TV Series – Father Thomas Ortega is an up-and-coming young priest in Chicago, rebuilding his long-neglected parish and working with the bishop and a local fundraising committee to organize the Pope’s visit to the Windy City. His neat professional trajectory is interrupted when Angela Rance, one of his parishioners, comes to him with a request: her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants him to do an exorcism. Rebuffed by the bishop, Ortega turns to Father Marcus Keane, a renowned exorcist who Ortega has never heard of — until the fellow priest appeared in his dreams. Meanwhile, Angela struggles to keep her family together as the demon’s power over her daughter grows more malevolent by the day.
I’m not usually a huge fan of religious horror, and I didn’t much care for the original Exorcist – I just don’t find it all that scary. But while the TV series has just as many jump scares and gross-outs as the movie, with a whole season it has time to do some more interesting things, too. The Rance family dynamics are fascinating, even before the demon shows up, and Father Thomas and Father Marcus are polar opposites in the classic tradition of buddy-cop dramas. There’s conspiracy and ominous foreshadowing; there’s tension over what it means to be a priest; there’s discussion of Gnostic heresies and the dangerous influences of Ouija boards. Most interesting, though, is the portrayal of demonic possession from the point of view of the girl being possessed, letting you see both the power it offers her and the subtle ways it makes her suffer. I really didn’t think you could make a feminist version of The Exorcist, but I think this show has pulled it off.
Book – When the weather cools and the air turns crisp, I am ready for some spooky reads. I grew up watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch on ABC’s TGIF so I was immediately intrigued to see a more grown up version of a childhood favorite. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Vol. 1 is a re-imagining of Sabrina’s origin story. Sabrina isn’t the bubbly and wholesome witch I grew up with, there are no funny magical mishaps nor life lessons learned in this graphic novel rendition. Sabrina and her terrifying aunts, Hilda and Zelda, are dark, vicious and callous. The Spellman family show little compunction to bloody murder and satanic worship. But don’t be scared away by this! Aguirre-Sacasa lends an interesting plot to this intense read and the artwork matches the intriguing plot. The story is set in New England in the 1960s, a nod to the original Archie comics where Sabrina was introduced back in 1962. Sabrina’s 16th birthday is upon her and she must decide if she wants to become an immortal witch and join the coven or to be simply a normal teenage girl. Unfortunately for Sabrina, her tragic and grisly origin will literally come back to haunt her making her decision rather bleak.
If you’re looking for a spooky read to welcome the Halloween season you won’t be disappointed. Can’t get enough of Aguirre-Sacasa’s spooky retellings? He also wrote the graphic novel Afterlife with Archie, available through Hoopla! Also, keep an eye out for the television series based on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina coming later this fall.
Book – The Villarcas are tied to Rawblood, their estate in the Devon countryside. If they stay away from it too long, they sicken and die. But if they stay home, they are tormented by her, a curse of the Villarca bloodline, the ghost of a tortured young woman who tortures the residents of Rawblood in turn. At the turn of the twentieth century, young Iris Villarca is determined to find a way out from under the curse. Decades earlier, her father does his best to push his lover away to keep them both safe. In Italy, Iris’s grandmother finds herself strangely drawn to – and repulsed by – a Spanish expatriate. In the end, the curse ties them all together.
The Girl from Rawblood is a classically Gothic novel with all the trimmings: a huge empty house, a ghost, a family curse, a series of mysterious and unread letters. (And, unfortunately, quite a lot of that peculiarly English racism against European foreigners.) Pulling the Gothic all the way into 1918 is a particularly nice touch: while I liked the history of the family, Iris’s story, wrapped up in World War I, was by far the most fascinating. If you like your ghost stories equal parts frightening and heartbreaking, this is the book for you.
Book – Growing up is hard. Growing up in a poor werewolf family is even harder.
Mongrels written by Stephen Graham Jones is the coming of age story of a young nameless narrator. Steeped in werewolf lore this story bares its fangs and sinks it teeth into you. It’s an inventive take on the werewolf that gets under your skin—in a good way. It’s not a simple horror book but a cleverly disguised social commentary on the impoverished American south. The book follows our young protagonist, an orphan raised by his aunt Libby and uncle Darren. The boy grows up hearing wild and at times gruesome tales from his grandfather. Theirs is a family of werewolves; at least that’s what his grandfather has led him to believe. It’s why his family is always on the run, living at the edges of society, outcasts, transients, wandering the south in a beat up trailer with no destination in mind, scouring for loose change to buy hotdogs. Libby and Darren take up odd jobs always trying to stay two steps ahead of the law and those who hunt their kind. His family is as dysfunctional as anyone else’s, and he always feels like an outsider waiting for something to happen. He desperately longs to fit in, convincing himself it’s for all the right reasons, but he hasn’t turned and if he hasn’t turned by his late teens, he never will. He’s close to it, he can feel it, can scent the coppery stench of blood in the air, he just knows it.
While episodic books might not appeal to some, if you enjoy creature books, I urge you to give this book a try. Dark themes abound in each page and I found myself unable and unwilling to put this book down.
Movie–Justine, lifelong vegetarian, comes from a family tradition of vegetarian veterinarians (try saying that 3 times fast). The movie follows her first days at her new school with her upperclassman older sister and her new roommate, the brutal hazing she and the other freshman endure, and the bloody consequences that ensue. The freshman class is drenched in animal blood à la Carrie and made to eat rabbit liver. Justine is pressured into eating it by her sister, despite their vegetarianism. This proves to be a terrible mistake. Justine finds herself with an sudden and insatiable craving for living tissue: hair, raw chicken cutlets, and even human flesh… The nightmarishly oppressive and clinical atmosphere of her school provides the ghastly backdrop for Justine’s struggle, and inevitable failure, to control her urges.
When this movie was screened at the Toronto film festival, some of the viewers fainted, and it’s not hard to see why. One scene in particular that takes place after a bikini waxing gone wrong is very hard to watch. Also, be aware that this movie is in French with English subtitles in case that’s not your thing. If you like Raw, you might also enjoy the cerebral cannibalism found in Hannibal seasons 1-3.
Movie–I don’t really like horror movies. But, I do like good movies, and I’m always motivated to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible. So, that’s how I found myself checking out and somewhat begrudgingly watching Get Out, a horror movie with serious racial themes.
Chris, an African American photographer, hesitantly goes to his white girlfriend Rose’s house for the weekend to meet her family. His best friend warns him that no good will come of this. In scenes reminiscent of The Stepford Wives, Chris notices that something is “off” about the African American groundskeeper and housekeeper. Then the family’s friends come for an annual party, and things get even weirder. Chris quickly realizes he needs to leave. But, will he be able to get out?
Written and directed by Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele fame), Get Out has been getting critical acclaim since its release in early 2017, so it was really no surprise when it earned nominations for four of the big categories at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya). Although it was outside my comfort zone, I’m glad I watched it (well, all except for the parts that got so violent that I covered my eyes). If you are interested in a well-made horror movie that also tackles race issues and might just win an Oscar, then this is for you.
Book – Greta Helsing is a physician with a unique specialty: she treats the undead and supernatural creatures of London. Whether it’s providing anxiety medication for ghouls or treating the chronic lung infection of a gentleman who’s been a family friend for centuries, she has her work cut out for her. When a vampyre turns up with an unusual stab wound and a terrifying story of fanatical monks, her already unusual life suddenly gets a whole lot stranger.
I cannot tell you how much this book delighted me – a massively enjoyable romp through undead London, featuring ghouls, vampires, vampyres (not the same thing), and a mysterious cult of evil monks living underneath the Underground. And best of all, made families: a strong group of friends, people who learn to trust and care for one another, a central female character who is strong and competent and still gets to freak out sometimes because, well, mysterious cult of evil monks trying to kill her friends. I could have wished for more of Greta’s female friends – hopefully we’ll see more of them in future installments.
Movie – Funny Games is, without a doubt the most infuriating film I have ever watched. I should mention first that horror and thriller films are definitely not my genre of choice, but I can still appreciate what goes into the suspense and jump scares that give me the jitters. After seeing Funny Games just one time, I adamantly refuse to ever watch it again. However, I do acknowledge that what enrages me could be someone else’s favorite movie of all time. To each their own.
It starts as horror stories often do: a family goes on holiday, anticipating a nice, quiet vacation. Then two strangers show up (stranger danger!), and the trip quickly becomes their worst nightmare. The two men first arrive at the house of the family requesting to borrow some eggs, but the offenders return with more sinister demands. The men create a game of torture and violence against the family, who must struggle to stay alive.
Funny Games is brutal, and the way the offenders break the fourth wall and stare down the audience through the screen really makes my skin crawl. I hate tension in movies, and the tension in this movie is excruciating for me to sit through without wanting to scream. Maybe this film is worth watching for the horror or thriller enthusiast.
Movie – It’s Thanksgiving, and all the girls are going home from their rural boarding school — all the girls, that is, except for Rose, who wants a chance to talk to her boyfriend before meeting her parents, and Kat, whose parents are dead. Fenced in by snow and isolation, things begin to go slowly but inescapably wrong within the near-empty school. Meanwhile, Joan is hitching a ride in the direction of the school with a kindly married couple. If they have any idea what’s waiting for them at the school, they show no signs of it, but they won’t be pleased at what they find.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow-burn kind of horror movie, the kind where the eerie wrongness creeps up behind you so slowly you hardly know it’s there. If you’re in the market for thrills, look elsewhere, but if you want to become completely terrified of the thick blanket of snow that traps you indoors with whoever — and whatever — is inside with you, this movie directed by the son of Anthony Perkins, made famous by his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will be just your cup of tea.
Book – Tananarive Due is the hidden secret of modern horror fiction. Sick of sparkly vampires? Bored with ghosts? Tired of the same old gothic secrets and bloody horrors and frankly offended by the level of sexual assault? You need to be reading Tananarive Due. One of the luminaries of the Afrofuturism movement (speculative fiction with a focus on Africa and the African diaspora), Due’s characters are gut-wrenchingly real, and her stories, even when horrific, are mesmerizing.
Take, for instance, “The Knowing,” the story of a ten-year-old boy and his mother who knows the date everyone she meets will die. Or “Free Jim’s Mine,” a classic deal-with-the-devil story told from the point of view of a relative, rather than the one who makes the deal, who is trying to escape via the Underground Railroad. Or the title story, “Ghost Summer,” an award-winning novella that expertly brings together backyard ghosts and the ghosts of history and family, all from the viewpoint of young ghost hunter Davie Stephens, who just wanted to be YouTube-famous and got way more than he bargained for. Even readers who aren’t big horror fans would enjoy her work, I think – it’s not graphic, but powerfully emotional, in sometimes heartbreaking but always insightful ways.