Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tomes of Horror

Variety is the spice of life, I'm being told, and I am not one to refuse some spice in my life. So today, I'm talking about scary scary books. That, and I just got a Kindle, so I figured this was the time to find me some scary books to read in the dark. Well, not complete dark, reading in low light is bad for your eyes, dontchaknow?

The biggest problem with horror books seems to me that it's not such a strong genre in litterature as it is with movies. Maybe because cheap jump-scares aren't as effective in media without sound for scare chords, or maybe because your average book is about as expensive to produce as your average slasher movie, which is to say not very, and thus, you lack the market for micro-budget exploitation schlock that makes up the base foundation of the horror genre, the manure from which the occasional cucumber of awesomeness can be successfully cultivated. This is not to say there aren't some absolutely pants-wettingly scary books out there, House Of Leaves have more than once made me want to turn all the lights on, put the book in a big lead box and hide that in a walk-in fridge, just in case.

Pictured: An Awesome Cucumber

I think my main problem is that I can't stand the most prolific and well-known horror authors out there. Or, if you prefer, I think Stephen King is an overhyped writer. Granted, the man has some neat ideas, and when he actually gets around to bringing the scary, he can conjure up some delightfully wicked and appropriately scary scenarios. A lot of Horror movies is based on his work, and hell, some of them I like. So, what's the problem? Well, for one, he has such a fascination with subplots, some of which is only tangentially related to the main plot, and serve little to no purpose.

I guess that sort of writing works for some, but it's clear to me that King and I belong different schools in that regard. Far be it for me to imply that King actively strives for his books to be as long and encompassing as possible for the pure hell of it, since that philosophy is often associated with such glorious train wrecks as the infamous Maradonia Saga , or the kind of High Fantasy Doorstoppers that seem to be written with that thought in mind that no good book can be less than a thousand pages long and include at least three chapters worth of text describing the oddities and customs of a race of blue-skinned basketweaving pacifists with an inordinate amount of apostrophes in their language, but I'm getting off topic here.

My point, though, is that reading through a Stephene King book takes effort. Not the extra concentration needed to get the full gist of the descriptions in Perdido Street Station, which for the record seems very promising, or the endurance neccesary to get anywhere of consequence in Tolkien's rich narratives, no, reading Stephen King feels an awful lot like busywork for me. Sure, you're rewarded with a nugget or two of spine-tingling fear, but to get to it, you have to hammer through a lot of tangentially related subplots and description of New England and its oddities and customs and the spirit of the place. In that way, King's writing is perfect if you're, say, on vacation with a limited book supply. The moment reading has to compete with anything else, even other books, King tends to lose out.

There's another thing that bothers me about King. Not only is pretty much everything he writes set in Maine, King's hometown or at least in New England somewhere. No problem there, he could maybe benefit from branching out a little and explore other setting, but I guess his Fantasy stuff, The Dark Tower and such, kinda covers that. No, what bothers me is how blatantly King inserts himself into the story. There's nothing wrong with having a character who shares characteristics with the writer, but when you see a character that's an author, a writer of suspense tales that at some point stops to tell us all about his philosophy around writing. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is King's way of soapboxing his own views around the art of writing, and... well, I guess it's his privilege as an author, but I still consider it bad form to do stuff like that. At least he doesn't have the strawman version of his critics savaged by foul beasts, like some producers of content does.

Now, the New Beginnings to Stephen King's Vocal Adrenaline, Dean Koontz, I guess I've had a little more luck with. Granted, every book of his I've read have basically been the same story with marginally different main characters and some new monster or what have you. Seriously, pretty much every Koontz book I've read goes like this: Snarky and sarcastic guy battles some form of unspeakable evil together with a sassy female sidekick-cum-love interest and either a child, a man with some sort of mental problem or a dog. Seriously, that's pretty much the books right there. The biggest deviation from the norm might be the Odd Thomas books, which is about a snarky sarcastic guy who can see ghosts and his noticable lack of Dog, Child, Mentally handicapped man or love interest.

To be fair, the Koontz books are a lot more compact, so the scare beat feel more concentrated, and some of the beasties that are thought up are pretty damn good, he even managed to make monkeys menacing, and that's quite a feat, but nothing compared to making an old lady being stalked by her house cat to a tense, if not a little overly chatty scene with respectable amounts of terror. Well, I guess what they say about House Cats in D&D 3 ed is true, if you pardon the extraordinarily geeky reference.

As for other horror books, I'm told my favorite urbane fantasy series, The Dresden Files, is some times classified as Horror. I guess this is due to the great amount of child-snatching, man-eating, sanity-munching horrors present, and the implications that there's even more powerful and Cthulhu-esque beings out there. Still, it's hard to get too scared when the narrator is a snarky badass with pop-culture jokes to spare, who also at one point reanimated a zombie T-Rex and rode it through Chicago to stop a madman from attaining I Can't Believe It's Not Divinity. Yeah. Also, I've got some other books lined up that might be good, for example a book called Hater or the interestingly titled John Dies At The End, although the latter doesn't seem to be available for Kindle, which is a shame.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

So, Paranormal Activity was easily one of the most terrifying, and yet awesome, horror cinema experiences I've had in my life. Granted, I don't go to the movies nearly often enough, but the prices in this country is high , and most main-stream horror is usually... lacking, at least the ones who hit the silver screens around here. When I heard word of Paranormal Activity, I was surprised, and also a little apprehensive. Horror sequels are seldom good, even to the rare good horror flicks. Could this one be different, though? As is starting to become a habit now, but there be spoilers, big ones, so be warned.

Actually, it's not entirely accurate to call PA2 a sequel, most of it happens before PA1, and the main characters are Kristi, the sister of the girl in the first film, her husband, resident skeptic and pop-cultured snarker, Dan, his daughter from an earlier marriage, Ali, and the newest resident of the house, Hunter. Oh, and there's a dog, and an invisible child-snatching demon. Yes, the demon from the first movie is out for first-born sons this time, the movie actually goes so far as to suggest that someone in the family line further back traded their firstborn son for success and riches, but didn't provide a child with the appropriate chromosomes, causing the demon to go all Repo Man on the family for generations. Either that, or it wasn't picky with the gender, and said deal happened much later, or, a third option, the demon doesn't give a shit about deals and just wants a juicy 'lill morsel to snack on, ruining a couple of lives in the process.

So yes, the cast is much bigger this time, and that's not all. The family has, after what was assumed to be a burglary, but probably wasn't, installed security cameras all over the house, and it's through these we see most of the action, although there's a couple of hand-held camera bits. In a way, this could lower the immersion somewhat, as more cameras did with REC2, but with PA, there always was signs of editing, like speeding up the video to surprisingly terrifying effect, so it feels logical that someone cut together the material into one package. One terrifying, terrifying package.

I'd say the horror is very much alive in this installment, the scares are of a similar nature, but mixes things up a little, enough to keep us uneasy. There's this rolling bass sound which precedes a lot of scares, and I'm not really sure if it's supposed to be in-universe, or has been added afterwards, since nobody acknowledges them. Still, the way it kinda increases in volume without really hinting at a crescendo anytime soon before shit getting very real very fast was surprisingly effective. Some scares are a bit... uh, like the baby being pulled by the unseen force. Sure, it worked in 1, but that was in the climax, they could sell you pretty much anything at that point, but it came a bit early in 2, I think. Most of them were rather excellent though, my favorite probably being every cupboard in the kitchen busting open with a loud bang in the middle of the day. It was the point where the demon demonstrated (pun not intended) that A: It wasn't fucking around, and B: It could fuck with you during daytime, if it felt like it.

Actually, I'd say the scariest bit of this movie was the end of the beginning, where scary shit starts happening, and you haven't quite gotten used to looking at lingering security camera shots of the empty house at night. That shit's freaky. Any place where there's supposed to be people, like for example houses, that's empty is just unnerving to watch, and it makes me glad I'm currently inhabiting a one room and bathroom apartment. In a way, it reminded me of my phobia of hotels. I guess phobia isn't entirely accurate, but hotels freak me out, nonetheless. A hotel is basically something that's not a home trying to be a home, and the degree of order and the lack of actual people makes it very unnerving. All in all, the shots of the empty rooms gave me a Silent Hill-esque feeling of dread, where I kept expecting something to jump out and go "BOO" any moment, and in a way found it more scary when it didn't.

Another fact I found sublimely terrifying was the realization that the events of PA1 was set into motion by Dan, who, with a little help from the Mexican maid, manages to sic the demon on Kristi's sister instead. Even worse, this only buys them about 2 months of peace until the problem comes back to bite them in the ass. Hard. It's actually a little interesting, since Dan for the longest time was what my friends over at TvTropes call a Supernatural Proof Father, a patriarch who is the last to accept that some serious supernatural shit is indeed going down. Usually, this guy either goes insane and/or possessed or saves his family, and dog naturally, at the very last moment. This version of the guy? Well, he tries the latter, but it didn't really help much, so in retrospect, it was kind of a pointless dick move, but I guess he had no way of knowing. Also, the family dog is, as dogs usually are in these situations, aware of something spooky going down, and at one point even tangles with the beast. Luckily, this happens off-camera, and thus, it doesn't get silly.

Actually, the movie has a good couple of moments that could seem silly, and actually kinda does, in retrospect, but in the movie, it's pretty much got the atmosphere to carry the scares and make them believable. Could just be me, but I also think the acting was slightly better this time around, so all in all, I'd say Paranormal Activity 2 was a worthwhile sequel, hell, easily one of the better horror sequels I've seen, but I kinda think they should stop here, sure, there's sequel material, but I'm struggling to see how to expand more without compromising the quality. Then again, maybe they've got a triology planned out, and as long as they don't answer too many questions, I'm kinda ok with that.