Archive for December, 2015

Story-time 11-21-15: Booksgiving

Posted in Booksgiving, Half Price Books, HPB, Judy Cox, Lorna Balian, One is a Feast for a Mouse, Sometimes It's Turkey-Someitmes It's Feathers, story-time, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas
Me, by the advertising signage for the event.

Me, by the advertising signage for the event.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I hosted the HPB “Booksgiving” event held in the children’s department. I read two story-books and my friend and co-worker, Maureen, supervised the book give away and also took the lovely snapshots documenting the event, which I shall share (selectively, for privacy concerns) with you all.

Toddler in a turkey cap! She was adorable, but couldn't stay seated upright and would burst into tears every time she accidentally fell to her side. Her grandmother was very attentive and took her aside a couple of times so as not to disturb the other children.

Toddler in a turkey cap! She was adorable, but couldn’t stay seated upright and would burst into tears every time she accidentally fell to her side. Her grandmother was very attentive and took her aside a couple of times so as not to disturb the other children.

I shall begin by saying that this was the most successful turnout we’ve had thus far. There were many kids ranging from a toddler in a Turkey cap, to a group of pre-teen siblings. They were attentive, interactive, and well-behaved, and a wonderful time was had by all.

"Sometimes It's Turkey, Sometimes It's Feathers" by

“Sometimes It’s Turkey-Sometimes It’s Feathers” by Lorna Balian.

The first book I read was “Sometimes It’s Turkey-Someitmes It’s Feathers”, by Lorna Balian, an older book from the 1970’s which reminded me of some of the books I read as a child. A beautifully illustrated story about an elderly lady and her cat, who find a turkey egg while mushroom picking in the forest outside their modest home. She hatches the egg, and raises the turkey with the implied intention of having the bird for Thanksgiving dinner that year. As time goes by, the turkey not only grows in size, but also in significance to the household. A sweet tale for the holiday.

Me pointing out the details of the illustration inside the Balian book.

Me pointing out the details of the illustration inside the Balian book.

Since one or two families  had to go, we decided to do the give away before continuing to our second story. Maureen had the kids go in age groups from youngest on up.

"One is a Feast for a Mouse", by Judy Cox.

“One is a Feast for a Mouse”, by Judy Cox.

I then let the kids chose the next story, and they chose “One is a Feast for a Mouse”, by Judy Cox. This was a fun story about a mouse who attempts to take a bit more from the leftovers of a Thanksgiving dinner than he can handle. This inspired the most interaction from the kids, and one of the funniest incidents as well. There is a line in the text comparing cranberries to rubies. I asked the children if they knew what rubies were and they replied in the affirmative. Doubtful, I reiterated that rubies are red gems, then asked if there was anything else in the room where we sat that was red. At this point I lowered the book to show my bright red HPB shirt, as a hint. The little boy in the green shirt in front of my cried “Yes!” so I asked him “What?” expecting the obvious response. Instead he pointed out a minuscule object in the far corner of the page in the book in my hand, and we all had a good laugh about that!

Me showing the illustration of a tense scene for the mouse of the story.

Me showing the illustration of a tense scene for the mouse of the story.

All in all, it was a great time, and the remaining kids got to have another go at the books when we finished the second story. The kids thanked us, as did the parents, and I expected to have a smashing follow-up for Christmas. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as well advertised and we had a no-show. Which is a drag, because I had intended to read Dr Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, one of my all time favorite children’s books. Next time we’ll know better to advertise well beforehand.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015)

Posted in Christmas Horror, Krampus, Krampus (2015), Michael Dougherty with tags , , , on December 19, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Michael Dougherty is hardly a household name, although there may be a few fanboys (and girls) who might recognize his name from the writing credits of the superhero films X2, and Superman Returns. To fans of contemporary Horror he is known as the creator of Sam, the little mischievous, and oft times deadly Halloween goblin from the 2007 film Trick ‘r Treat. I loved Trick ‘r Treat and have been anxiously awaiting the sequel, which was recently announced as being in the works. I then heard that he had another holiday Horror story to tell, and I was intrigued.

I became aware of the Krampus legend some years ago, and as some of you may know, I even wrote a poem about him, which may be found on this blog under Gruss vom Krampus, or just enter the name Krampus into my search engine and it will pop up; but I digress…

Poster for "Krampus" (2015).

Poster for “Krampus” (2015).

When I heard Michael Dougherty was doing a Krampus film, I was actually excited about it. Normally, I would have been a bit skeptical, but I trusted that he would do it right and with a sense of humor. Having seen it twice already, I think that I have a good enough grasp of it to say that, in many ways, he did just that. What he created is, like Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween, a fun holiday film with enough scares to keep your interest, but not so bloody that the kiddies might be able to enjoy it as well.

The story is typical holiday story fare; Max, a good boy of around 9 or 10 years, who reminded me a lot of my cousin Jason at that age, is trying to keep the holiday spirit alive despite the growing cynicism of the world around him. He is into the traditions, which he gets from his Old World German grandmother, Omi, and tries to get the rest of his family involved as well, but they are so caught up in their own respective lives they don’t seem interested in doing anything as a “family” anymore.

To make things worse, his Mom’s sister arrives with her crazy family and wingnut husband (think of a Tea Party version of Randy Quaid’s character, Eddie Johnson from the National Lampoon Vacation franchise, and you’ll get the picture) and they turn his already troubled world into total chaos. In frustration, he tears up his letter to Santa and throws it out of his window onto the wintry winds which carry it away into the night.

The following day, the whole neighborhood is deserted and Max’s family is snowed in. The family are simply annoyed by the inconvenience but Omi fears the worst. After people start disappearing, she tells her tale of woe from when, as a little girl,  she was visited by the Krampus. Her tale is depicted in an animated sequence which is an interesting switch up, sort of like O-Ren Ishii’s story in the Kill Bill Part 1.

I won’t say anything else so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say that it does get a little hairy in spots, although never really gory, and always with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Over all, I really enjoyed it, and my only complaint was that Dougherty’s Krampus really didn’t look nor behave anything like the traditional Krampus of the Alpine tradition. also, as my friend Sylvia (who saw the film with me on my second round) pointed out: Krampus had way too many helpers. After a while it became tiresome when yet another threat would arrive at the family’s door; I would have been happy with the gingerbread men and maybe the creepy clown thing.

Even so, it was a good time and when it becomes available for home video (in whatever format that will take shape in by then) I will pick it up for my holiday viewing alongside A Christmas Carol, The Hogfather, and the numerous animated specials from my youth.

Gillian Flynn’s “The Grown Up” (2015)

Posted in "The Grown Up" 2015, "The Turn of the Screw" 1898, George R.R. Martin's Rogues Anthology, Ghost Stories, Gillian Flynn, Henry James, M.R. James, Susan Hill with tags , , , , , , , on December 16, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas
"The Grown Up", by Gillian Flynn, 2015, Crown Publishers, New York.

“The Grown Up”, by Gillian Flynn, 2015, Crown Publishers, New York.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a cardboard display for a bantam book with an eye-catching dust jacket image. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was the latest effort by author, Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”, 2012). I read the blurb on the inner flap which read (in all-caps) “GILLIAN FLYNN’S EDGAR AWARD-WINNING HOMAGE TO THE CLASSIC GHOST STORY, PUBLISHED FOR THE FIRST TIME AS A STAND-ALONE”. I was intrigued. I hadn’t read her other books, nor had I seen the film based on “Gone Girl”, although I had heard good things about both, so I figured I’d keep an eye out for it at work and give it a whirl, if I ever saw it used.

"Rogues" 2014 Bantam Books

“Rogues” 2014 Bantam Books

Apparently, this was a re-packaging of an earlier effort, which originally appeared under the title “What Do You Do?”, in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues anthology. I had no idea what to expect, honestly, not being familiar with Ms. Flynn’s output, but I had fantasies of maybe having found someone like Susan Hill (“The Woman in Black”), another modern writer with a love of the traditional English ghost stories of M.R. James, who writes brilliantly crafted tales, which would be right at home alongside the masters of the genre in some obscure Edwardian supernatural collection.

A week ago, my co-worker and good friend Denise R pointed out that a used copy had indeed arrived at our store, so I checked it out to read and see what all the fuss was about. Okay, before I continue, I must say that there may be some SPOILERS in the following review, so YOU  HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed the story, for the most part, and found the main character amusing. I can see why the general public likes Ms. Flynn’s writing, her characters are interesting and at least this one was likable, despite her many personal faults. That being said, just because one mentions Wilkie Collins, and Henry James in a tale, does not put it in the same league or even the same genre as their respective works. The only connection this tale had with “The Turn of the Screw” or even “The Haunting of Hill House”, was when she name-dropped them within the text of the story.

Not only did she spend several pages of this slender book talking about the protagonists hand-job skills, which although amusing, did not really come into play later on in the story (M.R. James would turn in his grave for this violation of good taste. He saw the inclusion of sexual themes in literature as “…a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.”), there was no build up, no atmosphere, and (here it comes, the big reveal)…NO GHOST! What??? There was just a feeling of unease in the “haunted” house, and a creepy boy who seemed modeled after Miles, from “The Turn of the Screw”. What’s worse, is Ms. Flynn pulled the cheap trick of a double-whammy twist ending, à la M. Night Shyamalan! Just when the story seemed to be getting interesting, she pulled an Anne Radcliffe and explained away the terrors that we never really got to see. Boo!

I believe Gillian Flynn should stick with her thrillers, which seem to do nicely, for she does not seem to have a firm grasp of the “Classic Ghost Story” she is supposed to be celebrating here.

Ray Russell’s “The Case Against Satan” (1962)

Posted in demonic possession, modern gothic, Ray Russell, The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas

A couple of years ago Penguin Classics released a reprint of Ray Russell’s long out of print collection of Gothic tales entitled “Haunted Castles”. This was my introduction to the work of the late master of the modern Gothic tale. I loved his dark imagination, his humor, and his understanding of the Gothic genre which I feel is sometimes lost on many would-be practitioners nowadays.

Unfortunately, most of his other work remained out of print, until now. Penguin has reprinted his 1962 novella “The Case Against Satan”, which tells the tale of Father Gregory, a young priest who’s losing his faith until he is confronted by the challenge of Susan Garth, a pretty young girl from his parish who is acting out in strange ways that defy logical explanation. Her brusque father demands that the church help him save his daughter, but is skittish about sending her to psychiatrists for mental evaluation because “They don’t have any sense of what’s decent or proper…They just want you to talk about every nasty, filthy thing that ever passed through your mind”. Hmmm.

After a meeting between Susan and the stout Bishop Crimmings, wherein he performs a secret test to see if the troubled teen shows unconscious signs of diabolism, it is determined that she is possessed and the dour old bishop enlists Father Gregory to assist him in the task of driving the devil out of this innocent young child.

"The Case Against Satan", by Ray Russell, Penguin Classics (2015).

“The Case Against Satan”, by Ray Russell, Penguin Classics (2015).

Sound familiar? Of course it does; a few specifics aside, this is the basic story-line for William Peter Blatty’s infamous book, “The Exorcist”, which came out in 1971–9 years after Russell’s book. In fact, Russell’s slender volume almost reads like an outline for Blatty’s version of the tale, minus the spinning heads, graphic vulgarity, and violence. There is even a vomiting scene, although it is handled a little more artfully:

“There was a rattling, gagging sound from the girl, and they turned to watch in pity and loathing as she retched violently, her body curling in spasms, her fingers and toes clenched, her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor.”

"The Case Against Satan", Award books 1972 paperback edition touting the tagline "Shattering, terrifying--a novel of the divine and the diabolic that goes beyond 'The Exorcist'".

“The Case Against Satan”, Award books 1972 paperback edition touting the tagline “Shattering, terrifying–a novel of the divine and the diabolic that goes beyond ‘The Exorcist'”.

Susan, aged 16, is not quite as young as Blatty’s 11 year old Regan, she doesn’t swear as much, and most of her vulgarities are implied. She does, however, get naked in front of Gregory’s predecessor, Father Halloran, and after an unsuccessful attempt at seducing him, pounces on the poor Father and tries to throttle him. Father Halloran gets so spooked that he refuses to see the girl again and there is some speculation that this is the reason for his request to secure a transfer to another parish.

Paperback Library 1963 edition of "The Case Against Satan", with cover art depicting the scene where Susan disrobes in front of Father Halloran.

Paperback Library 1963 edition of “The Case Against Satan”, with cover art depicting the scene where Susan disrobes in front of Father Halloran.

Added to the drama are Mrs. Barlow, a nosy parishioner who demands to know why Father Gregory hasn’t been showing up to say mass on Sunday, as well as what all of the racket is the Chandlers (another parish family) heard coming from the rectory during the wee hours of the night. Also, there is an anti-Catholic pamphleteer, John Talbot, who keeps feeding the fire with lurid accusations to stir unrest within the community.

Although somewhat ambiguous in regards to whether the girl’s ailment is demonic or psychosomatic in origin, Russell’s book leans a lot more to the latter explanation. Father Gregory seems to think that Susan is acting out in response to having suffered a traumatic experience. Bishop Crimmings, conversely, takes the supernatural stance and insists on an exorcism and that Gregory perform it as a way of confronting his own wavering faith head-on.

In some ways “The Case Against Satan” is a less lurid, more philosophical take on the topic of demonic possession. The novella is a quick read, and in light of all of the explicitness we are bombarded with these days in the media and on the Internet, the horrors therein may seem mild in contrast but, make no mistake, I don’t doubt that in 1962, the topics of diabolism,  incest, child molestation and priests of lapsed faith who indulge in more than ceremonial communion wine raised some hackles.

PAN books edition of "The Case Against Satan", from 1965.

PAN books edition of “The Case Against Satan”, from 1965.

Russell’s prose is crisp, and unadorned, although being a writer of the Gothic he does insert the occasional purple passage and drops allusions which show a taste for the macabre. His description of Father Gregory’s thoughts upon seeing the prostrate and bound Susan on a bed spring, which he compares to a medieval rack, is a good example of this.

My only complaint was in the final chapter, “The Hand of God”, which serves to wrap up the loose ends of the story after the climactic scene in the rectory, where Father Gregory calls Susan to follow up on her condition after the exorcism. She seems much happier, and says she wants to become a med student, with an eye towards eventually becoming a medical missionary. Gregory’s response is not only condescending, but surprisingly inappropriate considering what he himself believes the girl went through prior to the alleged possession.

That aside, I loved the book and highly recommend it to lovers of Gothic fiction, especially the sub-genre of demonic possession. Hopefully Penguin will be pleased enough with the sales of this volume to eventually release Russell’s supernatural thriller, “Incubus”. You’ll surely see another review from me if and when they do.