Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Haunting of Bly Manor: some thoughts

Just finished watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, a series from Netflix and the folks who brought us The Haunting of Hill House in 2018. I loved it. I loved Hill House, too, when I watched it.

Both of these series were based off of classic works: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, two of my favorite scary stories of all time. 

But neither is a telling of the story as you might know it from the books. Instead, each is a brand new story, a kind of riff on a theme. There are echoes of the originals, but there is also completely new material and interpretations not present in the old works at all.

I've long had an interest in side and backdoor stories that come into a work I already love from another angle. Things like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea which dared to ask who Rochester's first wife from Jane Eyre really was, or Gregory Maguire's Wicked which retold The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the witch. I love the fresh take on a story I already love--it has a feeling of talking with other fans, and loving the original together. 

These two series are not quite those, but there's a similarity.

Both series changed the time frame, moving Hill House from 1950 to 1992 and Bly Manor/Turn of the Screw from the 1890s to 1987, a change which opens up story possibilities and also makes some parts more difficult. 

Both stories require some serious isolation so that the events can go unobserved/uninterrupted for a while, and that kind of isolation is harder to come by in 2020. I rather thought we only went as far forward as 1992 to keep smart devices and cell phones from encroaching on the story too far. 

Both stories take place in gorgeous old homes. The houses themselves are practically characters in the story--more obviously in Hill House (which is just as Shirley Jackson wrote it, in that respect), but still true in Bly Manor

Hill House changed the premise--no longer bringing together a group of would-be ghost hunters into a known haunted house hoping for a paranormal experience as happened in the book, but instead bringing a family of house flippers into the gorgeous old mansion to try and save it and resell it. Bly Manor stuck with the original premise more closely: a nanny is hired to take care of two troubled orphaned children in an isolated mansion and paranormal shenanigans ensue.

What I loved in Bly Manor was all the new material. Henry James's story is not forthcoming about the nanny herself. We don't know her history or why she might have decided to take on a job like this one. We don't know exactly what happened to Miles and Flora's parents, other than that they died. We don't know what Miles did at boarding school that got him kicked out or why the kids' uncle is so strangely detached, not wanting even to be informed about what is going on with the children. We certainly don't know what the ghosts want, exactly.

Mike Flanagan set about answering all those questions and I LOVED the answers. They fit into the story as told by James seamlessly. Along the way, he created a whole secondary mythology of the ghost activity at Bly Manor. The imagery isn't quite as terrifying as that of Hill House (the broke neck lady is way more frightening than the blank faced ghosts, at least for this viewer), but the tension is high. 

Perhaps surprisingly for horror stories, both of these series end up being primarily about grief and surviving loss. Both manage to end on bittersweet hopeful notes. Gorgeous really. Beautiful, haunting in a completely different sense of the word. I hope Flanagan finds another story to explore this way. I'll be there with my popcorn on opening night if he does.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Horror as Comfort

 A lot of people I know don't read or watch horror, and they're surprised to find out that I do. Even more surprised when they learn that I sometimes write it. 

Actual quotes from conversations along these lines: 

  • "You don't seem like someone who would write that stuff." 
    • I guess? I mean, is horror only for people wearing dark eyeliner and capes? Or just for men? LOL. Some of the scariest stuff happens in mundane settings to people just trying to live their lives--you know: people like me. 
  • "It's so dark." 
    • It's hopeful and optimistic sometimes. And dark makes contrast, allowing you see the light. 
  • "I just can't handle the gore." 
    • Not all horror is a slasher film, you know. Some of my horror favorites don't involve any blood and guts at all.
  • "The characters make stupid choices." 
    • You could say that about ANY genre. If characters don't make ANY stupid choices, there's no conflict and the story is boring. Plus people do stupid things all the time in real life. 
  • "They're so stressful." 
    • Maybe? I find horror stress-relieving. And tension is kind of necessary for any sort of story. 

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It's not that horror doesn't scare me--it totally does! 

Ask my sister about the time I threw the popcorn during a jump scare during a really terrible, not-that-scary vampire movie. Or check out the mangled pillows on the sofa after I squeeze them while I watch something scary. When I was a kid and teenager, I used to read my Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and horror comics sitting at the top of the stairs with my back against the wall, so I could see anything that might be coming for me. 

But, the things is: the story ends. 

I close the book, or leave the cinema, or turn off the TV. And I am safe. I got that heart-racing excitement, but at no actual risk, other than perhaps the risk of being disappointed by a story that doesn't do it for me. Vicarious experience of the highest order.

And the stories, at least the ones I like best, are stories of resilience and hope. The heroes are not passively watching their lives go by them and wishing things would change--they take action to try to save themselves and others. 

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They *try something.* 

They take steps. Stupid ones sometimes. Foolhardy maybe. But life is risk and that's the heart of horror for me. 

There's something comforting in active characters trying something, especially if I really connected with the characters. 

It's still comforting even when they lose, falling into the zombie hoard after a heroic attempt. They died "with their boots on" so to speak, didn't they? They didn't just melt away on the sofa cushions hoping someone would save them. Those are characters worth admiring! 

What about you? Do you read/watch horror? What are your favorites? 

Wanna check out my horror writing? I had TWO horror stories published this month. 

"The Cleaning Lady" in Stories We Tell After Midnight, Volume 2 grew from a story prompt for the Nightmare Fuel Project and dares to ask who is going to clean up this mess. Dark humor can be so much fun to write!

"His Destroyer" in Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire revisits the Passover story from another perspective, wondering who exactly served G-d's justice on the first-born sons of Egypt during the time of the Ten Plagues. This one gave me chills to write and I hope it will do the same for you when you read it. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Scary Movie Time: October Movie Watching

If I could spare the time, I'd probably watch a movie a day in October, using Halloween as my excuse to cuddle up on the sofa with Sweetman and my daughters, re-watching old favorites and discovering new ones, while I stuff my face with popcorn. 

Alas, I must keep us in house and home, so a movie a day is not a reasonable thing. 

Still, I do tend to stuff in as many scary stories as I can in October. My daughter, age 13, is a budding horror aficionado, so I have a willing playmate when I decide to try and scare myself silly . . . and I get the bonus of sharing old favorites with my girl. So, here's what I've managed to watch so far this October: 

We kicked off our spooky season watching with The Ring, 2002. It was three of us on the sofa for this one. My husband and I had both seen it, but I don't think we'd watched it together before. The teenager knew quite a bit about the film from seeing it referenced in other social media, but hadn't seen it herself. 

What I remembered was the imagery--who could forget all that horrible hair? And the moment when the evil just crawls out of a television set and into the living room with its victim? When I saw it the first time, I'd hadn't seen much Asian or Asian-influenced horror, so the style was all new to me. This time, that imagery and style felt more familiar, but it was still quite spooky and I still think Naomi Watts is brilliant as the skeptic who becomes a believer and young David Dorfman and Daveigh Chase rocked the eerie child vibe in two very different but equally effective ways. 

The special effects held up pretty decently on re-watch, especially since that feeling of images not quite fitting in the world they are in actually worked for the story. After the movie, we watched the extras, and I have to say that all the cut scenes belonged cut. The story is all the more frightening for NOT explaining things too thoroughly. 

The Others, 2001, is one of those movies with a big twist, and I wondered if it would have good re-play value since I already knew the twist. (No spoilers: I won't reveal the twist here, in case you haven't yet seen this one). 

I'm happy to report that even when you know what's coming, there's still excellent tension. I watched for clues throughout leading to the ending and I found them, but I also found plenty of red herrings that lead the viewer to consider several interpretations of the events they are seeing. My daughter, watching for the first time, gave me no fewer than ten theories about what was happening before we got to the big reveal (none of them correct, BTW). 

Nicole Kidman's portrayal of the fragile-yet-powerful Grace Stewart is the lynchpin on which the movie rotates, but all the performances are strong. I especially loved Alakina Mann as Anne, the elder child, full of big sister bullying, boundary pushing, and a wonderful stubbornness. 

And Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills stole nearly every scene she was in with her quiet, mysterious manner. Chris Eccleston broke my heart as Charles Stewart, who meeting his wife in a foggy wood tells her in a painfully haunted voice, "Sometimes I bleed." (shiver)

Wonderfully atmospheric and still riveting on rewatch for sure. 

Then, my husband and I watched The Haunting, 1963, together. It's a telling of Shirley Jackson's famous book, The Haunting of Hill House . . .which is not be confused with The House on Haunted Hill, another fabulous old movie featuring Vincent Price, despite the similarity in title (maybe I'll see if I can squeeze that one in this month, too!).  

It's a bit slow as a movie, maybe because it's so exceedingly faithful to the novel, including lots of voiceovers for Julie Harris as Eleanor to show us her fragile and excitable mental state. While I enjoyed the recent Haunting of Hill House television series, 2018, that wasn't a direct telling of the book, but more an update and homage to original work. This older film is for the most part extremely true to the novel--so if you love the novel like I do, you'll appreciate it for that. 

The set was AMAZING, really making use of weird angles and shadows to up the spook factor at every turn. Well worth it just for some of the imagery and creative camera work. 

Finally, the girl and I had a mini movie marathon, watching Poltergeist, 1982, and Hush, 2016 back to back. It's been forever since I watched two movies in a row, and that, in itself, felt decadent. 

My daughter didn't find Poltergeist nearly as frightening as I did when I was a child. Ah, jaded youth.

She hated the "false ending" and I had to agree with her that it wasn't as justified as it had been in The Ring, where the investigator thought she'd gotten to the bottom of the mystery and found there was more to discover. In Poltergeist, we get Carole Ann back and things are calm long enough for the family to pack up a moving truck and then Boom! We're back in the thick of things with no indication of what caused the escalation. You could argue, I suppose, that paranormal happenings don't have to follow logic, but it still made for less satisfying story-telling.

As for me, I'm like, WTF parents? They let their bloodied and traumatized son who had just been swallowed by a monster tree wander the house alone while the parents and teenaged daughter ALL THREE ran around panicking over the missing baby? No wonder he had middle child syndrome. He *really* was invisible, poor boy. 

Hush caught our eye as we scanned movie choices on Netflix with its interesting premise: a deaf/mute woman is being hunted by a killer. The fact that she is deaf is both what helps her survive and what puts her more at risk. She isn't unnerved by some of the killer's attempts to rattle her because they rely on her hearing the creepy sounds, which of course, she doesn't. It was kind of neat, the way the film let the audience hear the sounds, then toggled to a muted version to give the impression of NOT hearing the same thing. 

Both of us felt the film was longer than it needed to be though. It was hard to hold tension for a full movie length when all you basically had happening was a man with a crossbow circling a house and woman cowering within. Maybe it would have packed more tension in a short-film version. We also were both disappointed to never get any kind of motivation explanation for the rando killer who showed up, though we thought he was interestingly chill for a character of his sort. 

I'm hoping to work in some classic monster and a couple of scary films I haven't seen yet. Are you a scary movie fan? What kind do you like? I'd love to see your suggestions in the comments! 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

IWSG: When I became a "Working Writer"


Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

October 7 question - When you think of the term working writer, what does that look like to you? What do you think it is supposed to look like? Do you see yourself as a working writer or aspiring or hobbyist, and if latter two, what does that look like?

The awesome co-hosts for the October 7 posting of the IWSG are Jemima Pett, Beth Camp, Beverly Stowe McClure, and Gwen Gardner!
I've always been a writer (like since I could hold a writing utensil), but I've only considered myself a "working writer"for about five years, starting with the publication of my first novel. Before that I was a semi-serious hobbyist: I *did* care about finishing and polishing my work and I *did* seek publication, but it was casual, with very little pressure (internal or external) to do so at any particular speed, so I did very little, collecting maybe 1-3 small scale publication credits a year at most.
When writing became part of my day every day, when I started thinking about it terms of career and not just in the momentary challenge of the piece of writing in front of me, that's when I made the shift. 
Of course, I'm still part time. I write alongside a teaching career, so my writing life is allocated to 1-2 hours a day most days, during which I write new material, handle any business there is to handle, and work on promotional activities for the work I've already produced. 
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It's not enough time, but until the writing pays enough in dollars to support my end of the family finances, it's what I'll do. At this point, I'm near enough retiring from teaching that I think I'll remain a part timer until then. It seems wise to hold onto the greater financial security that day job gives me, even if it slows my progress on my writing career.  

Even doing it part time, though, it's different than it was. Maybe the shifts are mostly internal, but those internal shifts have made external changes as well: lengthening my list of works on Amazon because it's easier to sell *finished* work, leading to opportunities to share/speak/teach about building a writing life, and being invited to submit work based on the strength of past work (which is WAAAAY nicer than the cold call submission process when it happens). 

Defining the lines between hobby and work is individual. What matters, I think, is how it feels to you. I'd love to hear from other creatives who have or are considering crossing that line from "for fun" into "as work." What does the link look like from whichever side you're looking at it from?

Friday, October 2, 2020

September Reads

In August, I didn't ready very many books. Now, partly, this was because one of the books I *did* read was Look Homeward, Angel, which clocks in at more than 600 pages or 26 listening hours (I read that one by moving back and forth between audiobook and Kindle editions). In fact, I didn't really even finish the Wolfe novel until a day or two into September. 

So, I promised myself options in September. Sometimes I pin myself in with promises--agreeing to read and review certain books or signing on for discussions that mean I have to read a book on a certain timeframe. As much as I enjoy the book clubs, sometimes the obligation takes the joy out of it. 

So, I started with two books that I had a strong desire to read based on what I'd heard about them: 

This was my third read by Cherie Priest. I first found her novel Boneshaker a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it, and I do intend to go back for more in the series, but I haven't made it yet. 

After I read Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, I had a hankering for more Lovecraftian horror and ran across Maplecroft, which blends alternate history with Lovecraftian mythos through the character of Lizzie Borden. Right up three of my favorite alleys! I devoured that one last month. 

Chapelwood is a second book in the series, picking up some thirty years after the events of the first book, with a now-elderly, but still formidable Lizzie Borden traveling to Alabama to face another dark threat to humanity. I loved it almost as much as the first one, so it started off my September happily. 

My Dark Vanessa was not nearly as fun. That's not to say it wasn't good. It was terribly good, the kind of book that lingers with you a long time, but the subject matter is awfully real and dark and heavy and September 2020 was maybe not the right time for me to take on that kind of book. I found it un-put-downable, and also wished I had never picked it up. While I thought it was wonderful, I'm not sure I'd recommend it without a series of trigger warnings. My short take is: Lolita, as told by Lolita instead of Humbert Humbert. Complex, riveting, and…harrowing.

My Dark Vanessa was also quite long. So, I decided to choose my next few books based on a different criteria: length! 

I wanted short books. Things I could read in one to three days. Short-term commitments. Luckily, I already had a bunch of such things waiting for me from past purchases on my Kindle and in my Audible collection. 

Hero by Susan Hill, a short story intended to introduce readers to Simon Serrailler, a police detective character featured in a ten book series. Hill's writing was stellar, but I think I'd walked in expecting something like The Woman in Black, a book by Susan Hill that enraptured me, and I found instead a quiet, thoughtful policeman's tale. Good, but not my favorite sort of book.

The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderston was an Audible original I picked up sometime when it was free with my membership because I thought I'd like to know more about Marie Curie. I definitely got my wish in this fabulous performance of a play featuring Kate Mulgrew and Francesca Faridany. In fact, I have a new woman scientist to look into: Hertha Ayrton.

Pluck & Cover and Hide & Chic, two novellas of the Zombie Cosmetologist series by JD Blackrose. Light and fun, a truly original take on zombies (not mindless shamblers or brain-hungry monsters, but something entirely different).

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. While there is truth in this self-help book for creatives, it's buried in a lot of tough talk that feels a lot like bullying. Turned me off. 

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. I picked it up for inspiration, especially since our government has me dipping between disappointment and despair these day. Unfortunately, it left me feeling depressed at the vast chasm between politicians of the past and the self-serving rich assholes we're stuck with these days. I have a hard time believing anyone currently in power would risk their own position or sacrifice their power to make a stand on a moral decision in 2020. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I'd heard of this book, but had only the vaguest idea what it was about. It ended up being a very personal story of grief and survival. My summary: "Heart-rending. A little self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing here and there, but worth it for those incandescently honest moments laid bare and shared by anyone who has ever lost someone they loved dearly."

Conversations with RBG by Jeffrey Rosen. Now *this* was what I was hoping for from the Kennedy. I picked it up because I wanted to remember how wonderful and important Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been, fresh from the surprisingly personal feeling of loss that struck me when I learned of her death. I was already in love with this woman, and I only love her more after reading these interviews and understanding the massive restraint, forethought, and gentle persuasion that cut a swath through our country's legal system and made it tolerable to be female in America. I can only pray her legacy will live on in the hearts of the women she has inspired and lead to a better tomorrow. 

Certain Woman of an Age by Margaret Trudeau. Another Audible original I picked up for free some time ago. I'd describe it as sort of half-standup-act, half Ted-talk. I found I enjoyed myself, even though the book detailed her experiences in learning to live as a bi-polar woman. It was good to see someone come out on the other side of a mental health struggle with humor and confidence. 

So, in number of books, I more than made up for my meager August pile. In fact, I've now met my yearly goal. I always set a goal of 52 books a year, or one a week. Some years, that's hard to reach. 

This year, it's looks like I'm going to demolish it, and I don't feel too guilty about "cheating" by reading so many short books. 

That shorter commitment of 1-3 days per read was exactly what my brain wanted this month, while I dealt with the stress and worry about learning to teach effectively in an all-digital environment and keep moving forward in my own writing. I got that gold-star feeling of accomplishment over and over again, while giving a lot of things I've been meaning to read a chance. I'll call this a win!

I'd love to hear about what you've been reading and how your COVID life has affected your choices in reading material. Tell me about it in the comments below! 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

New Release Day: Stories We Tell After Midnight, Vol. 2


My first love as a reader and a writer was horror. Though I'm not primarily a horror writer now--I'm best known for my dram-edy (half comedy/half drama) Menopausal Superhero series--I still love to read and write scary, creepy little tales. I love nothing so much as giving myself (and maybe a reader or two) a good shiver. 

And today, I'm proud to announce that Stories We Tell After Midnight, Volume 2 is released! It includes my flash fiction horror story, "The Cleaning Lady" which came about from my participation in the Nightmare Fuel Project while I was also watching Downton Abbey. The combination left me wondering what the human servants of a creature of darkness might think and say about their employers behind their backs. 

Here's the blurb: 

As a deadly scourge overwhelms the continent, four survivors race to find a last exit out of Australia. Up in the attic, a bedtime story outlives its storyteller. A city boy visits his country cousins and stumbles on a terrifying family secret. From a film set in the Arizona desert, to an overgrown rambling old house in the Florida swamps, to the dusty streets of a small Mexican town, the stories in this volume plunge the reader into the shadows of a world almost forgotten by modern fables of cold science and bright sunlight. They are the brushed over voices who call a warning to those who would comfort themselves in the thought that monsters aren’t real, and those things can’t happen here. Stories We Tell After Midnight Volume 2 offers up tales of revenge, of hunger, and of the horror that stalks you just beyond the glow of your cell phone light, but only to those who dare turn the page.

I'm so pleased to have my work included and hope that you will check out this collection of spooky stories, out just in time for your Halloween reading pleasure. May it give you a good shiver and make you examine the shadows in the corners more closely.