The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – A Book Review

I picked up this thin book after enjoying the Netflix series. As I’m prone to do, I wanted to experience the source material.

For those of you craving a more detailed version of the show, prepare to be disappointed. However, if you’re willing to accept The Haunting Of Hill House on its own merits, I think you’ll have a nice read.

Shirley Jackson published The Haunting Of Hill House in 1959. This, of course, predates Stephen King and the brand of horror that we now come to expect. Interestingly, though, I think you’ll find that The Haunting Of Hill House has its own unsettling moments–they are simply just far more subtle, nuanced, and psychological.

To briefly summarize the book, Dr. Montague has gathered a few people together to study Hill House. One of them is Eleanor. She is a young woman isolated from society due to a sickly mother, but very much hoping to rejoin the world now that her mom has passed. Another woman Theodora, is something of a medium, and she bonds with Eleanor immediately. Luke Sanderson is in line to one day take ownership of the home, and he is there to make sure the doctor doesn’t take any liberties with the estate. The four of them immediately hit it off. They experience some disturbing sounds, and doors have a tendency to close without aid, but the real terror of the house emanates from the home itself. To the adventurers, the house simply feels evil. Much of the book establishes the characters and their interpersonal relationships, but then, finally, near the end of the book, the home’s influence rears its true power.

I have to admit that the first three-fourths of the book perplexed me. Not much occurred in regards to a haunting; in fact, Jackson seemed most interested in depicting her four main characters as quick-witted, jovial, and entertaining people with whom to study ghosts.

When the understated horror begins, though, it is all the more potent due to the characterization. We care about these characters, as well as their ultimate fates.

If you enjoyed the Netflix show, this read is worth your time. You’ll obviously recognize some names and scenes, but the show definitely deviated into something far more intricate. Even with that being said, I found this book’s brand of horror refreshing. It didn’t try too hard to scare me, which served the story very well. There’s an old saying that less is more–The Haunting of Hill House proved this to certainly be the case.

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A Few Thoughts Concerning Outlander: Season 4

I’ve had an interesting ride with Outlander on Starz.  When it debuted in 2014, my wife and I thought it would be a good show to watch together.  Neither of us knew exactly what it entailed, just that it was a popular book series and that a lot of people were looking forward to it.

Though it ended up being more intense than either of us expected, we loved the story, the acting, the costumes, the settings, and the charisma between Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, the two main characters played by Caitriona Balfe and Same Heughan.  Again, the violence surprised us, as did the very graphic adult content, but overall we were won over.

The second season did not impress us as much as the first.  Claire’s penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time began to wear thin with me, as did Jamie’s constant frowning.  However, the time travel element got more and more complex, as did the historical aspect of the show in regards to Scotland and it’s struggles with England.

That being said, I can’t lie–I quit the third season after a few episodes.  The coincidences became too outlandish, the situations too forced, and the dynamic between Claire and Jamie a little too stale.  It seemed like the same things kept happening over and over, just in different settings.

However, the premise of the fourth season fascinated me, so I came back.  Claire and Jamie are now living in the New World.  Jamie has built a cabin in the wilds of North Carolina and has been given a vast amount of land.  He and Claire, along with his nephew Ian, must learn to coexist with the Cherokee as they also navigate the growing political unrest within the colonies.

A much-needed complication arises with Brianna, their adult-daughter, and Roger, Brianna’s on-again-off-again love interest.  We last saw them quite a bit in the second season.  At the risk of spoiling the latter half of this latest season, Brianna and Roger make their way from the 1960s to the late 18th century.  Why do they visit Colonial America?  I won’t give that away, but Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin bring a refreshing energy to the show.  Though we’ve seen them before, we’ve never encountered them facing real danger.  Brianna and Roger are both thrown right into the frying pan after traveling to Claire and Jamie’s era.  Though Brianna and Roger’s relationship can be infuriating, seeing them interact with Claire and Jamie brings a new vitality to the show.  It’s also captivating to see Jamie playing a father to the daughter he never thought he would meet.

This fourth season isn’t perfect.  For example, Claire’s habit of finding skulls is … weird.  Jamie still seems to only have three or four facial expressions.  Roger is flat-out unlikable through much of the season.  Brianna takes unnecessary risk after unnecessary risk, effectively replacing Claire in that regard.  And there are once again some far-fetched coincidences, inexplicable actions taken by characters, and bizarre plot points.

But, overall, I really enjoyed the season.  Jamie and Claire’s characters are growing, the change in scenery is fun, Brianna and Roger are interesting, and the stories involving both the colonial politicians as well as the Native Americans are gripping.  The sets, though subtle, are stunning, and the costumes are–as always–fantastic.

Be warned, though.  This season can get very explicit in regards to adult content.  There isn’t anywhere near as much nudity as the first season, but there are several disturbing moments of sexual violence.  It’s very upsetting–as it should be.

I’m glad I came back to the show.  If you moved away from it like me, I recommend giving the fourth season a try.  I think Outlander will recapture your attention.

Outlander Season 4 2018

 (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

This Season Of The Handmaid’s Tale Will Be My Last

We’re not Hulu subscribers, so when everyone heaped praise upon The Handmaid’s Tale, we had to wait until it came out on disc to experience it for ourselves.

We were able to finally watch it a few months ago, and we can attest that it deserved all of the acclimation it received.  Sure, it was intense, disturbing, and fraught with modern day political implications, but the sheer skill in terms of writing, acting, and production could not be denied.

In fact, the series impressed me so much that I immediately found the book and read it as well.  To my surprise, the first season of the show followed the book very closely.  The only aspect of the book the series did not cover pertained to the final ten or fifteen pages.

I presumed the second season would tackle those last pages of the novel.

I could not have been more wrong … so far.

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale blazes its own trail by adding original material to the classic Margaret Atwood novel.  It’s serving as something of a sequel to the book as it continues Offred’s plight, the Waterford’s tyranny, and the general awfulness of a place like Gilead.

However, they’ve managed to up the stakes this season.  It’s become even more tense, more unsettling, and more … well, horrific.

Honestly, my wife and I watched episode eleven (of thirteen) last night, and we both decided that this season will be our last.  Yes, we’ll finish it out, but we agreed that neither of us wants to infiltrate Gilead’s boundaries anymore.

Minor spoilers here–with Offred’s complicated pregnancy and a heart-wrenching story line revolving around her first daughter, as well as an extremely frightening scene depicting rape … it’s too much.  This dystopian society of Gilead has become too real.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to retreat from a show.  Back in 2014, The Walking Dead began killing children every week and threatening to kill an infant, so I had to quit it, too.  Our real world is scary enough.  We see enough tragedy on a daily basis in our reality.  I can’t deal with this level of calamity on a show, too.

In the end, when I watch a show, see a movie, or read a book, I’m engaging in a certain amount of escapism.  I cannot, for a sustained amount of time, feel extremely depressed after watching a show.  Every once in a while is manageable, but every episode of an entire season?  Maybe it’s not as potent if watching it on a weekly basis, but we’re watching an episode a night, and it’s absolutely altering my overall mood.

The Handmaid’s Tale crossed a line in my mind.  I understand children are the driving force of the entire premise, but by bringing them front and center, and by teasing their exploitation and abuse on a regular basis, in addition to the constant barrage of violence against powerless women … Again, it’s too much.

This second season is too blunt, too graphic, and too ruthless.  I found the first season, though very troubling, a little more nuanced, poignant, and purposeful.

I think the show and the book both serve as a significant warning against people manipulating religious and political beliefs for their own personal glorification, and I believe The Handmaid’s Tale inspires us to hold firm onto our own morals even in the face of rampant corruption, but I simply can’t partake in such abasement as a means of escapism any longer.

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    (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer – A Book Review

You may remember that I read the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, called Annihilation, in anticipation of the movie.  You may also remember that I wasn’t crazy about it.  However, I eventually saw the movie and loved it.

So even though I didn’t like the first book, the general premise and the movie itself tempted me to give the second literary installment a try.

I recently finished Authority, the sequel to Annihilation, and it left me rather apathetic.  The author, Jeff Vandermeer, elected to change course from the first book and focus instead on the Southern Reach facility, the entity responsible for sending the team into Area X from the first book.  Our main character is no longer the biologist who narrated Annihilation.  Instead, Vandermeer is using a third-person narrator with the story squarely settled on “Control,” the new head of Southern Reach.  Control (John Rodriquez) moves throughout the book utterly confused.  Like the reader, he has no idea what is going on in Area X, nor does he understand the full scope and history of Southern Reach.

In the beginning of the book, I accepted Control’s chaotic immersion into Southern Reach.  I assumed that he would soon solve some of the enigmatic entity’s mysteries.  Instead, Vandermeer chose to pile even more mystery upon both Control and the reader.  Though some revelations arrive, both Control and the audience are left feeling even less informed than they did before!

I basically plodded through most of this book.  The ending intensified, but for the most part, I never fully invested in neither the story nor Control.

However, I’ve come this far, so guess what I’m reading now?  Yes, Acceptance, the third part of the Southern Reach Trilogy.  Like Control, I seemingly have to know Area X and Southern Reach’s secrets, no matter what level of discomfort occurs during the process of discovery.

I have a feeling, though, that the third book will ultimately disclose nothing.  That appears to be the pattern.  I’ll let you know.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Mary Poppins Returns – A Movie Review

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original Mary Poppins from start to finish.  We had it on a few years ago for the kids, but I thought it was really strange and didn’t pay it much attention.  I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the character.

However, when we first started seeing the trailers for Mary Poppins Returns, my kids got very excited.  Frankly, I did, too.  I thought Disney really rolled the dice on trying to revitalize an iconic, beloved character that is deeply ingrained in many people’s psyche.  The willingness to risk financial failure on a venerated property shocked me.  And Emily Blunt?  Can you imagine the guts it takes to try to reprise such a famous role?  A role previously played by a revered actress?  Wow.

So even though I’m not necessarily a Mary Poppins fan, I have to confess that I had a great time watching Mary Poppins Returns.  I found it charming from start to finish.  It felt to me like a classic family movie–the kind of movie they don’t really make that often anymore.  I liked the message, the humor, the acting, the music, and the general creative direction.  In fact, we went with the grandparents and a great aunt, and they all loved it, too.

I’ve heard it argued that it just retreads the original movie.  Some have said it hits the same beats at almost the exact same cadence.  That may be true, but this movie isn’t made for the original fans of Mary Poppins.  This is a completely new experience to my six-year-old and ten-year-old.   Seeing it in a dark theater on the big screen with the loud speakers–this will be their Mary Poppins for life, and we need to realize that.  The same argument can actually be made for Star Wars.  Let the young have what we loved, too, but on their terms, in their own way.  It’s okay to borrow from what made the original a hit, and it’s okay to take things in a different direction as well.

By the way, I’d like to rave about Emily Blunt.  I adored her portrayal of Mary Poppins.  To me, her singing exceeded my expectations.  She sounded as good as anyone, in my opinion.  Furthermore, she had a sly glimmer in her eye that, for the first time, made me really consider the fact that Mary Poppins may be some kind of a supernatural entity–like a well-meaning fairy, or a helpful nymph, or maybe even a sort of angel.  She played the character incredibly stuffy, as the literary source material dictated, but she would at times offer a private grin, a lift of the eyebrows, or even a giant smile, that told me Emily Blunt is playing a character who is playing a character.  I think Mary Poppins’ whole persona is an act, and I loved that interpretation.  Though understated, Blunt’s execution of Poppins using exaggerated facial expressions and body language really struck me as funny.  She always held her hands just so.  The eyes would bulge indignantly just right.  I found the extrovert posing as a strict, prim, and proper snob totally engaging.

I’ve also heard some fans of the original movie claim that Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t have very catchy music.  Again, I’m no expert, but I thought it had excellent music.  My kids had me download the soundtrack which has resulted in several songs being stuck in my head.  Isn’t an earworm the sign of a good song?  Or at least a catchy one?

Finally, the production value of Mary Poppins Returns is phenomenal.  There are several instances when Mary Poppins and the children for whom she is responsible enter a world infused with cartoons.  The special effects are seamless.  I found it amazing to see the actors interacting with what appeared to be classic 2D images.  Of course, I could be mistaken.  Everything could have been CGI for all I know.  The point is that it looked beautiful.

Did the story make perfect sense?  No, not really, but who cares?  I’m not going to Mary Poppins Returns for a think-piece.  I’m going for the singing, the dancing, the humor, and the fact that it is a wholesome movie with a positive message for not just the children, but for everyone watching.

If you’re looking for a family movie, I completely recommend Mary Poppins Returns.

Image result for mary poppins returns movie poster

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – A Movie Review

When I first saw the trailer for this movie and noticed it was PG, I thought, “Huh.  That might be one for the kids and me.”  We weren’t in a rush to see it, mind you, but as the reviews kept praising it, and as Rotten Tomatoes continued to maintain a 97% “fresh” rate, I got more and more interested.

I can’t necessarily claim to be a huge Spider-Man fan, nor can my two daughters (ages 10 and 6).  I loved his comics as a kid, but generally lost interest in Marvel as an adult.  Don’t hold this against us, but we are a DC family through and through.

With all of that being said, if you like Spider-Man even a little, I urge you to see this movie.  It has earned every single positive review it has received.  I loved it.

There are so, so many reasons to enjoy it.  First of all, the voice acting is superb.  Check out this cast list and you’ll understand the high quality.  The animation also won me over.  You’ll have to see it to really understand what I’m saying, but it’s refined yet rough, classic yet edgy, bright yet dark.  Best of all?  It’s not afraid to do, well, anything.  Colors pop, word panels appear, dot matrix appears and disappears–it’s a visual feast.

It also wasn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.  As cliche as it sounds, this movie will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you cheer, it will make you think–it engages virtually every emotion available.  And while I think it was perfectly appropriate for my six-year-old, my ten-year-old picked up on the messages of self-confidence, self-sacrifice, supporting others, and what it really takes to be a hero.  There existed in this movie an inspirational message that managed to pierce this old forty-two-year-old heart of mine.

However, the absolute best trait of the film can be summed up in one word: fun.  My gosh, this was a fun movie!  The plot is so ridiculously “comic book” that you can’t deny its charm.  Kingpin builds a machine that breaches other dimensions, which then pulls many “Spider-People” from various realities into that of Miles Morales, a teenager recently infused with the powers of a spider-man.  The movie treats its story seriously, but it doesn’t ever take itself too seriously.  I mean, Spider-Ham is in this thing!  And while I would ultimately call this a comedy, it has some heart-wrenching moments made all the more so by fantastic voice acting.  Oh, and the action.  The action is mesmerizing.  They do their best with the live-action movies, but only animation can truly capture the essence of Spider-Man.  Just look at the poster below and you’ll get a sense of the movement displayed within the film.

Even if you’re only moderately interested in Spider-Man, I highly recommend Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  It’s family friendly, beautiful to behold, funny, action-packed, and delivers several moral messages pertaining to heroism, family, friends, and self-confidence.

I hope you’ll check it out. Image result for spider man into the spider verse movie poster

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

The Grinch (2018) – A Movie Review

My six and ten-year-old daughters were very excited to see this latest rendition of Dr. Seuss’ classic, so I made a point to take them on opening night.  I believe they’ve seen the classic cartoon movie, but I don’t think they’ve ever seen the Jim Carrey live-action version.  This will be relevant later.

I have to be honest, for a Friday night, five o’clock showtime, the theater didn’t have many empty seats.  As you can imagine, most of those seats were occupied by people whose feet didn’t touch the ground.  It seems as though a lot of people were genuinely excited to see this.

At a brisk hour and a half, the new Grinch is perfect in terms of length.  It’s just long enough to tell a story, but brief enough to avoid anyone getting bored.

Well, most anyone.  More on that soon.

My daughters thought it was hilarious, cute, and delivered a nice message about reaching out to others while also forgiving past grievances.

So, for the kids, especially those who haven’t seen Jim Carrey’s version, this is probably a really cool movie.

That being said, I was bored silly.

In my opinion, you’ve already seen the best parts during the previews.  Otherwise, it hits most of the same beats as what you’ve seen before while adding new, unnecessary elements.  It’s nowhere near as clever as Jim Carrey’s movie, nor is it as entertaining.  Of course, I’m forty-one, so I’m sure I’m not this movie’s demographic.  And that’s totally fine.  I’ve got my Grinch movie, let the kids have theirs.  Just be prepared to take one for the team on this one–it’s not great.

However, there is much to appreciate.  The animation is absolutely beautiful.  The snow, the hair and fur, the Christmas lights–it’s all stunning.  The characters’ movements are also incredibly fluid and natural.  This movie looks good from an artistic and technical perspective.

There are also a few laugh-out-loud gags.  I wasn’t miserable, not by any stretch of the imagination.  And when I looked over at my kids, they both wore a smile ear-to-ear.  I honestly think your children will get a kick out of it.

Is it suitable for young children?  Absolutely.  In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Grinch is the nicest Grinch you will have ever encountered.  He’s mean for maybe five minutes before he sees the errors of his ways, and he’s not even that mean.  This version is far more sanitized, wholesome, and family-friendly than ever before.

If you’re looking for a family movie, it’s hard to go wrong with 2018’s The Grinch.  The kids will love it, and it’s just short enough that the parents will be able to endure it without complaining …

Much.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Grinch (2018)

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)