Crimson Peak

Blood, Sweat and Fears

BEWARE–this review is full of spoilers.

 Crimson Peak  Crimson Peak is an okay ghost story about an American girl (with money) who marries an Englishman with a title, an old mansion, and a sister who likes poisoned tea and meat cleavers. Like the new bride on arriving at her new home, we find lots of motifs (the cold, the ratty mansion and more red than a mall at Christmas) but little in the way of scares, at least from anything supernatural. Yes, I know there were some moments where the undead plowed through a hallway carpet and rose from a vat of what looked like some super red preschool paint. The thing is, these devices don’t have the same effect anymore. The yawning death grin of Norman Bates’ mother scared the popcorn out of 1960’s audiences, but some times, and I’m talking to you, Guillermo, less is more.

I really enjoyed Mama, del Toro’s previous horror effort, but Mama, the actual ghost, with her absurdly elongated chin and little manic eyes looked like someone’s blind date nightmare. Much, much scarier was an earlier film of del Toro’s, The Devil’s Backbone. That one was truly eerie. Not only was the little boy ghost with a head of blood floaties like nothing I had ever seen, but the buildup to certain scares have stayed with me. Since I saw it for the first time, I avoid looking through keyholes.

One thing I’ve learned from watching Crimson Peak and Mama, del Toro’s latest scare-fests is if you’re the star and you die and come back from the dead, you get to be a good-looking ghost. In Mama, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays twins. One kills his wife and attempts to kill his children, and he dies as Mama’s first victim. One would assume, given his deeds, the dad would look like quite the troll in the afterlife, but noooo—he just looks sad.

The ghosts of all three victims of Crimson Peaks’ murderous brother and sister team, lost anything that might make them appealing and kept everything that rattled and oozed as they stalked poor vacant Edith (Mia Wasikowska). When she was a child, Edith’s dead mother appeared shortly after the funeral looking like a tar-drenched mummy with Halloween chattering teeth, ten-inch spikey fingers and wearing a funeral dress borrowed from Scarlet O’Hara’s Aunt Pitty Pat. So after being stalked by a number of gross looking ghosts, Edith tries to address what is eating (pardon the pun) the shades.

Alas, she discovers the truth. It’s murder and she’s next! But it’s complicated—She and Thomas (the brother) are in love and he’s having second thoughts. When sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) discovers that she and her brother Tom are no longer exclusive as a couple, hell hath no fury like Chastain. Seriously I would never want to have a fight with Jessica. She’s almost as manic here as she was in Zero Dark Thirty. A very fine actress, she steals every scene. And like every imperiled Victorian damsel, her old American boyfriend (Charlie Hunam—none of these actors are American other than Chastain), who makes it just in time to feel Lucille’s steel, saves Edith. Lucille, who makes quick work of the boyfriend, decides to teach Tom a lesson by shoving a knife through his face, and Edith has had enough. She takes Sister Dearest down, by whacking her with the business end of a shovel. Though the brave boyfriend, thanks to Tom, survives, Tom does not and his ghost distracts Lucille long enough for Edith’s shovel to make it count. And his ghost, looking rather gray, with blood floaties around his head, makes sad eyes at his soon to be out of there and on the way home bride. And for the star, Huddleston’s ghost, there were no chattering oversized teeth and no head parts with a gaping hole where your brains once sat. And Lucille? There’s not a hair out of place nor is there a bow untied as her ghost plays the piano. They wouldn’t dare.

In The Haunting of Hill House, what walked there, walked alone. And we never saw it. It was one of the scariest novels I ever read and the 1963 film, made of it, The Haunting, was incredibly creepy. During the 1999 remake, there were tons of scary special effects and each over-the-top one detracted. Though I love a good monster and a good acid-dripping alien, when it comes to ghosts, less is more.

THE PASSAGE

Dronely the Lonely

WARNING: BIG SPOILER ALERT–GO NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE PASSAGE.

Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.

ImageThe Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. It was published by Random House in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page of acknowledgements where the list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, Ballatine–you get the picture–this guy knows people. A look at his bio gives a hint as to why. He’s written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop –a great place to network I’m sure. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls  I think, would agree.

I don’t recommend The Passage.  Here’s an overview of the book and as I read the last page, my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall:

The book is 766 pages long.  The first 208 pages are really, really good–almost brilliant. The story begins with a five year-old girl (Amy), the child of a friendless single mother who abandons her at a convent. There’s a nun named Lacey, who is a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone.  Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.

Then, the narrative jumps to first person in emails where we learn about  research going on in the Amazon jungle. They’ve found a batman statue down there.  I don’t mean the super hero–this thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved and in a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death (one named Lear is grieving the death of his wife). Several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats; we’re left wondering what the scientists found before they became bat food.

We skip to a secret research facility. The military is busy with Lear’s help, experimenting on a dozen condemned murderers. This segment, with its seeping creeping dreams, experienced by the sex-offender personnel, as they record vitals and clean up the guano of the new “bat men,” who hang upside down in their cells, rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

Two FBI agents recruit the death row inmates and this is where Cronin’s skill really shines. We meet Carter, a bewildered little man who is on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress, a housewife who rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter, recognizing that the man is not a killer.  Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best; we see Carter’s enjoyment–amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

Then, Lear wants to test the serum on a child.  Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner, are sent out to find one who won’t be missed. Back to Amy. Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. Amy makes the TV news when all the animals freak out and try to follow her. To Lacey, Amy explains cryptically” “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never explained to the reader and it happens way before any of the events that might have led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that it, along with Lacey’s prescience will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolgast tries to rescue Amy but is stopped by trigger-happy government guy Richards, a character who is the poster child for overkill–he kills all the nuns for pete’s sake. The writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. The convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Somehow, Lacey tracks them down (she wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns) and we leave her as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) so that Amy and Wolfgast can get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.

The rest of the book–all 548  pages begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world. It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document–a first person account written by a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Her name was Ida. Think The Stand’sMother Abigail.” Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t. The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals and protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying and so in desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl–Amy who, after a hundred years has managed to hit puberty.  She can’t talk.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story, which jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative. Not one pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better–to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section.  There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries and we finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts–like giant bee colonies and each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the original, then those connected will remember who they are and will hang around until the sun comes up until they burn and then fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very end and what really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved. In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure because Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment then beginning the next segment by informing us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.

Unless you want to be really really annoyed, I don’t recommend The Passage.

Congratulations on your success Mr. Cronin. Next time give us a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

McCammon’s “Swan Song” — Apocalypse Then

Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down. Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take Imagethe Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it.  McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans go down. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King‘s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything. It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone? Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.

This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.