Today’s Art (11th December 2019)

Well, I had a little bit more time, so today’s artwork is a digitally-edited film noir/cyberpunk-style painting.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Study Window” By C. A. Brown

Review: “The Haunting Of Hill House” By Shirley Jackson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a horror novel that I’d been meaning to read for a while.

After hearing about a modern TV (well, streaming rather than broadcast television) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting Of Hill House”, I mistakenly thought that it was connected to the excellent 1990s remake of “House On Haunted Hill“.

Even though I soon learnt that it had nothing to do with this film (and that this other 1990s movie that I vaguely remembered was based on it), I was still intrigued enough to put this novel on my “to read” list.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Haunting Of Hill House”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Haunting Of Hill House” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of an old mansion called Hill House. Paranormal investigator Dr John Montague has heard stories about this house and wants to conduct research into it. So, he rents the house for three months before writing to several people who have had psychic experiences. Out of the many letters he sends, only two people reply – a lonely woman with an unhappy family life called Eleanor Vance and a bohemian artist called Theodora. Not only that, the owner of the house, Mrs. Sanderson, insists that her ne’er do well nephew Luke also accompanies the party on their investigation.

After “borrowing” her sister’s car after an argument, Eleanor takes the long drive to Hill House. But, when she arrives, the only people there are a spiteful caretaker and his creepily robotic wife. Not only that, the house itself looks wrong, mean and evil. Luckily for Eleanor, the other guests arrive a little while later and – although the house is a bit odd – they settle in and have a good laugh about the place. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it deserves it’s reputation as a horror classic 🙂 It is a really brilliant blend of genuinely creepy horror and genuinely funny comedy. It is the kind of book where, when reading some parts of it, I thought “Yes! This is my kind of novel 🙂 ” and, in other parts, was surprised that a horror novel of this vintage could be so scary. In other words, it’s a surprisingly timeless horror story.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a genuinely chilling mixture of ominous horror, gothic horror, bleak horror, paranormal horror, tragic horror, jump scares, implied horror and, most of all, psychological horror. Although this novel has all of the trappings of a “cosy” Victorian-style ghost story, it is much more akin to the claustrophobic psychological drama of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“, the suspense of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and maybe the ominous dread and character-based tension of a more modern novel like Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual“.

This horror is also helped by several of the novel’s bleak themes, which include evil, loss, loneliness and the weight of the past. This is also a novel about the gaps between dreams and reality, about despair so deep that even a haunted house filled with untrustworthy strangers seems positively heavenly in comparison to the world outside. Where the ghostly horrors of Hill House pale in comparision to the horrors of bleak, everyday reality.

Seriously, this novel has one of the best – and creepiest – opening sentences I’ve read in a while: ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.‘ and it really helps to set the tone for the rest of the story. This is a novel where you are never entirely sure what is imagined and what is real, or whether one is better than the other.

Yet, despite all of this grimness, the novel is also a lot funnier than I’d expected 🙂 In addition to lots of amusingly irreverent dialogue, some excellent dark humour, some brilliantly quirky characters and even an obscure joke about how sleep-inducingly dull Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is , this novel also has the kind of knowing humour of more modern horror movies (with references to things like Dracula etc..).

Not only does this unexpected comedy fit in really well with the rest of the story but it also expertly walks a line between giving the story the wonderfully fun atmosphere of a 1980s/90s horror comedy movie and also gradually deepening the story’s horror when you start to realise that the characters are cracking so many jokes in order to keep their sanity intact. Serously, if you want a great example of how to blend horror and comedy, then read this novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is excellent. Yes, it is a bit on the formal side of things, sometimes reading like a Victorian novel and sometimes reading more like a story from the 1920s-30s, but this allows for a lot of really atmospheric descriptions, brilliant sentences and excellent characterisation too. Interestingly, although the novel is set in America, the writing style almost made me feel like this novel was set in Britain at times.

This novel also walks a very fine line between reliable and unreliable narration, with the third-person narrator sometimes focusing on Eleanor’s thoughts and sometimes narrating in a more traditional way. Not only does this lend the novel a sense of personality, but it also deepens the story’s unsettling horror too.

As for the characters, this novel is also excellent 🙂 Good horror relies on good characterisation and nowhere is this more evident than in this novel. The main characters are a wonderfully quirky group of misfits and eccentrics who really feel like they are real people.

Not only are Eleanor’s thoughts and anxieties a major part of the novel, but the complicated and gradually fraying friendship between the characters is also a major part of what makes this novel so creepy. Not only that, several of the background characters (eg: Mrs. Dudley, Arthur and Mrs. Montague) manage to be both hilarious and creepy at the same time too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 246 pages in length, it never feels like a single page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel is a bit on the slow-paced side of things, this actually works in the story’s favour, allowing it to gradually build atmosphere and to lull the reader into a false sense of security before things start to get creepier and creepier…

As for how this sixty year old novel has aged, it is timeless. Yes, the writing style is fairly formal (almost to the point of being Victorian at times), but this really fits in with the style and atmosphere of the story. It is a story where the characters still feel realistic, where the comedy is still amusing and – most importantly- where the horror is still scary too. Not only that, the irreverent humour and the “band of misfits” main characters also lend this vintage novel a surprisingly modern atmosphere at times.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant horror novel 🙂 It’s timeless, atmospheric, quirky, funny and, above all, genuinely creepy. This is a novel that will make you laugh, fill you with bleak despair and make you at least slightly nervous. Seriously, don’t read it at night.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Why Good Horror Novels Include Comedy

Well, although I’ve talked about the topic of comedy in horror fiction before, I thought that I’d return to it today after I started reading a horror novel from the late 1950s called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (mild SPOILERS ahoy).

Although the novel starts in a fairly sombre, ominous and morose way, and I’d worried that reading it was going to be an extremely miserable experience, there is a surprising amount of comedy in the first half of the novel. Most of this consists of amusingly irreverent dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy and even some hilariously obscure literary humour (eg: a reference to how Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is, as I can personally remember from my university days, dull enough to quite literally send the reader to sleep).

Yet, this comedy compliments the novel’s horror elements really well. It slightly tempers the ominous bleakness of the story, whilst also coming across as a disturbing sign that the characters are trying to protect their sanity when faced with the prospect of living in a creepy old house. After the unsettling early parts of the novel, the first moments of humour are brilliantly unexpected and can really catch you off-guard. Not only that, all of the humour seems to be a natural product of the characters and the setting, which allows it to fit in with the rest of the story really well.

But, why is it there in the first place? Why do horror novels often include moments of comedy? After all, the two genres are supposed to be complete opposites.

Well, there are quite a few reasons for this (that I’ve mentioned in previous articles), including how both genres rely on similar techniques, how it adds personality to the story, how the contrast between horror and comedy heightens the impact of both things, how it shows the reader that the author is a fan of the horror genre (to the point where they can joke about it) and because “100% horror 100% of the time” makes the reader feel jaded and less easy to scare.

But, the most important reason is probably to do with the emotional tone of the story. In short, adding a bit of comedy to your horror story tells your reader that they can’t be certain of what to expect. After all, horror stories are traditionally grim, sombre and bleak things that are filled with misery, death and other such things. So, including a bit of comedy tells your reader “Nope. This isn’t one of those stories.” It tells them that this is a different type of horror story.

Although this probably worked better in older horror novels (I mean, I was genuinely surprised that a horror novel from the 1950s could be funny), it is still effective in modern horror novels. If anything, it’s practically a requirement these days. After all, what better way is there to tell a reader that a new horror novel will give them something different from the old ones?

Of course, to do this properly, the comedy in a horror novel has to feel like a natural part of the story. This is easier to do than you might think. In short, if your story has vaguely interesting characters and/or a slightly strange premise, then this can be used for comedy as effectively as it can be used for horror.

A good modern example of this is probably Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, where the fact that some of the main characters are 1970s punks means that there is plenty of room for irreverent, crude and/or gross humour that is a really good “fit” with the rest of the story.

Another good modern example is S. L. Grey’s excellent 2011 novel “The Mall“. Although this novel can best be described as what a mixture of “Saw” and “Silent Hill” would look like if it was set in a South African shopping centre and directed by David Lynch, some of the bizarre moments that make this story so unsettling are also used as a vehicle for some utterly brilliant social satire and/or weird humour. Because the humour emerges from things that, when seen another way, would be incredibly disturbing, it is a really good fit with the story.

So, although humour in a horror story needs to feel like it has emerged organically from the characters, story and/or settings, it is an essential ingredient in good horror fiction for the simple reason that it tells the reader that they can’t be entirely certain of what to expect if they keep reading. And, of course, unpredictability is one of the most important parts of effective horror.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Origin” By Dan Brown (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d take a look at Dan Brown’s 2017 novel “Origin”. If I remember rightly, I ended up getting a second-hand copy of this novel after reading Brown’s “Inferno” a few months earlier and being surprised that there was another Dan Brown novel that I hadn’t heard of before.

Although “Origin” is the fifth novel in Brown’s “Robert Langdon” series, it can be read as a stand-alone novel – albeit one with a few brief references to previous novels for fans of the series.

So, let’s take a look at “Origin”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Corgi (UK) paperback edition of “Origin” that I read.

The novel begins with famous technologist, scientist and inventor Edmond Kirsch travelling to a remote church on a mountain in Spain. He has arranged a meeting with a powerful interfaith group in order to give them a preview of a scientific announcement he will make soon that will disprove every religion on the planet by conclusively answering the questions of where we come from and where we are going. He feels that it is only fair to give them time to prepare for it.

A few days later, Harvard professor Robert Langdon is visiting the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao for his friend and ex-student Kirsch’s announcement. However, before the multi-media announcement, the A.I. tour guide (another of Edmond’s inventions) leads Langdon to a private room where Kirsch is waiting for him. Kirsch believes that his life is in danger and wants Langdon’s advice on the matter. Eventually, Kirsch decides to press on with the announcement.

However, when Kirsch is shot by an assassin halfway through the presentation, Langdon falls under suspicion. Teaming up with both the A.I. tour guide and the future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, Langdon realises that the only way to deal with all of this is to find the password to Kirsch’s private server and release the rest of his announcement to the world before anyone can stop him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit slow to really get started, it’s a really compelling thriller. In classic Dan Brown fashion, there is a lot of focus on art, symbols, puzzles, architecture etc… and all of this stuff helps to lend the story a surprisingly relaxing and, dare I say it, slightly high-brow atmosphere. Yet, all of this stuff is paired with some really gripping thriller elements that help to keep the story compelling – even when it gets a little bit contrived and/or silly.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they mostly consist of mystery and suspense. Although there are a few short chase and fight scenes, most of the novel revolves around mysterious conspiracy theories, suspenseful moments, political drama, uncertainty about who can be trusted, intriguing puzzles and dramatic plot twists. In other words, this is a bit more of a sophisticated and old-school thriller novel and even though it takes a little while to really become compelling, it is one of those novels that is more gripping than it initially seems.

Yet, this is also one of those novels where the mystery is actually better than the solution to it. Although Brown has obviously done quite a bit of research, at least half of the “shocking” announcement at the end of the novel (and possibly one of the later plot twists) won’t be too much of a surprise to any fans of the science fiction genre.

And, talking of the sci-fi genre, this novel is something of a sci-fi novel in disguise. In addition to the novel’s scientific themes, there are also some vaguely cyberpunk elements too – which were kind of a cool surprise in a Dan Brown novel 🙂 Then again, Brown did write “Digital Fortress” in the 1990s, so he isn’t a total stranger to the sci-fi genre.

Even so, this novel is more about the tension between science and religion. Although the novel takes a fairly nuanced attitude towards this topic, with both sides having extremists and more moderate people, it is often handled in a slightly cheesy and stylised way. If anything, this novel suggests that both things can coexist, with each being able to adapt to changes in the other. This is also mirrored in the novel’s portrayal of monarchy too, with tension between the more traditionalist elements of the Spanish court and the desire for modernisation.

Although I haven’t studied Spanish politics or history in a huge level of detail, the royal drama is clearly stylised and fictional, yet it still remains compellingly dramatic. Likewise, there are also a few references to vestiges of the oppressive traditionalism of Franco’s dictatorship still lingering in Spain. Dan Brown has also done quite a bit of research about Spanish architecture and history too – with lots of fascinating buildings, descriptions of art etc.. that really help to add some atmosphere to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. The motivations of all of the story’s villains are well-explained and help to add drama to the story. In addition to this, although Kirsch dies about a fifth of the way through the story, he gets a surprisingly large amount of characterisation afterwards. Not to mention that the novel’s A.I. character, Winston, is surprisingly well-written too. In general, the characters in this novel – whilst slightly stylised – are one of the things that helps keep this story compelling.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is often surprisingly formal and/or descriptive for a thriller novel. Yet, this is also paired with slightly faster-paced dialogue and narration too. The contrast between these things keeps the story compellingly readable, whilst also being surprisingly relaxing and atmospheric at the same time. This is really difficult to describe, but it lends the story a really interesting atmosphere that sets it apart from grittier and more realistic thrillers by other authors.

As for length and pacing, this novel probably isn’t perfect, but is still reasonably good. At 538 pages in length, this novel is a little bit on the hefty side of things. Likewise, although the story takes between a fifth and a quarter of the novel to really get started, it then becomes a lot more thrilling and compelling. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, there are enough well-orchestrated mysteries, small cliffhangers, plot twists etc.. to make this novel the kind of thing that you’ll want to read more of.

All in all, even though this probably isn’t the best Dan Brown novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good one. It manages to be both relaxing and thrilling at the same time. Even though it takes a while to really get started and some elements of it are a bit stylised and/or silly, I still had a lot of fun reading it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Today’s Art (8th December 2019)

Well, this digitally-edited painting was a failed attempt at using the “Waterpixels” effect in GIMP 2.10.8 to improve an extremely rushed painting I made based on this photo that I took at Priddy’s Hard last December. Unfortunately, the final result looks more like abstract art than anything else.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Priddy’s Hard – Sea” By C. A. Brown