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It Came From the Fiction Aisle: ZYZZYVA Recommends Literary Horror Adaptations

If you’re anything like the ZYZZYVA team, you occasionally like to spend Halloween curled up in front of your screen of choice for a frightening film (or two…or three). From Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, we can’t help but observe the fact that many – if not most – of the iconic horror movies of the last fifty years have drawn their source material from the written word. In celebration of the holiday, we thought we’d recommend a selection of some of our favorite or under-appreciated horror movies adapted from works of fiction for you to check out.

PINPin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988) – Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 work Pin is not a great novel, but it’s one that continues to linger in the imagination of readers thanks to its genuinely strange premise and the way Neiderman conveys the cold, clinical psychopathy of its narrator, Leon. The story opens on the dismal childhood of siblings Leon and Ursula Linden, who face an overbearingly obsessive-compulsive mother and a cold, emotionally withholding father. The only comfort they find in their early years comes from each other and the medical dummy their physician father brings to life thanks to his prodigious gift for ventriloquism. Leon’s connection to the anatomical model, whom Ursula nicknames Pin (short for Pinocchio), turns out to be so profound that even into adulthood the sheltered young man is unable to connect with anyone outside his cloistered circle of Ursula and Pin.

When Leon and Ursula’s parents are killed in a horrific car crash, Leon promptly moves Pin from his father’s practice to the sibling’s expansive but lonely estate, and the stage is set for a disturbing psychodrama worthy of Robert Bloch. Surprisingly, the film adaptation from director Sandor Stern (a filmmaker who has helmed more Lifetime movies than feature films) is remarkably faithful to its source material. While Stern perhaps wisely chooses to tone down the incestuous subtext and render Leon a more sympathetic but no less unhinged figure, the director proves most adept at conveying the suffocating air of privilege and mental decay in the Linden household, as well as the systems of abuse that can exist within a family. Aided by a dreamlike synthesizer soundtrack and a convincing turn from Cube’s David Hewlett as Leon, Sander’s version of Pin often brings to mind the moody and sterile-feeling horror of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Most importantly, this is one of those rare and relatively bloodless films from the genre that proves far more sad than gruesome, and Pin is all the better for it.–Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant

CoralineCoraline (2009) – Fair warning: if you’re terrified of spiders, dolls, or any combination thereof, this next film may not be for you! Coraline, based on a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is the story of a young girl who is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the dilapidated Pink Palace Apartments. That is, until she discovers a small door to a parallel universe in her new living room. Traveling through the portal, she finds an idealized version of her life on the other side: a place where her parents are more loving, food tastes better, and everything seems great. Of course it seems great, and of course it isn’t – darkness lurks underneath. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s childlike aesthetic, this is horror. The 3-D stop motion animation manages to employ some of the usual visual tropes of children’s cartoons – each character has an oversized head and eyes, for instance – without sacrificing the whimsically eerie atmosphere that Gaiman’s books are known for. Coraline is a visual treat, which makes it all the more riveting.–Rebecca Rand, Intern

The ShiningThe Shining (1980) – Adapting a horror novel to film has got to be one of the most thankless tasks in writing. The sense of fear constructed by a novel’s omniscient narrator isn’t easily replicated in film, and dialogue that once crackled in our heads often turns bland when we hear it from an actor. So when anyone raises the stakes of the horror genre by taking the written word and exceeding our most terrifying literary imaginings onscreen, there’s little holding it back from becoming one of the best films –full-stop – of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-thriller adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is one such film, required viewing for both cinephiles and horror junkies alike. Kubrick worked loosely from his source material (King is famously dismissive of the movie), re-imagining the world of the Overlook Hotel into a space where the inexplicable layers on top of the otherworldly to create a Möbius tapestry of fear. Perhaps most impressively, Kubrick married the slow-building terror literature excels at with the visual scares endemic to campy horror movies, creating an indescribable nightmare that exists outside any logic but its own. Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s eerie screenplay is taken to legendary heights by every member of the cast, even the one-time supporting appearances; I’ve been hearing “Play with us, forever” ringing in my ears since I first watched this film over a year ago.

During much of the film, it’s almost impossible to even say what we’re scared of – there’s no easily named fear in many of the scenes, and fans have spent decades attempting to decode the symbolism in the film to work out Kubrick’s own nightmare-logic. But that’s the very point: fear is a feeling, floating in the air and through our minds, not a thing we can look at and name. We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. The best films coil back on themselves, evading explanation, over and over again with every repeat viewing; The Shining similarly locks us into its labyrinth, doomed to the endless loop of a dream. All we have to do is wake ourselves up.–Kailee Stiles, Intern

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Though it works perfectly on its own as a paranoid thriller and creepfest, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1956 novel) has a particularly unsettling resonance for anybody who remembers San Francisco before 2000.

The tech boom and its corrosive effect upon who gets to live here has bubbled forth a mucous pod of a metaphor for the 1978 movie that simply wasn’t there before. So as Donald Sutherland’s health inspector stumbles through the mystery of why people are acting so peculiarly, and as regular seeming working stiffs and suited businessmen start to gather conspiratorially, the eerie feeling that something huge is afoot—and that whatever it is it’s not good—can’t help but summon a dread that has nothing to do with being replaced by an alien species but everything to do with being replaced by a kid in a hoodie bearing a start-up logo.

Aside for its story, the movie can be watched for the nostalgia its setting evokes. San
Francisco is portrayed as something of an urban village full of working-class people.
For anybody who recalls the perhaps now lost egalitarianism of the city, it makes
complete sense that a couple of Department of Health employees, a poet (Jeff
Goldblum) who runs a mud-bath business with his wife (Veronica Cartwright), and a
famous psychiatrist (Leonard Nimoy) should all know and hang out with each other.
(Every other column by the late, great Herb Caen attested to this sort of thing.) Even
as the movie’s dastardly plot unfurls, the various moody shots of the city remind us
of a time when this was a beautiful place to which nobody driven by the need to
make millions in a hurry was especially attracted to.

But San Francisco is where they came just the same to make their fortunes, and the
city has pretzeled itself to accommodate this new reality. Disquieting enough,
Kaufman’s movie addresses the situation. At one point, one of the characters is
revealed to be a pod person, their human self replaced by the invaders from space.
“We came here from a dying world,” the creature informs us. “We drift through the
universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we
survive. The function of life is survival.”

Go to sleep and accept the inevitable is the advice being given. It’s painless. Wake up
in your new form. Then congregate down on the corner, wait for orders, and help us
spread through the rest of the planet. Everyone will adapt. But first they’ll die, and
then it’ll be as nothing changed.–Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor

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Voices from the Dark: Some Recommended Horror Reads

Edgar Allan PoeWith the approach of Halloween, we polled our staff and contributors about which literary works of horror (or of just plain ol’ spookiness) they’d like to point our readers to. From the progenitor of the macabre short story, Edgar Allan Poe, to the psychological stylings of Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, these works display a keen understanding of the utter fragility of the human mind. It may be a well-worn genre, but horror retains its power to effectively probe our darker impulses and explore cultural traumas:

Paul Wilner, ZYZZYVA Contributor: I generally stay away from horror literature – it’s a step above science fiction, but it still gives me, you know, the creeps. That’s the intention, of course, but it feels a bit…intentional for my taste.

But I make an exception for Edgar Allan Poe. Besides being the lead Goth of his time, inspiring everyone from Baudelaire to Lou Reed, there’s a hysterical realism to Poe’s prose that continues to be relevant, even incorrigibly modern.

The Poe story that has stayed with me most is “The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, a magazine edited by James Russell Lowell, a poet about as far from the aesthetic of the bard of Baltimore as it’s possible to imagine.
In it, the unreliable narrator recounts the “perfect crime’’ of murdering the old man who lives in the house they share, whether as a servant or family member.
Poe strikes the High Romantic note from the outset.

“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’’

How, indeed? Let us count the ways.

Trying to explain his motive for the crime, he discounts the usual: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me…I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…”

In the dead of the night, he falls on the old man with a shriek, pulls his bed down over him, dismembers him and buries his remains in the room. Move over, Hannibal Lecter.
When the police arrive – neighbors had heard the commotion – he entertains them cordially, confident “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph’’ and places his chair above the spot where the corpse had been hidden. But as he tries to continue his small talk, he hears a sound, persistent and growing ever louder – the heartbeat of his victim.

“Was it possible they heard not! Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think.”
Chattering in terror, he confesses, prefiguring a thousand Raskolnikovs.

Poe is considered the father of the detective novel, a banal ambition. But he was so much more. His excited sentences leap forth and grip us still, even in these short pages.
He anticipates Baudelaire’s famous challenge – “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère,’’ and Rimbaud’s later derangement of the senses.

Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, he died a few days later. There’s an apocryphal report that the cause of death was “cooping’’ – a form of 19th century election fraud in which unwitting victims were kept in a room (or “coop’’) and plied with liquor until they voted, often several times, for a particular candidate. Or maybe he was just drunk, and took too many drugs – he never needed much encouragement in that regard.

Regardless, “The Tell-Tale Heart’’ still makes me shiver. I see Poe’s wild man, and his victim, in my mind’s eye. Wherever we may go, he is waiting.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You BeenRebecca Rand, Intern: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of Joyce Carol Oates’ most famous short stories, and it is an incredibly eerie work of psychological horror. It recalls the experience of a teenager named Connie, approached by a creepy man who calls himself Arnold Friend, who she finds seductive in spite of herself.

When a character in any story utters the line, “You’re a monster!” to a human villain, it is usually after s/he has committed or promised to commit some inhuman act of violence. Oates manages to make Arnold Friend an incredible monster without any violence. We question his humanness because he is grotesquely phony. He has shaggy black hair that is “crazy like a wig,” a face covered in mask-like foundation makeup, a nakedly aged throat, eyelashes covered in tar, and boots stuffed to make himself look taller. His disguise is clumsy and careless–he trips over his obviously-stuffed footwear. Connie sees all this, know’s he’s a fraud, and yet he still exerts psychological control over her. This is part of what makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” so freaking scary. And a perfect short read for this Halloween.

Paperbacks From HellZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: If you walked into a mall bookstore before the year 1995, chances are you saw them: the rows and rows of mass market paperbacks with evocatively rendered skeletons, masked killers, and insect hordes adorning their covers. While you may have thought that titles such as Night-Shriek, Toy Cemetery, and The Accursed – with their almost microscopic fonts and outlandish storylines – had been resigned to the dustbin of history, one man has made it his mission to preserve their dubious legacy. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell is both a survey of and a love-letter to the lurid horror novels of the 70’s and 80’s, skipping over the big names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz in favor of the lesser known and forgotten authors who contributed to the genre during the mass market paperback boom.

While Hendrix’s deadpan, often ironic tone may not be to every reader’s liking, his genuine excitement when he stumbles upon a gem in the dusty stacks proves infectious. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the work of William H. Johnstone, whose novels routinely featured muscle-bound Vietnam vets battling Satan-worshipping deviants in small town America, as well as the more clinical and psychologically-driven stylings of Andrew Neiderman (his book Brainchild depicts what happens when a straight A science student turns her household into a laboratory maze for humans). Don’t be surprised if you come away from this book with your own wishlist of macabre titles to track down. An ideal read for the October season, Paperbacks From Hell serves as a nostalgic ode to a paperback era long gone and a reminder of the assorted treasures that might be lurking at your local used bookstore.

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Looking for ways to help those affected by the Northern California fires

North Bay firesSmoke, ash, and an eerie light are constant reminders of the devastating fires just North of San Francisco. Our hearts go out to all those affected, and we’ll be looking for ways to help.

To begin, 7×7 has a list of local relief efforts that we can contribute to, including food donations and fundraising socials,  while KQED highlights ways to help animals that are affected by the Northern California wildfires. In addition, the compassionate crowdfunding site YouCare is raising funds for fire victims in the Santa Rosa community.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments section.

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What’s There to Be Afraid Of?: Some Long-Lasting Works of Horror

Black Hole When my best friend read Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole at age eleven, her parents assumed it was a harmless comic book. They were sorely mistaken, and, in her own words, Black Hole messed her up. How bad could it be,? I thought, flipping through the weighty twelve-issue collection. Black Hole is set in Seattle during the mid-1970s, when a horrific STD plagues a small suburb. Only teenagers can contract “the bug,” and like the AIDS epidemic, the town is initially unsure of how it spreads. The disease manifests itself in a variety of disturbing ways. Adolescence is already a bizarre time in anyone’s life, but then Burns throws strange physical mutations and heavy recreational drug use into the mix. The point of view changes from issue to issue: sometimes you are in Chris’s mind, whose skin starts to molt off her body like a snake’s after she has sex for the first time. Then we follow Keith, who is falling for Eliza, a struggling artist with a tail and roommate troubles. There is no shortage of nudity, and these are sex scenes like no other. Burn turns on a dime from creepiness to sexiness, and there are moments when both of those feeling are evoked simultaneously, like when Chris’s first time happens in a cemetery. There is yet another layer of eeriness as things get violent. The infected become pariahs, some living in tents in an area of the woods called “the pit.” In this state of alienation and teenage angst, the outcasts turn to alcohol, drugs, and even to murder. There are moments where you are floating in the black hole, trying to discern whether a scene is a nightmare, a bad trip, or reality. Several of the characters are in an altered state of mind more often than they are sober, and this hallucinogenic quality is reflected in the panels. The pictures are beautifully unnerving, a rich blackness you feel you could fall into. But whether you are unsuspecting middle-schooler or a faint-hearted adult, Black Hole will mess you up.—Devan Brettkelly

Pet SemataryThere’s horror, and then there’s horror. Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, for example, is horrific because its subject is real. These pitiless things happened, these gruesome deaths occurred, and that they did strongly suggests your life skates upon an icy crust of unwarranted optimism and dumb luck—and beneath, a light-swallowing abyss swirls. It relates a horror that heaps contempt upon the most brazen torture-porn, dare-you-to-watch movie. That’s what you came up with as being the worst thing that could happen to somebody? You know nothing. You’re a child. Which is not to say the other kind of horror, horror as genre, can’t truly rattle. Though it’s been decades since I read it, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary remains with me. Why? Not because of its conceit of a burial ground that brings back the dead (Oooooo, scary stuff! as Count Floyd might have said), but because of how King evokes the all-too-possible terror of losing your small child, of being utterly hollowed by grief and by guilt. The novel, of course, is an engrossing read, and we are indeed deliciously frightened by the consequences of trying to bring back the dead. But that’s not even its point. The point is to stand next to that wretched stretch of highway running by that house, shoulder to shoulder with the devastated protagonist, and recognize that the abyss lurks everywhere; it’s moving beneath your feet even as you read this.—Oscar Villalon

The Turn of the ScrewHorror icon H.P. Lovecraft once delivered a central theory on the genre: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Even after decades of psychoanalysis, there’s arguably no territory more uncharted, more unknown than the human mind. It’s an area Henry James explored brilliantly in his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, a tale of solipsistic horror that consistently calls into question the reliability of its narrator. As the new governess at an Essex country-house tends to her two youthful charges Flora and Miles, she encounters ghostly apparitions of the children’s previous caretakers, with James generating suspense from the possible spoiling of Flora and Miles’ Victorian-era innocence—while at the same time subverting that supposed purity through their otherworldly behavior. Over a hundred years later, The Turn of the Screw remains essential horror reading. —Zack Ravas

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