r. i. p. vii

R. I. P. VII – Completion

Just like last year I participated on the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril or R. I. P. VII hosted by Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings

I had chosen to participate on Peril the First level, where I had to read four books from any of the following the genres; Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror and Supernatural.

I managed to complete the challenge on the 31st of October, right in time for Halloween. 

Once again, I’d like to thank Carl V for hosting this challenge!

Completed Books:

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

2. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

3. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James.

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. 

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.

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 Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Long before I read The Killer Inside Me for the first time the book both fascinated and scared me. How can I resist reading one of the classics of the noir/pulp genre? On the other hand, would this dark tale told in first person prove to be too much for me? I was in two minds.

Lou Ford, a small town sheriff’s deputy, is an ordinary (if slightly dull) man. Except no one knows that inside him there is a pool of darkness, a thing he calls his ‘sickness’. For years he has been containing it. One wrong person, one wrong moment and it may all come crashing down. Unfortunately Lou will soon meet a woman called Joyce Lakeland. Soon it will all spiral out of control and leave one bloody ugly mess.

Maybe it was shocking when it was first published in the 1950’s but for someone who has read the modern day works in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre; the violence may not be a big deal. It’s all pretty subtle when compared to modern depictions of violence.

What I found troubling was not the violence but the fact that I, the reader, actually had to see through the eyes of a psychopath. The first person narrative makes this book all the more disturbing. All that evil, stated so matter of factly by Lou, felt so very real.

What’s more is that Lou makes it all seem so rational. There are moments when one forgets how sick and twisted this man is. That is what makes this so unsettling.

I found it amazing how Jim Thompson showed Lou’s sadistic nature come out through his habit of cornering people and unloading on them one cliché after another. An example is given early in the story,

“The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?”

He delights in seeing people fidget and avoid him as he slowly torments them with his dull, plodding words. Brilliant!

There is a nightmarish quality to the narrative. It’s because Lou’s life is somewhat of a nightmare. As he describes it,

“It was like being asleep when you were awake and awake when you were asleep. I’d pinch myself, figuratively speaking–I had to keep pinching myself. Then I’d wake up kind of in reverse; I’d go back into the nightmare I had to live in. And everything would be clear and reasonable.”

He wants to get away from it all. He believes leaving the small town he grew up in will solve all of his problems. But then he wonders does one ever get way?

“The Conways were part of the circle, the town, that ringed me in; the smug ones, the hypocrites, the holier-than-thou guys–all the stinkers I had to face day in and day out. I had to grin and smile and be pleasant to them; and maybe there are people like that everywhere, but when you can’t get away from them, when they keep pushing themselves at you, and you can’t get away, never, never, get away.”

The book isn’t simple. There are a lot of layers to the story. As the narration is in first person, it is all a bit hazy. Of course one couldn’t expect a mentally disturbed person to be rational and precise. It is, after all, his mind that we are looking in to.

At times I had trouble understanding what was going on. Thompson left a lot unsaid and it certainly isn’t a bad thing even if it did hinder my understanding the book.

The story is sexist. It portrays the women in a bad light. Both Joyce Lakeland and Amy Stanton are portrayed as mean, spiteful women who help bring about Lou’s downward descent ever more rapidly. But I suppose it is a product of its time.

Watching and almost experiencing how the delicate balance that took years to build gets destroyed is disquieting. I didn’t find The Killer Inside Me gory but it is a cruel, merciless story. It isn’t fun to watch a serial killer’s mind unravel as the bodies pile up.

Even though revisiting The Killer Inside Me was difficult, it remains a favourite of mine mainly because of its writer, Jim Thompson. He was definitely ahead of his time. The book truly deserves its status as a classic of the noir genre.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

A wife goes missing. A husband is blamed. Fingers are pointed all around. Every little gesture, every little moment, every bump on the road is minutely analyzed. And in the end what are we left with? A place where almost all relationships reach a dead end, where psychotic maniacs are a dime a dozen and no one is really likeable.

Published in 2012, Gone Girl is the third offering from author Gillian Flynn after Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

The story unfolds from the points of view of Nick Dunne and his wife Amy Elliott Dunne. The entire book is divided into three different parts.

The first part, Boy Loses Girl, I’d say is the ‘skeleton’ of the story. The second part, Boy Meets Girl, fills in on the gaps left by Boy Loses Girl. In the final part, Boy Gets Girl Back (or vice versa), we find the whole story standing in front of us with the skeleton grinning from underneath.

Boy Loses Girl is definitely the most intriguing part of the book. With Boy Meets Girl, the story becomes more of a straightforward thriller. Boy Gets Girl Back is basically a continuation of Boy Meets Girl. It didn’t change my perception of the characters in any way.

Gone Girl reminded me of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen and The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Two points of view, an unreliable narrator and close family members under clouds of suspicion just like The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and a rather disturbing first person narrative like The Killer Inside Me.

Most of the major characters in Gone Girl are irreparably damaged people. The amount of time they spend messing with each others minds is unbelievable. If I had to live like that, constantly analyzing and/or be analyzed, I would go crazy!

The characters are all kind of one note. The mean and manipulative ones are just that, mean and manipulative. The weak ones are weak and the good are good. Just because they smoke, drink or curse doesn’t mean that they are multi-dimensional. Characters like Andie are there just to make a plot point. They are not well fleshed out and are faintly annoying.

I like books with unreliable narrators. It lifts books up from banality and adds an interesting twist to the proceedings. Gone Girl gives us a very fiendish unreliable narrator.

By Boy Gets Girl Back I kind of got bored with all the twists that were supposed to shock me. They are all screwed up people with serious problems. So they will act whatever way they want to. I was no longer surprised.

The book’s easy to read, which is I suppose a pre-requisite for all bestsellers. But at least it’s not banal or straight out stupid. Gillian Flynn has a way with words. I’d be interested in her other works Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

Overall, Gone Girl is a good psychological thriller. Good as an easy summer read.