Monday, 21 November 2016

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have been reading Shirley Jackson lately, enjoying her cadenced prose that with simple words gives immediate insight into the minds of her characters, her ability to create an atmosphere of fear and isolation, and her mastery of psychological horror in the tradition of Poe. I've just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the final novel she wrote before her death. 

The narrator of the novel is Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat, and as usual Jackson opens her story with the shock of incongruity as we are drawn into the bizarre world of the Blackwoods:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf....  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance ... and the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Merricat lives with her sister and her uncle Julian  in the huge Blackwood house previously inhabited by her mother and father, brother, and aunt as well. We learn that these members of her family have all been poisoned; Uncle Julian is the only survivor of the poisoning but he is wheelchair-bound and in the depths of dementia. Merricat had been sent to her room for bad behaviour so she was not present at the fatal meal, and Constance did not use the sugar that contained the poison. Constance was arrested for the murders, but subsequently acquitted.

Constance never leaves the house other than to go to the garden, and it is Merricat who must make the twice-weekly trips to town and endure the stares and taunts of the townspeople, who are both fearful and jealous of the remaining Blackwoods and their grand estate. The townspeople become active aggressors later in the novel: during a fire, they loot and destroy almost everything in the house and threaten the lives of the Blackwood girls. The themes of cruelty lurking below the surface of "normal" people and the dangers of mob mentality are strong here, reminiscent of "The Lottery".

I don't want to give away any further details of the story because it is an amazing one. If you enjoy psychological horror, this book is for you.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Upcoming Horror Fiction Releases

If you're beginning to stockpile books for the long, cold winter months, you'll be pleased to know that Amazon has more than 40 pages of horror releases.

Here are a few that caught my eye:

For fans of Anne Rice, her latest novel, Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis:The Vampire Chronicles, will be released on November 29. Here's an excerpt from the book description:

At the novel's center: the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, hero, leader, inspirer, irresistible force, irrepressible spirit, battling (and ultimately reconciling with) a strange otherworldly form that has somehow taken possession of Lestat's undead body and soul. This ancient and mysterious power and unearthly spirit of vampire lore has all the force, history, and insidious reach of the unknowable Universe.

It is through this spirit, previously considered benign for thousands of vampire years and throughout the Vampire Chronicles, that we come to be told the hypnotic tale of a great sea power of ancient times; a mysterious heaven on earth situated on a boundless continent--and of how and why, and in what manner and with what far-reaching purpose, this force came to build and rule the great legendary empire of centuries ago that thrived in the Atlantic Ocean.

Joe Hill's Tales from the Darkside: Scripts will be released in hardcover on November 22. It features a series of scripts intended for the "never-broadcast 2015 television reboot" and is illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III (Wraith).

Fans of the master of horror Edgar Allan Poe can look forward to a leatherbound edition of his works being issued by Barnes & Noble at a reasonable price. It will be released on November 28.


Nick Cutter's Little Heaven will be released on January 10, 2017. Here's an excerpt from the book description:

... a trio of mismatched mercenaries is hired by a young woman for a deceptively simple task: check in on her nephew, who may have been taken against his will to a remote New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. Shortly after they arrive, things begin to turn ominous. Stirrings in the woods and over the treetops—the brooding shape of a monolith known as the Black Rock casts its terrible pall. Paranoia and distrust grips the settlement. The escape routes are gradually cut off as events spiral towards madness. Hell—or the closest thing to it—invades Little Heaven. The remaining occupants are forced to take a stand and fight back, but whatever has cast its dark eye on Little Heaven is now marshaling its powers...and it wants them all.

 To check out other releases, please click here. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Reliving the Twilight Zone

There's an episode of The Twilight Zone series called "It's A Good Life" in which a boy, played by Billy Mumy of Lost in Space fame, is able to read the thoughts of others and to punish all those who aren't in agreement with him so that in effect he is able to control history. (There was in fact a successful parody of this episode in one of The Simpsons Halloween specials with the boy being, of course, Bart Simpson.)

This episode of The Twilight Zone has recently come to mind because of the constant efforts of news media, members of the Republican Party, and supporters/surrogates to reinvent Donald Trump and make him into a palatable presidential candidate. I'm not really sure if it's Trump's threat to sue the media or his ability to bully his opponents into submission that's caused the deference being shown to him. Whatever the reason, we are supposed to forget the wall with Mexico, the ban on Muslim immigrants, the non-release of tax forms because it's none of our business, the storm-trooper mentality toward opponents, and the blatant sexism, racism, and xenophobia of this candidate because, after all, this is The Donald.

To quote the Twilight Zone end narration of "It's A Good Life":

...And if by some strange chance you should run across him, you had best think only good thoughts. Anything less than that is handled at your own risk, because if you do meet [him} ... you can be sure of one thing: you have entered The Twilight Zone.

That's a scary place to be on the eve of the US presidential election. Hopefully, reason will still prevail for the majority of voters.

(Adapted from my GoodReads Writing in Retirement blog post of May 15)

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Happy Halloween

Tomorrow  is Halloween: a fun time for both children and adults. If you have little trick-or-treaters, here's some safety tips from Reader's Digest

1. Plan a route in advance.

Map out a route before leaving home. Stick to paths that you and your child are familiar with to avoid getting lost.

2. Wear comfy shoes.

Make sure you and your children are in comfortable, well-fitting shoes. Girls in dresses should avoid heels, and all shoelaces should be double-tied to avoid tripping in the dark.

3. Stay well-lit.

Apply reflective tape to your child’s costume to ensure they are seen by drivers on the road. Also, carry a flashlight with you to keep your child’s path lit at all times.

4. Make sure all costumes are short.

Long costumes that drag on the ground can be dangerous, especially at night. After purchasing your child’s costume, make sure it’s an appropriate length, and hem anything that’s too long to avoid tripping.

5. Avoid masks.

Masks can make it difficult for your child to see or breathe. If possible, skip the mask altogether and use non-toxic make-up to complete the costume instead.

6. Use flexible props.

Try to avoid costumes that have weapons as accessories. But if your child’s costume won’t be complete without a weapon, make sure it is rubber or plastic. Choose a prop that won’t cause injury to your child or their friends.

7. Check your child’s candy.

When sorting through candy at the end of the night, be sure to throw away any candy that is not in its original wrapper, or looks as though it has been opened.

Have a fun and safe Halloween!

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Origins of Halloween: Second Installment

Here are some fun facts regarding Halloween:

Originally, Jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips because pumpkins were not grown in Ireland. An ember was placed inside to ward off evil spirits. To find out the various stories behind "Jack" please click here.

The tradition of bobbing for apples dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain when the conquering army merged their own celebrations with traditional Celtic festivals. The Romans brought with them the apple tree representative of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona.

It was during the 1950s that candy became popular as a treat for children.Throughout the 1960s, other treats were still offered, and it wasn't until the 1970s that candy came to be seen as the only legitimate treat.  An average Jack-o-lantern bucket holds about 250 pieces of candy with about 9,000 calories and about three pounds of sugar.

 In Canada, Halloween is a billion dollar industry with holiday-related spending that is second only to Christmas.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Origins of Halloween, First Installment

In the lead-up to October 31st, I thought it might be fun to do a series of posts on the origins of Halloween and its evolving traditions.

Halloween’s origins date back two thousand years to the Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter: a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain (pronounced sow-in), when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins.
After the Roman Empire conquered the majority of Celtic territory, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. (The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.)

The later influence of Christianity also affected the Celtic rituals. The Celtic festival of the dead was eventually replaced with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls' Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. It was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas and the night before it--the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion--began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

The celebration of Halloween in North America reflected the influence of the different European ethnic groups who settled there. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds.

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food, and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. This practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling,” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.


Stay tuned for the second installment in next week's post. 

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, they would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.

Monday, 26 September 2016

British Home Children

I had the opportunity on Saturday to attend the annual British Home Child event organized by the Eastern Ontario British Home Child Society. I would like to extend a special thanks to Judy Neville, who organized the event in Perth, Ontario, and kindly invited me to read from my first novel, The Home Child. I'd also like to thank my friends Margaret Leroux and Peter Fox, who drove from Kingston to lend their support to me at the event.

 If you're not familiar with the story of the British Home Children, the following information might be helpful:

Starting in 1869 and continuing throughout the first half of the twentieth century, children—some as young as six months—were sent to Canada, Australia, and other countries from Great Britain. Known as the British Home Children, approximately 100,000 of these children came to Canada. The majority of children came from the Barnardo orphan homes in England, while 7000 children were sent from the Quarrier orphan homes in Scotland. This child migration was organized as a mission of mercy: a means of allowing these children to have a better life than the poverty they had experienced in their homeland. But only two per cent of these children were actual orphans. They were separated from their parents and siblings and often ended up being exploited as cheap labour and abused in Canada.

My own novel, The Home Child, tells the story of Jake Hall, a transplanted city dweller trying to adjust to the realities of country life. He knows it isn't going to be an easy transition. He's prepared for major renovations to the old farm house he's bought, but what he hasn't counted on is finding a former resident still inhabiting the house in spirit form! Set in eastern Ontario, Canada, against the backdrop of a rural town in transition, this story combines historical detail and the supernatural in the poignant tale of a home child wanting simply to be reunited with the family he lost so many years ago.

Since writing this novel, I've had the privilege of talking to many home child descendants and hearing the stories of their relatives.