13 scary reads for the Day of the Dead

The Little StrangerOkay, I lied about the 13 part – there’s actually only 5. Because on a night like tonight, nothing is as it seems….*cue creepy music*. Anyway, what this post lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, because this is a carefully curated collection of the best scary stories to get you in the mood for fright night. Best read after dark, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in an old house with creaky floorboards and unpredictable wiring. Spooky satisfaction guaranteed.

1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M. R. James.
You can’t talk about ghost stories without talking about M.R. James. The classic Victorian spooky tale is defined here, with the sense that the past is never quite done with, and could return at any moment with murderous intent. Plus these collected short stories are much more accessible than weightier classics like Dracula or Frankenstein. O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad is a great starting point. And if you like The Tractate Middoth, you might want to dig out the rather good BBC adaptation that came out last Christmas. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, light up your pipe* and dive in.

2. The Woman in Black – Susan Hill.
I’ve seen the stage version in the West End no less than three times, and I still get shivers down my spine. They use a minimal set and plentiful sound effects, and let your mind fill in the details of the barren marsh, a crumbling gothic edifice, and a shadowy figure lurking just on the edge of your vision. Except, wait – I’m not sure I imagined her…The Daniel Radcliffe outing for the big screen is also worth a watch, although let down by a ‘blah’ finale. For best results, go back to the source text, and be prepared for a few sleepless nights.

3. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski.
Okay, so Marky Z. has made a name for himself as a dahling of the more pretentious literature lover, and you might be a little tired of his need to reinvent the wheel. But there’s a reason this book made such a splash, and it goes beyond experimental forms and wacky typesetting. The narrative threads can be hard to hang on to at times, but they’ll pull you into their oppressive labyrinth until you feel your sense of reality start to warp around the edges. It’s the only book that can make you afraid to look in your closet in case there’s nothing there.

4. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova.
Alright, you’re over vampires. Everyone’s over vampires – the minute Stephanie Whatsherface and Robert ‘Two Expressions’ Pattison got their fangs into the genre, there was no bringing it back to life. But before vampires were sparkly, back when they were still scary but kind of sexy, this smart book took us on a desperate mission into the dark heart of Eastern Europe to defeat an ancient evil. And there wasn’t a werewolf in sight.

5. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters.
Disclaimer: this book features no girl-on-girl action whatsoever. Not even a little bit. Because Sarah Waters is so much more than just a ‘writer of lesbian fiction’ or even a ‘lesbian fiction writer’. Her skill was evident in her earlier work, but for me, this book proved without doubt that her talent transcends lazy publishing industry labels. The Little Stranger has the trappings of the conventional ghost story: a big house with a tragic past and a family bound together by unhappiness and secrets, watching their way of life fade into history. But though the supernatural elements will send a shiver down your spine, it’s the human frailties at the heart of it all that are truly disturbing. And the final lines deliver a devastating blow.

*For tobacco, like a proper Victorian gentleman. Obviously. Behave, you lot.

Slowly, but surely: It Follows

It’s that time of the year again. Leaves are in crunchy piles at the side of the road. There’s a chill in the air, which makes my nose run every time I leave the house. And we’re gearing up for one of my favourite holidays; All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween to you and me.

I’m a horror movie obsessive; I’ll watch them all, no matter how potentially awful the trailers make them look. 90% will be disappointing on multiple levels: too ambitious on too little budget, too formulaic, too mindlessly gory. To generate that genuine tingle of fear, that vague unease that makes you look over your shoulder when you pause the movie and get up to go to the bathroom…well, it’s tougher than it looks. You can’t just throw a bucket of blood at the set and hope for the best.

There’s a whole sub-genre devoted to the ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of horror, and I’m not one to frown on a B-movie. I laughed my ass off at Sharknado just like everyone else, and I’ve seen Piranha: 3DD twice. Watching Paris Hilton get skewered with a metal pipe in House of Wax* was pretty much the highlight of that decade for me. But still, I get excited when something comes along that promises a few genuine scares. Something that will stick with you for the next few days, rearing up from the depths of your subconscious when you find yourself alone in the dark.

That’s why I think you should watch It Follows this Halloween. If you’re not going out dressed only in your underwear and a pair of cat ears to get wasted and make out with a zombie, then order yourself some delicious takeout and load this up on Netflix. If you did decide to be sociable, then pop this on November 1st while you curl up and nurse your hangover.

It Follows
You’ll find many of the familiar tropes; a bunch of high school kids, white picket fence neighbourhood of New England cul-de-sacs, parents that don’t seem to be home all that much. But there’s something of a Virgin Suicides vibe, right down to the vintage-y fashions and the washed out colour palette. A girl is found horribly mutilated on a grey, windswept beach, and there are echoes of Hannibal**. Though the technology is up to date, it’s hard to place which decade is in the background; this is timeless suburbia, where nothing ever changes.

Our likeable blonde every-girl has a new love interest, but he’s acting strangely. Probably nothing a little car nookie can’t fix, right? So far so Terror at Make Out Point, but things are about to take a sudden and infinitely more interesting turn. I won’t spoil it, but as in every tragedy since man first put stylus to tablet; sex can get you into trouble.

Many horror films start to fall apart once you see the ‘monster’. The suspense skilfully built over the opening scenes crumbles when the source of all your fears is far less frightening than your imaginings. It’s why shaky-camera classics like Blair Witch and Cloverfield work so well: you never get a good look. The threat of It Follows steps right into the open — it’s more solid than most — but it can still never truly be known. It has the unnerving presence of the shapeshifter and the slow, focused movement of the revenant. It takes a leaf from the Japanese tradition of the vengeful demon, and a haunting that can be passed on like a virus.

All this adds up to something that feels fresh and understated, but nonetheless chilling. And the ending is the perfect dramatic question mark, an ode to the classic ‘Happy Ever After…or is it?’ For a horror fan, it’s thrilling to find a film that so thoroughly understands the framework of the genre, but can elevate it to something more challenging. There’s an ethical dilemma at the heart of the movie that creates just as much tension as the looming menace of a curse. If you’re looking for a slightly smarter kind of scare, then this is for you. Just be careful. You might not be able to shake it off.

*Um…spoiler alert? In case that’s not the only thing you know about this movie.

**The TV version, that is. And if you haven’t seen this, and you love all things Gothic, add it to your list.

#politics

I don’t normally let Facebook posts get to me. I know that the ones I find misinformed or offensive are usually there just to get a reaction; I know that even a well-argued comment won’t change someone’s deeply held viewpoint. I’ll debate in person, as long as it doesn’t get personal, but I won’t feed the trolls.

Lately, though, I’ve been seeing things that really frustrate me, and many of them coming from people I love.

Say NO to new Junior Doctors’ contracts. Nurses are awesome! Cuts will kill patients. #saveournhs. Share if you agree.

And the thing is, I do agree. For all its faults, I think the National Health Service is one of the UK’s greatest achievements and most important resources. I think the people who work within it are nothing short of champions, and I am proud to have many of them among my friends. I believe that the people of Britain deserve a well-funded healthcare system, and that healthcare workers deserve fair pay and reasonable hours. So why do I feel a fizzle of rage when I see these posts? It’s because I know that many of these people voted in May, and they voted for the same people who are cheerfully dismantling the NHS.

London Underground workers went on strike this summer over changes to their work schedules. Instantly my Facebook feed was flooded with angry Londoners reviling those who dared to stand up for their rights in the workplace. Tube drivers were spoiled, overpaid layabouts who had the audacity to disrupt everyone’s morning commute over something as petty as being asked to completely change their lifestyles in order to keep their jobs. The cheek of it all! Unions were trying to drag us back in time – there was no place for industrial action in 2015. BoJo had come for the Tube workers, and we did not only say nothing; we cheered. And now another one of our key services is under threat. The government is trying to tell us that working all hours of the day and night is a new norm, despite extensive evidence that it has a negative impact on both our health and productivity. We didn’t care about the people driving our trains and manning our stations.  Now the people saving our lives are involved, it’s a different story. And that’s understandable – but the standards we allow to be set apply to the entire workforce. Either we support workers’ rights, or we don’t.

I shouldn’t be angry; this I know. Everyone has a right to their opinion and to vote as they see fit. Nobody’s views will perfectly line up with one party’s manifesto. Every political choice is a compromise, and we’re all hypocrites sometimes. And if these people are seeing the results of their choices, and changing their minds, that should be encouraged. I just hope that lessons are learned. That next time a posh white guy in a suit tries to make you scared of terrorists, or tells you he’ll stop those pesky immigrants from camping in your back garden, you wonder what else he has on the agenda. That when somebody waves a shiny new tax credit for married couples in front of you, you pause and consider where that money might be coming from. That next time our under-regulated banking system implodes, instead of staring at the guy at the benefits office in a grubby tracksuit that everyone keeps pointing at, you take a hard look at the people wandering casually away from the rubble with pockets full of money. And maybe ask if they’ve got a few bob to spare for some nurses? Ta.

Because all the posting and liking and sharing is great, but it won’t save the world, or even the NHS. In five years’ time, your vote might – let’s just hope it’s not too late.

Can’t wait for Serial Season 2? Five awesome podcasts to download today.

I am instantly suspicious of things everybody likes. I know, I’m a horrible snob, but I can’t help it. The minute everyone starts banging on about the same show or book or movie, my first thought is ‘it can’t be that good.’ Sometimes I’m completely justified; Lost, Twilight, the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise… The downside is, sometimes I’m awkwardly late to the party when something genuinely fantastic appears. So it was with Serial, the podcast that gripped listeners the world over when it launched in October 2014. I heard rumblings on the internet about the show, which grew louder as time went on until even the national newspapers’ spidey senses were tingling. Serial went from surprise hit, to online sensation, to full-on cultural phenomenon, and I went…‘meh.’

Which only goes to prove what I already knew; sometimes I’m a complete idiot. I finally took the plunge this summer and was instantly hooked, blasting through all 12 episodes in a few days. Unsurprising given my addiction to mystery novels, true crime and police procedurals; Serial combines the best elements of all of these genres, offering a compelling narrative, genuine pathos, and a fascinating insight into the workings of the justice system. If you’re even more behind the times than me, be sure to check it out at http://serialpodcast.org/

Whether you’re in camp #FreeAdnan or still sitting on the whodunit fence, when the show ended most listeners were left hungry for more. Season 2 of Serial is expected to drop sometime near the end of this year, and is rumoured to be covering the story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and accused of deserting his post in Afghanistan. Until then, here are a few suggestions to sate your appetite for mystery and keep your ears busy.

Criminal
Why were the 19th century’s most gruesome murders immortalized in song? How could a plaster statue of Buddha transform a dangerous neighbourhood? Appropriately named host Phoebe Judge takes a look at the world of crime and punishment from every angle; victims, criminals, law enforcement, and the rest of us reading the papers. I’ve driven twice round the block on my way home from work because I can’t stop listening to an episode. Truly fascinating stuff.
http://thisiscriminal.com/

Detective
The detectives in the Hae Min Lee case could be the heroes or the villains of the story, depending on your view. But behind every story are real people, trying to get the job done and close cases. Retired Colorado Springs Detective Joe Kenda reminisces about his experiences in this podcast, and gives listeners a glimpse of everyday life in the homicide division. The episodes are short, but some of them will stay with you long after you stop listening.
https://audioboom.com/channel/detective

Limetown
A gated compound in the middle of nowhere. An enigmatic scientist with wild ideas and dubious methods. A terrified 911 call, and then…nothing. What really happened to the citizens of Limetown? Fictional mysteries are no less absorbing when they’re done the right way, and this documentary style drama is the perfect creepy podcast as the nights draw in.
http://www.limetownstories.com/

The Black Tapes Podcast
If Serial taught us anything, it’s that ‘truth’ is subjective. Confirmation bias means we tend to see what we believe will be there. Dr. Richard Strand is trying to prove to the world that the paranormal is all in our minds. Standing in his way are his collection of ‘Black Tapes’; cases that even he can’t explain. Journalist Alex Reagan joins him on a series of creepy cases, and tries to solve the ultimate mystery; the one locked in Dr. Strand’s past. Do you believe?
http://theblacktapespodcast.com/

Undisclosed
There have been many Serial spin-offs, as fans took to the airwaves to continue the crusade and share their own theories. But for those who want to dig deeper into the events of January 13th, 1999, Undisclosed is the ultimate companion. Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first introduced Sarah Koenig to Adnan Syed, explores every avenue of the case, unearthing some tantalising new facts along the way. Whatever your take on the case, delving into the details is a fascinating and frustrating ride.
http://undisclosed-podcast.com/

Setting the Standard

I’ve always had a weakness for magazines. Part of it comes from my need to be constantly reading something, anything, but there’s also the delightful glossiness of them, the bite-sized tidbits of gossip, the beautiful pictures of clothes I can neither pull off nor afford. I hate making small talk with the person cutting my hair*, but I live for that moment when the foils are in, the timer is set, and I’m presented with a cup of tea and a fat stack of that week’s mags. Heaven. They don’t have to be posh ones either. Since I relocated to Canada, my Dad sends me care packages full of the flimsy titles you can get for 60p in corner shops in the UK – Pick Me Up, Take Me Out, Closer… they’re full of made up celebrity gossip and ‘real life’ stories that veer between the hilarious and the terrifying. Often they meet in the middle: ‘My kidnapper fed me Findus Meat Pies’ is still one of my favourite headlines.

 

And now, the nation of my birth has given me yet another gift, and one that does not have to be a guilty pleasure. You see, the older I get, the more conscious I become of the negative messages that run through magazines aimed at women. The fact that every woman featured has to be categorized by her age, height, weight and dress size; that half the stories are about losing weight, putting stuff on your face and hair to make you look more acceptable, and which celebrities have done the best job at either of these things. I still laugh at Cosmopolitan’s more, ahem, ‘creative’ sex tips, and feel sorry for the unwitting boyfriends on the receiving end of all the ball nibbling and limb contortions. But I also have to think; why are we being told to try quite this hard to make ourselves desirable? **

 

So I thank my lucky stars for Standard Issue; an online women’s magazine that shows modern womanhood in all its confusing, wonderful, messy glory. There’s no full page spreads about shoes; it tackles the big issues head on, from the migrant ‘crisis’ to the battle for access to abortion. It talks about things like mental illness without being either overly dramatic or too general  – just real  people talking about real experiences. I’m also a big fan of the arts coverage – intelligent without being pretentious, fun but not frivolous. Standard Issue’s contributors are freelance writers, bloggers and comedians, and they bring a fresh and very funny perspective to life’s everyday woes and triumphs. Reading feels like having a good old catch-up with your best friend; the one who you can tell about your most embarrassing problems, and they always make you see the funny side.
standard issue
I was going to pick a favourite regular feature, but I can’t; there’s just too many good ones. But special mentions go to Slattern’s Diary, which never fails to make me feel a bit better about my own mess, Letter to My Hometown, an ode to the place that made you who you are, and Donkeys and Elephants, keeping you up to date with all the latest madness in US politics.

Best of all, it’s only available to read online, and it’s 100% free. I’m saving a few trees, and the $7.00 I would have spent on learning about the latest celebrity to slim down to a size 2, using only a dedicated personal trainer and secret gastric band surgery. Sounds like a win to me.

*My stylist is lovely, I’m just horribly anti-social.
** Not that this is exclusive to women’s magazines; Men’s Health and the like are just as bad. Boys, feel free to join us over at Standard Issue; no six-pack required.

7 Reasons you should go watch BoJack Horseman RIGHT NOW.

Seriously. I mean, read this first, but then proceed directly to Netflix.

  1. The theme music. It’s the kind of tune you immediately google, only to find it was written by one of the Black Keys, thus explaining its awesomeness. You then make it the soundtrack to your next cocktail party, or just stick it on to feel cool while you eat Cheetos in your PJ’s, depending how you roll. The song at the closing credits is also incredible; a little something to ease the pain of another great episode being over.BoJack
  2. Half of the characters are animals. Or more like 25%, since half the characters are half animal; from the neck down they seem fairly human shaped. It’s a fairly blended society, none of that segregated Sylvanian Families bollocks, so you get to see horses make out with owls and dogs marry humans. Although animals still need their own TV awards shows; multispeciesism can only do so much.
  3. The core of the story has genuine emotional depth. Bojack is a lonely, washed-up has-been with a shedload of baggage. He drinks too much, does too many drugs and sabotages himself at every opportunity. But it can’t get too depressing, because he’s a humanoid horse, who chomps prescription painkillers off his coffee table like sugar cubes and snorts when he’s frustrated.
  4. It’s got all your favourite people in it. Will Arnett is on his finest form since Arrested Development – if he promises never to make another sitcom about parenting, all is forgiven. Community’s Alison Brie is his biographer/love interest, and Jesse Pinkman Aaron Paul is unsurprisingly excellent as the hapless sidekick. Add in plenty of well-known guest stars, and you get a free game of ‘Who’s that voice?’ with every episode.
  5. It’s just surreal enough. BJH is never afraid to get weird, but it’s not going to go full The Mighty Boosh on you with no warning.* Sure, Bojack’s agent/ex-girlfriend is dating a guy who is actually three kids in a trench coat. And she’s a cat. But this is Hollywood – that’s not the strangest thing that’s happened there this week. In this alternate version, the paparazzi are still hiding in trees and flying over mansions for aerial shots, but it makes way more sense when they’re pigeons.
  6. Daniel Radcliffe guest stars in Season 2. As befits a man who was a millionaire before he grew pubes, D-Rad doesn’t waste time on bog standard comedy cameos. His prophylactic wielding turn in Ricky Gervais’ Extras is the stuff of legend, but he’s also lent his voice to The Simpsons, Robot Chicken…and now BoJack. Harry Potter knows his comedy, and he only makes time for the best.
  7. The sooner you finish binge-watching the first two seasons, the sooner you can start re-watching from the beginning again, and spotting all those little jokes you missed the first time around. Be sure to laugh extra loudly and point them out to your significant other/forum buddies/beloved family pet.

*If you haven’t seen The Mighty Boosh…wow, look, this is a tough one. It’s not that you’re a bad person per se, it’s just…I mean, maybe you just hate funny things? Maybe you just don’t love yourself enough to seek out genuinely exceptional comic material? Take a good, hard look in the mirror, get your priorities straight, and you can come back on the internet when you’ve finished the box set.