Horror

‘This inhuman place makes human monsters.’ The Shining.

3995322Ok… So you know what I was saying yesterday about Nervous Conditions. Well. That may have sort of come back to bite me a little. The exam that I was talking about? It was horrible. Actually, that should be capital. Horrible. And so, dear friends, I ended up sitting in that very exam hall less than five hours ago on the verge of very nearly dying from panic (honestly, no heart rate should go to 167bpm) when I thought of one thing that could very possibly transport me from that particular sports hall into my happy place. As you may have guessed, that may possibly have been The Shining. I mean, if I’m completely honest, any of those questions which I most certainly could not answer with my own texts would have been infinitely better if referring to The Shining. I mean, at least answerable. Oh God. So, as a homage to my favouritest book of all time (excuse the english, post-traumatic stress) I thought I’d try to do it justice with one of my usually nonsensical reviews.

So yeah, The Shining, is my ultimate happy days novel. The book I go to when I just can’t deal with things. A beaming light (‘scuse the pun) in a dank world of exam drudgery and general angst. I know this sounds strange, especially if you have read the book, but honestly, for all of its gruesome imagery and creepy characters, I have to say I believe it to be an article of perfection. Even though my own personal copy contains at least six typos… Sorry! I also count it as my gateway into the horror world. I’d seen it on the shelf every day for around thirteen (coincidence?) years and every day had walked past thinking, knowing, that there would be something special about it. I don’t know how, I mean it’s not just that it’s revered internationally by horror-lovers and loathers alike. It’s not just that it led to a shockingly executed but highly popular cult film. Not even that the shockingly broken spine gave me some sort of prescient tingle of fear. I’m just not sure, it just looked good. Good enough that I was happy to sneak it from that very shelf and, despite the sleepless nights that followed, devouring it in a matter of days…

Now, it doesn’t start particularly well, but even then, you’re being drawn right into the scene – observing the thoughts of Jack Torrance as he uses his ‘PR grin’, one part that did work in the film, to procure him his fateful job as the hotel caretaker. We’re then transported back to his family waiting at home, Wendy and Danny, eagerly awaiting Jack’s return. We’re introduced very quickly to the problems prevalent in the Torrance family as seconds in, Wendy is already alone, crying upstairs. Back to Jack, being shown around. We are introduced to the boiler (no need for spoilers, but watch this space) and then rapidly back to Danny who shows his first signs of having something special, a force, later known as ‘shining’ which as the name suggests becomes increasingly significant as the story goes on. Jack returns and we are again alerted to his troubled family relationships and given an insight into some other disturbing previous events… And before not too long we’re at part 2 where the whole family have finally arrived at the hotel. There’s freaky images of nuns, but the atmosphere is relatively positive. Until everyone leaves and silence falls over the hotel. It’s not long before things then start to become really really strange.

The Overlook is a world of eternal ghost parties, bleeding clocks and of course REDRUM. Madness, innocence and the shining. Jack descends steadily into complete obsessive madness as the hotel begins to take control and in turn Danny and Wendy become privy to its effects. Which could only make them more nervous, I guess. I mean, I’m not sure, but living with a madman in a blocked off hotel cannot be much fun. Especially if you don’t realise before it’s a little bit too late. As he gets madder and madder, one can’t help but get more and more absorbed. I guess that is Stephen King’s true talent. He is a fabulous storyteller. I guess that’s the point, I suppose he has to be for the day job. But it’s really true. And it’s not just cheap thrills he provides in his stories, but genuine undercurrents of absolute gritty fear. He gets people. No, I can say that better. He understands the human psyche. Can get into the scariest parts of the human brain and relay them back to us in a neatly horrific package. There are sickening moments (see brains on the walls), gore (I always shiver with the story of the previous caretaker) and very real human anxiety (deep seated family issues, child abuse etc). It caters to every sense, and seriously, after reading it I can no longer walk past any topiary animals.

I guess it’s just the way he strikes the balance between thriller and close-to-home psychological horror stories. I mean, the point is, I guess anyone would go mad if left to their own devices in an empty hotel for three months. It would be impossible not to. Add to that the ‘power’ of the hotel, just trying to make things worse, controlling you. Using you. Now, who wouldn’t jump off the sane train? I would only hope that I wouldn’t go so far as to fall in love with a boiler, but you know beggars can’t be choosers. Include the explosive ending (which may plausibly be jumping the shark a little) and the inspirational escape efforts from Danny and Wendy and you have a completely fabulous end product. Not just a haunted house story, but a real horror story. That strikes one to the bone.

Really not bad, especially considering it’s based on a John Lennon song…

*****

‘It was beautiful because it was natural.’ Ritual.

ritualAnd now for something ever so slightly different. Well. I say that. Review technique is likely to be ever so slightly similar, and all the more saddening due to that… Possibly. Maybe. For which I apologise in advance, but hey, needs to be done and I want to do justice to Ritual. So yeah. Shall we get started on some background? Right ho, here we go.

Right, so Ritual is commonly accepted amongst classic horror buffs as the original inspiration behind The Wicker Man, which may just have been the primary reason why I ended up reading it. Of course, being me, all it took was three seconds on wikipedia and then whoosh, I was off and £3.50 on amazon later was a very happy bunny. Which diminished rather soon due to the delivery time. But hope was on the horizon! And I don’t know where I am… But anyway, Ritual was written as the first novel of RADA trained playwright David Pinner in 1967, but following its fleeting popularity long since disappeared. According to my own copy, it was so unheard of that if you wanted to get your hands on a copy, you’d have to be happy to part with around £300-600. Which, you know, it’s a good book, but it’s not that good. Sorry.

So yes. The plot sort of roughly follows the same line as the spawned film, but without the actual legendary wicker man himself ever making an appearance. Shame, really. Anyhow, to avoid spoilers, I’m going to make things as deliriously simple as such a murky plot can be made. So, slightly less than crystal clear, if that’s ok. The novel opens to a rather disturbing scene: a girl lies apparently asleep under a giant oak tree with the emblems of a dead monkey’s head and some garlic flowers lying next to her. But, on looking closer, she is, of course, dead. Mystery and suspense from the beginning – love it! As we move out from this initial tableau we are introduced to the secretive child protagonist of the peace, Gilly Rowbottom, who races away from the dead girl to tell the latter’s parents of what has happened. What follows is a brief interrogation with the Sparks (Dian’s parents) before we are completely swept from the scene to meet a mysterious police officer at the station. Cue a mystery story surrounding the occult, sexuality, insanity and other general shady small village shenanigans. Fab.

And if that hasn’t hooked you already, no matter how poor a synopsis that was, there are so so many reasons why you too should read this. Seriously. Firstly, it has an insanely rapid story line – you’re drawn in completely and it’s so engaging you can hardly escape, but that doesn’t matter… It’s all over so soon! Honestly, I read at what I assume to be the average speed, but this book was done in less than five hours tops. So yeah, if you have no time, this is perfect for you – you’ll be absorbed from the beginning and stay that way throughout. Furthermore, not only is it completely absorbing, but also the storyline is very smart. Very smart. There are twists, turns and everything in between as the reader too is drawn into trying to solve the mystery. Who knows who could have murdered (or not…) Dian, but as the story progresses, the less clear cut the crime becomes. It seems both everyone, from the highly verbose and irritating priest to the Sparks themselves, is responsible, but also that no one is. Simultaneously. And if I remember correctly, I believe you never get told the true answer in the first place. Which I know annoys a fair few people, but personally I think it’s fantastic. So, it’s quick, it’s a book that will make you think, what else?

Well, purely as a time capsule it serves us extremely well. I doubt that there are many writers who could write like this today. I mean, for a start, the density of exclamation marks (I’m saying average 60+ a page) is definitlely of another time. A time when authors like Pinner really were classically trained recluses working on polished oak desks in musty terraced houses. Ok, making that up, but you get my metaphor. While not truly historical, yet, it does serve as an excellent work of another time, the characters themselves live and breath ancient rural tradition, but are represented as being like that at the time of writing (the late 60s). There’s a distinct realism in their fantasy – their rather backwards nature hails itself not as a fully medieval celebration but as more of a developing and morphing part of the villagers’ modern lives. Which only goes to make it more strange, in a way.

Yet, as we reach the end, I can’t help but be a little mean on some points. In general, this was excellent, but there are moments where it does fall short. For one, I resent some of the character’s ridiculous verbosity. I accept that this is a matter of taste, and as I thought was wonderful before, is completely a sign of the times it was written in. However, when certain dialogues become less of a conversation than a verbal jousting match, I did find myself skimming. Maybe I’m wrong, it is highly possible that there are some hidden nuances inside the gratuitous dialogue, but I’m just not sure. Also, blooming exclamation marks. Invented for a purpose, and that is not to be placed at the end of every single sentence. If the verbosity is gratuitous, then the exclamation marks are almost certainly towing the line also. Which is a shame – I feel there is a lack of sincerity and genuine feeling in all the lines that end thus! Honestly, some don’t even require the mark! God, now I’m doing it!

But, all things considered, I find Ritual highly refreshing – but also feel that maybe I should mention that for those looking for a direct copy of the film in writing, it is not the book for you. At all. Besides the crazy moon-worshipping ceremonies, there aren’t many points where the film represents the book. Which I hold as a positive thing… Anyhoo. As a quick read that leaves you pondering and also expounds some of the lesser loved qualities of crazy Cornish villages, this book is brill. Enough said, I feel.

****

‘What have you done with his eyes?’ Rosemary’s Baby.

rosemarys_baby[1]Crikey this is an upsetting film. Ever so slightly. 1968 would see the creation of Roman Polanski’s fifteenth film and would bring Mia Farrow to the top of her game. Now, I wouldn’t say that Rosemary’s Baby necessarily runs in the same sort of ilk as Forrest, I mean, after all, what film could? But I reckon it stands as the first horror film I saw that gave me something to think about. It didn’t have me up all night, but boy did it freak me out. And what more could you want from this kind of thing? If I had to sum this film up in one word it would be… Creepy. In the strongest sense of the word. It honestly made me nervous that there were strange child-abducting-devil-worshipping-generally-freaky cults out there. Which I’m sure there are, but hey, I never thought they’d actually seem so familiar. And cute. Until they turn strange. Ahem.

But if we go all the way back to the beginning. Even the start makes me feel funny. Mia Farrow’s haunting lullaby carries us into what promises to get even more strange and bizarre. We are brought straight into Rosemary’s world as we take our first tour of the Bramford, a Victorian apartment block with its own disturbing story to tell. So, first off, you have to wonder why both Guy and Rosemary are so into getting this place. Besides, apartment 7E is full of plants. Literally. You would have thought something was up. But really it’s when they actually get the place that things go awry. Well. More than that.

I’d have to say that one of my favourite things about this film has to be the mystery of it that runs right on through. You never can be sure that the Castavets are evil and after Rosemary’s child, which only heightens the drama as you are never certain what you are actually watching. Are you really watching them trap Rosemary and her child, thereby fulfilling their master’s wishes, or are we in truth actually just watching a pregnant woman descend into rather perturbing depths of paranoia and madness. I suppose it doesn’t quite fit in with the sort of ‘unreliable narrator’ theme, but it does give you pause to think. Which is scarier? And while you’re thinking, the film progresses, it moves on before you can ever make a full conclusion as to what is happening on screen. Clever, huh.

If I really wanted to get boring though, I could just say that’s what Polanski does. Yet, considering that this was one of his first films produced for a US/UK audience, I feel we must think harder about what he is actually trying to achieve. In truth, as much as I think he’s a creative genius, I think we have to go further back to find the fantastic origins of this tale. Ira Levin, possibly more famous for the Stepford Wives, creator of Rosemary’s Baby has a lot to say for  himself. Because reading the book, it’s almost impossible to tell which one came first. Which can only be a good thing, they are so similar! If only they had managed that with Harry Potter…

But genuinely, I think that is majorly important. At least, to me. Not sure what everyone else thinks. I feel it’s a shame that so many films made have no genuine bearing on the book they are based on. However, in this case, I’m glad it does. It only serves to bring an already quite active story all the more alive having the characters up on screen as you imagined them to be. Which has to be why I have to congratulate Polanski. He played it smartly and if I’m honest, not that I know who else was available, I reckon he could not have got a better troupe. You have Rosemary, youthful, smart yet naive, delicate yet strong. You have Guy, the actor, the liar, the devil in human form. And then the Castavets, the dear old Castavets. Or are they?

So, there you have it, there are so many reasons why this film is a classic. Maybe I’m being overoptimistic and possibly seem like I cannot criticise anything, but that wouldn’t be true. There are a few slight, but important improvements that could be made to this film. And some might even consider it overrated. But for its simplicity and genuine thrilling quality I believe it stands far ahead of countless other films of the same genre. And should thus be remembered for being creative, artistic, realistic and overall really really genuinely quite scary.

****