October 30, 2013

Rabid Rewind: Mama starring Jessica Chastain

starring Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Daniel Kash, and Javier Botet
directed by Andres Muschietti
screenplay by Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti
Universal Pictures (2013)

I gotta give credit to Jessica Chastain for her work as an actor, because after being thoroughly impressed by Zero Dark Thirty I wondered if this horror movie was just something she did to pay the rent before hitting it big. Turns out she brought it here, because for the first thirty minutes of this movie I thought she was a total asshole.

Chastain plays Annabel, a snarky, self-centered guitarist in a nothing-happening rock band. She's shacked up with Lucas, a handsome, straight-laced guy, and things are going really good between them until Lucas' brother and sister-in-law die in a car crash. What's worse is the two orphaned daughters, Victoria and Lilly, go unfound and stay missing for five years in the wilderness. Annabel tolerates Lucas' obsession with finding the girls, even soothing him on those despondent nights when no headway is made in the search, but she never thinks for a second the girls will be found--and she sure as hell never thought she'd be placed in the role of stepmom.

In Annabel's defense, those two girls, Victoria and Lilly, are creepy as hell. When two hired searchers find them, they've been foraging off wild cherries and squirrel meat, rendered to feral creatures instead of doe-eye little angels. But Lucas loves them and wants to do right by them. So Annabel is along for the ride.

The girls move into the house and then things get really weird.

Creepy kids are less a trope than they are a prerequisite these days in horror movies. Done to death, but it works more often than not. Maybe it's just 'cause I'm not a parent. Still, the kids aren't the real threat, as something has followed them out of the woods. It's not entirely clear at first, but a mystery unfolds and Annabel realizes that if the two little girls stand a chance of living some semblance of a normal life, it's up to her to protect them from "Mama."

The movie came out in theaters last January, as I recall, and I'm usually leery of any horror movies that are released during winter. They tend to be crap, in my opinion, thrown out as counterweight to all of the Oscar bait in theaters that time of year. Mama delivers, though. There's a gripping, genuinely suspenseful story there. Sure, there is a hokey jump-scare or two, but the whole engine of the movie is the relationship between Annabel and the two girls, and it really works. The ending gets a little muddy and a little schmultzy, but the very end packs a wallup, and was definitely not what I was expecting.

If you gave this movie a pass, you may want to reconsider.

October 28, 2013

Egon Spengler Would Approve: a review of Dr. Leo Ruickbie's "A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting"

A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting
by Dr. Leo Ruickbie
Running Press (2013 US)
first published by Constable + Robinson (2013 UK)
362 pages
ISBN 9781780338262

I don't believe in ghosts, but I used to when I was little, so the idea of ghost hunting has fascinated me for a long time. Mind you, never enough to actually go out and do it, since not believing in ghosts precludes me from expecting to find anything beyond a damp evening of uneventful lurking. But, hey, I won't begrudge anyone else from having a good time.

Dr. Leo Ruickbie may be a specialist in the field of witchcraft, but if A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting is any indication, the man knows he way around a haunted house as well.

Divvied up into nine chapters, this so-called brief guide felt much more extensive than I originally expected. In order they are: Prepare, Equip, Investigate, Identify, Locate (What?), Locate (Where?), Contact, Explain, Survive. That's a pretty good way to go about any investigation I suppose, though that last one about surviving may be unique to ghost hunting. There's a lot about the paranormal packed in the 360+ pages of this book, with more footnotes, graphs, and recommended reading than you can shake an EMF meter at.

Given Ruickbie's nationality, the book has a UK-centric approach to the subject matter, but there's more than enough offered to American readers as an enticement, and ghosts and hauntings are such a universally accessible topic that the overall approach is highly digestible no matter where you call home.

The historical aspects of ghost hunting alone were fascinating in the early goings of the book, as was the highlights on specific pieces of equipment used in investigations. The science of ghosts may feel a bit of a contradiction, but apparently the people going to sites and getting knee-deep in this stuff aren't out there to just muck about. An enlightening bit of information came in how many of the more historic and reputable investigators are so bare-bones in their equipment. A pen, a pad, and as few distractions as possible, and they're ready to go.

There's focus on things like the Ouija board and infrared cameras, and a myriad of sightings and disturbances. Then there's a great chapter that explores all of the stringently logical and evidence-based explanations and debunking of hauntings and sightings. There's a great bit about something called the quantum poltergeist and how the human mind can work to manipulate physical objects, which in turn could be perceived as a ghostly event. It sounds utterly bonkers, but it appeared in New Scientist. Then there's the good old-fashioned chicanery of hoaxes and pranks.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn't really matter as far as this book goes, because the catalog of information is just a banquet for the imagination. Dr. Ruickbie has another book called A Brief Guide to the Supernatural, which takes a broader look at all things paranormal, and if it's as enjoyable to pore through as this book was, I will have to put it on my to-be-read pile.

October 25, 2013

A Quick Death, but a Good One: a review of "Exquisite Death" (audiobook)

Exquisite Death
featuring Benjamin Ethridge, Cate Gardner, Anthony J. Rapino, Todd Keisling, and Mercedes Yardley
narrated by George E. Leonard and Ian Baldwin
1 hr. 25 min.

It's kind of weird for me, as I am a voracious reader and a podcast junkie, but it's only recently that I started listening to audiobooks with any regularity. And I don't think I have ever reviewed an audiobook on the blog, so when I was offered a copy of this little anthology for review, I decided it was about time to remedy that oversight.

Exquisite Death is made up of six short stories, alternately narrated by George E. Leonard and Ian Baldwin (one of them is apparently female judging by the notably feminine voice, just don't ask me which one). And the contributing authors are very familiar to me save for Todd Keisling, a new name to me, but a guy who wrote a really cool story called "Radio Free Nowhere" for this collection.

A couple of the stories were ones I had already read previously, those being Cate Gardner's "Apheliac" and Anthony J. Rapino's "The Plumber." Between those two tales right there, you can really get a sense of the shared theme of death, as well as the notably divergent styles of each author.

Ethridge's "Chester" kicked things off really nicely with a tale told from a dog's point of view. It started off a little weird, a little disorienting, but it didn't take long for things to turn really, really creepy. The next two were Cate Gardner's stories, and she might be one of the most lyrical writers I've read, certainly of this collection. It's always a treat--and a wee bit of a mind warp--to read her work. And like I mentioned earlier, "Radio Free Nowhere" by Todd Keisling serves well as an introduction to Todd's work, but it was also the story that really exposed the narrator's less than convincing American accents. At the risk of sounding mean, I laughed out loud when the especially southern-fried accent started.

Accents aside, the narrators do a really good job capturing the tone and pacing of each story. I'm also a sucker for a British accent. Something about proper English just really amplifies a horror story, I find. As far as the audiobook format goes, my only gripe would be the absence of bookmarks with MP3 files. If a listener wants to revisit a specific story after listening to the book in full, they'll have to navigate it manually, sliding the media player's progress bar and just hoping for the best. Ugh, first world problems, right?

October 23, 2013

Novel Excerpt: Prologue for Christopher Buehlman's "The Necromancer's House"

About The Necromancer's House: Andrew Ranulf Blankenship is a handsome, stylish nonconformist with wry wit, a classic Mustang, and a massive library. He is also a recovering alcoholic and a practicing warlock, able to speak with the dead through film. His house is a maze of sorcerous booby traps and escape tunnels, as yours might be if you were sitting on a treasury of Russian magic stolen from the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Andrew has long known that magic was a brutal game requiring blood sacrifice and a willingness to confront death, but his many years of peace and comfort have left him soft, more concerned with maintaining false youth than with seeing to his own defense. Now a monster straight from the pages of Russian folklore is coming for him, and frost and death are coming with her.

The Necromancer's House
by Christopher Buehlman


The old man walks from the cabin to the porch behind, palming his whiskey glass from the bottom and swirling the ice in it. A drop of water falls from his knuckle, falling on the head of the beagle mix snaking near his feet. This distracts the dog so that it halts long enough to get underfoot, almost tripping the old man, who swears viciously in Russian that Khrushchev might have barked, then apologizes in Pushkin’s honeyed tones. The dog wags halfheartedly but steers starboard in case his master kicks at him. The kicks are infrequent and never hard, so the evasion is lazy, and the kick never comes. An observer would note how balletic the interaction is, how practiced each is at his part.

But no one is watching them.

Not yet.

The man lips at his glass and sits facing the sunset.

The dog curls at his feet and begins a snorting, chewing hunt for a flea that has disgraced him near the base of his tail.

“Kill that fucker,” the man says in a jovial Slavic growl, scratching under his left tit in sympathy.

The sun has already performed its nightly slow-motion dive into Lake Ontario; it has slipped behind its blue veil like a bulb of molten glass, so beautifully that a man on Fair Haven Beach, one town west, spontaneously proposed marriage to his girlfriend of less than six months, and a group of actors on the McIntyre Bluffs, near the bird sanctuary not a mile away, silenced their chatter about the day’s rehearsals and broke into applause. Now the aftershow is wrapping up; the surface of the lake has turned an iridescent color reminiscent of mother-of-pearl, a hue that has proven irreproducible in watercolor; an ephemeral purplish-silver that even the great Eastman Kodak an hour and change away in ashy Rochester has never brought to shore alive.

The old Russian’s nearest neighbor, a former comparative religions professor in a nearly identical summer cabin a hundred yards down the ridge, once told him, “These sunsets have been rated the second-best sunsets in the world.”

“Rated?” the Russian had said, “Who rates a sunset?”

“The photographers of National Geographic.”

“Oh,” he had said, pushing his lower lip out and nodding. The professor, who is renting long-term and working on some atheistic magnum opus, loves sharing that piece of trivia with other visitors just to see them first reject and then accept the idea that sunsets might be rankable. He had been disappointed that the Russian did not ask the usual follow-up question, so he had answered it unbidden.

“The best sunsets are over the Sea of Japan, looking toward Russia.”

Now the lake spreads squid’s-ink black beneath a sky like a luminous bruise. The Russian wants a cigarette, but it is a mild want that only comes with inebriation and goes away when ignored. He looks at the dog, at the white in his face that stands out from his black-and-tan body like a cheap plastic ghost mask.

“Go get us a pack of Marlboros, Caspar. Caspar the son-of-a-bitch ghost.”

His wife comes to mind.

She had called the dog Caspar. She had made him quit smoking. She had taught him to say son of a bitch correctly, separating and emphasizing bitch where he had always run the three words together and accented son.

This ache for a dead woman will be harder to chase away than the ache for nicotine.

Here is the devil!

It is too beautiful an evening to wallow in melancholy again. Maybe the professor will consent to play chess? The thought bores him senseless; the man is a good conversationalist, but he can’t smell a trap, is too lazy to think more than two moves ahead, and understands nothing about keeping force in reserve—he will jabber away about the Upanishads, or about the cowlike stupidity of evangelical Christians, and send his pawns out too far, the light shining on his bald dome, stroking his orthodox-thick beard, crossing and recrossing his legs and saying “huh” as if surprised that the center of the board, which he thought he had in his fist, is turning into a kill box.

Besides, he is enjoying the night air and doesn’t feel like going anywhere.

He toys with the notion of turning on his computer and looking for an escort, but the connection is sketchy at best, and waiting for the pictures to load on the escort site will be purgatorial. Besides, once he has selected one, assuming he can talk her into a last-minute meeting far away with an unknown client, she will have to come from Syracuse or Rochester, and that will be two hours. Perhaps three. Perhaps there are prostitutes in Oswego, half an hour east, but he shudders to think of what one of those might be like; the profile, so poorly written even a Russian could correct it, will lead to some pale, plain-faced girl raised in the shadow of the nuclear plant and plumped on foldable pizza; he can see her now with her bad tattoos and her mouse-brown hair, undressing clumsily, asking him questions about his life and interrupting with “uh-huh” when he answers; then, after ten grim minutes of fucking, slipping one of his liquor bottles into her backpack while he discards the prophylactic and struggles to begin a postcoital piss.

Oswego is for chicken wings and beer.

Oswego is not for pretty girls.

Not that he is any prize himself, with his shirt open on his hard, round, Florida-brown belly and his toenails that barely fit in the clippers, but a man need not be a horse to buy one.

His father said such things.

His father had ridden bare-chested into Berlin on a tank and had paid a month’s wages for the privilege of taking a shit in Hitler’s bunker.

If his father were here, he would call the Rochester escort and the Oswego hooker and send his mother out for cigarettes.

Which is why he loves and hates him thirty years after his death.

He will call no escort.

“Caspar, the son-of-a-bitch dog. Go get us a woman.”

Caspar squares his black lips and makes a barely audible whimper, as he often does when a command word like go is followed by something he does not understand.

Now Caspar’s nose twitches.

The Russian smells it, too.

Foul and tidal, as though something has washed up from the lake.

He had just been remarking how sweet the night air was, and now this.

Has a whale beached itself?

“Lakes have no whales,” he tells Caspar, pointing a nut-colored finger gravely at him. The dog doesn’t seem to understand, so he tells him in Russian, too.

Now Caspar looks toward the lake.

He wags his tail a little as he does in lieu of barking when a stranger approaches.

“I thought I heard Russian,” a woman says, in Russian.

The light from his cabin lights the area of the porch, ending in the sun-grayed handrails at the top of the stairs leading down to the beach.

As though the world ends with those rails.

Beyond is lake and night, as black as the black behind a star.

“Ha!” he says, and then, in Russian, “You did. And so did I. Come up the stairs and say hello.”

“In a moment,” she says, in accented English. “I’m changing.”

She sounds young.

He feels the small thrill a man feels when he is sure he is about to meet a pretty girl. Of course, one can be disappointed making such assumptions, as she will be if she thinks him handsome for his deep, rich voice.

That smell again.

“Do you like whiskey?” he says, matching her English, suppressing the old-man grunt he usually makes when he gets to his feet.

“Oh, very much,” she says. “Is it scotch?”

“Oban. You know it?”

“No. But it smells good.”

“You can smell it over that”—it wouldn’t do to say shit before he knows her character—“other smell?”

“I can smell it. It smells like peat and burned seaweed.”



He enters the house and fills two glasses, pleased at the turn the evening is taking. He glances at his nearly transparent reflection in the hutch, thinking he doesn’t look so good. But not awful for almost seventy. He walks out back again, managing the screen door with more difficulty, burdened as he is with two dripping glasses now.

Still no woman.

The wooden handrails stand out, brilliantly illuminated against the primordial darkness behind them.

He looks down to see if Caspar is still wagging his welcome at her.

But Caspar is gone.

He sets the glasses down and whistles.

He walks to the rickety stairs and hoists himself down to the level of the beach, his back deck bathed in light and receding with each step down. He steps onto sand that soon gives way to rocks, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He listens for the sound of Caspar’s collar, the jingling of the tag with the dog’s name and his master’s information, and the legend Help me get home!, but all he hears is Lake Ontario’s languid whisper and a gentle breeze in the crowns of the maples and birch trees behind him.

His sandaled foot plunges into a puddle, which some precivilized part of his brain registers as incorrect—the tide doesn’t come this far and it has not rained—but he walks on.

“Girl, you didn’t take my dog, did you?” he asks in Russian.


He walks farther down the beach, closer to the water, the smooth rocks pushing up against his sandals’ bottoms.

“Caspar?” he says, his concern for the dog growing and mixing with anger. Has this bitch with the Leningrad accent taken his dog? Is there a market in upstate New York for old mixed-breed dogs who flatulate like dying grandmothers?

Here is the devil, he thinks.

Now he hears the jingle of the collar behind him.

Is the old bastard actually going up the stairs on his own power instead of whimpering to be carried?

He remembers the smoky amber of his whiskey and feels happy to be making his way back to it.

He climbs up, hearing the jingle inside the house.

“You little fucker,” he says, smiling.

Warm light spills from the windows and door of the cabin.

He looks for the whiskey and finds only two wet rings on the table.

That is incorrect.

Another sound registers as incorrect, though familiar.

His shower is running.

A sly smile creeps onto his face.

The girl. What game is she playing? This night will be very good or very bad, but at least it will produce a story.

This was the sort of thing his father said.

He takes his sandals off and opens the screen door, stepping in. He finds the floor wet. He goes to the hallway and stands before the closed bathroom door—God in heaven, it stinks of the lake in here—and then he turns the handle. The shower is running, the curtain pulled back to show the rusty showerhead and the bad grout.

No steam, though.

The water runs cold.

He turns it off.

An empty rocks glass sits in the sink, one very long auburn hair coiled near it. He plucks this from the off-white porcelain and looks at it—how coarse it is!

Hearing Caspar’s jingle, he goes into the hallway again, and his heart skips a beat.

A woman stands in the hallway, pale and nude, her hair thick and russet-colored and wetly quilting her shoulders and breasts. His eyes trail down to her tight, alabaster navel, below which a scud of curly hair leads to the kind of prodigious bush one doesn’t see on young women these days except on specialty Internet sites.

The second whiskey glass drips in her hand.

With the pointer finger of her other hand, she makes her collar jingle. Caspar’s collar, more properly, which she wears on her neck.

The man has bounced between shock, worry, anger, and glad surprise so precipitously that when he speaks he only sounds old and bewildered.

“Where’s my fucking dog?”

“Help me get home,” she says, showing yellow-gray teeth that don’t belong in the mouth of a first-world girl. “That is very sweet, Misha.”

The smell that pollutes his cabin is coming from her, maybe from that thick, cabled wet hair, maybe even from her mouth or cunt. How can something so beautiful smell like that?

He notices now how scarred and sinewy she is, how strong her limbs look.

“You didn’t hurt him, did you?” he asks in Russian.

“You’ll kiss me now even if I did,” she says in English, moving the mouth with the bad teeth and the beautiful lips closer.

He thinks to pull away, but he does not.

Something about her eyes fixes him in place.

How green they are.

How cold her mouth is.

He tries to pull away, but her hand has found the back of his head and anchors it where she wants it. His mouth is too full of cold tongue for him to yell.

Past her, he sees his collarless dog pad from the kitchen, squaring his lips and wagging gently, unsure what to make of the struggle in the hallway.

When she drags the old Russian down the stairs and to the lake, the dog follows, even down the stairs, but he only walks to the lip of the water, where he paces back and forth as the woman who does not smell like a woman pushes his master’s head below the surface.

He thrashes, but she holds him under with ease.

The dog has enough beagle in him to make him howl.


She howls back at him playfully until her head goes under, and the dog is alone.

If you'd like to get your hands on a copy of The Necromancer's House, you can visit Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble's website to order. Plus, find out what others are saying about it on Goodreads.com

About Christopher Buehlman (from his website): Christopher Buehlman is a writer and performer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the winner of the 2007 Bridport Prize in Poetry and a finalist for the 2008 Forward Prize for best poem (UK). He spent his twenties and thirties touring renaissance festivals with his very popular show Christophe the Insultor, Verbal Mercenary. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in French Language from Florida State University, where he minored in History. He enjoys theater, independent films, chess, archery, running, cooking with lots of garlic, and thick, inky, bone-dry red wines with sediment at the bottom.

October 22, 2013

Chasing Tale (10/22/13): Movies Make Me Sad

Chasing Tale is a regular look at the books that I recently added to my to-be-read pile. Some are advance review copies, some I bought from one store or another, and others are freebies from promotional offers that caught my eye.

Sometimes I feel like an endangered species, that being a reader. I literally had someone tell me she/he isn't going to bother reading Stephen King's new novel, Doctor Sleep. Instead, since it's a pseudo-sequel to The Shining, the person stated he/she will wait for the movie to come out. After wiping the dumbfounded expression from my face, I changed the subject, since I didn't want sparks to shoot out of my ears as my brain short-circuited with reader rage.

Ever had an experience like that, where someone says something to the effect that reading a book is pointless if a movie version is inevitable? Argh.

Anyway, I don't if any of these books will have film adaptations, but no matters, as I intend to read the books before I watch the movies. I'm weird like that.

Darlings of Decay by various authors - This is an anthology with a zombie-theme and a huge page count, featuring an all-female table of contents. And while it looks like half the book is made up of chapter excerpts from various novels, there is still a hefty pile of short stories to be enjoyed.

Dust and Shadow edited by Kealan Patrick Burke - Here's a somewhat slimmer anthology, but the list of contributing writers is impressive, with the likes of Joe McKinney, Nate Kenyon, Scott Nicholson, and others. The only unfamiliar name was that of Maria Alexander, so I'm curious to read her story, since it must be pretty decent to wind up with such a talented horde.

No Reflection and Other Horror Stories by John Caliburn - This is a new short story collection I had sent my way. I think there's eight stories in all, so it's a good, slim book for those interested in taking a chance on a new author.

Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick by Christa Faust - "Butch Fatale is a fast-talking, skirt-chasing, two-fisted lesbian private investigator with an insatiable appetite for two things — women and trouble." That's the first line of the back cover blurb. Yup. Gotta add this one to the TBR pile.

Colt by Jude Hardin - Here's a crime novel that at face value looks to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the plot. There's a plane crash, a missing sperm donor, a stalker ex, a biker gang, rock stars, drug addicts, and a P.I. in the middle of it all. Hope it's good. I liked Jude Hardin's Fire and Ice from the Dead Man series, so fingers crossed.

Dead Earth: The Vengeance Road by Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks - Zombies and aliens and a small town sheriff in this sequel to the previous Dead Earth story, Green Dawn. Looks like a pulpy gem from Permuted Press.

Ghosts by Paul Kane - Spectral Press is set to release their first short story collection in November, and they're starting with a bang by publishing a slew of short stories by Paul Kane, who knows a thing or two about quality short fiction.
Test of Magnitude by Andy Kasch - Space opera. Not often I add that genre to my bookshelf, despite enjoying scifi movies. Anyway, Andy Kasch has a new novel out as the start of a prospective series called The Torian Reclamation. Odd title choice, but that seems to be the case with a lot of space opera titles I see.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King - I have been waiting to read this novel ever since Stephen King first mentioned he was writing it. If there is one novel making its way to the tippy-top of my TBR pile, it's this one. An effing sequel to The Shining? Can't wait.

Remains by Michael McBride - This is a novella and it sounds deliciously horrific. A group of religious students head into the wilderness and go missing. Years later, family members visit the site they were supposed to have stayed for definitive answers. I thoroughly enjoyed McBride's Snowblind last year, so I've no doubt I'll get a kick out of this little tale, too.

Old Flames, Burned Hands by Tim McGregor - Tim actually forwarded this review copy of his latest novel about a month ago, along with a guest post that you can find by clicking here. The book's got a cool title and a cool premise too, about a mother whose abandoned days as a rock guitarist come back to haunt her, literally.

Blade of Dishonor by Thomas Pluck - Ninjas! Samurai! Swords! I've got high hopes for this one, because it feels like a lost VHS copy of a 80s action movie. I mean, just look at this book cover.

Stonecast (Spellmason Chronicles 2) by Anton Strout - My socks weren't exactly rocked off by the first Spellmason novel (my review here), but there was enough to enjoy that I'm willing to give the sequel a chance for review, which you should find sometime soon on I Smell Sheep.