This Hause is Haunted & Sepulchre

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This is the last month of R.I.P. a reading event hosted by Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings. Last post was about unusual people. This week is all about unusual houses and those who inhabit them.

This House is Haunted – John Boyne

Eliza Caine lives with her father in London. It’s 1867 and one autumn evening, in spite of his persistent cough, Mr Caine convinces his daughter to go with him and see Charles Dickens read from his work. Not long after that, Eliza’s father dies, his sickness being exacerbated by the bad weather.

This House is Haunted Alone and grieving, Eliza decides it’s time for a change. She accepts to work as a governess at Gaudlin Hall, an estate in Norfolk where she has to take care of two young children, Eustace and Isabella, who live in a great house in need of repair. The children’s parents are nowhere to be found, and it takes a while before Eliza finds out the truth from the family’s lawyer, Mr Raisin. It’s a process accomplished in stages, and as more clues point to the right answers, Eliza is convinced somebody in the house is trying to kill her, just like it killed the governesses before her, all except one. She doesn’t know who it might be, but it’s obvious she’s not welcome to stay – great gusts of wind, invisible hands that push her from behind, cold water that turns hot, and that’s not all. But why would someone go to such lengths to get rid of all the governesses at Gaudlin Hall? What secret lies entombed in the great house? And why do the children keep saying they’re not allowed to leave?

The similarities to Jane Eyre abound – the unattractive young governess, alone in the world, coming to take care of children, unexplainable events meant to frighten her away, a handsome man Eliza begins to have feelings for and a few other clues that are best savored fresh. The language is a shade more modern but still striving to stay true to the time period. A good book, not as sinister as I’d hoped, and a little predictable at times, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Sepulchre – James Herbert

After reading The Rats recently, I couldn’t resist buying this when I saw it at the bookstore.
The Sepulchre is a mystery with a lot of creepy thrown in, which is just the way I like it. It’s a fun book, a page turner that mixes bits of religion and history into an otherwise modern day story.

Sepulchre Halloran is a bodyguard hired to protect a man named Felix Kline. Just how important Kline is to the company that hired Halloran is very clear, though the reasons are kept a secret at first. Kline knows his life is not safe, although he doesn’t know who might want to harm him. The only place he feels safe is Neath, an old house in a secluded area, and he decides that’s where he’ll spend the weekend, and Halloran has no choice but to follow him.

An old house with a lake nearby – a place far from prying eyes might seem like the perfect place to hide. But the lake is populated by strange creatures yearning to get out, there’s a pack of jackals roaming the grounds, there are locked doors and subterranean passages, and a lodge where the keeper lives, even though nobody has seen him. Before long Halloran finds out the enemy is not far away but as he begins to suspect Kline’s entourage and business partners, he finds out it’s not men with guns he has to protect his client from but something much more sinister. Everybody is a suspect: Monk, his bodyguard, the two Arabs catering to Kline’s every wish, his Polish driver with a peculiar taste for certain food, even his young assistant, Cora.

Herbert gives a lot of background detail about the lives of these characters and lets the reader know exactly how everybody came to work for Kline. That’s the part I enjoyed the most. As their background is revealed, the reader can get an idea of what kind a man Kline really is. His changing moods, his persuasive powers, his hypnotic voice, make him a formidable adversary but Halloran is more than a match.
Halloran is a mysterious character himself – there are glimpses of his childhood throughout the book but they only made me wonder even more about the man. An interesting fact – in Stephen King’s The Shining, there’s also a character called Hallorann, and both of them are fighting on the side of good.
An entertaining story and an easy read, this definitely won’t be my last James Herbert book.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in September, 2014

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R.I.P. – Interview with the Vampire & Frankenstein

RIP 9 badge This September I’ve read four books for the R.I.P challenge, one of my favorite events of the year hosted by Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings. I’m still working on the reviews for the other two – This House is Haunted, by John Boyne and Sepulchre by James Herbert, hopefully to be ready sometime next week. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on two famous classics.

Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

This has been on my TBR list for a really long time. I was saving it for this challenge, but was a little afraid that it might not be as good as I hoped it would. Having watched the movie years ago (it was probably the first time I noticed Brad Pitt), I felt the book didn’t have a lot of new things to offer. I’m so glad to have been proven wrong.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for is how rich the language is, how with only a few words the author can convey a feeling, and how that translates so much better in writing than on screen.

IV 3 The story begins with Louis, a vampire, being interviewed by “a boy”. In the space of one night, Louis recounts his life, how he was made a vampire, and what followed after that.
Louis was twenty-five and living in Louisiana at the end of the eighteen century. His life as a human ended when Lestat, an old (in age only, not in appearance) and experienced vampire decided to make him immortal. Through constant manipulation, he was able to keep Louis with him and by giving him a vampire child, Lavinia, he created the illusion of a family. But Lavinia, trapped in a child’s body for years on end did something that upset the precarious balance of their life together.

Lestat and Louis are two very different types of vampire – while the older one is selfish, ruthless and given to sudden moods, the younger has an analytical mind and is constantly tormented by his conscience. His need to understand what he is, his disdain for his own immortality, his newfound appreciation for the briefness of human life set him apart from Lestat. When he meets other vampires, after years of searching, he discovers they are not actually what he hoped they would be, with the exception of Armand, who seemed to be the kind of companion Louis was looking for.

What makes the story unique is the introspection of its characters. Both Louis and Lavinia are capable of analyzing their existence, of trying to see past the terrifying idea of being a vampire, of wanting more out of their life. They want answers, they want to understand their nature and its mysterious powers. It is what sets them apart from Lestat who only seems concerned with manipulating them for his own interest.

This book was a great surprise. Not only did it show an unexpected facet of the complex life of a vampire, but its array of powerful emotions made it so much more than just a vampire story. It questions immortality, love, sexuality, the meaning of life and what makes one human. I have read other books from the Vampire Chronicles but I don’t remember being as moved by them as I was by this. It makes me want to read the whole series (of which this is the first book) in order. I want to find out what happened to Louis and what made Lestat such a detestable character. And to make things even more exciting, there’s a new book coming out next month – Prince Lestat. A perfect little gem to add to my TBR list.

My rating: 5/5 stars

Frankenstein – Mary W. Shelley

Frankenstein, like Interview with the Vampire, was one of those books that I told myself I would read “one day”. That day came when I downloaded a copy from projectguttenberg and started reading it on my tablet. I do not know if it was the fact that I was reading from a screen – although I find my experience is greatly influenced as much by the book itself as by the writing within its pages – but I managed to read most of it in a day when power was out for a few hours and I could spend time reading without the constant temptation of social media.
When I read from a screen, the words fly. Somehow my brain focuses less on the words and more on getting to the next page. I don’t know why, but with a physical book I can concentrate on the words more closely, I feel the object in itself is a tangible thing, whereas the electronic format is stripped of that emotional charge and therefore more difficult to absorb.

Fr In spite of this disadvantage, there were a few pleasant surprises – the beginning of the story, for instance. I knew the general idea behind the story of Frankenstein – a human given life by scientist Victor Frankenstein, an experiment which went terribly wrong, not necessarily because of its completion but because neither the creator nor the created were prepared for the consequences of that act. I was not familiar with how Frankenstein came to tell his story and I’m glad that was a surprise; I will not reveal it, because if any of the readers of this blog plan to read the book, it’s better left unspoiled.

I found myself intrigued by the dilemma behind this extraordinary experiment – is the creator responsible for his creation, especially when that creation is a living, breathing creature? Or is he (or she) exempt from responsibility once the act of creation is completed? To make a parallel with Interview with the Vampire, wasn’t Lestat also responsible for Louis and Lavinia? Was it not his duty to educate them about the kind of beings they were turned into? But Victor Frankenstein, like Lestat, chose to ignore that responsibility and tragedy soon followed.

Even though his creation is called “monster”, it was difficult to condemn a man whose only wish was to live among people and experience compassion, friendship, love. His efforts to adapt to such a world were catastrophic – without guidance and no friend to lean on, he was constantly judged by his terrible looks and impressive stature, and wherever he went he inspired either fear or extreme anger. I pitied him and thought his maker could and should have guided him in the strange new world he suddenly found himself living in.

With no memory of life before the moment he woke up in the scientist’s lab, the “monster” was exposed to an environment he knew nothing about. Through observation and self-education he managed to understand the harsh reality, even teaching himself to speak and read, and could also present a compelling argument in a conversation, but his sheer size and general appearance rendered his efforts useless. Would he have been able to live a better life had Victor Frankenstein listened to his plea and made him a female companion? Would he have kept his promise of living in seclusion, far from the world of men, not harming anyone ever again? Or would the scientist’s fear of giving life to two such extraordinary creatures have been proven true?

Frankenstein’s creation brings up another question – can a man capable of showing emotions and intelligence but having a disturbing appearance live a semblance of a normal life among other people? Or is he forever condemned to be judged by his looks alone before he can even open his mouth? In a world obsessed with beauty I find this question more poignant than ever.
I felt empathy towards Frankenstein’s “monster”. Even this label – monster – makes me cringe, as I do not see him as such, but as a human brought back to life and thrown out into the world to survive on his own. His actions were terrible and tragic, and yet I couldn’t but blame Frankenstein for his blindness, for even if he was a learned man and a scientist, he lacked one of humanity’s most basic emotions – compassion.

My rating: 4/5 stars

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Flash fiction challenge – finishing the story

This week’s challenge at terribleminds is to finish someone else’s story in 500 words. So here it is:

The Shrine

(beginning by Doom and Gloom in Austin)

I don’t know why I have come back to this place. The old two-story building before me has never been a home in any sense of the word. It was more of a monument of suffering; a temple of affliction with my father as the high priest. There isn’t a room in this place that hasn’t been decorated with my blood at one point or another.
Now he’s gone and this house stands as the last testament to his brutality. So, why am I here? To find any shred of decency and happiness within and rescue it? Not likely. That all died with my mother when I was still an infant. What, then? Maybe to get one last look around before I sell it off? Or maybe, just maybe…to destroy this place.

I push the thoughts of setting the house ablaze aside and make my way up the steps to the porch. My hand grows ice cold with dread as I reach for the doorknob. It turns with a metallic grind and I push the door open. The smell of age and dust and stale cigarette smoke hits me in the face. My stomach lurches a bit with childhood panic. My skin prickles in remembrance of each and every cigarette burn mark given to me.

I slowly walk in and look around. Other than a thin layer of dust, nothing has changed in this place in 15 years. Every piece of furniture, every picture, every memento is exactly where it was when I was a child. Even the bloodstain on the rug in front of the fireplace is still where I last left it; black with age. I couldn’t say what I supposedly did or didn’t do to ‘earn’ that particular beating. They all ran together like a flipbook of pain. Each beating was partnered with the threat of much, much worse if I ever told anyone.
No, I still don’t know why I have come back to this place. It’s serving as nothing but a bruising reminder of my past. This place was filled with nothing but rage and fear and, in all the years, I never knew why.
Perhaps it’s best that this place and the past it harbors should be brought to the ground and removed from the world. Just blow out the pilot lights on the stove and let the place fill with gas. One spark and this place is consigned to Hell.

My footsteps carry me through the rest of the living room and into the dining room. Like the living room, nothing has changed here. The familiar setting brings forth the past in my mind once more. I shove aside the fresh wave of memories and continue to the door that leads to the kitchen.
Pushing it open, I stop short. Within the center of an otherwise unchanged kitchen is a large, round hole. Cautiously, I approach the edge and look down into the void.

Middle part by almosthuman1blog

The rhythm of ragged breath stutters as the sides of the hole undulate before me. Heat oozes over the jagged edges and pool around my feet, grasp at my knees. The kitchen swims around me and I begin to lose my balance. A hand grips my shoulder, pulls me from the edge. I am too frightened to turn. I slide to my knees, hands grasping the edge of the pit. I almost allow myself to topple forward into the gaping hole, but I pause. Anger grows inside me and I stand, the hand still pulling at my shoulder, and I allow myself to turn.

“Jacob.” It was him. My father, long and thankfully dead, stands before me, hand on my shoulder, smiling in my face as though nothing but love had ever passed between the two of us.
“It’s been a long time, my son. Too long.”
“Father.”
My tone is curt, cut short intentionally for fear if I allow myself to speak freely, I would unleash years of anguish, terror and pain in a single gasp and our conversation would end. Despite this man’s horrific actions toward me in the past, I want to hear what he has to say. I need it. I crave it.
“I was wondering when you would come back here, Jacob.”
I allow myself to be led to the dining room where my father pulls out a chair for me.
“Please,” he says. “Sit.”
I, as always, do as I am told. Now the old man places both his hands upon my shoulders, squeezing, patting as if he were making sure I am real. He exhales and mumbles something about how good it is to see me here. The room begins to smell of death and the heat from that hole in the kitchen roils its way into the dining room.
“I suppose you have some things you would like to discuss. About the past?”
“Yes,” I say forcefully, surprising myself. “I do.”
I feel the floor rumble. Hear floorboards crack. I turn to face the old man, but he turns away too quickly for me to catch his eyes. It seems his flesh leaves a smear in the air as he steps away from me.
“Your mother and I missed you. You realize that, don’t you? She was always so fond of you. She got so angry when you left.”
My skin begins to flush. Sweat pops up in beads on the backs of my hands. Whether it was anger or the rapidly increasing temperature in the room, I couldn’t tell.
“My mother died,” I shake my head, sweat dribbling into my eyes.
“I had to leave. I had to make your abuse stop. I had to protect myself. I had to leave.”
I begin to feel sick. Father whips around and slams his open palms down on the table before me. His eyes burn red and his flesh drips from his face.
“What if I told you your mother never died?”

The end (my contribution)

“You lie”.
He looks at me, a smile curving his lips.
“Am I? Have you seen her body?”
“I was too young, you know that.”

My mother had died when I was just a few months old. A series of women had taken care of me, my father’s girlfriends, a long line of them, each driven away by the man’s sadistic nature, his violent ways, his drunkenness.
He sits down heavily, facing me, his hands leaving shiny trails, like a snail’s, on the dusty table. I stare at him, revulsion and anger mixed inside me. I very much want to hit the man but I try not to. I don’t want to be like him. I clench my hands under the table.
“Your mother was always here with me until the day you left.”
“What?”

I stare at the man, and my brain refuses to accept what he just said. I close my eyes and see Janice, my mother’s sister, holding my hand, leading me towards my mother’s grave – a simple stone engraving with her name. That grave was all that was left of my mother.
“She always tried to protect you, you know.”
He stands up, and a piece of flesh from his right hand remains behind on the table. I stare at it, repelled but unable to look away.
“Pushing me away, hiding my belt, making me trip on the stairs. The more she tried the more I wanted to hurt you. And her.”

The heat had plastered my hair to my forehead and the shirt to my back. “If that is Hell”, I think looking towards the hole in the floor, “if that’s where he came from, I hope he roasts in there forever.”
I stand up. My voice comes out hoarse, my throat parched. I need a drink but I’d sworn off alcohol a year ago. It was easier to control my anger if I was sober.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why are you here?”
“How is that even possible?”

He turns to face me for a moment, his cheeks drooping. He has no eyebrows and no eyelashes, and the eyes look large and shiny, almost popping out of his face.
“One night a year…” his voice feels like sandpaper rubbed over my skin.
“…I can come back.”
I wait but he says nothing.
“Why? What do you want?”
He comes closer and I involuntarily take a step back. Waves of putrid smell emanate from him, making my eyes sting. He spreads his hands as if giving me a hug. His lips peel back and for a moment I think he is going to tear a chunk out of me.
“Why, can’t a man talk to his own son?”
Suddenly, I want no more of it. I run to the door and yank it open, stumble across the hallway and almost make it to the front door before I feel his hands grabbing me from behind, dragging me back to the stinking heat of that hole.

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Flash fiction challenge – Night Terror (middle of the story written by Dave)

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a flash fiction challenge hosted at terribleminds. I wrote the first part of a story. Somebody else was supposed to finish it. In the meantime rules got changed and the next person had to write the middle part instead of the end. Here’s my beginning, followed by Dave’s middle part. Next week we should know how the story ends. In case rules don’t change again, that is.

Night Terror – Part I (the beginning, by Delia)

The noise came again, and this time there could be no mistake: somebody was in the house. Worse, somebody was in my bedroom. I strained to hear, holding my breath, hoping that what I heard was just something from outside on the street, a drunk perhaps, a stray dog going through the garbage bins, but no. It was faint but unmistakably closer. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, trying to see in the dark without moving. It was there, a scratching sound on the wooden floor, like something scrabbling frantically in the same spot. Perhaps a rat, I thought as I lay, face up, cursing silently the fact that I stayed up late, trying to finish that damn book – the one with rats on the cover. No wonder I was imagining things.

The noise had stopped and nothing else could be heard, except for the occasional car going down the street but even that faded away and the fear began to loosen its grip on me. My eyes grew heavy, my body relaxed. Then it came again, closer, the scratching, and in my mind I saw a huge rat, as big as a cat, its teeth sharp and hungry for meat, the beady eyes glistening in the dark. I considered my options. Option one, pretend nothing happened, it was a nightmare (a persistent one at that) and try to go back to sleep. Option two, stretch out my hand over to the nightstand and turn on the light. Perhaps it was a small mouse and the light will frighten it. Or perhaps the light would scare it right into my bed.
I began to shiver under the blanket. I tried to move my hand as quietly as possible but the thing must have heard me and it stopped. I breathed slowly, trying to give myself courage. Now this is truly stupid, there is no rat, it was all in my head. I shifted slightly to the left, reaching out with my hand.

The noise began again, and this time it was so close it made my skin crawl and my heart beat like a war drum. It must be under the bed now, whatever it was. Perhaps I could use my pillow, swat it away. Or my tube of hair spray, or the chunky volume of ghost stories. All on my nightstand, if I could just reach over and turn on that light.
I inched closer, my fingers stretched to find the switch of the reading lamp. I knocked over an empty glass, and it tumbled to the floor, rolling, before coming to an abrupt stop. I cursed silently, and in the next instant I heard the scratching on the floor, followed by a soft thud. It was on the bed now, whatever it was. I bit my lip and swallowed the scream that threatened to spill out; I felt the blanket slipping from my body, slowly, cold air on my skin, my blood turning to ice…

Part II (middle of the story, by Dave)

Suddenly a giggle and a look of confusion washed over my face. It giggled again as it crawled closer to my face. Fumbling for the light and twisting the switch, I turned back into the face of a child.

The little boy smiled, “found you!” he squealed.

Her heart was still racing but the fear had all but disappeared. It wasn’t a woman eating rat a child, who wasn’t hers, right in front of her as if it was no big deal.

“Hi there little guy. How’d you get in here?” she asked in as soothing high pitch voice as she could muster.

“Mommy said I should go play hide and seek. So that’s what I did. I found you. You weren’t really hiding very well.”

I tried to recall who in the building had a child but nobody came to mind. Recovering and throwing a big smile, I asked where mommy was.

“She’s at home.” he replied as he sat on the bed, crossing his legs as if he’s ready for a story.

“Where’s that?”

“Hmm, I don’t know. At school we are learning where we live to help us.”

Great she thought. This kids probably 5 or so, doesn’t know where he lives and somehow got into my locked apartment.

“Well, why don’t we go into the kitchen and get something to eat. We can figure out where you live and take you home. Does that sound good?”

“Yeah, I guess. But mommy said to stay out until the sun comes up. And the sun isn’t up yet.”

She started moving off the bed, reaching for her robe and the boy followed. Walking down the hallway she finally asked the odd question.

“That’s a long time from now. Why did she want you to stay out so long?”

“She always says I should go explore at night. Because I feel better when I do. She’s right. I don’t feel good when the sun is up. Mommy says it’s a condition I have. I don’t remember what it is but she told me. I know she did.”

“How does some cereal sound?”

“Does it have marshmallows?” his face brightening.

“Sorry, no marshmallows.”

“Aww, man.” he said with defeat.

“But it’s got sugar” trying to cheer him back up.

“I guess. It’s not as good without the marshmallows.”

“Yeah, I agree”

They sat at her small table, the boy scarfing down the cereal and sipped some tea herself. He was pumping his legs back and forth while humming and chewing.

She started asking a series of questions that he might be able to answer, helping her narrow down where he lived.

“Do you live in this building?”

“No”

“One nearby?”

“No”

“Where do you live?”

“In the woods”

The woods she thought? She lived in the heart of a small town, the woods are a few miles away. Something wasn’t right and she went to grab the phone, something she should have done minutes ago.

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Flash fiction challenge – finishing somebody else’s story, sort of

Last week’s challenge over at terribleminds was to finish a story begun by somebody else. But this week Chuck’s gone and changed the rules, saying that this had to be the middle part of the story and not the end. On top of that, the limit is 500 words. Well, I have no problem with the first rule, as the story can be continued after my contribution (and I even have an idea about how to keep going) but I’m going to break the second rule and write more than the allowed number of words. So here’s the first part, courtesy of Kriti.

*

It was a dark and stormy night, the night that I was born. My mother gave birth without help because the villagers thought her cursed and dangerous. My father was absent, as always when the moon was dark.
Next day as she slept, my father’s servant came and slipped a bag of gold and jewels beneath her pillow; it wasn’t a gift from my father, but Renwick had a soft heart and had been fond of my mother. He also left a note, I still have it. It simply says that my father had left for England and that he might see me when he returned, but he never came back. He came to a bad end near Whitby; the English having proved to be less cowardly than the good folk of Transylvania.
As soon as she could get out of bed my mother slipped away, with me wrapped close to her body. She travelled east because her people came from beyond the mountains. I think her people were gypsies because she was a raven-haired beauty with a fiery temper. We never found her family, but I don’t think we’d have been welcome anyway.
The years of my childhood were years of constant travel; we’d stay a few months somewhere, my mother would prostitute herself to make money and sometimes she would sell a jewel. She never stayed long anywhere because she knew I would eventually give us away. I had my father’s taste for blood and I would scream constantly until my needs were met.
When I was about ten years old we met an elderly monk travelling the same hills as us. We camped together and he talked all night with my mother. The next day instead of heading to the large town in the valley we accompanied the monk on his journey home.
At his monastery I was drugged and bound while my mother sobbed. When I awoke my mouth was pure agony. My lips were swollen and I had no teeth.
The monk came to see me.
‘Your poor mother has suffered long for her sins. We have taken you so that she can be free to live with ordinary people. You will not see her again; however we will love and care for you. We will teach you how to live a good life.’
The first years were terrible. The monks’ diet was vegetarian, but it did me no good to scream or threaten. They would smile, pray and put me in solitary confinement for a day or two. The same cycle would repeat until I was willing to eat their food. I still do not like rice but I learned that it fills the belly. Discipline was strict but they didn’t make me take part in their worship, instead I was allowed to read or draw. Some months later, as they knew I would, I asked to join them in the temple. I began to be a Buddhist.
A life of tranquil peace and study was mine until the day the armies came.

********************** My contribution***************************

One morning, the field in front of the temple was empty, the next, it was black with soldiers, some on horseback, most of them walking, the noise of their armor piercing the quiet like sharp spears driven through the flesh.
The monks gathered in the meditation area, a room without walls, the roof supported by great pillars of stone, unadorned. No one knew who the armies belonged to and no one seemed to concern themselves with that.

‘We cannot interfere, the monks told me, but we will take care of the wounded after the battle is over.’

I nodded my assent, but inside my blood stirred, and for the first time in months I felt the pangs of a familiar hunger.
The battle began the same day, and I watched from my small room as the field was soaked in the blood of the fallen and the air carried the shouts of the dying to my window; I grew restless, like a caged animal.
Visions of blood greeted my mornings and haunted my dreams at night. And for the first time since the day my mother left, my teeth began to grow again. White, strong teeth, the incisors sharp and long, and I drew blood every time I ran my tongue over them. And with them came pain, and I didn’t know which was worse, my teeth growing or my unnatural hunger.

The monks saw, and wanted to restrain me, but the head monk didn’t let them.
‘Now is the time, he said, when temptation is hardest. You must fight this, for if you give in, all is lost. Think of all these years you lived here with us, of the quiet life you have, of what you have accomplished.’
I didn’t say anything. He didn’t know how hard it was to live like this, didn’t know how close I’d come to losing my mind that day when one of the monks had cut himself with a kitchen knife while cooking. I can still see the bright red blood on the blade, and the smell nearly drove me insane. The monk saw me and turned away quickly. No one would turn away now, the field was red with blood day after day.

Then the nightmares came. A dark figure cloaked in black, with fiery red eyes staring at me. He would point to the field outside my window and say, ‘Drink, my son, this is for you.’ But he was dead, wasn’t he? Renwick had written to my mother years ago of his death and I had accepted it, although I sometimes wondered what kind of man my father was and why my mother never spoke of him.
I tried to forget about it and spent my days and nights avoiding sleep, hunched over ancient books and even more ancient scrolls in the library. The candle light threw a sickly yellow shade on the texts, and for small stretches of time I was able to forget about my hunger, although the pain still beat a rhythm in my head. The food had no taste for me anymore. The monks’ rice and boiled vegetables were tasteless anyway, and the one spice we were permitted, salt, made me thirsty beyond belief.

Then one night I went out to the fields. The battle had been more vicious that day, and corpses littered the ground. Flies were already at work on the bodies, and I could hear their buzz and see them crawling in the faint moonlight. I drank in the rich coppery smell of blood, and felt it coursing through my body. For a moment, a spell of dizziness came upon me and I swayed on my feet. It passed.
I touched one of the dead. He was still warm but lifeless, a deep gash in his neck already black with flies. I turned away in disgust and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe I had learned to control my hunger, I thought. Maybe the years spent among the monks have finally paid off. As I turned to leave, movement caught my eye – a white sleeve, a small hand. I turned and walked towards it, and waves of hunger crashed over me with each and every step. It was a woman in a white dress stained with blood, and she was crying over one of the fallen, a hand on his bearded face. She didn’t see me as I came from behind and wrapped my hands around her slender neck.

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Deliver Us from Evil (2014) – movie review

Deliver us from evil Demons. Possession. Exorcism. Death. Faith or lack thereof. Just a few words that would be perfect to describe this movie. A New York police officer (Eric Bana) and his partner (Joel McHale) become entangled in a series of weird cases. They are helped by a Catholic priest (Edgar Ramirez) to get to the source of the evil that seems to connect the cases they’re working on.

I’ve been waiting for this movie, thinking it would be perfect for R.I.P.. I even bought a ticket for seat number 13. The left armrest was broken, and halfway through the movie the white cloth on the headrest two chairs over flapped gently in the breeze of the air-conditioning. There was one other person sitting at the end of the row, far away from me, so that was a bit ghost-like. It made me smile.

The movie itself is neither better nor worse than your average horror movie. It even has a couple of funny moments, but what I found the most interesting was the reference to a song by The Doors, which played an important part in the overall plot of the movie. The imagery was disturbing and quite well done, still, I found sounds and half covered faces a lot more sinister than the blood.
I liked that the exorcism scene wasn’t over the top, like the one they filmed in jail, where a demon had taken over the body of a woman. That was a bit too overdone and it lost some of the creepy potential. The contorted face and noises almost made me laugh. This one, however, was just enough to get the point across and quite convincing.
Another bonus point goes to the characters played by Ramirez and Bana – the priest has his sins, and so does the cop, and in confessing them they are stripped of the aura of perfection. They might be heroes, but they are flawed nevertheless.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, there are scratching noises on the floor and under the bed, and considering I’ve seen this movie the day after writing the beginning of a story with plenty of scratching noises, I try to tell myself that this is just a silly coincidence.
Overall, this is a good movie. Definitely not as grim as Silent Hill for example, but with a mix of elements that work well together. As for the horror factor, it falls somewhat in the middle. Not too soft but not that scary either.

My rating: 7/10

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Flash fiction challenge – Night Terror

It’s been almost two years since I wrote a flash fiction challenge. The first time it was a 100 word challenge called The Heart. Today’s challenge: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/09/05/flash-fiction-challenge-the-first-half-of-a-story-only/
I cannot end it, but if you want to, feel free and let me know so I can come over and see if she lives…or not…

*

The noise came again, and this time there could be no mistake: somebody was in the house. Worse, somebody was in my bedroom. I strained to hear, holding my breath, hoping that what I heard was just something from outside on the street, a drunk perhaps, a stray dog going through the garbage bins, but no. It was faint but unmistakably closer. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, trying to see in the dark without moving. It was there, a scratching sound on the wooden floor, like something scrabbling frantically in the same spot. Perhaps a rat, I thought as I lay, face up, cursing silently the fact that I stayed up late, trying to finish that damn book – the one with rats on the cover. No wonder I was imagining things.

The noise had stopped and nothing else could be heard, except for the occasional car going down the street but even that faded away and the fear began to loosen its grip on me. My eyes grew heavy, my body relaxed. Then it came again, closer, the scratching, and in my mind I saw a huge rat, as big as a cat, its teeth sharp and hungry for meat, the beady eyes glistening in the dark. I considered my options. Option one, pretend nothing happened, it was a nightmare (a persistent one at that) and try to go back to sleep. Option two, stretch out my hand over to the nightstand and turn on the light. Perhaps it was a small mouse and the light will frighten it. Or perhaps the light would scare it right into my bed.
I began to shiver under the blanket. I tried to move my hand as quietly as possible but the thing must have heard me and it stopped. I breathed slowly, trying to give myself courage. Now this is truly stupid, there is no rat, it was all in my head. I shifted slightly to the left, reaching out with my hand.

The noise began again, and this time it was so close it made my skin crawl and my heart beat like a war drum. It must be under the bed now, whatever it was. Perhaps I could use my pillow, swat it away. Or my tube of hair spray, or the chunky volume of ghost stories. All on my nightstand, if I could just reach over and turn on that light.
I inched closer, my fingers stretched to find the switch of the reading lamp. I knocked over an empty glass, and it tumbled to the floor, rolling, before coming to an abrupt stop. I cursed silently, and in the next instant I heard the scratching on the floor, followed by a soft thud. It was on the bed now, whatever it was. I bit my lip and swallowed the scream that threatened to spill out; I felt the blanket slipping from my body, slowly, cold air on my skin, my blood turning to ice…

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The Unpierced Heart or The Whores’ Asylum – Katy Darby

RIP 9 badge Last weekend I went to a second hand bookstore to sell some of the books I’ve had for a long time. They had been exiled to a box for many years, for lack of space (and interest, I admit, though not all) – their pages turning brown and spotty with humidity – as newer or more desirable copies have been slowly filling my two bookcases. Unless I win the lottery and buy a villa with a capacious library, I must, from time to time, exchange the old for the new.
I went there with a list of books I wanted to read, by Robert McCammon, James Herbert and Shirley Jackson, but was unable to find them. What I got was something I hadn’t been looking for, and as it turned out, a very nice surprise.

The name of the book and its author are new to me, but the blurb at the back and the first few pages that I read made me fall for it on the spot. I spent two days reading it, in a kind of half-awake state that only a good book can give, the kind where you wish time could stop until you got to the end.

The Unpierced Heart Described as a “Gothic romance”, it begins with the story of Edward Fraser who, fearing his death is near, is writing to his son, Stephen. He has a tragic tale to write, that of Stephen’s mother and of his dear friend Stephen Chapman, after whom his son is named. Told mostly from his perspective, it is a tale fraught with tragedy and poisoned by evilness. In true Victorian style, it has an array of characters ranging from fallen women and brutal, vicious men, to artists, doctors and university students; ambitions are shattered, lives destroyed by sickness and revenge, and above all, a great love story.

Edward and Stephen were students at Oxford in 1887 when they met and formed a lasting friendship that was unbroken even in death. They made an interesting pair, a Sherlock meets Watson type of camaraderie founded on common interests such as debating various topics – Edward was studying to be a clergyman or possibly a professor, while Stephen was an exceptional medical student dedicated to the field of obstetrics. When Stephen was offered the opportunity to work at a shelter for reforming fallen women, he was able to bring his passion for his work to the aid of those unfortunate and shunned by society.
That is how he met Diana, a young woman whose beauty had shattered lives and left behind nothing but sorrow. Edward knew about Diana’s disreputable past and warned his friend, but Stephen was too in love to care. But all was not well when the lies Diana had told in the past came back to haunt her present, and the truth became difficult to see behind their tangled web. Was Diana the unscrupulous woman Edward thought her to be, a femme-fatale bent on ensnaring the young and unsuspecting for a respectable place in society, or was there something more to the story?

The book is divided into five parts, with each part dedicated to a character, four men and a woman, their stories connected. Edward is the main narrator, but Stephen and Diana get to tell their own version as well in the form of letters, which gives the whole story an intimate feeling. The language is true to the period, the turns and flourishes making for a perfect immersion in the Victorian era.

I liked this book very much. There are no ghosts here but there’s a dungeon, a half-mad villain, death, and star-crossed lovers. The pace is quick, the mysteries abound, and the end, tragic. I liked the characters, the two friends most of all, and admired Stephen for his strength and for never giving up on his friend. He made his own mistakes along the way but tried to atone for them as best he could. I also liked the references to mythology in the explanation of how the young woman came to be named Diana (not her real name). If you’re a fan of novels set in Victorian times, this is a great choice.

Although I had many other books lined up for R.I.P IX, this goes to show, and not for the first time either, that plans can change out of the blue. The Unpierced Heart fits in perfectly with the requirements for this reading challenge – mystery, thriller, gothic.

Some of my favorite passages:

“Chapman confessed to me once that he believed in neither salvation nor damnation, unless it was upon this earth, in our hearts; in this life. Once, I thought this meant he could not be saved. I am no longer that blind an unyielding man – but even when I was, I should gladly have swapped places with him. I imagined that my spotless soul would descend and his rise, and perhaps, when we passed, there would be a moment of recognition; no more. And now I wonder whether he was not right, after all; for I can imagine no damnation more absolute and no Hell bleaker than a world without love in it.”

“It is through you that my life has gained purpose and sweetness. These are words fathers do not say to their sons, nor husbands to their wives, yet they should be said, and often; for love is the pearl beyond price, the divine gift, which raises us above our weak and imperfect selves and burns with a hard, astonishing flame against death’s darkness. The grave is cold and silent enough, and soon enough in coming. We ought not to be cold and silent too.”

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August-September, 2014

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R.I.P. IX – intro post

RIP 9 badge My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold-
Some vault that oft has flung its black
And winged panels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,
Of her grand family funerals-
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portal she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone-
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

(Edgar Allan Poe – excerpt from “The Sleeper”)

I’ve been waiting for this event to start for months now, but when I saw Carl’s post this rainy morning I still could not believe it. Surely, it’s not September yet, I said to myself and rushed to check the calendar. It may not be September but this doesn’t mean we can’t start early. This makes me very, very happy, because I’ve been choosing my books all year and watched them lovingly, wondering which I should read first. So I sat down to write this post to the sound of Sister of Night by Depeche Mode which is a dark, dark song, and perfect for the occasion.

If you’re new to this, R.I.P. is short for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, a reading event which takes place every year from September 1st to October 31st. During this time you can read anything from these categories:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.

You can also watch movies that fall into these categories and there’s even a read-along of “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson hosted by The Estella Society. I’m hoping to join if I find a copy of the book this weekend.
Many thanks to Carl for hosting this event – in its 9th year now, and may it go on for many more – and to Abigail Larson, the artist who created the gorgeous badges.

These are the books I would like to read, plus Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which I found on projectguttenberg.com and so I’ll be reading it on my tablet. I’m probably not going to be able to read them all, considering that two of them are short story collections (and quite chunky, too) but one can only hope.
Now, the question is, which should be first? Any suggestions?
Are you taking part in R.I.P. this year? What are you planning to read?

RIP pic 1

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On the Holloway Road – Andrew Blackman

After reading A Virtual Love last year, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to read On the Holloway Road, Andrew Blackman’s first novel who won the Luke Bitmead Award in 2008.

Because it was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was a little worried that I might miss something important if I don’t read that one first, but decided to go ahead and read it anyway. Perhaps I’ll read Kerouac’s book one day, but I’m in no hurry.

On the Holloway Road The story follows Jack and Neil, two young men in their twenties who strike a friendship one night in London, on the Holloway Road. Jack lives with his mother and dreams of one day finishing his novel, a complicated story that he had been trying to complete for a while with no success. Neil is a drifter, a free spirit who takes things as they come, whose exuberance and joy for living are mixed with a carefree attitude and little thought to consequences. Neil lives in the now. Jack lives in the shadow of it. Both of them are united by a lack or purpose, of a tangible goal, until they decide to take a road trip in Jack’s car, follow the road, have adventures, see what might happen. But their dream of embracing the spontaneity of the unknown doesn’t quite fit with the regulations of the present. There are rules to be obeyed, and before long Jack breaks a few, which makes him constantly worry about having his driver’s license revoked.

Neil is exciting to be with. His brash actions, loud mouth and exuberant attitude make Jack feel like a pale copy of who he thinks he should be. Neil is the spark, the adventure, the unknown. He is a shooting star, a meteorite burning brightly before crashing to the earth, the flame that burns the moths attracted to its light. He wants something new, something fascinating, something that’s never been tried before, while Jack is just content to tag along in the hope that some of his friend’s enthusiasm for life will rub off on him. He admires Neil but he’s also a little afraid of him. Although he would like to be more excited about things going on around him, he feels he can’t. In a way, it felt like something was holding him back, what that was, I don’t know. Fear perhaps, of standing out too much, of breaking the rules, while trying in his quiet way small acts of rebellion against the system – not owning a cell phone or holding a job.
Over the course of their trip they discuss friendship, work, and that ever present issue, the purpose of life.

As I was reading I was wandering what will happen in the end, how long will the trip last, what revelation will they come to. Will they find a purpose, a solution, a conclusion, a job, maybe Jack will finally catch a break and finish that novel, perhaps even become famous, and will Neil finally quench that anger that seems to be burning inside him, making him restless and volatile? In a way, I dreaded the ending, because I knew my expectations were unrealistic, but I was unable to let go of hope, of something better for the protagonists after their modern day trials. I was not disappointed. The end came crashing, and it was fitting, even though I had hoped for something less heart wrenching. I had hoped that Jack would finally be able to shake that feeling of gloom and do something, anything that would lift him from the pit he seemed to be descending into day by day. I even think he managed to climb up halfway at least when he met Neil, but it didn’t last long. In the end, he was down even deeper.

On the Holloway Road is the perfect name for this adventure of self discovery, not only because that is the way the two protagonists take to get out of the city, but because even though the journey brings about some self discoveries, in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all like the name of the road, hollow.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 5 Comments