Saturday, June 20, 2015

Floating Staircase

Floating Staircase
by Ronald Malfi

Following the success of his latest novel, Travis Glasgow and his wife Jodie buy their first house in the seemingly idyllic western Maryland town of Westlake. At first, everything is picture perfect—from the beautiful lake behind the house to the rebirth of the friendship between Travis and his brother, Adam, who lives nearby. Travis also begins to overcome the darkness of his childhood and the guilt he’s harbored since his younger brother’s death—a tragic drowning veiled in mystery that has plagued Travis since he was 13. Soon, though, the new house begins to lose its allure. Strange noises wake Travis at night, and his dreams are plagued by ghosts. Barely glimpsed shapes flit through the darkened hallways, but strangest of all is the bizarre set of wooden stairs that rises cryptically out of the lake behind the house. Travis becomes drawn to the structure, but the more he investigates, the more he uncovers the house’s violent and tragic past, and the more he learns that some secrets cannot be buried forever.

My Reaction:
A serviceable novel of suspenseful horror-mystery with a side order of complicated sibling relationships.  Maybe calling it "serviceable" is a little harsh, but it never wowed me, and there were things about it that rubbed me the wrong way.  (More on that in the next section.)  Malfi treads a fine line between occasional moments of gross-out horror and a more literary approach to horror-- and on the whole, he does a decent job (though there were times when it felt self-consciously literary).  Despite a smattering of goosebumps, I found Floating Staircase less "scary" than thought-provoking, but though I feel it's missing an indefinable something, this novel is still recommendable for readers on the prowl for slightly more literary modern crime mysteries with vaguely haunted houses. 

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  "It has been said that nature does not know extinction.  In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something-- some part, some particle, some formidable semblance-- left behind.  You can boil water into vapor, but it hasn't disappeared.  Curiosity killed the cat, but condensation brought it back.  Therefore, such logic should enlighten us to the understanding that if something should happen to develop-- should arrive, should become thus, should suddenly appear-- then it has always been.  Forms evolve and devolve but things always are."

--  "Age brings with it a certain Kryptonite that drains our faith like vampires."   Maybe... But some of the people I've known with the strongest, most unshakable faith have been elderly.  Maybe it depends on the quality of the faith, to begin with... Or maybe it's harder to hold onto faith in this modern day.  But that's just an excuse.  It's always been a struggle for some.  ...I do think it's fair to say that if you don't surround yourself with the faithful, it can be more difficult to keep the faith-- and sometimes it feels like there are fewer of the faithful around...

--  I could've done without the cursing.  I know, I know.  It's supposed to be realistic-- reflective of the way Real People talk in the modern world.  Thing is, the real people I talk to don't toss around casual curses.  (Guess I'm just lucky, that way...)  A curse or two at an angry or tense moment, sure, but so many authors go way beyond that.  It's the casualness of it that I find obnoxious.

--  Some of the attempts at humor... One in particular-- Travis' "witty" response when Jodie asks why his pajama pants are soaking wet-- was just disgusting.  Then there are his writing notebooks, "currently overflowing with drawings of cartoon animals humping each other in a vast assortment of acrobatic positions".  The sign of a true genius?  (Tell me again why Jodie even likes Travis.  The guy has an immense talent for annoying the crap out of me.  The phrase "not if he were the last man on earth" comes to mind.  Srsly, guys.  I'd pick David Dentman over this distasteful sensitive-souled potty-humor aficionado.)

--  This is yet another novel with quite a bit of cigarette smoking-- and it was published in 2010, so there's no "it was the 50s/60s/70s; things were different then" excuse.  I probably shouldn't be surprised, but I can't help noticing it-- like the inevitable "gotsta have me some alcohol on a very regular basis" thing, but even more so, since cigarettes are so widely shunned, these days. 

--  Fitting right in with the juvenile humor and too-frequent f-bombs was the narrator's fascination with some (a couple of?) his own private body parts and how they react to the cold.  I made a note of it the third time he mentioned them.  It really added to the quality of my reading experience.

--  More middle-school humor!  "...a fellow with the unfortunate name of Harry Peters..."  That's the kind of writing that lets the reader know that this author is good.

--  "'Who wants to talk about cancer?'  'Not me.'"  No, and I don't want to read about it, either, yet for some reason the author (or his characters) kept bringing it up-- far too often for my preferences.  I'm tempted to dock the book a star for that alone.

--  Do you get the impression that the author might not like cops?  Maybe not, but the police chief is a very unsympathetic character, and most of his officers (with the exception of Travis' brother) come across as dumb jocks.  (...Not to say that there aren't some cops who are just overgrown jocks lacking in subtlety and intelligence, but I hope most of them aren't.)

--  When Travis discovers Elijah's body, hidden in a crawl space between walls, the medical examiner concludes that "unseasonably cold weather had practically preserved it, keeping the body from stinking up the whole house".  Convenient, but wasn't his accident in the summertime?  I'd think there'd have been some smell.  Surely Maryland's summers aren't that cool.

--  I'm not sure why, but we get a very detailed description of the sandwich Travis makes for Adam, near the end of the book.  "Then I lathered mayonnaise on the underside of the bread."  ...You mean "slathered", right?  I know, this is the nit-pickiest of nit-picks, but it's bad enough that you want me to envision mayonnaise-- and now you're making me picture "lathered up", bubbly mayo.  Ugh, so queasy...  Hold the mayo, man!!

--  "The idea of that child crawling through the darkness of the crawl space to die, like a wounded animal, was too much for me to comprehend.  For some reason, the idea that he had been murdered was easier to swallow."  ...Really?  Because for me, even though it's awful to imagine, I'd much rather think that had happened than that he'd suffered the sheer terror and ultimate betrayal of being murdered at the hand of his own mother or uncle-- someone he trusted. 

--  "Since the day Elijah's body had been extricated from the wall, Jodie had refused to return to the house, not even for a minute.  I couldn't blame her."  ...But... Jodie had long known the story of Elijah supposedly drowning in the lake... She knew about his creepy bedroom in the basement... Knew her husband had an unhealthy obsession with Elijah... And all that was ok.  She was fine living and sleeping there.  Then they thought that Elijah must've been murdered-- potentially in their house-- by his own mother or uncle.  And she had that weird ghostly experience in the house at about the same time.  Eh, no biggie.  Let's go to bed, honey!  But once she finds out that Elijah wasn't murdered, but had died of natural causes after an accident, she refuses to set foot in the house again.  I mean, sure, it's a shock to learn that there's been a boy's body hidden away in your house the whole time you've lived there.  (A bit disturbing, in fact.)  But isn't that still not as bad as believing he was probably murdered in your house by his own family?!  ...I guess you have to accept that Jodie didn't really believe she'd heard a ghost until the body was found, because that's the only way that makes any kind of sense to me. 

--  The last bit of the book, about Kyle... I don't know that I completely get what the author was going for, there.  Just like that odd part where Jodie dreams she looks into the mirror and sees Travis' reflection staring back at her.  What am I missing?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

More Short Stories

This time, it's more audio-format short stories.  All are from the same LibriVox collection-- Short Ghost and Horror Collection 010.

"A Bottomless Grave"
by Ambrose Bierce

Quite an odd story.  Best for fans of satire and those who enjoy a sly smile with their shudders. 

"The Mysterious Head"
by Pu Songling

If "A Bottomless Grave" was odd, "The Mysterious Head" is... really, really odd.  (g)  It's only a couple of minutes long, so I listened to it twice to make sure I wasn't missing something.  I don't think I am... It's simply an extremely strange and sparse story-- reminiscent of the sort of tale a child might write or dictate, if children usually wrote about traders, landlords, and magistrates.

Maybe this story is notable simply on account of its age.  (Pu Songling was born in 1640.)  Perhaps there's some element of cultural divide, as well.  I'm not sure what classic Chinese ghost/horror stories are usually like.  This one, in any case, left me puzzled.

"Luella Miller"
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

I really enjoyed this one.  Ever heard of an "energy vampire"?  Luella Miller takes it to a whole new level! 

(Confession:  While listening, I had a few uncomfortable, guilty memories of times when I've probably been too willing to let someone else "do" for me, when I could've done for myself.  Simultaneously, I wanted to slap Luella soundly across both sides of the face!)

"The Secret of Kralitz"
by Henry Kuttner

The Lovecraftian tale of a man with a most unfortunate birthright.  It was okay, but fairly predictable.  (The very end, though, I must admit I had not seen coming.  Such a shame when the bill comes sooner than expected, eh, Baron?  I'm sure he thought he had at least a few more years to live it up before facing that.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Assorted Short Stories

I "consumed" all these in audio format-- and in rapid succession-- so I thought I'd group a few of them together into a single entry.

The first few I found via Forgotten Classics.

"The Night Wire"
by H.F. Arnold

This "weird tale" gave me a shiver or two, but I found the end a bit of a head-scratcher.  I guessed part of the "twist" (as I guess you'd call it), but don't quite know what to make of it!  Such is the very nature of most of these types of stories, I suppose.  Recommended. 

"The Toll-House"
by W.W. Jacobs

(This one was written by the author of "The Monkey's Paw", by the way, which I still remember reading back in middle school... A true classic.)  I think I was somewhat distracted as I listened to this story.  I had to rewind a few times to compensate for divided attention.  It's creepy, to be sure, but I can see why the author is better known for "The Monkey's Paw". 

"The Judge's House"
by Bram Stoker

This was so familiar that I think I must've read it before... An eerie tale that gave me a nightmare about a rat.  (...What kind of recommendation is that?!)   

Then I listened to a couple from a LibriVox collection-- Short Ghost and Horror Collection 010.

"Ancient Lights"
by Algernon Blackwood

I found this story interesting in light of somewhat similar themes from The Willows.  However, whereas the supernatural forces in The Willows feel sinister and outright terrifying, those in "Ancient Lights", while best left alone (just in case), seem somewhat more playful (in a capricious, could-easily-decide-to-torment/kill-you-on-a-whim sort of way).

"Sister Maddelena"
by Ralph Adams Cram

A fairly predictable tale.  Perfectly serviceable in its way, but not something I expect to contemplate or return to, in particular. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dark Echo

Dark Echo
by F.G. Cottam

She is a seductive ship: a sailing yacht built for an American playboy. Yet her history is full of fatal accidents and three of Dark Echo's owners met tragic, violent deaths. Now she has been rebuilt, crossing the Atlantic with new owners. Only the truth about Harry Spalding, the man who built her, can save them from the same fate.

My Reaction:
I was lured by the creepy appeal of a haunted boat, and on that score, the book delivers; there are plenty of suspenseful, chilling moments, and there is an eerie boat.  However, it wasn't quite what I had in mind.  For one thing, much less of the action takes place on the Dark Echo than I expected.  For another... Well, I can't go into details without potentially spoiling the whole thing.  (If you don't mind spoilers, see the next section.)

I'd recommend this novel to fans of ghostly horror who are not squeamish about the occasional depiction of graphic violence or especially bothered by a sprinkling of curses.  To clarify, the violence and gore are not lingered over or described in great detail, but they are there.  If you're a frequent reader/viewer of horror, you'll probably shrug and wonder what I was talking about, but for someone unused to it, this might induce a squirm or two. 

In my opinion, it's not paradigm-shiftingly great, but if you're in the mood for suspenseful horror with the sweeping scale and "epic" feel of a blockbuster film, this is one way to pass some time.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  The story was going along nicely enough to begin with... and then Martin goes on the boat and hears a man's voice saying, "Relax, old chum".  Um, okay... By the end of the book, that doesn't seem quite so strange to me, but at the time I read it, it was oddly jarring to have the "ghost" just speaking-- especially to hear him using silly period slang like "old chum".   (...Also, if Spalding is capable of speaking out of thin air, across an unknown distance, why all the fuss with the old-fashioned recording device, later in the book?  Couldn't he just have spoken to Magnus and Martin in the same way?)

--  Maybe I'm just jealous ;o) but despite hearing over and over again about what a genius researcher Suzanne is, I didn't see her do much that I couldn't have thought of, myself!  Her one really clever move was figuring out that the spear tip was hidden under the mountain of beets, and I don't see how that had anything to do with her amazing research abilities... More a matter of intuition.

--  So... Is Suzanne the reincarnation of Jane?  I guess it's up to us to decide.  Seems a very odd coincidence that someone who looks just like Jane should happen to fall in love with Martin, who just happens to be the son of Magnus, who is predestined to own the Dark Echo... Yeah, none of it's coincidence.  It's supposed to be fate, I'm sure.

--  Suzanne knows that she's a dead ringer for Jane-- which is why I find it so irritating/hilarious that she's so obsessed with Jane's looks.  She's constantly commenting on how beautiful Jane was.  Ugh!  Vain, vain woman!   "My God, she really does look just like me, Suzanne thought, who knew that her looks had intimidated more men than they had attracted..."  "She was a pioneer aviator and drop-dead gorgeous to boot."  "She had been a celebrated beauty."  "No wonder Vera Chadwick had felt insecure, with friends like Jane and Helen around."

--  The tying in of Michael Collins was not especially interesting to me because... Well, I don't know much (at all) about him or that part of UK/Irish history.  No offense intended to anyone, but it's not a topic I care to research simply for the sake of better understanding this book.  I vaguely recognized his name as having something to do with Ireland, but that was it.  So, suffice it to say that that whole aspect of the book was less than enthralling for this particular reader.

--  It's interesting to note that the author was born in Southport, a city that plays an important role in the book.  Since he's English, I'm surprised that he called a sweater a sweater and not a jumper.  I thought that was the British word for sweater.  (Isn't this a fascinating review?)

--  Is anyone actually named "Magnus" these days?  I mean, I'm sure someone is... but it has ghost-story connotations for me.  "Count Magnus" and all that.

--  I found it amusing that the chaplain (Derry Conway) was "an old-fashioned follower of what, a generation earlier, had been termed muscular Christianity"-- because I just (for the first time?) encountered that unfamiliar term in something I read last month (Wildfire at Midnight). 

--  I'm always amused by a reference to Sweden... Magnus sighs over Martin's car-- a Saab.  "What's the prob, Dad?" asks Martin (or something to that effect).  "The Saab's fine." To which Magnus replies:  "Fine if you're a Swede.  Fine if you follow the gospel of self-deprecation.  Which the Swedes, as Scandinavians, have no recourse but to do."

--  What was with all the radios playing "When Love Breaks Down"?  I assumed it was Spalding's way of taunting/terrorizing Martin and Suzanne, since it was one of Martin's favorite songs (if I remember correctly).  Maybe, I thought, it was foreshadowing the breaking of the couple's relationship under the pressures Spalding applied.  But then the author (through Suzanne) explains it away as being a song that Spalding heard when he abducted the two teenage fishermen in 1985.  ...So, in that case, why is Spalding now making it playing everywhere?  Why choose that particular song to torment his new victims?

Either Spalding's been using some creepy magic to spy on them and learn that the song has significance to them or Spalding heard the song at random on the radio in 1985.  Either one of those on its own?  Ok.  Both?  Erm...

Also, what has Spalding been doing for all this time?  I assumed he could come and go as he pleased-- but apparently he looks pretty bad. (Seriously, dude.  Strike a better deal, next time you sell your soul.  Right?)   I guess that explains why he wouldn't get out much-- and maybe why a song he heard back in 1985 would make such a strong impression, if you accept that he doesn't have access to a radio or TV.  :o/

--  At one point, I wondered if Magnus might be the descendent (grandchild?) of one of the members of the Jericho Crew.  At least that might explain his bizarre attraction to the Dark Echo.  Except that the Jericho Crew were all American, and Magnus' family have probably lived in England forever.

--  The two-man crew on board the Dark Echo seems like it would be foolhardy under any circumstances, even if there were no evil man-demon out to get them.  What if one or both of them became ill?  Sickness isn't uncommon enough to risk it.

--  When Suzanne finally finds the document that she's been looking for-- Jane's deposition-- does she read it as quickly as possible, desperate for the answers that could well save her boyfriend's life?  No, of course not.  "She wanted to read what she had discovered in the space and at the time of her choosing.  There was urgency there.  But she felt she would glean more from the deposition away from where she'd discovered it."  What?!  Read the darn thing right away, woman!

--  In her diary, Jane refers to Spalding as "my obnoxious American", which seems a strangely understated way to describe a man who attempted to rape her. 

--  Suzanne's cold case detective is amazingly helpful.  He assembles a team to dig up the yard of Spalding's old rented home on the very day that she brings him her evidence (the aerial photo Jane took).  Apparently there's no such thing as red tape and paperwork in Merry Old England!  Then, when they discover the spear, he's only too happy to release it into Suzanne's care.  "'Won't people see it's missing?  'It won't be missing.  I'll replace it myself with one similar from the dead wood in the park over the way.'"  Ha!  Convenient.  Oh, and though he does say he'll need her to give a statement, it can wait for another time.  No biggie.  Whenever's convenient for you, woman I've never met before today.  I trust you implicitly.  (Must've been stunned into submission by her incredible personal beauty.)

--  The French farmer compliments "madame" on her courage in having laid the curse.  She responds, "Could you not have done it?"  (Yes, how about that?)  "My father tried.  It destroyed him." Okaaaay.  What made Suzanne so special, then?   Also, the scary dudes who seem to hang out in a van around the French countryside.  The ones the farmer shoots dead.  Who exactly are they and what have they been doing all this time?  I know they're somehow connected to the Satanic cult that Spalding's family was part of, but... Beyond that?  Strange that they stay in the background so much, if they are also desirous of keeping the desecrated holy relic in place.

--  The appearance of Vera Chadwick's ghost seems pointless.  ...What is the point, really?  To further suggest to us that Suzanne is the reincarnated Jane, however much she may deny it?

--  We learn that Magnus has gone into some type of shock-induced coma.  Martin says, "I've been feeding him, chewing his food.  He throws a lot of it up."  Um, gross.  Thank you for that little tidbit, Martin!  Next time, maybe use food softened with water or something... Broth... Make pre-chewed food your last option, okay?

--  Spalding and Martin engage in fisticuffs.  "'You're old,' Martin said.  'It's a young man's game.'  He spat a tooth on to the sand."  . . . . . . Bwa-ha-ha!  Did he also say "patooie" as he did so?  Because that wouldn't make it much sillier, in my humble opinion. 

--  I must've forgotten something.  What happened to Martin's arm on board the boat?  By the time they hit land, it's infected, but I can't recall anything that should have reopened his old wound.

--  Speaking of which, the book could've used a little more detail on what happened on the boat after Spalding reveals his plan to Martin and Magnus.  However, the biggest mystery of all is why they got on board to begin with!  Sure, sure, it's partly explained away by a change in the weather-- familiarity dulling the sense of evil-- etc.  But it's odd.  If you had the experience Martin described on his first time aboard, would you ever agree to go on a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard that boat?  Ultimately, Martin himself tells us that he will go on the voyage-- even against his better judgement-- simply because he loves his father and can't let him go alone.  I can't say that Magnus seems worth such self-sacrifice, sadly.

--  So... How much was Magnus supposed to have known about the boat beforehand?  During his delirium, he confesses to Martin that he was hoping Spalding would somehow bring about a reunion with his dead wife and daughter.  ...But... But... I though Magnus was obsessed with the Dark Echo after seeing her in a book, as a child.  I guess he realized after reading the log (which, incidentally, why would Spalding have written what actually happened in the log?  just as a sign of his arrogance?) that Spalding had some magical powers.  It doesn't make much sense to me, to be honest, but I guess none of it makes real sense, seeing as it's a ghost story, so... ~shrug~

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Another Place"

"Another Place"
from Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series
by John Whitbourn

This is a spooky tale within a tale.  Mr. Oakley listens to a creepy story about a former (current?) resident of the town to which he's just moved-- a man believed by some locals to be living in a parallel dimension. 

My Reaction:
Cue the Twilight Zone theme song!
This story reminded me strongly of a "homier" episode of that classic program-- and since I've described it as a classic, you know that it's intended as a compliment.  ;o)

I finally remembered to check back at Forgotten Classics.  I've mentioned it before, but that was years ago, so here's a quick explanation/reintroduction:

Forgotten Classics is a podcast produced by Julie D., who selects and reads books aloud, a chapter or so at a time.  (Or, as in this case, she reads a short story or a snippet from a larger work that's not in the public domain.)  Usually, these are classics of literature that may have fallen by the wayside or otherwise been overlooked in favor of the famous classics, but sometimes she features more recently published books.

Julie has a very pleasant, clear voice, and if you didn't know better, you'd think you were listening to a professionally produced audiobook.  (Actually, I prefer her reading style to that of many of the professional audiobook narrators I've come across.)  She chats a little at the beginning and ending of each segment, so it has more of a podcast/book club feeling to it than a traditional audiobook.  I enjoy that "personal touch" aspect of her recordings, and as a bonus, she often recommends other podcasts she's discovered and enjoyed. 

...So, anyway, this was a sample from Binscombe Tales, which is a collection of 26 short stories connected (I assume) by their setting (a fictionalized version of Binscombe, a small village in England) and some of their characters (such as Mr. Oakley, I gather).

I don't think I can go into details without spoiling it... It was a very enjoyable read (erm, listen?) of its kind, though, and I'll certainly be putting Binscombe Tales on my to-read list!