Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #20: L. Marie Wood


Crescendo: Welcome Home, Death Awaits by L. Marie Wood

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

L. Marie Wood’s Crescendo: Welcome Home, Death Awaits is a “spiral into insanity” story. Its protagonist James is dealing with an ancestral curse, either paranormal affliction or mental illness (or both). He is wracked with paranoia and instability since the strange death of his best friend Peter’s wife, Susan, with whom he had a longstanding affair. James’ wife, Andrea, is caring but increasingly fearful of James’ volatile behavior. As if this were not enough, after revealing the truth to Peter, who knew all along but kept his feelings under close guard, Peter becomes bitter and vengeful toward James. Soap opera exchanges of allegiances and resentment occur between the three in the novel’s more grounded plotline. Meanwhile, James is experiencing increasingly horrific, gory flashbacks from his father’s past and seeing disturbed visions of what may be an inescapable destiny.

My view of Crescendo is that it is A) well-written insofar as good prose is concerned, but B) could have been about 50 pages long. I had to skim a great deal of this novel simply because very little actually happens for a great deal of it. The story doesn’t so much progress as go back and forth, between those chaotic bloody passages and the soap opera love triangle, and little of substance develops between the two until the very end.

The characters are just flat, which wouldn’t have been a problem if, again, the novel had been significantly shorter. Peter, in particular, has quasi-sympathetic motivations but becomes something of a cartoon villain in his actions. Andrea doesn’t really do much but offer a connection through which the two men tug-o-war, more plot device than character. James has the most backstory, but not much sense of personality. He’s more of an onlooker, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen.

I really enjoyed the establishment of the plot in Crescendo. The mystery of what the hell is going on with James is compelling, his visions are creepy, and the suburban erotic problems just enough of a complementary conflict to James’ insanity that it works. I just don’t think it was executed as well as it might have been. The novel just goes on and on without much plot development. Bits and pieces of the secret behind James’ curse-thing are revealed, when they could have been dropped in much more quick succession and gained a lot more plot momentum as a result. It felt like L. Marie Wood was uncertain about how to proceed with the novel, perhaps unconfident in making a huge shift in the story’s rhythm, and so kept things going pretty much on a flat repeat till the finale.

The writing is again quite good, repetitious though it may be. About the first 25-30% of the novel I was wholly absorbed. Shame then that it lost me from there, made it a struggle to proceed. Not enough changed. We started with marital strife and creepy visions and continued to get marital strife and creepy visions. These plotlines didn’t interweave and complicate. Rather, it was James going back and forth between being sympathetic and losing his mind, some show of Andrea being worried, and Peter being broody and violently resentful of James. Too much of the novel just ran with this cycle of moods and thought bubbles with minimal progress toward anything.

I’d love to check out L. Marie Wood’s short fiction (in fact, her piece in the black horror fiction anthology Dark Dreams, edited by Brandon Massey, is fantastic), because when this novel was superb only when it didn’t overstay its welcome. It just didn’t bring enough to keep my attention for a full length novel.

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The Evil Within was undone by its nonsense setting

2017-04-05 14_48_43-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 1 - Psychobreak (PS4) - YouTube

The Evil Within is a worthier successor to Resident Evil 4 than 5 and 6, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually a good game. Not at all actually. Despite all the years between the two, everything TEW does RE4 did better. The narrative pacing is absolutely wacked. Giant swaths of the gameplay are straight-up ripped from RE4 with little elaboration, innovation, or deviation (that whole town section near the beginning especially). The upgrades/leveling system adds little to your sense of character progression. And really, the game throws so many batshit instadeath scenarios at you wall-to-wall it’s hard to feel that you’re getting any stronger, unlike how it felt gathering your arsenal in RE4.

The thing that bothers me most about The Evil Within doesn’t have much to do with how it plays, though. Like, there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding a formula that works and running with it. It’s not going to be as revolutionary or even as fun as the first to pull that formula off, but, hey, people like familiar things.

2017-04-05 14_49_24-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 2 - Remnants (PS4) - YouTube

I think a more insidious but important part of the Evil Within works to its detriment: Its setting. Or lack thereof. You never really feel connected to anywhere you get thrown into in The Evil Within. It all feels like a set of random setpieces, cliches and tropes, without a lot of cohesive thought behind what leads one to the next. With no history or connective tissue between any of the game’s various levels, The Evil Within fails to offer the player a sense that they’re present within the game. It makes it so hard to care about learning more.

The Evil Within uses a great deal of old time-y generic insane asylum imagery throughout the game, much the same as what we see in a game like Outlast or the film Grave Encounters. It’s sprinkled throughout the loading screens, the safe area where you save and power up. But in the actual game, the asylum setting doesn’t last very long. It starts beautifully, with a trio of cops out to investigate a crime at the local city mental hospital. It’s rainy, there are cop car blue-and-red lights flickering, and it is eerily absent of people despite dozens of cars around. Inside, the hospital a bloody mess. A bit too much too fast, but okay. Then our mystery antagonist sees us through a security cam, teleports to our location, and flings us into a nonsense nightmare that lasts the entire rest of the game.

2017-04-05 14_50_52-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 5 - The Sadist Chainsaw Boss (PS4) - Y

You never get a sense of place in The Evil Within, which takes away from both the player’s enjoyment and the scare factor. The imagery and the creatures all just kind of become filters, not adding anything to each locale’s lore or history, because there isn’t any per se. Again, no connection. The first sequence, for instance, in which you are escaping from a chainsaw wielding maniac, barely makes any sense as a place. Does this dude live here? Does he actually have a backstory or did he just come into existence? Why does he hang you up before chopping you up? In addition to how the gore and violence are turned up to such an extreme that it barely registers, there’s this sense that you’re playing through horror movie scenarios with absolutely no context. From here you jump back to the city, to a pueblo/fortress sorta place (again ripped straight out of RE4), to various bizarre crypts, urban buildings drenched in blood and random traps, a decrepit mansion, anachronistic medieval castles with modern-ish machinery, etc. etc. After a while I have to ask: Why am I here? Why am I supposed to care?

The story eventually explains why things are so chaotic and mismatched, but it doesn’t really matter. Again, there’s no cohesion from one place to the next. The damage is done because we’ve already spent most of the game with no connection to where we are. Characters, sure, but not location. There’s no significance to where you are, so it’s tough to feel compelled to explore, to learn anything.

The Evil Within is more confident in what it wants to be than Resident Evil 6 was, but not by much. RE6 didn’t know what kind of a game it wanted to be, where to focus the scares and where to focus the combat, how to incorporate both those elements, and thus ended up gluing four mediocre games together. The Evil Within knew it wanted to be a loosely more freaky RE4 clone, a return to true “horror” horror, but it failed to pin down its setting. And while this lack of a definite setting doesn’t make the game completely fall apart entirely, it’s still the biggest lost opportunity for me. The thing I couldn’t really forgive the developers for dropping the ball on.

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Wandering the horror hotel of Galerians

2017-04-01 14_17_19-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 14)] - YouTube

Galerians is a 1999 PSX survival-horror game. It is bizarre in the greatest ways, embracing the more wacky elements of 90s Japanese cyberpunk and taking advantage of its graphical limitations to make it as uncanny and stylish as possible (a la Hell Night). It tells the story of Rion, a young boy who wakes in a research hospital with no memory. He has visions of a girl and hears her calling out his name. With no other option in the mix, he elects to seek out this girl. He soon learns that he has telekinetic powers, and uses these to escape from the dangerous people keeping him hostage in the hospital. Rion soon learns that his captors have something to do with a great scientific project to breed a powerful psychically-powered human evolution known as Galerians. What’s more, he may likely be a Galerian himself.

It’s a mishmash of a game as a whole, with repetitive corridors and unfair deaths, short but feeling like a chore to finish. The telekinetic combat is unique for survival-horror, but in practice it is woefully clunky, especially aggravating in the boss battles. Yet Galerians also has some of the most original setpieces I’ve seen in survival-horror. The dreary world, which we only see in glimpses, is so delightfully strange. You don’t meet a single ordinary, non-deranged human the entire game. Everything is technologized yet nothing seems to really work. It’s a Blade Runner universe in sharp decline. The late 90s CG shines with this kind of universe.

Nowhere is this atmosphere more evident than the game’s 3rd chapter, which places you in what might be videogames’ strangest hotel level. By this point in the game, Rion has discovered that not only is he part of the Galerians breeding project, but that the other Galerians are hunting him down. You’ve already fought off one, Birdman, in the 2nd chapter. But here you are facing two more. They track you down soon after you arrive at the hotel.

2017-04-01 14_17_33-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 14)] - YouTube

Just an ordinary hotel room with a well-adjusted resident.

Thing is, the only time Rion actually runs into these villainous Galerians is near the end, when you actually fight them. Before that, you go back and forth between the multiple levels of the hotel, talking with the hotel’s various guests, collecting info and solving puzzles. There’s a depressed ballerina, a Jesus freak, a man bent on blowing up the building, and an arms dealer, to name just a few.

2017-04-01 14_20_15-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

After running back and forth a number of times, the horror at last begins. It’s a slightly tedious but overall satisfyingly creepy experience. As you go from room to room, you slowly begin to discover each of the hotel’s off-kilter residents brutally murdered in their rooms. Even the hotel staff don’t get out alive. Using your psychic powers, you can get a glimpse of the act of each killing. You get a snapshot of the Galerians hunting you, but again you don’t actually see them until much later. This process goes on until every single resident and employee has become a victim.

This whole section in Galerians is unusual for a survival-horror game. For one, there is little fighting going on. Enemies start to appear in the hallways and in a couple rooms, but only gradually and in small numbers. For the most part, it’s just going back and forth between the hotel’s many rooms. In this way it reminds me of P.T. or one of its many derivatives, an early version of the stripped-down horror game, minimalist in mechanics but heavily relying upon environmental interaction.

2017-04-01 14_18_28-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 15)] - YouTube

2017-04-01 14_20_34-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

2017-04-01 14_20_57-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

It’s not a perfect section, to be fair. As mentioned before, it’s tedious. The unexpected arrival of enemies – many of which are unavoidable encounters – can result in numerous gameovers due to the game just not warning you of the sudden gear switch. But really, how often does something like this happen in survival-horror games of its era? The only thing that comes close is perhaps small events in the Silent Hill series, light interaction feints or creepy but safe areas that disrupt the flow of puzzle-solving and abomination-killing. But these aren’t quite as drawn out as what happens in the hotel in Galerians.

The 3rd chapter of Galerians was an admirable attempt to do something different in a survival-horror game in the late-90s, where everything was nearly 100% resource management and puzzles. Galerians decided to cut out of chunk of its ~5 hour length to send you through a darkly comedic, psychotic hotel tour. A similar, elaborated-upon technique would later come to dominate horror games with the blow-up of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and other similar titles, who have stripped down horror game interaction to its simplest elements and highlighted environmental storytelling and exploration instead. It was a unique little experiment in Galerians itself, and it’s interesting to look back and trace the history, to see how the ideas behind this section have blown up into an entire genre of “walking sim” horror games.

Check out this part of the game on this Youtube walkthrough here.

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Review – Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts Han Kang

I have never understood the idea that structure could somehow supersede content in writing. The two can work in tandem (a la Pynchon) of course, but I just can’t get behind praising a work’s structure if it’s still otherwise weak. Han Kang’s Human Acts is far from a bad book, but it seems to me like something you can’t totally appreciate if you don’t appreciate structure above content.

Human Acts is an introspective take on the Gwangju Uprising, a South Korean student movement in 1980 in the city of Gwangju. During this revolt, city residents took up arms in response to South Korean troops firing at, brutalizing and killing Jeonnam University students demonstrating against the government. Kang’s novel is then historical fiction – as it describes the plights of many fictional but representative individuals involved in the uprising. At the center of the novel is Dong-ho, whose narrative takes place in the first chapter of the novel, which is itself told in a unique second-person POV. Dong-ho is killed, and the reverberations of the “human acts” of killing and being killed temper the minds of the rest of the novel’s POV characters. There is an editor struggling against censorship demands, Dong-ho’s friend, Dong-ho’s mother, a prisoner and a factory worker. Each character offers a different perspective, in a different storytelling style, painting a cruel and tragic picture of the Gwangju Uprising.

Truth be told I could only make it halfway through this novel, up to the end of the editor’s chapter. Now, as just described there’s demonstrably good content here. A worthwhile historical subject and an author who, as a South Korean woman, has a cultural as well as personal impetus behind writing about it. But as a reader I found it difficult to engage with. To get to the heart of it. The structure of the story isn’t even that experimental, but I often found myself distracted by the writing itself. It felt overly lyrical and verbose when it should have been crass and blunt. The images of burned corpses and dried sweat and misery and oppression really didn’t come through to me at all. Which took something away from the experience for me. Many readers describe the book as “unflinching” or “brutal” or other similar adjectives, but I couldn’t really get where they were coming from. The actual historical event upon which the book is based was certainly brutal, tragic, etc, and any sincerely committed historical account of it ought to be unflinching in its gruesome detail, but the novel itself? Maybe I’m desensitized (I thought large swaths of Blood Meridian were more tedious than horrific, to be fair), but I don’t think the novel itself communicated well the full horrible range of emotions that the uprising brought to light.

It felt like there was a dissonance between content and structure here that I think you could cast aside more easily if the way one writes is just as important to you as what one writes about. Which I feel like a lot of “literary” readers can do, but I can’t personally get a handle on. Historical fiction as a genre in general is fraught for me though, as I tend to read and then wonder why I shouldn’t read a nonfiction historical account instead. I had similar issues with, for instance, Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

But maybe that isn’t quite it either. Human Acts is not originally in English, so the problem could very well come from the translation. The second-person narration in the first chapter, for example, was hard to read for me. At first I thought this was just because it’s second-person, which is typically a little gawky. But I happened to have just finished reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which has a very compelling essay told in the second-person. Laymon’s work was told in his voice despite being second-person, and it really allowed you to get into his head. Something likely got lost in translation here, because I don’t think the same can be said of Dong-ho. Maybe it felt more personal in Korean, but here all I could sense was a literary author or translator trying to play with structure. Which just didn’t affect me the way it seems to affect many other readers.


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Growing up Lost in Translation


My favorite movie since I was in my mid-teens has without question been Lost in Translation. Other movies have come and gone – the whimsical, melancholy, but ultimately juvenile Garden State, the gorgeous, existential, pretentious Wings of Desire, the hilarious, heartwarming, chauvinistic Sideways, to name a few – but my appreciation of Lost in Translation remains pretty much as it was since I first watched it.

If I remember correctly, I watched Lost in Translation for the first time in a hotel room with my dad and my brother. We were on a roadtrip. (To where I forget, maybe Colorado?) My dad, being the way he is, brought along a DVD player so we didn’t have to buy movies from the hotel streaming service or depend on the unreliable offerings from cable TV. I think we may have purchased Lost in Translation in a Target bargain bin or something like that on the road. Maybe my dad brought it along with a few other options. In either case, he was the one who suggested we watch it.

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No sugarcoating Laura Jane Grace’s memoir


Today’s upsurge in fictional and nonfictional transgender narratives represents the demographic in myriad ways. Some works are intelligent, some thoughtless. Some good, some troubled. Through both the good and the bad, there is a remarkable tendency to simplify what it means to feel gender dysphoria. The syrupy, optimistic tale of a transboy’s coming out in Ellen Wittlinger’s novel Parrotfish, for example, simplifies (despite its good intentions) the messiness and mixed feelings of transitioning by co-opting the feel-good trappings of a high school romantic comedy. Even Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness, with its unflinching portrayal of family dysfunction, childhood sexual violence and poverty, deals little with the inner machinations of dysphoria. Mock, unlike many of her peers, had the certainty and the drive to transition at a young age.

These stories are important to tell, but they are disingenuously treated as representative of a whole. In fairness the art of the trans narrative is still very much in its infancy, but more works emphasizing the how no transgender experience is the same as another are needed. Arguably many narratives lack a nuanced treatment of the messiness of being transgender. Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny is one attempt to muddy the waters, to disillusion readers from the very concept of a linear coming out story.

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Slogging through narrative history in The Tunnels

I have this spectrum in my head for rating narrative histories. On one end is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which a lot of people like but I find unreadable. This side of narrative history is saturated in flowery detail that drowns out the facts because it’s trying too hard to be like fiction. The focus is too narrow, it feels like I’m learning more about what Larson thought HH Holmes or Daniel Burnham might have been thinking on a particular day than understanding Chicago history. I don’t get an appreciation of the holistic reality of what Larson is trying to record. I just feel like he’s trying to turn history into a novel, which strikes me as disingenuous.

On the other side there is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which uses individual stories as representative of larger historical currents. It traces the migration of black Americans from southern states to the north, and uses 3 oral history accounts to narrativize the plight of these black Americans. It appeals to the reader’s pathos in a fiction-like manner, yes, but it maintains its purpose as history by not treating these individual stories in a vacuum. Wilkerson puts them into historical context, takes time to describe the cultural and social climate for these individuals and others like them. She explains Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the reasons why so many left the south and what many found when they found lives in northern cities. For every piece of micro-history, in other words, Wilkerson complements it with macro-history.

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