Tag: Horror

The Fire Child, by S. K. Tremayne

27874165You know this story. You’ve read this cliche before. A not-so-well-off photography professor Rachel Daly* meets an extremely wealthy man several years her senior. David Kerthen** is widowed; his wife Nina died in one of the mines on his thousand-year-old family property. He now lives with his eight year old son Jamie***. Rachel falls in love with David (of course) and even more so with his pale-faced, raven-haired son. Following a whirlwind romance, the two marry and Rachel leaves her poverty-stricken London life behind (to the envy of her friends) and moves to the Carnhallow House with David.
The Kerthens are an old family, who owe their wealth to their luck with the mines in the area. They were cruel, and did not care about those who lost their lives in the mines.
Caught in the memories of an old world is David’s mother Juliet. Through her, Rachel learns of the legend of the fire children. Soon after, Rachel’s stepson Jamie begins to act strange. He’s convinced that he’s a fire child and that his mother is coming back. Rachel herself begins to feel Nina is in the house – she can sense her presence, see her, smell her perfume, hear her voice, and what not.

*Has sad eyes
**Is a “‘broken’, womanizing lawyer”, who’s interestingly very much devoted to his first wife (no sign of any womanizing) and is very inarticulate for a lawyer.
***Kid can’t spell “write” but can spell “dinosaur”

The beginning of the story felt a lot like Rebecca to me. In fact, there’s this line in one of the chapters “Last night he’d [David] dreamt of Carnhallow again.” which, I know I’m probably looking for connections here, but it sounded a lot like the opening sentence of Rebecca to me. But that feeling quickly passes.

At the outset, let me mention, this is not a bad story. On the whole. But it’s been executed poorly (“poorly” being the kindest word I can think of right now). For one, it drags on and on and on and then leads to a laughably rushed ending. Why does it drag on? Because every third paragraph is a description of the sun and the sea and the mines (or, in the latter part, the snow and the sea and the mines) At one point, a character goes on to describe in detail the view from a supermarket. Just… why? We get it, it’s lovely, move on. Repetitions aside, there are these annoying inconsistencies throughout the book. I may sound nitpicky, but on one page Rachel tells us she does not tan, but she describes her “tanning shoulders” a few pages later. Minor detail, yes, but such things rub me the wrong way.

Everyone in this book is an overthinker and an overreactor. Either I’m missing chunks of the story, or these people are plain crazy. They go from state A to conclusion Z without analyzing (or at least merely considering) B to Y in between. For example, when Juliet describes the legend of the fire children, Rachel reads a lot into it and acts terrified. I went back to Juliet’s line a few times to check what I missed. Why did I feel Rachel’s reaction was unwarranted? Similarly, on what basis did David hire a detective to get details of his wife’s past? What convinced him she was hiding something? And here’s another inconsistency – he tells her to go through Nina’s old notes to restore the house, but when she does so, he’s convinced she’s snooping and trying to get him into trouble. So much goes unexplained, and yet we’re given such unnecessary detail about the bloody sunshine, FFS!

(Oh, by the way, the detective’s report adds even more cliches and stereotypes to this already unoriginal set of characters)

Gonna sound nitpicky again – my copy is an ARC, so I understand this will probably be fixed in the final – but there, were, bloody, commas, everywhere! It got so annoying, pausing where no pause was needed.

Now, why I said this is not a bad book is because there were parts of it that were genuinely spooky – and that’s more than what I can say for the new crop of horror/thriller writers. But nothing ties up properly – the motivations, the backstory, none of it. It is all implausible, and I can’t, for one second, believe the plot in its current form. It’s amateurish to the worst degree. All that foreshadowing (again, done badly) leads to no resolutions and by the end, you have a lot of unanswered questions looking up at you like a bloody hare in your hands.

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

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The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay

“If werewolves existed, Willie, I would have seen one by now.”

“You have not seen England, sir, and it exists.”

28486967I think for me, the most exciting part of the story was the fact that it is based on a true story. The Wolf Trial is the story of a sixteenth century serial killer, Peter Stumpp (Stumpf, in the book) – one of the first ever recorded accounts of a serial killer – who was believed to be a werewolf. When I learned this, I decided to read a little about the original Peter Stumpp before proceeding with the book. Terrible times, I tell you.

Neil Mackay has made a few minor changes to the story (for instance, in reality, Stumpp/Stumpf insisted that he was a werewolf acting under the orders of the devil), and his book follows a debate in which a lawyer and a priest (with the town being on the latter’s side) argue whether he is to be tried as a man or a werewolf. The lawyer, Paulus is a skeptic (see quote above) and an academic, whereas the priest, Fromme is a… well, a priest. The story is narrated by an 80-year old Willie, who was once Paulus’ assistance and who was present during the hunt and trial of Peter.

Mackay’s writing skills are noteworthy. I loved how atmospherically eerie this book was. The whole time I felt I was in some deep dark woods. It reminded me of the beginning of Dracula (if you recollect my review, that is the only part of Dracula that I enjoyed).

However, there are certain things that I did not like – such as the dialogue. The prologue made me think it was set in maybe early 1900s. Even in the rest of the book, the dialogue does not sit well with the image I have of the sixteenth century. Contrast this with, say, Murder at Cirey, which came out last year but is set in the eighteenth century. Perfect dialogues, and they add a lot to the atmosphere and the setting. Given that this book is already rich in terms of atmosphere, it would’ve truly benefited from better dialogue.

Another thing is, while it is understandable that a book about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence (I mean, obviously!), in The Wolf Trial, the violence does not quite blend in. What I mean is, it feels like it has been added to give it some sensationalism, as if the author thought of going a little over-the-top because this is a book about a (gasp!) werewolf, so there has to be some OTT violence. I’ve read up about the man’s crimes – horrifying. Mindnumbingly so. All the more reason to present it more clinically than dramatically.

Last, and most importantly, while Mackay has great writing skills and a great story to tell, there is something a bit “un-thrilling” about this thriller. It was not a compelling read, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to skim or speed-read or simply put it down.

All things said, it is commendable that Mackay used an account of the world’s first (known) serial killer and weaved a story out of it – I would have never learned of Stumpp/Stumpf of Germany otherwise.

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Freight Books/Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

The Autobiographical Elements in The Shining, by Stephen King

7133789Have I ever told you about the time I discovered Stephen King? It was at a wedding. A classmate’s wedding. An unlikely place to discuss horror books (or is it?) I can’t remember which classmate it was (I had attended quite a few underage weddings that year), but I remember this conversation so well. A few of us were discussing books and one of our teachers, dressed in one of the most beautiful lavender silk saris I’ve ever seen, told us how she had bought four Stephen King books at a second hand book store for 80 bucks the previous week. We made the right noises to convey our jealousy towards that cunning bargain. Another classmate then told us how she herself had read a King’s book recently and was blown away by it.

I was known as the book lender of the group, and was in no mood to reveal that I had no clue who Stephen King was. What I did, instead, was get a copy of the only Stephen King book I could find at a second hand book store. Quite possibly, the same one my teacher had gone to.

The book was Dolores Claiborne and I hated it. It felt, in my head, rather noisy. I swore off King’s books.

Four years after the events described above, I found myself running for King’s books like it was winter and they were warmth (weird, yes, I know. Creepy, yes, I know that too). I eventually realized he mainly wrote horror stories (which I didn’t know at the time I read Dolores). I read all his short stories, and to this day, I haven’t read anything that is as terrifying and disturbing as Gray Matter, from the collection Night Shift. I read his works with slight distaste and a perverse need. Something bigger than guilty pleasure, and almost as enticing as slow self destruction.

I’ve realized now that I keep going back to King not because of his skills. It’s admirable that he’s written more stories than most authors we know. But it’s not just about the volume either – they are all good stories. Although, I am not particularly a fan of his writing skills. Sure, I love his metaphors, I love the vivid imagery. But I’ve found faults with how swollen his books are, when they could easily have been much more compact. All that padding lessens the impact of the horror he wants to conjure up in the reader’s mind, and which is why, I have repeatedly and truthfully insisted that his books don’t scare me. In all honesty, I find Shaun Hutson’s no-brainer slashing scarier than King’s works and I’ve read Japanese thrillers that can give you far worse nightmares. I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I remember literally and exactly only two sentences from it, and I liked the memoir part more than the writing part. But I go back to King’s books, always. With a lot of respect and a deep sense of loyalty that – one that I cannot fully comprehend myself. I feel defensive of him in a way I don’t about authors I like more. It’s strange, and perhaps that is why The Shining affected me so much. And I’m not even talking about the supernatural elements (although, yes, this book will go down in history as the first King book that scared me).

It is a well known fact that authors leave pieces of themselves in all their characters. But often, the heroes we create are the superhuman versions of ourselves. Ideal, better men and women than we really are. It is a question that has often nagged me: do we only glorify ourselves through our characters, or do we dare to write the worst about ourselves? The dirt and the mess? Do we dare? I found my answer in Jack Torrance, the unlucky, alcoholic, down-on-his-last-buck protagonist of The Shining.

When asked about how he came up with the story, King narrated the incident where he and his wife spent a night at a Colorado hotel which was closing for the season. He had a nightmare involving a fire hose, which provided the inspiration for what later became one of his best known works. The room they stayed in was, no points for guessing: 217. But the real source of inspiration lies much deeper. And its clues lie in King’s anger at what the movie version did to his book.

Movies, in general, do not do justice to the books they’re adapted from. We know this. Authors have every right to be peeved. We know this too. But King’s anger draws itself from a personal well. An episode of Friends refers to The Shining as “a book that starred Jack Nicholson”. I bet that made King cringe, and why shouldn’t it? The character whom Nicholson portrayed on screen was a crazy axe-wielding maniac. It isn’t just that he wasn’t the Jack Torrance King wrote about. It was that it wasn’t who King himself was.

I read the book over a period of a few weeks (given my limited reading time, and the fact that this too is a well-padded book). One evening, the Mr. was watching a video on YouTube about the differences between the book and the movie. It was a coincidence; till I said something about a scene in the book, I did not know what he was watching nor did he know what I was reading. The video covered unimportant, secondary details (such as how book-Danny is 5, telepathic and intelligent, but movie-Danny is 7 and ordinary), but not the finer points that really mattered. It mattered to King that Wendy, a strong, sensible, caring woman in the book, is portrayed as a “screaming dishrag” in the movie. “That’s not the woman I wrote about,” he says. It mattered to him that the supernatural elements in the book were written off as psychological issues in the movie, thereby negating even the title [The Shining refers to Danny’s psychic abilities. He sometimes speaks to a “friend” Tony, who tells him things that are about to happen. The movie dealt with this… differently. It is interesting to note that the book is dedicated to King’s son, and he writes “keep shining”]. It matters that Jack, an ex-alcoholic like King himself did not slowly descend into madness because of the evil hotel, but was already crazy to begin with, someone whom the audience would never really sympathize with. And King has sympathy for all his characters. Torrance was not given a chance at redemption in the movie, but in the book, he does have a moment of clarity. The book has a heart, the movie does not.

The book is King’s confession – of his rage (especially directed at his children), his alcohol and drug abuse, his fears of failing as a writer. It cuts closer than On Writing. Jack Torrance is him, or who he was. The Shining was written at a time when King had some financial stability to speak of. But that does not erase the years he grew up watching his mother’s struggles, or the early years before he sold a story. Jack’s innermost thoughts are King’s innermost thoughts – why doesn’t Jack leave the Overlook hotel knowing how suicidal it is to stay? Fear. He has absolutely nothing to fall back on. All of these are King’s wounds and bruises that he smashes with roque mallets on to paper, exorcising his own demons, giving them forms of bloated dead bodies and blood and brains on the wall.

In The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, King all but says it out loud that he and Roland are the same person. You see King in all his characters, but not as loud, as neon, as obvious as you do in the villainous Jack Torrance, the angry man you somehow sympathize with (so much so that I felt guilty using the word “villainous” above). Why? Because it’s an angry side we all have, but we dare not talk about it. The real ghost of The Shining isn’t the Overlook hotel or the fire hose or the topiary animals, it is the mirror it holds up to ourselves. By showing us how he could have turned out to be when he was at his weakest, King shows us how we could be at our weakest. It shows us the evil inside our own hearts.

And it’s scary as hell.

Goodreads | Amazon

References: Rolling Stone | Salon | Guardian | The Dissolve 

A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

22999175Plunging right into it. No preamble. Not now, kids, I just can’t be bothered.

Summary: Merry Barrett narrates the story of her sister Marjorie’s battle with schizophrenia as a teenager. Merry, now 23, was eight years old when she began to notice the changes in her fourteen year old sister and hear her scream at night telling “them” to “get out of her head”. Marjorie, who once entertained Merry with stories, now rarely invites the younger girl to her room. When she does, she tells her dark, macabre-tinted stories that leave Merry upset. When the medication stops working (or Marjorie simply refuses to take any), their fanatically religious father decides to take the kids to church and also decides to get Marjorie exorcised. Their mother scoffs, but he disregards her. In addition to bringing a priest home, he also decides to make a reality show about his daughter’s condition, titled “The Possession.”

Format: The story is told from Merry’s POV. The book is divided into three parts and each part begins with a chapter written in a blog post format, followed by a chapter where Merry is interviewed by the bestselling author, Rachel, who’s writing a book about the Barrett family and the TV show they were once part of. This is followed by chapters in which Merry describes what “really” happened.

The Good: About 1/3rd of the book was eerie. While the “scares” employed mere shock-and-disgust techniques, the atmosphere of the first part was definitely creepy. The book pits science against the church and how many people suffering from mental illness do not get the medical aid they need because their families are busy believing that they’re “possessed”. The story also questions deep-rooted patriarchal belief systems, and a lot of questions the “possessed” Marjorie poses to the priest make you go, “Yeah, take that, patriarchy!”

The Downright Terrible: Let’s forget about the shock tactics (warning: involves vomit, faeces, menstrual blood), let’s also forget the eerie atmosphere the first few chapters established. What does the book have to make the reader finish the book? Questioning patriarchy is great, all thumbs up, but why clobber the reader on the head with it? Since this is a horror book, shouldn’t Marj be doing scarier things than engaging in discourse with the priest? That is all she does. Kid, the demon in you talks way too much. As a result, there isn’t any, how shall I put it…  excitement? Then there’s adult Merry’s super annoying blogger voice. She explains every. Single. Thing. Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the Show, Don’t Tell? And she makes too many references to popular films/books of the horror genre. And may I add, she is SO enthusiastic (so fake). The whole blog post format was unnecessary (the posts seemed like unflattering fillers) and could have been completely avoided. It adds absolutely nothing to story – only takes off the burden of “thinking” from the reader. The 23 year old Merry repeatedly mentions she does not remember much and the show, hearsay, fading memories have all added to what really happened. But when the POV shifts to 8 year old Merry, she gives scene-by-scene, day-by-day descriptions of events, right down to the clothes she was wearing.
The worst of all was the ending – I had a doubt about the narrator from the beginning, which has grown a bit in size since I found myself on the Acknowledgments page rather abruptly – no explanations whatsoever. I cannot mention the doubt here cos it could be a possible spoiler, but not knowing isn’t really killing me either. Basically the ending was jumbled and underwhelming and I honestly don’t care if I’m right or wrong at this point.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: Never falling for this man’s recommendations again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!

Insomnia, by Stephen King

“Each thing I do, I rush through, so I can do something else.”

Lately, I’ve been insomnia-stephen-king-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-bookdoing more book reviews than doing any of my own writing. That’s what happens to me when I read too much – also why I desperately try to strike a balance between reading time and writing time, but clearly one or the other always takes precedence.

I might have not read Insomnia – that is not to say never, just not at this point. But I had some free time and no books one day and I decided to search for some on my Google Drive – I almost always have a few unread ones in there. The choices I had that particular day were Casual Vacancy, A Suitable Boy and Insomnia. I did start the other two, but it was this one that I stuck with. I’ll leave the other two for some other day.

A strange coincidence has been occurring ever since I started reading Insomnia – it’s a story of a man, Ralph Roberts, who wakes up earlier every night than the night before. I began reading this story in the last week of December and since then I have been waking up at 3.49 am every night (and dropping off to sleep, unlike Ralph, thank God!) Clearly, my biological clock and my mind are in this together to play a prank on me. Hopefully, this will stop from tonight!

Another thing is – and maybe this is just me convincing myself this is a coincidence – this was the only Stephen King book I had on my Google Drive, and it is coincidentally a sort of prequel to The Dark Tower, the series for which I went on autopilot. The kind of prequel that you must read after the sequel, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why this fact (that it was the only King book I had on my drive) so fascinating to me, but it is.

Now that you’ve had about enough of my rambling, I should probably begin the review.

Genre: Fantasy, Kinda Gory, Could Be Scary, May Cause Insomnia To Reader

Summary: (I find it hard to write a spoiler-free review for this one, because there’s so much I want to tell you, but I will try my best) Ralph Roberts, a man in his 70s, begins to suffer from insomnia following the death of his wife Carolyn, waking up earlier each night than the night before. One day, at the local grocery store, a young woman, Helen Deepneau, whom he and his late wife were friends with, enters with her infant daughter, Natalie, after having been badly beaten up by her husband, Ed, also a friend of Ralph’s. Helen is terrified and tells Ralph not to dial 911, but he disregards this and gets help anyway. It is revealed that Ed beat her up because she signed a petition allowing Susan Day, a feminist activist, to give a speech in their town. Ed is convinced that WomanCare, the local women’s clinic is forcing women to have abortions and the stolen foetuses are used to serve the Crimson King. Ralph remembers that he has seen Ed’s crazy side even before Carolyn’s death. He realizes he has seen Helen with bruises on her even before this incident. As a result of his insomnia, begins to see auras around people (kinda like what I’ve described here in an otherwise very different story). He also sees two “bald doctors” who seem to be present in places where someone has died. A third bald doctor appears, who is later revealed to be an agent of “The Random”, who kills people for sport, for no reason whatsoever. Ralph later realizes that his friend, Lois Chasse, is also suffering from insomnia and can see the auras. The first two bald doctors reveal to the two of them that they must prevent an attack on the Civic Centre the night Susan Day makes her appearance, to save the life of someone who will protect the Tower (yup, the same tower). The attack is planned (of course) by pro-lifers, headed by Ed Deepneau, who is being controlled by the Crimson King.

This is about how much I can tell you without spoiling anything for you.

First of all, personally I believe between Insomnia, Rose Madder and Dolores Claiborne, (and maybe other works that I haven’t yet read) Stephen King has spoken more about domestic violence and women’s rights than most women authors have (because, I hate to admit, most women authors are still writing love stories where men with creepy stalker tendencies are heroes). But the sad thing is, this novel, though set in the early 90s, reminds you not much has changed even today – only last month there was an attack on a Planned Parenthood centre and several pro-lifers applauded it (my mind kept going back to that incident every time I read about the crazies in this book).

This political scenario provides a realistic backdrop for the otherwise bizarre sequence of events. Another thing is, this book asks you a variant of the question that keeps cropping up: What if Hitler had never been born (or killed, or never rose to power etc etc etc) (also see: 11/22/63) The good thing is, this story reached a concrete conclusion. My one peeve with King books has always been that he builds something so large that he struggles with how to handle it, and the plot topples on itself like a stack of china. This was taken care of in this volume, though it was not without entirely out of bizarroville. But it was a fun ride through bizarroville nonetheless. There were parts that made almost absolutely no sense, but I can live with that.

Some elements share a common thread with other works of his, just the few that I’ve read. Also, in some places I found bits of the plot predictable (if not the larger scheme of things). As for language, King’s metaphors are a delight to read, but there were very few in this one – I missed them. An issue I found was that, I was somehow not convinced of Ralph’s age – his age was repeatedly mentioned, as well as his slow movements, but in my mind, I could not picture Ralph as a man in his 70s at all. Maybe 50s, maybe even 40s! But not 70s. Conveniently, in the later part of the book, with the auras… ok, I won’t tell you. But all the characters are well etched out, so that’s a plus. While the concept of auras was very interesting, the bit of about the balloon string made it comical (balloon string: a string above a person’s aura that determines their health, life span etc). Plus, towards the end of the book, they sounded less like auras and more like Edward’s glittery skin (sorry, Sai King).

All in all a good read, of which I (predictably) liked the backdrop more than the story itself. It is a bit gory, but not necessarily scary (the first appearance of the bald docs scared me a bit though – it was eery) What is scary though is the awareness of mortality that sets in after you read this book. It’s a heavy book, but if you can invest the time to read it, you must. And if you plan to, read it after The Dark Tower, for some extra punches.

Get it here: Amazon

*Favourite quote from the book at the start of the review.