the YA horror novel aesthetic

You could say that every genre has its own aesthetic, but lately the YA horror genre has been taking aesthetic to a new level – beyond cover design, or even typeface and chapter headings.

The first YA novel that did this really effectively was Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – a novel which some might argue isn’t really horror.  But even if it is fantasy, it’s super creepy fantasy with invisible monsters that eat children.

Using real photographs, Ransom Riggs created a story.  The photographs became a kind of evidence for the text.  Sure, you could read the story (or listen to it on audiobook) without looking at the pictures, and you’d still get a creepy fantasy tale.  But the photographs were what drew me in.  They were mysterious, and did I mention real?  Of course, they were originally created using Victorian-era special effects, but the idea of finding these strange images made me as a reader feel just like Jacob, sifting through his grandfather’s collection.  The page layouts were even made to look like scrapbook pages.  I’ll call this style the Old-Timey aesthetic.

Quickly after the publication of Miss Peregrine’s, I began to notice other YA horror books using images and elaborate page design to draw readers into the story.  The Asylum series by Madeleine Roux had images that looked like they were found on the tiled floors of an old asylum.  Also included were images of scribbled notebook pages akin to what the narrator was finding and/or writing.

I enjoyed the feel of this series even though I didn’t enjoy the story as much – and part of my lack of enjoyment of later books might have been reading them as ebooks, which made them feel somehow less authentic.  I also found that some of the images were clearly photoshopped which made them feel less authentic than those in Miss Peregrine’s.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters also uses photographs to great effect – a look at the copyright page shows that most of the photos are from the Library of Congress.  These photos are entirely separate from the story, but mirror the events: seances, spirit photography, army hospitals, and flu victims, all of which ground the story to the time period.  The author did a great job of doing that through her writing, but the aesthetic of the book took it that much further.  You can see that the chapter headings also had a 1920s flair.

YA horror novels about historical events have a great advantage by the ability to use photographs.  But there’s another YA horror aesthetic that doesn’t.  I like to call it the House of Leaves aesthetic, where even the words on the page are arranged to lure the reader deep into a troubled protagonist’s mind.

(If you haven’t read House of Leaves, it’s a very complex story within a story within a story (perhaps even two more levels deep here).  There are footnotes, there’s word art (see image on right), there are hidden codes.  It took me months to read this book.)

Dawn Kurtagich’s novels The Dead House and And the Trees Crept In (UK title: Creeper Man) were definitely inspired by House of Leaves and have many similar elements – the word art, and the story within a story.  There are journal pages and words crossed out.  In The Dead House, the novel is meant to look entirely like a compilation of files and journal pages and transcripts.

Both of these books are very psychological in nature, where the characters question their own sanity, and the disordered fonts/cross-outs reflect that – while the appearance of “official documents” and files lend an authenticity to the story.

This aesthetic isn’t limited to YA horror (see House of Leaves, also the horror/comedy novel Horrostor which is laid out like an IKEA catalog – the story takes place within such a store), and it certainly isn’t limited to horror, but it seems the genre most befitting this type of treatment are horror novels.

And I love it!

(Did I miss any other examples of YA horror aesthetic?  Please let me know in the comments!)



31 Days of Halloween, Day 5 – The Exorcist (TV series)

p12901046_b_v8_abI didn’t have enough time to watch a full horror movie today, so I settled for the pilot episode of the new Exorcist television series.

I wasn’t entirely if this was going to be a prequel, or a continuation – but it seems there is no connection at all to the movie.  You’ve got the attractive young Father Tomas, who has visions of an exorcism, and a family in turmoil – father seems to have dementia and the mother (played by Geena Davis) is concerned about her emo daughter Kat. While visiting the family, the father babbles some clues that lead Tomas to Father Marcus, a former exorcist.

The pacing was pretty good, especially considering how slow the movie is, but I did have to wait about 10 minutes in before someone was actually possessed.  Gone are the days when someone could survive their head doing a 360 – however, there were plenty of other creepy moments that echoed the movie without directly referencing it.

Overall, I felt like this was a strong pilot with lots of potential backstory to explore… At any rate, it’s better than the current season of American Horror Story…

Time for some recommendations!  I’m going to stick with the TV shows here since I’m sure I’ll watch some other horror movie about possession this month.

  • American Horror Story, Season 1 – If only the other seasons could have lived up to that first season.  Happily, it’s a complete story in itself so you don’t have to keep watching.
  • Bates Motel – I haven’t watched Season 4 yet but after binge-watching the first 3 seasons I’d say Norman’s slow transformation into the psycho we know he’ll become is pretty awesome.
  • Eerie, Indiana – Totally not similar to any other show on this list!  It’s like a kid-friendly version of The Twilight Zone.  Pair it with a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and you’ll have experienced a good portion of my childhood.
  • The Walking Dead – I love this show so much.

31 Days of Halloween, Day 4 – Baskin

mv5bndi2nzawotezov5bml5banbnxkftztgwmzmxnzi2ode-_v1_sy1000_cr006751000_al_Naturally, when I came across a Turkish horror movie, I had to watch it.  I’ve seen a lot of foreign horror movies, but never one from Turkey!  I have not seen any Turkish movies at all, so I really had no idea what to expect.

This got a LOT more explicit than I thought it would – there were some S&M-type orgy scenes – but the moments of culture shock I sometimes get with foreign movies was limited to a scene where the five male cops (the protagonists) are on their way to answer a distress call and start singing and dancing to a song on the radio.  And I mean they are getting down.

Naturally, the distress call is from a place where spooky stuff happens and they end up swerving off the road after hitting someone, and stumble upon the aforementioned orgy, led by a super creepy dude who is clearly in this for some religious purpose.  I might have expected there to be some cultural difference in that religious purpose, but the horror here doesn’t have a cultural barrier.  The surreal moments where the main protagonist (who I shall call “the cute cop”)


has these visions where he’s chatting with his uncle? boss? (might have been some translation issues in the subtitles here) made what was happening in the orgy cult that much weirder.  Possibly it’s more culturally acceptable for men and people in general to be attuned to the supernatural in Turkey, but I don’t think it would be too far-fetched for a dude in an American movie to have ghostly visions.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If you have a taste for more foreign horror, try these:

Audition (1999) – This is one of my favorite horror movies ever.  It certainly has the surreal quality of Baskin mixed with the bizarre flavor of Japanese horror movies – before The Ring homogenized them.  Starts out like a romantic comedy and slowly turns into a nightmare.

Hell’s Ground (2007) – The first Pakistani horror movie I’d ever heard of.  Can’t say it was all that great, as it followed the generic storyline of five teens on a road trip who get lost, but their attacker does wear a burqa.

31 Days of Halloween, Day 3 – Hellions

220px-hellions_posterI did not have high hopes for this one, since Netflix showed the average rating as 2 stars.  How could this be?  You’ve got creepy kids in masks!  This is a surefire way to make a horror movie awesome.

So Dora discovers that she’s preggers, and opts to stay home while her mom and little bro go trick-or-treating.  But the little hellions immediately start messing with her, and soon Dora’s both convinced that her baby is a demon and she’s trapped in a nightmare house as the trick-or-treaters try to get that baby out of her.

This movie did a great job of playing off the tropes and doing some oddly original stuff.  Visually it was pretty awesome, what with Dora’s gun-toting angel costume and the creepy masks and the Willy Wonka-esque nightmare sequences (although I suspect that the strange purplish lighting throughout had more to do with low budget, but it still looked cool).  I’m giving this one a solid 3 stars.

A fun drinking game for this movie: Drink every time “it’s just a dream” and chug when it turns into a “dream-within-a-dream.”

A few suggestions if you enjoyed this one:

  • The Children (2008) – This film (and most of those that I will suggest here) is basically birth control. Lots of screaming children… like, to the point where I wished the kiddos would start chanting creepily.
  • Eden Lake (2008) – A happy young couple goes to a secluded lake, only to be terrorized by a gang of teens.
  • The House on Pine Street (2015) – Add this to my list of movies not to watch while pregnant, the main character is both pregnant and recovering from a nervous breakdown, and the creepy new house isn’t helping.
  • Trick ‘r Treat (2008) – Five stories for the price of one, plus a super creepy trick-or-treater.
  • Village of the Damned (1995) – John Carpenter’s remake of the classic is a little cheesy, but damn those platinum-blond kids are creepy.

31 Days of Halloween, Day 2 – Opera

220px-opera_-_film_1987Today’s horror movie was Dario Argento’s Opera (1987), a film so buried in my Netflix DVD queue that I’ve forgotten how or why I put it there.

Dario Argento is considered one of the masters of horror, and yet I’ve always had sort of a “meh” feeling about his movies.  To be fair, I’ve only seen Suspiria, Phenomena, and Giallo, but none of them did it for me.  The death scenes often feel a little too carefully orchestrated.  Opera was no exception.

The main character is an opera singer, an understudy who is forced into the spotlight after the lead is injured. She keeps getting attacked by a mysterious masked person, who tied her up and tapes needles against her eyes so she is forced to watch the murders he commits.  And then he lets her go.  The baffling part is how, after each attack, Betty doesn’t seem to report the murders she has witnessed, and then doesn’t seem too nervous about being alone, or leaving her door unlocked.  During the second murder, the victim attempts to run away but is taken down when the killer hurls an iron and hits her in the lower back.  Like, really?  That’s what gonna keep you down?  Another victim gets shot through a peephole, in slow motion.  It was pretty cool, but again, a little too choreographed to feel real.  There’s no panic or emotion during the last murder – she keeps her composure while watching her friend die and while luring the killer away and attacking him, and then she has a random spiritual moment with a lizard, with her friend’s blood on her blouse.  And don’t get me started on the rock music that would play during the murders, contrasted to the opera music playing throughout the rest of the movie.  Also there was a lot of footage of crows because the “crazy opera director” wanted to use live animals in his show.

While I have to say that this was probably the best of the Argento films I’ve seen, I’m still not convinced about him as a director.  Apparently I have Tenebre in my queue, so this might not be the last of Argento you hear from me this month!

Have you seen this and want to watch something similar?  (Or perhaps, after reading my review, something else?)

  • The Birds (1963) – I don’t think there were any crows eating eyeballs in this one, but I think Hitchcock is more of a horror master than Argento.
  • Black Swan (2010) – Not a “horror” movie but some pretty scary things happening in this one.
  • Stage Fright (2014) – This one has some memorable actors (Minnie Driver and… Meatloaf) but a more predictable plot for a horror movie centered around the stage (honestly I don’t know what to make of Opera’s ending).

31 Days of Halloween, Day 1 – We Are What We Are

we_are_what_we_are_2013Feeling a bit hungry last night, I decided to watch a movie about cannibals.

“We Are What We Are” (2013) has been sitting in my Netflix queue for a while, and I’ve heard generally positive things about it, although I wasn’t aware until now that it’s a remake of a Mexican film.  The good reviews are not unfounded and I enjoyed this story of a strange, religious family who have a yearly tradition of killing and eating people.  Much of the cannibalism is implied until the very end, with any image of meat made to look absolutely disgusting.  So if you’re hungry and don’t want to be, here’s a way to kill your appetite!

What I really liked about this was how it was more about the family dynamics and how their cannibalism affects their relationships with outsiders.  The two sisters are sympathetic characters, while their father is domineering and their little brother is creepy, as all children in horror movies are…

The eeriness of the opening scene reminded me a bit of another movie I watched recently, so I’m going to offer up a few suggestions if you’ve also enjoyed this one.

  • Benny’s Video (1992) – The opening scene of this Austrian-Swiss film involves videotaped footage of a pig being slaughtered.  This movie was more disturbing than scary and uncomfortable to watch.
  • Grimm Love (2006) – Based on the true story of a cannibal killer, whose dream was to eat a willing victim and found one such victim online.  Probably the most emo cannibal movie I’ve ever seen.
  • Mum and Dad (2008) – The British family at the center of this movie aren’t cannibals, but they sure are fucked up.
  • Offspring (2009) – This cannibal family is just a little more feral, and they have fashioned themselves metal teeth for dinnertime.  If you were wanting more gore than “We Are What We Are,” you’ll find more than enough here.
  • Snowpiercer (2012) – In addition to eating cockroaches, cannibalism is what happens when people are trapped on a train for a few decades.  More implied than anything, but this is such a weirdly awesome post-apocalyptic movie it doesn’t matter.

New YA Horror Roundup just in time for Halloween

Note: I received advanced copies of all titles from Netgalley except Sanctum.  All of these titles have been released except Creed, which comes out November 8, 2014.

I was quite pleased to discover so many YA horror titles coming out over the summer and fall!  YA horror is my favorite genre, but in recent years it’s been dominated by paranormal romance which is totally NOT THE SAME THING.  (Not that I don’t enjoy it, but I like a good horror story minus any romance elements whatsover).

If you’re looking for a book that reads like your favorite horror movie, take your pick!  Welcome to the Dark House follows seven strangers sent to live in a house owned by their favorite horror movie director.  There’s a nightmare carnival and everyone has a dark past…  Amity by Micol Ostow is eerily similar to the “Amityville Horror” movies, while Creed by Trisha Leaver is more like “Children of the Corn.”  If you’re more into movies like “The Ring,” try The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco.  Did you enjoy “Urban Legend”?  Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan will make you think twice about chanting Bloody Mary into the mirror.

All of the above books were a lot of fun to read.  My favorite would have to be The Girl from the Well.  “The Ring” is the one movie I can’t watch before I go to bed!  I learned about the origins of this Japanese ghost, and I loved how Okiku was kind of a ghost-Dexter.  The narration of a story by a ghost was very cool.

If historical horror is your thing, there’s Of Monsters and Men by Jessica Verday.  This was like a Poe / Jekyll & Hyde / Dr. Moreau mash-up, all those gothic horror novels pulled together in a cool way.

Finally, Sanctum is the second book in the Asylum series.  The photographs add that certain creep factor (even though you know they’re not real photos, like in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children).  Also, it’s like horror writers know me or something, because this also had a creepy carnival/circus (I don’t have to tell you how excited I am for American Horror Story: Freak Show!).

All of these books were fast, enjoyable reads for the Halloween season!