Flying Mammals, Insect Warrior, Friend

bat pic 1

The light is turning shades of blue and purple as the sun drops below the horizon. The air is cooling from a warm summer day.  Crickets are beginning their night time singing, and through the sky comes the faint whirring of bats. Swooping and gliding through the air, indulging in an early evening snack. Some of my fondest memories growing up in Wisconsin start on nights like this. Watching the bats and reveling in the idea that there are finally warriors to take on the thick clouds of mosquitos that crowd the Wisconsin sky. I loved anything that would eat bugs; mosquitos are the Wisconsin state bird, after all. I was always amazed at the way bats took to the sky; dropping out of slumber in an almost synchronized fashion, swooping gracefully and clearing the pests surrounding me.

I knew early on the benefit of the bats regarding personal pest control but had yet to learn all the ways in which bats help humankind. Yes it is wonderful to have a night time warrior friend to clear the bugs from around our heads, but what else do they accomplish? It is thought that these flying mammals contribute over 3 billion dollars annually to pest control for farmers all across the United States. They clear cropland in a frenzy of feeding, each bat consuming up to or more than their body weight in pesky bugs each night. This fundamental trait of bats reduces the amount of chemical pesticides used on cropland, creating a feedback loop that saves farmers money, keeps pesticides out of watersheds, and in turn lowers health and food costs to customers (us). Bats unintentionally help farmers in another major way — pollinating fruit. Do you enjoy a margarita or tequila from time to time? Well you can thank bats; without night time pollination agave would never produce the fruits needed for that icy cocktail. Don’t imbibe alcohol? How about eating mangos, bananas or avocados?  Bats to the rescue.  Bats are the only natural pollinator for these fruits. When fruit bats feed on night flowers, spreading pollen from plant to plant, they also clear the flower of any parasites that may harm it in the future. Double whammy!

bat pic 2

Small bat pollinating agave

Bats play another crucial role in plant life and biodiversity as the world’s most prolific seed transmitters. Bats regenerate forests around the world by dispersing seeds and spreading guano accounting for nearly 95% of the first plants that sprout out of a new forest floor. Having few predators, they often fly long distances at night covering large open spaces. All the while spreading some of the most nutritious feces of any living species; Johnny Appleseed has nothing on bats. So to reflect; bats fertilize and distribute seeds in those hard to reach places, bats pollinate difficult species of plants, bats are living breathing insecticide keeping in check those destructive and disease spreading insects. And these are just the actions that benefit growth. But what else are bats capable of?

Bats as bomber pilots? Sure, why not. Shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor a dental surgeon named Dr. Lytle S. Adams came up with one crazy idea — utilize bats to plant and distribute hundreds of small incendiary bombs throughout Japan. Bats have an amazing ability to carry a large load in comparison to their size. Remember they eat their weight or more in bugs each and every night. Some species can carry almost three times their weight. Dr. Adams joined with thousands of other concerned Americans and sent his bat plan to the American Military and the top brass liked it. Once President Roosevelt signed off on the idea, Dr. Adams was directed to Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) along with several naturalist from the University of California who worked together to implement it. After an exhaustive search they realized that Mexican free-tailed bats had all the right stuff; they were numerous and powerful enough to carry the load, and they were easy to catch. The idea was simple; force the bats into hibernation, attach a clip from the small incendiary to the chest of the bats, put the bats into a cardboard contraption, fly them in a B-52 bomber releasing them at 5000ft., cardboard contraption breaks open, bats come out of hibernation in time while freefalling to roost under buildings eaves, then they would naturally chew off the clip holding the mini bombs. Once the clip was loose the bomb’s fuse would ignite and BOOM — off go hundreds of bombs strewn throughout the country in no particular order, creating chaos. Whew, that made me tired just typing it, but simple enough for the magical bats, right? Alas all did not go as planned. They had some trouble with the timing of hibernation; first they were coming out too late and splat, then they came out too early and created chaos at the test site. Then a careless act by a scientist released a number of bats with miniature incendiary devices attached, causing a hanger to be bombed and a general’s car to be lit aflame. Needless to say the 2 million dollar project was scrapped for a much more promising one, the Atomic Bomb.

Alright, so bats are amazing little flying mammals and there are a lot of bat species around the world, over 1,300 in fact. So they will be with us for a very long time, fulfilling their silent duty for centuries to come. Wrong. Or possibly wrong; it is our turn to help the bats. Some think that the Mexican free-tailed bat, those little bombers, may be dying off due to insecticide. Oh the irony. Then there is global climate change, an issue facing all living creatures in their own way, some being affected in ways that no one could have predicted. The bats are one such mammal. Humans have looked to alternative energy to slow the release of greenhouse gasses, one cause of global climate change. One piece of the greenhouse gas solution is wind farms, yet they are directly affecting bats. During bats migratory times in the fall, they seem to be attracted to the blades of wind turbines. Bats not only get caught in the blades themselves but as they come near to them the wind pressure change can crush their delicate little bodies in mid-air, stopping their hearts. Scientist have yet to figure out why they are more apt to be attracted to the turbines in the fall and have been working with the owners of wind farms. Together they have found that by furloughing the turbines a few hours around dusk for the month and a half that bats migrate, they can reduce the number of fatalities drastically. Unfortunately these are not the direst issues facing North American bats.

bat map

Map showing the spread of WNS

A more mystifying issue at hand is the rapid proliferation of a psychrophilic (cold loving) fungus called Pseudogymnoascus Destructans or White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is thought to have come from Europe and East Asia, first appearing in the Northeast during the winter of 2006-2007. WNS has now spread throughout the east and in the last two years has been found in small pockets of Washington State. At this point scientist believe that over 5 million bats have succumbed to WNS. Bats that live in the colder regions tend to hibernate in humid cooler dwellings, a perfect environment for the fungus to survive. It can be spread by close contact of bats but can also live in the soil surrounding a cave. Bats are very social critters, huddling together during hibernation, especially the females. These attributes cause near-perfect conditions for a pandemic. WNS does not directly kill bats but can spread quickly, causing dehydration and an uncomfortable annoyance, waking the bats up from hibernation. Rising earlier than they should, the affected bats wander around disoriented and burn off crucial reserves needed to make it through the long hibernation. Unable to find food and relief from WNS, they become weaker and weaker until they perish. The fungus can also attack the delicate wing membranes of bats causing debilitating tears. It is thought that over 90%of the little brown bats in the North East Coast have died due to White Nose Syndrome in the last decade. And that is no good.

bat pic 3

A small brown bat inflicted with WNS

Scientists have yet to find a reliable way of combating WNS, but there have been several attempts in which they are slowing the disease’s progression. A plant that the bats have been helping throughout evolution may be the key to saving bats in the future. A group of scientist had been testing a natural bacterium, R. Rhodochrous, to see if they could elongate the shelf life of bananas for shipping. They planned on doing this by inhibiting fungal growth and thus extending ripening times. A grad student working on the banana project saw photos of the spread of WNS and had a winning idea: Try the bacteria on bats as well. The bacteria have been found in preliminary trials to feed off of the fungus, causing no negative effects on the bats themselves. They are now moving onto the next batch of studies to make sure that the bacteria will have no known side effects on the cave environs in which the bats live. Fingers crossed, little buddies!

At this point you may be asking yourself, what can I do? Similar to all ecological disasters popping up every day, this seems like a problem too big for each of us individually to make a difference. Oh but we can help our little bat friends. Bat detective is a website dedicated to an interesting world-wide citizen science project. They are asking people to join in by learning the different calls that bats make in your area. Then you can help scientist track bats around the world. Another great online resource is Bat Conservation International. The website is full of information. On it you can find other citizen science projects, places and safe ways to view bats, and plans on how to make bat houses as well as successfully getting bats to roost. Building and caring for a bat house is a tangible and meaningful way to help the local bat populations and helps keep them out of your attic. They can be the bug warriors in your backyard, create hours of entertainment, and be a wonderful learning tool for young and old alike. Or just learn about bats and teach others. Together we can build a band of bat warriors.

Humans and bats are intricately intertwined. Their future will directly affect ours just as their past has molded our present. Phil Richardson in Bats speaks to the evolution of fruit bats, which “branched off from primates, the group that contains monkeys, apes and humans. It is possible, therefore, that these bats are distantly related to us.”

 

Resources:

New to the Fontana system is a great video resource called Kanopy. With a library card you can access this video library of over 30,000 titles. Try Bats in the search bar and see what you can find!

Books in Fontana Regional Library on bats:

Bats of the United States and Canada

Bats by Phil Richardson

Books on the continuing extinction crisis we face:

The Sixth Extinction; an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Ends of the World; volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand Earth’s past extinctions by Peter Brannen

Each of the blue links in this blog leads to another great online resource for learning all that you can about bats. It’s our turn to lend them a helping hand.

Bibliography:

Amos, Amy Mathews. “Bat Killings by Wind Energy Turbines Continue.” Scientific American, 7 June 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/bat-killings-by-wind-energy-turbines-continue/.

Jemison, Micaela. “Not Just the Birds and Bees – 6 Fast Facts About Pollinating Bats.” The National Wildlife Federation Blog, National Wildlife Federation, 18 June 2014, blog.nwf.org/2014/06/not-just-the-birds-and-bees-6-fast-facts-about-pollinating-bats/.

Mart Miller Special to the Reformer. “Researchers May Have Found Solution to White-Nose   Syndrome That’s Killing Bats.” The Brattleboro Reformer, Brattleboro Reformer, 1 Nov. 2016, www.reformer.com/stories/researchers-may-have-found-solution-to-white-nose-syndrome-thats-killing-bats,428973

Richardson, Phil. Bats. Firefly Books, 2011.

ADHD Awareness Month

It’s a busy time of year! But October is (apparently!) an important month. I’m reblogging my post from last year, “ADHD Awareness Month“, because I feel it’s a very important topic. If you or your family are struggling with an ADHD diagnosis, check out this video “The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know” featuring Dr. Russell Barkley, from the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada.

If your October needs more excitement, check out another previous post, “Observe October.” This week is also Mental Health Awareness Week: you can find a display at Macon County Public Library for suggested reading and information from the North Carolina- Appalachian South chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

And if you’re not busy doing your own thing or celebrating/observing everything October, stop by Jackson County Public Library for their “Star Wars Reads Day – Family Night” on October 8th at 6pm.  Join in and dress-up with some pre-Halloween costuming!

Shelf Life in the Mountains

October is Attention –deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) awareness month.  As of 2011, approximately 8.8% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States. Though it’s estimated that the rate of occurrence for ADHD is similar in adults, only 4.4% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD – a significant portion of the adult ADHD population goes undiagnosed and untreated.

216776_tomsan_adhd-bunnyThere are a lot of myths and misconceptions about ADHD and ADD (ADD has been somewhat recently re-categorized as a sub-type of ADHD- ADHD, Primarily Inattentive).

It’s not uncommon to hear people dismiss ADHD as a behavioral issue: “If only he’d try harder!,” “If her parents just made her…,” “She just doesn’t want to pay attention!” However, brain scans show that there is a significant difference in the brain activity of people diagnosed with ADHD versus neurotypical or “normal” participants. Nearly every mainstream medical, psychological, and educational organization in the United States…

View original post 545 more words

19 Scary Books for Any Horror Mood

By Chris

It is that time of the year, pumpkins (and pumpkin drinks), leaves, and of course, Halloween.  So I thought I would whip up a concoction of spine tingling reads, a variety of chills for whatever your horror mood is.  On this list you’ll find classics and new books, vampires and ghosts (but no zombies; I just did them), books for the young and the old, famous authors (and their children) and not so well known ones, bloody scares and psychological ones, and plenty more.  Put on your pointy hat, get your skeletons out of the closet, and read ahead if you dare.  Just make sure to leave the light on.

If you want a modern take on a classic, try:

Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation cover
The cover is deceptively cheery.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the masters of horror.  This book reads to me much like Lovecraft.  The protagonist (only referred to as “the biologist”) is part of a government sponsored expedition into mysterious Area X.  It is the 12th such group to enter, following in the footsteps of 11 failed ones.  They quickly find that things are more mysterious than they could have ever guessed, as reality itself seems to change, and our heroine slowly reveals her own secrets.

 

If you like found footage films, try:

Last Days, by Adam Nevill

Looks like the perfect spot for filming.
Looks like the perfect spot for filming.

The Blair Witch Project introduced the mainstream to a film genre known as “found footage“.  These tend to be horror films, such as the Paranormal Activity franchise.  Last Days looks to capture that feel in print.

Documentary filmmaker Kyle Freeman is hired to do a movie about a notorious 1970s cult known as the Temple of the Last Days.  As he retraces their troubled past he starts seeing unsettling and impossible things on his recordings.  And he soon finds that escaping this evil is much harder than just turning off his camera.

 

If you want to see how the son of a master writes, try:

NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

It costs an extra $30 to personalize your plates in North Carolina.
It costs an extra $30 to personalize your plates in North Carolina.

For those, like me, who have trouble figuring out what those clever personalized license plates are supposed to mean, NOS4A2 equals Nosferatu.  And indeed, the villain in this excellent book, Charles Talent Manx, has some similarities to the Nosferatu of film fame.  Joe Hill, by the way, is the son of Stephen and Tabitha King.  His writing certainly lives up to the lofty standards set by his parents.

Manx travels around in his Rolls-Royce Wraith abducting children.  One these kids, Victoria McQueen, escapes his clutches, although at a heavy price.  Years later Manx is on the prowl again, and Vic once again finds herself caught up in his diabolical machinations, fighting against an enemy that is much more than just a man.

 

If you want a horror graphic novel, try:

The Sandman: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman (and a variety of illustrators)

And they say comic books are for kids.
And they say comic books are for kids.

First off let me point out that this volume collects issues #9-16 of The Sandman comic book.  Preludes and Nocturnes, the preceding volume, is a great read, has plenty of scary moments, and lays the background, but I put The Doll’s House on this list because it is, to me, more of a horror read.  You can read more of what I have to say about The Sandman and graphic novels in general here.

We have in here trappings of a ghost story, with strange inhabitants of a boarding house; we have mystical figures with Dream and his siblings; we have a convention of serial killers; and we have The Corinthian, a nightmare come to life.  Just hope that he doesn’t take off his sunglasses.

 

If you want a classic ghost story, try:

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Boo!
Boo!

The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959, and has been made into two feature films (the 1963 version is scary; the 1999 one…not so much, although it does have Liam Neeson not killing everything in sight and Owen Wilson getting decapitated).  But the story is not dated.

In the book a paranormal investigator invites several guests to stay with him in an old creepy mansion.  Right on cue supernatural shenanigans start occurring.  Or do they?  They mostly center around Eleanor, and Jackson does a wondrous job of raising the sense of terror without us ever really getting a good look, if you will, of any ghosts.  It becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is in the minds of the characters.  Spoiler alert: you are still left wondering at the end.

 

If you want to read a lesser known work by one of the greats, try:

Desperation, by Stephen King

I'm desperate for people to read this book.
I’m desperate for people to read this book.

You could write books about the books Mr. King has written.  Plenty of book lists have The Stand or The Shining or It on them.  I decided to talk about one of his other books.  A family driving cross-country is pulled over by the police in the little town of Desperation, Nevada.  They soon learn that the policeman isn’t just homicidal, but the vessel for a much greater evil.  They have only a short time to desperately escape Desperation.

King does what he does so well in this one, foreshadowing bad things to come.  But what really elevates Desperation is the companion novel The Regulators, written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym.  The Regulators is a mirror of Desperation, set in Ohio, with many of the same characters but in different roles, such as the children in one book being the parents in the other.  You can read either one first.

There was a TV movie made of Desperation, but I haven’t seen it.  Let me know if it is any good.

 

If you want to know if the book is scarier than the movie, try:

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

Fall is the season for soup.
Fall is the season for soup.

The Exorcist is widely regarded as one of the scariest movies ever made.  How scary is the book?  First off it was the basis for the movie (duh), and secondly it is based on an actual exorcism performed in 1949.  Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction, but Blatty did his research and presents a chillingly realistic tale.

Blatty also wrote the screenplay for the movie, and for other movies as well.

 

If you want to read something disturbing, try:

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

He needs to return some videotapes.
He needs to return some videotapes.

Full disclaimer here: American Psycho is one messed up book.  It is certainly the most extreme title on this list.  You will need a strong stomach to finish it.  The depictions of violence against women (and men) in this book are severe.  But that is not what this book is all about.

Patrick Bateman is an investment banker in the late 80s, living the life of women and drugs and money.  He is also an insane killer.  He shows as much pleasure in shiny new business cards as he does in dismembering people.  As the story progresses more and more bizarre things occur, such as Bateman arguing with a dry cleaner about their inability to get blood stains off his suits, and interludes that are in depth reviews of the works of Whitney Houston and Phil Collins.  In the end you can’t be sure how much of what Bateman tells us is real and how much is in his mind.  Either option is terrifying.

This book is quite controversial.  A neat bit of trivia is that Gloria Steinem, who was very opposed to the release of the book, is the stepmother of Christian Bale, who plays Bateman in the well done film version.

 

If you want to read a local author, try:

The Harvest, by Scott Nicholson

The truth is out there.
The truth is out there.

Set in southern Appalachia, the tiny town of Winshake is home to moonshiners, loggers, and trailer parks.  It is also the new home of something…else.  Something that crashed into the mountains and that now needs to feed.  Tamara Leon, a local teacher, finds herself caught up in the fight to discover, and defeat, the invader.

The Harvest is filled with fully fleshed out characters, bringing a level of realism that makes this book that much more scarier, especially for mountain folk.

 

If you want to read a Young Adult book, try:

Innocence, by Jane Mendelsohn

It's always the quiet ones.
It’s always the quiet ones.

Innocence was described to me as “Rosemary’s Baby, with vampires”.  Sold!  Fourteen year old Beckett has a hard enough time in life.  Her mother dies in an accident, she is sent to a new school, etc etc a lot of teen drama.  But then the strange starts.  Girls at school follow through on their suicide pacts and kill themselves.  She has nightmares, devastating nightmares beyond the norm.  And is that frozen blood in the freezer?

Innocence melds teen angst, pop culture, and critique of teen entitlement marvelously.

 

If you want to read a post-apocalyptic scare, try:

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

It does not have yellow bricks.
It does not have yellow bricks.

Okay, so The Road doesn’t have any ghosts, or zombies, or vampires, or aliens, or clowns.  It has a man and his son, walking on a road.  Big deal, right?  Well the road is pretty dirty…  There has been some type of cataclysm, perhaps nuclear.  Most life is gone, and the oncoming winter promises to be lethal.  The pair are heading south as quickly as they can, avoiding the predators that lurk about, men and women who will do anything to survive, namely by eating people.

This is a sparse harrowing tale of a world nearing its end.  A great example of a different way to give readers chills.

 

If you want to read something new, try:

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

They shine for a reason.
They shine for a reason.

Harper Curtis was nothing much until he found that key.  The key that opened up a house that lets him time travel!  But there is a cost.  Harper is now compelled to track down the shining girls and to murder them.  Kirby Mazrachi was the one who got away.  And now she is hunting him.

The Shining Girls is as much thriller as horror novel, a surreal genre-bending mystery, and a book that will have readers hunting down Beukes’ other works.

 

If you want to read a book with a serial killer, try:

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Many things can cut us.
Many things can cut us.

There are plenty of other books that probably fit the serial killer spot on this list better (The Silence of the Lambs, anybody?), but Flynn’s debut novel is too good to leave off.  With the movie of Flynn’s wonderful bestseller Gone Girl out here’s hoping this one gets some more attention.

Camille Preaker is a newspaper journalist in Chicago who is sent to the tiny southern town of Wind Gap to report on the killings of two girls.  Straightforward enough.  Of course Camille is sent because she is from Wind Gap.  Her mother owns much of the town.  Her half sister is at turns loving and manipulative.  Camille focuses on herself so much, dealing with her family, drinking heavily, resisting cutting more words into herself, that the horrors lying under the surface creep up unnoticed.

 

If you want a vampire book, try:

Let The Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

The Swedish cover, because I can.
The Swedish cover, because I can.

On the surface this seems like a teen book.  It isn’t.  12 year old Oskar is bullied at school and comes from a broken home.  When Eli moves in next door, things start to change.  Because Eli is a vampire.  She helps Oskar deal with the bullies and other issues, and they become close.  But being a vampire isn’t easy, and not everyone gets a happy ending.

This Swedish novel competently tackles many issues, such as bullying, alcoholism, and paedophilia, in addition to being a cracking good vampire story.  There have been two film versions, a Swedish one and an American one (titled Let Me In, and set in New Mexico), and both are worth a watch.

 

If you want to read a book with children behaving badly, try:

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Here piggy piggy piggy.
Here piggy piggy piggy.

Lord of the Flies?  Really?  In a horror blog?  Long before we had children killing each other for sport in The Hunger Games, we had Lord of the Flies.  And this book is scary.  Many of us read it in school and perhaps our young minds didn’t fully appreciate it.  These kids turn savage.  It is shocking how quickly the little society they are forced to form turns bad.

I read it twice in school, in 8th and 12th grade.  My 12th grade teacher was incensed that 8th graders were given this book to read.  Pretty sure Stephen King read this in school as well.  Where do you think Castle Rock comes from?

 

If you want a scary book for children, try:

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

Trust the cat.
Trust the cat.

What things make children feel safe?  I would say two of the biggest things are home and mother.  Coraline turns this on its head.

Coraline’s parents move with her out to the country, renting a flat in an old house filled with eccentric neighbors.  While exploring Coraline finds her way into a mirror world, where her “other mother” dotes on her and everything seems wonderful.  The fact that her other mother and other father have buttons for eyes is the first clue that things are not so wonderful after all.

Recommended for ages 8-12, Coraline is a good read for adults as well.  The movie is a stop-motion masterpiece.

 

If you want a political horror book, try:

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
You are to be seen and not heard.

Another entry on the list without monsters lurking in the shadows.  In the not too distant future the United States government had been overthrown and a theocracy has taken its place.  With sterility common due to rampant pollution and disease, high ranking members of the ruling Sons of Jacob utilize the services of Handmaidens, who are essentially concubines.  Offred, the heroine of our story, is one of these Handmaidens.

Offred, a college student before the revolution, gives us an inside view of this new society, and we see that many talk the talk of their religion but do not walk the walk.  Scary in its plausibility, and in the fear of the loss of freedoms.  Similar in tone is When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan, that is more contemporary and focuses closely on reproductive rights.

 

If you don’t like big box stores, try:

The Store, by Bentley Little

Bargains abound.
Bargains abound.

We are all familiar with the tales of those big box stores coming to town and forcing the small local shops out of business.  But what if that big store wanted more than just profits?  What if the Store wanted everything, including our lives and souls?

Little, an accomplished horror writer, takes a strained premise and turns it into a smart and scary read.   The good writers make us believe in the unbelievable, and that is the case here.

 

If you want a book that comes highly recommended, try:

The Ruins, by Scott Smith

Because nothing bad ever happens at creepy abandoned places.
Because nothing bad ever happens at creepy abandoned places.

While researching this blog I looked at lots of lists of best horror books, and The Ruins was one that showed up on an awful lot of them.  I haven’t read it yet, but I am taking the recommendations of fellow horror fans and putting it on my list of books to read.

I also haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that they changed the ending.

 

 

 

Seems to me that if you can’t find a good read in that list for those dark and stormy nights then maybe horror is not for you.  Let me know what you think of this list, and share your own recommendations for scary reads.

 

A list of the titles mentioned in this blog can be found here:

https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=28913;page=0;locg=155;depth=0

“They mostly come at night…mostly.”

"If I had opposable thumbs, I'd kill you."
“If I had opposable thumbs, I’d kill you.”
You're invited to make yourself at home in "Insidious."
You’re invited to make yourself at home in “Insidious.”

By Luke

These dark, dark nights, when dawn feels like a million years away, are perfect for viewing scary movies on your home screen. Fortunately, the good folks at Fontana Regional Library have assembled some shadowed DVD gems that are guaranteed to deliver a shiver. These are little titles that may have escaped your notice, but they’re waiting for you, like a black widow spider in a dark corner.

“Insidious” plunges a sweet family into the worst kind of parental horror, complete with other-worldly David Lynch-swirls of surrealism. This is one of those movies that unspools with its own uneasy dream logic. The sounds that are just out of frame and the quick jump cuts to leering faces dredged up from Goya’s nightmares ensure that you’re in for a journey into the darkest heart of “The Twilight Zone.” So pervasive is that eerie atmosphere that Tiny Tim’s hymn to hippie bliss, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” is twisted into something blood-chillingly evil.

it all starts out as a lark in "Chronicle."
it all starts out as a lark in “Chronicle.”

What happens when a trio of teens with some serious emotional issues are granted god-like powers? That’s the question posed by “Chronicle” and its answer is both savage and poignant. Recall the bewildering day-to-day stresses, simmering jealousies and non-stop jabs of high school life and then consider how you’d react if given the chance to get even. Believe me, it ain’t pretty.

As a precaution, Dr. Jackman straps himself in when he feels certain urges.
As a precaution, Dr. Jackman straps himself in when he feels certain “unnatural” urges.
It doesn't work.
It doesn’t work.

You’d think that there’d be no new hoops for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to jump through. “Jekyll” completely changes the equation. The BBC and Writer Steven Moffat stage some dramatic changes that bring the character/s into the 21st Century. James Nesbitt gives a tour de force as the tormented protagonist, wringing every drop of misery out of the not-so-hapless Dr. Jackman and imbuing Jackman’s other half with an unabashed glee that recalls Hannibal Lector’s manic little brother. The pair play a knife’s-edge battle of wills as they struggle to obtain control of their lives. Compounding the problem are Jackman’s innocent family (unaware of the good doctor’s alter ego) who become targets for Hyde, and a shadowy organization that seems to know a great deal about Jackman and the original 19th century case that Stevenson fictionalized for his novella. Nesbitt delivers a career-defining performance that eschews prosthetic makeup and digital seasoning and instead relies upon sheer bravado acting. It’s all dosed with sudden gouts of blood and flashes of dark humor. You think you know this story. You don’t.

Believe me, you really don't want to meet her "Mama."
Believe me, you really don’t want to meet her “Mama.”

OK, the premise of “Mama” is creepy enough: A pair of young sisters, Victoria and Lilly,  thought dead for five years, are found surviving in the deep woods. They’re  are  taken in by their uncle  and his raven-haired girlfriend,  who try to figure out how these feral girls managed to survive.

As blended families go, we’re a long, long way from “The Brady Bunch.”

But director/screenwriter Andy Muschietti twists this domestic tragedy into something rich and strange with hints that maybe the girls aren’t quite orphans. The adults in this movie are willfully blind to the psychic wounds that these girls bear and they somehow ignore the girls’ whispered chats with “Mama.” You wouldn’t forgive me if I told you any more. In a post last year, I mentioned how my co-worker Megan’s youth was warped by her exposure to “Poltergeist.” “Mama” threatens to do the same for a new generation.

H.P. Lovecraft’s fevered “Call of Cthulhu” has defied cinematic translation ever since its publication in 1928. And it’s no wonder — it’s emotions are operatic and oversized; the plotting is disjointed and constantly threatens to plunge into parody; and, finally, its reliance on a cosmic terror dredged up from the dark pools of racial memory is impossible to storyboard.

After a 63 million-year slumber, Great Lord Cthulhu finally receives the silent treatment.
After a 63 million-year slumber, Great Lord Cthulhu finally receives the silent treatment.

Impossible, that is, until the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society undertook this most daunting challenge.  Their elegant solution: Film it as a silent movie. In gorgeous black-and-white (with age-appropriate scratches and aged film stock) and backed by a full symphonic score, the thing soars. Those overheated emotions find perfect expression with the broad gestures perfected by mummers like Lon Chaney in the first two decades of the last century. And as a herky-jerky stop motion figure, Lord Cthulhu achieves an undeniable majesty.

It was only a movie.  Sweet dreams.
It was only a movie. Sweet dreams.

“What sprouted wasn’t what she planted”

If you were The Incredible Shrinking Man, this would be terrifying. (Photo courtesy of Brit)

When I was a kid, the world had a lot of scary places.

There was school, with its ominous Teacher’s Lounge (my friend John Smitherman said that a teacher had killed herself there  — “She cut off her own head with a ruler!”);  and the Second Floor Boys Bathroom with its strange half-whispered voices (and also, if you weren’t careful, the girls could hear you tinkling).

There were the woods behind our house, which were home to either a ravenous holdover from prehistoric times (“Probably a Horrorsaurus!”—- John again) or a big dog that would eat your lunch if you weren’t careful.

And there was our house. Especially our house. It creaked and groaned in the middle of the night. The toaster would burn toast for no apparent reason. And there were parts of the basement where, if you turned off the lights and sat very quietly, you could hear someone breathing.

But there’s no way around it —  my fear of the world came directly from the cultural effluvia I wallowed in.

There were scary comic books (the uncontrollable transformation of mild-mannered Bruce Banner (me) into the Incredible Hulk filled me with fear), scary TV (The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” featuring a squinty-eyed kid named Anthony who terrorized everyone, including grown-ups, can still give me the creeps), scary books (“Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum” was particularly shuddery) and, always, movies.

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From “The Outer Limits:” Planting your pumpkins over an abandoned nuclear waste site is a bad, bad idea.

In the past, I’ve written about my encounter with the unforgettable “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula,” but that’s really just the  edge of  the storm front. My nightmares were planted by sense-shattering fare like “The Thing from Another World. This simple story is about a group of airmen and scientists stranded in an arctic research station with a sentient vegetable. Christian Nyby is credited as director, but  you can see producer Howard Hawk’s fingerprints all over the thing (“The Thing”). There’s his trademark overlapping everyman dialogue, the deep shadows, and the remarkable decision to film a scene lit only by a blazing kerosene inferno. Plus it’s got a monster that exsanguinates sled dogs, flying saucers buried in the ice, and revolting blood-filled seedlings. It’s all served up with a claustrophobic setting and a healthy dose of paranoia.

And yes, that’s Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) as the giant carrot.

Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”  takes the paranoia to a new level as the residents of a sleepy California town are gradually replaced by emotionless duplicates. The menace is low key and has all of the inevitability of the worst kind of dream logic.

(SPOILER ALERT)

The ending, when Becky wakes up as a pod person, made me shiver as a kid, but here’s the absolutely terrifying thing — when I was in my mid-twenties a woman woke up next to me in the exact same way. It was as though a mask had slipped from her face and the synthetic person beneath was revealed. It was the only time in my life that I’ve felt that dreadful sense of deja vu. We broke up soon afterwards.

(END SPOILER)

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” was another one of those that burned itself onto my subconscious. The science-fiction tropes that Richard Matheson lavishes upon his screenplay can’t disguise what is, at its core, an existential puzzle box. I’m guessing it hits upon every anxiety that’s ever been unspooled on a psychiatrist’s couch.

And that spider moves so fast.

My co-worker, the lovely and talented Megan, says that “Poltergeist” scared her as a kid and still gives her the willies. Sure enough, with its maniacally-grinning clown, vacuum-cleaner closet, monster tree, kidnapped children, corpse filled swimming pool, disintegrating faces, and maggoty drumsticks, this is pure nightmare fuel.

Disney’s 2006 remake of “Rosemary’s Baby” failed to generate any box office excitement.

The recent movie “Chronicle” gave me the same feeling of dread that those long ago late-night features delivered.  On the surface, it’s an exploration of alienation and the ways that high school life can warp an untethered life. You just know something bad is going to happen to that trio of friends. When Hell finally breaks loose, it’s ferocious and brutal to the core.

OK, so here’s your assignment: Find a movie that’ll give you the shivers this Halloween season and settle in on the couch with a loved one. Hold each other tight.

And, it goes without saying, always look carefully into the eyes of the person you wake up with.

By Luke

Haunted Hills

By Loretta

These old hills are haunted.  Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the spirits of those who have passed on can still be felt around the hollows and fields, along the garden rows their hands turned, in the old sheds, where idle tractors and plows rust as they wait for their master’s return.

Almost every native you meet can tell you a terrifying personal ghost story. Many mountain people are firm believers, but some are not.  The non-believers call it superstition and overactive imagination, thinking folks are putting two-and-two together and getting a lot more than four.  That’s possible.   We have seen so many spooky movies that a certain set of circumstances might conjure something out of the shadows.   A stormy night, thick fog, a power failure, creaking boards upstairs…  Nights like those can certainly play with your head.

But then again… is it possible that being able to perceive a transient being has something to do with mindset?  Might it be necessary to have an “open mind” in order to see these apparitions?  Might there be portals in our consciousness that can both send and receive, that might allow the invisible to become visible?  Maybe some folks are so dead set against the supernatural, they literally can’t see it because the pathway is closed, like when we convince ourselves we can’t do something and then we can’t.  That, too, is possible.

Or could it be that there really is something tangible there, some life force as yet unknown, colored by our myths and superstitions?   Before the microscope, if someone had mentioned a unicellular organism, I imagine the concept would probably have been greeted with incredulity and even laughter. Maybe we just don’t have the machinery we need to examine these beings.

Or maybe they are exactly what many people think they are.

If you are curious and would like to go in search of, here are a few places to start, some of them right here in Western North Carolina.  Don’t forget your flashlight.

“Good answer, Grandma!”

By Luke

You know how it works:

It’s 1983 and Family Feud host Richard Dawson has a 74-year-old Grandmother named Blanche facing off at the Buzzer Table against a 28-year-old High School Math Teacher.

Richard says, “Name Something You Buy in a Supermarket,” and before he’s even gotten the “-ket” sound out of his mouth, Blanche has slammed the buzzer and shouted out, “Mop!”

Even though you can’t see the studio audience, you know their mouths are hanging open in stunned silence like jugged fish.

Blanche’s family has just seen its collective dream of $10,000 replaced by a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat.

Finally, after an excruciating three seconds, the grandchildren start clapping, joined by Blanche’s daughter and son-in-law.

“Good answer, Grandma, good answer!,” they all shout, although if you look carefully you can see that the daughter’ll be calling the Pleasant Acres Retirement Home to ask about vacancies as soon as they get off the soundstage.

Richard Dawson bellows out, “Show me ‘Mop!'” and there’s a deafening “Buzz!”

Poor Grandma. She shambles back to her family. She knows where she’s going next week.

If only they could have gone to the taping of “The Price is Right.” She knows how to play that.

***

As the shadows lengthened, they realized they shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. (Photo by Kenth Fagerlund)

Last week I rushed out a blog outlining all the scary things available at Fontana Regional Libraries.
It’s funny, once I started looking, it turns out the stacks really are haunted, with tales stretching back from poor, sad Mr. Poe all the way to Christopher Golden’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
So many titles and such a hurry to get posted.
But here’s the thing, the reason I’m feeling a special kinship with Grandma Blanche from all those years ago — I completely ignored all of the spooky things for young people that are lurking among the shelves.

If you’re a kid, you’re probably familiar with the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. These are shivery standalone stories about kids just like you, getting into all sorts of dire situations. Most of the stories have a happy ending. Most of them.

The Goosebumps tales are great for an easy book report. Their stories pull you along, so much that you may find yourself staying up just a little bit later to finish a chapter (or reading with a flashlight after Lights Out). The book covers themselves are pretty disturbing and perfectly set the mood for the tale within.

Alvin Schwartz has gathered stories from folklore for “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (and its subsequent volumes). These are some of the creepiest yarns you’ll ever come across. Stephen Gammell’s accompanying illustrations look like something dredged up from your deepest nightmares, the ones that you’re grateful to escape from, that leave your sheets and pillow drenched with unease.

There’s also “Spooky Campfire Stories” by Amy Kelly. She’s put together an assortment of wicked tales that have delighted their audiences for centuries.

And here’s the cool thing about the yarns you’ll find in “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and “Spooky Campfire Stories” — they’re easy to remember and embellish. That means you can make them your own and share them with your friends. Believe me, they’ll kill at sleepovers or on long field-trip bus rides.

Some of these ghastly tales may seem comfortably remote, but this corner of Western North Carolina is strewn with

   You’ll find that scary places aren’t just found in books. (Photo by Rusty Boxcars)

haunted sites. If you’d like to explore the shadowed world that’s so very close, check out “Mountain Ghost Stories and Curious Tales of Western North Carolina;” “Mariah of the Spirits and Other Southern Ghost Stories;” “Haunted Hills: Ghosts and Legends of Highlands and Cashiers,” “Ghosts of the Southern Mountains and Appalachia;” and “North Carolina Ghosts and Legends.”

If you’re an older kid or a brave younger kid, try out “A Tale Dark and Grimm” or “The Monstrumologist.” “Tale” is a gruesome retelling of Hansel and Gretel (and a couple of other fairy tales) that’s fun and bloody and full of unexpected turns.”The Monstrumologist” is a coming-of-age story about a young apprentice to a scientist dedicated to fighting incredibly ghastly creatures. If Stephen King had collaborated with Charles Dickens, well, here it is.

Whatever you end up reading, just remind yourself that, “It’s only a story.”

Happy Halloween!

Maybe you should keep a nightlight on. (Photo courtesy of Rusty Boxcars)