The Importance of Sound; the Magnitude of Silence

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You know the feeling you have when you leave a Fast and Furious film and the drive home is impossible to make without wanting to race someone? Or the feeling you had after leaving a Spy Kids film and pretending that your watch is really a secret communication device? You come out feeling so part of that world that your imagination just keeps going after the movie is over. Now apply that to the last horror film you saw and take away the sound and it still probably wouldn’t be half as amazing as A Quiet Place. The blinker in my car on the way home unnerved me and as I was sitting at the stop light waiting to turn, I anticipated something darting out of the dark towards me. It was in these few moments when I also realized how tightly I had been clenching my jaw.

John Krasinski has directed before in the comedy genre making A Quiet Place his terror filled debut, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay for and produced. For all of that I would like to say, “mad props, man.” This film is amazingly directed and wonderfully sound designed and suspenseful as all get out! It is becoming more and more frequent that blockbuster movies are serialized or rebooted leaving stories to become less and less original. Horror, however, continues to delve deeper into human psychology and exploring societal fears. Take the complexity of a family dynamic and add in a dystopian future in which sound is what triggers your enemy and you’ve got a roller coaster of emotional silence. It is that silence that makes this film so powerful and effective.

The Abbott family lives in a present where strange creatures have taken out the majority of the population. Due to the necessity of silence, we are not able to be given any sort of exposition so things like newspaper headlines are used for context in a fairly heavy handed but necessary manner. Very quickly we learn the consequences of this world when the rules for survival are broken. Very quickly we learn that this movie is not fucking around. American Sign Language is used to communicate throughout the film and because of this you are completely immersed in the silence within the Abbott family’s household and daily life. When the norm of this deafening silence is broken, as an audience member, you can feel the tension rise in you at breakneck speed. What is done with the sound is smartly done to match the tone of the scene. There are long stretches in which nothing comes from the theater’s speakers except ambient noise; in these moments you notice the soft whisper the wind makes in the cornstalks on the farm and the rustling of leaves in the trees. As soon as a louder sound is made though the cellos and violins are cued up and tug on your heartstrings. It is remarkable just how terrifying combining no sound with abrupt sound can be. The music that is heard during tense or emotional moments is such an integral part of the storytelling in this film. Whether it is underscoring a love filled glance between husband and wife or alerting you to an oncoming threat, the music fills the scenes fully and oftentimes quickly.

This anxiety is played upon over the course of the whole film and is heightened by using true silence to underscore danger even further. One of the Abbott’s children, Regan, is deaf and occasionally we slip into her perspective and everything goes away. She experiences this catastrophe in a completely different way than the rest of the world.  Because of this, when she is supposed to be feeling anxious but is unaware you are again jerked around by this film because you have more information in that scene than she does.

Mix the importance that hearing has in this reality with a family tragedy and you’ve got a recipe for emotional misunderstandings. The people in their family are all that these characters have. Because of this is it crucial that they work together to help make life work. The relationship between father and children, man and wife, and mother and children are each well written and conveyed. Story is as important in this instance as facial expressions in conveying the tale at hand. Not only are Emily Blunt (Evelyn) and John Krasinski (Lee) great at this silent acting, the kids are too. Millicent Simmonds (Regan), Noah Jupe (Marcus), and Cade Woodward (Beau) are able to communicate fear, love, and confusion with painful clarity. The father/daughter angle always gets me in movies and this one is no different. When tragedy befalls the family Regan and Lee’s relationship becomes strained. Simmonds plays the moody teenager impeccably and you are able to see the stubbornness of youth mingle with the fear that being deaf in this world has infused her with. Blunt and Krasinski work as a good team in seeing their kids through these scary times. At one point Blunt asks, “who are we if we can’t protect them?” The lengths that parents go to to raise their children in our reality is sometimes unfathomable and so to do it in this one is even loftier. These two adults have to be 100% aware of everything all the time and mind the children at the same time. Don’t make a noise. Don’t step off the established path. Be careful. Be quiet. Imagine all of these stresses bearing down on a marriage and see the grace with which these two operate. Krasinski  is a dutiful husband and father whose sole job is now to protect his family. He is stoic and expresses an intense determination over the course of the film. There is no comedy from him in this role, he is as serious as you can get and he does it wonderfully. Blunt’s motherly role as protector of her babes is touching and the pain and struggle that plays across her face is beautiful.

The intensity of this movie is felt in sight and sound and the lack thereof. There are jump scares and silent scares; creeping dread and sudden “holy shit”. Your body goes on a journey with the Abbott’s and I don’t know how a single person will see this movie without holding their breathe and clenching their jaw. Silence is a powerful tool and to place a whole premise on the notion of having to be as quiet as possible in a film is a welcome tool utilized by Krasinski in getting tension and emotion across to an audience.

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With all that being said, I hope your theater is a quiet place and I would like to take this moment to encourage you to be mindful of what you are eating if viewing at a Drafthouse type theater. Don’t order something crunchy and be like the guy sitting next to me chomping loudly at tense moments. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

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The terrors of Netflix

Over the last couple of weeks I have spent a serious amount of time watching new and new-ish horror films with the Netflix brand stamped across the title’s thumbnail. With a seemingly endless network of films, and more constantly being suggested to you, I began to wonder how much of this content was actually worth watching. As viewers we don’t really have the ability to have insight into the performance of Netflix titles like you do with TV’s Nielsen ratings and the movie’s with their box office. Because of this, viewers must rely on the 97% match for “what you might like” offered up by Netflix’s algorithms.

Some of these suggestions are great. But some of them are really not. In addition to the titles that the program suggests to you “because you watched x” there is also the option to see what is Trending on Netflix. Sometimes I wonder, however, how much of what is trending is trending because Netflix wants it to trend? For example, the films that I will be detailing below are a mixture of those that I searched on my own or had recommended to me by friends along with those that Netflix suggested or said were trending. One of the trending ones in particular was my least favorite of all the titles I watched.

To start things off, I tried watching the new installment in the Jeepers Creepers series. When I first heard that there was not only going to be a new film but two new films I was filled mostly with hesitation. Why bring new life to something that was so well done the first time and still well done the second? Leave that tale be, I say. The fist two are incredibly creepy films that didn’t need any follow up. Sure, the way that the second film ends leaves it open for a follow up…or maybe it was just a creepy cliffhanger that should’ve been left hanging. Jeepers Creepers 3 is supposed to take place after the events of the first and before the second. However, very quickly into the movie, events occur which mess with the original narrative’s timeline. We know at the end of one, the Creeper goes back to his lair to skin Darry. So it does not make sense when he shows up very quickly into 3. Also, his truck can all of a sudden drive and defend itself? There are a bunch of little things to knit pick minutes in to the film. Additionally, the dialogue is TERRIBLE. Three’s premise is that the surviving cops and a task force of “Creeper hunters” band together to stop the monster. There is also a subplot in which the Creeper is believed to be heading somewhere specific to retrieve a body part that was stolen from it during it’s last spree. How do we know about this plot? Gaylen Brandon’s son was killed by the Creeper but not before he buried a piece of it on his family’s farm…his ghost or some schizophrenic vision is what illuminates her to the Creeper’s return.  Full disclosure, I maybe made it 45 minutes in to the 100 minute run time.

If you’re a fan of the first two, don’t bother with this new addition in Jeepers Creepers 3. 

Next on the docket was The Ritual which was suggested to me by a coworker who shares my taste in film. Holy cow what a well done film! We are with a group of friends who have recently suffered a loss of one of their own. Every year they go on holiday together in Sweden and this one looks like its shaping out to be the last one. Their friendships are devolving after the traumatic event which led to their friend’s death. After paying tribute to the fallen comrade, the group decides to cut through a giant forest to get back to the city/hotel where they’re staying. This short cut will save them time as one of them is injured and the rest are exhausted. WHEN HAS A SHORT CUT THROUGH THE WOODS EVER BEEN A GOOD IDEA?!?! However, without them going into said woods, there would be no movie because that is where all the terrifying action takes place. When it becomes clear that they are not going to make it back by nightfall, the group serendipitously stumbles upon a creepy Baba Yaga type cabin which they deem a perfectly  suitable place to spend the night. This even after they discover a strange human shaped statue praying at an alter in the upstairs of the cabin. Unsurprisingly, none of them sleeps well and things definitely go bump in the night. As the film progresses we are given shadowy glimpses of a creature which seems to be hunting them. This holding back of the big bad makes their experience all the more scary. It never comes in to plain sight and frequently you are left questioning whether something just happened or if it was all in the character’s mind. The lore we learn about this creature of the forest is very interesting and ancient and by the end of the film you are as horrified about what has happened as any reasonable person should be. The Ritual is a very well done film with mad props to the monster and also to the ending.

You should most assuredly watch this movie.

Next up: The Hallow. This title has been recommended to me by Netflix many times and I have always skipped over it…not really sure why. I am glad I did finally watch it however because it was a really interesting movie. They took old Irish fae lore and tied it in with present science and deforestation. A family moves to a small town in Northern Ireland where the husband has been assigned to examine the trees and surrounding wildlife in an area that is set to be leveled. At first, the warnings from neighbors are ignored and brushed aside. Oh you silly country folk, believing in your fairy tales is the general vibe we get from Adam and Clare as they settle into their new home. However, very quickly, they realize that these warnings really should have been taken seriously especially because there is a baby present! At least for the baby’s sake take precaution, I beg of you! It is almost as though Adam and Clare have never listened to an episode of the Lore podcast. Fae are known to cause mischief and are also known for baby swapping a la leaving you a changeling that looks like your babe but isn’t. Putting aside their ignorance of folk lore, the two main characters (there are really only a couple of characters) try to defend their home and themselves. The Hallow is a tale of what happens when you disrespect culture and history. The fae creatures are interestingly constructed and eerie in the same sense that the original Evil Dead had a creepy woods. One look is all you need to know it is haunted. How they make out in the end is well constructed if not predictable. However, despite the film’s predictability, it is still a compelling man vs. nature story.

If you’re looking for something haunting, this is it.

After The Hallow I dove into Netflix’s new adaptation of The Mist. This is another one that I was hesitant about. While I have not read the book I do adore the film which came out in 2007. A decade later, I did not believe that there needed to be another version of the story. I mean, all you have to do is say, “that ending though!” (no pun intended) to sum up the grace of that film. That being said, I became addicted to this show. There is something to be said for books (especially horror and thriller titles) being made in to series as opposed to films.  With the extended medium of a show, the writers and creators are able to have so much more space to develop stories and cultivate real, human encounters. I wouldn’t say this should be the new norm, however, it certainly does help with exposition and character bonds. The show was able to deal with some interesting issues that I don’t think would have been able to be appropriately conveyed in the span of one film. Because of this, we get to know the characters on the show a little more deeply. Nature and it’s self-correcting course is a big theme as is religion and judgement. In this iteration, however, we also deal with rape and a girl’s inability to remember what exactly happened to her the day before the mist started. Because of this, several of our narrators are unreliable, causing even more intrigue. While this aspect certainly adds to the suspense, there is a lot of victim blaming and slut shaming regarding two of the female leads which made me incredibly uncomfortable. Aside from that, the primary makeup of the story is the same: a mist rolls in to town, people are trapped where they are when it comes (in this case a mall and a church provide the primary settings), and a family is separated. Alex and Eve Copeland are stuck in the mall while Kevin tries everything in his power to reach them. Risking going into the mist himself, Kevin is able to assemble a ragtag band of fellows whose aim is to get to the mall. Alternitavely, their neighbor, Mrs. Raven is stuck in the church with a bunch of believers. It is interesting to me that this iteration took more of a natural selection take as opposed to a god is judging us take (made so well known in 2007 by Marcia Gay Harden). There is also, as before, a mysterious military base to which is alluded several times. Do they have something to do with this? Are they going to come save the townspeople? As the season ends, we have just as many questions as we did to start with only a couple of answers having been gleaned along the way. While the writing and story structure is sometimes lacking, I think that is made up for in the intrigue created by Stephen King with the original concept. We shall see what season two brings.

A nice show to binge during a rainy day.

Finally and most recently in my horror viewing I watched Veronica. Many of you will have heard about this title from Twitter in conjuncture with swears of it being the absolute most terrifying movie ever. To those I say, calm the eff down. While Veronica is a beautifully well done movie and maintains its 90’s style impeccably, it is more thoughtful than horrific. Veronica and two of her friends use a ouija board to reach out to her deceased father during an eclipse. Does she reach her dead parent? Nope! But something else slips out of the ether instead and follows her home where it terrorizes Veronica and her younger siblings. This film is largely made up of child actors and they are so on point with their reactions and facial expressions. While there are a couple of truly spooky moments, I was much more captivated by the children and the setting than with the story. The lighting, music, and acting are so on par…plus its a Mexican film and because of this we get more of the show don’t tell evident in most horror and lacking in American produced films. Unlike movies of it’s kind (Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Conjuring, and Insidious), Veronica doesn’t have the parent calling for help, Veronica tries to deal with this on her own, creating tragedy and suspense all at the same time. I can understand why it scared people. There is a particular scene in which the thing that is haunting Veronica appears after a wardrobe door is closed (classic move) and begins a slow walk towards her. That was creepy af. There is another scene in which Veronica sees through a window something that is happening in the other side of the house (think wrap around building like when Maggie Grace’s character can see the kidnappers in Taken) and because we have such an affinity with her young siblings, we as the viewer are as freaked out as she is!

If you scare easily, watch Veronica with a friend. If you don’t scare easily, watch it by yourself with the lights off! Either way, you should watch Veronica because of it’s haunting effect.

Taking all of this in to account, I would say that I gravitate towards horror films that are made in or set in foreign countries. While this is something that I already knew about myself, it seems to be proven as somewhat of an informer in what will be a better film. There are creepy crawlies much more terrifying in other countries. I think this is because America is still so relatively new. For example, the creature that haunts the forest in The Ritual is thought to be centuries old and the fae in Ireland are just as ancient.

There are so many films and series on Netflix that this exercise could be kept up for years and a viewer would still not be able to watch them all. That being said, these films are a good place to start. Next on my list is Re:Mind which is a Japanese horror series set at a dinner table. Eleven high school aged girls have a secret and they are trapped at said table, which carries upon it torture traps and devices, until they can piece together why. It seems equal parts Saw and Memento.

What are you excited to watch? Let me know in the comments below!

Annihilation

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To annihilate something is to obliterate it; to cause something to cease existing. Such a finite word, such a fine word, don’t you think? The complete destruction of a thing. There is a menacing beauty in the complete erasure of a noun. This menacing beauty is captured in the enchanting work of Alex Garland (Ex Machina) in the newly released Annihilation. Adapted from the book of the same name, Annihilation is told to us in a disorienting non linear fashion. Lena’s husband has been gone for a year, Lena is in a clean room being interrogated and unable to remember things clearly, Lena explores a secret zone of national park that has been closed down due to the effects of a meteor. There is much that Lena (Natalie Portman) doesn’t know and the switching between time lines non chronologically makes for a perplexity on par with subject matter that is the cause for everything in Annihilation. The way that this movie and everything in it is shot makes for a dazzling and terrifying and smart film.

The dazzling:

The Shimmer is a biosphere like dome that is slowly expanding and enveloping the lands around a lighthouse which was hit by a meteor. The teams that go in to the Shimmer don’t return so no one has been able to gauge what goes on inside. We journey with an all female team of scientists to see what is on the other side. Three years have transpired since the initial impact and in that time the life inside the Shimmer has had time to grow and thrive in a beautifully alien way. Every shot of the environment inside somehow contains a rainbow whether in light or in flora and fauna. The scenery is at times scary and yet beautiful at the same time. There is a scene in a drained swimming pool that shows death and life intertwined so organically and you sit there thinking about how breathtaking what you are looking at is…and then you remind yourself what you are looking at…and its terrifying.

The terrifying:

The amount of times I realized that I was holding my breath was pretty high by the end of this film. “The monster” is so thoroughly portrayed and yet still unable to be understood. Crocodiles, bears, each other, and on and on…the tricks that this film play on your mind are never ending. One thing that I loved was that you would start to feel comfortable as an audience member, thinking that there was a definite genre path that a scene was taking and then all of a sudden something totally different would happen (again with the disorienting) and you would be left speechless or scared. Garland does not over explain Anything. This is one of the most well paced part one films that I feel like I’ve seen in a while. By the end we are left with as many questions as we had in the beginning, if not more. The enigma that is the Shimmer is so appropriately otherworldly and as we are taken deeper and deeper in we see an endless amount of possibilities that revolve around the very make up of life on Earth. Biology and DNA are used to explain terrifying sights, psychology is used to explain the terrifying behavior of humans under extreme circumstances, nature is used to show us how terrifying our lack of understanding is. All of these elements combined with the twisty turny track of the film are able to terrify while giving us a story that is so smart.

The smart:

As mentioned above, the pacing of this movie and the amount of information we are given is phenomenal. There was not a lot of clunky exposition and at times you just have to accept that there are some things you might not know. In my head throughout the film I kept thinking things like, “ya but what about…x…” and then the story would be moving on and you would just have to wonder about it. I think that that adds fuel to the terrifying aspect to the film too. In addition to the plot of the story, the way in which Garland directs and shows us the story is so thoughtful. There is a scene that is shot with the visual focus on the other side of a water glass. The image is distorted by the water. Tiny things like this are peppered throughout the whole of Annihilation tying in the theme of disorientation in every way possible. But what is good writing and amazing visuals without a great cast rounding things out? The expedition team that we follow is made of five women who are strong and smart and not led by any men. While the number of characters in the film as a whole is pretty small, only like three of them are men. The women carry and lead this film in a wonderfully strong way. They are smart and refreshing and pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

There is so much more I want to say about Annihilation however I don’t know how to go further without giving any major spoilers and this is a film that really needs to be seen and not spoiled. I’ve heard that the book is pretty different from the film. I’ve definitely added the trilogy to my reading list (you can read more about the Southern Reach Trilogy here). Do yourself a favor: see this movie.

Alternate Reality Podcasts

My love of podcasts boarders on obsessed. There’s endless amount of hours of interviews, news, comedy, and on and on to keep you entertained and informed on pretty much any subject you can think up. Podcasts, for those of you who do not know, are essentially talk radio on demand and this isn’t my first mention of them here (check out my article on Presidential). Every morning I walk my dog and listen to Rachael Maddow and First Up and when I am closing up shop at my job, I listen to any of the many shows produced by Crooked Media, more news. I also have go-to’s for interview and information shows in Star Talk Live and The Nerdist. These shows and many others  have become so integrated in my days that in the rare occasion that I’ve listened to all the new shows in my queue, I feel off. I learn from these shows and I’ve found comfort in the voices of the hosts. Sometimes I will have them on just running in the background, only half listening. Maybe I’m cooking or cleaning…never when I’m writing though, that would be difficult! Sometimes however there are ones that are not able to be half listened to but instead need to be carefully paid attention to.

Alternate reality podcasts suck me in like nothing else.

In October of 1938 Americans across the country broke into a panic as Orson Welles and a company of actors and musicians live read the science fiction radio drama The War of the Worlds. The broadcast reached millions of homes over the airwaves the night before Halloween proclaiming that aliens had touched down and there was an attack underway. For its first twenty minutes the CBS broadcast was uninterrupted and performed straight. There were no commercial breaks and the style of the play was that of news bulletins being reported live. In a day of no rewind, if you did not hear the introduction and disclaimer of the drama right before it started, you had no way of knowing whether or not this was real or a play. CBS was flooded with phone calls of people freaking out trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, the program broke for a commercial and the introduction was made again. The next day Orson Welles was torn apart by newspapers and was claimed to have purposefully caused a panic.

I love this story so much. There is admiration to be had for Welles in his and the other actors performances and the realistic nature of their broadcast. Bravo to them. There is a laugh to be had in retrospect at the population for having believed so frantically that there were aliens touched down in their country. There were riots and evacuations. That a radio broadcast inspired so much real fear in people far and wide is amazing to me! I’ve read accounts of 100+ people fleeing a midwest town and climbing into the mountains for refuge.

Now, imagine that happening in the present. Experiencing and listening to something so real, so convincing, that you’re not sure whether you should Google it or not to see if it really happened. While we can Google, there will be no panic. There will however be gushing, gushing about how flipping amazing alternate reality podcasts are. In this post I’ll mention three that I’ve listened to recently that had me walking around with earbuds in for hours straight. The Message, Lif-e.Af/ter, and Rabbits all average at ten episodes each, ranging from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

the message

The Message is the first season in Panoply’s anthology of alternate realities and was the first one I listened to in this genre. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve actually listened to it all the way through several times. Nicky Tomlain is out narrator and the host of her own podcast entitled CryptoCast; very meta. We begin the broadcast as Nicky seeks clearance to shadow a team of cryptologists who work at the Cipher Center for Communication. The team allows her to do this and Nicky starts right at the same time that the team is given an assignment from the government to decode something referred to only as “the message” which was first intercepted in WWII and has yet to be cracked. We learn very quickly that there are mysterious circumstances shrouding this code and the people who have worked to break it over the years. As the team begins working on this task, Nicky takes us from person to person on the team to get a better look at what each of them bring to the table. For example, Mod is a hacker (although they ask Nicky not to use that term) and is able to go places in computer land where no one else is able to reach. Tamara is a cultural historian and goes through history, mythology, and culture to find references or patterns that could relate to whatever topic the team is looking in to. While there are several other characters, there is not a character list anywhere and Wikipedia only has three or four people mentioned. Which brings me to my next point on this podcast. Reality or fiction?

When you do a search on the characters, the ones that pop up have full bios (born, school, where grew up, etc.) as though they were real people. When you search Cipher Center for Communication a company called Cipher Communications Corp is produced in the results. Small things like this make you wonder, is this a real thing that is trying to be covered up or am I going crazy? The events that transpire over the course of the cast would most certainly have made news BUT the government is involved so how do we know it isn’t just something that is being covered up?! The production of the show is really good, complete with full voice cast and all the ambient background life noises one would hear if someone was walking around recording everything as Nicky does.

As we go along on this journey with Nicky and the team, trying to uncover what this message really means, we become front seat passengers to the behind the scenes workings of this [usually] top secret facility. This fly on the wall approach to storytelling gives us all access to the happenings around our narrator.

Life After

The same is true for Lif-e.Af/ter which is the second season in the anthology*. We are this time within the offices of the FBI and are privy to the story of one Ross Barnes. Eight months ago Ross’ wife Charlie was killed and he is still very heavily entrenched in his grief. In this world, there is a social media platform called Voice Tree that allows users to record minute long audio clips on the company motto that voice gives you more connection than other forms of media. To cope with his grief, or maybe to feed it, Ross listens endlessly to Charlie’s Voice Tree posts. He becomes obsessed to the point where it is effecting his performance at work and his relationships with his friends. One day as Ross is listening to his favorite curated posts, the whole profile disappears. He freaks out of course and shortly after he has a panic attack/meltdown, the profile reappears. Now, however, there is something new. The profile is speaking directly to him and not in one minute clips either. This raises the very Black Mirror question of are our digital selves different and separate from our physical selves (very similar to S4:E1)? Does a person have to have a body to exist? To begin with, Ross thinks he is going crazy. The Charlie voice doesn’t speak to anyone else so he has no way of proving definitively that he is not just making this up in his head; that he hasn’t broken with reality. As the story progresses, the voice of Charlie is interrupted occasionally by the voice of Sasha who is somehow behind all of this. With Sasha’s appearance comes a sinister twist to the tale and prompts the moral wrongness of exploiting someone’s grief.

While the first season of Panoply’s drama had a more War of the Worlds vibe, Lif-e.Af/ter takes a departure from that and feels much more Black Mirror-esque. The questioning of morals and the integration of not too far off future tech makes for another seemingly real story. The exploration of human emotion and what makes us us is very interesting in this season. We get to know Charlie only through the makeup of her digital self. This makes you wonder, how different from the physical human Charlie is this digital one? When Ross starts feeling uneasy about this point in particular, he asks digital Charlie about a trip that they had taken which Charlie hadn’t mentioned in any of her Voice Tree posts. Because the digital version has nothing to draw from, she/it is unable to answer the questions Ross asks. This leads him to realize the difference between the two. From this show, you begin to question, as you do when watching Black Mirror, what is ethical in regards to our future as humans and the evolution of technology in our lives.

rabbits

The last show I’ll dive in to is the one I have listened to most recently. Actually, I started this post within an hour of having finished listening. Rabbits is produced by the Public Radio Alliance which has quite a few of these immersive alternate reality shows. Again we are brought along by a narrator who is making a podcast while we are listening to a podcast. Carly Parker’s best friend Yumiko has gone missing under very bizarre circumstances. It is quickly determined that the police are brushing this off as a youth rebelling against her strict Asian parents and that they are not too overly concerned. Carly however is not convinced of this and it isn’t too long into her own investigation that weird clues begin to pop up. Within this world, Carly works for the Public Radio Alliance and her bosses suggest that she create this podcast for real time evidence of her findings and also to provide a trail of bread crumbs should anything happen to Carly along the way.

It turns out that Rabbits is a super secret real life game in which players from around the world solve riddles, puzzles, and collect clues in the hopes of becoming the champion of the current round. The modern iteration of the game is in it’s ninth round and is simply referred to as Nine. Evidence shows that One began sometime pre-WWII and that there were rounds played before them but that there is no way of proving it. Carly puts clues together and slowly realizes that Yumiko was playing Nine and that she was really deep in. Over the course of her investigation, Carly meets other players and goes on wild goose chases (or down rabbit holes, if you will) to connect one clue to another.

As with the other shows, there is a full voice cast in this one and background noises as well. The production of this one is so good that the other day I was walking and listening and I had to take out my earbuds to figure out if it had just started raining or if it was just something I was hearing within the show. While the pacing of the dialogue is sometimes uncomfortably slow and awkward, the premise is so good that you’re able to set that aside and still become engrossed. And just like the endings of the other two, Rabbits leaves you with a weird “what if” feeling that doesn’t leave you for a couple days. While The Message has feelings of War of the Worlds and Lif-e.Af/ter has thematic ties to Black MirrorRabbits takes that techy “what if” and also throws in The Ring and The Matrix to further blow your mind.

These weird after effect feelings are an aspect of the genre that I admire deeply. To have such an impact on the audience that they are questioning their reality ties directly back to the first drama from the War of the Worlds broadcast. There are definitely more than just these three shows in this genre but they are great points of entry for immersing yourself in a world of questions and uncertainties. I highly recommend losing yourself in these alternate realities.**

 

*When searching for The Message you have to search Lif-e.Af/ter as the title changes with the season. They are all listed together as one show but with different seasons.

**Not mentioned here is the podcast TANIS which I began listening to immediately after RabbitsIt is produced by the same team (Pacific Northwest Stories) and is Really good. Do yourself a favor and add this one to your “to listen” list as well!

World building whimsy

The best part of getting lost in a world (be it through a book or a film) is that anything can happen. Certain storytellers have the ability to submerge their audience in world’s that can be very similar to ours or very, very different. It is not just that full characters are created or that the story line is well thought out and planned, it is that every aspect of the world is notably considered and taken into accordance within the story’s unfolding. A writer who is able to convey the mores of a culture which they’ve created or enhanced without shoving it down your throat via clunky exposition is a talented one indeed. This is most evident of series in that there is so much more time for customs to be laid out and histories to be relayed. Tolkien took up volumes with the detailed history of a whole land as did Paolini. Lewis built his world volume by volume which allowed for a slow expansion and understanding of the world in which Narnia existed. I think this is why The Magician’s Nephew has always been my favorite. This world building is something that I am noticing more and more as I tear through the Game of Thrones saga (I’m currently in book three) and also something I noticed recently while watching the latest installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films. I realize I may lose some of you there. What?! The Pirates movies are being thought of in the same breath as GoT?! Hear me out, lovelies.

When considering a fully realized world, we are able to recognize geography and history yes but there is something else that is also important. The rules of the reality of this alternate-verse are very important to establish so that the author knows what is and isn’t possible and so does the viewer/reader. Rules within a world establish these parameters so that characters experience events with logical outcomes, so that there is a reason when crazy events happen, and so on. What got me thinking about the importance of this was watching the latest (and hopefully last (although through my research I see it won’t be the last)) installment of the Pirates movies.

Over the course of the five films that make up this series there are many things that happen that in our reality would not be possible. From the very beginning of the first movie we are let known that curses and magic are real. This is evident even from the title: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Thus begins our education into this world. We are taken in to a time that existed (early to mid 1700’s) and a place that is real (the Caribbean) however the reality is altered from ours. Having Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as our primary guide through the events of the first film, we learn as he does about the lives of pirates. To start, Turner is pretty landlocked in his life and does not know much about pirate culture. It is only once his love Elizabeth Swann (Kierra Knightly) is abducted by pirates does he get pulled in to the mysteries of the sea. We see with Will that curses are not to be trifled with and that they are indeed very real. Once out at sea, we learn that most of the terrifying tales told by sailors have some sort of basis in the sea’s reality. Monstrous creatures of lore like the Kraken do exist and the boogiemen of your dreams like Davy Jones are real and perfectly able to getcha! As we adventure along with Turner and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) we almost become used to the fact that, yeah, of course they’re encountering monsters. Because of this I feel we almost become jaded in a sense through to the latest installment in which our leading lady Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is thrust into the mystical world that revolves around Jack Sparrow. There is a point when Carina finally sees something supernatural. She screams and runs out of the water and up the shore shouting that ghosts are real. An appropriate reaction, honestly.

This moment is what really got me paying attention to the world within these films. Because of this moment I realized how prevalent these mystical adventures are in the lives of our leading men and I realized something else too: they all take place far out at sea. We are along for the ride with these men seeing pirate royalty convene for a summit; witnessing undead men, monkeys, and sharks; boarding ships that have been sunk for hundreds of years. These things are very real in this world however there is a whole population who is unawares of their existence. This is a part of the rules of this world. Creatures whose presence cannot be explained shock those who are not used to them (which is again, appropriate). Even when a character becomes used to these things and is part of the pirate life there are still instances where one of them will see something and have wtf moment.

Pirates image

Another saga that I am currently immersed in is that of A Song of Ice and Fire. With five books published and seven total promised, George R. R. Martin has created a whole universe with its own precedence and standards. The history of Westeros and the surrounding lands extends for thousands of years and with one continent and many island countries, the make up of these lands is vast. In fact, there is so much history to cover that in addition to the primary novels that make up the saga ASoIaF, there are also several novellas that give us further knowledge of different times within this world that we come to know so well. Because there are many houses and each of them have their own pasts (in  addition to a global history of wars and times of peace) there is an endless amount of possibilities for characters we already know and for those whom we have not met. But again, it is not the characters that make the rules of the world.

Much like our world and that of the world in Pirates, there are laws of reality that must be followed. Due to the fact that there are many different cultures that we are encountering, there are several different realms in which people exist. Those who live in the far North have very different lives than those who live in the far South and very different again from those who are Dothraki or Lyseni. While there are many different realms there still is only one reality within which everyone operates. It is established within the prologue of the very first book that otherworldly magic exists but is not wholly understood by persons at large.

Something interesting that Martin has done in this land is to establish that there are old gods, ancient myths that revolve around the First Men; new gods, known as the seven; and a Lord of Light, who is very mysterious [and seems somewhat cultish]. I find this compelling as it is a small similarity to our own world in which many different religions and schools of thought exist. Because of this, we are able to see very quickly that the many different regions of this land operate under different beliefs. Most often the new gods are mentioned. Those who worship in this manner visit the Sept to pray to one god who is represented by seven faces seen as the Mother, Maiden, Warrior, Father, Crone, Stranger, and Smith. Each of these are prayed to for different reasons: to keep a son safe in battle, to keep a woman safe during childbirth, etc. Then there are the old gods, worshiped in the North by the first men and by some who live still. There is a magic in this belief; a connectivity to the forest and all its creatures. The wierwood trees in the forests and in the godswoods of castles and forts create a conduit of sorts for these gods to see through and be prayed to. Lastly, there is the Lord of Light, who is said to show his true believers the way if they stare into the flames of fires. The character Melisandre is who [largely] leads us through our knowledge of this particular religion and because it is not widely known or practiced in Westeros, many men distrust this vein of thought and see it as witchcraft. That last bit is interesting. The fact that the Lord of Light’s followers are mistrusted because of their “devil worship” or “sorcery” draws attention to the fact that magic is not something that is trusted in this land. The gods of old seemed to posses some magic but their times are long gone and there doesn’t seem to be any magic left in the world. That is, until dragons are born and a crippled boy becomes the keeper of knowledge past and present.

Aside from religion, there are other aspects of the world of Westeros that are outlined to establish the world. In battle, men die (whereas as pointed out above in the Pirates world, ghosts exist). There is a hierarchy that exists by which the land is governed. Despite the fact that there is a very large scale war going on for the Iron Throne, there is a system in place: lords, wardens, etc. Culture is explored through songs sung by bards and tales told around the campfire. It is fascinating to me how deep and rich the history of this land is.

GoT image

Getting lost in a world that is not our own is part of what makes reading and watching movies so compelling. We are able to escape our lives for a span of pages/the run time of a film and truly be somewhere else. The greatest storytellers create fully realized settings to further allow for this escape and totally submerse their audiences. While it might be easy to create a tale, coming up with the entire world is what makes the escape successful. Whether it is building the world from scratch (example: Lord of the Rings) or slightly altering our reality to make it their own (example: Inception), an author who takes the time to think out all aspects of their world is a skilled one indeed.

Atonement – 2007

There was nothing on Netflix starring Audrey Hepburn that I haven’t already seen so I googled, “classics to watch on Netflix, current” and a list was summoned from the depths of the interweb. There were some good horror movies on said list that I definitely intend to go back and watch however that was not where my head was at. Scrolling down, I found what I was looking for: Atonement. Released in 2007, the film was adapted from the novel of the same name, published six years earlier by Ian McEwan. It met everything in my mental checklist: not set in the present, an amazing cast, and not a straightforward-spoon-fed romance. Holy shit lovelies, what a movie. What a journey.

Atonement tells the tale of what happens when a little lie turns into a bigger lie and the impact that has on those in the line of fire. What we learn first hand is that what you say matters and that even if you think you are a reliable narrator, you might not be. That doubt that you feel eats at you through life, through war, through death. Atonement tells us that there is no statute of limitations on taking responsibility for your actions.

We enter the lives of the Tallis family in 1935. Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a young child shown from the start to have an active imagination. The film opens with her finishing a play she has been working on to be performed upon her brother’s visit home; younger cousins staying with the family are her unwilling actors. Having grown bored, said cousins exit Briony’s room. This is where the intrigue begins. Gazing out the window, Briony witnesses an encounter down in the yard, however, not having heard anything that passes between the two people involved, she is only able to infer in her youthful and fanciful brain what it was that occurred. Cut to the same scene, rewound, and told from the perspective of Cecelia Tallis (Keria Knightly) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). It is not an argument but instead an awkward encounter between two people who are unable and afraid to admit to their feelings for each other. Passion of a different kind from a different perspective.

Later that day, we are with Robbie as he writes several drafts of a letter to Cecelia; he is attempting to organize his thoughts. Finally satisfied, he puts paper in envelope and off he goes to deliver it. Spying Briony on the road, he asks her to run ahead and hand it off for him. It is only after she is gone from view that he realizes his terrible mistake, the wrong piece of paper had been sealed within. Of course, Briony rips open the envelope and reads the words that Robbie never intended for anyone to see. From this she links the “argument” she witnessed earlier and jumps to a horrible conclusion. There is too much adultness going on for her little mind to handle and she begins to form a very wrong sense of what is going on. We are privy to the fact that Robbie lets Cecelia know of this mistake, we are privy to their professions of love for each other, we are privy to the truth that alludes Briony.

Dinner is a brief and uncomfortable affair interrupted by the realization that the two youngest cousins have run away. The party breaks up to cover the estate’s grounds looking for them. It is during this search that Briony bears witness to the third act of the day that she does not understand and which overwhelms her. A character is molested and Briony witnesses the attacker running off without, as far as we can tell, clearly seeing his face. Again, conclusions are jumped to and when interviewed by the police she points fingers in the only direction she can think to point them. Robbie is wrongly accused of rape. However, due to his low station and Briony’s telling of events, Robbie’s protestations are not believed and he is thrown in prison.

Several years have passed as the next scene opens and we are in the middle of WWII in the heart of Germany. Robbie was given a choice, continue serving in jail or go out and serve for the country. Imagine being forced to war based on the lies of someone who just didn’t understand. It is here that we are brought to see the severe consequences of Briony’s actions and how they are impacting everyone in her life. Her sister has stopped talking to her; their childhood friend is fighting in the war; and she has foregone a classical education, seemingly fearing and cautious of the misery brought upon her by her imagination.

There is of course more to the story than the events I have just outlined. However, in an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t say any more on the direct plot points of the tale. Instead I would like to touch on the importance of truth and the viewer/reader’s ability to rely upon the narrator. The whole truth and nothing but the truth is a hard thing to muster. Whose truth is it? Yours might be different than mine, does that mean that one of us is wholly wrong? Is truth subjective or objective? How do you know if something you think is true, actually is true? These are all important questions and not all are easily answered. Briony spends the rest of her life trying to make up for (atone for) her grievous mistake. If we had spent the whole movie viewing events from just Briony’s perspective, we would have no reason to think of her as anything but a reliable narrator. Although due to the fact that we also see things from Cecelia’s and Robbie’s perspectives, we know that our primary narrator is not fully knowledgeable about things to which she states with confidence and selfassuredness. We go through the rest of the film seeing the butterfly effect of one lie. We, along with Cecelia, are unable to tell if anything Briony says is “just the truth, no rhymes. No embellishments. No adjectives.”

In addition to the beautiful unfolding of the plot of this movie, the sound design is breathtaking. The film won an Oscar for best original score and rightly so. There is more to it though than just the music which is a mixture of compelling classical tunes relying heavily upon the piano and one or two note themes and the ambient sounds of everyday life. The twitter of birds in a wide open field. The hum of a plane far overhead. Most importantly and keenly throughout the film, the tap tap of a typewriter. This specific sound sets the tone in many scenes, either speeding up or slowing down to highlight the pace of the moment. Never before have I felt more aware of character’s surrounding due so heavily to the sense of sound. Hearing what they hear in a moment of otherwise silence pulls you farther in to the scene with them.

There is a scene on the beach of Normandy which is one long shot and the sounds that you hear as you follow Robbie and his fellows through the ravaged shore draw you so directly in: the shooting of horses that they can’t take with them, the cry of men and the silence of men, the songs being sung in loud chorus to comfort each other and get through to the next light of day. I realized by the end of the panning that I had been holding my breathe because I was feeling the same sense of hopelessness and dismay that had overcome those on screen. In addition to setting the emotional toll for the scenes, the music was also set nicely to match up with the changing of shots so that the pace your eyes kept was the same as the pace your ears kept.

The storytelling found within this movie is absolutely captivating. From the amazing cast to the heart-wrenching tale, Atonement is a movie that should surely be added to your must watch list. Be prepared to watch it though, not only is it heavy on the mind, it is also heavy on the run time clocking in at just over two hours. It is worth it my friends, oh is it worth it.

Penny Dreadful – Showtime

published penny dreadfuls

Gothic literature is a beautiful thing. So easily identifiable and so filled with hidden meanings, psychological and supernatural intrigue, and lessons to be learned. My undergraduate degree is in English Literature and I took more than one class on specifically Gothic Lit. My most frequently recalled example of the genre is The Yellow Wallpaper published in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Not only is the story itself a trip but it is also a work published by an American, proving that the genre is not solely ruled by the Europeans. Gothic literature has a rich history that spread across many countries in the mid to late 1800’s. Classic conventions of the genre include horror/supernatural elements, death, and the macabre. It often times includes a female protagonist who is dealing with some sort of psychological disorder. Many female writers of the time used the genre to have their voices and perspectives heard on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug. There is typically a setting in these stories that takes on more characteristics than just a normal scene. Embodying histories and feelings and usually certain architectural elements, these settings become as much characters as the people within the stories. The literary scene in the 1800’s was booming with tales of the supernatural. From Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) there was no need to look far for tales of monsters who walk among us. In these times, printing and publishing were very expensive and so stories were often serialized and published in magazines on a weekly or monthly basis. The stories would be eagerly anticipated and provide a brief escape from the world around them. In addition to these works, there were also shorter works published for pennies and made available to even the poorest of the poor. These penny works became known as penny dreadfuls for the gruesome and dreadful tales depicted within. Beginning in the 1830’s, penny dreadful tales included reprintings of classic Gothic literature such as The Castle of Otranto as well as new pieces of horror like Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

Fast forward to the new millennium and people are still enraptured by tales with these dark and classic elements. Enter Showtime with their series Penny Dreadful. For three seasons we are taken through a classic Gothic tale all the while pulling in more and more of the characters that were made so famous in the 19th century.

Penny Dreadful cast

While this tale is being spun, we are introduced to Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Ser Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) as our three main characters. While these people individually are not part of the established canons of the tales from which the show draws, they make up the central ring of the spider’s web. Malcolm Murray’s daughter was Mina, a name that should sound more familiar to you. Mina has been missing for some time now and Vanessa, in the first season, begins getting these visions and feelings that Mina is trying to reach out to her. Thus begins the supernatural quest in this Gothic tale. Ethan Chandler becomes their gun for hire as Ser Malcolm and Vanessa begin to explore what is happening to Vanessa. Together, the three of them delve deep into psychic connections, seances, and the biggest quagmire of them all: the fight between good and evil. As our guides become more entrenched in this world, it is clear that they will be unable to unearth truth and answers by themselves. When Vanessa becomes fully possessed and in need of medical attention, the good doctor is called for. Enter Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadway). As the realization of other worldliness enters, so does the famous hunter Van Helsing (David Warner). The spider’s web broadens and so too does our scope of the supernatural in London. Between demonic fits, Vanessa is a part of high-ish society in London and one of her social circles brings her close to a beautiful and charming man. Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) does not get much interaction with the other characters in the beginning aside from Vanessa however in the latter part of the series his immortality is matched by that of another character’s and the tragedy that unfolds in that story line is heart wrenching.

Witches appear, a wolf man is present, and a darkness is descending on London.

The ability of the writers to bring all of these characters from different Londons into the same time and place is really well done. With three seasons to complete their tale, the overarching plot is well paced and there are not really any loose ends by the time it wraps. What I loved most by the end is that you as the viewer are so clearly able to see that this is a tale of tragedy for everyone involved. There is love and there is death and everything that comes between. Part of what makes the tales of love so great is that they are not all strictly between one man and one woman as a conventional love story might portray. For example, Vanessa is not related by blood to Ser Malcolm however he loves her like a daughter and is supremely concerned with her well-being. Dr. Frankenstein shows a deeply reckless and morbid sense of love for his creations (of which there are ultimately three). His love is not responsible or ethical yet it is deep and honest and earnest. Frankenstein’s moral journey through the three seasons plays out without the knowledge of the three main characters and so his evolution is largely just between him and his creations. Vanessa’s love for and belief in Christ is a very important thread in this web as it allows for the entry point into our story of the war between God and the Devil. Dorian Grey’s love for himself and all things beautiful brings into the story questions of being comfortable with and loving yourself. He is alone even when in the midst of a crowd and there is a woman who enters who helps him relearn this lesson and realize the importance of self. Lily (Billie Piper), the woman I just mentioned, is an amazing and breath taking character. Her strength and will inspire women around her, who she draws in like the spider I keep referencing. She comes to us in season one as a whore, lowly and taken advantage of, and by the time she is reborn and brought back in to the world with a strike of lightening, you are able to see the layers and layers of trauma that haunted her in her past and shape who she is in the present.

Then there is death. Lots of it. Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monsters, they are all in the city at the same time and woe is the human who gets in their way. The vampire feels no remorse for his kills. He is above humans and views them as pawns and food. However, the other two monsters I mention are creatures with deep awareness of and remorse for the kills they chalk up. One of them is unaware of his monster as the wolf takes over the human, blotting out the humanity which guides the man and letting in the animal instincts which make him a wolf. As we get deeper into the lore and backstory of the wolf and how he came to be, elements of American Indian histories are included and explained. This to me was very interesting as it was such a sharp deviation from the Victorian lore that had been the backbone of the story thus far. Frankenstein’s monster (Rory Kinnear) names himself John Clare after the poet and is a beautiful soul of a soulless creature. His journey is largely apart from the main tale as Dorian Grey’s is. We know nothing at the start of his tale of this man’s past. Who he was and how he had died is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. John Clare does some killing of his own out of rage and necessity of certain situations. Through his rage he learns that this ability to “turn in to a monster” really scares him. He looks enough the part, he doesn’t want to play it too. Deep down, he is a gentle soul who likes to read and loves poetry. We are able to see the hurt he feels when people are scared of him, the pain he feels when someone reels at the sight of his face. He is a walking tragedy in and of himself.

Penny Dreadful is one of those shows that seemed aware of it’s time frame and conscious of the arcs of each character. Thus, the story is a complete one with a defined beginning, middle, and end. A beautiful tale which breaks down how well we know ourselves, how we care for those around us, and how events in our lives effect those around us. Vanessa Ives’s awareness of everyone in this universe (she is the only character who has verbal interactions with every single other character) is a way for us all to see the chain reactions our actions have on those around us; she is the female protagonist with the psychological issues after all. The light and dark pull felt throughout the show is a constant reminder of the forces of good and evil at work within us all. Additionally, there are metaphors out the wazoo in this series, such as many scenes being shot in mirrors, the allusions to spirit animals, and the divine at work through humans. All of these elements make it a very successful telling of many Gothics we are already familiar with. What an amazing show, you guys. A definite must watch.

The Jackaby novels by William Ritter

** Tiny bits of spoilers lie beneath this sentence. **

There are times, lovelies, when a series seems harmless, there are times when a title sits on your shelves for months maybe even years and you give no second thought to it. There are times when you finally pick up one of those books and it is just as boring and uninteresting as you had thought. As avid readers, we get used to the spines on our shelves and whether we have read them or not, they are our trophies, our scores and finds, our prizes. Then there are other times, where you finally crack one of those spines and it sucks you in like spell has been cast. You are able to think of nothing but the characters and their adventures and when you do not have it open in front of you the book is still on your mind and in your head calling out to be reopened and dived into once more. The Jackaby novels are very very much the latter of those scenarios. I don’t think there are enough positive words in the English language for me to gush enough about how much I loved this four part series. But, for your benefit, I will try.

Abigail Rook (mentioned in the previous post regarding female leads) is our narrator over the course of these tales. As the series opens she is fresh off the boat from a failed paleontology dig and is in look of a fresh start – immediately establishing her as an adventerous woman. One of the first people she meets in New Fiddleham is Jackaby himself although it is not until a few chapters later that we are properly introduced to him. By the time he officially hires Ms. Rook to be his assistant we have already visited a crime scene with him and seen that Abigail is not as prim and proper as many other ladies of the time. She is incredibly observant and determined and as readers we get the sense very quickly that she is going to be a good and reliable narrator. R.F. Jackaby is a paranormal investigator and the world’s current Seer. It is his duty to use his Sight to keep the peace between [mostly] oblivious humans and the magical beings who secretly populate our world and exist among us. He has been at it for about 20 years and has made quite a name and life for himself in New Fidddleham. His offices and housing (as well as Abigail’s once she is hired) are in the house of a deceased woman named Jenny Cavanaugh. Jenny still presides in the house as the resident ghost and her emotional journey is really amazing. (More on that point in a bit.) These are our three main characters and their relationships to each other and with the magical community at large become central to the story…or is the story central to them?

One of the things that I think Ritter does so well in this work is that the overarching plot from start to finish is so cohesive. It is bananas! Something so simple and well structured makes the storytelling so amazing. As readers we first get hints of this larger thread that connects everything in book two. We are able to see that the events in book one weren’t the beginning and that strings have been being pulled puppet style for years. This type of tight knit, no lose ends story telling is refreshing in it’s simplicity (as I’ve already mentioned and will probably mention again). There are red herrings and twists and turns and if you really pay attention it is easily figured out but that is not the point. The point is that Ritter takes this tale as old as time of good and evil of us versus them and gives it a positive female perspective and makes it engaging for young readers. So far, all of these books (with the exception of 4 because it is brand new) have topped Year’s End lists and have been super positively received.

While there are many supernatural points in these stories, there are also parallels for very real issues. Many of our other worldly characters have glamours on themselves so that they appear human to the untrained eye. One character who does not have to do this is Charlie Cane/Barker as he is able to transform at will from a human to a (not naming his creature as it is a spoiler). While this ability allows him to lead a fairly undetected life, events in book one make it necessary for him to reveal his true self during which time townspeople see him and demonize him. The hatred and fear exhibited towards Charlie is only a prelude to the racial prejudice that many of the townspeople have once they find out there are many more fantastical beings among them. In a scene in book four, all of the jail cells are full of creatures who have done nothing wrong except not being human. There is no way to not draw a parallel to the segregation of our races here in America and the fear that many have of people and things who are different and unknown. What Jackaby shows us is that there is nothing inherently wrong with you for being different, we are all just who we are.

Another character who helps us see that it is okay to be who you are is Miss Lydia Lee. While Ritter never goes into explicit detail regarding labels, we are let known that Lydia Lee is a man who likes to dress as a woman. When we first meet her, she is being attacked physically and verbally by men who do not understand her; who are uncomfortable with her decision to live her life the way she has decided. What I thought was particularly amazing about this is that these stories take place in the early 1890s and I don’t feel like, when you go that far back in a setting, you see anyone represented who isn’t white and straight or black and a slave. The fact that Ritter takes the time to make it clear that Lydia is who she wants to be whether anyone else likes or understands it is really wonderful.

Lastly, as mentioned above, Jenny is another example of a larger metaphor. Jenny was murdered and her death plays largely in to the grand scheme of things once it becomes clear that so many “huh that was weird” occurrences start becoming connected. While Jackaby has tried many times over the years to help Jenny solve her murder and move on to the afterlife, a big issue in preventing this closure is that Jenny seems unable to leave the house. She is able to exist within the walls and is able to touch things/items that belonged to her in life but that is the extent of her physical capabilities. Once Abigail comes along, she and Jenny really get to work trying to help Jenny get out of this cycle of disappearing any time she tries to leave the house or dropping objects that aren’t or weren’t hers. This behavior seemed to me to be a metaphor for depression and a bit of agoraphobia. With the help and patience of Abigail she is able to overcome this. However, it is not an easy task and is by no means minimized or dismissed. Her peers are encouraging and inclusive even when Jenny is down on herself. This is super important and really compelling.

While these themes and metaphors are very important, something that is even more central is the building that Ritter does throughout both in terms of the world and it’s characters. We start with knowing as little about the world as Abigail does and through her eyes and Jackaby’s tutelage we gain perspective and become woke to the intricacies and magic surrounding us in every day life. We start off naive and unaware and become entranced and enlightened. There are histories alluded to and stories that exist in this world however it never feels like we are being preached to or talked at. Due to his insight Jackaby provides us with information on the world that Abigail might not have come by on her own. We are, at times, taken out of new Fiddleham and the into other communities (both of this world and the next) that are connected to the story, we are taken back in time in memories of characters. These flashbacks (and I hesitate to call them that as they are not cheesy exposition but well done exposition) provide an expansion not only of the world but of how each of these people fit in to it. Motivation is shown, not just action. By mid way through book one I was already longing to be  Abigail and Jenny’s best friend and to be part of Jackaby’s team. These are fully realized people with hopes and dreams and I that is not an easy thing to do nor is it always achieved by writers (especially so quickly).

I think the last time I got this sucked in to a series and devoured it as quickly was two Christmases ago when my partner introduced me to Susan Collin’s The Underland Chronicles. These four books (Jackaby, Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King) are impeccably written and really smart. As Jackaby says, “I have never found a book that did not have at least a little magic in it…They can’t help it.” If you are on the prowl for your next obsession, look no further!

 

The strong female lead

 

I tend to read several books at a time. I tend to start books, pick up others, leave some unfinished. There might be an Audible I’m in the middle of at the same time I have two paperbacks going. The exception to this is when I get transfixed by a series. Three weeks ago I was listening to The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) whilst also going back and forth between The Sun is Also A Star (Nicola Yoon) and Fierce Kingdom  (Gin Phillips). Currently I am enthralled by the words of William Ritter in the Jackaby series. Pausing for a moment today I reflected on the thing that all of these titles have in common: strong and independent women at their core. Now more than ever lovelies, it is important that we do not forget that we have vastly important stories to tell no matter what the genre. Whether a it is a new bestseller or a title that has resurfaced in a timely fashion there are an abundance of damsels who keep their heads while in distress. I’d like to take a moment to speak about these ladies who have been in my life of late and how they are having an impact on me.

With the current adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian future, in which religion and fear have allowed for a militant God group to take society’s reins, we are reminded of the tale Offred told us originally 19 years ago. The Handmaid’s Tale gives us exactly what the title states. June is the handmaid ofFred and his wife Serena and it is her duty within the household to provide a baby for the family. This is done through repeated rapes and captivity along with the continual reminder that it is woman’s sole purpose to breed. Gone are any basic human rights and contact with the outside world. Offred recounts her tale having lived this reality for several years. As readers, we slowly learn of Offred’s daily life and are given glimpses into how the world was able to get to this point. I am watching the series as I listen to the audiobook and must admit that I have not yet finished either so I am still learning about her journey. I am struck by how courageous Offred is and in contrast how many times I have thought to myself, could I hold my tongue? Could I be repeatedly defiled and not go crazy? Several times I have thought to myself, well that would have pushed me over the edge. Society within Gilead and sections of the United States are transformed into these stepford-ly fake worlds in which climate change has effected the air and people have become sterile. The handmaids are society’s last hope for continuing the human race. Talk about pressure. The will to not let the bastards get you down is a hopeful outlook that Offred gives us of her situation. I hope, as I keep reading, that that continues and she is able to stay strong. Luckily I have not had the end spoiled for me so I don’t know what happens. However I have heard that the endings of the two mediums differ (as the show has a second season pending). In Offred I have hope. In Offred I recognize how important it is to keep your wits.

The Sun is Also A Star is the word vomit of two teenagers who meet on the streets of New York. One is Natasha and one is Daniel and the chapters alternate their perspectives allowing us to be told the same story from two different takes on what is happening. Something that I love about Yoon’s characters is that they are so fully realized that it does not take you long to recognize that the way of learning what happens in this story is going to be very real to each of them. Natasha is on the verge of being deported with her family and love is literally the last thing on her mind. She is supposed to be applying to colleges and studying for the SATs. Instead she is visiting government buildings and lawyers offices and trying anyway she can think of to be allowed to stay in America. Daniel is supposed to be on his way to an interview with someone from Harvard and is completely distracted after coming across Natasha as she is on her way to speak with the aforementioned lawyer. Over the course of this stressful day, Natasha brightens up in Daniel’s presence. Yes, there are hormones involved and the concept of love at first sight is debated but there is more than that. It is not just that Daniel is a cute boy whom she quickly realizes she is crushing on, it is that she allows herself to open up to him and smile. The driving force of Natasha’s story is this incredibly adult situation that she is having to deal with. The issue of deportation is immediate and scary and she is determined to find a way out of being punished for her father’s mistakes (it is his fault they were found out as being illegal immigrants). Because Daniel is naive to her situation there is no pressure to talk about it or stress over it. Natasha has strong scientific and fact based beliefs and she holds them tightly. It is because of this that in Natasha I recognize conviction and determination and a stick-to-your-guns attitude that is incredibly refreshing.

The cover of Fierce Kingdom is deceptively boring. There are carousel horses on the front along with jarring red block letters spelling out the title and author. It is because of this judgement that the advanced copy sat on my shelf for months before I finally read it. If ever there was a case for the saying “don’t judge a book by the cover” this would be it. The zoo is closing and Joan and her son Lincoln are making their way to the front when they hear some popping sounds. A few pages later we get confirmation that these were gun shots when Joan rounds a corner and sees dead bodies. She quickly steers Lincoln away from the scene and from that moment on we are involved in a fast paced game of hide and seek, cat and mouse. Due to the fact that it was the end of the day, there are not that many people around so the zoo is eerie and quiet. The animals sense the danger and we go many pages without seeing a single other person. We are within Joan’s mind for much of the narration. The fear and anxiety that Joan feels is made to feel very present in Phillip’s writing. The use of short terse sentences, the occasional disoriented thought from Joan about Lincoln’s Avenger toys in her purse, the way that silence and sound play into your reading. Survival instincts are brought to the front of her mind. Joan is levelheaded throughout: she has to keep Lincoln calm and entertained (there is passage in which sleepy Lincoln, who is four-ish, is starting to get hungry and these two things combined do not make for a quiet toddler. High. Anxiety.) while also helping him avoid too much trauma (the sight of dead animals and people), and she has to make decisions that are very hard to make (there is a part that involves a baby that is just heartbreaking). In addition to Joan we gain the points of view of Kailynn, a girl who works in a concession stand at the zoo and get some minor character development in a Margaret Powell a local teacher. These three women come from different backgrounds and they are all trying to survive the night in this terrifying situation. All three are strong and courageous and it is in them that I see the strength to carry on.

The last heroine that I would like to gush about is in the books that I am currently reading. Miss Abigail Rook tells us of her adventures with the detective for whom the series and the first book are named. Jackaby is the opener of the books and it is within these pages that Abigail recounts to us the strange and not always natural cases she investigates as the assistant of the detective. Much like Robin in the Cormoran Strike novels, Abigail is not content being an assistant who sits out of the cases whose notes she will inevitably end up transcribing. She is pulled immediately in to one, in fact, as she is in the process of convincing Jackaby to hire her while he is on his way to a crime scene. The series takes place in the 1890s and people tend to have preconceived notions of what a woman’s behavior looks like (it is full circle from the first title if you think about it…Offred having had her rights taken away, Abigail fighting to gain and maintain them…not a good circle, just something I noticed). Because of these notions people are constantly surprised by the tenacity and confidence exhibited by Miss Rook. After being told her whole life that her place was with the ladies in the parlor and not out in the field working with her paleontologist father, Abigail takes off with her school money and runs away to find her own freedom. As she reaches the shores of America (having gone on a couple of adventures between leaving England and arriving in New England), Abigail is able to find her footing and carves her own path with a clear sense of determination. I mean, imagine how it was back then, arriving on the shores of a foreign country and not knowing anyone and being a woman on top of that. Sure that is still something people do today but with the advancements in technology it isn’t the same. While she is a young lady in man’s world and while she has doubts and uncertainties about her path, she doesn’t let thisdeter her. One thing that I like about Abigail is that even when she is told no, she explores other ways to make it a yes. In Abigail I see a woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others in an effort to pursue what is right and just.

I briefly mentioned above the Cormoran Strike series and one of the primary characters, Robin. While this is not a current read (although I hope to the bibliogod that book four is coming out soon) it is also one to keep in mind when looking for a read with a strong female lead. She is a wonderful character and it is refreshing to have these two women (Abigail and Robin) in these detective stories as the genre is usually dominated by men. Additionally, next up on my list of must reads is a new American Gothic by Claire Messud called The Burning Girl in which we experience the ups and downs of a childhood friendship (and of course there is a creepy castle).

All of this is to say that for years growing up I had all of these wonderful boys and men leading me on my journeys; they took charge of situations and performed brave deeds. But where would Harry have been without Hermione? Would Holden have had any grounding if it weren’t for his sister? How far could Eragon have gotten if it weren’t for Saphira? Women are so often the backing these main characters need but these stories also show that we deserve and are capable of having our own adventures.