The Goddess’s Ten Favorite Creepy Books from Childhood

I told you guys I’d be back to this blog shortly, and here I am. Before I get into today’s post, I wanted to acknowledge the horrible news I heard earlier this morning: one of Nick Cave’s 15-year-old twin sons, Arthur, has died in a tragic accident, falling from a cliff in Brighton. As I’ve written before, Nick Cave is a musical and literary hero of mine, and I cannot begin to imagine what he and his family are going through right now. For what it’s worth, I extend my most heartfelt condolences.

And now on to less soul-crushing subjects. It is perhaps fitting that I chose today to focus on childhood books I loved and that helped to shape my writing identity. These ten books, among the hundreds I read growing up, have stuck with me for various reasons over the years, and I would recommend any of them unreservedly to older children and adults alike. To make the experience more authentic, I even tried to find the cover art I remembered for each book, though I failed in a couple of circumstances, because the 60s and 70s were a long time ago, folks. So, without further ado, here they are, in descending order:

FaceOfDanger

10. The Face of Danger by Willo Davis Roberts (1972)

I have no idea why this little trade paperback made such a lifelong impression on me, but such are the quirks of the writer’s brain, I suppose. It’s not strictly a horror story, being more of a gothic thriller/mystery type of thing, and it’s not really for children either, I guess, but after discovering it in one of the towering piles of books in my grandfather’s old house, I read it over and over again in total and abject fascination. It tells the tale of a homely woman named Sharlee whose face is so drastically disfigured in a car accident that plastic surgeons are basically obliged to give her an entirely new face, one that is strikingly beautiful. I was transfixed by the idea of a lifelong plain Jane suddenly being thrust into the entirely unfamiliar milieu of the beautiful people (and all their fabulous gowns, not gonna lie), and the struggles that ensued. Sharlee is whisked away to a remote mansion by her new, wealthy suitor, where it comes to pass that there’s some pretty shady shit going on with the family she meets there, relating back to the woman whose visage hers was modeled after. I haven’t read this in years, but I remember it being pretty harrowing in a “dark romance novel” sort of way. Fun fact: While I was researching this blog post today, I discovered that Willo Davis Roberts also wrote one of my other beloved childhood books, the profoundly depressing child-abuse saga Don’t Hurt Laurie. I was kind of a morbid kid, you guys.

GhostOfOpalina

9. The Ghost of Opalina, or Nine Lives by Peggy Bacon (1967)

I must have checked this out of my elementary school’s library at least a dozen times. I adore ghost stories, and I adore cats, so a book that combined those things was of course going to be like a magnet to my wee, nugget self. It’s essentially a frame story about three children who move into a rambling old house and find a talking ghost kitty with glowing opal eyes in the attic. Opalina, as she’s called, tells them all about her nine lives and the people who had lived in the house over the decades. Even though I was never a huge fan of “historical” fiction growing up, I was absolutely spellbound with this one, and I remember the illustrations (done by the author) being charming as well.

WindyHill

8. The Ghost of Windy Hill by Clyde Robert Bulla (1968)

This little blue hardback was a frequent resident of my backpack and bedside table after I bought it from one of those wonderful book fairs Scholastic periodically held at my school. If I remember correctly, there didn’t actually end up being a ghost in the story (and please correct me if I’m remembering it wrong), but there was a fantastic creepiness about it just the same: The old drafty farmhouse, the mysterious woman in white with her rag bag, the tragic Bruno and his horrible father. I have a vivid memory of the mentions of the spring house (which I had never heard of before and found intriguing), and the placing of bells on the doorknobs to try to catch the “ghost.” Good stuff.

WitchesOfWorm

7. The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1972)

More feline frights! Jessica is a cat-hating pre-teen who finds a blind, hairless little kitty she grudgingly adopts and contemptuously names Worm. But apparently there’s more to Worm than meets the eye, because soon afterward, Jessica begins behaving strangely, as if the cat is possessing her and making her do terrible things. Is Worm a witch’s familiar? Is Jessica projecting her own unhappiness and destructiveness onto the defenseless animal? It’s a fascinating psychological study that never clearly states whether there’s anything supernatural going on. As an aside, I believe this was the first audio book I ever listened to (on a series of cassettes, because I am old).

FieryEye

6. The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (Three Investigators Classics) by Robert Arthur (1967)

I was a big fan of the Alfred Hitchcock-sponsored Three Investigators series. They struck me as much cooler than the Hardy Boys books, which always came across a little too goody-two-shoes for me (I was also way more into Trixie Belden than Nancy Drew, but that’s neither here nor there). I read most of the 43 books in the series at one stage or another; I think I felt an affinity with chubby smarty-pants Jupiter Jones, and I absolutely fucking loved the idea of the investigators’ headquarters being in a trailer that was hidden under a pile of scrap in a junkyard and accessed through a series of tunnels. My favorites in the series included The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, and The Mystery of the Silver Spider, but Fiery Eye was hands-down my jam. I’ve had a long fascination with gemstones anyway, particularly rubies, and I was also enchanted by the busts of historical personages that figured prominently in the mystery.

HeadlessCupid

5. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1972)

Snyder’s second appearance on the list. I first heard about this book on that old PBS show with John Robbins. Does anyone else remember it? He had one called “The Book Bird” and one called “Cover to Cover”, and he would feature a book or two on each episode (I distinctly remember White Fang, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Sea Egg, The Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting, and Misty of Chincoteague being highlighted). Excerpts of the book would be read and he would illustrate them. I loved the crap out of that show, and though I found a few episodes of it on YouTube, the episode lists on the internet don’t mention The Headless Cupid (or Ellen Raskin’s Figgs and Phantoms, for that matter, which I also swear I saw on there), so now I’m thinking my entire childhood was a lie and I don’t know how to behave. At any rate, this book had everything that preteen me loved: weird teenage girls, possible witchcraft, a ghostly mystery in an old house. The main character of Amanda, with her pet crow, crazy braids, and silver forehead triangle, was one of the aspirational figures of my youth. I thought she was the coolest chick ever.

GhostNextDoor

4. The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St. John (1972)

I loved this book so much as a kid, and for a long time afterward I only remembered the cover and the general story outline, but not the title. But thanks to the miracle of Google-Fu, I was able to track it down and revel in the magic once again. A little drowned girl, a spooky blue rose, a cement owl with marble eyes, and that vague sense of ambiguity about whether the ghost is real all added up to a chilling read. Easily one of my childhood favorites, and one that still holds up when read as an adult.

Hitchcock

3. Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense by Various Authors (1973)

I wrote a post about another of these Hitchcock-edited anthologies, Stories That Scared Even Me, right here, but this one got just as many read-throughs, and I still own a worn hardback copy of it. There are only eleven stories, but all of them are great, and I have to give it props for introducing me to what is still one of my favorite short stories of all time, “The Triumph of Death” by H. Russell Wakefield (which I discussed a bit here). Other standouts include a second Wakefield story, “Mr. Ash’s Studio,” a rare Raymond Chandler tale called “The Bronze Door,” a creepy undertaker yarn called “The Pram” by A.W. Bennett, and a horrific model-train story by Alex Hamilton, “The Attic Express.”

WestingGame

2. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)

I liked all of Ellen Raskin’s books, but this one was my favorite by a mile. It’s more mystery than horror, but I was so delighted by it that for years I’ve been contemplating doing a similar puzzle-style story (it’s actually in the planning stages at the moment, though I still have a lot of bugs to work out). The characters are hilarious, the writing sharp, the mystery intriguing. I actually re-read it just a few years back and I enjoyed it just as much. A classic. Why hasn’t there been a big-budget movie of this again?

HouseClock

1. The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (1973)

If you read this previous post, you shouldn’t be surprised that this came out on top, because it’s easily my favorite young adult book of any era, and I don’t see that changing at any point in the future (sorry, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman). Again, it hit all the right notes with me when I first read it: There was a creepy old house with secret passages and randomly changing stained-glass windows, witches and wizards, a hand of glory, necromancy, a scary countdown to doomsday, and those wonderful illustrations by Edward Gorey. Everything about this book was magical, and every time I reread it (which I do, quite often), I am transported back to that time in my childhood when all I ever dreamed about was ghosts and witches and hauntings and delicious creepiness that I wanted to utterly infuse my life forever (which it has, to a large extent, so I’ve got that going for me). I just can’t recommend this one enough; I wanted to live in its terrifying yet whimsical world, and if offered the chance to do so now, I would not hesitate to move right into that wacky mansion in New Zebedee and pile ice cream on my hat. Just talking about the book makes me want to dive back into it and forget about reality for a while, so I’m off to snatch up my purple-globe-topped cane, peer into my history-reenacting egg, and resurrect the corpses of some evil, long-dead wizards. If I don’t bring about the end of the world through these activities, I will return with more of my nostalgic and rambling posts very soon. So until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Top Ten Horror Novel Adaptations

I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.

GirlNextDoor

10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.

Hellraiser

9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.

GhostStory

8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.

StirOfEchoes

7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.

TheInnocents

6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.

TheOther

5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.

HellHouse

4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.

RosemarysBaby

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.

TheShining

2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.

TheHaunting

1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.

And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:

The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)

Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.

Parchment to Pixel: “The Enfield Haunting”

Readers should not be surprised to find that I’ve had poltergeists on the brain recently. Not only have I been doing radio shows to promote The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist (such as here and here), but I’ve also been working on a new book in conjunction with parapsychologist Steve Mera about one of the poltergeist cases he investigated in the 1990s. So those “noisy spirits” have been the overarching theme for the last few weeks of my life, if you catch my drift.

And because I love nothing so much as overkill, I decided to mine the poltergeist thang for this newest entry in my Parchment to Pixels series. Sky Living in the UK recently began airing a three-part miniseries based on the very famous 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case (which I actually summarized in my own Mammoth Mountain book, in the chapter on related cases). I’ve only seen the first two parts so far, but I thought I’d share my impressions, and perhaps edit this post or write a new one after the final installment airs. We’ll see how it goes.

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Called “The Enfield Haunting,” the miniseries features an impressive cast of British acting heavyweights, like Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen, and Juliet Stevenson (as Maurice Grosse, Guy Lyon Playfair, and Betty Grosse, respectively), as well as some terrific child actors portraying the put-upon Hodgson brood. Eleanor Worthington-Cox (of Maleficent fame) as Janet Hodgson is especially good.

The series is very loosely based on Guy Playfair’s paranormal classic This House Is Haunted, and Playfair himself shares writing credit on the show (with Joshua St. Johnson). Having read the book myself about a year ago when I was researching my own book, I will say that this series is definitely not the place you want to go if you simply wish to see the tale told realistically; the show is heavily, heavily dramatized, features several big scares that were not in the book, and hews to a more traditional horror movie structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as you know what to expect, but I have to say it was a little jarring for me at first, until I just relaxed and went with the flow instead of going, “Uh, no, that didn’t happen like that” every five minutes. By the way, if you’d like to see a more low-key rundown of the purported facts in the case, there’s a documentary here that’s actually pretty interesting. Oh, and from here on out, I’m likely gonna be spoiling some shit, so if you haven’t watched the series yet, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The Enfield Haunting Sky Living Episode 1 Doug Bence played by Tommy McDonnell shows Maurice and the Hodgsons the headline. Timothy Spall plays Maurice Grosse. Rosie Cavaliero as Mts Hodgson. Fern Deacon as Margaret. Credit: Photograph by Nick Briggs

You can read about the Enfield case on Wikipedia or in Playfair’s book, so I’m not gonna summarize it here, but I’d like to point out a few places where the series very obviously hyped up the terror and the drama from the fairly matter-of-fact reports of the paranormal investigators who worked on the case.

Though it is true, for example, that Janet supposedly channeled the spirit of a man named Bill who had died in the house (he’s named Joe in the series, for some reason), I don’t recall that she ever actually claimed to have seen an apparition of him. Bill manifested himself mostly as a creepy voice that would issue from Janet’s throat (or from behind her, as she claimed) and say nonsensical things, swear profusely, or occasionally come up with some tidbit about his death that actually did check out later. In the series, though, the spooky old fuck is everywhere, first appearing (in a pretty effective jump scare, I have to admit) when Janet is looking through her sister’s Viewmaster, and subsequently popping up outside of windows and so forth. Once he even turns up in the living room downstairs, puts his hand over Janet’s mouth as though to suffocate her, and (presumably) kills the family’s pet canary. And when Janet speaks in Joe’s voice, it is portrayed as possession, more or less.

Enfield Poltergeist 2

In fact, so far in the series, it seems as though the horrible Joe (who, it is hinted, was a molester/abuser when he was alive, according to his son, who Maurice Grosse interviews at one point) is painted as the main antagonist and a definite evil presence in the home who is on a quest to hurt Janet. In the second episode of the series, Guy brings in a psychic who makes contact with Joe, and after doing so, warns the family and the investigators not to try to contact or interact with him again, because he is the literal worst.

This is quite different to the book, in which it’s pretty much understood from the get-go that the “poltergeist” is not the spirit of a dead person at all, but rather the psychokinetic energy produced by Janet and, to a lesser extent, her sister Margaret, evidently triggered because the children were under intense duress after the departure of their father and their subsequent fall into further poverty. I don’t remember a psychic being called in by the investigators in the book, but if there was, then the psychic certainly didn’t channel a demonic old man or give the investigators such a grave warning. EDITED TO ADD: I was a bit mistaken in this. After discussing the book last night with the God of Hellfire, who read it at the same time as I did (I read it aloud to him after buying it for him for his birthday, matter of fact), he says that the investigators called in several psychics, none of which were much shakes, mostly just spouting useless “I feel a presence” type stuff, as most psychics are prone to do. Interestingly, though, the GoH remembers the last psychic that was brought in actually stopped the phenomena from occurring for good, or at least happened to be present when the phenomena stopped on their own.

The paranormal experiences portrayed in the series, in fact, pretty much take the gist of what was actually reported in the case and then ramp it up a hundredfold to make it as scary as possible. The splashiest things reported at Enfield in 1977 were things like furniture moving on its own, small objects (books, LEGO bricks) flying about the room, Janet’s weird “Bill” voice, some possible levitation, and a couple of apportations. In the series, though, Guy Playfair gets bodily thrown against a wall by an unseen force, Janet is nearly strangled by a possessed curtain (which actually only wrapped itself around her midsection briefly in real life), and sister Margaret begins speaking in the Joe voice as well, as though the “spirit” is moving from person to person.

David Soul seems unimpressed by the flyin' Guy.

David Soul seems unimpressed by the flyin’ Guy.

The relationship between Grosse and Playfair in the series is also far more contentious than it was in reality, and while I understand this was done to heighten drama and turn the whole thing into a more typical film narrative, it still struck me as strange, especially since Playfair himself was a co-writer on the series. In the actual case, Grosse and Playfair were both members of the Society for Psychical Research, and were casual friends. Grosse began working at Enfield, and at a meeting of the SPR asked the assembled members for assistance. Playfair volunteered, as he had at that point written several books and articles on paranormal topics and was experienced in the type of phenomena being reported. That’s about as conflicted as I remember their relationship being, i.e., not at all.

The Enfield Haunting Episode 1

In the series, though, Grosse begins camping out at the Hodgson home, doing his investigation thing, when Playfair shows up unexpectedly, offering help. It comes to light later that the bigwigs at the SPR have sent him to keep an eye on Grosse, since the SPR are thinking that Grosse has become too credulous and unstable since the death of his daughter, and is maybe going to screw up the case and make the SPR look like idiots. While it is certainly true that the real Grosse’s interest in the paranormal was sparked by his desire to contact his daughter (also named Janet), who died young in a motorcycle accident, in all the interviews I saw with him and in everything I read about him, he never struck me as any more credulous than anyone else in the field, and in fact seemed pretty level-headed, maintaining a healthy skepticism about the paranormal in general.

In a way, I almost wish I could just watch “The Enfield Haunting” as is, without knowing anything about the actual case, because I think I would enjoy it a lot more. It’s certainly a top-notch production, from the stellar acting performances to the fantastic cinematography to the wonderfully eerie vibe that permeates the entire endeavor. It’s creepy and pretty great, as a matter of fact; it’s just a shame that I’m so familiar with the source material that such a drastic fictionalization of it is sort of bothersome for me to watch (I’m sure I’ll feel the same way about the upcoming film The Conjuring 2, which will also be based on Enfield). It’s no fault of the series, really, and I actually do recommend it to those with an interest in such things. Besides all that, as I was watching it I couldn’t help but wonder what a Hollywood adaptation of my own book The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist would look like, and I can’t decide if the thought is hilarious or horrifying. Anyway. More to come later, possibly, when I’ve seen part three of the series, so come back next time, same bat time, same bat blog. Until then, Goddess out.

UPDATE! Okay, the GoH and I actually did watch the third and final part of this last night, and I have to say, I think in my previous viewing I was being a bit too kind vis a vis the series wildly deviating from the source material. While I still stand by my statement that the series is good and well-made if you don’t happen to know anything about the original case, the final segment really went flying off the rails and abandoned any semblance of reality. It seemed as though as the series neared its climax, the writer(s) no longer felt the need to simply sex up the reported facts of the case and instead went whole hog with just making shit up. Interestingly, the GoH tells me that he located an interview with Playfair on the internet (I can’t find it at the moment) in which Playfair said that he was unhappy with how the series had turned out, and that when he had been given partial writing credit he had been promised that the series would closely follow the actual facts of the case as he had written them in his book. He claimed that the actual facts he had reported were scary enough without having to go all Hollywood on the thing, and if that’s true then I kinda feel bad for him. As I said, I can’t find the interview myself, but the GoH read me bits of it last night, so make of that what you will.

As I said before, the series ran with the theme of making the poltergeist phenomena attributable to a ghost of some kind, although it did pay some lip service to the idea that Janet was causing the manifestations using psychokinetic energy powered by her repressed rage (there is one amusing scene, for example, where Grosse takes Janet to an airport and lets her scream out her frustrations to her heart’s content as the planes roar overhead).

Let the hate flow through you.

Let the hate flow through you.

This reasonable hypothesis is undermined, however, by pretty much everything else in part three of the series. There is crockery flying around everywhere, sinks full of blood, a tiny Tinkerbell-like light that torments and burns the girl, multiple apparitions, full-on possession of both Janet and the returning psychic; the shit just gets ridiculous. I think the most egregious example of this is when Janet is taken to the hospital after she breaks her thumb during a particularly violent poltergeist attack. In the real case, Janet (with no broken bones, it should be said) is simply sent to the hospital to have a standard examination, to rule out any mental or physical illness. She is given a clean bill of health and is sent home. In the series, however, she is put in a private ward, drugged all to hell (with the nurses soberly intoning that she can somehow withstand a HUGE amount of sedatives without seeming fazed), strapped to a bed, and threatened with electrical brain zapping. Later the bed dramatically flips over with the restrained Janet still on it. The girl’s mother, perhaps to save her from the suggested brain zapping, tells the hospital administrators that the family simply made the whole poltergeist thing up for publicity and that all she has to do is have a word with Janet and the whole thing will stop. Playfair and Grosse are both present at this meeting, and feel betrayed, though I guess the family didn’t really make it up because everything is okay with them later, though this is not shown. It’s a tad confusing, but whatever. It should be unnecessary to point this out, but none of this even remotely happened in the book; as far as I can recall, this was made up by the series writers from whole cloth.

There is also a rather silly scene where Playfair attempts to “exorcise” Joe by showing Janet the man’s ashes in a jar and trying to get his spirit to move on. Nothing like this happened in real life either, especially not the bit where Janet seemingly made the jar levitate up to the ceiling and then shattered it, showering everyone present with dead people ashes. The investigators never attempted an exorcism, and wouldn’t have attempted one in any case, since they were operating under the assumption that Janet herself was causing the phenomena.

Another aspect in which part three deviates quite a lot from the source material is Janet’s apparent channeling of Grosse’s daughter, and Grosse’s subsequent mental breakdown. He blames himself for his daughter’s death, you see. His wife leaves him (they make up at the end, though), he pretty much falls apart, and begins using Janet as a sort of surrogate daughter. Grosse in real life seemed like an okay dude, and I feel this does him a disservice. Of course the real Grosse was devastated by his daughter’s death, but he never once claimed that his daughter had contacted him, either through Janet or otherwise. And yes, he did become very fond of Janet and her family, as you would any group of people you remained in close contact with for more than a year, but I did not get the impression that he felt Janet Hodgson was trying to give him messages from his daughter. In the series, it almost seemed as though Grosse ultimately became the catalyst for the poltergeist and not Janet; at one point, Janet tells Playfair that Grosse is the one keeping the poltergeist there because he has unresolved issues about his daughter’s death, and indeed, the poltergeist phenomena doesn’t stop until Janet, speaking in Grosse’s daughter’s voice, tells Grosse that she is fine and that there is no need to forgive him for her death because it wasn’t his fault. It all just seemed very pat and more typical of a horror movie than a real, documented case, which generally has no rhyme or reason at all. So that rankled more than the earlier instances of embellishment, which at least bore some resemblance to the real reports.

Do I still recommend it? Sure, if you like poltergeist movies. But don’t expect it to be anything like what actually happened. If you’re okay with that, then go to town. The series definitely had some eye-rolling moments, but on the whole it was decently creepy, and the acting was mostly quite good. So, for the second time, Goddess out.

Houses Next Door: Novel vs. Lifetime Movie

At this point I almost feel like I should start a separate series called “Book To Movie” or something instead of just cramming these types of posts into my “Favorite Horror Scenes” series, but fuck it. Maybe I’ll get around to it; it doesn’t make much difference, I guess, but my anal-retentiveness really likes to have everything categorized neatly and correctly. The Goddess is nothing if not fastidious.

EDIT: Okay, I went ahead and did it. Not that anyone cares, but there are a couple new categories called “From Parchment to Pixel: Great Horror Books on Screen” to encompass these kinds of posts, and a “General Genre Musings” category as a catch-all for stuff that didn’t fit in any of the other classifications. Everything is correctly categorized, and I feel better now.

All that aside, here’s another discussion about a great horror novel that got turned into a mildly disappointing TV movie! If you’ll recall, I’ve done similar posts on Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home and Stephen King’s miniseries version of The Shining. And if you’ll further recall, I highlighted today’s book in an earlier post about my favorite horror novels written by women. As you might have guessed, the subject of this post is Anne Rivers Siddons’s stellar 1978 novel The House Next Door and the surprisingly-not-terrible 2006 Lifetime TV adaptation of same. Into the breach!

Because this was made for Lifetime, the shoe-buying, chocolate-scarfing menstrual cycle of TV networks, I was expecting this adaptation to be far more cheeseball than it turned out, particularly because the source novel contains such sordid, over-the-top plot points (albeit presented in an oddly toned-down sort of way). But the movie—starring Lara Flynn Boyle and her surgically unfortunate upper lip as Col Kennedy, Zack from “Saved by the Bell” as Kim the architect, and a few other familiar faces—is actually relatively restrained, which was kind of nice to see. The book handily pulled off its ridiculously melodramatic incidents because of Siddons’s matter-of-fact delivery and pacing, but I’m not sure some of the crazier, modern-Southern-Gothic stuff would have flown in the movie; it could have easily slipped into camp. So points to Lifetime for tamping down on the more lurid aspects of the novel (although I admit I did enjoy those on the page).

The story has been modernized, obviously, to reflect the twenty-eight years between page and screen. The suburb in the movie is just presented as a generic yuppie enclave, so the more specific “old South vs. new South” themes of the book (which was set in a fancy suburb of Atlanta) are no longer in evidence. I feel like main protagonist Col Kennedy (never referred to in the movie by her full book name of Colquitt) is a bit younger than in the book, as is her husband Walker (who was named Walter in the book, which I guess seemed like an old-fashioned name, so okay), but that’s pretty standard as adaptations go. The horribly class-conscious, shallow and backbiting characters of the novel actually make pretty good fodder for a Lifetime movie, so I’m awarding more points there; some of the characters in the movie, in fact, were more likable than their novel counterparts.

The plot follows that of the novel pretty closely (and by the way, if you haven’t read the book, I’m gonna spoil it for you, so go read it real quick and then come back, okay? It’s pretty short; I’ll wait). scan0008 Done? Okay, moving on. The House Next Door is basically a frame story, with the Kennedys watching a succession of three families moving into the gorgeous, newly-built house next door, and slowly coming to the realization that the house is evil and destroys everyone who lives within it by pinpointing what the residents value or fear most and then dismantling their lives in the most spectacular ways possible. The movie is only an hour and a half long, so obviously the plot had to be substantially compressed, with incidents being combined, or one horror coming quickly on the heels of the last one. Characterization suffers, of course, and to someone who’s read the book it will seem as though shit is happening at lightning speed, but that’s a failure of the medium, really, so I’m not going to fault the movie for that. It seems they did okay within the time constraints.

The novel is told from Col’s point of view, but despite this, she remains on the periphery of the action for a good part of the book, mostly hearing things about the house next door second hand, and not witnessing anything herself until quite late in the story. In the movie, though, Col is the main character, so this outsider status wouldn’t really work. However, the screenwriter came up with what I thought was a fairly elegant solution: as in the book, Col is an interior decorator, and in the movie she gets to spend a lot of time with the families next door because they hire her to help them decorate. A totally believable approach, and a good way to get her more directly involved in the shenanigans.

As in the book, there’s a short flash-forward introduction where Col and Walker are shown leaving copies of their wills conspicuously at their house before heading over to the house next door, with Col’s voice-over explaining that they know what they’re going to do is terrible, but that it won’t matter because they probably won’t live long enough to get into trouble for their actions. Then we cut to eighteen months earlier, as Col, Walker and the neighbors express their understandable displeasure that a house is being built on the beautiful wooded lot next to the Kennedy house, and then there’s the same change of heart as they meet the hot-shit, tormented genius architect Kim (a shockingly well-cast Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and the couple that will be moving into the house, Pie and Buddy Harrelson.

The Harrelson family section of the movie was the most different from the novel, and I think most of the changes made were probably the right ones (though I’ll have more to say on that in a minute). In the book, Pie was a very young, naïve, perky cheerleader type with a bizarre, quasi-sexual relationship-cum-competition with her old-fashioned father; in the movie, only the competitiveness and spite are highlighted, with Pie telling Col that she’s basically basing her whole life around showing her father up, since Daddy never thought her husband was good enough. Movie Pie is actually much less annoying than Book Pie, which I thought was a good decision, as portraying Pie on screen exactly as she was in the book may have made her not only less realistic, but also much less sympathetic.

We've got spirits, yes we do; we've got spirits, how 'bout you?

We’ve got spirits, yes we do; we’ve got spirits, how ’bout you?

As in the book, Pie is happily pregnant and unable to believe her luck at how her life is progressing. Also as in the book, Buddy buys her an adorable puppy that you just know something bad is going to happen to (especially as we’ve earlier seen Col finding a torn-up animal in her garden). Shortly afterward, the puppy is found ripped to pieces (RIP puppy), and though Pie is heartbroken, she goes ahead with a planned housewarming party, so that she can schmooze with her neighbors and show Daddy how high up the social ladder his little girl has climbed.

So here is where the movie parts ways with the book rather significantly. In the movie, everything bad that happens to the Harrelsons comes crashing down all at once; the party seems to be going swimmingly, but partway through, Pie can’t find Buddy and goes to look for him. As she is standing at the top of the basement stairs, Buddy pushes her to the bottom, possessed by some evil within the house. Col finds her and rallies the troops, Pie is carried off in an ambulance (she ends up having a miscarriage, naturally), Buddy is carted off in handcuffs and charged with attempted murder, Pie’s Daddy screams at him that he always knew Buddy was a piece of shit, and that’s the end of the Harrelsons.

In the book, however, the events had a darker and much more batshit quality. Pie actually does fall down the stairs and lose her baby at one point, but it happens earlier in the story, and she is alone in the house at the time. She is found by neighbor Virginia (if I recall correctly), and Col is summoned to help. Despite the miscarriage, Pie decides to go on with the party, since displaying her status to her Daddy is of utmost importance to her. At the party, she loses track of Buddy, but she finds him in a much less murderous frame of mind; in short, he’s indulging in some intensely ass-slapping gay sex with his law partner on the bed where all the guests have been leaving their coats. Not only that, but Pie’s Daddy has found the fuckers first, and is in the process of dying from a shock-induced stroke on the bedroom floor. Now, I can see why the movie chose to downplay the novel’s scenario; public infidelity aside, homosexuality is not shocking or immoral to anyone anymore (aside from a few knuckle-draggers), so the scene would not have played out the same in 2006 as it did in 1978. Additionally, the screenwriter likely thought that the incidents portrayed in the book would have just been too much for audiences to swallow. A caveat, though. The whole M.O. of the house, both in the book and in the film, was that it systematically took away everything that was most important to the people who lived there or came in close contact with it. In the book, the house was very specific in how it chose to destroy the Harrelsons: It took their beloved puppy, then it took Pie’s baby, then it shit all over Buddy’s professional reputation by involving him in a sex scandal with his law partner (which everyone at the party saw, by the way), then it not only had Pie’s Daddy see Buddy in such a compromising position, but it killed Daddy off too, thereby leaving Pie with her life in complete and utter shambles. So while I can see why the movie went in the direction it did, it also seemed to soften the blow for Pie somewhat, as her father didn’t die in the movie, leaving her with something of her old life left to cling to. The book left her no such consolation.

Crabgrass! My life is over! #firstworldproblems

Crabgrass! My life is over! #firstworldproblems

Anyway, as in the book, after the Harrelsons beat cheeks, a new couple called the Sheehans (Anita and Buck) move in. Buck seems pretty similar to how he did in the book, but the character of Anita is quite different. In the book, Anita was a delicate, dark-haired beauty who seemed haunted by something unspoken in her past, but was eager to make friends in the neighborhood despite her still-fragile mental state. During the course of the story, we discover that the Sheehans’ son Toby was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, and Anita had to be institutionalized to deal with her grief. Buck, unable to deal with what had happened, had an affair, which Anita found out about. Through counseling, the couple had reconciled and were well on their way to getting their shit together; Anita was in a much better mental place, Buck had made his amends and had newly committed to their marriage, and things seemed to be looking up when they moved into the house next door, looking for a fresh start.

In the movie, Anita was an average-looking, matronly type with short mom hair and nothing of the ethereal or mysterious about her; in fact, she seemed completely open and friendly when Col and a couple of the other neighbor ladies showed up with flowers and cake to welcome the couple to the neighborhood. Immediately, though, things start going to shit; Anita orders a pizza for the ladies, and when the pizza guy comes to the door, she freaks out, thinking her dead son (killed in Iraq in the movie) is standing on the doorstep. As in the book, she begins to receive mysterious phone calls where she thinks she hears Toby calling to her, and she eventually starts to see the helicopter accident which killed him playing on the television in the living room; unlike in the book, Col is actually a witness to one of these horrific telecasts from beyond. As I said, the plot had to be substantially speeded up due to time constraints, but it was still jarring that Anita flipped out so quickly; in the book it was a much slower progression. And in the book, this was the point where Col only started to suspect that maybe something was wrong with the house; Book Col didn’t actually see the helicopter crash on the TV, but after Buck told her about it, she checked the TV listings and saw that no war movie had been on TV at the time when Anita had seen the vision, thereby making her wonder if something more sinister was going on over there. The rest of the Movie Sheehans’ arc plays out similarly to the book; Anita keeps seeing visions of Toby and loses her marbles, then is pushed over the edge when she sees Buck and Virginia in flagrante delicto. Anita kills herself, Buck moves away, and Virginia flees the neighborhood in shame at what the house made her do.

Part three, with the Greenes, is also fairly similar. Norman Greene is a self-important, tight-assed, abusive asshole with OCD issues, his cowed wife Susan vainly tries to be perfect for him while attempting to maintain a pleasant social face, and their daughter Belinda (who I think was named Melissa or Missy in the book) suffers from some unspecified illness that causes her to have stomachaches and vomit at times inconvenient for her jackwad father. (In the book, Norman is her stepfather, and the girl’s gastrointestinal disease is a source of intense embarrassment for him, so much so that he denies that she has it, claiming that she is simply faking illness for attention. This is touched on in the movie, though it is never explicitly stated that Belinda is anything other than his biological daughter.) As in the book, the Greenes have a party which few people attend because the invitations mysteriously never get mailed, even though Susan is shown getting ready to mail them; also as in the book, Susan is blamed for her “stupidity” in not getting the invitations out. Norman makes the most of the awkward vibe at the party, though, and pontificates at length to his captive audience about how awesome he is and how put-upon he feels at being burdened with such a sub-par and useless family. In the film, the party comes to a screeching halt when Belinda pees herself in front of the party guests (shades of The Exorcist), horrifying her father’s sense of neat-freak propriety. This scene is also substantially toned down from the book, but that’s probably for the best, because it would have been pretty gross to portray as written. In the novel, everyone at the party is alerted by a scream from the kitchen. When they go to investigate, they find Melissa-or-Missy cramped up in a fetal position on the floor, spraying diarrhea all over her white dress, the floor, and her mother, as the illness her father frightened her into ignoring comes to a spectacular head. If I recall correctly, the capper on the evening is the power going out (ruining the “perfect” party Norman had planned), and then coming back on just at the moment when Norman is standing over the blender, which Susan has conveniently left the top off of. Norman is drenched by whatever was in the blender, filthifying him and making his public embarrassment complete. In the book, he furiously runs everyone out of the party, and it comes to light later that after everyone left, there was a blistering argument between Norman and Susan which resulted in Susan finally flipping her shit, and shooting him, her daughter, and then herself. In the movie, this is also toned way down; Susan does end up shooting Norman and herself, but Belinda escapes, fleeing to the Kennedys’ house for help. Lifetime didn’t want to kill off the cute little girl, I guess.

So, what are your qualifications for becoming my new mommy?

So, what are your qualifications for becoming my new mommy?

The rest of the movie plays out in pretty much the same way; architect Kim returns from the trip to Italy he took to get his mojo back, and he buys “his” now-empty house. When he and Col are in there alone, the insidious evil of the house causes them to uncharacteristically act on their previous light flirtations and start going at it, Walter/Walker witnesses the infidelity and attempts to kill them both, but Walker and Col manage to drag themselves out of the house before anything too horrible happens. As in the book, it is this shattering event that finally shows Walter/Walker how evil the house is, and cements his decision to join with his wife and destroy the thing. In the book, Col and Walter actually went to the press to warn people about the house and subsequently had the entire neighborhood shun them; in the movie they never go to the press, but are kinda given slight pariah status just the same because of their theories about the house next door. In the movie, they destroy the house by blowing it up (which I think is pretty much the same thing that happened in the book) and making it look like an accident. Kim is killed in the explosion, which I think also happened in the book, though I’m not entirely sure and don’t have the book with me to check. Similar to the book, the movie ends with Pie and Buddy’s contractor from the beginning of the movie talking to an idealistic new couple about these fantastic house plans he still has from some hot-shit but now deceased architect, and he tells them that he can build the house for them if they want it, because the house on the plans looks “magical and alive.” And thus the cycle of evil continues, even after its emissary is dead. I think the movie was a lot less subtle in its portrayal of Kim as the definite agent of the evil, making him almost seem a willing participant. In the book, it is understood that there is something inside of Kim, a curse of some kind, that causes everything he designs to cause misery and death, but he doesn’t seem complicit in the evil, simply an innocent conduit (though I could have been misreading the text on this score). As in the book, Col and Walter eventually leave their house and move permanently to their beach house to escape the sneers of their neighbors (in the book they also escaped a substantial media frenzy surrounding the haunting; this isn’t really touched on in the movie); unlike in the book, they seem to adopt the surviving Belinda Greene, neatly tying up the several hints in the movie that the Kennedys (or at least Walker) were somewhat bothered by their childlessness. End film.

As I said, not really a bad adaptation at all, especially considering it was a Lifetime movie. It never got too eye-rollingly silly, and moved along at a pretty good clip. Some of the changes made from the novel I agreed with, and some I didn’t, but I can understand why certain changes were made, even though I might not have liked them. Worth checking out if you’re bored and have ninety minutes to kill, but as always, the book is light years better and would obviously be a much more satisfying investment of your time.

Until we meet again, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

All Hail the Mother: The Book and Film of “Harvest Home”

As I promised in my last post on the classic silent film Häxan, I am going to continue my more general “Creepy Scenes” series in addition to my new silent films one. To that end, this post will return to the horror of the 1970s, which is probably my favorite decade for horror films. And though I will be discussing a film, I’m actually more interested here in the book and the changes that were made from page to screen. There will be lots of spoilers, so you have been duly warned.

BookCover

I had been wanting to read Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home for quite a while, but had somehow never gotten around to it. I adored his 1972 book The Other, and the film adaptation of it is one of my favorite horror films of the decade. A few weeks ago, I was reading a post in a horror Facebook group where people were recommending books that had really frightened them, but didn’t get the attention they deserved. One person recommended Harvest Home, and so reminded, I went immediately to Amazon and bought a used paperback copy for two bucks.

Much like The Other, Harvest Home is a marvelous read, getting under your skin in a way that few books do. In brief, it tells the story of a family from New York City (artist Ned Constantine, his wife Beth, and teenage daughter Kate) who decide to give up their fast-paced city life and get back to the land in the tiny rural New England town of Cornwall Coombe, an agricultural community seemingly (and charmingly) suspended in time. Obviously, because this is a horror novel, the idyllic surface of the community hides a horrific secret that very slowly becomes apparent over the course of the story. Much like The Wicker Man or Stephen King’s “The Children of the Corn,” Harvest Home effectively wrings terror from the clash of ancient earth-worshipping paganism with modern sensibilities.

When I was about three-quarters of the way through the book, I began to wonder if there’d ever been a film adaptation of it. Since I hadn’t heard of one, I assumed that even if one had been made, then there was no way it was up to the caliber of The Other. But a quick search of YouTube brought up a four-hour miniseries that had been made in 1978. I initially wanted to finish the book before watching the film so as not to spoil the ending, but I admit my curiosity got the better of me, and one evening last week I sat down and watched the whole four hours in one sitting. If you’re so inclined, you can watch it too, right here:

I finished the book this afternoon, and even though I do wish I had waited to finish it before watching the miniseries, the impact of the book’s ending wasn’t really dulled by knowing roughly what was going to happen; it was still pretty horrific. There were several changes made from the book to the miniseries, obviously, and while I understand why most of them were made, I feel the effectiveness of the miniseries was severely undercut by not following the tone and characterization of the novel.

Though the miniseries seemed to have mostly positive reviews on IMDB, I found it to be profoundly disappointing. There were a lot of well-known actors in it for the time (Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune, a young Rosanna Arquette as Kate, Rene Auberjonois as Jack Stump, a very young Tracey Gold as Missy Penrose), and it had some effective scenes, but it suffered from overblown acting performances and that slightly “off,” late 1970s TV movie sensibility, where everything seemed ridiculously dramatic, and all the conflict painfully forced. None of the characters or the town were portrayed as I had imagined them while I was reading, and the tone of the miniseries held none of the subtly increasing dread of the book. I also found the miniseries difficult to follow; had I not read most of the book before watching it, I think I might have been lost, and turned it off in frustration. A lot of things were left out, or inadequately explained, or, conversely, over-explained. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but I have to say that I’m sort of bummed out that I watched it, because now my experience of the book will be tainted by the movie, and that’s sort of a shame.

DarksecretofHarvestHome-MCA1

One of the things that bothered me the most, and I guess this is a problem with a lot of films adapted from great books, is that much of the subtlety of the book was abandoned in order to make the movie “scarier” or more dramatic. In this case, the changes had exactly the opposite effect. One of the most frightening things about the book is its insidiousness; the horror creeps up on the protagonists (and the reader) so slowly and so inconspicuously that when it does come, it’s tremendously shocking, even though you’ve been expecting it all along. Tryon was a master at this, by the way; his skill in weaving a hypnotic spell around his characters and readers and then pulling the rug out from beneath them is extraordinary. I was just as seduced by the town of Cornwall Coombe as the characters were, and just as horrified when it all went to shit. I felt betrayed just as surely as the characters were, and that is the genius of Tryon’s writing. As I said, that was the most frightening thing about the book. Cornwall Coombe seemed so nice. And not in a fakey, Stepford, something-creepy-is-going-on-here kind of way, but in a genuine, salt-of-the-earth, these-are-really-good-people kind of way. Nothing seemed sinister at all, nothing really seemed off. The people of Cornwall Coombe welcomed the Constantine family in their stoic, New-England-farmers sort of way, they made friends with them, they helped them out, seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts. Sure, there were a few strange things going on, as there are in any small town; those crazy Soakes moonshiners out in the woods, for example, or that grave outside the churchyard fence, or the aggressive attempted mate-poaching of town slut Tamar Penrose, or the prophesying of her mentally challenged daughter Missy. But all of this could be attributed to the quaint, backwards ways of a simple agricultural people who had been doing things the way their ancestors did, unchanging through the centuries. None of it even hinted at the terrifying realities lurking beneath the surface, of how bad things would ultimately get.

By contrast, the TV miniseries made the town seem weird right from the beginning, with lots of significant glances and dialogue that was just too glaringly obvious in its insistence that CORNWALL COOMBE IS A BAD, SCARY PLACE. I understand this to an extent; obviously, when you’re adapting a 400-page novel to a four-hour film, you have to speed up the pacing to get everything in. But I felt like it just didn’t work. The characters seemed too broad and silly, too stereotypical to be effective. Bette Davis made a great Widow, but she was clearly up to something from the start; there was nothing of the kindly, selfless, lovable old woman from the book who is very slowly and shockingly revealed to be evil.

I also had a big problem with the main character of Ned Constantine (whose name was inexplicably changed to Nick in the movie), both individually and in context of his relationship with his wife Beth. In the novel, the entire story is told from Ned’s point of view, and you grow to like him a lot as a person, or at least I did. He’s a good man; he messes up a couple times, sure, but you feel for him, and it seems like his heart is in the right place. He loves his wife dearly, and though some marital problems in the past are subtly hinted at, you get the idea that the pair are not only intensely in love with one another, but are also genuine best friends with abiding respect for one another as people. In the novel, Ned is just as enchanted with Cornwall Coombe as his family is, becomes close friends with several of the villagers, and spends many happy hours drawing and painting residents and landscapes alike. He doesn’t really realize the extent of the horror until very late in the book, and his downfall is therefore terrible and tragic.

By contrast, Nick in the movie seems like a raging asshole from the start, who snaps at Beth pretty much constantly and seems dead set on keeping his snarky distance from the backwards rubes in the Coombe. His relationship with the townsfolk is based on arrogant condescension and outrage; he even summons and berates the constable when he finds the old skull in the woods (which doesn’t happen in the book, where he seems more content to let sleeping dogs lie). As in the novel, he becomes curious about the “suicide” of Grace Everdeen fourteen years before, but unlike in the novel, he decides to write a salacious, tell-all book about it against the wishes of his wife and the other residents, and makes a nuisance of himself asking the townsfolk uncomfortable questions about her death. In the novel, Ned was writing no such book, and in fact was not seeking to exploit the people of the Coombe at all; sure, he was selling some of the paintings he did there to a gallery back in New York, but he was doing just as many paintings for the residents simply because he wanted to, or to give them as gifts. Ned’s loving relationship with his wife and the town in general make the inevitable betrayal of the townsfolk when he finds out their secrets that much more profound. In the movie, Nick was such a cock that I didn’t feel bad at all when his inevitable end came; in fact, I admit I welcomed it, because it felt deserved. That was probably not what the filmmakers intended.

In addition, the character of Beth was portrayed in the film as a neurotic, therapy-dependent harpy who is easily sucked into the traditions of the town and turns on her husband almost immediately. In the book, Beth is a strong, reflective, intelligent woman who seems to have her shit together and loves her husband despite his minor failings. She only really turns against him at the very end, and perhaps understandably so, from her point of view. I just didn’t like the way the movie made their relationship far more contentious than it was in the book, seemingly for the sake of cheap drama. For example, in the book, when Beth tells Ned that she wants another baby, he is nervous and uncertain, of course, but receptive to the idea, and genuinely pleased when she tells him that she’s pregnant. In the movie, she tells him her wishes for a child and he screams at her that there’s no fucking way (not in those words, but y’know). He does apologize when she (seemingly) gets pregnant, but still, the stench of his assholishness lingers.

There were some other niggling changes that bothered me quite a bit. Missy Penrose, the prophesying child, is a terrifying figure in the book, with her creepy pronouncements, her creepier corn doll, and the way all the townsfolk seem to look to this profoundly retarded but “special” child for guidance. When Ned happens to spy upon the ritual of her inserting her hands into the bleeding guts of a newly slaughtered lamb and then laying her bloody hands upon the cheeks of the chosen Young Lord, it’s a seriously chilling moment. In the movie, Tracey Gold’s awkward and overdone performance turns Missy into a shrieking joke.

In the movie, neighbor Robert is simply blind, with white eyes; in the novel, his eyes have been totally removed, which has far more horrifying implications in the context of the story. Likewise, Ned’s fate at the end of the movie is that he’s simply been blinded as well, but in the book, his tongue is also removed (as Jack Stump’s was, providing some nice continuity).

I was also kind of surprised that one of the most shocking scenes in the book was partly left out. In the movie, Nick gets ragingly drunk at the husking bee and runs off after he pisses off the townsfolk by pulling his daughter out of the dance. Ending up in a stream, he is approached and seduced by Tamar. Angered by her aggressive advances and his helpless lust, he lamely attempts to drown her, but does not succeed. She tells no one about this. However, in the book, that scene plays out a bit differently. Ned, who has discovered the town’s betrayal but has so far not really acted upon his discoveries, has an argument with his wife after she doesn’t believe his accusations against the people of the Coombe. He wanders off to the woods, totally sober and in broad daylight, and ends up swimming in the stream. He is approached by Tamar, who begins to work her feminine charms. He loathes her because he knows now that she is the one who not only murdered Grace, but removed Jack’s tongue, but he is equally repulsed by his own uncontrollable lust for her. He wants to kill her, and forces her down in the mud, where he brutally rapes her, wanting to obliterate her with his sexuality. It’s a horrifying scene, because violent rape is PROFOUNDLY out of character for him, but it’s scary precisely because it demonstrates how thoroughly the town has affected him and trapped him, and how powerful is the pagan feminine force working through Tamar. He realizes during the rape that he cannot kill Tamar, and that she has triumphed over him because he has given her exactly what she wanted. She subsequently tells the Widow of the rape, Ned’s wife finds out, and thus his ultimate fate is sealed. I suppose it’s understandable that a TV movie wouldn’t want to show a brutal rape, and now that I think about it, the rape wouldn’t have had the same impact in the movie since Nick was such a jerk that a rape wouldn’t have been out of character for him. In the book, I was astounded by the turn of events; in the movie I just would have been, “Eh, par for the course, I suppose.”

I realize I went on and on, but in brief, I can’t really recommend the miniseries. Read the book instead; it’s phenomenal. And until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess Picks Her Five Favorite Horror Novels by Women

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February, in case you hadn’t heard, has been designated Women In Horror month, and even though I gotta admit I’m kinda longing for a future where female horror writers will be so commonplace that it will be unnecessary to even remark upon them, I do feel like we vagina-havers still need our own month for now. That’s because, for whatever reason, women who write horror are still thought of as something of a novelty, or at very least a tad oddball. It’s a lot better than it used to be, sure, but even in this enlightened year of 2015, it’s not unusual for a horror anthology to come out containing no women authors at all, and there’s still a lingering perception that women don’t like horror as much as the guys do, or they don’t write it as well, or something, since apparently we’re all just precious delicate flowers who could never possibly enjoy the song of the chainsaw, the call of Cthulhu, the visceral thrill of seeing someone’s spine forcefully extricated through their mouth. I guess there’s a similar bullshit thing going on with female comedians and “girl geeks,” but I’m not really gonna go into all that because this is a horror blog, and I gotta stay focused on the topic without going off on a rant. Anyway, since I’m a woman who has always loved everything to do with the horror genre, I’ve decided to celebrate Women In Horror Month by honoring a few of my favorite “girl” writers in the genre with this humble blog post. So here we go.

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Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

I know I talk about this book a lot (and I wrote a whole blog post about the fantastic film adaptation as well), but that’s because it is probably my favorite horror novel of all time, and easily one of the best horror novels of the 20th century. In Ms. Jackson’s capable hands, something as pedestrian as a haunted house story becomes a multilayered, intensely terrifying study of psychological breakdown. Her masterful characterization of Eleanor Vance is one of the best in literature of any genre, and I would defend that statement to the grave. If you love Haunting of Hill House, and I know I do, also check out her other novels The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which explore similar themes.

Anne Rivers Siddons – The House Next Door

Another haunted house story (because you know how much I love those), but from the completely opposite side of the spectrum as Jackson’s novel. The haunting in The House Next Door takes place in a fancy, newly-built contemporary pad thrown onto an odd-shaped lot by a hot-shot architect in a chi-chi Atlanta suburb. The main players are agonizingly upper-crust, status-conscious, and at times completely snobbish and obnoxious, but their unlikeability makes their fates that much more devastating. The cursed-from-birth house next door doesn’t contain anything as gauche as a spirit, exactly, but more like a force that somehow knows and plays upon the residents’ deepest fears and insecurities, and dishes out scares accordingly. A fresh take on the subgenre, and a satisfying one.

Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child

A supremely literary horror story, and a short one clocking in at only 150 pages, but its tentacles grasp tightly. Somewhat reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, The Fifth Child sees “perfect” married couple David and Harriet pushing out one kid after another, much to the consternation of their extended families, who fear that the couple cannot care for the ones they already have. The first four kids are pretty much okay, but that fifth one, as the title suggests, is a doozy. A concise and terrifying examination of family dynamics and the social expectations surrounding the bearing of children.

Poppy Z. Brite – Exquisite Corpse

Perhaps this isn’t a fair choice for a “women in horror” post, since Poppy (born Melissa Ann Brite) has since undergone gender reassignment and now prefers to be known as Billy Martin, but at the time this novel was written she was still identified by a female pronoun as far as I know, so I’m going to include it. It’s a shockingly sick tale of two serial killers (based on real-life nutcases Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer) who join forces in order to find “the perfect victim.” They find their unicorn in the form of a pretty Vietnamese boy named Tran, and the story spirals into horrific madness from there. All of Brite’s trademarks are present, from the obsession with twisted killers to a fixation on the darkest and seediest underbellies of New Orleans. This is an intensely gory and profoundly fucked-up (but fantastic) novel.

Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Red Tree

Kiernan has written a lot of great books, including several pleasingly Lovecraftian ones. The Red Tree is the creepy tale of a woman named Sarah who moves to an old house in the woods after a terrible breakup and becomes obsessed with the ancient tree growing in the backyard, and the manuscript she finds that seems to hint that the tree conceals some terrible secret. If you like this one, I’d also recommend Silk and Low Red Moon by the same author.

Until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess Waxes Nostalgic About More Childhood Horrors

In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.

I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.

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The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.

The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?

I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.

The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.

Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!

And God bless us, every one!

And God bless us, every one!

By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.

Livin' the dream.

Livin’ the dream.

The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.

I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Until next time (burp), Goddess out.