Paranormal Activities

Warning: This post contains spoilers.  I tried to keep plot points fairly light but found that I wasn’t saying anything interesting.  So, I’m going to delve into the plot a fair bit.  If you want just my general thoughts on the series, stop reading this post in two paragraphs.

A couple months ago I promised I’d write a comprehensive post on the Paranormal Activity series. Paranormal_Activity_poster  It’s one of the biggest horror franchises right now, and due to some surprisingly effective scares brought about from the earlier entries in the series, there is soon to be a sixth entry.

In very broad strokes, I quite enjoy this series.  No, it’s not a masterpiece of horror, but it’s very effective with its light, minimalistic approach to the genre.  Many successful horror films rely on a heavy budget for special effects and costuming, but this series features primarily ordinary people in situations that would genuinely scare anybody given they were in the same scenario.  For the most part, the found footage really works to the series’ advantage and brings very realistic scares to the screen.

The first film is very sharp.  The very small cast is very believable– Katie and Micah are very real-to-life and their reactions to the mysterious and frightening events are believable.  The story unfolds very organically– we see a couple in their 20s living together who start setting up cameras around their house when some weird things start happening.  My wife and I did something similar to figure out how our cat kept getting underneath a couch he shouldn’t fit under.  Then, the weirdness escalates.  It goes from weird noises and things being misplaced to more violent acts– furniture being thrown about by an unseen force, doors flying open.  There is clearly a malicious, angry incorporeal creature in the house.  Micah goes from curious– setting up the cameras and using an Ouija board– to angry– openly challenging the entity, which just worsens the problem.  Katie goes from curiosity to denial to fear.  I also like that the mystery is also very natural– for example, when we see the burned picture of young Katie and her sister, we are as confused as the characters, and their discussion of it isn’t campy “What does this mean in the context of this current situation” dialogue.

Because the film does so little to give the typical polish that most film has, the found footage style works very well.  I felt like I could believe that this would be real footage– there’s no subtle score, the dialogue flows naturally, awkward pauses and broken sentences and inappropriately timed outbursts.  But, as I’ve touched on, the terror is real.  We can see it in how the characters move, how they speak.  It’s visible in their faces.  We have the blind rejection of what happens, we have the stupid curiosity, we can see the desires to run and the desires to fight back.  That is what I feel elevates this film over many other horror films: I believed their reactions.  I almost never yelled at the screen, “Run, idiot!” or “Stab him!”  Admittedly, Micah’s challenges to the being are pretty stupid, but when as pissed off as practically anybody would be in that context, stupid tends to happen.

Paranormal_Activity_2_PosterI’m also just going to throw out there that one of the alternate endings (no, it obviously doesn’t work to continue the series) is just exceptional.  Watching Katie stare at the camera, slowly smile, then slit her own throat… Haunting.  For some reason the version of the film I first watched actually had that ending, and it still sticks with me.  If it had somehow worked in conjunction with the remainder of the series I would have loved for that ending to stay.  Instead, we have Katie’s possession and murder of Micah, followed by fleeing to do… something.

The second film was also quite good.  It isn’t nearly as scary as the first– we know what sorts of horrible things to expect, after all– and we spend most of the film wondering how on earth the story is going to connect properly.  After all, it’s the story of Katie’s sister’s family being haunted by a demonic presence, presumably the same one that haunts the first film.  The story is clearly a prequel, and even though I was satisfied by how the connection to the earlier film ended up working out– it’s quite clever, actually, and quite dark– I feel like my first viewing’s confusion resulted in me being distracted by what I thought was inconsistency (even though, it turns out, it wasn’t).  This film also just moved at a slower pace, which took away from some of the scariness.  The characters also just didn’t interest me quite as much.  The baby was really the only family member that made me care about them at all.  I didn’t love Katie and Micah, but I sympathized with them more than I did with Kristi, Daniel, and Ali.

Essentially, we have the same formula again.  This time, instead of just weirdness it appears that there was a break-in– something was angry and destroyed a bunch of the family’s stuff– that leads to the filming.  The filming this time is primarily through security cameras set throughout the house, so that really does work quite logically.  Then we have things slowly get weirder and weirder in the house, from strange noises to furniture being suspended on the ceiling and then being dropped all at once.  So, a few new tricks mixed in with the old ones.  We also have another affirmation that whatever is happening is demonic in nature as the Hispanic housekeeper is very superstitious and states that she senses the devil in the house before the bigoted Daniel fires her for lighting religious candles.

So, it’s not to say that the build-up is boring, just familiar and a bit slower than ideal.  It still is quite compelling, though.

The final act of the film is very good.  The scares quickly brought up to a higher level than we have in the first film.  Watching Kristi getting dragged away by an unseen force, her nails scraping against the walls, is truly frightening.  As with the first film, what happens off camera relative to demonic possession is terrifying because we don’t know what happened.  There is so much that is left unseen, but unlike Greek tragedies, this just makes the unseen things all the more disturbing.  And it makes it harder to stop thinking about.  Also, to see what the events of this films lead the characters to do (and to a member of their own family) is shudder-worthy: they move the demon that is possessing Kristi to the home of Katie and Micah, which leads to the events of the original film.  The final scene was very well done, definitely making me want to continue to follow the story, as we see weeks later the results of Katie’s possession as she walks in, swiftly kills Daniel and Kristi, and kidnaps baby Hunter.

That is an effective ending when there are sequels to be had.

Paranormal Activity 3 is my favorite of the series.  ParanormalActivity3PosterAdmittedly, the constant cameras does feel a little forced by this point in the series, but I felt that the inventiveness in how the cameras were used made up for that.  This was especially true of the camera attached to the rotating fan mount, which really made for some powerful scenes.  Also, the story significance of this addition to the series was particularly interesting and important.  Once again, we have a prequel film, this time set back in the childhood of the sisters.  We have a good deal more context provided to us as to why there are angry demons haunting this family throughout their lives, and the reason is refreshingly believable: a coven of witches.  Yes, the later films kind of make the coven less interesting, but to get just the snippets Paranormal 3 provides is pretty awesome.  Simply, as a deal to gain more evil power, the coven of witches made a deal with some demons that they would sacrifice the bodies (for possession, presumably) of the firstborn males in their lines.  There is a lot of implication that the daughters are raised to be brides and worshipers of the demons.  So, we have a lot there to work with.  We are given the context for why the demon needs to stay in the family and keeps getting involved, and we have why Katie, possessed by a demon, steals Hunter.

Part of what made the third film so great besides filling in interesting and important plot points is that everything about the production is true to the era in which it is set.  No, it’s not like the 80s is super difficult to reproduce, but I loved that the quality of film and the technology available and the clothing and toys the girls play with all are very much true to that decade.  Also great is that the involvement of children in the peril is really interesting.  How the girls react to the scares and to the imaginary friend persona the demon initially tries to perpetuate, Toby, is very compelling to watch because it is so different than how adults do.  Also, with this film you care about the family quite a bit more than the families in the predecessor films because we have the mom, Julie, who is trying to do her best for her children, a live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who genuinely cares about the girls as well, and of course Katie and Kristi, who have lovable personalities.  Dennis’s quirky friend is also pretty fun on-screen.

The “Bloody Mary” scene is the film’s biggest gem.

The only downside to the film is that it fails to fill in the fire that is referenced several times in 1 and 2 and the trailer for 3.  I wanted to get a little more context for that.

Unfortunately, after 3 came 4.Paranormal_Activity_4_Poster

Ugh, what an awful movie.  The film isn’t scary, interesting, or even consistent.  It makes the coven seem cheesy and makes the writers for these movies seem like drunken buffoons.  I was honestly bored through most of my watching of the movie.  I’m kind of surprised I managed to get through it.

The titular activity in the film was stale at best.  The scariest scene was when the audience knows there is a knife in the ceiling but the character in the room doesn’t so we think it’s going to drop on her and kill her.  Turns out, it falls when she isn’t under it.  Booooooring.

The found footage aspect kind of stopped working this time around as well.  Instead of normal video cameras, we have webcams and an Xbox Kinect.  Having most of the creepy things happening in the context of stupid Skype conversations of a teenage girl with her boyfriend was almost painful to watch.  The Kinect had a few cool ideas (night vision on it which let us see all of its projected dots which sometimes moved where nobody was) but overall just felt like an interesting gimmick rather than a believable method for capturing the events.

Oh, and the story?  We’re in for a turd!

Basically, seven or so years after the end of Paranormal 1 and 2 we have a family who has a lady (Katie) who moves across the street from them who has a weird little boy.  We are to assume this is Hunter until otherwise informed (which happens later in the film).  Said lady gets mysteriously ill and calls to ask if the family who has the annoying teenage girl and a young son of their own if they can keep an eye on the little boy for a few days.  Then, weirdness begins, but all of it is tame in comparison to the previous films.  Also, the weird boy teaches the family’s son to draw weird symbols and crap.  Then, the boys go to play across the street at Katie’s house, the teenage daughter follows (still Skyping for some reason– and presumably with long-range wi-fi) and Katie is home from the “hospital.”  The house is creepy and totally undecorated, which wouldn’t seem that weird were it not for the fact that it’s the size of most grocery stores.  Katie says something odd about the girl’s brother– that he looks just like his mother.  We quickly learn through forced revelatory dialogue that it’s weird for two reasons: one, because Katie never met the mom of the family, and two, because the boy is adopted.

Yeah, the boy in the family is Hunter.  Because apparently the demon’s course of action immediately after kidnapping the baby was to put him up for adoption, wait seven years, then put things into place to steal him again.  I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt that motivates it, not actually getting what it wants.

Head in Hands

Anyway, after a day or two Katie sneaks in, kills the mom and steals Hunter (deja vu?).  The dad and the teenager run across the street, dad gets killed and the film ends with the whole coven with demonic faces coming at the girl.

Notice I didn’t bother with names at all with that family?  That’s because I didn’t care.

Then finally we have Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  This film Paranormal_Activity_-_The_Marked_Ones_2014_posterwas overall pretty okay, definitely a step-up from number 4, but still nowhere in the league of 1-3.

This film is a spin-off of the main series.  The story follows an 18-year-old boy, Jesse, and his friends.  Jesse’s downstairs neighbor, who had long been rumored to be a bruja is murdered, presumably by a mild-mannered classmate.  Then, weird things start happening to Jesse and he starts to become darker in personality.  There is an unseen force that is protecting him– keeping him from falling, pushing away street thugs– as he gets more and more violent and meanspirited.  Then, after a couple of thrillseeking forays into the crime scene apartment, the family chihuahua disappears.  Somehow it gets into the trapdoor basement of the crime scene apartment, and Jesse follows the barking down to discover the chamber where there is pictures of both himself and the boy who killed the witch throughout their lives.  Suddenly, a dark figure appears and the film switches to focusing on Jesse’s friends, who are trying to make sense of Jesse, whose dark moods have intensified to the point of pushing everyone in his life away.  He then murders his grandmother, making it look like she fell down the stairs.  The friends do some research in the life of the boy who killed the witch, who I failed to mention later commits suicide, and see clues that lead them to get in contact with Ali, the daughter in Paranormal 2.  She tells them that the coven is making an army of possessed young men, and tells them where the final ritual takes place.  They get in contact with the witch-killer’s brother, a Mexican gangster, and head to the location Ali gave them.  It’s Kristie and Katie’s grandmother’s house, where the final act of 3 took place, where they proceed to look for Jesse.  The place appears empty, but they are quickly attacked by the witches who, disappointingly, show now sort of powers but instead just come at them with knives.  After taking out a number with shotguns Hector, who has done most of the filming, follows a demonic Jesse through a magical door that transports them through space and time to the final scene of Paranormal 1.  Presumably Hector is killed by Jesse.

Okay, so that’s a lot of stuff to take in.  In some ways, the idea of an army of possessed young men takes the edge off some of the more annoying plot elements from 4.  It appears that most of the young men are kidnapped as children and placed into families in close proximity to witches in the coven.  It still doesn’t fix the problems with 4, but it is moving things toward the right direction.  The last scene was a bit much, ending up in a different time, and for no apparent reason.

My biggest critique is that the entire film being found footage was quite forced.  The characters seemed to be filming for the sake of there being a spin-off to the series, not because they feel like filming is logical.

I did particularly like one element of the film– communicating with the demon via a Simon game.  Pretty good stuff.

I don’t know how I feel about what the future holds for the series.  They have announced Paranormal 5, which is coming out in October of this year, and I had some hope for it in the past (it had been stated that the director/writer of the first film was returning to the series for it, which later was amended to the series’ editor being the new director), but now I do not know how to feel about it.  I figure I’ll go see it, but set my expectations low.  I am glad that they’ve stated that there is an end-game coming, but it sounds like that’ll be in Paranormal 6 or 7.

Insidious+Chapter 2

I’m just going to get this out of the way now– this post has a lot of spoilers for Insidious.  I made a point to mark the spoilers for Insidious Chapter 2.  I need to spoil things for my review to really work at all.  If you don’t want it ruined at all, then go watch it first– but not that my saying so is really a recommendation.

Two and a half years ago, I sat down with a group of my friends, dimmed the lights, and turned on a horror film insidiousnamed Insidious.  I didn’t know too much about it in advance– several friends had told me they loved it, and I had seen a teaser ad with a line, spoken in ominous tones, stating “It’s not the house that is haunted–” so I was really excited to find out what it was about.  Furthering my excitement was that several of my friends who usually did not watch horror with me were able to share in the experience with me– these friends have a personal rule about avoiding R-rated films, and this was in the clear.

I immediately liked the direction the film was going.  From the beginning, there was a lot that made it genuinely unnerving and scary.  A spectral child danced to Tiny Tim.  A Manson-like figure hulked over a baby.  And most creepy of all, a little boy wouldn’t wake up.

I liked the characters pretty well.  I felt like I really believed in the familial relationships of the main characters, and I felt like the panic of Josh and Renai seemed very true-to-life as Dalton lay in bed, unable to be awoken in spite of medical and less-conventional attempts to rouse him.

The first half of the movie really drew me in.  I was quite certain that I was watching what would become one of my favorite horror films.

And then, it happened.  Lipstick-Face.

I wish I was making that name up.INSIDIOUS_still3_large.ashx_  I really do.  I actually thought that it was a ridiculous nickname my friends gave him for a very long time.

From the moment the demon that seems the love-child of Darth Maul and a salamander lizard-crawled away from Dalton’s bedroom, I stopped being able to take the movie seriously.  The first half of the movie was riveting, scary, and just generally excellent.  I laughed out loud when he appeared on the screen (getting glares from several friends).  Each subsequent time this key villain in the film appeared, I just had to roll my eyes.  When his lair was revealed,  complete with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” blaring on a record player (which threw me off– the song seemed to be tied to The Dancing Boy up until that point) and a vanity mirror, I was wincing.  He really killed things for me.

Well, that, and the astral projection stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, astral projection is a fascinating idea, and really could work very well for a horror film, but it didn’t quite make sense in the movie.  From my understanding of it, astral projection involves sending one’s self to other places while asleep.  Now, that happened in the movie, but it seemed to be that the projector was either right outside their body, or in a weird nightmare world.  There didn’t seem to be anything else to it.  I think I would have bought it if Dalton’s projection was captured someplace while he was out, flying through the world in search of dream adventures, but when everything in the astral realm seems only to be hellish– well, I think just about anybody would hang out by their sleeping body, not explore further and further out every night.  Just sayin’.

It’s unfortunate that the second half of the movie is such a downgrade from the first in that I actually think the characters that were introduced for that section of the film, Elise, Tucker, and Specs, were all pretty well done.  The latter two were fairly silly characters, but they were fairly believable and all three weren’t the typical hyper-overdone medium team that most haunting horror films tend to feature.

Another thing I didn’t like about the second half of the movie was how the direction went from very natural scares to jump-scare tactics.  The showing of the story of the family of the Doll Girl was all jumps (and didn’t seem at all conducive to the plot).

I guess I just felt like the second half was just a poor attempt to tie how varied the spookiness of the first half was, plus, all new to horror movies, astral projection!

The conclusion, with its quick introduction to Josh’s past and some creepy old ghost-woman and Elise being killed, felt very sloppily thrown together to keep the audience gasping.  For me, it seemed the punchline of a bad joke.  Plus, there existed a very sizable hole– allegedly, Lipstick-Face had to break down some sort of barrier to be able to possess Dalton, hence a lot of the weirdness that made the first half of the film great.  This explanation brought two big issues– firstly, why are these other beings helping Lipstick-Face, when apparently everything in that realm really wants physical bodies?  There is clearly a big connection between all of these creepy things and beings and the demon, so what are they getting as minions?  If it offered some sort of explanation, I’d have been okay with them working for him– maybe he’s enslaved them because he took their bodies in the past or the like.  I’m okay with mystery remaining in the conclusion of a story, but sometimes it just leaves questions bigger than the sense of resolution, which I see as a problem.  The second issue with the idea that Lipstick-Face had to break down barriers is that when Josh is in the Further for a very short period of time, it is clearly at great risk of being possessed– his body is actively assaulted, and the conclusion leaves us unclear as to if it is truly him in his body or if it is something else.  So, why is there even a risk of him being possessed?  Dalton is unconscious for much, much longer than Josh, and his body remained quite secure from possession still.

I made fun of it to my friends, throwing in some jabs at those who thought it was still scary, and called it a night.

Then, earlier in the year I caught wind of Insidious Chapter 2.  Initially I just shrugged indifferently, remembering my dislike of its predecessor but realizing that the genre is riddled with bad sequels, especially with bad sequels to bad movies.  For some reason, the most mediocre of horror movies still sell, particularly when released in October, but that’s just the way of the world.  After all, I couldn’t force myself to get through A Nightmare on Elm Street, and that film spawned near-innumerable sequels and remakes (I might be able to get through it eventually, but I have my doubts as my threshold for awful acting in things I’m supposed to be taking seriously is very low).  But, as time went on and the film made its way from theaters to Redbox, I decided to give it a shot.  After all, I already had pretty low expectations for it, so I doubted it would manage to disappoint me.

Well, I’m pleased (okay, pleased it too strong of a word) that it didn’tInsidious_–_Chapter_2_Poster disappoint me in that respect.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a good movie, but because the first one did get me accustomed to the universe’s ideas of astral projection (disappointing and internally inconsistent as they may be), I was able to find some enjoyment in the movie.

I did like a lot of the elements that carried over from the previous film, notably the story of the old woman specter featured at the end of the film.  Learning the context for the old woman and the desire to possess Josh was very interesting, and learning about the character in life was quite compelling.

I will say, before I go any further, that it continues to be littered with internal inconsistency.  The beginning of the film furthers the contradiction that bothered me at the end of the first one.  We see a young Josh, who was endangered by his astral projecting and who is made safe by forgetting about his ability.  Now, this provides some nice plot patching about his ability to go to retrieve his son in the first film, but it also re-affirms that there should have been no risk of his being possessed.

[SPOILER] And there’s the biggest problem for this film, right up front.  Because eventually we find out that he is possessed by the “old woman” that haunted him in his youth, and he is still trapped in the Further. [END SPOILER]

Now, the film has two main stories going on– one following the main family members trying to figure out why there is still weirdness happening around them, and one of Josh’s mother and Elise’s paranormal investigation team trying to figure out the nature of Elise’s death.  Out of these plots, the latter is far more compelling.  It is unfortunate that they overplayed the comic relief element of Specs and Tucker, but thankfully it wasn’t to a point that it detracted too much from the film.  Their investigation process and the things uncovered and really interesting and quite creepy at points.  The other story did keep me questioning what was happening– in part because I was so resistant to accepting that the writer’s would contradict themselves so much, though.

The conclusion of the story, all the plot elements converged, bothered me again.  [SPOILERS] I didn’t feel like the inclusion of Elise’s ghost really made sense.  We have a feel that the Further is a place for tormented souls, yet she is there as well, traveling freely with power and authority over the dark spirits.  It was a kind of feelgood element of the film, but I had trouble following the line of logic behind it beyond tonal lightening.  Also, Josh’s body being freed from Parker Crane’s possession made no sense– why would knocking out his mother boot him out?  How does Parker Crane have multiple entities– the child him and the old man– at the same time?  Also, I’m willing to accept that time travel is possible with astral projection, but it does seem quite… advanced… for a person who has only been doing so for a few days. [END SPOILERS]

So, as a whole I enjoyed the second film more than the second half of the original, but it still fails to live up to the expectations the first half of the first film.  It was fun, but nothing to really be taken too seriously.

“Charlestonian Monsters” and the Horrors of Nature

The following is a horror short story called “Charlestonian Monsters.”  I originally wrote it for the advanced fiction writing class I took my last semester at Utah State.  It is (as the name implies) set in Charleston (well, North Charleston), South Carolina, where I spent the first few months of my LDS mission.  This piece was an attempt to encapsulate some of the “monsters” I came in contact with during that experience– racism, abuse, neglect, poverty.  It also deals with two monsters that I heard numerous stories of– Hurricane Hugo, which destroyed much of of Charleston in 1989, and the hag, which I’ve had several friends who have personal experiences with.  It’s something that scares the crap out of me.  My interpretation of said hag is a little more… twisted than the accounts I’ve heard, but I had a lot of fun with it.

This story is also up on my deviantART, if you’d rather read it there.

If you aren’t in the mood for some horror fiction, skip down to the bottom to read a guest post about the typhoon in the Philippines– and how it, like Hurricane Hugo in the story, is one of the horrors that nature sometimes brings to us.



“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of Hell.”

–Edgar Allan Poe

“I still get nightmares. In fact, I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.”
―Mark Z. Danielewski,
House of Leaves

Not so long ago, there was a family with a mother named Cherry St. John and two little girls, Aree and Krista, who weren’t sure if their last name was St. John or McCleod, but they were too afraid to ask because the name “McCleod” always made Cherry upset. Even though Aree was only four and Krista was six, the girls were well-versed in what upset their mother. The number one thing was any reference to their “worthless shit of a father,” Mark McCleod. They knew the “worthless shit” had taken off in 1985, just two months before Aree was born.

When their mother was drunk she would tend to lecture the girls (or anybody else who would listen) that she was glad she had never married the bastard and that she wished she could hunt him down and make him pay every cent he owed her for child support. “If I got all that money from him,” she would say again and again, “I would be a rich woman.”

Instead of being a rich woman, however, Cherry St. John was quite poor, living primarily off of a monthly welfare check in project housing in North Charleston. The St. John family was one of only a handful of white families in the area. The clear majority was black, and there was a moderate number of Hispanics as well.

Life was never too bad for the St. Johns– Cherry had a taxing but steady job in a chicken processing plant. The projects were filled with children, so the girls always had many playmates. Even though the area was full of crime their home was never broken into and the family had never been hurt or threatened. The family always had to be careful with their money, but they never had any real problems outside of day-to-day squabbles–

Until the night in the last week of August that Krista got hagged.

Krista awoke late into the night. She awoke sharply, eyes wide, a scream in her throat.

She couldn’t make a sound. Her vocal chords wouldn’t move. No muscles besides those mobilizing her eyes would budge. She was frozen in bed, staring out into the darkness of her shared bedroom.

The only light came from the crack under the door lit by a night light plugged in the narrow hallway to illuminate the path to the bathroom. There were no windows– the room was in the center of the apartment. As the six-year-old’s eyes adjusted to the light, she could faintly see the outline of a dark figure standing at the foot of her bed, gently swaying forward and back.

The girl tried to say the word “Mom,” but her lips and tongue wouldn’t move.

As her eyes adjusted she felt strangely glad that she hadn’t called the figure her mother. Her mother wasn’t that dark– no person she had ever seen was. The figure was the darkest dark, the shadow of a shadow.

The thing continued to rock back and forth, watching with midnight eyes. Krista could make out no face, but felt convinced that it was smiling. After minutes like hours, the swaying increased in scope– when it leaned FORWARD it moved CLOSER then CLOSER. More minutes, and it swayed FORWARD at an inhuman angle, leaning over Krista as if it wasn’t restricted by feet like it were a dense, dark mass and was somehow flat, two-dimensional at the same time.

Then it LEANED to a suspended state just a breath above the little girl– and PRESSED DOWN against her slowly with all of its awful WEIGHT.

Krista felt the breath being crushed out of her lungs as her body was pressed down into the flesh of her mattress an inch, two inches, three. She couldn’t see– the darkness pressed against her face, every inch of her body, like some unstable form of intimacy and then she thought she heard a VOICE as the darkness filled her ears that told her that it LOVED her, BREATHED oh I AM SICK with how I LOVE you

And then the little girl rasped an empty-lunged scream and the darkness was gone.

She cried and cried and her mother, Cherry St. John, swept her into her arms, but the little girl had no words to describe her fear, so her mother thought it was just a terrible dream.

It wasn’t until the second time that Krista was visited, two nights later, that her mother figured out what had happened. The second time was almost as bad as the first. The only difference the second time was that Krista knew what to expect.

That, and when the thing pressed down against her its VOICE gushed, OHHH you smell DELICIOUS I just could EAT you up. For some reason, that didn’t seem as bad to the little girl.

Krista didn’t cry until her mother came into her room. When the dark figure disappeared, the girl was overtaken with exhaustion and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning she tried her best to describe the incident to her mother. Her calmness in describing the manner unnerved Cherry and so she listened to Krista’s account with an attentiveness she normally only held for alcohol. Cherry bit her lip the whole time and offered no solutions.

Later, Aree reported to her big sister that Mom was talking on the phone with Meemaw and told their grandmother “Krista got hagged last night.” When Krista asked Aree what else their mother had to say her little sister shrugged and said “Nothing, she just starting talking about her mean boss at work.”

Krista didn’t know what to think about that. Was her nightmare monster really only worth a passing comment? And what did her mother mean, “hagged?” Was this something that had such a simple name? Did this happen to others?

The child wanted to ask her mother questions, but was hesitant to. Would Cherry even answer?

Would Cherry even care?

On Saturday, the girls were playing on the small, graffiti-covered playground that featured an assortment of gang signs, obscenity, and phrases like “Kill Honkies” and surprisingly, “John 3:15.” Krista was playing with Shakena, a six-year-old girl who lived in the apartment next to theirs, and while pushing her on the small park’s lone swing asked, “So, you find out what ‘hagged’ means?” The girl had set her friend into investigation mode the day previous.

The dark-skinned little girl looked at her friend with a frown. “My mama says to not talk about the devil.”

“The devil? What do you mean, the devil? Is being hagged seeing the devil?”

Shakena shook her head, the small, colorful beads braided into her her rattling. “It think it happened to my cousin, ReVonne. I don’t think it’s the devil, not exactly, but I don’t think I should talk about it. My mama might knock my head.” She bit her lip. “I think she might knock my head, anyway. She’s told me that she doesn’t like me playing with you.”

Krista stopped pushing Shakena. “Why?”

“Mama said that I should just keep to the black girls, that your ma is crazy and you’re gon’ be crazy, too. ‘Specially if you are goin’ ’round talking about the hag.” The girl paused. “She said it’s not good for Christian discussin’.” Shakena hopped off the swing. “I’m going home, I’ll see you tomorrow after I get home from Sunday School.”

Krista looked down. “Yeah, git on.” As her friend departed she walked over to her little sister, who was climbing a ladder leading to a short metal slide. “Aree, do you want to play princess?”

Aree paused on the penultimate step and grinned. “Uh-huh!”

A sharp noise cracked through the air, and a puzzled look spread over the younger girl’s face. “What was that, Krista?”

Her older sister shook her head. “I dunno. Let’s go see.”

Aree had blood on her hand. She had been the first to get to the source of the noise– a man who sat slumped against the wall of one of the apartments. The four-year-old had gently prodded him to see if he was awake. When he fell limply to the side, smearing blood across the wall he was against, she screamed sharply for a short, shattered moment, then fell silent. She raised her hand, and stared at the blood the man’s corpse had left on it.

Krista was at her sister’s side briefly all-adult, covering her sister’s eyes with her hands, moving the child to face their own apartment in the maze of clay-brown buildings. As she pushed Aree forward, she began to cry the kind of tears that she had shed the first night of the hag. Aree didn’t shed any tears, her face blank and pale.

The last time Cherry had felt truly afraid was when she had come home from a doctor’s appointment for her second baby in her stomach, finding a lack of Mark in the apartment. It wasn’t the lack of her boyfriend that necessarily troubled her, but rather the lack of his possessions– and Cherry’s TV– that triggered the fear.

While she had been at the doctor’s office, the receptionist had laid out a payment plan for the medical bills that came with birthing Aree. Cherry had mapped out some ways that her income combined with Mark’s would be able to make it work, to make them work–

And he was just gone. That day, Cherry sat on the floor of her tiny kitchen and cried, not stopping even when her infant awoke in her nearby removable car seat, squalling for attention.

As Cherry St. John looked into Aree’s eyes on that Saturday afternoon as her daughters rushed into their apartment, Krista weeping and Aree silent, she felt like just sitting and crying again.

Just crying until everything bad ended.

Police lights flashed through the windows twenty minutes later. Cherry did not go to speak with them. She still was crying with her daughters.

Other than the person who made an anonymous phone call letting authorities know about the body, nobody in the project housing spoke with them. The handful of doors the officers knocked on went unanswered. It was an unsaid rule of the neighborhood.

The hag didn’t visit that night. There was already enough darkness that day.

On Monday, before sending her to school, Cherry casually asked Krista if she had more problems the previous night. Her daughter didn’t say anything definitive either way, and didn’t look at her mother during the brief conversation.

That evening, LaRainne, Shakena’s mother, knocked on the St. John’s door. When Cherry answered, she simply handed her a note and walked away. It read, Your Krista is scaring my daughter with her bad stories and questions. I don’t want her coming around her anymore. -L

When Cherry asked Krista about it, her daughter just shrugged and continued to draw with crayons. “Don’t you want to see your best friend?” pushed Cherry.

Krista continued drawing. “No’m. It won’t matter soon.”

“The hell do you mean, matter soon?”

Krista refused to say anything further.

Meemaw called on Wednesday. Aree answered, and tried to hijack the conversation with her grandmother, but Meemaw demanded Cherry, insisting it was really important.

“Yes, ma’am?” Cherry answered when Aree finally handed over the phone. “A storm? When? What are they saying?” She walked out of the living room, where the phone was mounted on the wall, into the kitchen to get away from her daughters. The phone cord stretched to accommodate the movement. “That bad? Are you serious? What are y’all gonna do? Us? Only if the governor calls for evacuation, but I doubt that’ll happen.”

That was the first Cherry St. John heard of the storm.

On Thursday, early morning, Krista awoke just after 3:00 to the darkness already beginning to PRESS against her. She was startled, and almost felt a scream successfully pass her lips only to be caught with a rasp in her throat. Her eyes darted side to side and she saw Aree sitting up in her bed across the room, eyes wide.

Aree screamed in the place of her sister.

The dark figure FROZE and Krista felt its physicality tense. Its VOICE was a WHISPER yet a SHOUT in Krista’s ears, Oh my PRECIOUS LITTLE ONE, oh my LOVE I love oh I LOVEANDNEED you. FOUR days oh FOUR DAYS ohno four DAYS to LOVEYOU.

The dark figure jolted up to standing position, turning toward Aree, and lunged at her, the darkness converging into a single sharp point that passed through the little girl and through the wall.

Cherry ran into the room, the door slamming against the wall as it was flung back to admit her. “What is it?” she hissed.

“Uh–” said Krista.

Cherry snapped on the light and the girls could see that she was holding a broom. “What?” Aree began crying. “What is it, babe?” The child shook her head. Cherry looked up at her older daughter. “You know what it is?”

Krista slowly nodded. “It was it again. The thing. That– ‘hagged’ me.”

Cherry clenched her teeth. “Again? Are you serious?” Krista nodded. Cherry muttered what sounded to Krista like a series of words that she had her mouth washed out by Shakena’s mother for saying, then, “I can’t believe it. I’ve never heard of it coming so much to anybody. Usually just once.”

Krista closed her eyes. “Aree saw it. I think she scared it away.”

“Oh?” She dropped her broom and sat on Aree’s bed, taking her in her arms.

“Yes’m. And–“

Cherry looked up. “What?”

Krista shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“What, Krista?”

“It– it just talked to me again.”

Again? It’s been talking to you?”

Krista looked down, feeling ashamed. “Yes’m. It says bad things to me. That it loves me.”

Cherry cursed.

“This time it said something about four days.”

“Four days what?”

“Four days to love me. I think. Does that make any sense?”

Cherry frowned, but didn’t respond.

That night Cherry slept on the floor of her girl’s room. She had found in herself a sense of maternal care that she had thought had left with Mark.

The morning after Aree saw the darkness Cherry stepped outside to check for mail. She found a note attached to her door that stated in cold block letters:


Cherry screamed as she tore up the note, hurling each chunk away from her cracked cement porch. “No,” she shouted out into the mostly-empty complex of government-built apartments. “Nothing is going to touch me or my girls. Nobody.”

Cherry slept on the floor of her girls’ room that night, and the night following. The night of Thursday evening all three slept until morning without any incident. The following evening, Krista briefly awoke just after midnight and saw a dark figure standing in the corner of the room. It made no move towards her or her family members as she watched it, and eventually sleep retook her. When she woke the next morning to the sound of the phone ringing in the next room, the thing was gone.

Cherry inhaled sharply and slowly opened her eyes as Krista tried to step over her to get to the phone that continued to ring an abnormally long number of times. “Don’t worry about it, honey,” she mumbled, “I’m sure they’ll call back later.”

Krista shook her head. “It just keeps ringing.”

Cherry blinked deliberately to clear sleep from her eyes. “How long has it been going?”

“At least a minute.”

Cherry slowly stood, knees cracking loudly. “I’ll get it, just lay back down. Or go eat some cereal.”

The phone was still ringing when Cherry finally answered it. It was her mother, who skipped hellos by immediately demanding, “What the hell took you so long to answer?”

Well, why the hell are you calling so early?” Cherry retorted.

Look, you need to start packing. Right now—“


Shut up and listen to me, Cherry. Pack anything valuable or useful. Clothes, some food, money, anything you really care about. Blankets, pillows. Have it ready by three, I’ll be there then, heaven willing that the roads aren’t too busy to let me get there.”

What, the storm?”

Hugo. Yes, Cherry Valerie St. John, the hurricane. The news reports are saying a nightmare of a hurricane. They named it Hugo, and make jokes that it’s huge-o. You understand me? Why in the name of the Almighty did you not watch the news after I warned you?” Her voice was growing shrill.

Cherry’s voice grew tired. “Because, ma’am, I have been dealing with shit you wouldn’t believe, and because, mother, I know I have you to do the worrying for me. So, they’re calling for an evacuation, then?”

What ‘shit’ could be more important than the safety of your daughters?”

Aree, who had just wandered into the room to see who her mom was shouting at, fled at the sight of her mother’s scowl. “You listen to me, Ma, and you listen to me good. I am trying to take care of my daughters’ safety. I have been sleeping the last three nights on their floor to keep them safe, so don’t tell me that I don’t care about them. If I didn’t need your car to get us out of here, I’d tell you to go to hell, because your face is the last I want to see right now. Three o’ clock,” Cherry spat, and slammed the phone against its receiver.

She spun toward the kitchen, shouting, “Krista, eat your corn flakes like the devil’s on your tail, because I need your help.”

The family loaded key possessions into Meemaw’s car when it pulled in at 5:45. Cherry’s mother had to fight traffic and then argue with a police officer to allow her to drive toward Charleston. The bullish woman had sworn that if the man didn’t allow her to take care of her grandbabies then she would take his gun and shoot him with it.

They drove inland in thick traffic all through the night to reach the South Carolinian capitol, Columbia, which meteorologists had said should be safe from the worst of the storm. They parked the car in a field filled with other refugees and slept, ate the food they brought, and waited. Mid-day Sunday, it began to rain. Krista read picture books to Aree, and Cherry told Meemaw about the events of the prior week and rain fell and fell.

The radio told the family of large temporary shelters that had been erected, some around the governor’s mansion Sherman had burned down during his march to the sea. They moved there, and ate emergency supplies while they waited for the storm to pass.

They didn’t go back until two weeks after the following Friday, when they heard the roads had been mostly cleared enough to allow for travel. They passed hundreds of downed trees as they returned to the coast, and as they got to the city, they saw what Hugo’s thousands of tornadoes had done.

When they reached their section of the projects in North Charleston, they found only rubble, the series of drab brown buildings reduced to crumbling walls. The St. Johns cried, and Cherry screamed profanities into the sky at Hugo, which had gone on to ravage states to the north, but soon, sitting on a pile of bricks that had once made up their apartment building, they came to find peace as they realized that the hurricane provided them an opportunity to be free from their other Charlestonian monsters.




Sometimes zombies, ghosts, and demons are not the only thing we have to fear. Sometimes our fellow humans have to suffer through the horrific reality that is Mother Nature. Many families and individuals have been torn apart by the recent typhoon that struck the Philippines. While many of us do not have the means to fly over and help  in person, we can give aid to those who can. Here are some trustworthy places to donate:

LDS Philanthropies Humanitarian Aid – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does great humanitarian work. It’s non-profit, so every cent goes towards the relief effort. I also read that they are currently teaming up with Roman Catholic efforts, so your donation will probably help with the Catholic relief effort as well.
The American Red Cross and the UK Red Cross – One of the most trustworthy and efficient organizations.
The U.S. White House – The President of the United States has also asked for donations through their website to aid the U.S. volunteers.

Thanks for your time, bloggers!


Anybody who is half as serious about Halloween as my friends are watch horror movies all throughout October.  Well, all throughout the year, but October brings a concentrated dose of the scary.  That said, a few nights ago I Redboxed Mama as part of a double date as one of my many Halloween-appropriate film choices.  From looking at reviews on IMDb I could tell that feelings about the film were mixed, the critics feeling pretty lukewarm about it, the users more positive.  The top five or so user reviews very articulately explained very positive (eight to ten stars) feelings about the film, so I decided to give it a shot.

As a whole, I liked it.  I’m going to break it down more than that, but I fear that my critique may give an unduly negative feel about the film, Sadly, this poster is slightly scarier than the film I just want to be clear that as a whole this is an enjoyable film that doesn’t make for a wasted evening.

For starters, just a brief blurb on the gist of the plot, as free from spoilers as I can manage: Mama is the story of a young couple, Annabel and Lucas, the latter of whom having a recent family tragedy in which his brother went nuts and shot a bunch of people, kidnapped his young daughters, and disappeared.  The broken family has a car crash, ends up in the woods, and the father is killed, leaving two very young girls to be cared for by a supernatural entity known as “Mama.”  For years Lucas funds a constant search for his brother and his nieces, and finds them– shaped by the years in the forest.  The plot then takes off with all these pieces in place.

That was surprisingly difficult to explain.  Let’s just say it sets all this up very nicely.

The most impressive element of this film is the acting.  The adult cast’s performances were all very solid, but the real stars of the show were the little girls.  They capture the broken social skills of the girls, really showing off in a tangible way (their movements) how inhuman living in the woods made them.  The differences between the two girls– with the younger, who has no memories of civilized life– being so distinct when they are reintroduced to society is also impressively portrayed.  In many ways the girls are the most frightening element of the film.

The story is also quite strong in the piece.  It progresses quite naturally, with strong characters whose interactions very naturally progress the story.  There is unfortunately one or two bits of Mama that relied on some deus ex machina (such as the non-Mama dream– you’ll see if you watch it) that bothered me, especially since there really could have been more plot-conducive reasons the related character performs a certain action, but the rest of the story flows quite smoothly and realistically.  I like that it used many conventions of the horror genre, and of ghost stories in particular, but did so in a way that manipulated audience expectations, using those expectations to form a sort of thrill ride viewing experience.  The story’s conclusion is surprisingly thought-provoking and sparked a fairly lengthy conversation among those I watched with, managing to be both satisfying and unsettling– which I feel is a rare and powerful thing in the genre.  I don’t always need that blended feeling, but it is refreshing that it mixes things up.  I feel with horror generally, and especially in film, [SPOILERS FOR 1408, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE FOURTH KIND, AND CABIN IN THE WOODS] that too often everything is wrapped up too nicely  (1408, where everything is A-okay after he gets out), or wrapped up nicely but then with an unexplained shock ending (Jason surfacing at the end of Friday the 13th), or is just depressing, or with nothing gained or explained (The Fourth Kind, which resulted in both my wife and I just saying “What?” and vowing to never watch any movie with Milla Jovovich again) or extremely catastrophic (Cabin in the Woods and the destruction of the ENTIRE WORLD) [END SPOILERS].

And now to my beef with Mama.  Mama.  As I’ve stated, I’m pretty good with the story, and that, of course, extends to Mama.  She is pretty creepy in concept, and for about half the film, pretty creepy in execution.  The problem is that, in the latter half of the film, they show her.  A lot.  She looks pretty weird, yes, but stereotypical cartoon alien weird, which is not what I wanted for a freaky, angry maternal poltergeist.  And it isn’t so much that I’m disappointed with the effects people not making her creepy enough, it’s that I did not want to get a good look at her at all.  Just as the terrifying nature of Samara vanishes when you properly see her in The Ring, Mama loses the mystique of the unknown.  Honestly, if they didn’t show her face for the entire movie I would have found it twice and scary, easily.  When she’s being a floor shark, only her hair visible moving through the carpet, she’s solid.  When you can’t see her properly because the camera is showing the older sister’s vision without glasses, I shuddered wondering what she could be.  The director really missed something good with her.

I’d say pretty much everything else was pretty solid.  The score was good, contributing to the atmosphere while avoiding distraction.  The visuals (except as I’ve noted) were dark in a good way.  The opening credits, which made use of children’s drawings to tell the story of the girls’ lives with Mama, were very unsettling.


Three (Zombified) Faces of The Walking Dead

Zombies are in right now.  Very in.  And one of the biggest zombie franchises in media right now is The Walking Dead.  Now, I’ve seen a lot of discussion about individual incarnations of that franchise, but I haven’t seen them laid side-by-side outside of “the TV show is better,” or “the comics are better” debates with my cooler coworkers.  So, I mean to fill this hole in the oeuvre of Walking Dead criticism.  I’m going to hit what I feel are the key three incarnations: the comic series, the TV series, and the Telltale Games video game.  No, I’m not going to touch the novels, or the Survival Instinct video game (which I have, at best, heard it referred to as “a not terrible shooter”), so even my broad discussion may not be broad enough for some readers.

The logical starting point has to be the comics.  It is how The Walking Dead came to be, for which I have to give it my apprecWalkingDead1iation.  Surprising to me was the fact that even though it has spawned other things that I enjoy so thoroughly, I don’t actually care much for the comics.  Now, bear in mind that I have not read anywhere near all of the series, though I have read a sizable chunk– up to issue 20 or so.   That being said, my thoughts and critiques may no longer be valid for the comic books.  But, here’s my thoughts about what I have read:

First, I do feel like the story is an overall positive element of the series.  That said, the drama between characters sometimes gets very thick, and I feel like there is frequently a lack of cohesiveness with how abruptly plot-shaping elements are thrown at the audience (SPOILER ALERT:) such as how abruptly Hershel’s younger daughters are murdered (END SPOILER).  As a reader, I felt very jilted, no longer really connected with the movement of the story.  It isn’t that every surprise in the story needs to have foreshadowing or the like, but some level of buildup helps.  If there is buildup, I can read even the most terrible twists which hurt my favorite characters and enjoy the experience, taking it as part of the thrill ride.  When there isn’t, as with The Walking Dead comics, it’s like the writers are cheating the audience– any extreme change can happen in a flash.  I guess it just made each issue feel like a one shot story, not a continual story.  Additionally, the general pacing of the story was too rapid, never slowing to allow the reader to savor the experience of being put into the universe created by the writers and artists.

I feel like many of the characters are strong and interesting, but that a number of them are just… unpleasant.  For example, the choices the writers made for the character Dale really discouraged my interest in continuing to read the series.  There are just some things that shouldn’t happen.  Even in a zombie apocalypse, just… no.

My final struggle with the comics is the dialogue.  Honestly, the characters just don’t seem to talk like real people.  Every interaction feels very clunky and unrealistic. I couldn’t get a solid feel for any of the character’s voices.  Without the occasional regional colloquialism it would be really hard to tell that they’re in Georgia.  I feel like the scripts all needed another draft to get all this ironed out.

My next move is to the television series, which is how I (and probably a majority of The Walking Dead audience) came to be familiar with the franchise.  I heard a little about it before it came out, but latched onto two key things: that it was going to be a TV series about a zombie apocalypse, and that Frank Darabont was involved.  Naturally, being a fan of both zombies and Darabont, I was excited, thinking that if the man could do Stephen King right, he could certainly do zombies right as well.TheWalkingDeadPoster

And it was with great zeal that I watched the pilot– which was superb.  I was very quickly drawn into the story, my enjoyment paused only for me to roll my eyes a little bit at the staleness of the idea of waking up with the apocalypse already well underway.  The special effects were strong, especially with the iconic half-zombie crawling through the grass.  I really appreciated how seriously the show took zombies, not going with a bunch of bad actors and writing as seems to be so common with supernatural TV series (like Supernatural).

I continued to enjoy the heck out of the first season, quickly consuming the episodes in a short period of time.  I liked the strength of the cast of characters– each was very strong in their motivations which made their interactions with the others tense, worthwhile and realistic.  The action was compelling and, where it fitted, stomach-churning, especially in the second episode.  The season finale was a little over the top, but still kept the fun of watching quite high.

The second season began strong for me as well, and I finally began to choose favorite characters (Daryl and Dale– who is not creepy, like his comic book counterpart) to invest in.  The intensity was strong– and then took an interesting, and admittedly not altogether positive, direction.  The move to Hershel’s farm was too safe, and brought a shift from a survival epic to, well, what almost seemed like a soap opera that happened to have zombies.  The acting was still good, but the story seemed stuck, with series of episodes just being extended arguments that went in circles.  If my memory serves, there was an episode that had only one zombie, and with a show title like The Walking Dead, that doesn’t jive with me.  The end of the season definitely picked up a lot, resolving a lot of the drama that was, at times, downright frustrating to watch.  The last few episodes almost make up for the way the season dragged on midway through.

The third season, though, made me forgive the series for my issues with what had come before.  Immediately the intensity of the series went (forgive the cliche, I’m drawing a blank on better phrasing) full-throttle.  Within a few episodes, the shape of the story had changed in fascinating ways, forcing the characters to grow individually and as a group.  The conflicts with the Governor and Woodbury made for some of the best television I’ve seen since Firefly.  To celebrate how good the series had gotten, I quickly began attending Walking Dead parties for new episodes.

My concerns for the third season are much more minor than the prior ones.  Mostly, I feel like the Governor needs to be fleshed out more solidly, particularly in the lack of clarity of what his motivations are.  He’s a bit too much of an enigma, and that actually took away from how scary he potentially can be.  My other concern was that the last five or so episodes really could have been done in two.

Must say that I’m really excited about the season 4 premiere in 9 days.

Finally, the Telltale Games video game, which is my favorite iteration of The Walking Dead by far.  Let me just start by saying that if you haven’t yet, you should play it and why are you still reading this?  Just go play.  With that out of the way, here’s my description of what it’s all about:

The game is set in the same universe as the comics, and features two notable characters therefrom– Glenn and Hershel, though both of them are only in the game for parts of the first episode.  Other than their inclusion, and the details of the apocalypse, the story is very TWD-game-covermuch its own.  The main character, Lee Everett, was headed to prison for the murder of his wife and the senator she was adulterous with. Abruptly, the police car taking him there hits a Walker and crashes, freeing the prisoner and giving him his first interaction with the undead.   Soon he finds a little girl named Clementine and takes her under his wing, promising to protect her and try to find her parents, who were out-of-town when the crap hit the fan.  Soon his group grows, hell breaks loose, and he has to work with those whom circumstance throws in his path.

So, a pretty basic zombie apocalypse plot, but one rarely seen in the video game genre.  Instead of being a flashy shooter, showing off the latest aiming mechanics and lots of action, the story moves at a slower pace, with game mechanics based mostly on making decisions.  You often make choices that result in your teammates living or dying– and you have to live with the consequences.  Each character is strong and compelling, and there is a surprisingly powerful emotional draw that some of them have.  In all seriousness, this is the only video game that has almost brought tears to my eyes.  You really care about what happens to most of these characters– and the game’s story reacts to what you say to people, and what you choose to do.  There is some truly dark and terrifying moments– the turning point in episode 2 left me speechless.

Plus, there’s so much good to be said of the visual style of the game.  It takes the style of the comics and improves on it, translating it in a way that was a surprisingly effective blend of realistic and cartoony.

Again, just go play the game.  It’s honestly the best thing The Walking Dead has to offer.

So, there’s my thoughts.  I’m sure my thoughts won’t line up with many other fans of the franchise, but I’m interested to hear others’ opinions.


Waiting for Pyramid Head – Part 2

For starters, only read this if you’ve already read my previous post, found here:

Enjoy second half of my essay (I decided to only break it into two parts because I couldn’t really find a good breaking point again).

As part of my religious tradition I believe there are real, evil supernatural entities that plague the earth, that these were the followers of Lucifer, and that they hated us for our bodies. They were miserable, and wanted only to make us miserable. My parents, who were my principal religious instructors, would occasionally mentions these evil beings as they taught me but discouraged any form of lengthy discussion. They explained to me that thinking about evil too much invited it, and the last thing I needed to be dealing with in my life was manifestations of evil, be they temptation or literal creatures.

I took their word for this: I hadn’t had run-ins with evil, but others around me had, and I knew their stories.

My best friend, Nick, for example, was playing in his unfinished basement with his younger sister. She sat in a baby carriage that he shook back and forth like it was a ship. Abruptly the small bed began to shake and moved by an unseen force beneath the stairs, trapping his sister beneath while both screamed. It took both of their parents to free the little girl. Nick and his sisters were forbidden to go downstairs without supervision for years until the downstairs was finally finished.

Or my friend Jared, whose old house either had very peculiar wiring problems or something supernatural messing with their lights and electronic devices.

Or my uncle Keith, who faced down a possessed man while proselyting on his LDS mission, who snarled inhumanly with a visible darkness around him, charging my young uncle full speed before being repelled by an invisible force of light.

I sit, my right leg bouncing rapidly, a manifestation of my eagerness to take my turn to stand at the podium and read my story. At the beginning of the open mic night I let myself dive into the stories and essays and poetry being presented. Not so now– each word becomes dragging, road bump after road bump in the way of getting up and reading.

The piece in my hands is a revised copy of “The Cruelest Masterpiece of Gunfire,” part one of the horror novel I have named Dark Art. I can’t wait to read the words, even though I know I will stumble over them at times. I am hungry to see the reaction of my friends and peers. I crave the validation I’ll feel if I create a shock.

Writing horror is now more powerful than any other kind of writing for me. The emotional reaction– the strong emotional reaction– that comes with it is thrilling. The idea Pyramid_Headthat I can do more than just entertain my readers– or, in this case, my audience– but that I can make them feel a certain way, is exhilarating. It makes me create something real.

I’m going crazy to try to scare people.

As I finally stand at the podium, I can see a monster with a metal mask sitting in the back row in my peripheral vision as my eyes scan the text of the epigraph. “First smiles, then lies, last is gunfire. Stephen King.”

“Ah, what the hell.” I spat on the ground and went back into the warehouse, steeling myself against the horrors awaiting me. I put on rubber gloves and got on my hands and knees. My investigation took only ten minutes.

It didn’t surprise me that Verrick didn’t notice my discovery– he never had a very fine eye for detail. He was good at making connections, but he wasn’t good at finding the evidence that made those possible. I wasn’t surprised that when I showed him my little gem of evidence he instantly got an idea of where to go from here. I found a domino, white with a single black dot. It was hidden beneath a splash of blood. Familiarity flashed in my mind on several levels, but before I thought too deeply about the significance of the game piece, Verrick pointed out that not too far from us was a building with a sign bearing the same symbol.

I can’t help but feel a little sick inside as my mission president tells us he is revising a statement known as “My Purpose,” published in the church’s official missionary guide, Preach My Gospel, which states that as missionaries we are to “invite others to come unto Christ” by a variety of methods, instead reducing the statement to a mere five words: “My purpose is to baptize!”

I know that baptism is extremely important, but I do not believe for a second that it is my sole purpose as a missionary. Almost from day one of my mission in South Carolina, I have hated the bombardment of the idea by the mission president and other mission leaders that to be a successful missionary we must be a baptizing missionary, even though the scriptures– and most of the training materials published by the church– define success in much broader strokes than that. I see Christ’s apostles and church leaders helping change lives in small ways alongside the radical. I see people coming back to church, or coming to see Christ in their lives, or even just receiving a bit of kindness like brightening a day.

Soon the questions suggesting criticism of my work, proffered by other missionaries who are given assignments over me, become direct attacks. “Why are you not baptizing?” “Why don’t you stop seeing that person? They haven’t come to church yet.” “You are not working hard enough.” “You are not focusing on the right things.”

I keep my reactions bottled inside me, forcing myself to not shout back, You do not know what I am doing. You are not focusing on the right things. I am doing my best to try to help others, so shut up. You don’t know what you are talking about. You are baptizing without any care for what happens to the people you baptize. You don’t care if people actually change their lives. You just want to go home and say you’ve baptized X number of people, aren’t you so great? You just want a pat on the back from President McConkie. Instead, I just lower my head and keep doing the work I know to be right.

My mother always has hated horror- really, any form of entertainment that focuses on dark themes. M. Night Shayamalan’s film The Sixth Sense frightened her deeply. At the time The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings movie came out she barred me from watching it, considering the Ringwraiths too dark for me to handle– and I was eleven and had read all of the books– so I had to watch it behind her back.

I was very sheltered in that respect.

The strange thing is that my mother is a very strong, brave woman. It is no exaggeration to say that her example and that of my father helped me develop what I feel is a strong personal moral compass.

She advised I avoid horror. “You don’t want the bad spirit it invites,” she said, implying a connection to earlier lessons about thinking about real evil.

The nervousness I felt when my friends and I watched The Ring at my house for my thirteenth Halloween was only in small part due to the complications of the plot. My mom avoided the room where it was playing the entire evening.

Even though it was the middle of the night, we decided to try knocking on the door. The safest course of action was to fix Verrick up with a wire. This was a dangerous job, and I felt my curiosity should be satisfied with minimal risk. I didn’t want to risk my life in helping an old friend make a buck. Thank God I felt that way. That decision may make all the difference in the world.

I sat in his car, a few hundred yards away, listening on a radio as Verrick approached the building:

A door knocking, a faint creak as it opened. “May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Dalton Verrick. I am a private detective investigating an accident that happened a few streets up. At the scene we found a domino that is identical to the one on your sign. I’d like to ask some questions.”

“Certainly. We would love to dismiss any possible suspicion of us with involvement with… whatever it is you’re investigating. Please, come in.”

The creak of the door opening wide to permit entry, followed by footsteps.

“This way, Mister Verrick. I’ll take you to my boss’s office. James Jackson. Lucky for you, we’ve been working a late night.”

“Oh, what is it you do here?”

“We’re in charge of shipping for various manufacturers. We have a big order to send out in the morning.”

“Happen often?”

“Far too often.”

Verrick laughed. “Yeah, I hear you there. As you can see, this job doesn’t exactly have the greatest hours either.”

“Ah, here we are. Make yourself comfortable while I find James.”

The sound of a door shutting, the clack of a deadbolt. Muffled laughter.

“What the hell’s going on?”

An inhuman squeal. Horrible screams. Dalton Verrick, one of the ballsiest people I know, screaming. A sloshing, ripping sound.

My shaking fingers turned off the radio with a click. What in God’s name just happened in there? I must be mad, but even though I had just heard Dalton Verrick die– oh God, I hope he died, I can’t imagine living after whatever it was that happened to him– I had to know what was inside that building. Verrick was right, my curiosity had to be appeased. I would go mad not knowing, just like silently not understanding my wife’s death ate away at the back of my mind.

The mystery of one death almost destroyed me. I could not deal with another.

I didn’t want to die, but I had to know. I absolutely had to. And now I’m not sure whether that curiosity is a blessing or a curse. Either way, I’m haunted by my decision whenever I fall asleep.

I am standing in an empty baptismal font with a woman standing next to me that we had been teaching for several weeks. I am filled with indescribably complex feelings of compassionate love for her. “Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized?” I ask, tears filling my eyes.

She looks unsure at first, but the emotions that are filling me begin to reach her as well. She slowly says, “Yes.”

My companion Elder Edwards, a large, softhearted Texan, helps us out of the font. “Wait,” our investigator says, keeping us from leaving the chapel that is connected to the font. “I need to tell you something.”

I nod. “Of course.” We all sit.

“Well, you know I’m pregnant.” She had brought it up in past lessons, but she wasn’t showing yet. “The day that I met you guys, remember how I was sitting on the porch? Well, I was waiting for my boyfriend to come pick me up. He was going to take me to get an abortion. When you talked to me and taught me about Jesus, I just knew that I couldn’t do it. He showed up a little bit after you left and I refused to go with him. I’m keeping my baby.” Tears rolled down her dark cheeks, matching the ones that both my companion and I were crying.

That was the last time we saw her– she must have been told to stop meeting with us, and avoided us like we were an illness. We were sad, and frustrated, that she was not going to be baptized and become a member of the church, but those emotions were nothing in comparison to when we sat in the circle and learned of her decision to keep her child– and our role in helping that happen.

In high school I had three video games hidden in my sock drawer: Half-life 2, Resident Evil 4, and Silent Hill 2, each of which featured prominent horror elements or were full-blown horror games. I played them very rarely, only when I was alone (which , in a family with eight members, was pretty much never). I didn’t want my younger siblings to have the nightmares I had when I was eight, but moreover I didn’t want my mom to know I owned such macabre games.

After my youthful experience, I was pretty sure that if she saw the words “Resident Evil” on a case she would have been angry, or worse, disappointed.

I kept darker Stephen King books in my backpack rather than on my bedside table while reading them.

Simply, I kept my fascination with works of darkness in the darkness.

I drove home: I needed a weapon.

I snuck into my house, avoided waking up Natalie. Dug around in my sock drawer and pulled out my Smith & Wesson .357. I probably would have sold it if I had retired for any other reason than the death of my wife, but I had instinctively held onto it, feeling a need to protect my daughter from the haunts of the night. I dug out my shoulder holster, which I hid beneath my jacket.

I kissed my daughter’s head and slipped out. I drove Verrick’s car back to the building marked with a large domino. I popped open the trunk of the car and found some lock pick tools. I pocketed them, and slipped through an alley to the back of the building.

When I got to the back door, I drew a small bottle of oil from my pocket and greased the hinges and tried the door. Locked. I pulled out the lock pick tools and got to work. I was out-of-practice, so I was surprised at how easily and silently I was able to unlock the door.

The carpet was dark red, like you’d see at a movie awards show. It looked expensive, but looking at rest of the building, it probably wasn’t– the cement walls were cracking and there was dust everywhere. I had to fight to resist coughing– especially hard with my asthma.

Using my oil to maintain stealth, I began peaking into rooms one-by-one. Most were vacant, but a few held tools.

I have my headphones on, listening to a Silent Hill soundtrack, immersed in the macabre as I work on my craft, editing the third part of my horror novel, “The Artist.” My narrating protagonist, a middle-aged art critic named Laura, leads a group of her neighbors in battle against a bare-chested monster that was once a detective, while my ears are filled with industrial sounds of the quasi-religious nightmare Otherworld that the small lakeside resort town of Silent Hill becomes when sirens blare and dense fogs rolls in. As the creature saws through the chest of one of Laura’s fallen companions, I hear a long scrape of steel and wonder to myself if Pyramid Head is nearby.

It is widely believed in South Carolina that there is a dark entity known as the Hag that spends its time afflicting people at night. It is a shadowy figure that stands at the foot of one’s bed while you awake, paralyzed, unable to make a sound and unable to look at anything but the creature. Sometimes it just departs from there, other times it makes physical contact– prodding the sleeper, or even laying on top of the unfortunate victim. On my LDS mission to the said state, I heard stories of the Hag and shrugged them off as superstition.

Until I was shared a personal experience by another missionary whom I trusted– who was visibly frightened by his experience. The hag had stood over him, poking him until he awoke. My belief was underlined when, a few nights before Valentine’s Day 2011 a member of the church I was close to told my companion and I about when he had been “hagged” a few years prior, the awful creature pressing down on him as he was frozen in bed, about how he listened to talks by religious leaders on repeat all night for weeks.

The night of Valentine’s, I had an experience of my own.

I didn’t get “hagged,” but I did awake at about 2:00 AM, feeling confused beyond normal sleepiness. I couldn’t focus mentally at all. My mind darted frantically, voicing internal expressions of bafflement at the chaotic state I was in. It was as if there was another voice– another presence– in my head, controlling (or more accurately, fighting for control) of my thoughts. I couldn’t focus. It was beyond my grasp.

I had to force myself to stand, walking into the bathroom with my scriptures in hand. I washed my face, trying to get my body to wake up more. I tried to read the scriptures to clear my head, but I could barely get my eyes to focus on the words on the page, much less make them to make any sense. I fell to my knees, the scriptures clutched against my chest, and prayed.

I prayed until my knees started to ache, the whole time pleading to God internally while struggling to maintain control of my thoughts. My prayer was reduced to a simple phrase, repeated over and over, begging to be freed from the dark confusion.

The powerful duality of my mind persisted for most of an hour.

I wasn’t freed until I woke my companion and asked him to pray for me as well.

I held my scriptures like a teddy bear every night for the following week.

I came to a room marked with dozens of dominoes. I found that it held an occupant. It staring at me, wide-eyed. It was a monster. Its skin was the same color as its irises–red as rouge. When it saw it had a visitor, it smiled warmly and sloppily licked its pale lips with a deep crimson tongue.

My body stiffened. What the hell?

It had four main limbs, like humans, but rather than a distinguishable difference between legs and arms, it seemed to have four of the latter. Long hands with sharp claws clacked on the floor as it stood.

I ran, not restraining the screams that tore at my throat, forgetting I had brought along my handgun for protection.

The monster darted after me, catching the door before it latched and flung it open. It giggled and chattered in high, animalistic tones.

It was much faster than me. It caught me quickly, throwing me down to the floor. As I felt ribs crunch upon impact. As I stared at the carpet I thought it must be that deep crimson color to hide blood. I began laughing hysterically– no, that can’t be right! My mind flashed to the colors, the horrible yellow, from earlier.

My laughter transformed into screams as I felt its claws rip into my back. I tried to roll over to face my assailant, but as I turned, my face was ripped open, blood splattering into my eyes. It tore with claws like thorns. I felt my body surrender to imminent death, curling into the fetal position.

I am finishing a short story, nearly fifty handwritten pages in length, called “A Glass Darkly.” There are monsters in the story– a few supernatural, but the most frightening monster is a kind much more commonly found in real life: an abusive husband and father. Only known in the story as “Papa,” the creature leaves broken fingers and “clumsy accidents” in the wake of his drunken cruelty.

Just weeks earlier I had an encounter with a dark force that was beyond my ability to adequately express. Now, with pen and paper, I am finding my way through horror fiction to give words for an anathema that is real. Not problems that I have known personally, but rather the terrors I have seen hiding in the corners of eyes in many of the people I have been dedicated to helping and teaching who live in project housing. I write about poverty, of alcoholism, of dangerous relationships. I grow. I begin to understand.

Even Pyramid Head, who has been reading over my shoulder, can’t help but shake his head as my little protagonist, Alice, is left alone, crying next to the bloody corpse of her mother. I look up at the blood soaked monster and give him a nod of appreciation.

I am at Universal Studios’ Hollywood Horror Nights. I am breathing heavily, my asthma burning my lungs, drowning in smoke machine smoke, drawing heavily from an emergency inhaler that is not my own. I remember now that mine is in my suitcase. I silently curse myself for my stupidity.

We’ve just ridden the rides up to this point– Jurassic Park in the Dark, The Mummy, Transformers– so I feel now like I have my asthmatic body under control enough to walk through one of the horror mazes.

I have been dying to go one in particular to since I saw a friend’s link online– Silent Hill.

We move to stand in the line leading to a passageway that loudly sounded with an air raid siren over and over and over.

Soon my friends and I find ourselves in Silent Hill, clearly built as the Otherworld version of the town, where things go from unnerving to openly hellish. I dart past a Lying Figure, a humanoid creature that almost looks like a man turned inside out with no arms. It throws itself at a chainlink fence as we pass. I hiss, “Oh hell!”

My hand in my wife’s, we slowly follow our friends through a room marked with the Halo of the Sun, a red symbol of The Order, a cult that worships a chaotic goddess and the creatures of her Otherworld domain. Then, another dark room, full of grotesquely sexualized nurses who move with inhuman locomotion, snarling at us beneath masks of flesh.

Room after room: the Bogeyman with his long-handled sledgehammer, three Robbie the Rabbits, each a pink amusement park mascot with a smear of blood matting the fur around their mouths. Two of the rabbits are props, one jolts to life just as we are about to pass it.

And then, him. Guilt himself, Pyramid Head, the Red Pyramid. He rushes us with a spear and we cower in a corner. He chases us down a hallway, then herds us into a room full of bloody corpses swinging from the ceiling, reaching for us with his long, muscular arms. His glove-clad fingers brush against my shoulder just before I step out of the room–

And find myself outside, in the smoke, once again with my favorite monster behind me.

Waiting for Pyramid Head – Part 1

I want to put more of myself into this blog, more of my relationship to horror.  In my penultimate semester of college (I only completed my degree in April) I took an advanced nonfiction writing class that was focused on the lyric essay.  We had to write two pieces, one playing with a conventional form (which I did as a piece called “Letters,” in which I wrote to some personal heroes of mine, most of whom are fictional– don’t worry, I’ll put it up here, eventually) and another following an invented form that fit the piece itself.  Due to the notable size of the latter work, I will be posting it in sections, probably three.  I feel like it is perfect for this blog because it was an exploration of my attraction to darkness, to horror.  I followed several threads throughout the piece: narrative of my interactions with the horror genre, self-reflection, descriptions of the fictional town of Silent Hill and its related works, and excerpts from part 2 of my horror-novel-in-progress, Dark Art (part 2 being titled “The Brightest Nightmares”).  I hope you enjoy this first section.  Also, don’t hesitate to post criticism or notations of errors, this is a work that deserves more polish, and I really hope to get it published.

“Horror is truth, unflinching and honest.”

-Kealan Patrick Burke

The creature stands tall, taller than most men, well over six feet in height. Muscled, scarred, looming, and yet his posture suggests indifference. That somehow is far worse than obvious menace.

His apparel is a long, stitched up robe with no arms. It’s fabric’s color is nearly indeterminable as it is totally filthy– covered with dirt and gore. The most prevalent feature is his mask, his long metal pointed pyramid-shaped helmet that totally hides any humanity the miscreation could possess. The metal of the pyramid is black mesh, rusted and blood-scabbed, the long point coming down to mid-chest. There is a long bolt in the back that secures the iron executioner’s cowl to his skull.Pyramid_Head

With one hand he holds a Great Knife or a long spear. The knife he drags on the ground; the screech of steel on cement heralds his approach.

He is Self-Loathing and Self-Fear. He is Guilt made manifest for those he plagues.

He haunts James Sunderland through the town of Silent Hill for smothering his cancer-riddled wife. In the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glenn, he is Adam Shepherd’s guilt for breaking a pact to sacrifice his first son.

He is called the Red Pyramid, or Red Pyramid Thing, or simply Pyramid Head.

My Sunday school teacher reads from The Book of Mormon aloud, “But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” He proceeds with his own thoughts: “It is absolutely important that we learn to love others– even total strangers– the same way Christ loves them. The best way to learn to love others is by serving them. So, help around your house, even when you are not asked to. Participate in service projects. Service is one of the best ways to follow Jesus Christ and become more like him. His whole life was dedicated to serving others– healing the sick, raising the dead– and His Atonement was the greatest act of love and service, sacrificing himself and suffering for everyone’s sins.”

I sit and nod. I have heard this lesson, worded slightly differently, dozens of times before, even though I am just twelve or thirteen. The message being taught is something I believe.

I can’t help but wonder, though, why a few weeks ago we talked about having good friends– and avoiding having friends with those who do things that don’t align with what the church teaches. I understand not joining with friends in making poor decisions, but how Christlike would it be to disassociate myself from friends just because they don’t have the same perspective of morality as I do?

Didn’t Christ spend his time among the sinners?

My phone rang at 11:32 that night. Verrick. He hadn’t called for help on a case in a year and a half, just a few months after I left the business.

I sat up, pulled on a pair of jeans, turned by habit to inform my wife I was going out. Felt a stab of pain remembering that she was no longer there.

I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. No carton. Remembered that I had quit last year.

Verrick sounded unnerved. That scared me– he wasn’t an easy man to unnerve, and it took far more for him to swallow his pride and call his old partner. He blamed me for his lack of success after I left.

The pay must have been monumental.

I found my shirt and coat and headed to my apartment door, which creaked loudly. I swore at it, then heard my little daughter’s voice come from her bedroom, “Daddy, where are you going?” Golden curls bounced as her little head popped up, gray eyes peering into the darkness.

“I gotta go help an old friend, angel. Be back in about an hour.”

“I don’t want you to go.” Heartbreaking.

“Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be back. I’ll lock the door so you’ll be safe. Go to sleep.” I hated myself for leaving her home alone like this. God damn life as a single parent.

She whimpered as I stepped out the door. “I love you, daddy!” I heard her muffled yell as I locked it securely, all three locks. I smiled, let my thoughts wander to the dream that had been interrupted by Verrick’s call. It was about my wife. She was still alive. It was my very last good dream.

When I was in the third grade I went over to a friend’s house and played PlayStation with him, primarily the game Oddworld, a quirky sidescroller. Shortly before the time set for my mom to pick me up, the friend popped in Resident Evil, a game featuring a mansion full of zombies and similar monsters, telling me that I would like it. The first combat experience opened with a cutscene featuring a zombie eating a decapitated body with the head laying across the room, face frozen in screaming agony. The image shocked and deeply frightened me. I backed against a wall and refused to let him show me more. Subsequently, I had vivid nightmares almost every night for three months.

My mother never let me play there again.

My uncle, Dallin, has always influenced my interests. It makes a lot of sense– he’s just four years older than me, so he seems much more like an older brother than my mother’s brother. On one visit to my grandparents’ house in Arizona when I was fifteen he showed me a couple of movies and two of his favorite video games– Half-life 2 and Resident Evil 4,we played each for an hour or two. I was pleasantly surprised with each of them, relishing the adrenaline rush of fighting off zombies and other twisted monsters.

Shortly after that experience, I saw a part of the film The Green Mile on TV. It was brilliant, and the supernatural elements of the plot caught me off guard. I interrogated my dad, who had been watching it, but found his explanation of the parts I missed lacking, so I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about it. I learned that The Green Mile was originally a serial novel by Stephen King. Immediately I sought out the book, and found myself deeply impressed with his powerful writing style. Intrigued, I began to dive into a wide variety of his works, including darker novels like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I soon decided that I was going to read all of his books because I loved how powerfully evocative his writing was, and that it dealt with darkness in a way that I had not found in any other genre of writing before, expressing a fear of the unknown and of darkness, while still being willing to appreciate its complexity. Villainy was no longer just about power, some evil king wanting to conquer a land, but rather it was often very familiar. Very human.

Yellow. Bright, vivid yellow spattered all over the floor, on the walls, the ceiling. The world seemed to scream yellow. I inhaled the acrid stench of yellow, tasted a bitter yellow bite on my tongue.

I turned around and retched until I could only dry-heave. I stared at the puddle of bile and felt surprised and relieved that it wasn’t that god-awful yellow.

Shaking, I forced myself to face the room again. It was nauseating, but I managed to suppress more spasmodic vomiting. As my eyes moved across what lay before me, I took in other vivid colors. Greens and blues and oranges and violets splayed unnaturally over everything within sight. Every color but red. Well, there was a little of it, browning as it dried, but with what was decaying on the floor, there should have been red. Lots of red.

In the center of the room was a corpse. First glance showed a simple stiff, like you’d see dead of natural causes or a poisoning or the like. When I walked closer I saw the corpse wasn’t regular at all. The head was facing the wrong direction. So were the arms and legs. Small wonder the face was frozen in the most disturbing scream I’ve ever seen. Oh, and the skin was paler than normal, like there was no blood in the body at all.

When I realized just how awful the body was, I looked away to push away my resurfacing need to vomit. My eyes fell upon Verrick, in his distinctive topcoat and fedora, standing in a corner, looking as dazed as I was. I used to have a hat almost identical to his. My loving wife used to make quite a few jokes about our clothing, referencing to pulp detective stories and film noir. She loved to call me Sam Spade or Bogie. God, I miss those days.

I was able to find things in horror that I hadn’t been seeing in the other genres I was interested in– the genres my parents approved of.

With the exception of a lot of famous older horror writing, stories by Poe or Lovecraft or Stoker, I didn’t tend to see the typical good versus evil motif. Things were more complicated than that. Characters began to become more real. Nobody was just good or just bad, every person had their flaws or redeeming qualities. Even monsters and ghosts tended to be more complex than incarnations of pure evil. They had their motivations and ideologies, even if they were fueled with twisted logic.

For example, in pretty much any movie involving zombies the real, driving conflict of the film is internal among the survivors. Yes, zombies kill people, but it is almost always because of the decisions and flaws of the humans. Humanity is the problem, not the masses of undead. The horrifying monsters are no more the villain than a natural disaster is. The villain is human weakness, or of trying to live only by ideals in an imperfect (or downright hellish) world. Virtue can become just as deadly as vice.

In horror I was able to find a wide spectrum of exploration of the moral grays that fill real life, and it began to make me more complex, more thoughtful. I became more able to find ways to live what I believed in.

I’m fifteen, at a family reunion, shooting shotguns at clay pigeons with my dad, uncles, and some cousins.

I am disappointed with my shotgun. It is an accurate weapon, but it’s just a 20-gage while almost every other gun is of the more powerful 12-gage. It’s also a single shot, while the weapons my relatives own can fire again and again, the shotguns all semi-automatics. My mind starts to piece together an idea for a story about a master gunman who uses cheap, lower-quality weapons with great skill, “Surely a true master sculptor can create a masterpiece with any chisel. A true master gunman can kill with every shot, no matter what type of guns’ trigger was pulled.”

That evening, I pull out my notebook and write the story in a single session. The story develops in an unexpected way– instead of a hero sniper, like I anticipated when I sat down, the story becomes about a robber who creates a slaughter in the bank. Even more surprising, the story has a supernatural twist ending, a “Twilight Zone ending” as I like to call it, in which the robber only steals a painting from a safe deposit box on which is the “same scene of carnage” as the massacre he just created. I title the piece “The Cruel Masterpiece of Gunfire.”

I don’t know it yet, but there is a dark, masked figure watching my efforts from a distance.

In high school a good portion of my friends are not LDS, and a number who are do not live as the church teaches, spending weekends drinking or engaging in sexual activities at the ends of dates. I do not participate in any of their wilder activities, but I am able to look past what I perceive as faults or sinful behavior to see good, sincere people who I relate with. True friends.

I try to be there for them, even if others do not. Two of my closest friends (one of whom I had dated) struggle with understanding the lessons they had been taught in church, and I try to make it clear that if there is anything that they need help understanding, I am available to help. Even though my offers to help are rarely accepted, I do not stop offering.

I care deeply for my friends, even though they make different decisions than I do. Maybe in part because they make different decisions, because they are more complicated. They are real, flawed people, like the characters in the books I read and the movies I watch and the games I play.

Verrick watched me with wide eyes. “Terrible, isn’t it? Lord, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life- in my whole career.” He lit a cigarette. I bit my lower lip to keep myself from bumming one off of him. “It’s like god-damned horror movie shit.”

“Hell, worse.” I didn’t want to, but I had to ask, “It isn’t paint, is it?”

“I wish to God it was. It glowed under a black light. I think it’s blood.”

“God.” I shivered. “Any idea on the cause of death? The neck snapping when the head got twisted or what?”

“I turned him over– there’s holes in the belly. All the vital organs were ripped out. Like gutting a fish. Looks like that happened first.”

I swore again, staring at his cigarette. “Are the guts still around?”

“No. Ah, hell. Let’s walk outside. I don’t want to be in here any more than I need to.” He brushed past me and through the doorway, nearly stepping in my vomit on the pavement. I followed. The cool night air was soothing.

“Any clues?”

“No. No imprints in the blood. I haven’t dusted for fingerprints yet. No signs of resistance from the victim, nothing.”

“So, what’s the job, exactly?”

“Gotta figure out who did it, why, how. This would be a hell of a job for an FBI crime lab.”

“So you called me.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know what else to do. I need the money.”

I coughed. “How much?”

“They’re paying twenty plus. And you should have seen the girl who hired me, a real class-act. Almost a short, blonde version of Annette.” Ah, there it was. Typical– he brought up my wife.

A new story idea comes powerfully, unbidden, while I’m driving. Not a concept, but text, almost like the story is already written somewhere, being read aloud in my mind. The story being told is about a man who has vivid, head-splitting brightly-colored nightmares, then goes into a hardboiled crime story.

When I get to my destination, I track down some paper and scribble down the words that are firing through my mind. By the next day the story has become disturbing, a detective and his ex-partner investigating a grisly murder where there is a mangled corpse in the middle of a warehouse with walls splattered with multi-colored blood. My stomach churns as I paint the gruesome scene, and yet I can’t stop. Unnerved, I push forward to discover where the plot of “The Brightest Nightmares” is heading.

The story rapidly flows into a document on my family’s desktop computer. The detective and ex-detective argue about their pasts and then–

I stare at the screen, not believing the words that have clumsily made their way onto the page: “My wife never came home. In her place, almost the same time I expected her home, were two police officers that told me they had terrible news. The love of my life had, along with many others, been gunned down at the bank by a robber.” I read it again. Again.

The story had connected itself to “The Cruel Masterpiece of Gunfire.” The “Twilight Zone ending” of the first story was no longer an ending.

It was a beginning. Of a horror novel.

A dark figure steps into the room where I am writing, dragging a long, blood-encrusted sword.

House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.


The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

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