Sunday, January 27, 2013

American Horror Story

This show has a format I had never heard of before--an anthology where each story is a season long. Several of the season one actors returned for season two, playing totally different characters, which was something I liked. More than the anthology format or the actors playing different roles, American Horror Story is defined by the fact that it tries to combine too many things into one narrative, making a huge mess that can’t help but delight you.

The first season was written worse and it was obvious the writers were coming up with twists and revelations on the fly; on the other hand, there was only one source of mayhem. The Harmon family had moved into a house where a ridiculous number of people had died, and over time, a bunch of ghosts appeared and did different things. There were all kinds--gay ghosts, disabled ghosts, nurse ghosts, a baby ghost, and even a handsome ghost who shot up his high school and (in the most disturbing twist of all) amassed a tumblr fanbase of teenage girls who were angry that the ghost’s love interest wouldn’t forgive him for killing people. I’ve barely spoiled anything, as I only listed about 10% of the total ghosts in the house. Wherever you looked, there was a new ghost, and it was hard to make it five minutes without laughing.

The second season was less immediately appealing to me because it takes place in an “insane asylum.” I’ve written before about my frustration with this setting--it draws on the fear of crazy people to make itself more interesting, but invariably, the heroes and villains are not crazy and we only see crazy people tottering around in the background wearing straitjackets. (This season has pretty much done what I expected--although, as with last season, Ryan Murphy makes an admirable effort to portray and condemn discrimination against people with developmental disabilities.) Also, I just don’t personally find asylums as appealing as a haunted house.

I kept watching, though, and found that the second season was actually somewhat well written and not entirely ridiculous. This time around, the story seems like it’s actually been planned out a little, and all the point of view characters are interesting and likable (with an apparently villainous character coming around to be one of the heroes). On the other hand, there are way too many kinds of monsters. We get the spooky asylum with some “criminally insane” patients, demon possession, murderous mutants, a serial killer, and aliens, all introduced in the first few episodes. It’s too bad because the story would be perfectly fine with a few of these elements removed, and it seems like there aren’t even going to be any remaining tropes for Ryan Murphy to use in the third season. Is he afraid the show’s going to get canceled and he has to use everything now?

If he is afraid of that, I don’t know why he would be. As far as I can tell the show is pretty popular, and understandably so because it’s one of the most relentlessly entertaining things I’ve ever seen.

Wait Till Helen Comes--Mary Downing Hahn

When I was growing up there were certain books I would read constantly, and this was one of them.  I found it when I was visiting my parents and decided to reread it, since I probably hadn’t done so for at least ten years.

It might be because I remembered the plot twists, but the first 80% of the book is super slow and boring.  The protagonist is Molly, a supposed preteen who acts like an oversensitive 5-year-old.  Sample narration: “I was anxious to run away from the bones in the graveyard, but I couldn’t run away from the bones in my own skin!”  Molly likes nothing more than to write poems about rainbows and sunlight, collect unicorns, and listen to Emily Dickinson poems on tape to distract herself from her fear of death (I’m wondering if Mary Downing Hahn has read any of Emily Dickinson’s poems).

Molly’s brother Michael is the only semi likable character in the book.  He likes science and nature and his main role is to make fun of Molly for believing in ghosts--although amusingly, he thinks ESP and poltergeists are real.  At one point he tells Molly she’s stupid not for saying a poltergeist trashed their house, but for saying it looked like a person.  Real poltergeists are invisible.

Their spacey mom, Jean, is a painter who recently married Dave, a potter.  The whole family moves to the middle of nowhere for the summer so the selfish parents can work on their art.  They tell Molly and Michael that it’s their responsibility to take care of Dave’s traumatized 7-year-old daughter, Heather.

Unfortunately, Heather is an awful girl who hates Jean and likes to set up Michael and Molly so they look like they’re bullying her.  Soon she becomes friends with a little ghost named Helen who is trying to convince her to kill herself so they can “live together with unicorns eating roses in a crystal palace.”  Even though unicorns eating roses sounds disgusting, Heather is enthralled and totally wants to do it.

The majority of the book is the same incident over and over: Molly sees Heather talking to Helen/wearing the necklace Helen died in/generally being creepy, Molly tries to go to an authority figure, Heather denies the story and accuses Molly of bullying her, and all the other family members either get mad at Molly, or mercilessly tease her for being afraid of death and ghosts.  In several scenes, the entire family laughs at Molly for being a wuss.  Even though Molly is hysterically crying 90% of the time, Dave believes that she is a sadistic kid who’s making up ghost stories to scare his daughter.  He also refuses to consider that Heather might have problems even though she saw her mother die and is constantly clinging to him, crying, screaming, and having night terrors.

This was extremely frustrating, and I guess I must have found it rewarding to read about when I was a kid because it tapped into a universal sensitive-poetry-girl feeling of being teased and having no one understand you.  This time around, though, I was just bored.  I also thought that Dave and Jean were horrible people!  Maybe this is something Downing Hahn deserves to be commended for because she doesn’t put the parents on a pedestal, but by the end of the book I couldn’t even accept them as decent.  They just seemed mean and lazy.

Of course, Molly does herself no favors by talking about ghosts instead of just telling people that Heather is spending all her time in gross, dangerous places where multiple people have died.  I didn’t remember how dumb she was.

After slogging through the majority of the book, I finally got to the end where Helen actually does some scary stuff and it’s up to Molly to save Heather, showing her love for her so they can finally become real sisters.  This part is fine, and although it isn’t scary to me now, it’s probably a good level of scary for an 8- or 10-year-old.  Maybe the length was intended to develop Heather’s character, but I can’t help feeling that the book would be so much better if there were half as many incidents of Michael, Heather, Dave, and Jean ganging up on Molly.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Nightmare Factory

This is a comic adaptation of some stories by Thomas Ligotti, who is apparently famous. In my original review of this book, I said it was confusingly terrible, but after doing further research I have to say that I just don’t understand Ligotti’s vision and he would probably want someone like me to have the reaction I did. From this sample of four, I can say that Ligotti’s idea of a horror story goes something like this:

An underdeveloped male character, probably kind of depressed and studious, hears about something bad. A big group of people do something mysterious. Something scary and disturbing is seen. The protagonist is a little creeped out but ultimately just miserable. At the end of the story he’s even more depressed and makes a comment about how his sanity is lost forever.

I am a dull person and I guess I enjoy by-the-numbers horror. To me the scariest part of a horror story is usually the explanation or realization of the horror. Whenever a disturbing image would appear in Ligotti’s stories, I would get excited for the reveal of where the image came from or what it signified, but instead the main character would just reveal how depressed and miserable he was.

When I internet researched Thomas Ligotti he seemed like a respectably consistent guy who, rather than failing to write what I expected from a horror story, is just pursuing entirely different goals. He says that he’s very depressed, hates everything, isn’t interested enough in real life to write realistic characters, and only wants to communicate how much he hates everything and thinks life is meaningless. He actually seems like a nice guy.

I wouldn’t read any more of his writing, but I did think the second and third story in the graphic novel had interesting art, and the art in the fourth story was beautiful.