Monday, December 28, 2015

Holiday Horror: NOS4A2


Victoria AKA Vic McQueen has a secret. She has a talent for finding missing things, but she'll never tell any how she does it. Her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike takes her onto a covered bridge to wherever the missing object is and then the bridge disappears when she's done with it. This power takes a physical toll on her if she uses it too much. Charles Manx has an interesting power too. He rides around in a 1938 Rolls Royce with the vanity plate NOS4A2, abducting children he views to be in distress, killing their parents, and taking them to Christmasland, his supposedly idyllic child haven. The reality is much more sinister. Vic runs into him one day when looking for trouble and their encounter changes both of their lives: Vic goes down a road of addiction and self abuse while Manx is in a coma for a number of years. One day, Manx comes out of his coma and plans to target Vic's son. Vic is the only person who can stop him if she can get out of her downward spiral and denial of her power.

I enjoy Joe Hill's writing, but much like his father, he tends to end his books in an unsatisfying way. This book is the exception and I hope a growing trend. NOS4A2 is excellent from start to finish. I read it over the course of a few months and I always knew exactly where I was and what was happening. The fantasy and horror aspects are fresh and make sense within the worldbuilding. The few people in the novel with some sort of power have an object that is needed in order to use it. Vic has her bike and later a motorcycle. Manx has his Rolls Royce and Vic's friend Maggie has her Scrabble tiles. All of their abilities have a different focus, Vic's being the ability to transport to and find whatever she thinks of and Maggie's being precognition. Their powers aren't just free to use; it takes a physical toll on them. These women met as innocent children and both turned to substance abuse and other self destructive behaviors. Based on the effects, brain damage and deteriorating mental health are also symptoms of extended use. One way this is portrayed besides Vic's physical reaction is in the condition of her covered bridge. When she was young, the bridge was brand new, like any bridge in good repair. When she grew up, it was in extreme disrepair with rotten boards and bats everywhere. It's a gamble if she'll even make it to the other side.

The horror aspects are particularly on point. Charles Manx is one of the creepiest villains ever. He is similar to Nosferatu in appearance: pale, protuding teeth, bald, undead looking. He rides around in his vintage Rolls Royce "saving" unhappy children from their horrible parents and taking them to Christmasland, a land of happiness, decadence, and neverending fun. This may sound like he's a saint, but that's what he wants you to think. Some of the children are from legitimately terrible households, but some of them are not. Manx's minion dispatches the parents and uses the mothers for his own sick pleasure, leaving Manx free to whisk the child away in his car. It's no ordinary car. In addition to being an exceptionally beautiful car, it also follows Manx's whims, whether it's constantly playing Christmas music through its speakers, driving itself, making the back seat seem interminable, or giving the inhabitants presents. Their final destination is Christmasland, but on the way there, the goal is for the children to lose their humanity under Manx's tutelage. Once the child gets there, it's a playground of carnage with many other inhuman playmates where the adults are prey. Christmasland is a disgusting parody of a child's ideal Christmas and it's one of the most chilling places I've read about. Manx is convinced he's doing the best for his children and uses manipulation, drugs, and magic to get the children on his side.

NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's best book yet. The characters, the worldbuilding, and the story are memorable. The human drama and fantastical horror elements are perfectly balanced to create a novel that's both incredibly creepy and touching at the same time. I hope a sequel is in the works because the ending leaves just a little bit open for one. I had no idea until now that there was a graphic novel miniseries called Wraith that ties into the story, which I will definitely check out. Sometime in the future, AMC is supposed to release a miniseries and I can't wait. I hope Christmasland is as horrific as I imagine it. I will read whatever Joe Hill writes next because I was always engaged by his writing, but this novel follows through with an amazing ending.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holiday Horror: Krampus the Yule Lord


Jesse is a loser. He lives alone in a trailer playing his guitar for drunks on the weekends with $4 to his name. It's Christmas and he can't even buy his daughter presents. He was off to drink himself into a stupor or kill himself when he saw the weirdest thing he's ever witnessed in his life: little devil people fighting Santa Claus on his sleigh complete with flying reindeer. Jesse can't believe his eyes, but he doesn't hesitate to take the big red Santa sack that they left behind that produces any toy he can think of. He thinks he's found the solution to all of his problems, but both Santa Claus and the leader of these devils wants the sack back.

Krampus has been awfully popular lately. Krampus festivals are gaining popularity and the recent years have had an explosion of films about him. This is the best Krampus story I've seen thus far. Krampus in this story is the Yule Lord, not a demon or devil. He descended from Loki and is one of the last of the old gods. Yule is the pagan celebration the rebirth of the sun and the beginning of winter. Krampus was widely worshiped by people in the past with revels and shoes full of treats. The wicked were put in sacks and beaten with switches. In the 1400s, a friend of Krampus' previously imprisoned in Hel decided to imprison him, dress as St. Nicholas, and hijack his holiday for a new age. Krampus' image with his horns and imposing figure along with his iconography was then repurposed to create Satan, a fitting villain for Santa and Christianity in general. Krampus finally frees himself after being imprisoned for centuries and seeks to take his holiday back as well as punish the man responsible who betrayed him and their family. I love how Brom interweaves Norse mythology, pagan practices, and the rise of Christianity to create his story. The pagan origins of some modern traditions like Christmas trees and mistletoe are also particularly interesting. Although Krampus is a mercurial and inhuman god, I felt for him and wanted him to take back his holiday.

The other main plotline is Jesse and his whole sad situation. He brings a more human element to the fantastical story and gives us someone to identify with. His family is estranged and his wife wants a divorce, but he's convinced they can make it work somehow. This hopeless man without prospects or drive has a big load of crazy dropped right into his lap. Krampus enlists his help in exchange for revenge against a corrupt sheriff currently dating his wife and the crime boss who associates with him. Jesse truly grows over the course of the novel. Through his adlines and ventures and insights from Krampus and his Belsnickels, Jesse completes his hero's journey and comes out the other side stronger and with definite hope for the future. He also finds the drive to see if he can make something of a music career after years of stagnation. The ending isn't all roses and butterflies, but a little bittersweet.

Krampus the Yule Lord offers a different perspective of this ancient figure than is usually seen in the media. It also offers explanations on why he fell out of favor, how his image was transformed into something evil, and why he's gaining popularity today. The story has momentum and goes unexpected places. I was invested in both stories and the ending was satisfying and complex. The book starts each chapter with a black and white illustration of a scene in the novel. Each of them is incredibly detailed and in Brom's signature style. My only disappointment is that they all weren't in color like the insides of the book cover and the drawings in the middle. I plan to read another Brom book The Child Thief, a retelling of Peter Pan, and I'm confident it will be just as amazing.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 24, 2015

You and Hidden Bodies Playlist

The hipster supermarket playlists in Hidden Bodies made me think of a playlist of songs that remind me of Joe Goldberg, good guy extraordinaire.

* Possession by Sarah McLachlan



Many people think this is a sweet love song and feature it in weddings, but the origins are less than romantic. Sarah McLachlan wrote this song from the perspective of a real life fan who wrote her obsessive letters in an effort to understand this alien mindset.

* Every Breath You Take by the Police



This is the classic stalker song. Joe is particularly like this in the first book when he wears disguises to sit across the street from Beck's apartment and spy on her in addition to hacking into her email and phone as well as snooping through all of her stuff. Joe is also obsessed with someone he barely knows. The line "I will not be denied" is particularly chilling.

* Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys



This song has a very cool, memorable guitar ostinato. Once you listen to the lyrics, it's clear this person is obsessed with someone without even knowing them. It seems that like Joe, they met in an insignificant way and he has become obsessed while she may not even know he really exists.

* I Will Possess Your Heart by Death Cab for Cutie



This song is amazing to listen to, but has a disturbing story. The person in this story has obviously been soundly rejected by the object of his affection, but remains convinced that he can possess her heart. This language use is interesting because it doesn't even take the woman's thoughts or feelings into account. Joe convinces himself he knows Beck completely and when she turns out to not be his ideal person, he turns violent. This view is seen in many crimes in the past few years of women refusing men and being attacked or even killed for it just as in You.

Any Joe-like song I missed? Let me know!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hidden Bodies


Joe Goldberg is back and he has a new object of obsession and affection. Amy Adam believes in living off the grid: temporary cell phones, no social media, and even no banks. She has a few weird quirks, but he's fallen head over heels in love with her. Only one thing is harshing his happiness: the evidence he left at Peach Salinger's house right before he murdered her. To kill two birds with one stone, he decides to take Amy on a road trip around there and get rid of the evidence at the same time. They have a wonderful time, but so many Salingers surround the property that Joe can't enter. He returns home a little sad, but becomes devastated when he discovers that Amy duped him. She left town with the rare books from the cage in his bookstore. Enraged, he lets go of his life in New York and follows Amy to LA to teach her a lesson.

I went into Hidden Bodies thinking it would be a lot like You: Joe would pick out a woman, employ similar stalker and invasive maneuvers to keep tabs on her, and then eventually find out she's a real person and kill her. I was completely wrong. It starts out much the same way, but he's forced to actually trust her due to her desire to live off the grid. When she dupes him, it doesn't come as a surprise since the first time he met her, she paid for books using a stolen credit card. His journey and adjustment to Los Angeles are amusing because of the disparity between his expectations and the reality of the city. Joe spends some time tracking down the elusive Amy, but once he meets Love, he ceases to care. She just so happens to be rich and opens up a whole new world to him in LA with her connections.

The rest of the novel is a mix of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the Great Gatsby, and of course Catcher in the Rye. Joe hates fakes and phonies but he is one himself. As before, his story normalizes his insane perspective so after a while it actually seems pretty reasonable until the more extreme thoughts come out. His narrative is full of self doubt and leaps in conclusion. He never quite feels like he belongs because he really doesn't. His constant lies and different background keep him separate from the others plus his past sins and mistakes frequently come to haunt him as well. However, all of his acquaintances are just as hollow as he is, so he does fit in, in a way. I practically got whiplash at times because he would be completely convinced someone saw through him, already planning their murder, and the next second, it was a misunderstanding and everything is fine. He gets completely caught up in the rich Californian lifestyle, complete with aspirations to be the film writer he claims to be. The most hilarious part of the story was when a woman on his floor starts stalking him and he's freaked out that she's invading his privacy. He spent the entire last book justifying his stalker actions and when the tables are turned, he just doesn't see it the same way.

Hidden Bodies is an unexpected sequel to You that ends with a definite opening for another book. This isn't my favorite series, but Kepnes knows how to keep my interest and is willing to explore reprehensible characters in interesting ways. My only complaint would be that the Hollywood decadence and his struggle for a career took up too much of the book. Other than that, I enjoyed it and I would read the next one if there is one.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Eleanor


Eleanor and Esmeralda are identical twins. Their father Paul is always there and they have many happy memories together, but their mother Agnes is always distant. One day, a horrific chain of events leads to the death of Esmeralda in a car crash on the way to pick up Paul from the airport. Years later, Agnes drowns her sorrows in cheap whiskey while Eleanor cleans up her messes and makes sure she doesn't die. Agnes has nothing but hate for everyone around her, especially Eleanor, who she blames for Esmeralda's death. It's a relatively normal day at school until Eleanor goes through the doorway to the cafeteria and ends up observing a memory from her childhood. She returns in new clothes, losing some time. She has no idea how or why it happened, but it happens again and again, sometimes with disastrous effects. Is she going crazy?

Eleanor tells the story of a girl working to heal her family. The format isn't straight forward. It jumps around in time, dimension, and perspective. The beginning is a little confusing, but things just come together and reveal themselves in time. Two characters named Eleanor were confusing at first and I started making some very wrong assumptions, but once things were clear, I was hooked. The characters are well done and realistic. I particularly liked the way Agnes was written. It would have been so easy to demonize her for feelings trapped by motherhood and not full heartedly enjoying it as it seems most women do. Her mother (Eleanor's namesake) abandoning her at a young age had a huge effect on her, so it's understandable that she was hesitant. Then when disaster strikes, she's broken, lashing out at absolutely everyone and herself. Eleanor was also an interesting character. She's a pretty normal teenager, but she chooses to take care of her purposefully invalid mother.  Every day she tries to nourish her mother, take care of her, and show her love only to be soundly rejected over and over. It's a special type of person that can still have hope after years and years of being beaten down and she shows it through her mission to save her family.

The fantasy elements tie the story together beautifully. Mea, a formless being in the Rift coached by another formless being called Efah, is drawn to Eleanor and wants to bring her to the Rift. Time after time she fails, a few times causing Eleanor terrible bodily harm. Eleanor goes to different people's dream worlds in her journey and gains insight about them. The Rift and its inhabitants also tie all of the different generations together. All of the details just fall together gradually and make sense. Throughout most of the novel, I thought a particular storyline involving a sorceress and her valley just seemed out of place, but when it came time very late in the novel, it made perfect sense and belonged.

Eleanor is a unique fantasy novel that is about family at its core. I enjoy reading things that challenge norms and offer different perspectives. I haven't seen or read a fantasy world quite like this before and I loved how revelations were doled out carefully and over time. I expect other great books from Jason Gurley in the future.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Masked Truth


* slight spoilers *

Riley Vasquez wasn't even supposed to be babysitting. Her best friend guilted her into taking over and then the unthinkable happens: intruders come in and kill the couple right before they were leaving. She takes their daughter and hides under the bed. Everyone keeps saying she's a hero, but she just feels like a coward. In an effort to heal from the ordeal, Riley is enrolled in a weekend long therapy camp with five other troubled teens. The situations becomes dire when masked men with guns hold them hostage and claim they want ransom money. One teen gets indignant and attacks the criminals. Chaos reigns as the teens hide from the gunmen, some are shot dead, and some are injured. Can Riley and her fellow teens escape the situation alive?

I wasn't super thrilled with the last Kelly Armstrong book I read, but the premise to The Masked Truth intrigued me. The action starts immediately. The first passage describes the shooting of the couple Riley was babysitting for and then goes forward to just before the therapy retreat. I thought about a third of the book would go into establishing the characters, their relationships with each other, and all that other fluffy stuff. It goes straight into the hostage situation within the first 20 pages. I was surprised that the story dives right into the action and I was wondering how the momentum was going to be sustained throughout the novel. The last third of the novel is after their escape and one of the survivors is accused of planning and carrying out all the murders. I would say this is unbelievable, but similar things happen in real life because of a general misunderstanding and demonization of mental illness. I liked this aspect because so many movies with this situation end with a happy ending with survivors, but never deals with the suspicious and inevitable investigation to follow.

The book is told through alternating perspectives between Riley, our intrepid heroine with PTSD, and Max, a boy with schizophrenia and a bit of a crush on Riley. The portrayal of the mental disorders is even handed and accurate as far as I know. Riley is tired of everyone saying how much of a hero she is when she just cowered under a bed. She almost wishes someone would call her out on it. Riley experiences some PTSD episodes that include flashbacks centered around guns and blood. I liked Riley and I rooted for her, but she's a bit of a stereotypical YA protagonist. I found Max to be a lot more interesting. He's a jerk when we first meet him. He is snarky, rude, and doesn't take anything seriously. His schizophrenia is mostly under control with medication, but he constantly questions if the things he's seeing are real to ensure his loved ones' safety. The last time his delusions went unchecked, he tried to kill his best friend. Even though he doesn't want to advertise his condition, he makes sure Riley is aware to look out for warning signs. Riley and Max's romance was surprisingly sweet and organic in such an extreme situation.

The Masked Truth had some flaws. Some of the situations required a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief to really get into. Riley was the quintessential YA heroine. It's as if Armstrong wrote a checklist of all the characteristics she needed. She had flaws and wasn't totally perfect, but she's like way too many characters I've read already. Other than that, I liked The Masked Truth, especially Max and the twists and turns of the plot.

My rating: 4/5 fismuffins

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Daughters Unto Devils



Amanda Verner has a secret: she's in love. Every month she's been meeting a post boy in the woods for secluded trysts. Just as her family is about to move away, she finds out she's pregnant. Full of dreams of escape and running away together, she eagerly tells her love who rejects her. Now she's stuck moving to some unknown place with her family, waiting for them to notice that she's with child. This is all after the most horrific winter ever when her pregnant mother caught a fever that took away the child's sight and hearing after a long, difficult pregnancy. The constantly screaming baby made the cabin insufferable to live in and Amanda found herself wishing it would just die. Then she swore she saw the devil and other horrible visions. Her family doesn't talk about it at all, but she knows what she saw. Hopefully this new place will be a fresh start for her family. Their hopes are high until they finally arrive and the cabin is doused in blood as if a cow was slaughtered inside.

Daughters Unto Devils is an unexpected book especially from Harlequin Teen. Two aspects really shined: the portrayal of teen sexuality and the horror. Amanda has a sexual relationship with the post boy. It's not glossed over or implied, but frankly described. She talks about her pleasurable thoughts and both physical and emotional feelings during the act. I especially appreciated this portrayal because even though romance is a big aspect in teen fiction, female sexuality is typically not frankly discussed or described. If teen books do have sex, a fadeout or broad euphemisms are used like it's some sort of Hays Code film. Teen girls have sexual thoughts and feelings. Not writing about it doesn't make them go away. It's nice to see authors unafraid of alienating parents who want to shelter teens. This is a real part of girls' lives and they deserve to see that aspect reflected in the fiction they read. Female sexuality in general is still a mystery to a lot of people because of how society treats it as a taboo or only acceptable as male fantasy and/or as a commodity. There are consequences to her sexual activity, but it's blissfully unrelated to any of the horror aspects that come afterwards. I'm glad the novel poses realistic consequences instead of

The horror aspects of the book are well done and insidious. It starts out as small mentions of Amanda's vision from last winter. No one talks about it and they quickly change the subject if it's brought up. Once they move from the mountain to the prairie, the creepy aspects increase exponentially. You'd think a cabin where something horrific obviously happened would scare them away, but in true horror movie fashion they try to make the best of it. I liked the suspense and the build up, but the big moment was a bit underwhelming. I also like the ambiguity of the situation: is it all in her head or is she really being haunted/possessed? I didn't like that this ambiguity is all but destroyed by the finale and the ending simply seemed pointless.

Daughters Unto Devils does a great job with the female protagonist, but most of the other characters are flat and don't seem to have a real connection to her. Why bother having so many children if they aren't going to be significant to the story in any way? Other than that, the story was creepy and suspenseful up to a point and was really gruesome at times. I always appreciate that. The ending was disappointing and pointless. The novel wasn't perfect, but I enjoyed the experience.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You


Joe is an unassuming guy you see working in a bookstore. He first sees you in the F-K aisle of the fiction section. You both have a slightly flirty conversation while you buy some books and then you leave. You are mostly likely dismissive of the incident, but he isn't. It sticks in his mind as he obsessively Googles every tiny fact he can find about you. He knows about your blog where you write stories about thinly veiled events in your life. He finds your apartment and watches you from across the street. You don't have curtains, so it's easy for him to wear different clothes and watch your most intimate actions for as long as he wants, unnoticed by you or your neighbors. You are also unaware that he has been in your apartment, hacked into your computer, stolen your underwear, and invaded your most personal space. You are now dating him after a few more very convenient meetings and you have no idea what he's done.

You is from the point of view of Joe, creepy misogynistic stalker. Of course he views himself as a completely normal guy. He realizes that people on the outside would see him as creepy and disturbed, but he dismisses it as a misunderstanding. If they knew him and his situation, they would think he was as normal as he did. The narrative creeps under your skin because he seems to have no idea how horrible he is. Everything is nonchalantly described: Joe watching his object of affection Beck in her most intimate moments dressed up in a suit across the street from her apartment; Joe following her every move when she's away from him; Joe kidnapping her current boyfriend, holding him in a cage, and sending offensive tweets so she will break up with him. While Joe idolizes and worships Beck, he's also quick to condemn her behavior if it's outside his imagining of her and act as if he has to educate her. Throughout his tale, women frequently do not figure well. He is always more knowledgeable and wise while they just need to be educated. None of the negative events in his life are ever his fault and this isn't the first time he has done this level of stalking, nor will it be the last. After a while of reading from his narrative, it's easy for his insane behavior to be normalized. When things start going well, I found myself rooting for him a little, at least until he did the next creepy thing or made a particularly offensive comment about women. I love books like this because you see right into the mind of someone who is horrible and you see how and why they justify doing the awful things they do.

 The object of his affection is Beck, real name Genevieve. She isn't perfect. Actually, she's a bit of a mess. Her boyfriend is an annoying narcissist who treats her life garbage. Her best friend lies constantly and tries to separate Beck from everyone else in her life. It's a crazy random happenstance that so many horrible people are in her life. Adding Joe to the mix just pushes it over the edge. Seeing into her short stories, emails, blog entries, and text messages gave an honest view of who she was. She does things that everyone does, but hopes no one knows about: lies about what she's doing, lies to get what she wants, blows people off to spend time with other people, and talks about people behind their backs. It's a bit jarring to see so much about one person and makes me  wonder what someone would think if they had that access to all of my things. I like that she isn't portrayed as perfect, no matter how much Joe wants her to be. She's just a normal girl with a whole lot of crazy people around her.

I had a few problems with the novel. It takes an extreme suspension of disbelief that Beck is some sort of crazy person magnet. She did have some fairly normal friends (who of course she always dismissed when seeking help), but the biggest figures in her life where the narcissistic boyfriend, obsessive Joe, and hypochondriac best friend. The other problem was that Joe's obsessive tendencies could have been pushed further for me. For much of  the novel, he's just doing invasive things like snooping. He obviously has the capacity for more, but doesn't reach it very often. I expected the level of John Fowler's The Collector, but it fell quite a bit short. I hope the next book, Hidden Bodies, raises the creep factor to eleven. Overall You was enjoyable and well written, but a few things pushed believability and it could have been way more disturbing.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Friday, November 27, 2015

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys


I'm honestly not usually a big fan of collections of short stories. Most of the time, there are a few standout, amazing stories and the rest are forgettable or mediocre. This anthology is different. So many of these stories were impressively chilling. I enjoyed that each story ended with the inspiration behind the story whether it's a movie, song, or TV show. Mild spoilers may follow.

* The Birds of Azalea Street by Nova Ren Suma, inspired by The Birds and Rear Window

The first story in the book sets the pitch dark tone. A neighborhood man is just a little bit off and creepy. The girls that live around him feel uneasy around him, but the adults always defend him and nothing definite ever happened. Until now. The story goes right to a pedophile which is a real danger in the world. That danger is real and immediate. Then a supernatural force comes in. I love the mix of reality and fantasy. It's also a cool mix of horror and fantasy. The finale which is actually right at the beginning as the story comes full circle feels like it belongs in a fairy tale.

* In the Forest Dark and Deep by Carrie Ryan, inspired by Disney's film Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This story is the most memorable and chilling of the bunch. A girl named Cassidy is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. One day, she finds a clearing in the middle of the forest with a moldering tea party table. With no idea who it might belong to, she uses it to her imagination's content. The owner of the table adds to it as she does and they sort of become friends. She sees him off in the distance and he looks just like the White Rabbit from her favorite story. When her birthday part doesn't go as planned due to some rude guests, the White Rabbit then gives her a macabre birthday present that she doesn't wholly reject. The story is told hopping back and forth in time from age seven to age seventeen and back. The White Rabbit returns a decade later, more dirty and tattered and just as sinister. This story gets under your skin and makes it crawl. The images are nightmarish, vivid, and not for the faint of heart.

* Emmeline by Cat Winters, inspired by the film All Quiet on the Western Front, Kiss Me Again Strnager by Daphne du Maurier, and Nosferatu

Emmeline is a French girl living in her burned out room that was destroyed by a stray shell in World War I. Her family hosts soldiers and she befriends one to take to her room. This is one of the few to take place in the past. It also takes expectations in a situation like this and turns it around, making it fresh and new. Most of the story is flirting between Emmeline and an American soldier in her burned out room. I suspected something early on, but the twist was still fun. The ending is just the right amount of horror and lets the imagination run wild with its implications.

* Verse Chorus Verse by Leigh Bardugo, inspired by Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle by Nirvana

Jaycee is a pop star in a lot of trouble: drugs, nude photos and mandated rehab. Her manager/mom is already working on a manufactured story to catapult her back in the public's good graces and the spotlight. There is something sinister and dark about the rehab facility. I always like weird mental institutions and Leigh Bardugo puts an unexpected twist on the story. The atmosphere at the facility is fearful and restrictive. The nights are the worst. Everyone is alone and vulnerable in separate rooms. The ending is super creepy and the lead up to it is full of suspense.

* Hide-And-Seek by Megan Shepherd, inspired by Final Destination, The Crow, and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

It finally happened. Annie's drunken, abusive father finally killed her. She does have the opportunity to escape death in a game of Hide and Seek until sunset the next day to earn her life back. Death doesn't play fair and many people get caught in the crossfire. If she wins, everything will be restored to how it was before the game started. I see all of the influences in the story but it's wholly unique. Annie's fight to survive starts right away and continues at breakneck speed. We never know when another attempt is going to happen or in what form it my take. The ending is clever and unexpected. This was one of my favorite stories.

* The Dark, Scary Parts and All by Danielle Paige, inspired by The Omen and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Marnie was always kind of an outcast but always excelled in school. She can't help but answer questions in class even though Everly will make her life hell. Damien Thorne, an intriguing but quiet boy, takes an interest in her much to the shock of her nemesis. They strike up a courtship, but Damian is more than he seems. If you're at all familiar with The Omen films, the antichrist's name is Damian Thorne. I was a little disappointed the story was such a literal continuation of the film instead of just being inspired by it. Damian even mentions events from the film directly. It's basically fan fiction that ignores the sequels. The story is ok. Marnie is enamored by anti-heroes in literature like Frankenstein's monster and Dracula, but when confronted with one in real life, she has to decide how she will react to his not super moral actions.

* The Flicker, the Fingers, the Beat, the Sigh by April Genevieve Tucholke, inspired by Carrie and I Know What You Did Last Summer

A group of friends drive down the road, drunk, celebrating their last year of high school. They hit a girl in the road and decide what to do. Throughout the story, it becomes clear that one of the boys knew her more than he was willing to admit. The title is genius and you would never know what it signifies unless you read the story. Again, the influences are definitely there, but subtle. It's a fairly short story, but packs a punch. It shows how a single moment of guilt and doubt can follow you the rest of your life and consume you.

* Fat Girl with a Knife by Jonathan Maberry, inspired by Zombieland and Night of the Living Dead

Dahlia has a beautiful name, but none of her physicality matches her name. She's accepted her lot in life and gets revenge on people whenever she can. The world ends on a seemingly normal day, making her skillset much more desirable than the average popular or attractive person. Jonathan Maberry is one of my favorite authors and he doesn't disappoint with this short story. A zombie apocalypse breaks out, leading Dahlia to save her fellow student and fight against the zombies. Despite her admittedly unfortunate looks, Dahlia is very strong and capable. This new world is more suited to her and she finds happiness by the end of the story. This one has a more lighthearted tone than most of the other ones and it stands out as a result.

* Sleepless by Jay Kristoff, inspired by Psycho and Mudvayne's Nothing to Gein

Justin likes a girl with the screenname C0ff33 and they've been chatting back and forth for a while. He's ready for the next level, but his mom keeps getting between them and berating him for even talking to her. When she runs away from home, it's the perfect opportunity for them to be together. Unfortunately, he grossly misrepresented himself, so he has to get a little creative. I thought I knew what would happen in this story. I figured it would be a modern replica of Psycho, but it was completely different. The ending flips expectations in a delightful and memorable way. The IM messages were useful in introducing the characters and establishing their relationship. Jay Kristoff has a talent for this as seen in Illuminae.

* M by Stefan Bachman, inspired by the film M and the TV show Upstairs Downstairs

Misha is blind and usually regarded as barely a person. She goes through her life being ignored and used to it until she stumbles upon a murder in progress. The murderer threatens her life if she tells and leaves abruptly. The only clue she has is his distinctive scent and she is bound and determined to catch the killer. This is another story that takes places in the past. This blind woman is seen as pretty much useless with no skills or social standing. We don't even know that she's blind until a few pages into the story, which is an interesting twist in the story. Her investigation skills impress as she analyzes everything she sensed from the murderer from his scent to the sound of his voice. She employs the help of a servant girl, who also has no social standing, and together they seek expose the killer. I love the contrast of the wealthy and influential doing basically nothing while these two women do everything to save themselves and others. The ending is pretty surprising, but depressingly realistic in its aftermath. The children in the story are incredibly creepy and make this Gashlycrumb Tinies-esque songs about everyone they know.

* The Girl Without a Face by Marie Lu, inspired by What Lies Beneath and Los Ojos de Julia

Richard thought his room in his new house was a little odd because the closet was locked from the inside. He slowly becomes aware of a girl who seems to be following him. She always has her back to him or her face hidden, but she's appeared many places to him. First, she is at a distance and then slowly gets closer and closer, even superimposing herself over his teacher so he assaults her to demand answers. Why is he being haunted by this incorporeal girl? This story was unexpected. I liked that it dealt with a lot of relevant issues for women and girls while having us guess at this mystery. I loved the ending and it acts as a kind of cautionary tale.

* A Girl Who Dreamed of Snow by McCormick Templeman, inspired by Kuroneko

A plague has wiped out most of the women of Mowich's people. The indigenous people don't have this problem, so it's typical for his people to kidnap their women and girls to sell for a high price for people to be able to continue their families. Nara, daughter of a shaman, is determined to fix the problem, but is kidnapped along the way. This story read more as dark fantasy than horror to me, but it has a really cool dystopian edge to it with the plague. There are quite a few twists and turns. I never quite knew where it was going to go. The ending is a bit heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same times.

* Stitches by A.G. Howard, inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

After Sage's mother died, her father was never really the same. He became abusive to the point of grave danger. She and her siblings had lost teeth and gained bruises due to his wrath. He gets thrown in jail one day and makes a deal with a doctor to replace his hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue with another's in exchange for a large amount of money. The only catch is that Sage has to do all the amputating and sewing because the doctor won't leave his house and won't accept visitors. This was another one that feels more like dark fantasy. It takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept that a teenage girl can perform complicated amputations and reattachments with complete success. This story was really touching. The father sees his horrible actions and seeks to replace them to become a better person, literally and figuratively. Sage is a strong character, always seeking to protect her siblings and do what needs to be done when everyone else shies away from it. I like her ability to reimagine what she's doing to make it more palatable. For instance, she imagined making gingerbread men instead of sewing a new foot onto her father. This story was one that I had no expectations for and enjoyed going where it took me. It's a bit odd, but enjoyable.

* On the I-5 by Kendare Blake, inspired by Death Proof and The Hitcher

EmmaRae is hanging out at a diner, waiting for the opportunity to move the dead girl in the dumpster nearby. It's her job to lay these girls to rest that were victimized, possibly raped, and murdered. Kendare Blake doesn't disappoint with this amazing story. It has ghosts, gore, revenge, and justice. I loved that this story lets you know what's going on in small chunks, kind of like a flower that opens little by little. I don't want to give too much away because it's very cool.

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys is one of the strongest anthologies I have ever read. Each one feels a bit familiar, but each author changes and tweaks each story to create something new. None of these are boring or predictable. It has definitely raised the bar for collections like these for me.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Merciless


* spoilers *

Sofia Flores moves to a new school in hopes of a new start. Her old school was full of people who just love to ridicule her. When Riley's overly religious, popular group accepts her, Sofia couldn't be happier. They drink together, have sleepovers, and seem genuinely nice. Brooklyn is nice too, but Riley's group hates her for some reason. They used to be friends and had some sort of falling out. Brooklyn is everything Riley and her group isn't, but it isn't until Sofia sees Riley's boyfriend with Brooklyn. She's just being a good friend. She ever expected Riley to tie Brooklyn up in the basement and try to exorcise her. Now Sofia is torn between siding with her friends and their religious fanaticism or saving Brooklyn from who knows what torture awaits her.

Sofia right from the beginning is kind of desperate for acceptance. She faced humiliation at every turn at her old school and she just wants a new start where she can be happy. Riley, Grace, and Alexis accept her right away. She gets the high school experience she has always wanted: sleepovers, illicit drinking, and real girlfriends to pour her heart out to. They also happen to be weirdly religious. More on that later. Brooklyn is also an interesting friend. She takes her to get piercing and tattoos, not caring what the more conventional girls think (even though they drink and have no real room to throw stones). One day, Sofia sees Brooklyn all over Riley's sort of boyfriend. She feels more loyalty to Riley's group, so she tells Riley about it. She had no idea that their next sleepover would include Brooklyn tied up and bleeding in a vacant house with all the exits locked or nailed shut.

The excuse for Brooklyn's imprisonment is that a demon is inside her, making her do horrible things. Four girls who play lip service to religion and with no connection to the church, no guidance, and no knowledge are going to exorcise the demon out of her. Riley is the toxic queen bee of the mean girls group and wastes no time going all Hostel on that poor girl. Brooklyn is stabbed with knives, burned with matches, and almost drowned in a tub among other horrific things. Who knew teenage girls coud be so vicious? Riley is obviously the ringleader and delights in the pain she inflicts. The other girls are not quite so gleeful, but follow nonetheless. It's a sick game of follow the leader and the only one conflicted is Sofia who infuriatingly does next to nothing to stop her through most of the novel. Riley employs classic bullying techniques to keep everyone in  line: threaten opponents with the same treatment, say opponents are possessed by demons as well, and cut off all exits in the house. This situation is the classic example of the majority witch-hunting the minority who is different whether it's because of religion or dress or any other random thing.

The very ending is complete and utter bullshit. Apparently, Brooklyn really is possessed by demons. Just ignore that Riley is obviously a total socio/psychopath who doesn't think twice about victimizing someone for something pretty minor, threatening her friends, and bullying anyone who gets in her way. The ending is supremely stupid and says that Riley was right to do all these awful things. It seriously disgusts me and I will never read anything by Danielle Vega ever again. Up until the very end, the story was a rather interesting look into mean girls to the extreme. One other flaw is that there's simply no suspense. It's the book version of the Saw films. No build up or actual creepiness. Just descriptions of torture which does not make good horror.  

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Illuminae


It's 2575 and Kady thought the worst thing to happen to her was breaking up with her infuriating boyfriend Ezra. Unfortunately, she was dead wrong. Just a few hours later, their planet is attacked by a rival megacorporation that wants the planet's resources. Kady and Ezra had to depend on each other (and a little bit of luck) to escape with their lives onto evacuating spaceships with the rival company's warship in constant pursuit. It later becomes apparent that their enemies attacked them with a biological weapon that has infected some of their people and created an epidemic of catastrophic proportions. If that wasn't enough, their ship's AI who is supposed to be protecting them may be their biggest enemy, but none of the higher-ups are telling anyone anything. Kady hacks into the ship's computer, determined to figure out what's really happening. She realizes the only person who can help her is the only person she never wants to speak to again: Ezra.


Illuminae blew me away. The story is told not in a conventional narrative, but in a compilation of hacked files, interviews, reports, schematics, instant messages, and descriptions of security footage. I've seen a few books that use this style, like The Dead House, and I haven't seen it be truly effective until now. This style does a great job of immersing you in the story and the world with crazy amounts of details. The variety of narrative plays with how the story is conveyed: different points of view, and comments in the margins. I like the different word density of each chapter and how the author plays with the tempo of the story. Some pages, mostly near the end, are so incredibly artistic and unique that it brings to mind the amazing post-modern work of Mark Z. Danielewski. The typography captures the mood of the scene and it's just plain beautiful.


I liked the characters right from the beginning. Kady and Ezra's testimonies about the disaster that changed their lives, killed their friends and family, and destroyed the only home they ever knew were full of snark and defiance towards those questioning them and each other. Their romance is sweet and organic, but doesn't overpower the story. It figures largely in the beginning, but when the greater conflicts start rearing their ugly heads, it takes a backseat while still affecting the relevant characters. I liked that they were two distinctly different people and had a lot of disagreements, fights, and resentment. However, both of them had similar angst and pain over the horrific events that destroyed everything.


Initially the plot sounded like way too many things all together, but each story line fits together like a well crafted puzzle. There are three main conflicts: the rival megacorporation out to kill them, the rogue killer AI called AIDAN, and the airborne, mutated bioweapon that causes extreme rage and violence in the afflicted. Once I started the story, it felt that everything fit together organically and nothing seemed out of place or overpowering. The rival megacorporation takes a bit of a back seat near the middle simply due to proximity, but comes back with a vengeance at the very end. AIDAN and the rage filled infected people are more immediate threats. AIDAN is malfunctioning and has become more than he is supposed to be. I don't consider him evil, much like HAL 9000, and he learned things like humor and sarcasm by the end of the book. The infected people are super creepy and the disease is airborne. They start out with a fever and then end delusional and murderous with the intelligence of the person they once were. Not only do they have loved ones faces, but they can strategize and lure prey. All of them hate being looked at and that one common thread just turns the creep factor up to eleven.

Illuminae is an epic science fiction adventure with a healthy dose of horror that has made it into my favorite books of the year. I didn't find anything lacking or annoying. The writing flows well and had me at the edge of my seat for most of the story. The different styles of narrative and type lend a freshness and provide a unique vehicle for the story. This concept has always interested me, but I've never seen it executed as well as this. I am so incredibly excited for the rest of the series that I can't stand it!

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

* Note that I have an ARC and the images may look different in the finished copy.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Halloween Mini-reviews: Saw Edition Part 2

* Saw VI


Hoffman is back (boo), but this time he is exacting revenge on a scummy health insurance executive who created a formula that values healthy people who will earn them more money over sick people who actually need treatment. This is another installment that isn't bad. In a pre-Affordable Healthcare Act age, people were frequently turned away from health insurance, frequently when they actually needed it, for small discrepancies in applications or pre-existing conditions. Jigsaw was one of these people who was denied a promising experimental treatment due to his age and the cost. He designed a series of traps that has this executive literally deciding who lives or dies. The victims are people he knows, coworkers, peons, and finally, his own family. For anyone who was the victim of health insurance's predatory and cutthroat practices, this is cathartic. Jigsaw's situation is relatable and we finally get to see the person beneath all the traps and the facade. It's gratifying for someone in control of this to see how toxic and perverse their practices are when more honest about the outcomes.

In addition to this pretty cool storyline, another follows Hoffman and Jigsaw's ex-wife in a weird power struggle. Both want to honor Jigsaw, but both want to do it differently. Both characters are awful. The wife is weak and indecisive while Hoffman is annoying and overbearing. I want both to die just so I won't have to see them in the next film. The ending is preposterous. If that reverse bear trap had been the real thing, nobody would have survived it. A cheap one was used simply to continue this tiresome storyline until the final chapter. Overall, I love the main story and I think others would too. For the time, it tapped into a typical experience in the US and provided a gruesome, but satisfying response. The rest could have been cut from the film.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Saw 3D: The Final Chapter


Hoffman is back again (double boo). He survived the reverse bear trap super conveniently and continues his reign of terror on two guys and their mutual lover, a skinhead gang, and Bobby Dagen, a self help author who claims to have survived one of Jigsaw's traps (which he didn't). Jigsaw's ex-wife is on the run from him after her failed murder attempt. This installment is also not horrible. The opening scene is horrible with the two timing woman and her unwitting lovers. Who cares about their drama? It also has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. After that, it gets better. I loved seeing Cary Elwes again as Dr. Lawrence Gordon from the first Saw film. He plays a small, but important role. Seeing liar and con artist Bobby Dagan go through actual traps, ending with an exact replica of the one he claimed to have survived. Seeing him with the other survivors was just gross since he capitalized off of their pain and suffering. In the meantime, Hoffman is trying to avoid the authorities and kill Jigsaw's ex. One truly disgusting scene featured a sexualized death scene with her in a dream clearly meant to exploit the 3D element. Really Saw filmmakers?? Ew. The ending is satisfying, twisty, and ties together the whole series nicely. Some parts are missteps, but overall, an enjoyable close to the series.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Halloween Mini-reviews: Saw Edition

Full disclosure: I don't really like the Saw movies. The first one was genuinely scary and interesting right up until the end. Then when Wesley from The Princess Bride cuts off his foot, the filmmakers must have run out of money or something because suddenly the severed foot is off screen and the film ends abruptly. Since the first movie was almost perfect, I tried to watch Saw II and III, but they grew more and more disappointing. Cool kills and weird traps are no substitute for a good story line and actual suspense. The only standout scene of these two films is the needle pit in Saw II. I gave up on the series until I saw the whole series was being shown on IFC, so I recorded it. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

* Saw IV


Jigsaw is dead and an unknown cohort continues his work, messing with the FBI agents working on the case. I really only remotely like this one because of Scott Patterson as Agent Strahm who also played Luke from Gilmore Girls. He's always an enjoyable actor to watch and he manages to alienate everyone in the film by being an ass, but he's looking for the truth. The autopsy at the beginning and the end (which takes place after the events in the film) is actually pretty cool and (to my knowledge) accurate. The ice block scene near the end and the trap with the battered woman and her abuser were also cool, but it just doesn't have much going on plot wise. There's an unexpected twist at the end and that's about it. Meh,

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

* Saw V


Detective Strahm wakes up with his head in a jigsaw trap and survives! He knows fellow FBI agent Hoffman is Jigsaw's real cohort. He can't yet prove it, so he plans to covertly gather evidence until he can prove it 100% to his coworkers. Meanwhile, 5 people with something in common are in another Jigsaw trap and have to work together in order to survive instead of backstab each other as is their tendency. I liked this installment a lot. Strahm is still awesome, just a little more hoarse because of his self inflicted tracheotomy to survive Hoffman's insurmountable trap. Since he's kind of an ass, everyone suspects him as being Jigsaw's protege, giving Hoffman the edge he needs to sneak around and plant evidence against him.


The side story is actually interesting, which surprised me, The 5 people all contributed in some way to an apartment being burned down with 8 people still inside. All of them acted in self interest and greed, so Jigsaw wants to teach them to do the opposite: be generous, share the load, and work together in order to make each task easier. Of course they don't do this, so the people remaining have a really hard time accomplishing the last task. This type of situation is when Saw is at it's best. Those traps that have no real solution are useless and uninteresting. When they have to get through the trap to change something fundamental about their lives is when the series shines. More of this please. I personally hate Hoffman because he's arrogant and doesn't continue Jigsaw's legacy, but distorts it into executing people he doesn't like. The ending was annoying, but this is the best installment since the first.

My rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crimson Peak


Bookish, practical Edith wants nothing to do with high society or frivolous things like dances. She aspires to be a fiction writer, but runs into trouble because the stereotypes about women writers. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe, desperate for money to fund his new invention to kick start his business. Edith mocks him for his title before even meeting him, but is immediately entranced by him when she does. Her father doesn't approve of the match at all and even goes so far as to bribe Thomas to leave and break his daughter's heart. After the tragic, unsolved murder of her father, Edith seeks solace with Thomas and they are quickly married. They return to Allerdale Hall in England, Thomas and his sister Lucille's home that has fallen into extreme disrepair. Edith is obviously out of place there, but she starts to see apparitions and clues that seem to point to some deep, dark secret about her new husband, his sister, and their past.


Crimson Peak is a lush Gothic tale with a bit of a twist. The film has most of what you'd expect of a stereotypical Gothic tale: a young lady held prisoner, a decrepit house full of secrets, a mysterious young aristocrat, his clingy sister, and a ghost. Edith is a huge nerd, which makes her awesome and part of why I rooted for her the whole film. She's an introvert who prefers quiet activities like reading or working on her novel. Despite hating him before knowing him personally, Thomas Sharpe utterly charms her with his passion and creativity. They marry in a whirlwind of love and grief for her mysteriously murdered father. Once they get to Allerdale Hall, it's clear that something is awry. Although Edith makes some pretty hugely stupid decisions, I was on her side throughout the movie. Some horrible decisions include: stealing Lucille's keys right in front of her, taking incriminating evidence back to her room, not covering her tracks when snooping around, and not running screaming right when she got there. Her mother's ghost appears to her multiple times to deter her, but Edith doesn't understand the message until it's too late.


Allerdale Hall is a once beautiful mansion that is now derelict and fallen into extreme disrepair. When you think old mansion, you probably think of a cobwebby mess, but this one takes that further than I've ever seen with someone still living in it. The roof has a giant hole in it right above the entry way. Leaves or snow settle on the floor depending on the weather. The walls are covered in giant moths and the incredibly creepy clown figures Thomas carved are everywhere you look. On top of all this, the house also sits atop red clay mine and it sinks into the clay a little more each year. Red clay seeps into the walls as mud, into the pipes, and through the snow around the property. Everything looks bathed in blood. On the other hand, parts of the mansion are still luxurious and gorgeous. The architecture is simply mind blowing. The shapes tend to have arches with spikes lining them. Everything has hard edges, spikes, and very little natural light. The enormous house is made to feel claustrophobic, like the walls are closing in around you. The mansion is one of my favorite settings for any film because of it's odd mixture of luxury and squalor. The mansion's state and dual nature is symbolic for Thomas and Lucille, their relationship, and their mental well being along with their cache of secrets. Tom Hiddleston is utterly charming as Thomas, but it's amazing to see him show what I see as his real character when he purposefully humiliates Edith in front of everyone in order to secure money from her father. He shows his true motives and attitude towards her with venom. Jessica Chastain looks a bit odd as a brunette mostly because of the severe, old fashioned dress and hair styles, but she's perfectly clingy, intense, and manipulative as Lucille. She shows her true self and looks much more natural near the climax of the film in a slightly revealing nightdress and her hair down.


Crimson Peak is a film that's a feast for the eyes. The costumes are amazingly detailed and gorgeous. The ghosts are also expertly designed to be frightening and fascinating at the same time. They look like they have tendrils of smoke constantly rolling off of them. Their creation is a delightful amalgamation of practical effects, actors (Doug Jones of course), and CGI.  Allerdale Hall is the perfect mix of luxury and dilapidation with a healthy dose of red everywhere from the clay. The music throughout is excellent as well. Piano music plays throughout because Lucille is an accomplished pianist. The score also has a dual nature. The main themes are lush and sweeping melodies with a full orchestra, but the eerie parts are accompanied by a tense theme with a repeated very high single piano note. I love how the themes flow to all parts of the narrative to make a complete artwork. I enjoyed it immensely and I urge you to catch it in the theaters before it's gone.

My rating: 9/10 fishmuffins

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Stars Never Rise


* spoilers *

Nina Kane is trying to survive, but it's difficult. Her mother is an oblivious drug addict bent on escaping reality, so money, food, and resources are scarce. Nina does everything she can to provide for herself and her little sister Mellie without letting anyone know anything is wrong. She only needs another few months until she's 18 years old and free from her toxic mother. On top of this, the world they live in is incredibly dangerous: demons have decimated their population, making souls scarce. The church rules with an iron fist, but keeps everyone safe from the demons. Nina finds out Mellie is keeping a secret that will destroy everything they tried to accomplish. She meets a rogue exorcist named Finn by chance while being attacked by a revenant who shouldn't even exist. They have to trust each other to get to the bottom of why demons are still around in New Temperance and how to save herself and her sister from the wrath of the clergy.

The world in The Stars Never Rise is different than any other I've seen. Demons have been consuming souls at an alarming rate and possessing people. Possessed people appear normal while demons care enough to pretend. Over time, they get more and more corrupt and deteriorated. The Church saved humanity with exorcisms and made the world safe again. In exchange for safety, the Church expects everyone to adhere to their strict regime which includes purity, faith, and obedience at all costs. Because souls are so restricted, bodily autonomy is a thing of the past. Only women deemed worthy can reproduce. All others are forcibly sterilized. Of those "worthy" women, only ones that can find a soul for their baby are allowed to get pregnant. These souls can be donated from family members or they can try their luck from the very small registry. Women who can't get a soul for their baby are condemned to carry to term, give birth, and watch their baby die with no soul. This world is extremely frightening to me because this puts into practice many religious group's paradise where women have no rights and their particular religion is mandated practice in school, work, and life only with some supernatural elements.

One of the main problems I have with the novel is the conflicting rhetoric. The Church is staunchly against abortion as expected, but abortion is still looked at by the characters as immoral and not an option. I suppose it could be argued that their indoctrination is lifelong and hard to break through, but it annoyed me that these characters recognize that practically everything else about the church is crazy and oppressive bullshit except for this. They affirm this pretty significant church belief. Of course the pregnant teenager in the book wants to keep her baby despite there being no soul available for it (so she would have to simply watch it die) and no resources for her to raise it let alone to take care of just herself. This could have been the perfect opportunity to include a teenage girl who wants an abortion to really push against the religious right wing rhetoric that constantly works to chip away at abortion rights, but Vincent chose to go the opposite way. Everything else in the novel from freedom to sexuality to bodily autonomy is in line with liberal beliefs except this one.

Other than this grievance, I greatly enjoyed The Stars Never Rise. The characters are interesting, particularly Finn who has no body of his own. The romance with a boy who is basically just a spirit and Nina was unique and intriguing. I'm wondering what his backstory is and if he is exactly what he thinks he is. I love Rachel Vincent's writing and her ability to create varied and layered characters. Nina in particular was fun  to read with her no nonsense approach, good heart, willingness to self-sacrifice, and her big heart. I also liked that even before all this started happening she didn't believe everything she was fed by the church. I am interested in reading the next installment.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Creepshow

* spoilers *


This film anthology features 5 short stories with a frame story to tie everything together. Overall, the films are a bit cheesy, but bring the feeling of old horror comic books like Tales from the Crypt that act as gory morality plays. I liked how the bright red light highlighted the moments of horror in each segment.


The prologue/epilogue segment shows a kid that was reading the stories abused and mocked by his father. It nicely ties together the stories, provides a little more of that gruesome justice associated with these comics. Father's Day features decadent descendants enjoying their murdered father's money. It drags on a bit at the beginning and has a chilling ending. While these are usually morality plays, this one is a little more complex than usual. The long suffering daughter Bedelia snaps one day and kills her father, but only after he amassed his fortune in very illegal and immoral ways, emotionally abused her for years as she took care of him, and orchestrated the murder of her boyfriend. She killed him in a fit of rage and decades of bottled up emotions while he did tons more for no justified reason. I'm completely of on the descendant's side, so I didn't agree with the ending at all even though it was pretty awesome.


The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill has a backwoods yokel finding a meteor and being infected by some sort of plant disease. This one is a bit depressing and pretty badly acted by Stephen King. Jordy doesn't want to go to the doctor out of fear, so he just waits until he's entirely overtaken by the plant and commits suicide. The beginning is so goofy and over the top with his cheesy imaginings that the end contrasts nicely as serious and dark. There's no humor in his death and it's a shame that a doctor might have been able to help him. A lot of people do wait to long or never go to the doctor in this society where they either have no money or fear what really might be wrong with them.


Something to Tide You Over is a super punny title that features a delightfully sinister Leslie Nielsen as a psychopath murdering his unfaithful wife and her lover. I can't take the man seriously after all of the Naked Gun and other parody films he's done, but it's a nice change of pace. The technology is pretty laughable. How can there be a full TV and VCR set out on the beach? The actual method of the murder was torturous and cruel as the victims are buried up to their neck in sand and left to drown as the tide comes in. The ending is satisfying and a little gruesome, in the same vein as the first segment with less moral complexity.


The Crate is kind of a weird one. A man loathes his wife and daily dreams of murdering her. He finds the perfect way to dispose of her and goes through with his plan. Why not just divorce? It just seems like a lot of trouble when an alternative, legal, simple solution is available. This ending is open ended and who knows what could happen. It also kind of goes against the formula that the evil are punished in the end as the husband seems to get away with the crime. It's way more evil to me to murder your wife via a trapped creature in a crate than to humiliate and abuse your husband daily. It obviously isn't moral to do that either, but murder isn't exactly a proper punishment. The open end may be implying that the creature will eventually come for him, but it wasn't very clear. The segment was going so well and then the creature is shown fully, up close. The best thing with creatures like this is to show it as little as possible because the mind will picture way worse than they could ever create.


They're Creeping Up on You is my favorite segment. An insufferable man who treats no one in his life with respect is obsessed with being clean. His apartment becomes infested with copious amounts of cockroaches and it tortures him to no end. He spends hours trying to call someone to get rid of them, but continually abuses even those who are supposed to help him. The apartment looks nauseating by the end when it was pristinely white in the beginning. The ending has one of the most horrific images I have ever seen and one of the best instances of practical effects. Overall, I think the hype for Creepshow is a little overblown, but the segments are mostly enjoyable. They bring nostalgia, a dose of horror, and a heaping helping of morality.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Halloween Mini-Reviews: Kill Theory and Goosebumps

9) Kill Theory


A bunch of stupid college students vacation in a remote house and are forced to kill each other so some weirdo can prove a point. I thought this was Kill List, which a lot of horror fans seem to think is a great film. This is not a good film and features absolutely insufferable young people running around, killing each other. I liked seeing Daniel Franzese from Mean Girls and Taryn Manning from Orange is the New Black in different roles. The concept was actually pretty interesting, but an important aspect of a film like this is actually caring about what happens to the characters. I simply didn't. Manning died super early although I liked her; Franzese was too hysterical to really root for; and the others were awful. I wanted them to die horrible deaths. The ending made me think really?? All of this just to prove you right? It's super random and frankly doesn't make a good movie premise.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

10) Goosebumps



A couple of kids unleash R.L. Stine's literary monsters, fight them, and try to get rid of them. This movie was total nostalgia for me. I read all of R.L. Stine's books as a kid and it's part of what got me into horror. Seeing them all together on the screen was delightful and fun. It reminded me a little of the Monster Squad with kids fighting monsters except with less perviness, guns, and cussing. The biggest strength of the film is the characterizations. All of the teens could have been insufferable and annoying, but they were actually pretty cool. I sympathized with Zach for his struggling-to-make-it-work mom, his grief over the loss of his father, and his life being completely uprooted to live in a small town. I also sympathized with Hannah because her dad is alienating and weird, keeping her away from pretty much all living people. I rooted for Zach and Hannah's romance and their relationship was really sweet. Their meet cutes between their homes and date at the abandoned amusement park were adorable, Even Camp, the neurotic sorta best friend, is endearing. Jack Black is the most cartoony caricature I have ever seen, but it works with the film. He's silly, wannabe sinister, and super dramatic throughout with a bizarre affected accent. The end is satisfying and ties everything up nicely. The only flaw is the CGI used for the monsters. I think it looks a little too cartoony, but it is a kids' film. I would appreciate more realism and scariness, but the intended audience is a concern. It's a cute film that's simple and enjoyable to watch.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night


* spoilers *

A mysterious girl walks the streets at night, punishing the wicked and protecting the good in the Iranian town Bad City, a cesspool of pimps, thieves, prostitutes, and other criminals. Arash is trapped in the city living with his heroin addicted father. He deals drugs, but he does it to survive and his ambitions lie elsewhere. Instead of following his dreams, he's stuck in Bad City cleaning up his father's messes and paying back his debts. Arash and the girl's paths eventually cross and a kind of romance blossoms. While this is happening, bodies are found with increasing frequency.


I've heard nothing but good things about this film, so I was eager to watch it. The cinematography is beautiful and artistic. The film is entirely in black and white, which makes the use of light and shadows all the more effective. I could have watched it happily on mute. The story moves agonizingly slow at times, but it was like slowly opening a gift that reveals just a little bit of itself as you tear more and more wrapping. There is no real explanation of the story. Where are the police? Who is this girl? Why is she there and what are her motives?


Sheila Vand kills it as the girl. The chador she wears outside only reveals her face, leaving the rest of her a mystery. The loose, flowing garment is like a superhero cape, but also like Dracula's cape, which brings to mind classic vampires from the Bela Lugosi era of film. This film takes those classic vampire expectations with her outerwear and then reveals it to be false when we get to know her more. Underneath, she could be anyone. She wears comfortable clothing, usually a striped shirt, pants, and comfy sneakers. She loves riding her skateboard and listening to music alone in her apartment when she isn't exacting revenge or dissuading wannabe criminals or evildoers.


Despite her outwardly youthful appearance, there's no questioning the girl's age and experience. She carefully observes everything and keeps herself hidden as with her dress. Throughout most of the film, she waits for others to talk and rarely initiates conversation on her own. This may be seen as a weakness, but she allows people to reveal themselves to her while she stays a blank slate to them. Oftentimes, they project their own preconceived notions onto her. She's looking for some human connection because eternity is lonely. Based on the events in the film and the giant pile of jewelry and other valuable items, she mostly runs into miscreants of various types. Then it all changes when she meets a slurry Arash and they have an instant connection. Their romance is sweet and a little awkward. It's clear that the girl doesn't need Arash to survive. She can take care of herself. However, companionship makes life more enjoyable and more bearable.


I love the role reversal that the girl poses. The title indicates something dangerous. A girl walking home alone at night is vulnerable to attack and this situation is pretty much the staple situation of any horror film. The danger is shifted in this film from the vulnerable girl to the stereotypical perpetrator of these attacks. This girl uses tactics that male harassers would make towards women, like standing and staring at them, following their every movement, or chasing them down. This role reversal either makes the targets uncomfortable or causes them to dismiss her because of her gender until it's too late. The girl is usually very stoic and quiet, but she's quick to turn efficiently violent when the opportunity arises.


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a unique film in black and white and entirely in Farsi. The film is clearly influenced by spaghetti westerns, graphic novels. and classic horror films. It moves slowly, thoughtfully, and deliberately. If nothing else, try it because it's something new and different. It has shades of a lot of things like Let the Right One In plus all its influences, but manages to be wholly itself.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nod


One random night, the vast majority of the world ceases to sleep. That first night, no one really notices. Everyone has a bad night once in a while. After the second night, people just don't know what to do. The sleepless have a limited amount of time before they go insane and die. After 6 sleepless days, the sleepless go psychotic. After four weeks, they will die. The sleepers always have the same dream: comforting golden light. After a while, the waking world seems dull and lifeless compared to their dream world. As time goes on, society collapses and the wait is on for the sleepless to die.

I picked this up because the concept sounded pretty cool. Sleep or lack thereof is not something I've seen as the cause of the apocalypse. The first three quarters of the novel is amazing. The first day, nothing really happens. People have rough nights and a lot of people figured that was the case. The second day, it's clear there's a problem when 90% of the world again doesn't sleep. They still try to go about their day to day lives, but it's hollow and meaningless. Everyone is just going through the motions. As the days go on, jobs are abandoned, hygiene goes out the window, and psychosis sets in. At first, everything is tense and then food and other necessities are suddenly extravagantly expensive. The sleepless are attacking others in the street. This part is the most intriguing of the novel. The sleepless start to hallucinate and become paranoid. They want someone or something to blame and the ones who still sleep are as good a target as any. A large faction of the sleepless join together in a cult to worship our protagonist, John who is a sleeper. He was writing a book about Nod, which these cultists see as a prediction of what was to come. So they overlook his sleeping (for now) and treat him like a prophet. Some of the sleepers are a group of feral children who never speak and this cult has targeted them as vermin to be killed. Another sleepless faction convinces themselves that they are sleepers and agree to help John save those sleeper children. In just a few days, the world is unrecognizable. The variety of sleepless was impressive. They aren't zombies, so each different person is going to handle that differently instead of all just going on a kill crazy spree.

While I enjoyed all the crazy people running around killing each other, I didn't like John very much and I didn't like the last bit of the novel. John is an introvert and doesn't like people, which would normally be fine, but he could have done a lot to save others. He mostly just lets himself be pushed around by some maniac when he could be off saving the child he sort of adopted. I think it's just the type of person he is, but everything was agonized over and he was forced into action because of outside forces instead of his own volition. The last bit of the novel just isn't satisfying and pales in comparison to the rest of the novel. I enjoyed it overall and I would read more by Adrian Barnes.

My rating: 4/5

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Halloween Tunes: Survivor Girl: Gets Out Alive EP



Imagine Norman Bates fronting a rock and roll band in the 50's. This is how the band Survivor Girl describes themselves and it's accurate. They take a classic, familiar sound and make it fun by adding a dash of horror and homicide from the perspective of horror film villains. We get to hear their feelings, thoughts, and frustration in their quest for that unattainable final girl.

Some of these song could be mistaken for regular 50's love ballads, but upon closer scrutiny, reveal their creepy underbelly of slasher film influence. Their self titled theme song is super catchy and offers a new view of how these villains feel about their final girls. Just the Two of Us sounds like a perfect love song until he says he wants to hold her until her lips turn blue. Through the Peephole sounds the most sinister, but still remains upbeat. It's literally from the perspective of Norman Bates as he leads Marion to her room, makes her a sandwich, spies on her, and finally kills her. "You, me, and mother makes three" is the best line from this song. The last song is My Hellbound Heart  presumably from the view of Pinhead about his final girl, Kirsty, from Hellraiser. All of these are well written, fun, and catchy songs that are perfect for the Halloween season. This album is available for free download on Survivor Girl's Bandcamp site.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Knott's Halloween Haunt 2015

This is my third year attending Knott's Halloween Haunt and it's better than ever. The production value doesn't rival Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, but the innovative mazes and impressive makeup elevates it from past years. The only drawback to this park is that I don't feel that gut dread that I feel at Universal because they create a total experience. I still think it's fun of course and I will continue to attend.

The Good

* Paranormal Inc.



This is by far the best maze I have ever experienced at Knott's. It's so much larger than any other I've seen there and there are two different ways through the maze that meet up near the end. It starts out as one of those cheesy ghost hunter shows and then their experiment releases hell in an old abandoned mental hospital. Ghosts and demons are flying through the air, suspending from wires to drop in front of people, and giant demon creatures pop out to scare the crap out of you. The hallways are eerie and everything works together to create a cool, scary experience. I love the beginning performance that tells the story of why it's all happening. I didn't expect anything like this from Knott's and I hope it's a staple that will stay for at least a few years.

* Trick or Treat



This is the third year I've seen the maze and it's better than ever. It captures the Halloween spirit in a classic way with witches, creatures under the bed, and demented children. I also liked the creepy dinner party with the awesome pumpkins. The final room was a little lacking compared to previous years, but it's still a decent maze.

* Forevermore



This one is also always a pleasure. I love Edgar Allan Poe's works and seeing them enacted in gruesome ways is amazing. It's a particularly nice touch that lines of stories and poetry are incorporated into the decor as well as the soundtrack. The Raven room is my personal favorite with the gruesome, feather covered tableau of the dead complete with creepy flickering lights. This one is also the only maze that had a remotely interesting Skeleton Key room. The only really cheesy part is the Masque of the Red Death, but that's part of its charm.

* My Bloody Clementine



The Calico Mine Ride is overlaid with horror for Halloween Haunt, but it's always been a boring disappointment with random figures and lights. Now, there are scare actors in the ride plus a way better overarching theme than some random witch. Clementine and her father were brutally murdered and Clementine has come back as a vengeful spirit to kill the culprits. It's a bit creepy and the changeup built the suspense. I had no idea what to expect and it was very enjoyable.

* The Tooth Fairy

This maze was one of my favorites from last year and it's still awesome. Everything dental is made to be as creepy, dirty, and bloody as possible. Parts of it are artful and Hannibal-esque and other parts are just gross. The disconcerting whining of drills is everywhere. The facade and the giant floss pieces draped through that first hallway  really set the tone for the rest of the maze. I especially love when the visitors are made to crouch down in this big cage. It's like willingly putting yourself into a very creepy scene from a horror film. Not a lot of changes from last year, but enjoyable nonetheless.

* Fright Lane and Fast Lane

These front of the line passes for both mazes and rides were a bit pricey but well worth the cost. My sister and I went on every maze at least once plus every ride and made it home by 11pm.

The Meh

* Pinocchio Unstrung



This one is also the same as last year. It's not terrible, but it's not amazing. Pinocchio snapping, killing, and stealing people's skin to make himself human should be amazing, but the execution is still off. Most of the maze is just Pinocchios doing random stuff instead of showing a coherent story line. The best part is the giant animatronic at the end.

* Dead of Winter



I guarantee this maze was made because of Frozen's popularity. It's pretty much the mirror maze from a few years ago pumped with lots of air conditioning and themed to an evil snow queen. The makeup and costumes were quite pretty, but the maze wasn't really all that scary.

* Voodoo: Order of the Serpent and Black Magic





Also pretty much the same as last year, even Voodoo which changed its name. I expected some improvements, but if anything both were a bit lacking in comparison.

The Bad

* Gunslinger's Grave



Why is this maze still here? It's been the worst maze for years running. It usually features run of the mill cowboys and bandits, but this year's twist is werewolves. If anything, the addition just makes it hilarious and kills any funny it could have had. So many of the tableaus are ridiculous like a werewolf being electrocuted to death. How does that make sense in any way?

* Skeleton Key Rooms

All of them except the Forevermore one were not worth the wait and didn't add anything to the maze or the story behind the maze.

Overall, this was Knott's Scary Farms best year and I look forward to next years.