A brand new pocketbook of horror film analysis is set to be released on May 6th from the brilliant Rebecca McCallum. To check out her online work, treat yourself to a look at her Linktree. Mums & Sons represents Rebecca’s first feature-length publication and you will not want to miss it.
Using three definitive horror texts, this exploration will take a close look at how these relationships operate across three major stages in life: boyhood (The Babadook), teenage years (Hereditary) and adulthood (Psycho). Touchstones in this examination will include – the damaging nature of secrets, the importance of setting, notions of doubling and duality, acts of repression, outsider status and one of the greatest taboos of all – the horror of motherhood.
With three excellent films under discussion, Mums & Sons should not be missed if you love horror and analysis. The book features Ken Wynne’s eye-catching art, including this striking piece of Annie from Hereditary hard at work with her miniatures.
The Forest is a genre-spanning, densely-plotted narrative that packs both an emotional punch and an experience that keeps you guessing.
Synopsis: For Tricia and Alex, the idea is simple: find and rescue their friend, Sam, from his insane mother. But when they enter the forest, they discover that their idea is anything but simple. Because this forest isn’t like any other. In this forest, a silver mist hangs. In this forest, a simple trip of a few miles can turn into a nightmare. Twenty years later, Tricia and Alex remember nothing of what happened that day they lost their friend. They know only that three kids went in, but only two came out.
The other works I’ve reviewed from Michaelbrent Collings (Stranger Still Book Review and Scavenger Hunt Book Review) have been focused on characters who inhabit an overtly violent world, filled with kidnappers, pop-culture obsessed psychopaths and other unpleasant characters and situations. The Forest stands apart with a focus on supernatural elements as well as having two truly likeable central characters. Still, this isn’t Collings taking it easy on his readers – that visceral style is ever present, with the otherworldly qualities allowing for physical impossibilities to be explored in detail.
The bulk of the story concerns Tricia and Alex as adults, their marriage strained but definitely not broken following the loss of their young son in a tragic accident. Adding to their woes is the fact that son Sammy was their last reminder of childhood friend Sam, also lost under tragic circumstances when they were teenagers. In many ways their lives have been defined by loss, tragedy and parental neglect so their relationship is the most stability they have. Using flashbacks, their teenage courtship gives an insight into their bond across the years. They are easy to root for, making their challenges all the more affecting.
The story stays fresh throughout, switching between times and perspectives. While this initially takes a bit more attention to wrap your head around, it soon settles into the internal voice of the characters, making it easier to be swept away as the story proceeds into a more mysterious and multi-layered one. The scale of the narrative unfolds gradually and is all the more impressive for the control exerted to maintain attention without revealing too much too soon.
Overall, The Forest is an impressive, engrossing read. So much so I read it within one sitting. Combining a core relationship that is believable, despite the incredible circumstances around it with disturbing and fantastical subject matter makes this a book well worth picking up.
The Forest is released on August 18th. Check out Michaelbrent Collings’ Goodreads page for more information. His Amazon page currently has books on offer for $2.99 on selected titles.
The fourth in the FrightFest Guide series takes on werewolves in this visually impressive, fact-filled guide to loved and more obscure titles within the subgenre.
I have been lucky enough to be in the audience for several of author Gavin Baddeley’s talks at the Abertoir Horror Festival. At the 2019 festival, he provided an overview of lesser-known werewolf films taken from his research for this book, highlighting recurring themes and motifs. Baddeley’s absorbing presentation style finds a comfortable place within this excellent book from FAB Press.
The book kicks off with a foreword by Neil Marshall, the director of much-loved werewolf movie Dog Soldiers. Marshall details his early fascination with werewolves and even a difficult conversation with special effects legend Rick Baker. Baddeley’s introductory overview of werewolf lore provides important context for how the monster has been regarded over time. After this, the book takes the form of a list of films organised by year.
Each film features an engaging write-up, with cast and crew information better-allowing readers to track down the more obscure titles. It takes skill to write so breezily and provide a steady stream of interesting facts and asides, but this is ably managed. The nature of the book means it is easy to locate a certain film for further information. Trivia from the titles is interwoven within miniature reviews, leaving a strong sense of voice.
In addition to the writing, the book features a vast amount of full-colour posters and film stills. The abundance of images gives the book a lush, coffee-table book feel. The visuals feel incredibly important as so many werewolf films rely heavily on special-effects heavy transformation sequences. Some visuals highlight the challenges that come with trying to produce effects on low budgets. Others feature the spectacular memorable effects from titles like American Werewolf in London.
From Canadian independent favourite Ginger Snaps to 1970s Mexican ‘El Santo’ films, Werewolf Movies provides an excellent guide to the range of films that use the werewolf as their central monster. By cataloguing classics and lesser-known films it offers the opportunity to potentially find a new favourite or at least an interesting curiosity. Whether you already consider yourself an expert in werewolf movies or are looking to expand your watchlist, you are sure to find something here.
You can buy your copy from FAB Press here for £20.
Synopsis: It’s 1885 and a drunk and rage-filled Nigel Pickford breaks up a phony medium’s séance. A strange twist of fate soon finds him part of a team investigating the afterlife. The Eidola Project is an intrepid group of explorers dedicated to bringing the light of science to that which has been feared, misunderstood, and often manipulated by charlatans. They are a psychology professor, his assistant, an African-American physicist, a sideshow medium, and now a derelict, each possessing unique strengths and weaknesses. Called to the brooding Hutchinson Estate to investigate rumored hauntings, they encounter deadly supernatural forces and a young woman driven to the brink of madness. Will any of them survive?
The Eidola Project balances supernatural happenings with the tensions from its period setting. By setting the action twenty years after the end of the American Civil War it seeks to exploit the continuing tensions regarding the new roles for African Americans, including the legacy of slavery. Edgar Gilpin is a promising, young black academic who has earned the opportunity to visit Harvard, but he finds himself joining a group investigating the supernatural. At the same time, the Harvard Annex has provided women with the opportunity to study. Annabelle is a promising student but her feelings for Professor William James threaten to interfere with her promising work. The group start working together and happen upon Sarah – a young woman with supernatural abilities that prove difficult to debunk.
The outset of the book reveals Sarah’s abilities in an effectively creepy way, bringing the ghost of a missing girl to her door and leading her to the place where her body has been left. After a powerful event in the courthouse, Sarah is sold by her parents to a sideshow where she uses her abilities and the guidance of other performers to make a living. The book treads familiar territory in making the sideshow’s owner monstrous and this contributes to the overall theme of the book of damaged outsiders coming together to solve a problem.
The book is action-packed, introducing an incredible amount of information and backstory but also leaves enough unexplored that can be developed in future books. The Eidola Project is ideal for those with a desire for a supernatural drama. Scenes involving the debunking of fake mediums are spectacular, but the strength of the novel lies in the robust characters that you’ll be more than happy to follow. This is well-written and consistently engaging.
Synopsis: What are those voices from the past? And why are they screaming at her? It all started when she witnessed a car crash. A brutal smash which left a gorgeous young couple dead. But for Alice, it reawakened strange memories of childhood: a sinister old house, a dead boy in the woods and an other-worldly power lurking forever in the darkness. Desperate to make sense of the bizarre pictures in her mind, Alice’s enquires lead her to a hidden away clinic in the Surrey Hills. Within those walls though, are the terrifying secrets she’s been running from her whole life. Now, for Alice, the truth could not only break apart her sanity, it could destroy the whole world…
F.R. Jameson’s Certain Danger is part of his Ghostly Shadows collection of horror novellas, inspired by 1970s British horror films.
Certain Danger‘s strength lies in its simplicity and its graphic, involved descriptions of its gory set-pieces. By stripping the number of characters back to the bare minimum it is better able to put the reader in the same headspace as the protagonist, Alice. Through spending much of the reading time in her dreams and other thoughts we are given an insight into her perceptions and feelings above anything else. Alice is written sympathetically and by blocking out most other characters in her life other than Geoff, she is lent a sad and disconnected quality which works well within the story’s context.
The novella is swiftly paced, with no wasted motion in getting Alice and her not-quite boyfriend Geoff into exploring her past from limited information. The central mystery unfolds in a pleasingly surprising way, although it does rely a little too much on dialogue-heavy expositional scenes to explain everything adequately.
However, once these exposition pieces are over, the narrative gives way to energetic scenes of violence for much of the duration of the novel. The direction it takes is executed well and continues the swift pace of the rest of the novella. The images of horror are well constructed.
Overall, Certain Danger feels like a confident and streamlined work, with an interesting central idea providing a worthwhile hook and plenty of horrific scenes.
Synopsis: A year and change after the events of Osgood as Gone, our titular hero has returned. Osgood is confused, exhausted, and dragging along more quirks than she ever remembers having. Her friends Zack and Audrey, the makeshift Spectral Inspector crew in her absence, don’t quickly believe that things are back to normal, but have to admit that no one is quite as grumpy and belligerent as “their Osgood.” Unfortunately for all involved, something has hitched a ride back from the space between worlds, and not even Osgood can guess what its plans are. She will need to stand with her friends against a monstrous emergent evil, and it will take everything the Spectral Inspectors have to stop what’s coming once the events are set in motion.
This highly effective sequel to Osgood As Gone brings back its established characters and throws them into an even more spectacular adventure.
I was lucky enough to be able to review Osgood As Gone earlier this year (review here) and it proved an engaging read that balanced several elements to produce a suitably creepy, pop-culture infused supernatural mystery. The first book ends on a cliffhanger, leaving flawed hero Prudence Osgood’s fate uncertain. The sequel takes off 15 months after that moment as we gradually learn that Osgood has been missing for many months. Friends Audrey and Zack have mobilised her Spectral Inspector podcast, partially to try and find her, but also to give themselves purpose.
Due to the characters being so well-defined in the first book, Osgood Riddance allows author Cooper S. Beckett to delve further into the supernatural. This results in a fascinating blend of cosmic body horror in which place and time become fluid. With the grounding of the three central characters, the fantastical creations take centre stage.
Easily maintaining the snappy dialogue but also adding in genuine moments of pathos and warmth, Beckett writes his characters in a way that suggests a deep affection. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t explore their flaws – Osgood, as the book’s protagonist, is frequently sharp-tongued to those around her and open about her previous interpersonal failings and struggles with sobriety.
The fantasy elements work well, even if sometimes it feels that too many reasonings and directions emerge. However, as the book is dealing with supernatural investigators, the idea of them throwing a multitude of ideas around works for the setting, even if it occasionally feels slightly baffling for a reader. This is eventually avoided by the true nature of the supernatural entities never quite being confirmed as any of the theories offered and so can play by the author’s rules rather than needing to conform to an established idea.
Overall, I can’t recommend Osgood Riddance (and Osgood As Gone) enough. The combination of body horror, supernatural phenomenon and enduring friendship, all surrounding a flawed but likeable queer protagonist make it a must-read.
Scavenger Hunt sounds and feels familiar at the outset, but by playing with the expected format, author Michaelbrent Collings manages to craft something that feels a little more fresh.
Synopsis: Five strangers have woken up in a white room. A room with no doors, no windows. A room with no hope. Because these strangers have been kidnapped, drugged…and brought here as the newest contestants in the world’s most high-stakes scavenger hunt. Run by a madman named Mr. Do-Good the game offers only two options: win or die. All they have to do to survive is… … complete every task… … on time… … and not break any of Do-Good’s rules. Playing the game will bring the players to their breaking point and beyond. But play they will, because Do-Good has plans for these strangers, and their only chance to live through the night is to play his Scavenger Hunt.
The idea of forcing troubled strangers together to take part in a twisted game for their survival feels so well-worn that it is difficult to imagine how anything can put a new spin on it. While not entirely new, Collings quickly escapes from writing a one-location ordeal and allows the game to take them outside, often in daylight. This doesn’t lessen the grisly nature of the tasks, however, and the violence leaps off the page. The early fast pace and injections of evolving threats give the book an energetic quality in the central storyline.
The situation the characters find themselves in is intriguing but this is often derailed. Too much is taken up by seemingly excessive backstories that do not resonate until much later in the book. The story of Solomon Black’s gang history feels like a story in itself and so it’s length and depth feels out of place in an ensemble piece. We receive long backstories for some characters, but very few details for others leading to feeling detached. The fact that we get the longest backstories for characters like Solomon and Chong who are perhaps the hardest to root for also adds to this feeling of detachment.
While omitting some character details throughout does make some events feel left-field and unpredictable this feels like it could have been achieved more dynamically. Lengthy departures from the central story do offer some context but are possibly too detailed and occasionally distract with too many details that by the conclusion of the story, actually don’t feel very important to the overall package. Without spoiling anything, these omissions are essential for important reveals so it is a shame that they feel suddenly sprung on the reader rather than evolving naturally throughout.
There is an effort to reframe earlier actions as important but it feels like signposting that would not be necessary if more was woven throughout the rest of the narrative. Those elements having attention drawn to them so explicitly feels like the author has an awareness that there isn’t quite enough for readers to go on without those details. The longer backstories for characters like Solomon and Chong mean there’s considerably less time to explore Clint, Elena and Noelle. The sinister Mr Do Good and the traps attached to the players is a good device, even if, as a reader, you figure out their purpose pretty quickly.
Scavenger Hunt is not for the sensitive – it is befittingly mean-spirited and explores bleak and uncomfortable subject matter. Violence and gore are described in visceral detail. The book is interrupted at times by police reports, first detailing a witness interrogation and later, features YouTube comments. The comments reveal that the actions detailed within the book are in the public domain, adding another level of discomfort. The theme of the internet as a facilitator of terrible crimes runs under the work, but it is made clear that it the motivations of humans, rather than the tool itself.
If you are looking for a dark, bombastic thriller with plenty of nasty moments with flawed but interesting characters you should check out Scavenger Hunt. Find more information about Scavenger Hunt and Michaelbrent Collins at the Goodreads page for the book here.
Abertoir Horror Festival takes place in Aberystwyth, Wales and honestly deserves far more attention than it currently has. It isn’t a big festival but the incredible events they have pulled together include off-site themed screenings and parties with incredible attention to detail that is so impressive. Combining old and new films along with talks and performances Abertoir really does have something to offer everyone.
This year I was unable to attend a few things so I can’t discuss the things I didn’t take part in. The full schedule is available here if you are curious about what else went on. The first film of the festival was Come To Daddy, which obviously, I’ve already reviewed here. The film is so much fun to watch with an audience and the Abertoir crowd definitely seemed to appreciate it. Following this was the UK premiere of Lake Michigan Monster – a quirky and occasionally very silly monster movie which uses an incredibly small budget to garner some big laughs which made it perfect midnight movie material.
Day two kicked off with a talk on werewolf films by regular festival contributor Gavin Baddeley, based partially on his research for his book FrightFest Guide to Werewolf Movies. Stay tuned to the blog for updates as this title should be reviewed here soon. The talk was a tour of some lesser known and not as successful werewolf films with some theory behind it that werewolf films often represent the fear we have of people (and even whole societies) transforming into something fearful. This was followed by the UK premiere of 8 – a South African drama which uses some unique folklore to explore the nature and emotional weight of guilt. There are some seriously impressive sequences in 8 which gives particularly the later stages of the film a really epic feel.
Next up was the first round of the short film competition and while there were some interesting ideas on display and the film-making was obviously of a very high technical standard, none of them really blew me away. Unfortunately I missed part two of the short film competition so can’t say if the second batch had anything which would have worked for me. After the short films it was time for an on-stage talk from Norman J Warren. Tristan Thompson took on interviewing duties and through his knowledge was able to support Norman J Warren in detailing his career and creative choices. Warren is not a film-maker I’m familiar with but this interview made me appreciate his journey in film. The interview was followed up by a screening of Warren’s Inseminoid, which, while dated, was suitably entertaining and also meant that composer John Scott joined Warren for a post-screening Q&A about both their work together and their wider friendships.
One of Abertoir’s communal events is the pub quiz, full of tricky questions (especially the music round) but is always enjoyable, even if I’m not particularly any good at it. The final film of the night was Why Don’t You Just Die! which I’d missed at both Frightfest and Celluloid Screams so was determined to stick around for after hearing how many people had thoroughly enjoyed it. I ended up not liking it as much as I expected to. The early fight scenes within the flat are incredible and I think I wanted more of that. Obviously, sustaining that energy for an entire film would be exhausting so the balance of the film leaving the flat is necessary, but held things up a little for my tastes.
My first film of the Thursday (very late start – I’d forgotten how tiring the Abertoir schedule can be) was Sator. You can find my review of the film here. The post screening Q&A was fascinating with the director (among his many jobs on the film) explaining how incredibly personal the film was and this made the film all the more impressive. After the serious nature of Sator it was refreshing to see The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince, a live show based around comedian Robin Ince’s frenetic appreciation for all things horror, featuring readings from his favourite books, clips from public information films and other genre interests. This was great fun, with lots of energy. This led into Vivarium – a film which I knew relatively little about but was pleasantly surprised by this off-kilter sci-fi about a seemingly perfect home which soon turns sour. Beautifully shot with pastel shades undercutting the sinister nature of the situation and featuring a tense and complimentary dual central performance from Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg this was a real delight. The last film of the evening was First Love – the latest film from Takashi Miike. Thankfully far less indulgent than Yakuza Apocalypse but with enough comic moments alongside the action First Love is far more accessible than some of his previous work.
Friday morning brought the part film history, part true crime documentary Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which I reviewed here so won’t go into too far in this section, but it is an incredibly interesting documentary, mixing the strange with the tragic. The following event was an effects masterclass with Gary Sherman. This was fascinating in terms of seeing how practical effects were used on Poltergeist 3, mainly using mirrors and duplicate sets to create the film’s illusions. I could honestly have listened to Sherman all day as he explained the long planning process and the way that every detail was covered. Importantly, he spoke about the necessity to have safe stunts and how the large budget allowed for him to take the time to set up these effects that would not be available to those on a lower budget.
I chose to skip the off-site screening of Prince of Darkness but saw photographs from the event and the idea of showing the film in a fully dressed church is really incredible and even gained the Twitter approval of John Carpenter himself. My next event was the secret screening, which, happily for me ended up being Synchronic and this viewing really cemented it as my favourite film of the year. The last film I stayed for was Diner, an absolutely stunning mix of fierce choreography and beautiful art, with just enough humour and strangeness to make it really stand out.
My first screening for Saturday was Achoura, featuring a Q&A with director Talal Selhami. One of the many things that Abertoir does so well is filling their line up with a variety of films featuring different cultural folklore and ideas. As with 8, Achoura introduces these ideas to an unfamiliar audience but both are skilled in presenting all the necessary information and most importantly, interesting characters to follow. I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed Achoura as I often fail to connect with more fairy tale based stories and the story definitely owes a heavy debt to Stephen King’s IT (which I’m also not the biggest fan of), but this manages it in a way that feels fresh and the beautiful locations definitely assist in that enjoyment. The second documentary of the festival was Fulci For Fake. While I’ve seen some Fulci films I’m far from well-versed in them and they wouldn’t be my go-to for favourite films and so I was looking forward to this documentary to see if it would make me reappraise his work. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it did that for me, but it is a compelling piece of work about the man himself, how his films are now being looked at through new lenses and his family life. The framing of the documentary as an actor undertaking a role as Fulci interviewing collaborators and friends is an innovative way to approach the material and the result is a documentary that feels warm, but one that doesn’t shy away from some of the negative elements of his personality. This feels far more well rounded than some documentaries which like to soften their subject. My last film of the day was Death Line, followed by a Q&A with Gary Sherman. The film features a show-stealing performance by Donald Pleasence but the highlight for me was definitely the interview afterwards.
The final day of the festival started for me with a talk on the fact in science fiction. A lecturer in physics from Aberystwyth University delivered a talk on some incredibly big concepts involving the potential for time travel, extraterrestrial life and a whole host of other ideas that make you feel fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The next film was the third and final documentary of the festival: The Magnificent Obsession of Michael Reeves. Despite having seen and appreciated Witchfinder General as a deeply unpleasant and effective horror, I had very little other knowledge of Reeves as a director or person. The documentary aimed to clear up misconceptions, especially those around his relationship with Vincent Price. As a portrait of the man himself, I’m still not sure that I have a full picture of him, but it has given me an even greater appreciation for his skill as a film-maker. The final screening of Abertoir 2019 for me came in the form of Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club who bring some serious laughs with some seriously bad films. This year’s offering was 2000’s Spiders and it felt like the perfect way for me to end my time at the festival.
Of course, Abertoir delivered far more than what I’ve detailed here. You can read about them sending a specially filmed introduction of Alien into the edges of space (!) here. The programming team are incredibly welcoming, dedicated and enthusiastic about everything they show at the festival and this really shows. You can stay up to date with Abertoir here.
Synopsis: In the ordinary town of Edmonville a tremor hits, followed by a second devastating tremor, then darkness. The next morning, the survivors discover that most of the town has disappeared into an enormous crevasse. As they struggle to survive, one by one people start to disappear without trace.
The early parts of Chasm, for me, felt slightly alienating. In opposing chapters an increasing number of characters are introduced, all with their own circumstances before and during the tremors. Laws holds these characters at arms-length for some time as the reader is only given snippets of who they are. Coupled with the mass destruction taking place, the result is a disarming experience, but one that adds a great deal to the scale of the piece.
Throughout the novel, we’re offered the journal of Jay O’Connor, who is also part of our main group of survivors but these first-person entries offer further emotional insight to the situation. The novel certainly falls into being more cohesive once the central group are together but also offers a further off-shoot in the character of Juliet. Juliet’s ordeal feels very different to the other content and shows Laws’ talent in creating horror in a variety of ways, maintaining a sense of suspense while adding to the gore and violence.
I’ve already mentioned about the scale of the book, but it is something that is worth repeating. The all-encompassing nature of the event really leaps of the page and the destruction is so well-described that it keeps you engaged. The fact that the nature of the event is withheld for so long is also a strength, placing you in the shoes of the characters going through the experience. The introduction of other, more dangerous groups and otherworldly creatures is balanced incredibly well alongside sensitive development of characters within the central group. Scenes of destruction are written in a way that evokes spectacle and it would be easy for these to monopolise the story, but it is in the quieter moments that the novel really shows its emotional weight.
If you are looking for a deeply engaging and genuinely disarming novel that also cares deeply about it’s characters you can’t go far wrong with Chasm.
Synopsis: Spanning two decades of work and many different genres, this is the very first collection of Mike Carey’s short fiction. It includes the original short stories that were the basis for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts and for the Koli trilogy. It also features a short story set in the world of the Felix Castor novels. Each story is accompanied by the author’s own notes.
Mike Carey is an author whose work has spanned mediums, from comic books to a film screenplay. That variety of work is reflected within this collection which begins with the short story that would go on to become The Girl With All The Gifts novel and later, film.
Ranging from ghost stories, revenge thrillers and even more playful work, there really is something for everyone to enjoy within this collection. Across the 18 stories, it is really impressive to see how the writing changes to accommodate the themes and gives everything its own unique tone. Carey’s work features a number of aspects within the horror genre, offering representations of ghosts, zombies and more human-based horrors. His comic book experience also features in a story concerning a world overrun by superheroes and villains is also very interesting.
Notes at the outset of every piece offer insight into his writing process and how certain ideas have changed and evolved to become something else through experience, outside input or a change of medium. While the notes are often fairly short they add a great deal to the stories, without telegraphing too much about them.
An excellently-curated collection of short stories – The Complete Short Stories of Mike Carey is well worth anyone’s time, especially for those looking into the evolution of stories and a small insight into the author’s creative process.