Monday, June 20, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Photo: the movie's poster, from

My review of the first Conjuring movie is here.

I visited the house in the first Conjuring movie. You can read about that here. There are lots of creepy photos of gravestones and crypt doors, too.

This was a good scare of a movie, perhaps better than the first. I can't remember the last time I was actually spooked in a theater, but I exclaimed something out loud during one of the scenes. (I never talk during movies, and usually tar and feather those who do. And I never get jolted at them, either. I tend to figure them out pretty quick, too, like when I saw The Sixth Sense and knew right after he got shot that he was dead thereafter. I mean, the kid said he saw dead people, for God's sake.) James Wan, the director, is especially good, I noticed, at showing something you expect to be scared by, then not being scared by that thing (because nothing's there, but you're a veteran of these movies, so you expect there to be, but Wan knows that, so purposely doesn't put anything there), and then when the camera slowly pans back to where it had been, something jumps out at you. That's what happened when I said something out loud. The instant is when the little girl is watching television--and it's not when something was in the television, either. Just next to it.

The story starts at the home of the clairvoyants--or mediums, or whatever exactly it is they say they are. (Actually, it really starts in the Amityville Horror house. You know you've seen and read a lot about this stuff when you see just the outside of the house in the opening shot, and think, "Oh, it starts in Amityville, with Ronald DeFeo killing his family." I also remembered the house was owned by the Lutzes and that the book was written by Jay Anson. I really should go on Jeopardy one of these days. By the way, I also thought, "As you know, Amity means friendship," but of course that's another movie.) One of them keeps seeing this really spooky-looking nun with barracuda teeth and dirty smock--ironic, considering how Christian the two say they are. (In fact, they technically work for the Church in this movie.) This nun-demon is harassing one of them, and they agree to stop their investigations.


In Enfield, England, a really nasty old man of a ghost is haunting a woman and her two daughters and two sons. (The father abandoned them--all five of them! How come people like that are never the ones harassed?) This only happens after one of them messes with a handmade Ouija board, which I never recommend. Anyway, this old guy had died in their living room, in his favorite old recliner, which every old man has. (We called my father's black, held-together-by-thick-black-masking tape LAY-Z-BOY "The Knowledge Chair," for obvious reasons.) This old guy is in the habit of biting unsuspecting screaming people on their arms--though they find his retainer after the last one, and the biting stops. So he's harassing everyone, insisting the place is his--while others insist it's not anymore, because he's dead, and so will he please leave, and not let the door hit his arse on the way out?

He agrees to do that--without telling anyone--but then...Well, Houston, we have a problem.

So go see this one if you like this kind of thing. Like most decent scare flicks, this one won't make too much sense when you have a second afterwards to think about it, but it's a good scare while you're sitting there. I'd heard from a few reviews that the whole movie seemed a half hour too long. It didn't seem that way to me, and it didn't really drag, either, which is rare for this kind of thing.

One thing I really liked about it is that the movie doesn't pander to the audience. At the risk of sounding like a prude, there's no gratuitous violence, gore, or anything else. It has confidence in its ability to scare, and it doesn't assume the viewer's an idiot. There are the token nay-sayers (Franka Potente, from the first Jason Bourne film, and from Run, Lola, Run), and it's nice to see that they're smart as well, and not just token blowhards. In fact, Potente's character had a point: these things are often either fakes, or the person being possessed--usually an adolescent girl--has psychological or emotional damage and disabilities going on that have nothing to do with being possessed. (There's one on YouTube, a French girl from the 50s, that I play whenever I want to freak out my better half, who insists with vigor that I turn it off.) Anyway, these girls think they're possessed, so they're not faking, exactly, but the parents often know there's no actual possession going on, but they let the whole thing go on anyway because of a Munchhausen Syndrome, and...yeah, it's all a mess, and very hard to both prove and disprove. The girl in this movie looks and sounds like the one I'm talking about on YouTube, and I think some of The Exorcist is based on this girl as well.

I kept waiting for something else to happen, because the girl's behavior and voice mirrored the one I mention. When the slight twist happens, you may be a little let down like I was, as the movie comes full circle again, and if that was going to happen, why not just do so where they were, and not make these two have to travel across the Pond to get what they can get (and did get) just as well back home? Like I said, like most terror flicks, it's a house of cards if you think about it too much.

So don't do that. Go see it. You'll get your scare fix, and probably stronger than from the first one.

For more on the Enfield story, and for a fact vs. fiction article, go to

I'm most impressed by the tidbit at the bottom, which says that when the new family moved in, they almost as quickly moved out, staying for just a few months. This is unlike what the new families said of the Amityville house, and of the house mentioned in the first Conjuring, which I visited.

As a reminder, you can read about that here. There are a lot of pictures, including some creepy gravestones and crypt doors. My review of the first Conjuring movie is here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

End of Watch -- by Stephen King

Photo: First Edition book cover, from the book's Wikipedia page

Another compulsively readable story from King, who again shows here that he's more of a natural storyteller than a writer, which adds to the feeling of compulsive reading, rather than detracts. My guess is that if he were to worry more about fantastic writing, and less about fantastically-compulsive storytelling, his books would sell a lot less than they do. At this stage of his career, that's not likely to happen.

You don't have to read the first or second in the trilogy to read and get through this one, and I'm not quite sure how I take that. Good for sales, I think, but this does detract from the journey you're supposed to feel you've been on with these people over the last three books. I didn't feel like I'd been on the road with these guys, and when it all ends, it's in a this happens, then this happens, then this happens--and then these things stop happening kind of way. The storytelling just stops, but there's no...verisimilitude. There's no feeling of loss, exactly, or of the curtain closing. It just ends. That's it.

The way it's written adds to this lack of feeling. I'm rarely a fan of third-person omniscient present-tense, and I wasn't thrilled with it here. This is best when the writer needs a gritty, you are there kind of feel. That isn't needed here, which is a good thing, because it doesn't happen. The after-effect of this, though, is that it distances the narrator from the story and reader. You get a sense of detachment--not good, if you want that present-tense to pack a punch. Probably it was a decision for pure storytelling sake; again, this happens, then this happens, then this...but there's a lack of resonance with this choice. It's hard to feel anything for anyone with this kind of distance.

The story itself probably isn't anything you haven't seen before, even in a bad movie. Essentially this is Chucky, who moved from doll to person to doll to person, and so on. Brady's the doll here, and a crappy, vintage game is the method (rather than a chant or spell), but really it's all the same. There's a bit of psychobabble about herd mentality here, as well. I'm not sure it's wrong, exactly--at my job, I see herd mentality all the time--but I'm not so sure it's as pat and automatic as it's presented here. You'll have to decide that for yourself. But it's an interesting, anti-puppet message.

That's minor, though. The story here is, well, the real story, and you're either going to go with it or you're not. It's not even a matter of liking it or disliking it, really. It's a pleasant enough ride while you're on it. When the ride ended, I wasn't regretting the ride, but nor was I hoping it would continue forever. The ride is the ride, and it's not really about liking it or not, or even judging it. The ending for such a long book may be a downer. As usual, there's an ending after an ending here (I've written about this in King's books before), and if you're a Constant Reader as I am, you'll see it coming. King pulls no punches; he lets the cat out of the bag rather early here. (And, well, see the title?) In the 1st end, there wasn't much more than an old body with Chucky in him, after all, and an old human body is still just an old human body. That's pretty much the message for the second ending as well, but in a different way.

This one is probably the best of the three. The second was the worst for me, and parts of the first were grating. Nothing grating here, but it's not The Stand or The Shining, either. I do feel his overall mojo is gone. I wrote somewhere recently that I thought there had been too much of the Tower in his writings before, sort of a forced Purpose. But now I miss that, because in his most recent stuff, there doesn't seem to be purpose enough. Reading his work now passes the time, but it's possible you may ask yourself why you're doing it, rather than that other important thing you should be doing. But perhaps that's what reading is, anyway: escape from what you should be doing.

Off the top of my head, I'm thinking that Revival (especially the ending) is the best of King's work lately, with Joyland being a pleasant distraction, but without the scares you'd expect to be there. Looking back at all his books now, I'm seeing that the last work of his to really wow me was Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower--and that was 19 books ago. (11/22/63 was overall very good, but there were some blocks that dragged a bit.) Anyway, an old body is an old body, and it is what it is.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Stephen King and Hearts of Atlantis

So effective a compendium of a few related (and maybe connected) stories that I remembered one of them over 15 years later. I wanted to re-read a first-person account of regret, and I remembered the one here of a college student in the 60s who barely made it to college, on a scholarship, only to learn that passing his classes and staying in college was literally a matter of life and death. Fail out, and he'd be drafted into Vietnam. Stay, and he'd live.

The bulk of the story was the Freudian death-drive of this character, and of the many around him. It was sick and depressing but very real. Anyone with a college degree may remember his own college days, and how his friends dropped like flies around him as they were unable to make the transition to self-responsibility and maturity. That, and not intelligence, I assure you, separated those who stayed and got a degree and those who didn't. You would think that since failing out could be deadly that these men would go to classes and pass out of basic necessity. But that's not the way it was when I went to college, and I doubt that the added stress would help them do better. It would make them fail out all the more, as most people that age simply cannot handle that much stress, while being on their own and education in college are stressful enough. Hearts, and the Queen of Spades, did these guys in.

The narrator of this part, surprisingly, is the only character not of importance in the other parts.

The book starts off with the story that led to the movie with Anthony Hopkins. It's very good, and also memorable, but it stops abruptly after a few hundred pages. It's long enough to be a full novel in itself, and it's got that nostalgic, past / childhood / innocence vibe that he did so well in IT. In fact, I feel that King stopped this one where he did because it was becoming another IT, and he didn't want it to go there. I'll bet he intended the other parts to all tie in solidly together in a long opus like IT, but then kept them apart when he realized he had something so close to IT that he had to make it markedly different. That's just a guess, and the interconnections later I think show me right, but that's up to you. There's a Beverly Marsh figure named Carol, and a Stuttering Bill, too. Pick up IT and fast-forward everyone about 12-15 years, so that IT's crew would be facing the Vietnam War in the face when they were of college age, and you've about got it. It takes place in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the Housatonic--where Stephen King did spend a few years of his childhood--rather than in Derry, NH, but it's essentially the same.

The Willie Shearman section connects the least with everything, except there's a glove, and a theme of shame and penance. I kept waiting for it to strongly connect, or to be an important part of one of the other sections, but that never quite happened. The action he's ashamed of happens in the beginning story, and it's referred to in the last one, but Willie wasn't a huge part in that action, and he's a minor part in the Vietnam War section (and there's a strange joining of two characters from the first story that hits more as coincidence than connection; or, what's the chance of two characters from the same town coming together in the same platoon in Vietnam?), so the very small story with him as the sole character feels more like a character study than anything else. And it's a disconnected mystery about how the glove makes it from this section to the last.

But all in all this is a tremendous achievement in Stephen King's non-horror canon. Because surviving Vietnam was undoubtedly a horror, and the terror of surviving college to avoid the draft must have been a horror of a different sort. Both involved better men than me. This book is an off-shoot of the Tower, but you don't have to read that series to appreciate this. It worked for me like Bag of Bones did, and like some of the others of this time. And these were a helluva lot better than the drivel he's producing now, that's for sure.

His newest comes out in a few days, and I'll buy it and read it, but...well, what a drop-off there's been. I used to rue that so much of his stuff was tinged with the Tower, but I now see that his work has suffered since he's veered from the Beam. He needs to get back on it, and see where his literary legacy has gone, and get back to serving whatever Tower he'd been faithful to before.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Somewhat Victorian Life--A Book Review

Under discussion: Sarah A. Chrisman's This Victorian Life.

I first became interested in reading this book while I was researching books about living in Victorian New England. I found a clip online of a modern man looking like a Victorian man jumping on the back of a two-wheeled Victorian bicycle and then sort of leap-frogging to the top of the gigantic front wheel. Beneath this clip was an article that was itself mostly well-written, but angry towards this modern / Victorian man. The gist of the articles anger can be summed up by saying the writer was pissed off at the attitude of the bicycle man and his wife. The wife, as it turned out, wrote this book.

So I read the book hoping for New England Victorian-era stuff and got current-day Washington state married couple living like they're in the Victorian Era, but with the internet and other conveniences. I have to admit that I also read it to see what the article writer was so pissed off about. So this couple wants to mostly pretend they live in the Victorian Era, minus all the horrible class and racial struggles that went on, and forgetting that they wouldn't be able to live where they do (on the Puget Sound) because that wasn't part of America yet, and they'd have to displace indigenous Indians to live there. But I have some Victorian things around here (an 1895 drum table; two 1870s chairs; an 1890s rocker with the original leather headrest and seat, and pins in the leather, and some 1888 Old Judge tobacco baseball cards) and I love certain homey-like, fantasy aspects, like woodstoves, and candlelight, etc.

I read this thinking it would be another example of some eccentric but determined people trying to live their lives as they wish, and modern America not leaving them alone. I was ready to appreciate what they do, and to defend them.

While I do (mostly) appreciate what they're trying to do, and while I do steadfastly defend their right to do it, I have to say with regret that the article writer had a point: Chrisman's (and, to a lesser extent, her husband's) tone and attitude are irksome, and the way she states things, and the way she is able to devote an incredible amount of time to things like bread-baking, sewing, and looking for those little ornamental things that hung off women's clothing--well, he was right: her tone is terrible, and it will at least make you annoyed, if not outright angry.

Chrisman isn't so much fascinated by the Victorian Era as much as she is horrified by the present era. She runs to the later Victorian Era, I suspect, because it's the newest oldest era we could still mostly retreat to. There is a lot of attitude towards modern technology (of which I am also not a complete fan, as I believe it we have let it further ostracize and de-humanize us) and towards modern people. This is fair enough, as far as it goes, except that she also needs the modern reader to read her books and blog, as that's how she makes the majority of her income. (She also seems to have an at-home massage business. She mentions this once or twice, but never once refers to a client. Left unanswered is whether she would massage the client in her Victorian wear.)

A further point raised by the many upset people on the internet (and this does, in fact, seem like overkill, despite the Chrisman's tone and attitude) is that she never refers to the horrors of Colonialism of the Victorian Era, whether it be the American's treatment of African slaves or American Indians, or the British conquest of lands and the virtual annihilation of those lands' people. Though I suspect that the average Victorian never gave a thought to the slaughter of whales, for example, that provided much of the oil that lit their sconces, as a self-proclaimed expert and living historian of the time, she should have at least touched upon it.

She never does.

And so it all comes across as play-acting as life, or of a lifestyle in a vacuum. Yes, she uses Victorian iceboxes, and heaters, and bicycles, and clothing, and furniture, and so on--but it seems like she's maybe a Victorian Era Barbie, and these are all of her props and toys. It seems a willfully narrow life. And more than a little bit, it's a big, giant ef-you to this modern era and to everyone (besides her friends) in it. She never once touches upon that, either. So this is a tunnel-visioned memoir.

Having said all that, there's a lot of really interesting things in here, if you're interested in history, or in the Victorian Era, or in trying to at least a little bit live like that era, or to understand the similarities and differences between that era and ours. You may find, like I did, that you don't need to read long chapters about finding Victorian buttons, let's say, but it's okay to skip some pages every now and then. I don't normally advise this, but I had to skip over the occasional off-puttingly toned sentences, and so I was already skipping.

I'm guessing that Chrisman does not realize she produces this tone in writing. And if she does it in writing, she'll do it when talking, as well. Because she does not seem aware of her tone, or of people's response to it, or of social cues and such, I do suspect an at least slight disorder, such as Asperger's. (A retreat from your current era or reality often has a traumatic event as the cause of that withdrawal, or escape. I can only guess as to what that may be, but the guess makes me feel badly for her. I'm guessing that she suffered an event [or events] that she never mentions in this book. Maybe she will in a future memoir. But this is one thing her [many] critics haven't considered: The trauma that made her withdraw. Sort of like Dickinson, in a way)

She also reminds me of a time in which a high school kid told me she didn't like her English teacher because this teacher didn't realize how offensive she was when she talked to her students. This teacher, apparently, thought she was simply communicating, but actually she was consistently offensive. (I happened to know the woman this kid spoke of, and I'm tellin' you, the kid was spot on.) Anyway, Chrisman strikes me as someone very much like that. She'd be offensive and off-putting and not know it. She's the one at a party (though she would not go to parties) who you want to get away from, but you can't because she does say some interesting things every now and then that makes you stay to listen to her talk (at) you some more, which then makes you regret immediately that you've done that.

She's an obviously talented internet researcher (which is a very heavy irony she never addresses). If you're reading this book, you'll be interested in much of the information she provides. A lot of it I already knew from my own research, but there was a lot I didn't know. For instance, her inclination to only buy from companies around since Victorian times will give you a surprisingly long list of such companies. She also goes into some interesting local and natural history. And this is really the closest I've seen of a living person trying to live as a Victorian, including all of the daily nuances and problems that only living like that, and not just researching living like that, can give you.

Chrisman does mention the hatemail they get, and the vicious ill-behavior they have to suffer through, which she says happens on a literally daily basis. I'm not surprised by this, and you probably won't be, either. It only re-fuels their fire to get away. Though I was annoyed and sometimes borderline angry at the tone and attitude shown by the author and her husband, this also made me angry. Why can't we just leave each other alone? They're eccentric, and perhaps a little off-putting, but, hell, can't we all just get along?

So, yeah, a mixed bag here. Sometimes I had to put the book down in annoyance because I just couldn't take the tone anymore, but I always picked it back up again, curious about what new interesting thing I might learn next. If you read this in that vein, it'll be productive and worthwhile.