Monday, July 2, 2012

The Croning by Laird Barron

Laird Barron’s debut novel, published by Night Shade Books, opens with a fairy tale most readers will recognize: A miller’s daughter spins straw into gold with the help of a strange, misshapen man who demands equally strange payment. When the spinning is done the miller’s daughter marries the king, and must reward her magical benefactor with the gift of her firstborn son. The only escape from the contract is to guess the benefactor’s real name by the time he returns to collect the child.

Assuming reader familiarity with at least one incarnation of this fairy tale, Barron describes the arduous journey undertaken by the queen’s henchman–who is also her brother and lover–to ferret out the name of the benefactor. Barron’s spin includes profane and anachronistic language, a canine sidekick, and a gruesome discovery: The benefactor is not a one-off con artist. He is ancient and mysterious, insinuating himself into the lives and dreams of thousands of people. He is and is not what he appears to be. And he has henchmen of his own.

Following the fairy tale we pick up our main story. Don Miller and Michelle Mock are married and by all appearances madly in love. His area of expertise is geology, hers is anthropology. Over the course of five decades they travel together and separately to remote places all around the globe. They have children. They grow old together. On paper this seems like a perfect marriage. Yet something has happened to cause a permanent, subterranean rift.

Beginning with a bizarre event in Mexico in 1958 Don and Michelle have taken different spiritual paths. Apparently successful and well matched, their surface lives conceal what may be irreconcilable differences. Michelle has grown strong and independent while Don has drifted inward, developing weird phobias and sensing danger just beneath the skin of nearly everyone he meets.

In his two story collections, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation, the author has explored the consequences of ignoring myth and recurring tropes when they emerge in the modern world. The Croning delves deeper into collective consciousness for the underlying themes that bind and separate individuals over the course of a lifetime. The fairy tale that opens the novel is not a diversion. The timeless fears that created the fairy tale form the underpinnings to a much larger myth, incorporating Cthulhu-inspired ancient beings as well as anthropological adventures, geological history, and a dynamic portrait of the war between the sexes.

Setting aside the complexity and weight of the narrative, this novel would still be a must-read for the unique style of the author’s prose. No one anywhere combines two-fisted noir with the best traditions of horror quite like Laird Barron. The result is rich with detail, broad in scope, and often shocking in its implications. In Barron’s universe the flutter of a butterfly’s wing is connected not only to a hurricane but to possible car crashes, probable shady business deals, nightmares emerging from the shadows to demand a seat at the breakfast table, and pretty much everything in the attic and basement of every house you’ve ever occupied. This is a writer who comes closer than any artist I can name in capturing the whole shebang of humanity’s place in the cosmos. If you think that’s a crazy exaggeration, you haven’t read his fiction. Read it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

PictureDirected & written by Kim Ji-woon
As the film opens, a doctor tries to interview a patient who never speaks. He asks if she remembers the family photo he shows her, and urges her to tell him the truth from now on.

In the next sequence, Su-mi and her sister Su-yeon climb out of the family car after a long drive home with their father. They take a look around the yard and inside the house, then exchange a few words with their skittish stepmother.

The girls settle in to their rooms, and try to assume a normal schedule. But something is wrong in the house. Strange noises, nightmares, and an ongoing conflict with their stepmother cause Su-mi and Su-yeon a great deal of anxiety, which brings them closer to each other but makes them more vulnerable to threats from outside. Every attempt to convince their skeptical father that his new wife is dangerous makes them seem less believable. Meanwhile, the stepmother is becoming more weird and threatening with every encounter.

If you liked Tell Me Something or Phone you will probably find A Tale of Two Sisters engaging.
The director also made two of my favorite films: the dark and hilarious The Quiet Family, and a comedy of corporate ambition and wrestler's revenge, The Foul King.

A Tale of Two Sisters is currently being remade in English for a 2008 release. (Note that the dts produced DVD has subtitles which occasionally lag behind the dialog, so that the tempo of speech is not always maintained by the translation.)

SPOILER WARNING - Stop here if you have not seen the film yet and don't want to know what happens.

Some people find torture scenes more frightening than a plot based on the agony of loss and grief. But I think grief is the starting point for horror. What we create in the void that follows defines us as believers or non-believers, as those who go on or those who cannot go on without a fundamental shift in how we view, and interact with, the world.

A Tale of Two Sisters is about grief, identity, and guilt. It poses the idea that deep, realistic guilt (structured around a true and catastrophic lapse in judgment) may only be assuaged by embracing the object of one's regret and becoming one with it.

This is abuser-identification in reverse: You become the being you have wronged, in order to live with what you have done. But the film goes one step farther, suggesting that madness can be infectious. And if you believe in the supernatural, the film suggests that guilt and madness may even summon the spirit of a dead person who has been wronged.

As you watch this film a second time, pay close attention to the camera angles and clothing. Note the physical relation of characters to one another in each scene. Note that there are times when the stepmother's ensemble is a combination of colors the two sisters are wearing. At another time, we see a flashback shot of Su-mi wearing a blouse worn by the stepmother in a previous version of the same scene. She duplicates the stepmother's action as well, taking medication at the dinner table.

PictureThe story is full of duplicates--an extra notebook and pen set; an identical pair of pajamas; a closet loaded with copies of one outfit. A dead bird appears in two places, apparently at the same time. Su-mi discovers that her sister and her stepmother have started their period on the same day. How likely? Not very.

Once you have learned the truth about Su-mi and Su-yeon, watch the stepmother closely. Her appearance is entirely different, after Su-mi's father decides the girl is ill enough to need re-hospitalization. The stepmother now wears a gray suit, her hair and makeup are softened, and her manner is gentler and more natural. All of this tells us that the previous version of the stepmother was one manufactured by remorse and hatred. The actual stepmother is merely the inspiration for the one in Su-mi's mind.

The last few scenes imply that the stepmother, who may seem concerned about her husband's daughter but who was nevertheless responsible for the tragedy that triggered her first breakdown, is now haunted. You may decide that she is finally collapsing emotionally under the weight of what she has done. Or you may think that the house itself is responding to the call of insanity sent round by Su-mi's visit, and the unjustly injured are rising to take their revenge.

Either way, in the last flashback, you will be both moved and disturbed by the sight of the defiant Su-mi striding away from her house while something horrible and irrevocable occurs inside, changing her state of being forever. It is one of those petty, little moments of neglect we have all indulged in, never knowing what terrible consequences might follow.

Calvaire (2005)

Directed by Fabrice Du Welz
Written by Fabrice Du Welz & Romain Protat


In the 2005 Belgian import Calvaire, Marc (Laurent Lucas) is a singer, although not a particularly talented or successful one. With his good looks and scruffy charm, however, he makes decent money during winter holidays. We first see him performing a maudlin ballad at a nursing home, where two women make passes at him. Gently deflecting the unwanted attention, Marc explains that he's on his way to another gig, and promptly hits the road in his rickety van.

Hours later, on the road, in the dark, in a downpour, his van breaks down. (A word of advice: If you have to travel long distances, through territory where you have no friends and you might run into people you don't want as friends, you can avoid being the hero of a horror film by acquainting yourself with the inner workings of your only vehicle.)

So, an irritatingly odd young man wanders by and says he's looking for his lost dog. He helps Marc find his way from the ailing van to a nearby inn. As our hapless hero's luck would have it, innkeeper Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) is a gregarious man who used to be a comedian, and he's glad of the company Marc offers. (If Marc were smarter, he might ask how a gregarious comedian ends up alone in the middle of nowhere operating an inn nobody visits. But maybe this is the kind of question you only ask if you watch as many horror films as I do.) It seems the tragedy of Bartel's life was the loss of his beloved wife Gloria, who ran off and left him years ago. Bartel's nostalgia for Gloria is matched by his wariness of the people who live in the village a couple of miles away. Bartel warns Marc not to go to the village, because there is something wrong with the residents.

The next day, while Bartel attempts to repair the van, Marc goes for a walk. He stumbles upon several local farmers engaged in an act that seems to support Bartel's warning about the village. Marc slips away and returns to the inn, where Bartel has made every effort to make him feel "at home."

The title of the film is translated as "The Ordeal." And there were several times during the second half when I laughed out loud, thinking it must surely end soon, and not for my sake. There are chilling moments, like the bizarre dance of ugly men in the tavern, that keep renewing the tantalizing possibility of more than the film delivers. But, ultimately, this is a short, simple tale of cruelty and revenge enacted without a breath of compassion.

My sympathies are with Gloria.