Posts Tagged ‘psychological horror’

I heard about this book sometime last year and immediately requested my library buy copies (they did, and I was #1 on the list). I mean, a horror story set on the Titanic and having to do with some sort of creature living in the sea? Where do I sign up? And it came in for me at the library right before my library ceased operations due to the virus, so I was happy to get it when I did.

The Deep follows Annie Hebbley, a maid who works on the Titanic, and gets involved with the Fletcher family, a troubled married couple with a baby girl. Strange things occur on the ship leading up to that fateful (or fatal?) meeting. Years later, Annie meets Mark Fletcher, the very same man she waited on during that voyage, though now she’s a nurse on the Titanic’s sister ship the Britannic and he’s a wounded soldier returning from the battlefield of WWI. Coincidence? Or is something else at play? Something that has unfinished business with these ships and their passengers?

Let me tell you, this book has a lot going for it. For one thing, it’s set partially on the Titanic, which is always a fascinating topic and setting for any story. And turning it into a ghost story? Even cooler.* That, and the Titanic sailed during the Edwardian era, which is close enough to my beloved Victorian era that I felt right at home.

But beyond that, this is one damn good horror novel. Author Alma Katsu takes a psychological approach to this story, using hints to keep us guessing as to what’s going on. Are people going crazy onboard? Is there something supernatural afoot? Whether it be a seance or someone acting strange, you’re kept very up in the air about it up until the last fifth or so of the book, and even then, you may still have questions.

At the same time, you get to know a lot of these characters intimately. It’s a big cast, told from the points of views of Annie, Mark Fletcher and his wife Caroline, you have the POVs of several historical figures, including boxers Dai Bowen and Leslie Williams, whom I absolutely fell in love with; Madeleine Astor, worried about an alleged curse on her unborn child; and William Stead, an aged journalist with an interest in the occult.** But Katsu does a great job of developing each and every character and giving them a unique voice and issues to explore.

A lot of attention is paid to detail as well, the same sort of attention that went visually into James Cameron’s movie. It really brings alive the setting for both ships, and makes you feel like you’re there. And there are plenty of moments filled with tension, such as the aforementioned seance, a scene at the saltwater pool, or close to the very end, when things are finally revealed.

The ship may have sunk, but the stories about it, like my heart, will go on. And in some cases, get very creepy.

All these factors kind of make it feel like you’re watching a really dark and spooky stageplay about the Titanic, only you’re reading it out of a book. In fact, I can imagine The Deep being made into a stageplay someday, or perhaps even a Broadway musical, one that’s scarier and has less humor than Sweeney Todd. I’d even help adapt it if someone deemed me experienced enough and wanted me to.

I can’t find anything to put as a downside to this novel. Some might find it a bit too slow, or maybe too much time is spent on the characters’ problems and backstories. I didn’t, but I can see other people feeling that way.

Overall, I’m giving The Deep by Alma Katsu a 4.5 out of 5. It’s an unnerving, intimate historical horror novel that’ll have you enthralled. Pick up a copy, put on that one Celine Dion song you’re probably thinking of, and get ready to dive in to what may be a contender for next year’s Bram Stoker awards.

*Of course, when I try to turn a luxury cruise liner into a ghost story, Disney’s lawyers come after me. How was I supposed to know ritualistic murder wasn’t allowed in international waters? It’s always okay in wartime!

**I recognized him from my own research into Victorian England. When I came across him and the reference to the occult, I literally shouted “Wait, I know this guy!” to my empty apartment.

I had a revelation recently. No, not the kind that inspires texts that are the basis for entire religions. I had that already, and you do not want to know what information was imparted to me. No, it’s about Lovecraftian fiction.

Now, the common image among people, readers and writers, of Lovecraftian fiction is Cthulhu or any other Great Old One/Elder God/giant terrifying monster from the deep sea/outer space/alternate dimension. And that’s not wrong. From stories like The Dunwich Horror to the recent science-horror film Underwater, big monsters are a major part of the story and, along with the mind-bending insanity and dark truths they represent, are the main source of horror.

But it’s recently come to my attention that Lovecraftian horror stories are about more than just the monsters. Sometimes, it’s about psychological horror. Sometimes, you can have an effective scary story by not showing the monster, but by instead relegating the monsters to mere glimpses or suggestions and focusing on the characters’ reactions. And if done right, it can lead to some compelling horror.

There are actually plenty of stories like this. And if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably run into plenty of them. The Call of Cthulhu, for example. Being by Howard Phillips himself, it’s obviously Lovecraftian, but have you ever noticed that we never really see Cthulhu? Think about it. The closest we ever get to seeing the High Priest of the Great Old Ones himself is through the eyes of a Scandinavian sailor’s diary. The narrator only sees drawings and statues of him.

And yet we’re scared, because the very idea of what we glean from these diary recordings is of a worldwide cult, one devoted to a very real god. One that will use humans as its pawns so that, when it finally arises, it’s in prime condition to take over our world. And the cult will do away with anyone who gets in their master’s way.

And while that’s a great example, there’s plenty more where that came from. Last year’s film The Lighthouse (see my review here) was Lovecraftian with a capital L, but we barely saw any of the marine monstrosities supposedly behind the horrors occurring on the island. And what we did see, we weren’t sure if they were real (within the film, anyway). Are they monsters, or are they just the manifestations of two men on an isolated island having a breakdown? Or maybe it’s a bit of both. It’s hard to tell.

A great example of this Lovecraftian psychological horror, 2019’s The Lighthouse.

And not just The Lighthouse. Stephen King’s novella N is told from the POV of people who all claim to be guardians of a circle of stones. If they don’t perform certain rituals, the stones will become a portal for terrible monsters. We never see these monsters though, and it’s possible that all the characters are suffering from a shared delusion. Or is it something more?

And in the novel I’m reading now (I hope to finish it and have the review up tomorrow or Thursday), there’s a Lovecraftian undertone, but the focus is on the characters and how they’re dealing with all the lies and hidden secrets swirling around them.

Or maybe that’s not a Lovecraftian undertone, but some other supernatural undertone. I’ll let you know when I finish the novel.

Anyway, it’s a good thing I’ve noticed that. The story I’m trying to write next is going to be heading into that psychological/Lovecraftian territory, so hopefully I can do a good job of it. And even if I don’t, it’ll at least be good practice.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’m off to bed. I hope you’re not going stir-crazy while social distancing yourselves. If you want, we can talk in the comments for a bit.

Anyway, until next time, pleasant nightmares!

 

The Lighthouse is the latest film by Robert Eggers, the same director who brought us The Witch. I went in hoping for two things: to be scared and that it would be easier to understand what everyone was saying than in The Witch.

On both counts, I can say it was a success.

The Lighthouse follows Robert Pattinson as a young man who signs up to be an assistant lighthouse keeper at a remote island. There, he works under Willem Dafoe, an irascible lighthouse keeper who forbids his assistant from going up to the light at night for some reason. As time goes on though, both men, particularly Pattinson’s character, start seeing strange sights and creatures. Madness and isolation begin to set in the longer they stay together, leading to an irreversible outcome.

This is the first horror movie I’ve seen in theaters since Us where I’ve been truly terrified (I enjoyed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but I wasn’t that terrified). There’s a very claustrophobic feel to the film, which is helped by the fact that there are only two characters with speaking roles, and the film is filmed in black and white. Shadows seem bigger than they are, and the occasional blaring of a horn has almost a psychological effect on the viewer. The use of dialogue, which is only at times is slightly difficult to understand, is never excessive, instead deepening the feelings of madness and our inability to trust the characters and what they say.

It’s a very Lovecraftian sort of film: while it doesn’t involve space gods or giant monsters from the depths, the ocean, as well as what’s in it, do have a negative effect on the characters. They’re dealing with madness, isolation, claustrophobia, forces they can’t understand, secrets, questions without answers, and each other. And there’s this sense, especially near the end of the film, where what’s behind the curtain will only appear to be what you’re seeking. In reality, it’s going to ruin you.

Also, speaking of the characters, Dafoe and Pattinson are great! You can hardly recognize them as actors, they just totally envelop themselves in these characters. Granted, Pattinson’s accent changes quite a bit (is he Irish? Brooklyn? I can’t tell). But you actually start wondering if these actors are going as crazy as their characters may or may not be.

I can’t really think of anything negative about the film without being nitpicky. It’s a great film, technically well done and psychologically unsettling. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Lighthouse a 4.7. It’s a vast improvement from The Witch, weird and disturbing, and I think it’ll be an instant Halloween classic. Dive in and check it out for yourself.

A poster from a play from the Grand Guignol.

*Trigger warning: this post goes into a lot of dark and uncomfortable topics. If talk of gore, murder, sexual assault and similar subjects upset you, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

Have you ever seen any version of Sweeney Todd? Whether you saw a stage production or watched the movie, Sweeney Todd is somewhat of an outlier among famous Broadway musicals. It’s dark, bloody, and deals with subject matter other plays don’t, such as rape and cannibalism. It’s basically a slasher story with singing.

Now, if you’re like me (and I assume most of you are, if you’re reading this blog), you not only wish there were more plays like Sweeney Todd, but that some of these plays went further in terms of gore and terror. Well, recently I found out that there was a theater dedicated to plays just like that. And it ran for nearly seventy years.

The Grand Guignol Theater was a theater set up in an old Paris chapel in 1897. To summarize its history, the theater at first performed naturalistic plays centered around prostitutes, street thieves and alcoholics. A typical evening at the Grand Guignol would feature five or six short plays, alternating between cynical slice-of-life comedies, horror shows, and more traditional comedies. However, after a change of ownership, the theater began to focus more on horror.

And as time went on, the theater became famous for it. In fact, the Grand Guignol performed over twelve-hundred plays in the course of its existence, focusing on subjects such as insanity, strangulation, rape, leprosy, hypnosis, eye gouging, stabbing, rabies, and so much more. One actress, Paula Maxa, estimated she’d been “murdered” at least ten thousand times in sixty different ways, among other things. To enhance the terror, the theater staff developed a number of techniques to make the horror onstage seem as real as possible, and actors acted as if everything onstage was actually happening.

It wasn’t uncommon for audience members to puke or faint during performances.

This was all to the delight of Andre de Lorde, one of the Guignol’s writers, who judged his plays based on how many people fainted during a show. Along with psychologist and friend Alfred Binet, he wrote over a hundred plays, all particularly gruesome.

And audiences kept coming back. Like many modern horror fans, they were seeking a thrill. And the Grand Guignol provided. At its peak, celebrities and even royalty visited for shows.

So why did it close? Well, there are a number of theories. By the 1930s, the theater had shifted away from gory shockers to psychological dramas, and attendance began to dip. The rise of movies and TV shows, some of the former being quite gory or sensational themselves, may have also played a part. Theater management even believed revelations about the Holocaust may have played a role, saying “We could never equal Buchenwald.”

Whatever the case, the Grand Guignol closed in 1962. Today it’s a theater space for a deaf acting troupe.

But while the theater closed, its legacy still exists. Many small theaters and troupes around the world have been formed to preserve the Guignol’s legacy and produce their own Guignol-style plays. The Guignol’s also made its way into popular culture, and has been referenced in music, movies, books and more.

Still, wouldn’t it be amazing if the Grand Guignol was truly revjved? If one of the groups inspired by it managed to achieve the same popularity and staying power as the original theater?

Perhaps someday it will come back. And then perhaps Mr. Sweeney Todd won’t be so lonely anymore.

Well, I got my wish. I worked on a story that was much, much shorter than The Autopsy Kid and Mrs. Autopsy. This one is called The Black Foals (though previously I was thinking of going with The Foals orĀ The Horses), and if the name doesn’t give it away, this story is about horses. If I tried to be any more specific than that, it’ll give away too much. Suffice to say, it was nice to return to something a bit on the unnatural side after writing a long novella steeped in human-based horror. And whoo-boy, was this story different from others I’ve written in the past.

Okay, I may say that about most of my stories, but a) shouldn’t all writers in my genre set to make each story different, lest we grow repetitive and not very scary? And b) this really was a different one. For one thing, I didn’t jump into the horror right away. Instead, I slowly built up the horror, which is something I don’t usually do. For another, I definitely leaned more into the psychological aspect of the story, reserving the gore and true horror for the last scene. Whether or not I did a good job with the build-up and the psychological horror is up for debate.

In any case, this story’s at forty-five pages and 10,089 words long, so it’s the length of a novelette. I may try to make it shorter in subsequent drafts, or I may lengthen it. I’ll have to see what a beta reader or two thinks it’s best.

But I think it’s a good start. A decent attempt at a psychological horror, and a decent attempt to make a story that’ll do for horses what Jaws did for sharks. Perhaps I might get it published somewhere, there are a few magazines and anthologies that accept stories of that length. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, I may take a break from writing anything new until I hear back from Castrum Press about Rose. They said I should be hearing from them soon, so now’s a good time to just take a break from any new stories. Or old ones, too: editing takes time, you know.

Of course, you’ll still see me around. I’ve got another post on the horizon, so you should keep an eye out for that.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear, pleasant nightmares!

As many of you are already aware, I’m a big fan of ballet, and a lot of characters who are dancers or are familiar with dance are peppered throughout my story ideas. With so many story ideas involving ballet and my latest story finished up, I thought it was high-time to write one. This has been my project since Tuesday, and today I finished “Pas de Deux,” my first story to feature ballet and dancers as a major component.

“Pas de Deux” is about two young dancers who decide to test a legend at their dance academy. The legend says that if anyone dances a pas de deux, or dance for two, in a certain studio, they’ll both die. When they dance together and also reveal their feelings for one another, things in their lives take a turn for the darker.

This was a fun and interesting story for me to work on. Besides writing it in five days, which is something unusual for me, but because for a while I wasn’t sure what genre it was. At times it walked a tightrope between dark fantasy and psychological horror, and it could’ve gone one way or the other based on creative and word choices. In the end, I ended up going with psychological horror, as I felt that would make the story better and more memorable.

Using dance in a story as a major component was also something else. I’ll probably devote a post just to this topic alone, but there’s a trick to writing dance movements in a prose story that I had to discover through lots of research of said movements and then writing them into the story. Interspersing both technical terms and descriptions of the terms along with the protagonist’s own beliefs and observations about ballet was both a challenge and a little educational. If ballet shows up in another story (and knowing me, it will), I can use this experience for any dance sequences I want to write into the story.

But for now, I’ll let this story be for awhile. At sixteen pages and 4,622 words, I think it could get published in most publications, assuming that the dance-heavy and flowery opening and the quick second half doesn’t turn some publishers off. Hopefully with the right beta readers, I can get some good feedback for the story and make whatever edits I need to make.

In the meantime, I have plenty of other stories I want to write, so I’ll think about which one I’d like to write next, and maybe put out that post about writing dance sequences in prose fiction. So until next time, my Followers of Fear, goodnight and pleasant nightmares. I’m off to watch a scary movie.

I’ve heard everyone from Stephen King to members of Facebook groups I belong to raving about this book. Heck, some of the latter were raving about it months before the book came out (how they were able to do that well before the book came out, I have no idea). I remember listening to the audio book of Tremblay’s previous book A Head Full of Ghosts a few years ago and liking it, though I didn’t find it scary (see my review for my full thoughts), so I thought this was worth a try. And I’ll agree with His Royal Scariness, this is definitely Tremblay at his best.

The Cabin at the End of the World centers on Wen, a young girl and her two dads, Andrew and Eric, who are taking a vacation off the grid in the deepest parts of New Hampshire. At the start of the novel, a man named Leonard appears before Wen and attempts to befriend her. He is soon followed by three others who claim that Wen and her family are the key to saving the world. But to do it, a price must be paid. Thus begins a tense story of belief, insanity, and violence as Wen and her dads are held captive in their own cabin and given an impossible choice.

Like I said, this is a tense book, and an intense one to boot. Like A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay focuses mainly on the psychological state of the characters rather than outright answering whether what we’re reading about is actually supernatural or the delusions of troubled individuals (and like the former novel, there’s an argument to be made for either one). The result is that you’re kept guessing as to which it is while getting a very personal look into these characters as they deal with the stress of the situation. It’s powerful, and makes you really connect to the characters and want to keep reading to find out how the story ends for them.

I also liked how unpredictable Cabin was. There were a couple of instances in the story that really threw me for a loop. Heck, following one of them, I kept reading for several pages sure I’d misunderstood what I’d read or that Tremblay was pulling my leg, heightening the emotional impact when this twist finally sunk in.

Add in that the novel was a great example of showing diversity in fiction without being patronizing or just showing diversity for diversity’s sake (Wen is from China and her dads are a gay married couple), and that an actual medical issue is portrayed with accuracy, rather than in 99% of other stories, and you’ve got yourself a decent novel.

I don’t have anything that I feel like saying detracted from the book. Maybe I wasn’t scared as others might be, but then again, I’ve built up a tolerance to being scared. I still found it extremely tense and emotionally powerful, and I enjoyed it for that. And that’s good enough for me.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Cabin at the End of the World a 4.5 out of 5. Gripping with suspense and characters you truly feel for, you’ll have a very hard time putting it down while you read. Take a look and see why it’s one of the most talked about stories this summer (I’m hoping Rose will be one for this coming fall or winter). Believe me, you won’t regret it.