Movie Review: The Silenced

I’m very much a fan of east-Asian horror movies, and so by luck and Netflix, I stumbled across an interesting-looking Korean movie not too long ago, called by its English name, The Silenced.

file_745983_park-bo-young_1430975083_af_orgSet in Seoul, then known as Gyeongseong, in the late 1930s, the story focuses on a sick young woman named Shizuko, sent to a sanitarium school. And if you noticed that I used a Japanese name for the character and not a Korean one, there’s a reason for that. At the time this movie takes place, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and one of the many societal changes that occurred then was to force the adoption of Japanese-style names instead of Korean ones, to bring the populace one step closer to accepting occupational rule by a foreign power. (For a brief overview of the occupation, there’s at least a Wikipedia page, which I recommend reading.) As someone making at least half-hearted efforts to learn Japanese, I can pick out the language when I hear it, and suddenly when a character just starts speaking a language I recognize when I expect a language I can’t recognise… I threw me off, and caught my attention, and made me want to learn more about the setting.

It also made me keenly aware of how much cultural time-period markers are not universal. In North America, we may associate the 1930s with a certain style of fashion, mode of speech, level of technology, and when we see movies set then, we don’t have to have a full history lesson to centre us in the moment. 1930s South Korea? I was forced to confront that I knew absolutely nothing about it. You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate The Silenced, though; reading a book on the Japanese occupation isn’t central to understanding the movie as a whole. But if you have an ear for languages and culture, you may be able to pick up on a few things that may confuse you if you’re entirely unaware that there was an occupation to begin with.

Anyway, Shizuko, who we later come to learn is also called Ju-Ran, is sick and sent to a girl’s boarding school to recover. Immediately she faces opposition, as she shares the same name as a previous girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The official story is that the previous Shizuko went home, but the girls there doubt that, as it was sudden and unannounced. The new Shizuko has TB, and is shown to barely be able to handle any exertion lest it send her into a coughing fit. She’s put on a new medication to try and combat the illness, and that’s where things start to get weird.

Shizuko starts seeing things. Creepy things. Things like one of the girls being twisted and jerky while crawl-shuffling under her bed.

netflix-horror-movies-the-silenced

Then that student disappears, and everyone’s told she just went home. Meanwhile, Shizuko finds a strange sticky clear fluid under that girl’s bed, and she’s sure she wasn’t imagining it.

This isn’t the only time Shizuko sees something and a girl disappears, leaving behind more of that clear goo. Shizuko also begins to show signs of recovery, her physical strength and stamina increasing to the point where she can run again and breathe easily. But it doesn’t stop there. Her strength continues to grow, as does her temper, and her resistance to pain.

It’s at this point where watchers start to wonder if the current Shizuko is possessed by the previous one in some way, if the previous Shizuko died and her ghost is lashing out not only at those who wronger her in life, but also those who wrong the girl who shares her name. It’s the sort of explanation that makes perfect sense in horror movies, especially East Asian horror movies where it all looks like a ghost story. But the truth behind this movie is even stranger than you might imagine.

And be warned, there are some spoilers a-comin’!

The problem turns out not to be a ghost but instead a program funded by the Japanese occupational government to create a race of super-soldiers. The medication that Shizuko has to take — indeed, all the students have to take medication provided by the school, and nobody questions it because everyone is there due to illness (though the vast majority are unspecified and unpresented…) — is part of that program, changing her into someone stronger, impervious to pain, someone capable of fighting for the Japanese government in times of need. None of them consented. Not all of them survive.

thesilenced4And what’s really impressive about The Silenced is that aside from the clear goo, everything actually ties together and makes sense. It shifts from seeming like a horror movie to a historical sci-fi thriller, and it does it fairly seamlessly. The transition makes sense, the story aspects fit together and get explanations, and given that all this happens within a massive tonal shift, that really impressed me. It’s not many movies that can do that and still stay cohesive. It’s a mind-screw for a while, trying to wrap your brain around how something switched genres right in the middle, and admittedly some of the special effects of Shizuko’s later superpowers were kind of cheesy, but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty well done.

The only loose end is the issue of the clear goop left behind after Shizuko sees someone losing control after they have a bad reaction to the chemical mixture that’s slowly changing them. There are a couple of things this could be, but nothing is really made of it; it seems like it’s there just to convince Shizuko that she didn’t image things, that there’s a physical source of the creepy things she sees. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that a movie which ties so many things together leaves that one hanging, with just potential reading between the lines to try and give it reason.

The Silenced deals with some very twisted and disturbing subject matter. There’s the obvious issue of the Japanese occupation and forced cultural integration, which I mentioned at the beginning of the review. There’s the issue of testing unknown treatments without informed consent, a process which is still relatively new in the field of medicine, and that’s depressing enough, but the movie stresses that part of the reason that the sanitarium/boarding school was chosen as part of the project is that it works best on adolescent women, and also because nobody’s going to question, “These girls are taking medication we give them because they’re sick, they have no parental supervision, and if any one of them dies, it’s easy to get rid of evidence and just tell everyone they went home.” It all works because people are kept ignorant. The movie’s primary antagonist hates her country and wants Japan to have greater control, hence her being complicit in the supersoldier program. There’s a lot that’s shown, not said, and The Silenced largely seems to respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to not spell absolutely everything else, to have a fanatical woman without a character commenting, “Wow, she’s fanatical.”

quilt

I have to say, if you’re into East Asian horror, this is one you should probably check out. Even though it’s not strictly a horror movie. The story’s certainly interesting, the acting fantastic (with a bonus helping of subtext along the way…), and I still can’t get over how well it was all put together. It’s disturbing and creepy in all the right places, atmospheric and tense without relying on jump scares, and has a lot to say about a very controversial time in Korea’s history. It’s on Canadian Netflix as of the time this review, so if that’s open to you, I recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy it.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

MOVIE REVIEW: Baby Blues

I don’t know how I manage it, but I seem to keep finding the most effed-up Asian horror movies on Netflix.  This time it was a Hong Kong horror flick known as Baby Blues, a title that is meant to not just the color of newborn eyes, but also postpartum depression.

Or in the case of the movie, postpartum psychotic break caused by a haunted doll.

babybluescover The movie starts with Hao and his wife, Tian Qing, moving to a new and gorgeous house, shown to them by a very enthusiastic real estate agent. During the showing, Tian Qing finds a creepy doll left behind by the previous owners, and she decides that she really wants to keep it for some reason. Because all a new house needs is he addition of a bleeding-eyes doll to make it complete. Tian Qing is a blogger, and Hao is a songwriter who, upon moving to this new and impossibly gorgeous house, starts getting a little obsessed with writing songs about death. Which might not be so bad, if the song he’s working on didn’t make his wife throw up, and end up influencing a singer to crash her car and die.

The movie flat-out mentions the song Gloomy Sunday, so it’s not like they’re trying to hide the similarities between that and the urban legend, so there’s that.

Anyway, as Hao continues his campaign to depress the music-loving world, Tian Qing finds that she’s pregnant. Not just pregnant, but pregnant with twin boys! Hao names them Adam and Jimmy by writing said names on Tian Qing’s belly, in a scene that’s legitimately a bit cute. Problems arise, though, when Jimmy is stillborn, and Tian Qing, in her grief and denial, decides to replace him with the creepy doll. Hao is understandably worried, but his songwriting demands much of his time, and doctors say that it’s likely just postpartum depression, and she’ll recover.

In the defense of the doctors, Hao never actually told them, “So, my wife thinks a random doll is our second son, and she’s starting to care about the doll more than the living child.” That might have raised so red flags.

The story continues to reveal that the doll is related to an accidental death between twins in that house. The doll seems to be possessed less by an actual spirit, and more by the grief and malice from previous residents that experienced grief and betrayal. Tian Qing is deep in its influence, now muttering darkly about how Jimmy-the-doll doesn’t like Adam, how Hao doesn’t like Jimmy, how Jimmy is the centre of her world, and in all honesty, the actress’s portrayal of a woman over the edge was actually pretty good. She was unhinged, half-possessed, and she showed it well, so I’m a fan of her performance. After the story comes out, Hao sets out to remove the doll from the house and to destroy it, to free his family from its influence.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

I can’t help but feel that this movie was having a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, it used some beautiful imagery at times, bordering on an art-film feel at times, trying to convey complex emotions by, say, the appearance of water dripping from a man’s hand. At other times, it goes over the top into ridiculous jump scares with average-at-best CGI. At one point we’re treated to a scene of the doll moving on its own, trying to get a knife from a coffee table by nudging the table a lot to make the knife fall. Unfortunately, it just comes across like the doll is humping the table leg, completely ruining any of the scene’s tension by the way it made me burst out laughing. The plot of the movie was fairly average as far as supernatural thrillers go, but it was the special effects that just ruined it, because they came across so ridiculously.

That, plus the whole subplot with the song seems somewhat without purpose. There are hints that it’s all influenced by the curse on the house and the doll, especially given what happens to one of the initial singers who hears it, but the second singer seems to be unaffected. It seems to serve largely as a distraction. There’s a slight connection to the story of what happened with a previous owner of the house being cheated on and going round the twist, but even that reveal was only there to serve as flavour.

And if you’re curious as to what the lyrics are that keep making people ill and/or depressed and suicidal, you’re out of luck if you watch the same version I did. No subtitles for the long lyrics. Which effectively killed any interest I had in that subplot, since my understanding hit a brick wall and it felt incredibly unresolved.

The original curse seems to have come from one twin accidentally killing the other in some weird game, only the twin dies from being pointed at and killed in-game, which I guess made him die because the doll was involved. Except the doll wasn’t cursed then. Or was it? And if so, how? That never really gets explained that well, and each answer just leads to more questions until you’re ready to just throw up your hands and say, “Fine, the doll’s haunted, and that’s all I need to know.”

Maybe it was a limitation of what the subtitles conveyed, I don’t know. Maybe if I didn’t need to rely on them, the whole thing would be much clearer and make more sense. As it was, this was a movie that lacked coherent origin or direction, had laughable special effects, ended ambiguously and predictably, and ultimately was more of a laugh than a scare. Not one I’d watch again, and honestly, not one I really enjoyed watching in the first place.

We Are Monsters, by Brian Kirk

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: The Apocalypse has come to the Sugar Hill mental asylum.

He’s the hospital’s newest, and most notorious, patient—a paranoid schizophrenic who sees humanity’s dark side.

Luckily he’s in good hands. Dr. Eli Alpert has a talent for healing tortured souls. And his protégé is working on a cure for schizophrenia, a drug that returns patients to their former selves. But unforeseen side effects are starting to emerge. Forcing prior traumas to the surface. Setting inner demons free.

Monsters have been unleashed inside the Sugar Hill mental asylum. They don’t have fangs or claws. They look just like you or me.

Thoughts: Mental health is a touchy subject, and it’s easy to make missteps that can be insulting to those who have experienced mental illness or spread false information to those who take things at face value. It’s easy to say that oh, nobody would take stuff from this book seriously, since it involved experimental medicine that results in schizophrenics manipulating the perception of reality for other people, forcing them to experience a sort of externally-influenced schizophrenia themselves, so clearly it’s fantasy and clearly liberties have been taken. Doesn’t stop people from making their judgments, though. But really, We Are Monsters doesn’t run into too many of those issues, presenting different sides of mental illness in ways that are easy to understand and also easy to conclude that a lot of it differs from individual to individual. It was good to see some stereotypes avoided, and for manifestations to occur in ways that lie outside standard textbook examples.

It’s this element that made me enjoy the book despite it’s somewhat odd-at-times execution. The idea was strong, if a bit meandering; it takes a while for things to build, leaving most of the novel to be devoted to character-building. Good if you like character studies, but not so great if you approach this horror novel looking for thrills and chills early on. But back to my original point; the decent treatment of mental illness. Some people with mental illness are violent, others confused. Some accept help, some try to hide the fact that there’s anything wrong. Some people deny that there’s anything wrong while simultaneously recognizing their own symptoms in other people. It’s a variable thing, highly individual, and not every treatment approach will work for every patient. So in that regard, it was pretty good. The fact that one of the characters was a schizophrenic serial killer did not for a second leave me with the impression that the author thinks every person with schizophrenia is a serial killer waiting to happen.

That being said, there were some issues that did bother me. One is the idea that healing can really only begin when you forgive your abuser and recognize that their abuse was born of their own mental illness. It was interesting to use “contagious mental illness” as an analogy to the abuse cycle, and it’s one that I can’t deny has some validity on the surface, but no, I disagree with that conclusion that particular character reached. There were a couple of moments when it seemed like there were hints of “mental illness is a get-out-of-jail-free card” in the story. I disagreed with the blanket application of mental illness as a defense mechanism; it was said at one point that a character’s schizophrenia was a possible defense against a traumatic childhood; a permanent break from reality because reality was so horrific. There are mental illnesses that manifest due to trauma, schizophrenia isn’t one of them.

The idea that “we’re all ill” is probably the most problematic theme, though, but mostly if you take it out of context. Every character in the book was ill. Dealing with chemical imbalances, unresolved grief, all of them attempting to cope in poor ways that don’t actually do much to help a person cope. My problem was that was a personal one, one that came from experience of my own mental illness being downplayed by people who said similar things. “We’re all ill, we all have problems, we’re all weird.” These things are usually said to try and build a bridge between someone who suffers and someone who wants to help, but what it often ends up doing is making the sufferer feel more alone. We’re all ill, but I’m the only one coping with it so badly. We all have problems, but mine are the ones affecting my life so publicly.

It was, in fairness, something that was said most often during a period where reality was affected by someone who had trouble understanding reality, so I won’t hold that against the book too much, but it was something that got under my skin a bit.

The real gem in this book is the way it raises questions. What’s it like to not understand reality? How much of reality is actually undeniably real? What’s the best way to treat mental illness? Why do religious archetypes persist in hallucinations and delusions? Where do we draw the line between sane and insane? Why are some little voices n our minds considered normal and healthy and yet others are considered unhealthy? Lines don’t get drawn very often, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation and reflection as the story goes on, and if you’re interested in mental health on a layman’s level, then We Are Monsters could certainly get you thinking about things in ways that might surprise you.

Characterization, sadly, was fairly weak in a lot of areas. The protagonists got a fair bit of development, plenty of chapters to themselves to show backstory and some degree of growth, but the side characters, especially ones that acted against what protagonists wanted, were bordering on caricatures, with little to them but a stereotype. Devon, the orderly at Sugar Hill, was your typical “I use unnecessary force on psych patients” guy, threatening to kill them because he doesn’t like them. Bearman, chairman of the board for the hospital, was impatient and didn’t actually care about the medicine because he wanted results no matter how unethical they were. If you weren’t a good guy, you were a cardboard bad guy. Being a minor character is no excuse to be without nuance.

We Are Monsters had some ups and downs, a bit inconsistently, but it was a decent read. Short chapters made it very easy to say, “Just one more chapter” to; I’d rarely have to read more than 10 pages before another chapter ended, so it felt like the book just sped by! Not spectacular, but still decent, and it has some definitely creepy and disturbing imagery that will appeal to fans of the horror genre. I wouldn’t run out to grab copies from the shelf, but it’s still worth a read if you get the chance.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

MOVIE REVIEW: Gomen nasai/Ring of Curse

I’m a fan of J-horror. I couldn’t exactly tell you why. Maybe it’s that I often find the visuals in J-horror to be really creepy. Maybe it’s that so far I’ve been lucky enough to mostly watch good ones. Maybe it’s because they’re a nice break from the zombies and serial killers that take feature roles in many North American horror flicks.

Whatever the reason, when I saw that Netflix had a new J-horror movie in its offerings, I decided to sit down and see what it was all about.

ringofcursegomennasai

It’s worth taking a moment, before we even get into discussions of the plot, to point out the unfortunate English title. Ring of Curse. If you read that and are reminded of the hit movie, The Ring, you’re not alone. The very title starts you off with what will quickly be revealed to be a rather derivative movie, taking elements from half a dozen other successful J-horror franchises, and those are just the ones that I could spot at a glance.

For my part, the original title, Gomen nasai (generally translated as, “I’m sorry,”) is a much for fitting title when you see what the story actually is.

The movie opens with Japanese pop group Buono talking about how the idea for the movie came from a story on a cell phone novel site. Which also consists of an apology for how certain scenes may not make sense, but they wanted to portray them as close to the story as possible. It’s never a good sign when a movie starts by apologizing for the fact that it might not make any sense.

The movie then cuts to a screen filled with words of death and despair, before launching into the story. Yuka is a high school student with an interest in writing. Despite that, when it comes time to organize the school play, the task of writing the script is given to Kurohane, a very unpopular and creepy girl who only is assigned that task so that more popular students can mock and torment her about it. Kurohane knows this, but throws herself into the work anyway. However, students who read even unfinished pieces of the manuscript start to die, and Yuka seems to be the only one who believes Kurohane has cursed them through her writing.

Yuke confronts Kurohane about this, and is told that yes, the writing is cursed, but Kurohane doesn’t worry about being brought to justice because she’s dying of cancer, and her death will only make the curse stronger. Before she dies, she sends a text message to Yuka’s phone, which Yuka refuses to read as she fears the curse will kill her the way it has killed others. Each cursed victim dies by asphyxiation.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

So Kurohane dies, the message goes unread, and time passes. Months later, Yuka’s friends get ahold of the cell phone and see the message, and as they begin to die off, Yuka realises the curse has lost none of its power. Nor do they know how to defeat it. All they know is that you don’t have to read the message to be curse, only to see it. People are killed one by one, and the order in which they’re killed is random.

Then comes Yuka’s “Aha!” moment when she realises that she’s being targeted because she’s the only one left. If she shows the message to others, there’s a chance Kurohane’s curse will come after them instead, since the order is random. The more people cursed, the greater her chances of survival. So she does the only thing she can think of to spread the curse far and wide.

She uploads the text message to a cell phone novel site. And begins to tell her story.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you'll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you’ll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

If you’re still seeing similarities to The Ring, it’s because they’re all so very obvious. A curse that spreads by people seeing a specific thing. The progenitor of that curse dying and making the curse more powerful. And the only way to save yourself is to show it to other people. It also had shades of Ju-On, some visuals that reminded me of scenes from Fatal Frame games, the whole “killing people one by one” bit seemed right out of Another, and was largely a mish-mash of J-horror tropes all rolled into one. It had 1 scene of physical violence, a few creepy images, but for the most part, had little to make it original and to stand out. It was a decent teen horror movie, but nothing spectacular.

Until you get to the meta aspect of the movie, that turns this from a “meh” movie into an amusing display of viral marketing. Again, it’s not unlike the viral marketing campaign that accompanied The Ring, where unmarked VHS tapes were left in random locations, all with the recording of the cursed video. At the end, when Yuka decides to save herself by uploading everything to a cell phone novel site, it ties back to the movie’s introduction, in which viewers were told that this movie is based on something read on a similar site. And the screen full of creepy words at the beginning were the words of Kurohane’s curse. You don’t have to read Japanese to be cursed. You just have to see the words. This was Buono’s attempt to save themselves after stumbling across Yuka’s attempt to save herself. So it’s a sly little play on viral marketing, albeit not a very original one.

This also brings me back to the issue of the movie’s title. I have to really stretch my brain to figure out how Ring of Curse can actually relate to the movie at all. Curse, sure, but Ring? Best I can come up with is that it’s a reference to how the curse works in groups, killing people one by one, so it seems almost like it’s gone in a circle by the time it comes back to you. But that is a damn stretch, and more likely the title was devised by people who wanted to cash it on the fact that The Ring is a well-known J-horror title in North America even today. Gomen nasai, however, works well not just because it’s one of Kurohane’s lines in the movie as she hands over the first version of her cursed writing, but also as an apology to the viewer. “Sorry, but by watching this, you’re now cursed.” It’s a meaning that goes beyond just trying to sound creepy.

Kurohane is a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist. Always having been unpopular and with a rather typical yurei appearance, she was made fun of a lot, until she decided to strike back by writing the word noroi (“curse”) all over a bullying classmate’s notebook. In her own blood. Hey, I never claimed she wasn’t creepy as hell. But it was from that moment on that her parents changed, neglecting her in favour of her younger sister, isolating her and generally treating her poorly, even after her cancer diagnosis. Kurohane grew up in a terrible situation, and so she turned inward until her bitterness had to have an outlet, until she stopped trying to convince herself that there was something she could do to win back her family’s love. Her vengeance against those who wronged her was brutal and out of proportion to some of the wrongs done to her, but when her background is revealed, you really can’t help but feel sorry for her.

It’s worth mentioning that if anyone else wants to watch this movie and has to rely on English subtitles… don’t expect much in the way of quality from the subtitles. Their timing is pretty decent, but there were frequent odd turns of phrase that probably came from weird translations, punctuation and capital letters went missing, and Kurohane’s name was either subtitled properly or as “Kuroha,” which made me think that there were only 2 subtitlers working on this movie and they never once spoke to each other or compared notes. The subtitles are good enough to get you through the movie and properly convey the plot, but they’re far from what I’d call good.

Is it worth watching? Eh, well, it’s an okay movie to kill an afternoon. It’s nothing special, its inspirations are blatant and many, and most of the value lies in the implications of the plot rather than the plot itself. If you’re a fan of J-horror, it’s probably worth taking a look at, though with the caveat that it’s not worth taking seriously. If J-horror isn’t something that particularly interests you, well really, you’re not going to miss anything by passing this one over.

Offscreen bonus! While watching a movie about a curse that kills people by asphyxiation, my asthma was acting up due to pollen and multiple people cutting their lawns in the area. It probably says something about me that I actually found this more ironically funny than ironically creepy.

The Dickens Mirror, by Ilsa J Bick

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date -March 10, 2015

Summary: Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

Thoughts: This book is going to be difficult for me to review properly. In part because it’s such a brain-bender, requiring you to really really challenge your grasp of timelines and your sense of reality, and in part because a section of my brain just wants to make this review entirely out of swear words, because it’s just that amazing!

Continuing from where White Space left off, Emma is now trapped in the mind of Elizabeth, who is in turn trapped inside an asylum in an alternate-universe Victoria London that is besieged by a strange thick fog and a dreaded rotting disease. Rima, Tony, and Bode are also there, but as though they grew up in that London, rather than as the characters we got to know in the previous book. Kramer is still after the secret of the Dickens Mirror and the ability to jump to different Nows.

When I said this book is a brain-bender, I wasn’t exaggerating. Firstly, there’s all the ideas that got introduced during White Space. That book-worlds can yield real people. That characters in books can create characters of their own and in turn become real. That real people can have pieces of themselves put into characters in books and thus share a deep link with them. That time is an illusion. That’s all still in there, and is fundamental to understanding what’s going on. Then you add in a tweak on dissociative identity disorder, the question of whether characters are more real than the people who created them, and whether or not I as the reader am even real or whether Ilsa Bick is still writing me!

(No, seriously, I actually had a moment during this book where I doubted my own reality. The Dickens Mirror may go down in my personal history as the only novel to give me an existential crisis.)

Then it goes on to get even more meta with the ending, when Emma is sitting in a bookstore listening to an author talk about her new novel, The Dickens Mirror, and how it plays with multiverse theory, and Emma thinks that she hates it when characters in books have the same name as her. And while it’s a lovely little tongue-in-cheek scene, it also begs the question as to whether or not that Emma is the primary Emma, or whether that’s even an applicable question because of course she can’t be, she’s just a character in the book I’m reading, OH WAIT MY BRAIN HURTS AGAIN!

This is what you’re in for when you read this series. And I strongly recommend you do. It’s phenomenal, one of the best YA series to come along in years, and tragically underappreciated because it involves a highly complex plot that many people just don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around. It’s not a light read. It may require you to keep notes so that the converging plotlines and multi-dimensional versions of characters keep making sense. It’s the kind of series you read when you want something utterly out of the ordinary, something to challenge you and your fundamental beliefs about reality and the nature of being. It introduces some advanced ideas that aren’t simple to comprehend and are even more difficult to apply.

But here’s the thing. If you can fall into the right headspace, throw aside your understanding of reality and just let the story carry you along, it still all makes sense. It’s a mind-twister for certain, but it’s still a cohesive story that gets a solid conclusion within the boundaries it sets for itself. It’s not trite. It’s disturbing on multiple levels, both with stomach-churning imagery and thought-churning quantum theory. I think it works best for people who already know how to look at the world sideways, who look at life from different angles and who don’t just accept things as they are because that’s what everyone says is so. It’s for people who love to ask questions and be challenged by the answers. And it’s a series with amazing reread potential, something with earlier scenes you can probably read completely differently when you already know the truth.

I can’t recommend White Space and The Dickens Mirror enough, I really can’t. Bick works wonders here, true wonders, and I have immense respect for someone who can sit down and hold this entire story in their head while writing it out. Take your time with this one, let the amazing characters and the outstanding story sweep you away, keep copious notes, and enjoy the ride. I’ve found a gem among gems, a novel with wide cross-genre appeal, and while it may take some getting used to, it’s worth every last second.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Grimm Mistresses, edited by Amanda Shore

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2015

Summary: REMEMBER THOSE GRIMM BROTHERS? Dark fairy tales that made you leave the light on long before Disney sanitized them? Well, we certainly do! And now the MISTRESSES GRIMM take back the night, five female authors who will leave you shuddering deliciously. Get ready to leave the lights on again with five pieces of short fiction bringing the Grimm Brothers’ tales into the present. Be advised: these aren’t your children’s fairy tales!

Thoughts: Over the years I’ve discovered, bit by bit, that I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings, preferably with a dark element or an unusual twist. So when I was offered a copy of Grimm Mistresses, an anthology of fairy tale horror written by a collection of talented women, I couldn’t say no. It provided me some good and disturbing entertainment during a long bus ride across provinces.

As is true in just about every short story collection, not always stories are equal. Some are better than others. Fortunately all the stories in here are good, and they work well to chill you and make you feel a little bit sickened, bringing forth that perfect horror feeling from the pit of your stomach. Though a warning to those who haven’t read this: let’s just say I agree with Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn when he says that the wrong anthology got named Trigger Warning.

Little Dead Red – Mercedes M Yardley starts off the collection with a take on Little Red Riding Hood, told from the perspective of a troubled mother raising a daughter alone after her ex-husband was revealed to be abusive and thrown in jail. The disappearance and death of her daughter tips her over the ends into a desperate madness fuelled by grief and vengeance, and she does the unthinkable while searching for “the Wolf,” the despicable man who hurt and killed her only child. It’s disturbing, powerfully so, and doesn’t flinch away from some very brutal aspects of reality. While this adds to the story’s strength, it also pegs it as one of the hardest stories to read in the entire collection, and it’s thrown at you right off the bat, no time to adjust to the dark tone. You open the book and BAM, a story about rape and death and wolves in sheep’s clothing and I won’t lie, I actually shed some tears over this one because it was just such a visceral hit. (And I probably would have shed more had I not been on a bus surrounded by strangers whom I did not want to see me cry.)

Nectar – I’m going to be honest. I have no idea which fairy tale Allison M Dickson’s story was based on. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, though it probably was one of the weaker stories in the bunch. Largely due to the unsatisfying and quite inexplicable ending. The story starts off with 2 men going on a blind date with 2 gorgeous women, who kidnap them and reveal that they are people from a far-future earth that, for some reason, can only allow women to survive. Seriously. Something in the atmosphere makes men revert to a primal brutal animal state and they don'[t survive long. You see this quite disturbingly when 1 of the men goes into a rage and kills himself by smashing his own face in. The other man, our main character, doesn’t really seem affected by the atmosphere for reasons that are never actually explained. He also shares a bond with the woman he slept with after the blind date, who was ostensibly there to kidnap him and get sperm so that she and other women could get pregnant and continue their race. She apparently feels the same way toward him, since the story ends up her freeing him and stealing a spaceship and them running off together with their newborn son. Not exactly love at first sight, but something akin to it, since she was willing to leave her wife and her entire world behind for a guy she slept with once and bonded with because reasons. The setup was interesting, the premise could have yielded so much, but honestly, so much about the conclusion seems random and doesn’t get explained. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, and that rather spoiled it for me.

The Leopard’s Pelt – S R Cambridge’s story was probably my favourite of them all! It starts with a WWII soldier being stranded on a desert island, coming across a telepathic leopard (who may well be a demon) making a deal with him when he gets desperate. Kill her, wear her pelt and don’t wash or tell anyone his name and he can only live by the charity of others, in exchange for getting off the island. If he can’t follow through on this deal, she gets to claim his soul. He accepts. And ends up meeting a volunteer at a hospital, a woman who wants to become a doctor (which, in the 1940s, is impressive and I applauded her on determination alone). They bond, though he runs from her when she gets too close, fearful that their connection will force him into a situation where he’ll lose his soul, intentionally or inadvertently. This is another story where I’m unsure of the source material, the original idea this was a new spin on, but honestly, it didn’t matter. It was so stylishly written, so wonderfully told that it didn’t matter whether I was reading a fairy tale retelling or not. All that mattered was an amazing story told by a very skilled writer!

Hazing Cinderella – This story by C W LaSart made me feel a bit uncomfortable, largely due to the abundance of sexuality in the text. It centres around a duo of mother-daughter… succubi? Witches? A combination of both? They obtain life and youth by draining it from men during sex, which is what leads me to think succubi, but they’re not referred to as such in the text, so I’m not entirely sure. Either way. Most of the story takes place around the daughter, taking over-the-top revenge against her stepsister and her friends, who want to frighten and humiliate her. She responds by killing them. It’s not presented as justified. Merely expedient, cruel people being cruel on both sides of the coin. It’s visually quite impressive, but not a particularly strong story, and it largely stands out from the others due to the sex and gore.

The Night Air – Stacy Turner’s story is probably my second-favourite in the collection, tied with Yardley’s contribution, so this book banked on both sides by quality. (With a second slice of quality smack-bang in the middle. I think that makes it some sort of double-decker quality book-sandwich.) This is a retelling of the Pied Piper story, taking place around a family who has just moved to a small town. There’s some odd behaviour by the locals, which they pass off at first as just small-town mentality coming to light, but it turns out that the “old wives tales” have some merit after 2 of the children vanish into the night, never to be seen again. I admit, part of the reveal at the end stretched coincidence a bit for me, but otherwise this was a solid story, emotional and impressive, and I would definitely read more of Turner’s work in the future.

So over all, this double-decker is worth reading, though it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of book. There’s some very disturbing material contained within its pages, but then, that’s entirely the point. Fairy tales were cautionary tales wrapped in entertainment long before they were sanitized “happily ever after” tales that most of us have grown up with, and this brings them back to form with a host of talented women at the wheel. If horror is your thing, then definitely grab a copy of Grimm Mistresses while you can, and be prepared to feel some gut-shaking spine-tingling horror while you read.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2014

Summary: Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

Thoughts: A group therapy session. A support group for survivors, only these aren’t your average survivors of terrible events, if anyone in such a situation could be considered an “average” survivor. Each one has faced supernatural horrors and has come out the other side, not whole, definitely damaged, but still alive to tell their stories. But when nobody wants to hear those stories, when nobody believes the truth behind the events, who can they turn to but each other, after meeting at a very specialized group put together by Dr. Sayer?

The stories of each of the group members are horrific, ranging from Stan’s experience of being partially dismembered and eaten by a family of cannibals, to Martin’s experience of augmented reality games allowing him to see beyond and come into contact with terrifying creatures. And bit by bit, all their stories do come to light over the course of the novella, and I’m probably not the only reader who thought that it would have made for incredible reading to go deeper into the events themselves, to get a closer look at everything that landed everyone in that therapy group to start with. That Gregory managed to tell such complete stories in such a short space is a real testament to his ability as a writer; as much as I would have loved to have seen more, the important parts of the stories were told, giving you more than enough to appreciate what everyone went through.

I often end up thinking things like this when I read novellas. I’m so used to novels that when I read something shorter, I want more. I want to read it all fleshed out and bigger and long enough to allow me to completely immerse myself in it for days without coming up for air. Novellas are so quick, it feels like I just have a chance to get my feet wet before it’s over. But that perceived weakness really is a strength, too, since the author has such a small space to cram a coherent story into, and the very fact that Gregory can do this just blows me away. We Are All Completely Fine doesn’t just tell the backstories of multiple characters, but also the overarching story that ties them together and keeps things moving forward. It’s multiple stories combined into one, and just take a moment to contemplate the skill that takes to accomplish.

All of the stories fit so perfectly together, with one exception. I found that Dr. Sayer’s story seemed to come out of left field. There were small hints trickling through the cracks, and it was obvious that she wasn’t undamaged by strange events, but the way her story tied back to Stan’s just seemed tacked on. It wasn’t supposed to be obvious until the end, which makes sense since any revelation earlier would have ruined everything, but when her story comes together, it just seemed overdone, like it wasn’t enough for her to have some supernatural connection and be touched by weirdness herself, to be connected to them all by what had happened to Barbara (which affected all the group members, in a way).

But this is entirely a subjective thing and other people may have had no problem with that aspect of her story. It certainly did tie everything up in a neat package, no threads really left dangling except those that were supposed to dangle.

One aspect of the way the story was told that did interest me was the narration, and I’m left puzzled but intrigued by the choice. The first paragraph or so of each chapter is presented as though it’s being told by the same person, using “we” and “us” to indicate the group, so you think that it’s all being told by a member of the group itself. Then it switches to the third person, each chapter highlight one character or another, never going back to the same sort of first-person pronouns until the next chapter begins. It takes a while to realise that eventually, all of the group members have been talked about (and you’re sure that it’s all of them, because the story’s clear to point out the number of males and females in the group very early on), and this mysterious voice who calls everyone “we” isn’t actually going to get talked about. It’s one of those things that can hit you out of nowhere, and once I realised it, I couldn’t help but start to speculate on why. Was there somebody else there after all, an invisible someone watching everything? Was one of the members of the group split, in a sense, to think of themselves in the third person to prevent getting too close to trauma, and if so, which one? Or was it just a cool storytelling trick to hook readers and provide a little more interest? (Not that it needed it, because the story was fantastic even without that as a hook!)

What this all comes down to is that if you’re a fan of horror, or of anything Daryl Gregory has written elsewhere, or just of fantastic novellas that demonstrate exemplary storytelling, then you ought to read We Are All Completely Fine. The pacing is tight, not a word wasted, and for all that most of the immediate action occurs at the end, it never once feels slow or ponderous. Masterful writing and a sensational set of intertwining stories keep you reading, keep you pushing for details, and it’s a great thing to whet your appetite for more of Gregory’s superb writing. It’s early days yet, but this is already a strong contender for Best Novella in 2015’s eventual year-end Best Of lists!

(Received for review from the publisher.)