Monday, 30 September 2013

RIP update: Two excellent haunted house novels, and one determined WW2 ghost


  I have been very bad at doing reviews this year, and as part of my motto to start being a good blogger again, I'm starting today with catching up with what I've been reading for RIP:  Awesome haunted house and ghost stories. Ghost stories of all kinds,  all of which want one thing: to possess the teller of the tale.  *shiver*  It's been wonderful reading so far.  So, for your reading contemplation, are the reviews of Hell House, The Shining, The Greatcoat,  all read in September. 

I've also devised a chill meter, to help me rate the scariness of what I'm reading.  Hair rising on my arms, jumping at noises while I read, and seeing shadows out of the corner of my eyes, and most of all, not being able to read it while I am alone in the house.  All these factor in to my chill-o-meter.

  Hell House is one of Richard Matheson's unsung masterpieces.  Unsung because unless you read horror, you won't have heard of this book.  And yet it is as good as The Shining, or The Haunting of Hill House, though in a different way.  And it's a shame it's not better known, because Hell House is as frightening a ghost story as any book you will read.  I have seen the movie made from Hell House, Legend of Hell House, and it is equally as frightening, though some of the interior characterizations are missing, of course.  I find that reading about atmosphere and ghostly settings is as frightening to me, as seeing it visually.  It is very difficult to create a ghost movie that is realistic and effective on everyone, which is interesting when  you are trying to show a good friend what frightens you, and half way through, they say, "Is anything going to happen?  Because this is kind of boring."  Real story, it happened to me once!  So, I know that even if I find Hell House and The Shining deeply frightening, it won't be for everyone.  If you like ghosts, if you like evil ghosts who want to possess the character just because they can, if you like hauntings where there really is hauntings and it's not just in people's minds, then both Hell House and The Shining are for you.

Ok, to Hell House itself.  The Belasco mansion is a house built in 1919 in Maine, by a wealthy millionaire who early on showed a habit of being able to bend people to his will.  It was built in a remote location in Maine, near a village as the only means of human habitation, tucked away in the wilderness. At the mansion, parties and soirees and long holiday stays were held, and as the years wore on, people came and stayed.  What went on in the mansion was never spoken about publicly, as Belasco, the owner, ensured the silence of anyone who attended.  Many people never left.  What went on?   Belasco set about creating a private world where people could do what they wanted to, with no repercussions.  It's chilling to think about, and Matheson uses this fear of what people would do if they could, to great effect in Hell House.  After Belasco's death, the house sits in silence, until a psychic investigator brings a group in to investigate.  Rumours have abounded about hauntings and smells and noises, and deaths, and excesses in the parties - unexplained deaths, suggestions of murders, orgies, human decadence and degradation. Slowly it gets the name of Hell House, as the supreme haunted house. 

    Out of the original 9 people psychic party  members in 1940, only one survivor:  Benjamin Fischer.  And as the novel Hell House opens, another group of psychic investigators is going in, twenty years later. Ben Fischer is one of them.  Even he isn't sure why he is returning, since he barely made it out alive the first time.  As the novel progresses, though, he realizes that he has to act, he has to do something to stop it all, to save who he can.  Miss Tanner, who runs a spiritualist church and is a recognized eco-plasm medium, is the other.  She senses things, feels things, and does seances.   Dr and Mrs Barrett round out the four people.  Dr Barrett wants to prove that psychic phenomena doesn't  mean that ghosts exist, that there is a rational explanation for everything. He does not believe in ghosts.  He is the person running the investigation, and has all the latest psychic equipment for measuring phenomena that exists. Mrs Barrett doesn't want to leave her husband alone, although the truth is, she doesn't do well on her own without him.  And one September day they arrive for a one week stay at Belasco House.  Only two will make it out alive.

     Hell House is  about a house that is haunted, and about the exploration of possession and evil and how little defenses there are against such things.  Richard Matheson has created a novel that is disturbing and frightening - but not in a bad way, we don't see the debasement and debauchery that went on in the house, we only hear about it when the characters talk about the history. Only one scene really is graphic from the earlier time period when the house re-enacts some of what happened in it.  There is some Christianity religion involved, which would have made this book racy in the way The Excorcist was, and The Omen, back when they came out in the 1970's. Hell House was written in 1971, so it is similar in tone to them, where religious symbols being debased is shocking and part of the horror.  It is still sickening to read about now, though I find the shock value is gone in the time between the 1970's and now.   The malevolence of the spirits is terrifying. And yet, this isn't a novel where everyone dies, there is a resolution to it, and a satisfying one.  It is a very good horror novel, and an excellent novel about hauntings and how dangerous they are.   It has more than enough spookiness and atmosphere for me.  It's one I can't read (or watch) by myself at all.  4.5/5  chills.  Highly recommended

The idea of a house like this existing lingers on, afterward for me.  Could it happen?  And would you be able to go into one and withstand it, if it did exist?

The Shining  - Stephen King.  The Shining is one of my all-time favourite books.  I love this story with a passion,  of little Danny Torrance and the horrors he endures at Overlook Hotel.  I just finished re-reading it last week, and I was surprised by a few things:  just how good a novel this is:  the characters are fabulous and the exploration of the marriage between Jack and Wendy is perfect; the horrors that Danny goes through are completely believable and chilling each and every time I read them, and

I have found that I have forgotten some of the novel, so when I read the scene of Danny in the cement tube, I swear I got goosebumps as he tries to dig himself out and something is crawling after him to grab him.  Just writing about it makes me chilled!  I'd forgotten about the basement, and I'd forgotten about how much of the hedges are scary.  I did also forget that the two little girls from the Jack Nicholson movie, are not in the book.  That movie scared the living daylights out of me,specifically the two little girls appearing at the top of the stairs - for years and years I had to turn the lights on to go up staircases.  When I got to the end of the book, I thought, the girls! where are they?  and then realized - they aren't needed, they were never part of the book. It surprised me, but didn't lessen how much I enjoyed The Shining. I had completely forgotten the last scene in the shed, and was horrified at what almost happened there.  There is as much evil haunting in The Shining as there is in Hell House, and even some of the partying/murders/people behaving terribly in the hotel as in the house.  But for me, even though I like Hell House very much, I love The Shining.  The characters in Hell House aren't quite as well rounded as in The Shining.  I don't like Jack Torrance very much, but I understand him so well.  This is Stephen King's great gift, that he can create such real characters.  They are people we know, who live next door, get on the bus with us, go grocery shopping, and have hopes and fears like we do.  Wendy Torrance is a much better character than she is in the movie.  She is much smarter (than in the movie), and we see how her family relationships shaped her for a man like Jack Torrance and why she would stay with him.  It's brilliant psychology, and makes what happens to this family so vividly real.  At the heart of The Shining is Danny Torrance, the 5 year old boy who shines like no one else.  The Shining is the gift to perceive things as they are, to psychically be aware of what has gone on before, and to come.  The second sight, precognition.  And Danny Torrance has it in spades.  In the hands of a lesser author, Danny would never be as realistically drawn.  It is difficult to write about children without making them precocious or unreal.  Indeed, in The Shining one of the doctors Jack and Wendy take Danny to, says that he is very bright, advanced for his years in his reading and verbal skills.  We do see him teaching himself to read, because his father is a writer and teacher, and Danny gets rewards as he learns to read more. It's things like this that make the book real.  This is what we would do with a precocious child who is anxious to make his father proud of him. What they don't know is that Danny wants also to be able to read a sign he keeps seeing in his visions: redrum.  He is trying to find a way to stop what is going to happen, although he can't because it's him the hotel wants, his shining gift that makes the hotel become stronger.  And he is 5, and so is still at the mercy of everything around him, including his parents' dysfunction and weaknesses.  So what shouldn't work, a 5 year old hero at the heart of a ghost story, works wonderfully well here. Danny is so brave, and doesn't know how to stop what is happening to his father.  That is some of the horror at work here, this wonderfully drawn little family, and the helplessness with which they watch one fall to his ruin, and cannot do a thing to stop it because he can't, or won't, do it himself.

 Wendy knows that Danny knows things, though it is only at The Overlook Hotel that she realizes how much he can see what is going to happen.  They work on each other, Danny and the hotel, and this is a fascinating idea, that a person with a psychic gift can influence a site to become stronger in its' hauntings or presence or influence. 

Fabulous horror book, good haunting scenes, eerie moments, frightening ghosts - one of the best ghost stories, ever.  Chills abound, 5/5 

Other reviews of The Shining:
Kelly at The Well-Read Redhead
The Book Smugglers
Wendy at Musings of a Literary Feline

 The Greatcoat - Helen Dunmore.    Set in 1952 Yorkshire, The Greatcoat is about a young woman,  Isabel Carey, who has just started out on married life as the wife of a young doctor.  She finds a RAF great coat in the wardrobe and draws it around her because she can't get warm in the cold flat she and her husband are renting. Isabel is not self-assured,  due to many losses from the war in her own life, and it is this lack of foundation in herself that leaves her open to being worked on by the wishes of others.  She becomes haunted by a young pilot, from the Second World War.  Who is he?  And who is it that he thinks she is?  This is not a simple little ghost story, it is a disturbing, thoughtful and eerie one.  Why does no one see Isabel when she sets out to the  airfield out of town with the pilot?  Why does he know her as someone else?  Whose memories are she getting?  When near the end, she faces a choice: to be herself, or let someone take her over, is the haunting truly over when she makes her choice? Can it be?  Or does after one feels the imprint of another time and another person's memories, do they truly go away?  Is Isabel  more vulnerable because she feels as if she is on the outside looking in, as she says, not feeling real in her own life? 

It is also a lovely ghost story, filled with little moments of Isabel learning about herself and who she wants to be, and her husband's view of her and their life together, and some of the memories of the ghost haunting her.  But it's not that simple, and it becomes dangerous to Isabel at the end.  I liked the setting of Yorkshire, and the empty abandoned airfields, with all the losses of the war still hanging over everyone as they try to move on.  What happens to those who didn't come back, who were cut short at age 18, 20, 22?  Where do everyone's desires go?  When you are young and vulnerable, and someone really really wants something, what happens?  There is a lot going on in this slender novel, and it is very enjoyable read.  I really liked it. This is not a scary story, there are no real chills or jumps, but it is eerie, and disturbing.  Ghosts aren't supposed to be comfortable to be around, they are of a time and place - a person - no longer here. I liked how the haunting was done, and why.  Although I wasn't sure if I would like Isabel, I did end up caring about her in the end.  I'm pretty sure I will carry the last image around with me for a while to come.  It's a very good ghost story, and highly recommended.  4/5 chills

Other reviews of The Greatcoat:
Eva at A Striped Armchair
Bride of the Book God

Please let me know if you have reviewed any of these, and I will add them to the post.

Now, for Doctor Sleep! 


Geranium Cat said...

I like the sound of the Helen Dunmore book, but your nerves are definitely stronger than mine when it comes to horror. My younger son has nerves of steel, he's the kind of person who make make the comment about something being boring, but he's really into film so he watches all kinds of stuff I'd never dream of - which is useful because if a film's really good he'll tell me if he thinks I ought to watch it.

Literary Feline said...

The Greatcoat sounds like something I would like.

Susan said...

Geranium Cat: You could definitely read the Helen Dunmore book. I think you might enjoy it. I never got around to talking about the Yorkshire feeling of the book, and the small town it is set in.

Which horror books and movies does your younger son like? My eldest also really enjoys horror films. He can see things I can't see - I don't like gory films with too much violence.

Literary Feline: you read The Shining not so long ago, are you going to read Doctor Sleep?? And yes, I think you would enjoy The Greatcoat also.

Stefanie said...

The Shining is definitely more than I can handle and Hell House sounds like a nightmare just waiting to happen too. The Greatcoat, however, now that has possibility

Susan said...

Stefanie: LOL to the Hell House comment! very witty and true :-) it will give you nightmares. I think you would enjoy The Greatcoat, though.

Emily Barton said...

Well, now I have to find a copy of Hell House, which I've just checked, and it's not in our library system. And I'm going to be rereading The Shining, too, now that I've finished Dr. Sleep. There's so much about that book I'd forgotten. I like nothing better than a haunted house with scary ghosts who want to possess all those who enter.

Susan said...

Emily: What did you think about Dr Sleep? I'm going to read it this weekend, which is our long weekend for Thanksgiving. I hope The Shining is as good as you remember, if not better, like I found it. I'm going to go see if you have reviewed Dr Sleep yet (this is a hint that if you haven't, pretty please do one!) :-)

Emily Barton said...

Don't worry. I plan to review Dr. Sleep soon (at pvreader.wordpress. com -- my library blog site).

Susan said...

Emily: Ok! I'll bookmark that :-) Good. I really am going to read it this weekend. I'm trying to convince myself that if I do family things all early Saturday, then I can have the all the rest of the day to read Dr Sleep! :-D and it's my 13th wedding anniversary. Thankfully the baseball playoffs are on, so I might get to read as much as I want after all :-) You always have such good thoughts and ideas about what you've read.

where are you volunteering at? That sounds interesting. Anything to do with literacy?

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