Sunday Scares #4: Books-Turned-Movies

In honour of Halloween, this October instead of my weekly Sunday Sofa Sojourns posts I will list a few of my favourite creepy things. I’ve written about horror graphic novels, kids’ books, and music videos.

I hate to be that person but, but in the case of these three books – they really were better than the movies.

1) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)

First line: “It goes by many names: ‘The Crisis,’ ‘The Dark Years,’ ‘The Walking Plague,’ as well as newer and more ‘hip’ titles such as ‘World War Z’ or ‘Z War One.’”

From George Romero’s game-changing Dead movies, to scary shibito in the Siren PS games, to the crazy fast hybrid versions in ’28 Days Later,’ I find the concept of zombies fascinating. Zombies are the perfect foil to humanity’s complicated emotions: survival, compassion, mercy, grief, hope. The undead can even potentially be a great teaching tool of various values for kids.

Anyway, nowadays zombies have been done to death (pun intended). TV shows, movies, games, chibi versions – they’re everywhere. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention even has a special site on zombie preparedness.

But if you’re a fan, as far as books with the undead go World War Z remains one of my favourites. It’s written as a collection of interviews across the globe complete with a believable introduction from the book’s anonymous narrator. The narrator traces the “Z epidemic” from its first victims all the way through to the final chapter. The zombies are great equalizers: most countries pitched in to combat the threat. The debate of what is right or wrong on the subject of preserving the human race comes up in the “clear, logical, efficient” solution proffered by one character.

The book covers a wide variety of practical situations: dealing with the undead in winter, the most important people a community needs to rebuild after a crisis (unsurprisingly, bankers don’t feature very highly on the list), what the Queen of England would do.

All sorts of characters are revealed too: the opportunists, the crazies, the disbelievers, the everyday heroes, the governments who bungled their response vs. those who didn’t. What’s interesting is that if you replace the zombie epidemic with a more realistic event (say, a certain ongoing pandemic), the scenarios and characters are not far-fetched at all…

Overall, the movie butchered the nuance in favour of a tidy story. If you’re a fan of the genre, pick up this book and start reading.

2) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

First line: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”

I put down the book abruptly. I was in between Chapters 4 and 5, and Robert Neville had just realized his watch had stopped. The afternoon was bright outside, and next to me on the couch the Hub kept on playing his NBA game on the console, nonplussed. “What’s wrong?” I remember him asking. I could feel my heart pounding, fast. “I’m scared,” I replied.

Matheson’s I Am Legend still scared me in broad daylight. It pulled me in and held fast. The book is about Robert Neville, sole survivor of a disease that turned everyone else to vampires. His wife, daughter, and neighbour Ben Cortman (who, in vampire form, seems to relish tormenting Robert on a nightly basis by camping outside his house) have succumbed to the disease and are either dead or undead.

Robert is dedicated to finding the cause and cure for the disease, and had established a regular routine: eating breakfast, making sure his car was in good condition, burning bodies, gathering ‘subjects’ for experiments, fixing his house barricade, and drinking. There are some interruptions: a poor dog that wanders by (unlike the movie, the dog wasn’t with him from the start — but both versions are just as heart-breaking), Robert losing track of time as the day turned to night, the possibility of another survivor.

What I like best about I Am Legend is how Matheson forces us, over the course of the novel, to think about the power of perspective and majority rule. Who is the hunter and the hunted? Following that, what dictates our sense of right and wrong? Matheson prompts us to consider this early on in the story, as Robert argues with himself in a drunken haze:

“Vampires are prejudiced against. The key of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared…

At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.

But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? […] Is he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie — is the vampire so bad?

All he does is drink blood.”

3) Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

First line: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” (The Call of Cthulhu)

I remember my first Lovecraft story very well. “The Rats in the Walls” was one of the stories in Great Short Tales of Mystery and Terror, a Reader’s Digest compilation I loved so much, I tried to steal it from my high school library. The story made such an impression on me I had nightmares about the underground ruins and “flabby, fungous” shapes that night.

Lovecraft is probably best known for his style of writing about fantastic, hopeless terrors on a vast scale, a genre known as cosmic horror. I think his stories don’t scare in a jump-out-of-your-skin sort of way, but in the creeping dread that you get when reading it. Before you dive in to the many films Lovecraft’s work has inspired, it would be better to read the man himself.

My compendium of Lovecraft stories is edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction she mentions the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ which is an alternate mythology where “there are no gods, but only displaced extra-terrestrial beings, The Great Old Ones who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago.” Cthulhu is one of these Great Old Ones, with its “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings,” “a green, sticky spawn of the stars” with “flabby claws,” and the awful ability to fuse itself right back despite being stabbed in the stomach by a “sturdy yacht.” (“There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand open graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper.”)

Reading Lovecraft describe “distant wastes and dark places” in 1920s Providence has a dreamlike aspect to it (my mind imagined his words in soft focus). His horrors were ancient and vague — monsters that lived in the dark depths of the sea, humanoid water-beasts, alien colours —  far away from where I was, reading next to the brightness of my laptop.

Lovecraft’s stories continue to fascinate and draw me in. Whatever the setting, fear itself is timeless. As Lovecraft himself said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” (Image source: Pinterest)
Source: Pinterest

That ends my Sunday Scares edition this year. Join me as I resume “travelling” next week! ✈️

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Scares #3: Music Videos

In honour of Halloween, this October instead of my weekly Sunday Sofa Sojourns posts I will list a few of my favourite creepy things. I’ve written about horror graphic novels and kids’ books.

Music videos usually clock in at four to six minutes on average.

Artists have only that short period of time to make something memorable, of course never forgetting that the audio is the real star of the show. By definition, the visuals play second fiddle to the music. That doesn’t equate to boring – clearly there are many examples of music videos becoming as recognisable as the songs they accompany (think A-ha’s ‘Take On Me,’ or Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ to name a few). The creativity involved in integrating both pieces of content makes music videos fascinating to watch for me.

Even better, with YouTube everyone now has the luxury to watch their favourite videos whenever they want. Hands up who remembers sitting around in front of the TV – be it MTV, Channel V, or Myx – waiting just to catch a glimpse of theirs?

This week I’m writing about creepy music videos.

First things first: ‘Thriller’ isn’t on this list. (Not a hater here: that dance scene in ‘13 Going on 30’ is a personal guilty pleasure to watch.) While Michael Jackson’s video is certainly iconic, there’s something about the dancing undead that just didn’t scream “scary” to me.  

Source: Vox

Second, I haven’t included anything from Marilyn Manson, Aphex Twin, or anything like that – though some of their videos fall well within the nightmare fuel category. I have nothing against these musicians, I just chose from the universe of music I actually listen to.

Finally, all of the music videos on my personal short list are not shit-your-pants scary. But I vividly remember the first time I saw each of them and all settled uneasily on my mind. Clearly, there they still linger. Here goes.

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1) Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden (1994)

Show me a ‘90s kid who didn’t get creeped out by the bug-eyed ever-widening grins of the suburban townspeople in Soundgarden’s music video for Black Hole Sun.

Throw in other Twin Peaks-esque imagery: an eclectic band of doomsayers, that elderly lady applying lipstick while simultaneously ogling a muscled man and exercising with a vibrating belt, and a Barbie melting on the barbecue, and you’ve got yourself one terrified kid.

2) Breathe, The Prodigy (1996)

In The Prodigy’s Breathe the imagery is less subtle and more in-your-face: close-ups of roaches in a dirty sink, millipedes, a loose alligator. Actually, I found the duelling shots of Keith Flint and Maxim more disturbing. It’s probably all those flashing lights.

But man, what a sick beat. I only recently realised I’ve been singing it wrong for over two decades (it’s not “Psychosomatic-atic insane” haha).

3) All Nightmare Long, Metallica (2008)

I don’t know what I was on when I first saw this video, but it didn’t immediately register that I was watching MTV. I thought I was watching some Blair Witch-type illegal Russian documentary. Also, bear in mind that while nowadays zombies are old hat thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, in 2008 they weren’t as commonplace.

In short, the video scared me for a good eight minutes. Also how chilling is that line, “Hunt you down without mercy / Hunt you down all nightmare long”?

Special Mention: Burn The Witch, Radiohead (2016)

I listened to a lot of Radiohead back in the day when I was an angsty teen haha. I only came across this track recently (I didn’t know they were still active!). I have to include it here because I like how cleverly it merges imagery from The Wicker Man with innocuous stop-motion animation reminiscent of Postman Pat.

Could have been creepier without the scene at the end, though.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this short, musical list. Till next week! 👻

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Scares #2: Kids’ Books

In honour of Halloween, this October instead of my weekly Sunday Sofa Sojourns posts I will list a few of my favourite creepy things. Last week, I wrote about horror graphic novels.

Today I found out I’ve been blessed with a new niece! We’re beyond-the-moon excited.

It’s also amazing timing, because this week I’m talking about three of my favourite scary books for young children*. Because you know, #momlife.

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1) The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”

The Gashlycrumb Tinies teaches your young one the ABCs, except with a deliciously morbid twist. To my mind, it’s classic gothic, gory Gorey. (Fact: In my head, I read Gorey in my best parody of a British accent. I don’t know why; his writing just seems to call for it.)

In the book, 26 children with names that start from A to Z die in various memorable and macabre ways. Each of the deaths is illustrated in black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations, with detailed hatching and cross-hatching characteristic of Gorey’s art.

Source: The New Yorker

Is the book dangerous reading for kids? I don’t think so. (The concept is not too different from the hilarious Dumb Ways to Die PSA from the Melbourne Metro that went viral some years ago.) You can’t exactly say “Kids, don’t try this at home!”, because most of the children in the book don’t exactly try to do anything harmful. Things just happen. How do you warn against wasting away, getting sucked dry by a leech, or an assault by bears?

Source: Metro Trains Melbourne

On the positive side, with The Gashlycrumb Tinies you can teach your little one fun, new words like devoured, awl, and ennui.

A highly recommended read.

2) Ma-Me-Mi-MUMU! by Jomike Tejido

“Siguro may mumu sa bahay namin. Kasi ang mumu, sa dilim daw nakatira. Baka isang gabi, bigla ko pang makita!”

Jomike Tejido’s Ma-Me-Mi-MUMU! is a wholesome take on Philippine ghostly folklore, through the eyes of little Sophia and her Lolo Nanding. The book begins with a neighbourhood boy taunting Sophia, saying, “May mumu sa bahay n’yo!” (“There’s a ghost in your house!”) Sophia is afraid of encountering a mumu in her house — and imagines one in the shadows of the kitchen, in the bathroom, or just about wherever she goes.

Our well-thumbed copy

Lolo Nanding helps her overcome her fear of monsters by presenting each of them in a friendlier light. Tejido makes clever use of these creatures’ real traits as a way for Sophia to bond with them. For example, Lolo Nanding encourages her to cheerfully splash any siyokoy she sees in the bathtub. (In local folklore, a siyokoy is a half-human, half-fish monster with sharp teeth, known to drown and consume humans.) Similarly, Lolo Nanding suggests that Sophia use the tiktik’s long, snaking tongue to paraglide; teach the tiyanak, a vampiric monster baby, his ABCs; or give the kapre, a cigar-smoking giant thought to reside in big trees, some pakwan (watermelon) candy so he’d dump his cigar.

There’s a picture gallery at the back of all the creatures mentioned in the book. It’s also bilingual in English and Filipino, so you can help your little one learn the language too.

A fun introduction for kids to the Philippine supernatural.

3) Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (English translation)

“When the children have been good / That is, be it understood / Good at meal-times, good at play / Good all night and good all day / They shall have all the pretty things / Merry Christmas always brings. / Naughty, romping girls and boys / Tear their clothes and make a noise / Spoil their pinafores and frocks / And deserve no Christmas box. / Such as these shall never look / At this pretty Picture-Book.”

In one of The Office’s hilarious episodes called “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Dwight Schrute whips out a book that his German “Grandmutter” used to read to him. He starts to tell the kids about a tall tailor that visits children who keep on sucking their thumbs – if they do, the tailor takes his great sharp scissors out and cuts their thumbs clean off.

Dwight on The Office. Source: NBC

Friends, lucky for us this book really exists. It’s called Struwwelpeter (translated as “Shock-headed Peter”) and the rest of the stories are just as weird as the one above (which is called ‘The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb’). Best of all – it’s illustrated in colour!

Struwwelpeter was first published in 1845 and has delighted and scared German children for nearly two centuries since. Hoffman wrote the books as a Christmas present for his three-year-old son.

It’s delightfully graphic, with tales of “the often-gruesome consequences that befall children who torment animals, play with matches, suck their thumbs, refuse to eat, fidget at meals, etc.” Such consequences include being burnt to nothing but ash (‘The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches’), wasting to death (‘The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup’), and a possible rabies infection (‘The Story of Cruel Frederick’).

The titular character’s unkempt appearance. Check out those witchy nails

One of the tales, ‘The Story of the Inky Boys’, is an interesting one – here, Agrippa dips three boys in a giant pot of black ink for teasing a “harmless black-a-moor”: “Boys, leave the black-a-moor alone! / For if he tries with all his might / He cannot change from black to white.” Agrippa’s punishment leaves the bullies as silhouettes that are “as black as crows.” While at first glance, it seems like a lesson in tolerance, I wonder about the punishment as it suggests the colour black itself has negative connotations. Food for thought. But also do bear in mind this was published in the 1800s.

If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to teach the kids to finish their food and stop bothering the family pets, here you go! Bonus nightmare fuel too, haha.

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I know some of you may be thinking “Well, these stories are too scary to read to my precious wee ones” but you know what: kids are smarter than we give them credit for.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Afterword in Struwwelpeter:

“Many educators, from the book’s earliest days, have had ideological objections to the violence of the action and the drastic fates of the disobedient children, but young readers and listeners over the decades have seen the humour in the impossibly exaggerated situations, and have endorsed Hoffman’s pedagogic views by taking the book to their hearts.”

As always, I hope you enjoyed my short list. Till next week! 👻

Think critically dear readers,

* No Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” or Goosebumps or the Stephen Gammell-illustrated version of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” here; those are for older kids. I’ll save that for next year.

Sunday Scares #1: Graphic Novels

We blinked and it’s October!

You may already know that I like spooky things. So, I thought that for today and the next three Sundays, instead of my weekly #SundaySofaSojourns I will list a few of my favourite creepy things to celebrate the season – nay, the Mood – that is Halloween.

If you’re thinking “Well this year is already horrific enough as it is without adding zombies into the mix” then it might interest you to know that watching films / reading fiction / engaging with the horror genre has been found to be useful in this Covid-19 era. A recent study concluded that “exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.” (You’re welcome!)

This week, I’m listing down three of my favourite horror graphic novels.

In my view, the graphic novel as a medium adds another layer of immersion to any story. It works especially well for the horror genre – to see a shock of bright red or dark moody hatchwork complement the black-and-white text next to it amps up the scare factor for me by several notches.

Creepy Post-it artwork by John Kenn

Here are three of my picks…

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1) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”

Through the Woods has five original stories, not counting ‘An Introduction’ and ‘In Conclusion.’ I like that Carroll’s stories are mostly about women — a lady trying to uncover the terrible mystery of her sprawling, dark manor and her husband with red-stained lips in A Lady’s Hands Are Cold; three sisters dealing with a bruising winter in the unsettling mystery of Our Neighbour’s House; a lonely girl whose mother’s cautionary tales saved her life as she uncovered her pretty sister-in-law’s hidden secret in The Nesting Place; and the sinister story of two brothers in His Face All Red (also published in full on Carroll’s website – check it out. Don’t miss Out of Skin and The Prince & The Sea too).

Opening panel in His Face All Red. (Source)

‘In Conclusion’ had a Red Riding Hood-like character narrowly missing the wolf in the forest, and expressing immense relief as she tucked in for the night. Suddenly, she hears something speak:

“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again & again…” said a shadow at the window. “…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…

But the wolf …the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.”

Add the jet-blacks and blood-reds colouring her eerie yet haunting art, her spindly elegant handwriting, the oppressiveness of her snowy landscapes, lonesome houses in the woods, and the nostalgic Victorian and 1920s fashion — and Through the Woods ticks all my horror-loving boxes.

2) Trese series by Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo

“When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions. When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.”

I would not be exaggerating when I say the Trese series is a rare and very welcome find for me in the graphic novel medium, let alone the horror genre. There’s hardly any Filipino representation out there, as far as I’m aware. (If you know of others, please let me know in the comments.) Bonus points for having a strong and independent woman as the lead character.

In the Trese series, we follow Malate club owner and police consultant Alexandra Trese and her trusty hitmen the Kambal. Trese gets called in to cases that involve the supernatural.

The characters in Trese are as old and familiar as childhood, but with a modern twist – helpful nuno sa punso (who now live in underground sewers instead of soil mounds), well-off tikbalang who’ve upgraded their usual balete tree home to a Makati penthouse, a typhoon deity who watches over an exclusive urban village (as long as the residents made the right sacrifices).

The settings are also recognisable: Manila South Cemetery in Case 6: The Outpost on Kalayaan Street, also considered home by many poor squatter families in makeshift houses (“… and some find themselves joining the dead all too soon”); a crowded MRT train in Case 13: An Act of War, and gritty Manila in Case 1: At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street from the first Trese book, Murder on Balete Drive.

Trese, redrawn for the US market. Source: Comics Beat

There’s even a nod to local urban legends, for example the snake-like creature that supposedly stalked people in Robinson’s Galleria in the ‘90s (remember that?) in Case 7: Embrace of the Unwanted, which is set in the fictional Robertson Mall.

If you’re looking for a highly engaging and modern introduction to Philippine myth and folklore, I recommend reading Trese. I heard that Netflix will adapt it as an animated series this year. I can’t wait.

3) Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror by Junji Ito

“Spirals… this town is contaminated with spirals…”

Ito is the first artist that comes to my mind when I think about how artwork complements the story in graphic novels.

In Uzumaki, the phenomenon is never explained fully. Kurozu-cho, a small fictional town in Japan, is haunted by a pattern: the spiral (or uzumaki in Japanese – Naruto fans would know this 😉). Spirals start to manifest itself in everything – townspeople start to become obsessed with it, hair independently shapes itself into spiral curls, pregnant women gorge on spiral-covered mushrooms with alarming consequences.

As a pitch, the plot sounds utterly ridiculous: “Town is cursed, driven mad, and ultimately fucked over by spirals.” Err, say what?

But Ito’s artwork makes all the difference. It manages to mesmerise and be deeply uncomfortable at the same time, and is peak form in Uzumaki. It’s my favourite of his many works because the story builds, with all the seemingly unconnected short chapters starting to make sense as the main characters hurtle towards the end. (Watch out for Chapter 8: The Snail. I could not get the imagery of the snail people out of my head for days.)

You’ll never look at a spiral the same way again.

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I’ll stop at three so I still have some to talk about for next October haha. Hope you enjoyed this list. Till next week! 👻

Think critically dear readers,