “Ardor” goes more traditional Barron, with a noir-flavoured story about the hunt for an obscure old movie star and a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, although its nonlinear structure throws both protagonist and reader around a timeline that never does any favours for the former. “Ears Prick Up” is perhaps the wildest of all, a straight-up pulp sci-fi adventure eloquently narrated by, as the blurb has it, “an atomic-powered cyborg war dog” cutting down enemies with his master in a dark, Warhammer 40,000-esque future.

But what really sets Swift to Chase apart from Barron’s previous work is its structure, the way he experiments with form and style and interconnected narratives on a level we haven’t seen from him before. A shared universe and intersecting characters have certainly been present in Barron’s previous three collections and two novels (and that lightbulb moment when you discover some reference or connective tissue is magical), but aside from the overarching mythos, these have been smaller nods or clues for the more canny reader to pick up on. In Swift to Chase, the connections are impossible to miss – in fact, some stories seem to rely quite heavily on the context built up by earlier works in the collection. Dead characters reappear, minor players take on larger roles, and genealogies are filled in as the book progresses. It’s a masterful structure, and must have required one hell of a flowchart to keep track of. I wonder if Barron plans out this web of complexity or if it just comes together as he writes. Either way, wow.

For a collection that fits together so well, there’s a nice variety of stories on offer here; even those that revolve around certain incidents and characters play around with structure and point of view enough to have a unique flavour.

Every story here, bar the last, was originally published elsewhere, in anthologies or literary magazines. Given that so many of the stories here go hand in hand, mostly revolving in some way around a handful of bloody events and characters, it seems to me much more beneficial to have them all together in the one collection, providing that larger context and filling in the dark puzzle of their circumstances in a way that individual publication just couldn’t achieve. So tightly knit are they that some of this book comes pretty close to looking like a mosaic novel.

Sure, a lot of pieces work well on their lonesome, but these – especially stories like “Ears Prick Up”, “Frontier Death Song”, “Ardor”, “the worms crawl in,”, and “Black Dog” – are either vaguely linked to the collection’s major arc, or are present by way of their Alaskan heritage, a setting which is one of the uniting factors for the collection as a whole.

Personally, nothing’s ever going to beat the sheer terror and awe of my favourite of Barron’s previous collections, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, but that’s not a slight against Swift to Chase by any means. This is a bold and exciting family of work that subverted all my expectations and surprised me at every turn. Barron’s narrative choices are always interesting, and the tricks he pulls off here are clever enough to be innovative, but never feel like empty illusions engineered for nothing but their shock value. Honestly, I’m such a fan of this guy’s work that when he releases a new book, everything else on my to-read list has to wait it out as I devour his scrumptious prose, and then find myself hungry and pining for more once it’s over. That said, my love for all things Barron isn’t a blind love, but one built on the talent and hard work that shines through in his writing, and, at risk of sounding like a cheap salesman on a late night TV commercial, it’s a love you too can nurture and enjoy for five easy monthly payments of sanity, and maybe your soul, and—

Okay, I’ll stop. Just go read Swift to Chase. Or anything else by Barron. Please. Do it. I’ll love you if you do, but I’ll know if you don’t.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Nameless Dark – T.E. Grau (Review)

I keep reading these excellent debut horror collections, and I keep having my mind blown. The Nameless Dark is no exception. You pick up this book for its awesome cover art, and you stay for the brilliant, beautiful, terrifying stories. In terms of style and subject matter, Grau sits somewhere between Laird Barron and Nathan Ballingrud. His horrors are scalpel-sharp, but his characters and the stark realism of his domestic minutiae will leave you breathless. every story here is an intricate, unique cage designed specifically to trap you. The thing is, you’ll enjoy every second of your incarceration.

“Tubby’s Big Swim” is an exercise in pure restraint. Like a lot of the work in this collection, the unease is layered on slowly over story’s ponderous course. The core here though is the domestic unrest, as seen through the lonely, imaginative eyes of Alden, a kid having to navigate his childhood through bullies, a complacent mother and her abusive boyfriend, and his quest to find the perfect pet. The amount of restraint Grau exhibits here is almost infuriating he does it so well. The effect is mesmeric, juxtaposing the mundane weirdness of a child’s world with something much darker bleeding into the edges.

“The Screamer” seems like Grau’s take on that Ligottian strain of corporate horror, but with a sharper sense of immediacy as the protagonist’s life slowly crumbles around him. The deterioration is precipitated on a larger scale by the jarring, disembodied screaming he begins to hear on a regular, if intermittent, basis. Grau’s strength lies in the minutiae of the mundane. He captures all those small depressing details of human interaction, the silences and hateful asides that are often neglected in even the best fiction. His depiction of humanity is searing, and that’s before the shit starts to hit the fan. The climax is surprising and original, as is the source of the screaming. A really gripping, original story.

“Clean” is scalpel-sharp, a short slice of a story that, although not exactly surprising or difficult to anticipate, does what it does with enough skill to keep everything fresh. There’s a lovely intimacy here too that reminded me of Let the Right One In.

In “Return of the Prodigy” we’re subjected to an incredibly creepy scenario somewhere between Lovecraft and Laird Barron, as frugal man’s man Gary takes his wife of thirty-five years, Gladys, on a belated – and budget-conscious – beach-resort honeymoon. This was one of my favourites of the collection, and one of the more skin-crawling stories I’ve read in a while. The atmosphere is tense and palpable. Every scene Grau paints has a very cinematic quality; I could see everything so clearly in my head. The unease builds with a wonderful quiet rhythm, and the is absolutely eye-popping. It also put me off seafood for a good while.

Like “Clean,” I could see where “Expat” was going from pretty early on, but the reveal is only some of the fun with Grau’s work. It’s a very different story, tonally and thematically, from most of the pieces in the collection

“The Truffle Pig” has got to be one of the most innovative and downright cool Jack the Ripper stories I’ve ever read. Grau fits the horror element into the historical like two matching jigsaw pieces. Everything works so well here I just believed it. Grau’s alternate history works so much better than the truth, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a piece of fiction.

Another of the shorter, sharper pieces, “Beer and Worms” is an excellent exploration of masculinity’s pricklier side. It’s a nice simple story, very understated, lean and matter-of-fact. To say any more would spoil it.

The historical horrors of “White Feather” are drawn with excellent restraint, the story slipping back and forth in different stages of the protagonist’s life. This isn’t a wildly complex story but it does several things extremely well. Grau captures the feel of the period setting with all its grime and decay and ingrained superstition to perfection. His character work here is excellent, and unfolds with a kind of scary-campfire-story feel. And the horrors, when they arrive, provide a nice spin on a familiar monster.

“Transmission” is a road story that builds the unease with an excellent combination of sound and landscape. Although it descends into a bit of a Lovecraft pastiche towards the end, Grau is still on top form here, and makes the story enough of his own for it to work well.

“Mr Lupus” is one of the standouts of the collection, particularly in that it doesn’t take the cosmic horror route so popular in this collection. (That’s not at all a complaint about the other works here, though; I can never get enough of cosmic horror.) The story is a love letter to the fairy tale, and an insanely creepy one at that. The ending is, if not entirely a surprise, a brilliantly absorbing build of emotional tension and pure terror. This is what Grau does best: laying down all the details and making the reader piss their pants.

In “Free Fireworks,” Grau paints an entirely plausible near-future (or alternate present) destabilised by conflict and terrorism on a grand scale. The staple focus on the characters, in this case a father and son enjoying a festival, plays to Grau’s real proclivity for portraying the domestic and teasing out the relationships between his characters. Halfway through, he pulls a twist on us that plays out like an awesome cover of an already great song, and the results are a joy to witness.

“Love Songs From the Hydrogen Jukebox” was originally published in The Children of Old Leech and is set in Laird Barron’s terrifying universe, a mythos which, as far as I’m concerned, beats Lovecraft’s hands down, by an author who is one of the few truly scary prose stylists out there. Grau is a strong rival for this, though. His homage hits all the right notes, in this kind of beatnik/hippie road trip that evolves into a weird mountainside congregation, which itself evolves into a much darker cult gathering, which evolves into a pitch-perfect tribute to Barron’s mythos. Also, what an awesome title that is.

“Twinkle Twinkle” is a really effective story about grief that juxtaposes the smallness of human emotion against the cosmic horrors emerging from far-flung space. I feel like it could have been just a little less revealing at the end, but otherwise an excellent story about that cuts the reader with the vicarious pain of loss.

The collection comes to a blistering end with “The Mission.” This story, which marries old-school pulp with the grit of a violent Old West thriller, is the kind of horror so effective it makes you want a shower afterwards. The language here is muscular and vibrant, and Grau builds up an excellent period vernacular as sincere and raw as the characters who utter it. A tour de force of tension and horror, it reminded me a little, tonally, of Laird Barron’s “The Men From Porlock.” This might be one of the best stories in the collection purely for the skill of its craftsmanship.

So clearly I enjoyed this excellent debut collection. Grau’s prose is strong and poetic, his characters and scenarios drawn with the painful clarity of the real, his monsters and weirdness terrifying regardless of the pantheon from which they squirm. But more than that, you just trust this writer. Wherever he takes you, whatever horrors he sets on you, whatever dark recesses of the human heart he lays bare to you, you trust him. And goddamn do you enjoy it.