Horror

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is often considered to be one of the finest horror stories ever written. Published in 1959, it has left an indelible mark on the genre of horror.

The Hill House is famous for driving its inhabitants away. A house with a sordid past, no one who comes in touch with it is left untainted. Is Hill House haunted? Dr. John Montague intends to find out. But at what price?

The horror in the book is implicit which I enjoyed.

The eponymous Hill House itself is a major character of the book. I liked its atmosphere. It was eerie to say the least and so darkly Gothic,

“When they were silent for a moment the quiet weight of the house pressed down from all around them.”

I must confess that I had quite a hard time reviewing this book. I liked The Haunting of Hill House more than I thought I would. But I found it hard to put my feelings into words.

The central character of Eleanor Vance is the foremost reason behind my uncertainty. The fact that we are essentially seeing the world through her eyes left me feeling unsure about the events of the book. In other words, she is, in my opinion, an unreliable narrator. Are the events at the Hill House truly happening? How much of what happens is in Eleanor’s mind and how much of it is genuinely occurring?

I wasn’t even sure about the other people’s characters and reactions. How far can we trust her opinions? What if the things she sees and hears are all illusions?

The further the book progresses the more unhinged Eleanor becomes. She becomes even more unreliable as a narrator. In the end, I just had to give up trying to figure out what is real and what is unreal.

What I gathered was Eleanor was undeniably a troubled person,

“She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.”

But there was also something inherently unstable, wrong and outright evil about Hill House.

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

Eleanor was already on the edge. Hill House just cut off whatever little hold on reality she had left.

Overall, I enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House. I am just unsure about what I just read. Was it horror? It certainly was scary at times. Or did I just witness the gradual collapse of a disturbed mind? I am yet to be sure about that.

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Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James

M. R. James (1862–1936) was a scholar on the medieval period. He was the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a collection of eight supernatural tales by him.

The edition I read contains only the original eight stories. Some editions of the book combine James’ 1911 book More Ghost Stories with it under the same title.

The book opens with Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A man is persuaded to buy a strange manuscript volume with an odd looking illustration. Soon he finds out why the sellers were so keen on getting rid of the book.

In Lost Hearts, a young boy is disturbed by visions of two children in terrible distress, looking for their missing hearts.

The Mezzotint is the story of a painting that reveals a dark secret about a country house’s past.

The Ash-tree is a morbid tale of witchcraft and vengeance from beyond the grave.

In Number 13 a man staying at a hotel decides to investigate the mysterious, and apparently non-existent, room number 13.

Count Magnus recounts the unfortunate story of a traveller who in his mischievousness sets free a terrifying monster from the past.

In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ an academic finds a strange whistle on the beach and ends up questioning his long held scepticism.

The final story of the collection is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. A priest goes in search of the hidden treasure of Abbot Thomas but what he finds is more than he can handle.

I cannot really pinpoint my favourites but I liked Number 13 and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.  Some stories like Lost Hearts, The Ash-tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas were rather sickening.

Most of the stories are very, very similar. A lonely scholar goes to visit a rural area; he finds ‘something’, foolishly tampers with it and unleashes some kind of dreadful being in the process. In some stories his friends come to his rescue, in others he has to face his doom. In other words, the stories are predictable. You’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Having said that it doesn’t mean I was not spooked by the stories at all. Some like The Mezzotint, Count Magnus and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ were fairly creepy.

M. R. James’ brand of horror is very subtle. The supernatural events and beings, barring a few exceptions, are fully revealed. However, the effect of the events on the characters’ minds is vividly portrayed in each of the stories.

On the whole, I can say Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a good Halloween read. It may not be ‘blood curdling’ scary but it provides a few good chills along the way.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(The review may contain some mild *spoilers*)

When I was 13-14 years old, I received Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (Volumes 1 & 2) as a gift. I started reading Volume 1 and before long I was hopelessly hooked. Thus, began my lifelong love for the genre of Mystery.

Re-reading The Hound of the Baskervilles has reinforced one of my old convictions; I love the Sherlock Holmes stories but the novels? They leave me feeling quite underwhelmed.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1902. It was serialised in The Strand Magazine in 1901-1902.

Set in the year 1889, The Hound of the Baskervilles tells the story of a family haunted by the legend of a supernatural hound. The previous owner of Baskerville Hall is found dead under suspicious circumstances. His heir and the last of the Baskervilles, Henry Baskerville, is coming home after spending many years abroad.  Apprehensive for his safety, family friend Dr. Mortimer calls upon Sherlock Holmes and urges him to take the case. Will Sherlock Holmes be able to keep Henry Baskerville safe? Or will the legendary hound claim another victim?

The setting of the novel,Dartmoor, is like another character of the book. The bleak but beautiful moor is both dangerous and inviting. The entire novel is centred around the mysterious moor. The chilling climax of the story would be nothing without its setting. The way Conan Doyle describes the surroundings is also brilliant. I could feel the atmosphere of the moor; the dampness, the rising mist and the falling rain.

The climax is very good. The description of the approaching fog really helps enhance the sense of suspense.

Holmes and Watson are their usual effervescent selves. I never feel dull when these two appear together in any of the pages. For much of the novel Sherlock Holmes remains behind the scene while Dr. Watson takes centre stage. Without the presence of Holmes we, the readers, are even more in the dark.

Henry Baskerville is a bland character. It was hard for me to feel any sympathy for him. In fact, that is the problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Most of the characters are like nondescript entities. I just didn’t care about them. As I read the book I found my mind wandering away from their predicaments.

The bland characters and motivations that are shaky at their best (vague promises of marriage, roundabout ways of getting an inheritance; etc) is what makes me merely like but not love the book.

The Sherlock Holmes mysteries have a special place in my heart. These are what got me curios about mysteries in the first place. I read them as an adolescent and they captured my imagination like nothing else. I do like The Hound of the Baskervilles but I still prefer the stories to the novels.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Published in 1897, Dracula by Bram Stoker single-handedly brought the genre of Vampire literature to the forefront. A classic of the Gothic and horror genre, its impact has been enormous to say the least.

Dracula tells the story of Count Dracula, an un-dead being and a master manipulator. The narrative follows the efforts of a group of men and woman as they try to foil the Count’s evil designs. The story of is told through series of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings; etc.

How can a book that I have read and re-read so many times still fill me with so much fear and dread? I know the book almost by heart now. But Jonathan Harker’s experiences in the Castle Dracula, the count’s arrival in England, his encounter with Lucy and her mother, the Count’s evil presence at the asylum, it all still manages to scare me and I’m not a person who’s easily scared.

Dracula was a part of the trend of  Invasion literature popular during the 1880s and 1890s. Many famous authors of the time including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells, wrote stories where fantastic creatures threatened England. But Dracula has outlived its contemporaries and has taken on a life of its own.

The way evil is presented in the book is very refreshing. The evil brings darkness with it but there are glimpses of a past, in a past where things may have been different.  Stoker shows that even for someone who is an outright villainous character there still lays the possibility of redemption.

Stoker had a real flair for creating just the right ambiance. I could feel the dust, the hopelessness and the suffocation of the isolated Castle Dracula. The account of the voyage of  The Demeter  is another remarkable example of Stoker’s vivid imagination.

The iconic character of Count Dracula is the life line of this book. He has got to be the singular most evil and creepy villain I’ve ever read about. Apparently the inspiration behind his mannerisms and physical appearance came from actor-manager Henry Irving who was a friend of Bram Stoker’s. The Count’s suave manner, his noble birth and education all mask a sinister personality. His malevolent attitude towards everyone, particularly towards the Harkers, is disturbing to say the least.

The character of Jonathan Harker felt bland. Mina Harker’s character is a bit one dimensional but so are the characters of all the other good people in the book.

The character Dr. Van Helsing is good but his exaggerated foreignness is a bit too much at times. Dr. Seward was an interesting character. His character has a certain depth to it.

Lucy Westenra’s character is not properly fleshed out. I don’t get why everyone is in love with her other than the fact that she is pretty. Arthur Holmwood comes across as kind of dull while Quincey Morris is wooden.

The problem with an epistolary novel is that the point of view keeps constantly changing. As a result the narrative becomes a bit irregular. The climax, for instance, could have been more effective had we been able to view it from the viewpoint of either Harker or Dr. Seward. Instead we view it from Mina’s perspective. Perched at a mountain crevice along with her, the reader feels more like a spectator than an actual participant. After a narrative that is so full of thrills the climax loses its edge a bit.

The narrative of course has traces of Victorian melodrama in it. The good are incredibly good, the women are incredibly sweet and patient, everyone starts weeping at the drop of a hat; etc, etc. But these flaws can be overlooked as the story has so much more to offer.

Dracula. The very name that conjures up countless images in our minds. A pop culture staple for many years, our vision of the blood sucking, eternally damned gentleman has become tainted with its various incarnations. But for me nothing beats the book that started it all. The book certainly lives up to its name and fame and remains one of my all-time favourites. Highly recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento in Spanish) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was originally published in 2001. The 2004 translation by Lucia Graves catapulted the book to worldwide fame.

The story is very dark in tone. This is a true example of Gothic literature. People who are dead, who are forgotten, people who are as good as dead or are better off dead, occupy most of the story. When I was reading the book, I felt like I was viewing the past through a dark glass. The past always seemed like a late afternoon with dark clouds gliding across the sky.

The landscape of the city matches the mood of the story. A dark, dreary Barcelona is presented, a far cry from my sunny idea of Spain. You can actually feel the chill to your bones at certain times especially when the narrative moves around the mysterious Aldaya mansion.

I really enjoyed the touch of supernatural to the story. The history of the Aldaya mansion and Jacinta’s mysterious premonitions gave me quite the thrill.

I liked Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. He knows how to control the pace of the story. He does enough to keep the reader’s attention focused on the central mystery of Julián Carax.

The true connection between Julián Carax and the Aldaya’s didn’t really surprise me. Having read enough Gothic literature, especially the short story The Dead Smile by F. Marion Crawford, I had a vague idea that something like this may be the reason behind Penelope’s disappearance. Only The Dead Smile was even more grotesque.

Julián Carax comes across as a self-centred man. He is always thinking about himself, what he wants and what he didn’t get. What about all the other people in his life? They sacrificed so much and suffered terribly for him but he seemed rather oblivious to all that.

The characters from the past are so strong that the characters from the present time pale in comparison. Daniel Sempere and his lover Beatriz ‘Bea’ Aguilar are examples of this. I found their love story to be bland and kind of awkward. I didn’t care much about their fate. The only character from the present that I found in interesting was the funny yet strangely tragic character of Fermín. I liked the motherly figures of Jacinta and Bernarda.

I felt really bad for Miquel Moliner. He sacrificed so much for the sake of his friendship and his love but got very little in return. I especially disliked the part where Nuria Monfort decides to forget all about him (though later she shows a glimmer of guilt) just after that terrible scene at the café. Later on he is rarely mentioned.

Fumero’s story was interesting. His abusive childhood, his twisted nature, his adult life and his single minded obsession with Carax, made him one of the more intriguing characters of the book. He makes quite a formidable villain.

I didn’t understand the motivation behind the actions of Officer Palacios. I thought there must be an explanation of Palacios’s actions near the end of the story but that was not the case.

The reason Laín Coubert hates Julián Carax’s works so much and intends to burn them all seems a little thin. Sure, I understand terrible mental anguish and larger than life ideas of romance but the revelation of his identity and motive still didn’t match the intensity of the story in general.

I am not generally a fan of romance. And here the idea that you can be sure about who you want to spend the rest of your life with when you are only 17-19 years old, is something that I don’t agree with. The intoxication of first love can be very exciting. You may think that it’s going to last forever, you may go against everyone’s wish, and you may cry and be very bitter about being disappointed but in eight times out of ten this is just infatuation. Most people grow out of this kind of ‘teen passions’.

The story by the end had begun to bore me a little. Once the truth behind Laín Coubert and the disappearance of Penelope has been revealed, the story kind of peters out. Once again, I realized I didn’t care much for Daniel and Bea’s fate.

Overall, I liked The Shadow of the Wind. It’s a very engrossing read. Any fan of Gothic literature would definitely enjoy reading this modern addition to a centuries old genre.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.