I don’t know why I like this music video so much but I do…
Let’s go Play at the Adams’…
I had seen this title thrown around on the internet here and there, often when someone asked for book recommendations like: ‘Give me something that’s really going to mess me up!’ or ‘I want a book that really disturbs me, like, for real.’ I read the premise and thought it sounded too similar to Jack Ketchum’s book ‘The girl next door.’ Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good book, but there are a lot of good books out there, so LGPATA sat on my reading list for a while, until I decided I was in the mood for something like it. I’d been reading some fantasy and non-fiction and hadn’t had anything dark for a while. Ah yes, I thought, a nice bloody horror is just what I need.
And Mr. Mendal Johnson gave me horror, alright. He gave me a big steaming plate of it, and I ate until I wanted to vomit.
If you intend to read this book, don’t read any further. It’s the kind of thing you will enjoy less (if ‘enjoy’ is even the right word) the more you know about it before beginning. You’ll get the most powerful experience just by diving in and going along for the ride with Barbara, as I did. Just be aware that it’s an intense and in many ways depressing ride, but worth it for all that, in my humble opinion.
I’ve seen many differing criticisms about this book. Some people seem unimpressed, others merely repulsed, others dismiss it as ‘torture porn.’ I shrug my shoulders at the first criticism (books are subjective), sympathise with the second, and disagree with the third. This book barely has real torture in it until the very end, and in any case the torture itself is not the focus of the book at all, or the point of it. Make no mistake, this is no Saw, Hostel, or any of the similar gore-fest stories that plagued the horror genre in Hollywood during the early 2000s.
I don’t write reviews anymore unless I come across a book that really gets to me. So what was it about this particular story, which seemed so straightforward at the outset? A bunch of kids tie up their babysitter, and have a whole week to do whatever they want with her before their parents get back. At first, they hardly dare touch her, but in time they become braver and begin to explore their darker impulses. Pretty standard horror plot, really. There are a lot of ways Johnson could have written this to be exactly the boring torture porn that some people accused it of being.
Personally, gore as substitute for real horror has never interested me. It’s the equivalent of jump scares. Sure you’ll get a reaction from me, but who cares? There’s no substance to it, no real story. Bunch of people get murdered horribly, big deal.
Johnson pulled it off, however, because he wasn’t really concerned with torture, and doesn’t spend very much time talking about it at all. Instead, we spend the majority of the book in the babysitter’s (Barbara’s) head. Her fears, her thoughts. How she copes with what is happening, her hopes for escape, and her plans to enact it.
Barbara is not a victim because of her own weakness, and that’s important. She tries to free herself – it’s just that the kids are too careful, too afraid of her, to allow her many opportunities. This is a problem, because I quite liked Barbara. And there is where Johnson’s skill carries the story. As a horror writer, the more deeply you make your reader care about your characters, the more deeply they will fear for them.
But Johnson went one better than that. It wasn’t only Barbara I feared for – it was the children who’d captured her. It was this, I think, that gave the book its true power. As much as I wanted Barbara’s freedom for her own sake, I wanted it for the children’s sake as well. To go down that road amounted to a total corruption of their souls, and it is as much this evil as it is the acts themselves that so horrify the reader.
Evil acts which are perpetrated, I should add, in a terribly realistic incremental manner. The kids – freedom five, as they call themselves – don’t go right from capturing their babysitter to torturing her. That, too, would have been a mistake on Johnson’s part – it would make the children nothing more than two dimensional monsters, and deprive us of the time to get to know Barbara.
Besides, such an approach would be unrealistic. At least to my mind, the path to evil is taken one small step at a time, and this is exactly how it goes down. One small act empowers the children to venture another. Barbara resists, and this prompts them to feel attacked and even afraid of her. They retaliate, and again their actions make them capable of still worse things. The more you do, the more you can do, the saying goes, and indeed these children find they can do a lot.
But they aren’t evil – at least not in the traditional sense. They’re children (three of the five, anyway), and Johnson uses their youth to show the terrible darkness of human nature. Children are, after all, yet uncivilised. They haven’t learned not to hurt others yet. They haven’t learned to resist their baser impulses, or to account for consequences in the future, which seems all too distant. They are in other words vulnerable to the weaknesses of humankind.
Bobby, for example, loses his stomach for the whole affair fairly quickly, but is so afraid of the other kids that he can’t bring himself to do the right thing, even though he has the opportunity to free Barbara multiple times. Perhaps we could see the same fear in the eyes of a concentration camp guard?
John, meanwhile, is driven by a general dissatisfaction with life and a determination to do something real, as he thinks of it. The future promised him seems unsatisfactory and bland, and I wonder how many people in dead end jobs might sympathise with that appraisal of existence. How many of them would commit atrocities, if only given the right circumstances and the knowledge that they could get away with it?
Through each of the children, Johnson shows us a different piece of the darkness of human nature, and the chaotic indifference of nature itself. Barbara’s childish naivete is stripped from her in a way with which we all can sympathise. The children are not innocent little angels, she learns, and in fact they are capable of wanting to hurt her. They are capable of anything. There is no help coming, there is no fairness in nature, there is no relief from suffering, there is no happy ending, there is no justice.
If you haven’t read the book, by now you can guess basically what happens. In a way you could breathe a sigh of relief – you won’t be able to experience the book the way I did. But at the same time, I kinda think you missed out.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’s took me on a ride I won’t soon forget. I didn’t anticipate the ending, and expected Barbara to get free at the last minute, surviving so that we could all see how her worldview had changed. A dark ending to be sure, but I was willing to go along for the ride. I had hope for Barbara and the children right up until the very end, which is why I think knowing how it goes ultimately ruins the book’s potential. I never thought Johnsen would end so bleakly and so utterly without hope, but I’m glad he did. It’s a rare book that can sucker punch me like that, and I’m always grateful when I find one.
Anyone who enjoys horror fiction and isn’t aware of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year needs to rectify that immediately. The first story of Volume 11: ‘I remember nothing’ by Anne Billson is one of the greatest horror stories I’ve ever read.
It would be nice if one could reach a level of proficiency such that one knew at the start of a story that it would turn out well. Unfortunately, when I start something new these days, I have no idea whether or not I’m creating a masterpiece or a steaming pile of shit. I just have to hope it’s the former, and if it’s the latter use what skills I have to make it look less steamy and shit-like. Recently I had a great time writing a story that I thought would be at least pretty good. But as I re-read it I discovered that about 50% of it was completely unnecessary garbage and most of what remains had to be rewritten. I’d love to throw it away completely, as I have done in the past, but the premise is too interesting to move on – I’ll just end up trying to write it again later anyway. When I worked at a coffee shop, my boss joked that managing a cafe had more to do with plumbing and repairs than coffee, and it occurs to me that writing is the same. The real work isn’t the writing, it’s the repairs.
Halfway through watching this fascinating documentary about the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and its impact on the horror genre. I saw the first movie when I was about thirteen or fourteen and the terror I felt then burned itself permanently into my soul. Countless nights I lay awake at night, sure that if I fell asleep Freddy would find me in my dreams. I hated it and loved it at the same time. Like eating hot chilli peppers, the pain made it interesting. The documentary is full of interesting behind the scenes details, and insights about the genesis of the story and characters, themes, etc. Kinda makes me want to watch the movies for the hundredth time.
I have a thing for beautiful, moody singers that focus on dark subject matter. Lana Del Rey, The Raveonettes, Billie Eilish, Girl in Red, Amy Winehouse, King Princess… so it’s no wonder I’d like Chelsea Wolfe. Hell, her music seems made for horror: steeped in darkness, sometimes creepy, and above all, haunting. If that’s your taste, highly recommend. It’s been my writing music for the last few months and I can’t get enough…
As things currently stand, Holly and the Nobodies is in the limbo that exists between creation and publication and Hellbound has yet to send me a contract or anything besides a desire to publish the book in 2021 sometime. But the machine grinds eternal, and so other things are afoot… At last my short story collection is fully edited and on submission, I have finished my second novel and will start editing it in January. Right now I’m working on another collection, which will probably take me until the end of February 2021 (I like to write about 15 stories and then cut five to get a collection of 10 or so). And I have a great idea for my next novel, set to begin at the start of March (that’s my favourite time to write novels, because it means doing the bulk of it in winter. Winter and horror go together very well for some reason). I’m excited for that, too. My last book leaned more toward the noir/voodoo magic than real horror, and while it was fun I really want to write something terrifying. It may sound strange, but many horror stories do not have fear as the central emotion. Carrie, for example, is not a particularly scary book, but it’s horror because of the violence and dark themes; others focus more on comedy, like the Evil Dead Movies, others are just fun rides with a little darkness on the side (The Lost Boys, Fright Night), and still others are dramas about human nature (Shutter Island).
That’s all well and good, but I have an appetite for fear, and a powerful desire to scare the living shit out of people, if I can… Just a few more months of stewing some ideas and I can begin. I can’t wait.
I think I’ve previously talked about how different horror authors specialize in different kinds of fear. Some like to create a sense of breathless awe at the key points of a novel – Ramsey Campbell and Arthur Machen come to mind. Others enjoy more of a crawling, creeping feeling as inspired by such monsters as Pennywise the Clown or The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth.
When it comes to pure, relentless dread, however, for my money no one does it better than Adam Nevill. Reading one of his books is like having your soul sucked out of your body by a Dementor – and I mean that in the most complimentary way. It sure isn’t for anyone. Even I find myself reading his work in short bursts, interspersing each with a chapter here and there of a different, lighter book.
But if that is your thing, by God, Adam Nevill does deliver. Today I finished his most recent novel: The Reddening, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – again, IF you want to feel a sense of infinite darkness and know that nothing will ever be well again.
It’s a brutal book that showcases the man’s skill better than anything else by him I’ve read so far, with the possible exception of ‘Some Will Not Sleep’. The Red Abides…
If you don’t listen to This Is Horror Podcast, this recent episode with Chuck Palahniuk will surely hook you. The stories that guy tells…
I’ve recently started listening to music while I edit. Not just any music, though – the level soundtracks from the old school DOOM games. Ordinarily I can’t abide any type of music when editing. Editing fiction is an input process – you’re analysing and fixing what you wrote, so having another input in the form of music is usually interfering. It’s not the same with composition because writing a draft is an output activity, so there are no wires crossed. The lack of lyrics, the repetitiveness and the fact that I already know every note backwards makes it a kind of trance inducing thing that helps me concentrate on the work.
Plus, now and then I get a blast of nostalgia from my childhood, when I would get home from school, throw down my textbooks and start cutting demons in half with my trusty chainsaw. Those were the days…
For whatever reason, I wasn’t really ‘drawn in’ by John Langan’s much hailed book ‘House of Windows’. Not his fault, just wasn’t my thing. But after just a few stories from his collection ‘The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and other Monstrous Geographies’ he’s won me over. The man can write!
The more I learn about writing, the more I see it’s really the art of concealment more than revelation. Especially with horror. It’s the things you don’t see that haunt you the most.
I recently got an acceptance for my first novel Holly and the Nobodies to be published by Hellbound Books sometime next year. It’ll be good to finally have something out there, and I’m especially proud of that book, but ultimately this is only the first rung on a long ladder. Instead of satisfaction and contentment, the acceptance filled me with a burning sense of urgency to create more, to improve my skills so that I can keep moving forward. I prefer that, to be honest – it’s more exciting than mere contentment. It’s more interesting, too. While I wait for the glacially slow process of publishing to work, I am having a collection of short horror stories (unpublished and unseen by anyone so far, on this site or elsewhere) edited. And as of yesterday I finally finished the first draft of what will be my second novel, a kind of supernatural noir.
The crows are flying, in other words. The next few years are going to be productive: already the eggs are hatching, claws opening jagged holes for hungry faces to seek the light. Soon I will open doors into your minds and send my nightmares to live there, and I could not be more eager to begin. I have so many horrors for you, so many…
I’m about to start reading the much hyped ‘House of Leaves’. I’ll update in a week or so. In other reading news, I’m near the end of ‘The Three Body Problem’. It’s a great science fiction, though I can’t think of anything I’ve read that would be comparable.
Novel update: finally hit fifty thousand and the end is in sight. I doubt I’ll have to throw out any more large chunks, thank christ. Not that it’ll be smooth sailing, but at least now I can see where I’m going. There is going to be a shit ton of work to do on it after, but that’s fine by me. The Black Hole of Doubt is the worst. Happens in every book, seems like. Usually between 30k and 40k words.
This man keeps me going. Big fan…
Here’s an actual free nightmare for you all. I had a crazy one last night. I was a fly on the wall in some kind of horrific torture chamber in which a woman was being forced (somehow) to eat another woman alive. Throughout the dream I was filled with horror but unable to look away or do anything to help the situation. I could do nothing but listen to the terrible screams of those involved, and the crying of the one who was being forced to do the biting. Usually I kind of like having nightmares, gives me a fresh appreciation for my life, you know? But that one sure was nasty.
Recently had my story ‘Screams for Stargirl’ Published in Red Room Press’s Best Hardcore Horror Anthology vol. 5! Happy to be involved in such a quality publication with so many skilled writers. And to actually have something to plug on this website. Get on it, people!
The new book is split into two parts: Thirty five thousand words of the current draft saved in one file, and about sixty thousand more saved in another file. The sixty is, unfortunately, made up of just a bunch of scenes in previous drafts that I cut but couldn’t bear to delete. On the upside, the gears seem at last to be clicking into place and my (almost) daily thirteen hundred words is steaming along nicely. I expect to finish the draft before the end of winter, (August).
But what the hell did I do wrong? Why so many failed drafts, so many discarded words? Here’s what I think I did wrong:
- Started the damn thing too early. I’ve noticed that all my best stories had a moment before starting where the idea lit some fire inside me and made me think ‘Yes, that’s it.’ But I’m so keen to write new ideas I sometimes forget to mull them over. It’s like being so eager to drink a scotch that you only let it age a couple of years before opening it. Rookie error…
- I had too many protagonists in the beginning. The more you add, the more the readers focus becomes diluted. Which is okay if you’re doing an epic fantasy like game of thrones and have millions of words to devote to all the different plotlines, but not if you’re trying to do a three hundred page horror novel.
- I didn’t have a clear enough idea of the nature of the monster. It’s a lesson I’ve learned before: the reader shouldn’t see everything behind the veil – but if the author doesn’t either there’s apt to be confusion.
Saw that Josh Malerman of Bird Box Fame put out a novel chapter by chapter online (Carpenter’s Farm). I tried to do that once and it didn’t work, because as I soon realised, only after I finish am I able to edit the thing into some semblance of coherence. Characters do things in the early stages, when I’m trying to figure out who they are, that turn out not to be consistent. I start subplots and end up deleting them when I get to the end and see they were superfluous.
Mr Malerman, however, seems to have done pretty well, which is impressive. I can’t figure out how he’s doing it unless he had the whole thing completed beforehand and is just posting up one chapter at a time, but apparently he did it all ‘live’. I believe him, but damn…
Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller chronicles left a fantasy void in me which I’ve been successfully filling with the Nevernight series by Jay Kristoff. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rothfuss’s (or any fantasy, really) writing.
Update on the current state of my writing for anyone who cares: My short story ‘Screams for Stargirl’ will be coming out in the next few months in Red Room Press’s ‘Best Hardcore Horror of 2019’ Anthology. Still shipping out my first novel ‘Holly and the Nobodies’. Working on my second novel, which has so far caused me to throw out over fifty thousand words and contemplate setting my house on fire and starting a new life in Hawaii. I joke, I joke, but still. You know how it is sometimes. I love writing but also, fuck writing.
Just came across this excellent list by Strange Horizons Magazine of stories they see way too often. It provides a surprising insight into the minds of humans. All kinds of wish fulfilment, political agendas, and then things like: ‘Story consists of recipes for, or descriptions of, killing and eating sentient beings.’ Like, they got that so many times they had to put that in there? Jesus.
Almost halfway through this deliciously creepy book. I think creepiness is my favourite kind of horror, actually. I like it even more than the dread of a book like The Ritual or the awe inspired by Ramsey Campbell or Arthur Machen. Nothing like a good creeper, that’s what I say.
For anyone interested, four excellent horror writers just did an AMA on reddit. Alma Katsu, Christina Henry, Rachel Harrison, Alexis Henderson.
Music for writing:
The Raveonnettes, Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi, Girl in Red, Billie Eilish, The Lumineers, Tom Waits, Stranger Things Soundtrack, It Follows Soundtrack, IT Soundtrack. I either want to feel haunted or melancholy when writing. I don’t know why, just one of those things. Taste, musical or otherwise, is a mystery to me.
For anyone who hasn’t already seen it: Marianne is in my opinion the best horror show out there. Sometimes I run into something so good that it makes me hate myself. This show is one of those. God Damn it’s good.
Even though I still have to go to work during the Pandemic lockdown (selling alcohol is, of course, an essential service in Australia), I’ve been spending most of my time writing in the dungeon. The new book is coming on well (40,000 words). But while I’m not writing I am playing the new Doom Eternal, which, if you haven’t played it, is honest to God the best game I’ve ever played.
I’ve loved Doom since my Mom stopped me playing it at the age of nine due to the Columbine shootings. I remember waking my Dad up at five in the morning to help me install Doom 2 on the computer because I couldn’t wait until sunrise.
Something about the atmosphere – the music, the over the top blood and guts, the adrenaline rush of slaughter, the ominous sense of being stalked and hunted by ungodly demons… I could never get enough, and would always go back to revisit those old games all through high school and beyond.
Doom Three was a good game, but in my mind it was a separate entity. It was a horror game, and a good one, but it wasn’t DOOM. It wasn’t the game in love with. Doom Eternal, I gotta say, satisfied my nine year old self – the one who sulked for hours after being forbidden from my daily demon killing sessions – in more ways than I’d hoped. The gameplay is smooth, and the designers kept a lot of the old monsters and guns, which I was happy to revisit like old friends. The music was great, the heavy atmosphere was there, as was the insane action and gore of battle.
My hope for the next edition of Doom is that they’ll keep basically everything about the gameplay and just add content. Have levels with a more open design, and just add tons more of them. Kind of like what Final Doom did for Doom 2. No big changes to the game mechanics, just more content. I’d also like them to bring back the music from the original dooms. Not necessarily the exact same tracks, just something in the same vein. That ominous creepy shit really got me going.
Anyway, that’s just two cents from a long time fan.