This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players. All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch). The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing. The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it. I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers. The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.
Release Date: 2009 February 6
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Laika
Coraline has been on my “too-watch” list for some time, so it was good to finally take in this visually stunning stop-motion animated fantasy based on a story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline is a preteen girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning, with the expressions and mannerisms perfectly matching the voice) moved into a strange old apartment building with eccentric neighbors by her inattentive parents. She discovers a small door with a passage to a mirror universe of the apartments where her Other Mother and Other Father live and spoil Coraline with her favorite things, and the sad neighbors are actually spectacular circus performers. It seems a wonderful place even if everyone creepily has buttons for eyes. All is not as good as it seems and Coraline will have to team up with a black cat (my favorite character) and neighbor Wybie, she uses her wits to avoid being trapped in the alternate universe.
I think Coraline is spectacular visually and great at creating mood and atmosphere. The story feels a bit thin and Coraline’s game against Other Mother is rushed compared with the rest of the movie and the resolution feels too easy. That being said Coraline is a remarkable piece of art.
Title: Stranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Number of Episodes: 9
When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer. Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.
The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality. The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates. Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.
The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections. Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier. Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past. Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab. I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.
The second season introduces several new characters. Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies. I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them. Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show. Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab. It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway. Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery. Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time. Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.
If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths. That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well. Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession. It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time. Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.
On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season. Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing. Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down. And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her. It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.
Which leads us to the final three episodes. I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing. It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite. Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters. And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all. The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience. By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.
The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best. While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season. There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time. I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.
Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)
Title: Stranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Number of Episodes: 8
The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana. There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others. Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own. I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well. Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.
What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes. A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness. A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally. Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.
The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue – with a few scares thrown in. It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.
Author: David Mitchell
Title: Slade House
Narrator: Tania Rodrigues and Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Sceptre (2015)
Not sure how this one ended up on my reading list as I was totally unprepared for a horror-mystery story. But that’s a good thing as it’s good to shake things up from time to time. The basic gist of the story is that a pair of twins have discovered immortality by way of consuming the souls of special individuals. They must “recharge” every nine years and to do so they must lure in their prey to the attic of the titular Slade House through elaborate connivance. Each chapter is narrated by a different victim from the 1970s to 2000s and what makes this book work is that Mitchell quickly creates an interesting, believable character to set against the schlocky, horror setting. It’s an entertaining read.
Recommended books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Evie, an outspoken youngster from Ohio is sent away be her family to live with a strange uncle in Jazz Age New York City and ends up helping him try to solve a series of occultist murders. An outlandish premise, but we also learn that Evie is one of many characters with extrasensory powers (the titular “Diviners”) and that there’s a man who is part machine, so just roll with it. The characters are richly defined and help hold together a story that’s a little like Ghostbusters, but 60 years earlier. The narration of January LaVoy captures the carefree spirit and hidden genius of Evie O’Neill and her comrades in this historical paranormal horror mystery.
Recommended books: Strivers Row by Kevin Baker, The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Author: Tom Bruno
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2012
The Curse of the Bambino is noted throughout New England as a reason why the Red Sox failed to win the World Series for 85 years. But what if it was a literal curse cast by a demon who took the form of Babe Ruth. That’s the premise of this horror novella that brings together a Fenway Park hot dog vendor, MIT professors, and a piano from the bottom of a pond to break the curse for good. It’s short and simple with a few flashes of humor.
Recommended books: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King , The Technologists by Matthew Pearl and A Soul to Steal by Rob Blackwell
Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Publication Info: [New York] : Harper Audio, 2013.
Previously read by the same author:
- American Gods
- Good Omens
- The Graveyard Book
- The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes
- The Sandman: The Doll’s House
- The Sandman: Dream Country
- The Sandman: Season of Mists
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane
- The Sandman: A Game of You
This novel is a mix of fantasy and horror, as a seven-year-old boy’s life is turned upside-down by a supernatural being that invades his home by way of his body taking the form of the superbly creepy Ursula Monkton. Fortunately, the equally mysterious but benevolent Hempstock women live on a farm nearby, and he’s able to go to them for aid. The book is full of mystery and atmosphere, and captures the feel of childhood when new things can be a source of joy and discovery and the familiar can suddenly be horrific. Neil Gaiman’s narration on the audiobook is excellent as his diction and delivery add to the feel of a child experiencing the horror and mystery.
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyways.”
“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences. I was a child, and I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive.”
“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”
“Oh, monsters are scared, said Lettie. That’s why they’re monsters.”
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
“Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not.”
This novella by my college friend Rob Blackwell introduces a new series about Soren Chase, a paranormal investigator. This story combines parental fears of “stranger danger,” urban legends, and supernatural monsters to create an intriguing mystery thriller as Chase tries to figure out who – or what – is trying to abduct his long-time friend’s child. The characterization is a bit thin, but I expect it will develop as did the characters in Blackwell’s Sanheim Chronicles. We’ll find out soon when Soren Chase’s first full novel The Forest of Forever is released.
Title: Give the Devil His Due
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
The third installment of The Sanheim Chronicles completes the story begun in A Soul To Steal and Band of Demons. As noted, the author is a friend of mine, so I may not be impartial, but on the other hand I was reading this while waiting for a bus and was so engrossed that I didn’t notice a bus had stopped right in front of me. The series continues to improve and it continues to change. These three books could be three different genres, and there’s a lot going on in just this one volume from Celtic mythology to the American Civil War. There’s imaginative world-building too as the characters proceed on an epic journey across the Land of the Dead. Blackwell also brings back a lot of good characters from earlier novels in unexpected ways, but I shan’t into detail lest it get too spoilery.
“It matters because words have power, and names have more than most,” Kieran replied. “It influences what we believe and that definitely matters. If we say the Land of the Dead is hell, and Sanheim is the devil, then we’ve already lost. How can we free a soul from a land where only the most evil and corrupted go in the first place? How can we defeat a monster that is evil incarnate? This is why Sanheim acts the way he does, why he no doubt tries to make the Land of the Dead seem like our conception of hell. Because it teaches people to accept their fate. They believe they are there because they deserve to be, and the creature that rules them is nothing less than an evil god.”
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: The Sandman : Preludes & Nocturnes
Publication Info: Vertigo (2010), Edition: Reprint
This is the first collection of the legendary comic book series about Dream, the personification of dreams. In this story he his captured and held prisoner for 70 years, avenges himself on his captors, and sets forth to rebuild his kingdom. Gaiman’s writing is dark and Dream is cruel but still at times a sympathetic protagonist. The illustrations are rich and often gruesome but always effective. It appears with the groundwork set in this volume that the series could really take off from here.
Author: Rob Blackwell
Title: A Soul To Steal
Publication Info: CreateSpace (2011)
A couple of disclosures before I begin this review. First, I know the author as we went to college together and more importantly were both DJ’s at the college radio station, WCWM. Second, I’ve always been drawn to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – partly because I grew up 45 minutes from the town in New York (then known as North Tarrytown) and visited frequently – and the Headless Horseman is a prominent feature of Blackwell’s novel. The story is part crime novel, part thriller, part supernatural and an original amalgam of all the above. Set in a small town in Virginia, two reporters for a local paper Quinn and Kate have to deal with the return of serial killer who tormented the town a dozen years earlier. This would be bad enough but each character has personal demons to face as well, some of which appear in very tangible forms. There are a few flaws to the book as events transpire and relationships form far too rapidly to be believable. I also wonder why when Quinn runs a journalist’s writings through software that can help identify the author why he doesn’t do the same with the letters of the serial killer Lord Halloween (other than that the mystery would have been solved a hundred pages earlier). These flaws can be overlooked though because this book really is a page turner and has moments of being very unsettling and very humorous. The ending promises a sequel that I forward to reading.