Tag Archives: psychological horror

Armchair Travel: The Middle East

One great way to recover from your first half-marathon is to sit on the couch and catch up on all the wonderful books you’ve got checked out on your library card. Lately I’ve been dabbling in non-Western literature, and–with the help of this wonderful list from the Tacoma Public Library–familiarizing myself with the diverse range of fiction produced in the Middle East. Here are just a few of the titles I’m sampling this month.

dakhmehDakhmeh, Naveed Noori. Arash’s family fled to the United States when he was just a boy. As a man, he has returned to Iran against his family’s wishes, to try to understand his birthplace and its complex political problems. Aresh’s one-way ticket to Tehran buys him not only a consciousness-raising, but also a stint in prison, which the novel chronicles in a series of journal entries. The title–which roughly translates to “towers of silence”–implies that things will not go well for Arash, but, more importantly, for Iran at large either. A complex tale about a man trying to understand his heritage, but, possibly, too Westernized to fully grasp it.

Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur. Banned in Iran for its frank discussion of women’s sexual desire, Parsipur’s tale parsipurexplores the inner landscape of the feminine in the post-WWII period. Who is a woman without a man? Per Parsipur, she is a lover, a fighter, a creative being, and a creature seeking justice or vengeance (and sometimes both). Struggling to escape the narrow confines of their world, Parsipur’s women realize–frequently to their horror–that once you have liberated yourself, the landscape of freedom poses its own problematic challenges. Read it and find out why the author was jailed, and now lives in the U.S. as a political exile.

hillsofgodOn the Hills of God, Ibrahim Fawal. In the summer of 1947 Yousif’s two main goals in life are to become a lawyer after high school and win the heart of the beautiful Salwa. Completely unaware of the political chaos brewing around him, Yousif does not realize that by the summer of 1948, his life in Palestine–soon to become Israel–will be very different. Fawal paints a complex, layered portrait of a period in history the participants themselves have not been able to parse out peacefully, giving the reader a front-row seat at what everyday life must have been like at the time. What’s really striking here is the loving attention to detail: houses, food, and the landscape are described concretely, yet simply, pointing out the jarring contrast between the larger currents of history and the daily routines that, somehow, always go on.

The Liberated Bride, Abraham B. Yehoshua. Set in and around Haifa University in the mid-1990s, this novel explores Jewish and liberatedArab intellectual circles, and their uneasy relationship to each other. Professor Yohanan Rivlin can’t figure out why his son’s wife divorced him, and neither member of the former couple will explain, which makes him even more determined to find out. Meanwhile, Professor Rivlin’s brightest student, who has just recently gotten married herself, alternately irritates and intrigues him as they work together on an Algerian history project. A bittersweet comedy of manners, that explores our need to know the truth, even when we don’t really want to know the truth. And by the way, what is “truth” anyhow? Polite, but with bite.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih. A young man returns to Sudan after receiving a university education in England. When he arrives in his village, he meets and becomes obsessed with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, a recent newcomer to the town. Over time the narrator learns the full truth of Sa’eed’s disturbing life story, but will it serve as a cautionary tale or a road map to ruin? Compared favorably by some critics to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is a fascinating tale of colonialism and psychological horror.

I don’t know much about the Middle East, but these novels have me itching to pick up some decent history books. Fiction-wise, I’m also planning to devour the titles on the Muslim Journeys booklists the library staff has created as part of a grant project, which you can read more about here. Do you have any other recommendations? Have you read any of these, or other works from the Tacoma Public Library list? What parts of the world have you explored in fiction, and where should I go next?

–Leigh Anne

stamping her metaphorical passport


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Caffeine, Monsters, and Dead Dogs: A “1,001 Movies” Update

My quest to watch 1,001 movies in 2012 is off to a good start, with a total of 206 films under my belt.  I credit my success thus far to an iron will and a never-ending flow of coffee, both of which have transformed me from a meditative morning lark to a wide-eyed, popcorn-chomping night owl. It’s a small price to pay for the amount of fun I’m having, though.

A great deal of the amusement value of this project derives from seeing how various themes and motifs play out across films and genres. For some reason, this particular crop of movies–chosen randomly from the master list–skewed to films that depicted violence and/or horror.  I’m not too keen on guts and gore, but I do love a good scare or disturbing thrill, so I was very interested in the depiction of monsters and the monstrous in films like Heavenly Creatures, The War Game, A Clockwork Orange, and (naturally) Monsters.  Packing film to the gills with gore is easy–I’m talking to you, Mel Gibson–but it’s far more difficult to psychologically disturb your audience with subtly-composed shots and well-written dialogue.  Monsters, we learn from watching films, do not necessarily have pointy teeth or tentacles, and the most monstrous acts are frequently committed by the externally beautiful.

The best example of this phenomenon from this round of movie-watching is, hands down, Takashi Miike’s Audition.  The story, which is based on fiction by Ryu Murakami, revolves around Aoyama, a lonely widower who wants companionship, but isn’t sure how to get back into the dating game.  A movie-mogul friend, who is currently casting for a project, suggests Aoyama sit in on the auditions and use them as a search for the perfect bride. Though skeptical at first, Aoyama slowly comes around to his friend’s point of view and falls in love with one of the young women who auditions.

What happens next is a surreal blend of psychological horror and non-linear narrative that will have even the most careful viewer blinking with confusion.  There is some gore involved, but it is used both sparingly and skillfully, so that by the time you get to the really icky parts, you’re already frightened out of your mind.  Clearly the villain of the piece is monstrous…but then again, so are the cultural attitudes that created her.  No easy answers, but definitely plenty of sitting on the edge of your chair, shouting at the screen, and covering your eyes.

All that being said, the hardest part of the film for me was watching the cute little beagle run around Aoyama’s house, knowing that when the camera keeps cutting to the adorable dog in a horror movie, something bad is bound to happen sooner or later.  In fact, the number of dogs–and I’m including werewolves here–who don’t fare very well in this batch of film made me a little nervous.  Do filmmakers genuinely not like our four-footed friends?  Or is it just an easy way to tug an audience’s heartstrings?  Making me care about a critter, and then subjecting it to a horrible demise, isn’t very nice.  But, as I am learning, the point of some films isn’t to highlight the “nice” – the focus is on probing our darker sides and selves, and bringing that hidden darkness to light for analysis and discussion.

I still don’t like it, but I suppose I’ll just have to soldier on.  Here’s a complete list of films from round 2 of the project:

  1. Monsters
  2. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
  3. Withnail and I
  4. An American Werewolf in London
  5. Un Chien Andalou
  6. Heavenly Creatures
  7. Wild Reeds
  8. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
  9. Apocalypto
  10. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  11. The Wedding Banquet
  12. A Clockwork Orange
  13. The War Game
  14. Audition
  15. Barren Lives*
  16. The Third Man
  17. Hour of the Wolf
  18. Cabaret
  19. Talk to Her
  20. Alphaville
  21. Gabbeh

Do you like horror movies? Why or why not? If you’ve seen any of the films above, which ones strike you as “monstrous,” and why?

Leigh Anne

who also managed to finish reading A Storm of Swords, and has eagerly dived into A Feast for Crows.

*available via Netflix streaming


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Dirty Little Secrets

My weekly childhood piano lesson was always a bizarre adventure.  My dad would drop me off at my teacher’s home, and, once admitted, I would follow Mrs. R. through a rabbit warren of stacked boxes and ceiling-high newspaper skyscrapers to the back room where the piano loomed, looking like a petulant god scowling down upon its puny worshippers.

This impression was heightened by the fact that said piano was flanked by piles upon piles of books, which wobbled as if one random sneeze would bring the whole works down on our heads.  More newspapers, more boxes, and heaps of random junk crowded the rehearsal space, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze in next to Mrs. R. on the bench and plunk my way through whatever piece I’d been practicing all week, politely ignoring the odd, stale smells baked into the house from years of old-world cooking.

Even after all these years, thinking about it gives me the wiggins.  While I’m certainly not the world’s greatest housekeeper, the thought of being a prisoner in my own home, held captive by my own stuff, is scary enough to motivate me into keeping clutter and mess to a minimum.  But what if you were a teenager trapped in a health hazard of a house, unable to invite your friends over lest they find out you lived in filth?  What if you weren’t allowed to throw anything away, and spent most of your time and energy planning for the day you could leave home for good?

Dirty Little SecretsThese questions are the heart of C.J. Omololu’s novel, Dirty Little Secrets. Lucy, the heroine,  has already changed schools once because her friends found out about her mom’s illness and its disgusting results.  Now she’s more invested than ever in keeping up the illusion of a normal life.  However, a horrible accident forces Lucy into the clean-up job from hell, a literal race against time before she ends up on the news as the freak of the week.  You’ll need a strong stomach to endure the vivid descriptions of things Lucy finds when she starts taking out the trash. I guarantee, though, that you’ll be fascinated by the care Omololu has put into this portrait of a dysfunctional family and the heartbreaking mental illness that holds its members–even the siblings who have technically “escaped”–in its thrall.

I literally could not put this book down until I reached the end, because I was dying to see how–or if–Lucy got herself out of her predicament.  Phrases like “shocking final chapter” have become cliches for a reason, but in this instance it’s true:  I never saw the last plot twist coming, and when I finally shut the book I had to take a couple of deep breaths because it was….just….thatcreepy.  I’m still shuddering, even as I type.  Just in case you were wondering why the rest of Lucy’s family didn’t do something to help her out, Omololu addresses those issues, too, demonstrating how families can become self-perpetuating dysfunctional systems instead of the warm, loving havens they are meant to be.

If you’re in a bit of a reading rut, can’t stop watching Hoarders, or are otherwise drawn to psychological horror, order yourself a copy of Dirty Little Secrets today.  And when you’ve finished, come track me down so we can talk about it.  I’ll be easy to find, as I’ll probably still be in my kitchen, washing the walls and scrubbing the floor.

–Leigh Anne

who will now move on to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, at Tim’s suggestion


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Mr. Peanut Sneaks Up On You…

At first you think the novel Mr. Peanut is going to be this simple tale about a man who fantasizes about killing his wife…and who may or may not have gone through with it. But then the author, Adam Ross, throws in all these other characters and their disturbed lives. All of a sudden you are trying to keep up with multiple inner monologues from some extremely lonely characters, and puzzling over what the storylines’ connections might be.

Personally, I enjoy novels with deeply troubled characters, and I want to know everything about them. Mr. Peanut definitely delivers in this respect: Ross is an expert at putting his readers at the center of the characters’ brains and then spinning them around in circles for a few hundred pages. He makes you wish you could jump into the novel and warn the female characters about what’s coming next, and it’s all the more deliciously terrifying to read because you can’t. You can only watch, helplessly, as the characters’ marriages dissolve.

Ross draws one character and storyline from real life: Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose own murder trial inspired the television show The Fugitive (later made into two films, one of which you can get at your library). It is fascinating to watch Ross’s version of Sheppard as he falls from grace. The reader learns so much about who he was and how his life turned completely rotten. And even though you know how that plotline will end, you still almost want to shut your eyes in horror at the most terrifying parts.

But don’t! Mr. Peanut is worth keeping your eyes wide open.


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