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31 Days of Creepy – Ghost Story

ghost story - peter straub - pocket books - apr 1980“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

Those are the first words in Peter Straub’s classic horror novel, which I read for the first time back in 1980. Back then, Stephen King was my favorite author (and he still is) — but I discovered something new with Straub. Straub digs deeper. Finds out where we really live, what our deepest fears are.

Four old men, friends for many years, meet periodically to tell each other ghost stories. They call themselves the Chowder Society. Their lives are ordinary, more or less – until one of them dies. Then the past rises slowly but surely out of its grave, and the remaining members of the Chowder Society are forced to acknowledge what they did many years ago… and pay the price for doing it.

Straub is a master of his craft. He unfolds his story not in a straightforward manner, but in bits and pieces. Time jumps around. Perspective changes. The whole time, the language is beautiful and evocative.  “Time whittled down to a solid capsule encasing him as he sat helpless in a flying car. Then the texture of the moment changed, time broke and began to flow, and he knew, as passive as he’d ever been in his life, that the car had left the road: everything was happening with unbelievable slowness, almost lazily, and the Morgan was floating.”

A dead girl. Guilty consciences. Making amends for a long-ago mistake. It’s good stuff, beautifully told.

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31 Days of Creepy – Our Mother’s House

51BsGQprh7L._SL500_SX319_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve always figured, no one knows how to do “creepy” like the British – and that’s particularly true of this little book, which originally came out in 1963.  I bought it five years later for the princely sum of 50 cents, and have held on to it as one of my favorites ever since.

OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE is the story of the seven Hook children, who are left on their own when their mother dies suddenly. Rather than take the chance of being sent to an orphanage, they decide to bury their mother in the back yard and pretend she’s still alive, supporting themselves with monthly trust fund checks that one of the boys endorses in his mother’s name. All goes more or less well for a few months… and then their mother’s shiftless ex-husband appears.

The story is eerie and disturbing, particularly when the children turn on one of their siblings for daring to interact with a stranger – and in the way they respond to the father they’ve never really known. It’s a tale that will grab you around the throat and hold on, so masterfully told that it will stay with you years later. It’s not available as an ebook, so you’ll have to buy a used copy for a couple of dollars – but it’s well worth the trouble. Turn down the lights, start turning the pages… and start wondering if you can really trust your kids. Or your siblings.

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31 Days of Creepy: Village of the Damned

51e1OI4c+8L._SX940_It’s October – my birthday month, the month of Halloween, and the advent of longer, colder nights. What better time to blog about… what scares me? Actually, what’s scared me throughout my life in books, movies and TV shows. I’ll be reviewing a lot of creepy stuff, so turn on a couple more lights to ward off the shadows and dig in – I hope you’ll find some new scary goodies to enjoy!

Go ahead… tell me this picture isn’t scary! Especially so for a 6-year-old who happened to see a trailer for VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED on a black-and-white TV and had nightmares for weeks afterward.

It’s the story of a small town in England where suddenly, mysteriously, everyone passes out. Weeks later, all the women of childbearing age discover they’re pregnant – and they give birth to oddly platinum blond children with mind control powers. Where did they come from? What do they want? No one knows… and no one dares to upset them, because they’ll kill to protect themselves.

65 years after its premiere, VOTD is still nicely creepy, and worth curling up with on a rainy afternoon. The first 10 minutes or so, when outsiders are trying to figure out what’s going on in the village, are beautifully photographed and paced. After that, things get a little overly melodramatic, and the film never actually answers a number of questions. But that’s not the point. What VOTD does best is pose those questions: What if the place you thought was safe… suddenly isn’t? What if your child (who might not be your child at all) turns out to be a threat not only to you, but the entire town? And how far are you willing to go to solve the problem?

You can find VOTD on Amazon by clicking the poster image. (You can also find it on YouTube, if you don’t mind its being broken up into 15 five-minute segments.) Or, if the concept intrigues you, you could try the remake with Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley, although it just pads and pretty much goofs up a compact, eerie little movie. VOTD no longer terrifies me the way it did when I was 6, but it’s well worth a watch. So grab some popcorn, turn off the lights, and start wondering about your kids…

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Book Review: “Life As We Knew It” by Susan Beth Pfeffer

41q2QectsSL__AA160_Maybe you’re already familiar with this book – judging by the number of Amazon reviews, it’s pretty well-known, and I understand that it’s required reading in a number of schools.  But I haven’t been anywhere near a school reading list in a loooong time, so when I happened to spot it on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, it was something new.

Giant moon on the cover.

Yes, the full moon is something cool, and more often than not it sends me running for the binoculars.  It’s also one of my great bugaboos – most of my seriously creepy nightmares involve an enormous moon looming there in the sky.  (I’m talking BIG.  Like on the book cover.  Giant, look out, I-am-not-kidding-you moon.)  But we try to conquer our fears, right?  The tag line (“The weather finally broke…for good.”) was awesome, and the book wasn’t a typical size.  When I picked it up, I liked the heft of it, and the old-school cheap paper it’s printed on.  $8.99?  Sold.

Story?  In a nutshell: an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it askew, and its new position in the sky begins to wreak havoc on Earth.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic explosions.  The skies fill with ash and the sun more or less disappears.  All of this is observed by a 16-year-old girl and chronicled in her diary.

Yes, some of the science is suspect.  With no alphabet soup attached to my name, I can’t speak to how bad it is; I will say some of it had me doing an “Eh? What, now?”  Ditto some of the everyday stuff.  As someone who frets every single winter about losing power because it will mean my heat – natural gas, but the thermostat is electric – goes off, I was baffled by how Miranda’s furnace somehow works long after the electricity has failed.  (About 3/4 of the way through the book, she finally explains that her father rigged up “a battery thing.”)  It’s also somewhat bewildering that no one attempts to invade Miranda’s family’s home to steal their food and water.  There is no anarchy in her town.  Everyone’s polite, and other than one desperate plea from a neighbor, they all go about their own business, starving or freezing to death without ever running amok.

But… eh.  I’ll let the author have that.  Maybe there are places where the people would remain civil during an apocalypse, places where nobody would bust into your house with a gun and steal food away from you and your kids.  Who’s to say?  The more important thing to look at is the voice of the young narrator – an honest 16-year-old whose typical high-school life has been completely torn apart.  A number of the Amazon reviews complain that she whines too much.  That the story is boring.  I suppose they expected those missing home invasions… or maybe some zombies.  Instead, the story revolves around one of my favorite themes: quiet desperation.  As things grow progressively worse, Miranda begins to remind herself that she should seize the day, no matter how bad it is, because tomorrow…

Maybe there won’t even be a tomorrow.

It’s thought-provoking.  A reminder that we’re all at the mercy of things that could change on a dime.  If you had a matter of hours to stockpile things that would keep your family alive for months – what would you grab?  Would you realize right away that things you’ve valued will be useless tomorrow?  It was of course of great interest to me that Miranda’s mother insists that family is all that matters – and to see how Miranda responds to that.  Her story is a good one.  Maybe not flawlessly told, but – I think – truly told.

Would you survive what’s essentially a nuclear winter?  Would your family?

If you did… how would you feel when the lights came on again?

4 stars.  Very family-friendly (no cussing that I remember; no sex).  If your kids have to read it for school, grab a copy and talk about it with them.  And let them know that nobody’s likely to survive if all they’re eating is canned vegetables.