book review

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Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Published September 19, 2016 by rmpixie

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity McFarland & Company Inc., 2016

 Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West ( McFarland & Company Inc., 2016)

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

This Wednesday September 21st, The Black Museum will hold a book launch for Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity in Toronto where West will do a reading. Check out the details here. Come out to support great Canadian talent!

 

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Book Review: BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

Published August 13, 2014 by rmpixie

bird box

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Ecco/HarperCollins 2014, 272 pages hardcover)

 

It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review, but I think I’ve been waiting to be consumed by something I couldn’t put down.  BIRD BOX did that for me.  With a creeping certainty, this debut novel by Josh Malerman (who is also the lead singer of the band The High Strung), presents an unfathomable situation that denies us the cherished sense of sight in a neat, horror wrapped package.

Malorie is afraid most of the time.  Five years after the world literally goes mad from seeing unnamed creatures, she must find a safe house, give birth, raise and train two children to live without their sense of sight, and attempt to survive in this new environment, all while blindfolded against these things and the madness they bring.  This story takes us from Malorie’s first fears as the world goes crazy around her, to the dull ache of inevitable doom that lurks beyond a locked door and covered windows.

What really stands out for me is Malerman’s use of language.  I like writing that gets to the point and is descriptive without mincing words.  He creates a survival based story with stark but far from basic prose, hitting hard with short, staccato sentences that imprints a clear image without the frills.  His use of flashbacks reveals the story at a pace that leaves you wanting more, creating a sustainable suspense that carries right through to last page.

I was also impressed by his female protagonist. Most men who write from a female perspective can be called out by something that doesn’t ring true, like a silly turn of phrase or situations that a woman knows would never happen.  This is especially true for male horror writers who use the realm to depict women in a one-dimensional way, for instance, immediately choosing hysteria for women once a crisis appears.  Most of them also throw in gratuitous sex that follows the typical horror book formula:  man + woman+ post-apocalyptic world/horror crisis=ridiculous sexual interlude.  Malerman doesn’t do that here which is so refreshing.  While a lot of horror fiction focuses on the almighty penis enduring in a post apocalyptic world, raping and pillaging as a new society is built, his is a quieter, more tense representation of such a world.  Malorie is strong but shows her weaknesses without exploiting her sexuality.  In fact, each character is preoccupied with the dangers at hand, not the next place where they can have at it in a bunker.

The voice he creates for Malorie is honest and very believable, from her skepticism to the blossoming of her maternal instinct and growing terror, to her reactions to other survivors she encounters.  I admired how he skillfully builds the panic that Malorie feels as her situation worsens, keeping the reader alongside the character and the foreshadowing to a minimum.

BIRD BOX has been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is fitting, but I immediately thought of Kate Bush’s 1986 song Experiment IV about a sound that could kill.  In both instances, the loss or corruption of these basic senses makes for a real sense of terror and dread.  Comparisons aside, I think Malerman has made a place for himself in the horror genre, and I can’t wait for his next book.

My only criticism?  That the story ends.  I actually felt like shaking the book to see if more words would fall out.  I would love to read a sequel, however I am praying to the literary gods that they don’t make a movie out of this book.  Maybe I lack vision (no pun intended), but this story should live in the reader’s head instead of the big screen since it deals with internal struggles and unseen threats.  If you enjoy survival horror fiction as much as I do, read this book.  Malerman has given us horror that messes with your head, things we take for granted, our basic human nature and the will to survive.

*BIRD BOX has been nominated for the 2014 Kirkus Prize.

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