Book Review: Ghosts of Manor House by Matt Powers

“Old houses are never truly quiet.”

Ghosts of Manor House is Powers’ debut thriller and horror novel, about Edmund and Mary Wilder, a married couple shattered by the loss of their young son. Mary receives an invitation for the family to become guests at Manor House, an apparently quaint hotel, but Edmund soon realises all is not as it seems.

My Photo [Ghosts of Manor House]

In his author’s note, Powers explains he “wanted a story that fits with my memories of watching The Haunting, The Changeling and The Shining.

This horror genre is definitely conveyed; the opening of Ghosts of Manor House was enjoyable and suitably unsettling – I won’t give any spoilers away – but it peaked my interest in the story.

I really like haunted house stories; this book delivered all the conventions that you may expect from one – mysterious voices, creaky floorboards, and an ominous housekeeper.

Mary and Edmund’s grief at the tragic death of their son, and their desire to bring him back, to me, echoed Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a horror novel about a burial site that holds the power of life, even after death. Admittedly, I read Ghosts of Manor House not long after finishing Pet Sematary, so King’s story was still fresh in my mind. This this may not have been an intentional echo, it may have been my own interpretation.

Although a fictional story, Powers does his best to keep his characters and situations realistic. For the most part, this is effective. However, I don’t think Edmund or Mary were developed as well as they could have been, though this may be the constraint of writing a shorter book.

The use of the present tense to narrate the story throughout was an… interesting choice. To me, this made some of the writing feel clunky and amateurish because I didn’t know what purpose this served. The use of flashbacks to reveal what truly happened to the family was a good technique, but until these started, I at times got lost in the various narrative strands – it was very difficult to place where the characters were, though this may have been Powers’ intention.

Edmund’s over-personifying of Manor House frustrated me as well; I liked the concept of a haunted house coming to life, but if every description of the house is personified, it loses the subtlety great horror has.

On the whole, Ghosts of Manor House is a quick read and a reasonably enjoyable haunted house story.

Star Rating: 3/5 Stars

Ghosts of Manor House is available to buy as an e-book, paperback, or audiobook from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

– Judith

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Film Review: XX – ‘Her Only Living Son’

This is the fourth review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the third of these – Don’t Fall –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Her Only Living Son

Her Only Living Son is the final short in the series, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.

Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mother, and her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to turn 18. However, the day before his birthday, she is called into school to discuss an incident in which Andy tore off a classmate’s fingernails. Andy becomes increasingly violent and Cora becomes increasingly afraid of him. The tension builds, as it is strongly hinted that Andy is not entirely human, but may in fact be the son of Satan.

What I Liked

Zacharek writes, it ‘deftly on the subterranean fears that often come with motherhood’, introducing the theme of motherhood (just as in The Box) but approaching it differently. (Time Magazine) This may remind horror-film fans of other works like Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, in which a child Antichrist is the central antagonist.

My Photo [XX - 5B - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix

In a similar manner to Don’t Fall, the story felt more like a horror than The Box or The Birthday Party. The score and occasional gore (nice rhyme) added to this.

However, whilst the premise of Her Only Living Son is suitably “horror” in nature, by introducing concepts like Satan and the Antichrist,  the execution of this was poor.

What I Disliked

Characterisation

Cora was a weak character, snivelling and sad – even before her son transforms into something abhuman.

In a similar manner to The Box, Cora’s behaviour as a mother does not empower women, but displays women as once again under the influence of the men in their lives; even the mailman seems to have more agency than Cora. Normally, gender roles in film wouldn’t bother me a great deal, but given that Her Only Living Son is directed by a woman, to create more presence of female film directors and better female representation in film, I thought the female characters would reflect this. Representation was an issue in other ways too.

My Photo [XX - 5C - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix
Representation

When Andy’s “fingernail incident” was discussed at school, the parent of the victim, a black woman, is present. She is talked down to by both the headmistress (a white woman) as well as the other school staff (white men) and told she is the problem for speaking out against Andy’s behaviour.

Whilst this scene makes no sense anyway, I also realised that this mother (Lisa Renee Pitts) in Her Only Living Son was the only prominent person of colour since Lucy (Sanai Victoria) in The Birthday Party.  I’m not going to start accusations of “racism”, but I found it incredibly interesting that a project specifically designed to improve representation in film seemed to favour casting white men and white women – women who then became subservient to those men within the film.

Structure

The flashbacks at the beginning felt disjointed from the rest of the narrative – they didn’t provide enough information for what was happening to be understandable. Furthermore, the entire use of the flashback is undercut when Cora relays what happens via dialogue later in the film. I also found the ending dissatisfying because it wasn’t particularly clear as to what happened, and why it happened.

Was Andy exorcised? Was he punished by Satan? Why did Cora suffer too?

These are the sorts of questions it raised, but not in an enjoyable “cliffhanger” way, but in an “unfinished story” way.

Conclusion

Overall, despite its links to the supernatural and paranormal genres of horror, Her Only Living Son is the short I enjoyed the least.

Concluding Remarks

Having watched and reviewed all four shorts in XX, here are my final comments:

  • Was each film incredibly well-made?

No; there were some flaws in production and things that could have been bettered.

  • Was each film explicitly “horror” in nature?

No; sometimes the genre wasn’t clear cut, and was a mix of different elements.

  • Was the story of each film entirely perfect?

No; character development and storytelling technique were the two things I found most lacking across all four shorts.

My favourite film was probably The Box because I liked its story premise best, and I liked being able to interpret it.

  • Was the message of each short explicitly clear?

No; not always.

  • Were the films particularly feminist in either style or content?

No; I didn’t think so and at times representation was an issue.

  • However:

I have never spent such length discussing films before – albeit whether that’s an indication of XX being so good and thought-provoking or so bad it needs condemning I don’t know.

XX has been described as a ‘mixed bag’, which I feel is an apt description.

If you’re looking for some relatively light horror this Halloween, you could always give XX a go. If however, you prefer well-made horror films with … actual horror, I recommend you steer clear of XX.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

***

Thank you for reading this series on XX; I had great enjoyment in both watching each short, and writing each review.

– Judith

Film Review: XX – ‘Don’t Fall’

This is the third review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the second of these – The Birthday Party –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Don’t Fall

Don’t Fall hits closest to the mark as an independent paranormal horror film. It is the third short in the collection, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.

Lemire agrees, writing that it is ‘the most traditional, straight-up horror film of the series’. However, she also argues it is the weakest link in the chain of the four shorts. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Don’t Fall is about four friends on an expedition in the desert. One of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool) stumbles across an ancient cave painting whilst exploring the cliffs that appears to be denoting an evil spirit. The group camp out for the night, and Gretchen is attacked and possessed by a creature. One by one, this “Gretchen Monster” attacks the other three friends.

My Photo [XX - 4B - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Liked

Surprisingly, what I liked most about Don’t Fall was its overuse of horror clichés and stereotypes. It was a refreshing difference to the oddities of The Box and The Birthday Party. Although, had this been a feature-length production, these clichés would have worked against, rather than for, the film.

In an interview, Benjamin said: ‘I wanted to make it very much like ‘we are in a horror movie’ from the second it opened.’ (Cryptic Rock Magazine)

I liked the establishment of tone early on in the short with the use of music; the horror score was good throughout and the transitions from light to darkness alert the audience that they’re clearly watching a horror film; something, I think, that was more difficult to establish in The Box and The Birthday Party.

My Photo [XX - 4 - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Disliked

However, whilst the group of friends are picked off one by one in true Cabin In The Woods fashion – an admittedly exciting premise that has some decent scares –  because of a complete lack of characterisation (again) the audience are given no reason to care. The group’s fate is virtually insignificant; we don’t know or care why the evil spirit chose to attack them, nor do we find out anything about this spirit at all.

This is why Lemire wrote that this was the weakest of the four shorts, arguing: ‘we never get to know the characters enough to care about their fates’. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Ultimately, I think this reveals the issue of pairing the short film format with a long cast list.

There are plenty of independent short films on YouTube that are both enjoyable and successful, because they keep their narrative streamlined and focused on a single character, or minimal characters. Therefore, after 15 minutes, the audience feel as though they’ve had a reasonable glimpse into the character’s life, experiences, and personality. However, in films such as Don’t Fall, the addition of lots of characters, paired with the time limitations of a short film make it incredibly difficult to develop anyone’s characters in any real depth.

However, Zacharek praises the brevity of Don’t Fall, arguing that it is a ‘solid example of film-making economy’. (Time Magazine) Speaking of economy, the limited special effects budget was clear when it came to the “big reveal” of the monster, although credit must be given for Benjamin’s attempt.

Conclusion

Overall, the effect of Don’t Fall is one of a small scale paranormal horror that could definitely be improved but, left as is, is reasonably entertaining.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith