2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.

I WATCH MOVIES: a handful of horror movies I really like in no particular order

As seen in my love letter to Hereditary (2018), I hold the horror genre to a particularly high standard. Of any given weekend, I will usually spend a good hour lurking the internet like a lower level bottom feeder looking at lists of what people deem to be their favourite horror films, before usually eventually reneging to watching reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race, or one of the following films.

Two things: although it goes without saying, Hereditary will not feature on this list, purely because I gave the film its own whole article some time ago. Additionally, my main criteria for this list was whether or not I’ve had multiple viewings of these films and still enjoyed them.

The Shining (1980)

 

Being a consummate Stephen King fan, watching The Shining is a little bit of a treat for me. I once discussed with my English Literature lecturer how the film is atmospherically different enough from the original narrative that it feels like an extension of the novel universe. This film appeals to my need to be subtly creeped out while confronted with all the terrible parts of humanity. Every time I’ve watched it, I’ve noticed something different.

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The Uninvited (2009)

 

I was 16 the first time I watched this film, and I watched it almost exclusively because it had Emily Browning in it. This was much the same for the second viewing. However, by the third viewing, I thought to myself, damn, this movie is actually really entertaining. Also, I hope I’m not gay.

Don’t get me wrong – I was definitely gay, and The Uninvited is very much a late 2000s horror film in terms of tropes and themes. However, it offers something more than that, and was a genuinely good watch.

Pro-tip:Don’t see this film with someone who’s already seen the film. I made that mistake and 20 minutes into the film my friend asked, “wait a minute, isn’t this the film where…”

Yes it is, and now that I know that I will never get to experience the joy of the ending organically. Thanks, dickhead.

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Let Me In (2010)

Let Me Inis my wildcard for this list. I don’t really feel like it’s exclusively horror, although it has horror themes. It deals with issues that are quite compelling, and presents what I found to be a really unique representation of the awkwardness of adolescence. I typically really hate vampire films because I find them corny and overplayed, but this film was different. While it was released during the vampire film hype, it doesn’t rely on the tropes of the time with a heavy hand, and doesn’t let trend get in the way of good cinema. This is on this list less because it’s a good horror film, and more just because it’s a really good film.

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Photo Credits:

https://geektyrant.com/news/alternate-endings-revealed-for-stanley-kubricks-the-shining-and-why-they-were-changed

<https://pin.it/5cw46ujuprpuuj&gt;

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0169lsv

I PLAY VIDEO GAMES: Ramblings about the Silent Hills Playable Teaser

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The release of the Silent Hills Playable Teaser (PT herein) is probably the closest I have come in quite some time to childhood excitement levels for any kind of media. I would liken the excitement I felt for my friend to bring over her PS4 so we could play it to be closest matched with when I was a young girl set loose in a video store with (what felt like) an unlimited cash flow. Those afternoons are ones I hold dearly, and ones I mourned along with the death of renting culture. I would spend hours selecting games and movies, planning an evening for myself to the minute. It’s an experience I still try to emulate to this day with very little luck.

PT was an experience I’ve never had before with video games, not only in the sense that my friends and I could only able to play for a collective 20 minutes because of the level of scares we were experiencing. PT melded together everything I love in my literature – the themes of family conflict, mystery, nostalgia, vengeful spirits; you know, that old chestnut. And while I’ve come to expect video games to trade literary merit for 360 no scopes, PT held itself in a league of its own.

And it’s with that nostalgia, I think, that we tap into something very interesting with PT. Throughout the available gameplay, we aren’t necessarily given a definitive timeline for when this is happening. We know it’s suburban America, we see the imagery of a young married couple with the stylings of the late 50s to early 60s. This provides commentary on the death of the American Dream. For me personally, I enjoyed this destruction of the American Dream and the suburban fantasy land, much in the same way I enjoyed the commentary provided by The Great Gatsby. PT was deeper than just a shoot-em-up. It had heart, that it ripped out of the player character’s chest, and then ate.

I think that half of the appeal of PT was that it tapped into something so familiar to people from all backgrounds, regardless of timeline. We have all been to this house; we have all met this couple. We have all had to navigate an unfamiliar setting in the dead of night to get a glass of water, feeling our hearts pounding in our chests, convinced we’re about to get got by something. We have walked that hallway before – not just in the game, but in our lives.

Immediately following PT’s release, eventual removal, and disappointing cancellation, the effects of the demo were apparent in gaming culture. Countless games are paying homage to what could have been: from Layers of Fear (2016) to Resident Evil 7 (2017). But I don’t necessarily find this to be a crime of bandwagon culture in gaming per say. While I am the first to call out bandwagon culture in any media field, this isn’t the case here – at least to my view.

Rather, the horror genre in video games has been given a dramatic facelift, and it stuck! No longer do we need our (often straight white male) characters to be armed to the teeth. Developers essentially said to players, “good luck dickhead, all you get is a lantern and puzzle solving skills.”

And I thank Hideo Kojima for this.

Our avatars are no longer invulnerable bullet sponges, they are reduced to a basic human level. We are forced to think instead of just wildly shooting at enemies and hoping for the best. The greatest gift of all is that we’re drawn into a narrative and an experience more often now, where in the past quite often the key fun of the game was loading lead into the skull of a “monster”. The changes PT has put into motion have been necessary ones, and while I hesitate to use the L word when talking about games, PT has edged the horror genre further from being basic cheap thrills, and closer to being what one could almost consider legitimate literature.

Look, do yourself a favour: don’t eat dairy right before bed, life is full of mains so don’t fill up on entrees, and if you haven’t yet, check out PT.

Image Credit: https://www.gamewatcher.com/news/2017-13-11-hideo-kojima-s-famous-silent-hills-playable-teaser-p-t-is-being-recreated-by-a-youtuber-and-it-looks-fantastic

Note: This video is Silent Hills Playable Teaser without gamer commentary – essentially, it is more of a “film”. PT is quite frightening and can be quite confronting to viewers. I would advise against watching the film if you are quite sensitive to graphic subject matter, and horror in general.

I WATCH MOVIES: You know what? I’m about to say it – Hereditary (2018) is my new favourite horror film

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I have a lifelong love affair with horror. However, as much as I love it, my relationship with the genre has been plagued with periods of animosity followed by dizzying spells of happiness, and ultimately crushing disappointment.

I still remember my first brush with horror. The first two horror films I ever saw were Anaconda (1997) and Scary Movie 3 (2003), after both of which I had chronic nightmares. I was exhilarated. I have since been informed these films are in fact classified as comedy.

But that’s not the point. The point is, I was hooked.

As an adult, however, I simply don’t scare as easily. A jump scare may tickle me and briefly make me feel optimistic, but I’m mostly immune to scares. I’ve felt like I exist in Ezra Pound’s The Bath-Tub– having to tell horror through water devoid of warmth and full of wrinkled skin, it’s not you, it’s me.

But I was wrong. It wasn’t me – it was them.

I’m not into hysteria when it comes to the quality of pop culture, art, and so on. I simply don’t believe that artistic expression is as watered down as people seem to think it is. I have faith in the creativity of human beings. I roll my eyes at “back in my day” sentiments, knowing full well that this is simply nostalgia at play. Have you ever tried to watch something you genuinely enjoyed as a child again? Usually, what you are faced with is a bland predictable narrative designed to sell you toys, and a second hand embarrassment for your younger self.

When it comes to horror, however, I’ve been put through the ringer enough times over these past few years. A lover burned, I’m no longer open to just any promise of fright that walks through my door. I look down on new releases time and time again, uttering with complete malice, “I know your type.”

But not you, Hereditary. True, I was sceptical, but I was wrong. My standards aren’t too high. I can expect actual scares AND a compelling narrative.

Every piece of Hereditary feels purposeful and curated. The soundtrack works perfectly with the visuals. The film is a tour de force. From the opening scene I was pulled into the narrative world, where my lack of knowledge was perfectly balanced with the amount of information they gave away. Where characters felt like real people, experiencing real horror. The film’s depiction and handling of my favourite literary term – the transgenerational phantom – was satisfying, instead of feeling tacked on and cheap. The film had heart – the characters were all of us, dealing with loss, familial conflict, and demonic possession. I for one can relate.

Hereditary, I believe in horror again because of you. Even now, several weeks after seeing the film, it’s on my mind. I’m still reading about it. I’m still talking about it. I’m in love.

Do yourself a favour: don’t bother with people who don’t text you back, get enough sleep for yourself, and watch this damn film.

Photo Credit:

<https://www.flickr.com/photos/89191738@N00/27564342187/&gt;