Happy Easter, boys and ghouls!
My best friend recommended to me Daphne du Maurier’s story “The Apple Tree.” I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of this author, although I was familiar with her work, unbeknownst to me. Her works Rebecca and “The Birds” were the stories behind Alfred Hitchcock’s movies of the same names, and which are both on my reading list now.
When I began reading “The Apple Tree,” I was expecting it to be something between Johnny Appleseed and Sleepy Hollow — only based on the title. I was very wrong. Instead, it was an engaging tale of a marriage turned sour. Told from the perspective of an old man who only sees what is wrong with his wife, du Maurier pulls you into a sad story of how life can be made harder when there is no love left between a couple.
The image of the apple tree was used very well in the story to represent the bitterness between the protagonist and his wife, and it reminded me of an earlier ghost story from the 19th century by Elia Peattie called “The Crime of Micah Rood.” Similarly, this story was told from the perspective of an old man, but that and the apple tree image are where the similarities end. This story is about poverty, jealousy and greed … and regret.
When I read “The Crime of Micah Rood,” I was struck by the central image of the apple tree. In both this story and “The Apple Tree,” the tree and its fruit act in supernatural ways that reflect the protagonists’ struggles. Peattie’s story is much shorter, but just as satisfying as du Maurier’s. They are good stories to read as companion pieces.
du Maurier, Daphne. “The Apple Tree,” The Birds and Other Stories, Virago, 2004, originally published as The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Several Long Stories, Gollancz, 1952.
Peattie, Elia. “The Crime of Micah Rood,” Great American Ghost Stories, ed. Bill Bowers, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Combining my love for drag queens and horror stories, I wrote a short story about a drag queen who is haunted by the mistakes of her past, in particular, getting a botched nose job and later mocking the plastic surgeon who did it to her on social media. Central to the story is the family bond within the drag community that sparks revenge when torn apart. If you like tales of murder and glamorous men in makeup, I encourage you to give the story a try! You can get your copy at BackupBrain: That Bloody Dress.
A library in Dublin, Ireland, recommends the following three books about women who “are different, the outsider who does not conform, the outcast who does not comply, and are therefore a danger.” Visit Witchy women on BorrowBox for descriptions of each title.
When I came across a copy of Robert Bloch’s Psycho at a Books-A-Million, I picked it up without hesitation. I had wanted to read it since I discovered in April 2018 that the movie was based on a book (see Horror Cinema: Psycho).
Reading it, I was surprised by its gore and violence, especially for a book written in the 1950s. I was expecting it to be more of a slow burn like its movie adaptation. Instead, right from the start, there was gore. Early on, Norman Bates was described as reading books about human sacrifices where drums were made out of human skin. The classic murder scene in the motel shower was more intense than I would have ever imagined.
As a horror writer myself, I aspire to write stories that combine a psychological thrill with true-crime violence, and Psycho turned out to be just that. It was written in a clear and concise style with engaging characters.
After reading the book, I re-watched Hitchcock’s movie version. While much tamer than the book—to be expected for the time it was made in—it was an impressive film adaptation. The biggest difference between the book and film was how Norman Bates looked. In the book, he is described as overweight with thinning hair and rimless glasses, nothing like the tall, slim brunette cast in the movie.
I highly recommend this book to any horror fan.
Bloch, Robert. Psycho, The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 1959.
Hitchcock, Alfred. Psycho, Paramount Pictures, 1960.
Stephen King’s Carrie
After reading Gerald’s Game, I was particularly curious about Stephen King writing with a female protagonist. I liked his characterization of Jessie Burlingame, and I wondered where else in his catalogue did he write using a female protagonist? Less than a moment later, I remembered Carrie, which he had written 17 years earlier. How could I forget the iconic image of the prom queen covered in pig’s blood?
I had seen the movie many moons ago, but had not read the book. I decided to grab a copy at my local second-hand bookstore and find out for myself how King presented Carrie and her horror story.
From the moment I started it, I liked it. It is told in snippets of narrative mixed with quotations from court documents, academic essays and first-person biographies. King outlines the story from three angles: the public, shown through the documentation following the destruction of a town by a teenage girl’s telekinetic power; the friends and family surrounding the protagonist Carrie’s life, shown through anecdotes from their eyes as they go about their day creating the perfect storm for Carrie’s betrayal and revenge; and the protagonist Carrie, located at the heart of the action and torment.
I was raised in households with varying degrees of right-wing Christian religious fervor, so Carrie’s story of being raised by an ascetic, judgemental, punishing, sadist of a mother who feels justified in her cruel actions by her Christian devotion and faith is not unrealistic to me. Neither was the high school bullying. The pleasure of Carrie was in watching the protagonist take punch after punch from her inner voice, her mother and her peers, and seeing it fuel her rebellious reaction until she rained down fire on all of them.
The Carrie narrative is iconic, and King, rightly so, is an icon. The book far outweighs the movie, mostly, for me, by casting. I had to revise my image of Sissy Spacek from very early on in the book, which I was glad to do. I much preferred King’s more awkard, angst-ridden teenager who reminded me more of Rae in My Mad Fat Diary than anything close to Spacek.
I am happy to continue my exploration of King’s portrayal of female protagonists. Perhaps Dolores Clairborne next, or Misery … is that one told by the writer or the kidnapper? Off to the bookstore!
King, Stephen. Carrie. Penguin Group, 1975.
Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs
I consider Agatha Christie a horror writer because, in practically any library, you are sure to find a macabre tale of murder by her. She was the first mystery writer I discovered, and I remember the thrill of being young and being allowed to read her murder stories. She was, in fact, my first inspiration to become a writer myself. I remember plotting out complex and devious murder schemes in short stories, written by hand in flimsy composition notebooks.
While shopping for a Stephen King book recently, I found a large selection of Christie novels, and chose By the Pricking of My Thumbs for its rich title … and for being a reference to the three witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Sold!
The story turned out to be quite different than I expected, but intriguing just the same. The main characters were older, so the pace of their lives and their stories were very different from mine. But, Christie made them unique and engaging, and their wandering whimsies and desires led them toward both discovering and solving a long-held mystery, which was fun. The story ended with a surprising attack of the villain on the protagonist: one old lady trying to kill another while locked in a hidden room … priceless!
My favourite narrative tool that Christie used in this book was to play with two narrators. It began with the husband and wife, and then followed the wife. About halfway through the book, the wife encountered danger, and the story followed the husband for a while. This created a tension in me that I was not expecting. At that point in the narrative, I was feeling really attached to the wife. Then finding myself in her husband’s shoes and worrying about her made me feel even more scared for her. I thought that was brilliant.
Christie, Agatha. By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Williams Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1968.
Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game
One of the reasons why I decided to run a horror fan blog was to encourage myself to be more immersed in the horror genre, especially in horror writing. One of my favourite activities is to write horror stories, so seeing how other horror writers develop a narrative with scary moments, and where those scary moments appear, interests me.
I admit that I have not read much Stephen King, although he has been a presence in my household my whole life. Both of my parents are fans, so we always had at least one King book in a bed stand or on a shelf. The few King books I read growing up, I liked. But, I was never pulled into the excitement of exploring more into his catalogue.
There is no time like the present. King is a master at horror story-telling, so I only have much to learn from him.
On the recommendation a few months back by Satan’s Niece, who is an avid King reader, I picked up a copy of Gerald’s Game. Going into the novel, I had a basic idea of the plot, which tells the story of a woman’s ordeal after she is handcuffed to her bedpost by her husband during an excursion to their remote cabin, and he dies. I was curious to see how King could write a 400-plus page novel based on this, to me, slim premise.
Again, King is a master. As he tells the story of the main character hung up by her arms and vulnerable—facing thirst, starvation and madness—he tells the story of her psychological vulnerability, weaving in and out of her sexual, social and emotional vulnerabilities throughout her life, particularly in her adolescence.
While I enjoyed many aspects of Gerald’s Game, including the empathetic, first-person female viewpoint and the explicit visuals of body gore, I especially liked that the story was about two things: the personal life of this one person struggling to survive thirst and starvation, and the universal experience of any person having to go through such a horrific ordeal. My favourite section of the book was about two thirds in when the character was preparing to face her second night tied up to the bed. She was victim to the madness of her thirst and starvation and, here, when she was shifting between memories, dreams and reality, King shows us what dying like this would feel like. Of course, the whole time I am thinking, “What if it were me?”
Netflix has recently released a film version of Gerald’s Game. The viewer’s reviews looked positive, and I started watching it, hoping to do a review of both the book and movie. But, as the husband locked the main character to the bedpost, I realized it was “too soon.” I had just closed the book, and I couldn’t bear to relive the horror that I encountered in the book. Give me a few more weeks, at least.
King, Stephen. Gerald’s Game. Penguin Group, 1992.
H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”
For my last birthday, my brother gifted me a copy of the complete fiction of pulp-horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. I had never read any stories by Lovecraft, so I was glad to receive this thoughtful present.
Before opening the collection, I did some online research on Lovecraft’s top scariest stories, and I happened upon this list of six best Lovecraft stories for the Halloween season written by an avid fan. The descriptions were well-written and made me intrigued to dive into my book.
The first story I chose was “The Dunwich Horror.” It was a good choice because it centred around the “ancient ones” mythology that Lovecraft created in his fiction. It introduced me to the Necronomicon and its power to usher in the end of human kind. I particularly liked the treatment of the Necronomicon as a key that had to be protected and hidden from those who would use it for evil. I liked that a librarian was thrust into the heart of the action, acting as guardian of the key and as detective responsible for stopping the end of human kind.
I liked the many narrative tools that Lovecraft used to set the stage for supernatural activity from the beginning of the story, mostly in his description of the setting and its people. As the story went on, it was told largely by the evidence left behind by the monstrous Whateley family , from local rumours to physical debris to the first-person experiences of villagers who had the opportunity to encounter or see any of the other-worldly monsters.
Lovecraft’s descriptions of the monsters were bizarre and strange, and told well enough to give me an immediate visualization. I had never imagined any creatures like how he described: a mix of underwater-creature tentacles and Pan-like furry features cobbled grotesquely onto giants.
My favourite literary tool Lovecraft used was how nature responded to the unnatural creatures from the otherworld: barking dogs, and chattering birds that appeared outside of their migration pattern and increased in activity when the Whateleys were dying. Even the stench left behind by the monsters years after the horror took place in the village invoked their imprint on the natural surroundings, showing these monsters as not only enemies to humans, but to nature as well.
Rich descriptions, fast-paced action and engaging characters are what I found in my first taste of Lovecraft. I look forward to reading more!
Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror,” 1929. The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Race Point Publishing, 2014, pp.674-712.
William March’s The Bad Seed
A horror movie that my Mom recommended to me when I was a teenager was The Bad Seed. She recalled how scary it was when it came out, which would have been probably scarier since she was just a little girl herself when it did. Recently, I came across the novel that the movie was based on. When I read on its back cover that the book was an instant bestseller and National Book Award finalist, I knew that I had to give it a try.
Granted, I haven’t seen the movie in over 20 years myself, but I liked the book better. I remember that the movie wasn’t as suspenseful as I had hoped, especially since I was used to watching Hitchcock films at the time. In contrast, the novel was both suspenseful and frightening. The slow build of the main character’s discovery of her daughter’s crimes followed by the deeper discovery of her own identity was gripping. The author, William March, created a cast of interesting and believable characters, making the book a delight to read.
It wasn’t a perfect narrative—but being a horror genre novel, I could forgive its clumsiness, and it was an overall memorable read, which is something I like when I find one.
March, William. The Bad Seed. W.E. Campbell LLC, 1954; Vintage Books Edition, 2015.
LeRoy, Mervin. The Bad Seed, Warner Bros., 1956.