Wednesday, November 28, 2018

#CBR10 Review #61: The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

This is probably a story that most people are familiar with from some adaptation or another, but upon seeing the old copy of this book on my friend’s shelf recently, I realized that I have neither seen nor read a single one? Which on the one hand makes sense because I don’t ever really read horror, but at the same time my friend has gotten me into watching horror movies within the last few years so this almost seems like a bit of an oversight! No time like the present, though! And I know that while this is said to be a true story, there are some questions as to the validity of it: was it all a scam? Is the tale an exaggerated account of the real paranormal (or parapsychological) events that happened in the house? Why would a family just up and leave to pitch a tale that could possibly make them money but possibly not, in particular after spending so much money on the place to begin with? I don’t know, but the idea of this being a true experience for this family really did add to the level of spookiness I felt while reading it. And WHY did I choose to read most of it before going to bed one night? A fool, I am!

But let’s consider The Amityville Horror as a story in and of itself, without the question or context of it being the Lutz family’s account of true events. If you are not already aware of the basic premise, this tale begins with the Lutzes, a family of 5 moving in to a newly purchased house on 112 Ocean Avenue of Amityville in Long Island: this house was purchased for far-below it’s value at the time, due to having previously been the site of the murders of 6 of the previous tenants by their own family member. Soon after moving in, however, the Lutzes start to experience strange happenings: cold spots, changes in mood, visions of people and animals, sensations of being touched, physical ailments, damage to the property, visitors being uncomfortable for some unknown reason, among others. Their story is also interwoven with a priest who had come to the house to bless it, and afterwards finds himself suffering from physical ailments as well. The Lutzes and the priest continue to be in contact, and the shifting between the two separate but connected tales works well to show how things happened in relation to one another, but also I couldn’t help but wonder if as much information as provided on the priest was really necessary to the story. In any case, after just under a month in the house, the Lutzes flee as they have reached their breaking point, and the question then becomes did this all really happen, or was something else going on?

I will admit that this book was very creepy for me, despite it being almost a little perfunctory in nature at times in recounting the information given. However, it made me laugh quite a bit as many chapters were concluded with little surprise pieces of information and connection that I couldn’t help but read in my brain with a Jonathan Van Ness inflection like, CAN YOU BELIEVE?? Also despite knowing that the family left the house at the end of the story, I still felt like it was wrapped up in a very effective way that makes you think that the story really isn’t over, and I almost want to know more now! There is a little wrap-up with some info on further investigations that took place, but boy this book did a good job in fostering some serious curiosity in me.  

Now again, perhaps some of the creep-factor comes from the knowledge that this is being told as a true story: or at least, it is their truth as they tell it. And I know some facets sounded unbelievable to me, but also, I can’t be sure that it’s totally a hoax. I mean,I hate to think that Ed and Lorraine Warren (who are featured in the epilogue’s investigations at the end) are just con-artists taking advantage of people. Perhaps I just don’t like to think of people as inherently fraudulent, even though a lot of my experiences at work should tell me to think otherwise (call me naïve!). But also, I sometimes feel things, hear things, and sense things, which may indeed just be my brain over-processing stimuli. So I can’t just write it off: perhaps they did experience some of what happened but then their minds ran away with them a little bit? Honestly, I like to have an open mind, and I truly think that some people and places are indeed conduits for metaphysical things to happen. I think, specifically about when I was studying art therapy (man, I bring that up a lot in reviews, huh?) at a small school which had such a spiritual foundation that lots of strange, but positive, things happened when I was attending. Yeah, okay, maybe some of them were coincidences, but I also vividly remember a classmate of the Cree First Nations, and strange coincidences or things of the like just seemed to happen around her way more than anyone else. She also would tell us stories of her experiences that logically shouldn’t be possible, yet I felt what she was saying was the truth, because the way she told it, you could tell it was real to her. And I believed her.

So I guess maybe it’s not whether or not this story is true that really matters (though again, it did mess with me a bit to think of it like that after I’ve been having some weird experiences lately, too). Because at the end of the day, if it was indeed a con, good job on them; it’s become a story that has endured in the cultural mindset, even after so many adaptations and revisits. And even with my basic knowledge of The Amityville Horror before going into it this time, it was still an enjoyable read, and even enthralling at times to see what would happen next.

CBR10 Bingo Square: Not My Wheelhouse

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, November 23, 2018

#CBR10 Review #60: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Hmmm. I think I ruined my own experience of this one through my own past knowledge of it: I’m pretty sure I haven’t read it in the past, and yet, I was already aware of all the plot points once it started rolling. Beyond that, I suppose, there are the characters, but even they were totally disaffecting to me. There is a finely-crafted and unsettling mood around everything which works incredibly well in this story and it’s unfolding, but I felt like I knew exactly where it was coming from and the characters themselves were pretty predictable in my eyes.

This is all to say, going into this story not knowing is the best way to do it, otherwise you may be asking yourself, “is that it?” because the short notes of it are really the whole thing in the end: it’s a novel without any extra unnecessary fat to trim, so therefore any knowledge beforehand leaves little to be discovered beyond the mood of the whole thing. It’s kind of like how I felt about the movie The Beguiled: acutely crafted atmosphere and setting, but what else? Where is the plot? What are the characters beyond this surface level? I saw the ads and there felt like so little was added in watching the film beyond the mood.

In any case, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short novel about a young woman named Mary Katherine (or Merricat, as her sister calls her), living with her sister Constance, and their old Uncle Julian in a small town. These three are the remaining members of the family after a tragedy a number of years ago killed the rest, and the survivors of this incident are all now outcasts from the small community, instead living their own little routines, largely confined to their inherited estate.

Now, so far I’ve mostly said my dislikes of this novel, but really it has to do with my own experience of it. On an objective level, Merricat is an intriguing unreliable narrator, that is still fun despite there clearly being something odd about her. The only problem is the many large, easily identifiable clues left behind in her narration which leads to there not being much development of slow reveal of her character: she is unsettling, yes, which adds to the fantastic mood of the novel, but I found her very easy to read and clearly presented right from the get-go.

There are also some intriguing themes present, largely through the interactions of the town and the family, the idea of otherness and how mob mentality can lead to certain treatment of others, always following what everyone else does. This, I would say, was the strongest aspect of the novel for me, but in the end not enough to increase my feelings towards it.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle certainly has its strengths, but I just couldn’t be moved by it at all, in the end. I can see where it shines, it just didn’t work for me, and I felt like I was just kind of going through the motions in reading it, following a story I somehow already knew, though I’m not sure where exactly I heard it before. Que será será.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Sunday, November 18, 2018

#CBR10 Review #59: Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

I can’t remember where I heard about this book or why I jotted it down on the ever-expanding list of books to read that is constantly being updated in my phone. But then I happened upon it at the library while looking for something else and said, well there had to have been a reason I wanted to remember it for later, right? Turns out my intuition was wrong this time, as this was not an enjoyable one in my opinion. It’s funny, I actually started this novel immediately after finishing the graphic novel, Skim, and found a few coincidental similarities in the plot points: lonely girl in a small town, girl trying out new identities, friends that may actually be more toxic than good for you, small town rattled by a teen boy’s suicide, girlfriend of the deceased is queen bee of the school but may in fact be more than she appears to be, etc. But let me be frank when I say that beyond these surface similarities, they were very different books with drastically different tones.

Girls on Fire follows the back-and-forth points of view of two teenagers in the early 90s in the small town of Battle Creek. Hannah Dexter is a bit of a wallflower-type, living a quiet and predictable life, but everything gets turned around once she becomes drawn to a new student, named Lacey (who likes to refer to Hannah as “Dex”). Lacey comes from a difficult family life, and finds inspiration in the grunge-scene, in particular the music of Kurt Cobain. The two girls engage in a fast and furious friendship, Lacey basically molding Hannah into the exact little counterpart of a sidekick that she wants her to be. But after the death of a popular student named Craig, the town is more likely to turn on its young people who don’t seem to fit the desired mold (which of course includes Hannah and Lacey). As well, there may be more to Lacey than she lets on to Hannah, as the presence of Craig’s girlfriend, Nikki, soon comes to create a rift between the two girls who seemed to want to just create their own little world with little room or regard for anyone else.

Now, in some ways, this novel is intriguing in how it depicts just how quickly and fiercely two girls can engage in a friendship with one another, how deep trust can be when you feel like you can no one else. There is also accuracy in the portrayal of how teenagers can think they are being so individual while still following such a particular style wave, how cruel teenagers can be to one another while still pretending to be friendly on the surface, and how this cruelty can stem from the boredom of their surroundings; in addition, the secrecy of what is really going on in young people’s lives, despite their parents best intentions to be involved or desire to want to help is on display here, in such a minimal way that made me perhaps want to see a bit more of it.

But despite these aspects which could have made for a relatable and exciting story, it is all incredibly messy. Not that life can’t be messy and down and dirty, but this was really almost too much at times in this novel. It felt like it was trying so hard to be edgy and provocative: and to be honest, I understood at times where the characters were coming from (in particular, Lacey’s destructive tendencies), but ultimately, they were so unlikeable I just couldn’t stand them. Or, frankly, anyone else in the story: the only character who I found redeemable or who I could get behind was Hannah’s mother, but she is barely involved. Everything is so destructive and feels like an excuse to be shocking. There is quite a good little piece about the nature of violence in women that is often subdued or they are not allowed to express near the end, but at that point I just couldn’t get behind it. Hannah was a pawn in the other girls’ games the whole time, and when she finally had a chance to channel her anger and have more of her own agency, she fell back into a role that was shaped for her. You know those people who think they are so different and above-it-all because they are "free thinkers" who really just spew verbatim that they heard from some other free-thinker who told them exactly how to act and think? Yeah. It's these girls. I just didn’t feel connected with any of the characters beyond the most basic surface level, and so while I could understand their motivations to a point, I never felt like they were rounded or organic: just fulfilling an expected role or trope.

I guess I would call Girls on Fire a book with potential, that ultimately falls into a state of overindulgence: it is overly messy, and overly cruel. I do think we need more stories where women are allowed to express their anger and discontent in a world which wants them to just lay back and be excessively accommodating without a fuss all the time. But this one didn’t quite hit the mark.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]