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Spinoff reviews New Zealand #47: Our first ever horror festival

We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today, Alex Casey reviews Halloween night at Horrorfest NZ. Say what you will about Freddy Krueger, but the man is very well-situated to point out a toilet at a crowded event.

Our gazes followed his long, sharpened knife finger all the way to the window above the loo, frosted for modesty. “Over theeeerrrre” he hissed in a vague American accent, punctuated perfectly with a loud toilet flush. ‘Twas Hallows Eve at Hell’s Horror Fest NZ, a celebration of all things splatter and spooky. Nearby, a man began strumming an acoustic guitar, arguably the most frightening scene of all. Taking place in the ASB Showgrounds, the event is part haunted maze, part drive-in movie, mostly all a terrifying shambles.

Taking place in the wake of costumed-to-the-eyeballs pop culture extravaganza Armageddon, Horror Fest doesn’t look like much when you first arrive. There’s some free Demon Energy up for grabs, a shonky Jigsaw cackling on a trike and an Annabelle doll shrieking with laughter and occasionally telling people where to park. This nun bloke was the scariest, especially when channelling the spirit of John Key via this ponytail stroke caught on camera.

the moment i realised i had made a huge mistake

After a security briefing (no punching the actors, no running, the safeword is ‘pumpkin’) we were let loose into the maze with a small group of boys hyped-up on complimentary Demon. The maze has been built into that big silver shed towards the end of the Showgrounds, maybe best known for equally bone-chilling bargain bin makeup sales, and felt very lengthy. This ain’t no MOTAT mirror maze, put it that way.

We hung back as the boys ran ahead, my partner frozen and mewing in fear as his eyes adjusted to the dark. I don’t want to spoil too much about what happened next, but the maze was incredibly fun and genuinely quite terrifying.

Freddy got papped Here are some of my cool maze tips.

  1. Max out on frights by hanging back a tiny bit and let the people in front of you charge ahead, so all the scares don’t get spoiled.
  2. There is clambering and kneeling and shimmying required to get through things at times, accessibility options feel limited.
  3. Keep eyes in the back of your head as well – you never know when a ghost be ghosting.
  4. Prepare for there to be touching, prepare to be bear-hugged by Jigsaw and dragged into some kind of haunted cupboard shrieking “go on without me”.
  5. Take your time and look around.

    Yes, there are screeds of halls lined with foil curtains that feel like a futuristic car wash, but there’s some impressive detail along the way. Take a peep into the toilet early on, for example.

After the maze, we were left loitering around, making small talk with a zombie wench with an inexplicable French accent. The film playing at the drive-in was Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, they aren’t animals) and scheduled to start at 8.30pm.

This didn’t come remotely close to happening. About an hour later, people were still lining up and ordering pizza – one tiny truck serving what must have been a couple hundred hungry Halloweeners. We ate all the gum in the car trying to pass the time despite laxative warnings.

Even the organiser’s SM© Laptop was about to throw in the towel.

Tfw battery about to run out With hundreds of people getting restless in their cars – now completely boxed-in for the drive-in viewing experience – things started to get pretty Mad Max real quick. The radio frequencies weren’t working for some, an intermission very deep into the film apologetically begged everyone to promptly leave their cars and grab their incredibly late (snack size, not included in the ticket price) pizzas.

People were yelling, honking their horns and flashing their lights. About two minutes later, the movie started again sans sound and sans half the audience. Look, it was opening night of a pretty ambitious event and I don’t doubt that things will be ironed out for the rest of the week (Horror Fest runs till Saturday night).

But for £100 per car (any more than 2 passengers must pay £30 extra) I’d honestly be expecting Leatherface to give me a free manicure and a glass of champagne at the very least. Alas, here are some tips for surviving the drive-in cinema if you are heading along later this week.

  1. Maybe think about bringing your own dinner, but get snacks at the very least. Bring more than you think you are capable of eating – cars, just like airports and movie theatres, open up secret stomachs you never knew you had.
  2. Watching a movie in a car is cool, but the novelty wears off fast.

    Bring pillows and blankets to make the car seat comfier or prepare to wriggle a lot.

  3. Beware of the ghouls that sneak between cars and boo at your window (could have done with more of this).
  4. Check your radio beforehand, there are a few different frequency options for the movie sound and it pays to know what you are dealing with.
  5. Make sure you don’t have too early of a start the next day, less because of nightmares and more because the movie may finish five years later than you had anticipated.

Verdict: Horror Fest is fine for the die-hard horror fans who also have a lot of patience, but I can’t help but think they should bust open the maze as a separate, cheaper attraction for those of us too chicken/lazy to drive out to Spookers. Good or bad: The maze was good, the movie would have been good if it started on time, the food situation was scary bad (and not in a good way).


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A Roundup of New Horror, All Indebted to an Early Master

“When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first,” Stephen King once wrote, “but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn’t be around.” The genre is, of course, horror. Victor LaValle, in his smart introduction to THE BEST OF RICHARD MATHESON (Penguin, paper, £17), states the case even more forcefully: “When you read modern horror, you are still reading Richard Matheson.” I’m not sure I can fully endorse that sentiment; with a lot of current horror fiction, I wish I were reading Matheson instead. But I know what LaValle means. When modern horror is good, Matheson (who died in 2013) is usually in there somewhere, a felt presence, like a ghost.

His art isn’t easy to define.

The 33 stories in this collection were written between the early 1950s and the early 1970s, when, as LaValle notes, there was a thriving market for short fiction in all sorts of popular genres — fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery — and Matheson turned his hand to every one of them. Television, too, was greedy for what we now call “content” of the kind that clever, speedy, craftsmanlike storytellers like Matheson were put on earth to provide. He supplied the stories, and in most cases the screenplays, for 16 installments of “The Twilight Zone”; a few of them are in this collection, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” perhaps the best-remembered of all the show’s episodes.

A few of his tales are whimsical, some are entirely devoid of fantastic elements, and many smudge the lines between two or more genres, but it’s probably safe to say that the best of “The Best of Richard Matheson” are stories of suspense and mounting dread — horror, that is.

Still, his work is so varied that everyone, it seems, can have his or her own Matheson. For LaValle: “His central concern is survival. What threatens your existence?

Even more important, what will you do to get through?” This is true, and it also sounds rather like a description of LaValle’s own fiction (most recently, the imaginative fairy-tale horror novel “The Changeling,” a tale of mortal peril and hard choices in New York City). King especially prizes Matheson’s “pure drive.” He wrote in an introduction to a previous collection: “When you thought it had to be over, that your nerves couldn’t stand any more, that was when Matheson turned on the afterburners and went into overdrive. He wouldn’t quit.

He was relentless.” This, too, is true. And damned if it doesn’t also describe every story and novel Stephen King has written for over four decades now.

My Matheson is, naturally, something else. To me, his great subject — which I also think is the key question of the horror genre itself — is the problem of belief.

He was the master of a particular kind of story in which puzzlement turns gradually to acceptance of an impossible-seeming reality, and ultimately to full-blown panic. In “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” an emotionally troubled passenger on a commercial flight sees (or thinks he sees) a creature out on the wing in mid-flight. Another story, his classic “Duel,” has a motorist on a lonely highway menaced by a demonic truck driver.

There are many more tales like those in “The Best of Richard Matheson.” At first, his protagonists can’t believe what’s happening to them, and then, slowly, inexorably, they do. The beauty of the stories is that Matheson’s people don’t believe too readily: They have to persuade themselves, and often — with difficulty — others that the inconceivable is, in fact, bearing down on them. Although horror does tend to address itself to the small, frightened child that lives inside all of us, all our lives, Matheson’s horror is for grown-ups, those who have lost the easy credulity of the very young; for us, believing anything out of the ordinary is a process, usually an arduous one.

Matheson gets that, and respects it. He’s an ideal writer to read right now, because — as grown-ups know — we live in unbelievable times.

There’s an especially lovely story of that last, skeptical kind in Cristina Fern?ndez Cubas’s remarkable collection, NONA’S ROOM (Peter Owen, paper, £14.95), which is the first of this Spanish writer’s books to appear in English. The narrator of “Interior With Figure,” a version of Fern?ndez Cubas herself, visits a Madrid gallery and becomes fascinated with a 19th-century painting, half-convincing herself that a small, mysterious, fearful figure in the picture is somehow linked to the fate of a real little girl, on a class trip, who shares her fascination. “She knows they want to kill her,” the girl announces, and when asked “Who wants to kill her?” replies, “Her parents.” And after a near accident as the student group crosses the street outside the gallery, the writer starts to wonder whether the real girl might actually be in the sort of danger she attributed to the figure in the painting.

Fern?ndez Cubas agonizes, debates with herself the wisdom of going to the police, questions her own writerly propensity for imagining things. In the end, she decides to surrender to her imagination in the way that writers do — accepting both its limits and its power, and putting pen to paper anyway.

The title story of “Nona’s Room” is slightly reminiscent of a couple of Matheson’s twisty, deranging first-person narratives, “Born of Man and Woman” and “Dress of White Silk,” and one of her tales (“Chatting to Old Ladies”) has a kind of monster in it, but Fern?ndez Cubas is, I think, more an artist of the uncanny than of horror per se. In these six elegant stories she’s most interested in the ambiguities and periodic disturbances that plague the imagination, and reports on them with the appropriate sense of awe, even of dread.

In the territory of the imagination, the threat of madness is never too far away, a dark cloud hovering.

The clouds that roll through the four novellas in Joe Hill’s STRANGE WEATHER (Morrow, £27.99) are pretty consistently ominous, too, though they mean something different in every story. In “Snapshot,” the fearsome thunderstorm unleashed at the climax seems to stand for the washing away of memories from an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mind. In “Loaded,” the cloud is a thick haze of smoke from a raging forest fire approaching a Florida town — where a psychopathic mall security cop on a killing spree is generating some deadly smoke of his own. “Aloft” (the book’s weakest story) finds its hero, a terrified first-time skydiver, marooned atop a fluffy-looking but curiously solid white cloud.

And in the apocalyptic “Rain,” the clouds burst with lethal precipitation, dagger-like crystals that riddle anyone unlucky enough to get caught in the downpour. Hill’s fiction is squarely in the pulp-horror tradition that Matheson helped establish — yarns about extraordinary things happening to ordinary folks — and, unsurprisingly, because he is Stephen King’s son, it’s King’s relentless, hard-charging Matheson that his work most closely resembles. His afterburners have afterburners.

All his writing has a headlong, almost manic momentum, which can be a tad wearying in his long novels, but is nicely suited to the hundred-or-so-page narratives in “Strange Weather.” It’s particularly effective in “Loaded,” with its escalating, incomprehensible (and non-supernatural) mayhem.

And when Hill eases up on the gas pedal a little, as he does from time to time in “Snapshot,” he’s even better. That story, about an old woman’s loss of her self and a fat boy’s development of his, lingers now and then over photographs, which are here synonymous with the memories without which a self is functionally impossible. Hill seems to feel that he can relax some in this one, go a bit deeper, because he trusts his metaphor.

Just as Matheson always did.

It’s no accident that King’s “pure drive” version of the Matheson legacy is the dominant one in modern horror. I sometimes think that all horror writers are cases of arrested development, stuck forever in the terrors and insecurities of adolescence. (Or is it just the guys?) Most of today’s best practitioners of the genre were teenagers in the 1980s, when Stephen King paperbacks, dark covers beckoning, ruled the mall bookstores, the drugstore racks, the train waiting rooms and the airport departure lounges, waiting for sensation-seeking kids to become their loyal lifelong subjects. Many of Joe Hill’s generation (he was born in 1972) signed up eagerly, and a few turned into writers like Victor LaValle, Paul Tremblay, Gemma Files, John Langan, Laird Barron, Sarah Langan and Stephen Graham Jones.

Benjamin Percy, born in 1979, might have been too young for that party, but on the evidence of his thrilling new novel, THE DARK NET (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, £26), it seems likely that an older relative somehow sneaked him in. “The Dark Net” is, at least on its crowded surface, one of the best Stephen King novels not written by the master himself.

The fate of the world, or at least Portland, Ore., depends on the ability of a motley gang of misfits to head off the eruption of satanic forces from the murkiest recesses of the internet. The devil’s chief opponents are a frazzled newspaper reporter, a former child evangelist now living under an alias, an ageless drug dealer, a homeless man and a 12-year-old girl (the reporter’s niece), blind since the age of 5, who is learning to see again with the aid of a virtual-reality-like headset.

The setup promises furious action, and Percy delivers, like Matheson, like King. But plot isn’t everything in “The Dark Net.” Percy, in a mere 253 pages, finds space, too, for evocative descriptions of urban landscapes, patient development of his characters’ psyches, and thoughtful ruminations on the attractions and the perils of cyberspace.

And, because this is a horror novel, he permits himself the occasional light musing on the nature of good and evil. It’s an awfully impressive literary performance.

Obviously, there’s more than a trace of LaValle’s survival-centric, morally curious Matheson in this book, too, but that sort of horror is, in its pure form, much less common. I found it, though, in a few stories in Nadia Bulkin’s striking debut collection, SHE SAID DESTROY (Word Horde, paper, £16.99).

Some of her pieces, like “Intertropical Convergence Zone” and “The Five Stages of Grief,” examine political oppression and the terrible choices it imposes. (Bulkin, who grew up in Indonesia during the declining years of the Suharto dictatorship, also holds a degree in political science.) And those are distinctly horror tales of the “What threatens your existence and what will you do to get through?” variety, with a coldly angry 21st-century edge; a couple of the lesser stories are all edge. My favorite piece in “She Said Destroy” is perhaps its quietest, a stunningly original ghost story called “Endless Life,” whose heroine, a hotel maid, haunts the room she died in by accident — which happens to be the same place where a brutal general, known popularly as the Jackal, died by his own hand. The maid’s singular misfortune is that people believe that the resident spirit is that of the Jackal, and check in to enjoy a morbid kick or to mourn their own dead or to hurl abuse at the general’s departed soul, which is farther away than they think.

The story, a melancholy wisp, is in the maid’s posthumous reactions to the emotions of the people who pass through the infamous Room 305; through their kinks and grief and rage, Bulkin sketches a deft portrait of a wounded society. And in the dead maid’s shifting responses, the story manages to suggest that in some political environments the tough choices persist beyond the grave.

Every possible Matheson — King’s, LaValle’s and mine, anyway — seems to inhabit the modest quarters of Stephen Graham Jones’s brilliant novella MAPPING THE INTERIOR (Tor, paper, £10.99), whose narrator, a sleepwalking 12-year-old American Indian boy, sees his father’s ghost one night in the tiny modular home (just off the reservation) that he shares with his mother and his little brother. Because he’s a kid, on the cusp of 13, Junior doesn’t have much trouble believing in the ghost.

Besides, this is the ghost he wants. “My heart pounded in my chest with what I wanted to call fear,” he says, “but what I now know was actually hope.” As Jones — himself American Indian — knows, hope is a rare commodity in Junior’s community, and the boy embraces it enthusiastically. But as all grown-ups know, hope is also a cruelly mixed blessing; best to be wary. By the end of “Mapping the Interior” Junior, an optimistic but not a stupid boy, has gone through something like the adult process of epistemological suspense: kicking the tires of that notion you’re thinking of believing, then taking it for a spin before you seal the deal.

That’s my Matheson, right there.

Jones burdens his young hero with plenty of life-or-death decisions, as LaValle would have it. And he drives the action with a heavy foot on the accelerator, in accordance with King’s decree. How can there be three Richard Mathesons in one slim book?

Maybe it’s just my imagination. Or maybe it’s The Twilight Zone. Terrence Rafferty is the author of “The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies” and a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

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References

  1. ^ Facebook (www.facebook.com)
  2. ^ Twitter (@nytimesbooks) (twitter.com)
  3. ^ our newsletter (www.nytimes.com)

The Evil Within 2 Review: Should Horror Games Be Hard?

Tango Gameworks

The Evil Within 2 is the biggest horror game to come out in time for Halloween. So how scary is it? Depends on how difficult you make things.

Joshua Rivera, Grown-Ass Gamer[1]: It’s mid-October, the time of year where it’s seasonably appropriate to try and scare yourself out of your damn mind for giggles and ha-has–a thing that’s exceptionally fun to do with video games. While excellent horror games are released year-round (Resident Evil 7[2] was by all means, incredible, and came out in January), there’s usually at least something new in horror that drops closer to Halloween, and this year, it’s The Evil Within 2. Like most video game sequels, don’t stress that it’s a sequel, just know what the hook is: a game where you, a cop named Sebastian Castellanos, plug into a scary version of the Matrix to save your daughter for reasons that don’t entirely make sense but make for some really messed-up stuff.

It’s great–for the most part. To help explain why, I’ve called upon Scott Meslow, a dear friend who will probably make too many puns by the time this is over. Scott Meslow, GQ Spooks Expert: BOO!

It’s me, Scare Hellslow. [Ed note: JFC Scott…] Josh, I’m glad you brought up the plot of The Evil Within 2 first, because it’s both the most complicated and least interesting thing about the game. If you’re looking at the “2” at the end of that title and feeling nervous, don’t worry.

I didn’t play The Evil Within. I just skimmed a Wikipedia plot summary of the first game (and frankly, even that wasn’t very helpful). But none of that weird cop-plugged-into-the-Matrix stuff is all that relevant once you’re actually, you know, plugged into the Matrix.

Sebastian–technically, a psychic projection of Sebastian, but who cares?–spends the vast majority of the game in an idyllic small town called Union. It’s a place whose cheery Americana vibe is somewhat undercut by the stacks of corpses and terrifying creatures roaming around. It’s also an ideal playground to screw around with Sebastian’s impressive and ever-growing bag of tricks, and while the game nudges you toward finding his daughter, there are loads of interesting side areas to explore.

Joshua: Yeah, like Scott’s pun on his own name, it’s a lot of mumbo jumbo, but essentially the core of it is simple, great horror stuff: Explore a spooky town and try and find your daughter. There’s a big emphasis on exploring, too–more than most horror games, The Evil Within 2 gives you a lot of time to roam around big and open spaces and mostly (but not entirely) keeps you out of creepy corridors and haunted houses. Exploring manages to be plenty creepy, too, since most of the monsters in Union have distinct sounds–some laugh, others wheeze or grunt–and after a short time playing, you’ll learn exactly which sound each awful thing makes, and come to dread them long before you see them.

But there’s also more going on here–you’re being hunted. Or taunted. Possibly toyed with.

Scott: I know we’ve been describing The Evil Within 2 as a riff on The Matrix, but once you get into Union, it’s more like The Last of Us crossed with NBC’s Hannibal. Sebastian is periodically stalked and tormented by Stefano, a slick creep who walks around pontificating about the “art” he creates–which is, of course, human corpses in various states of repose. When The Evil Within 2 is scary, it’s generally because Stefano is fucking with you.

The scares are scripted, but they’re pretty effective. (And I’m not going to spoil the best ones here!) It’s in the unscripted, open-world moments when I’m sorry to say I found The Evil Within 2 a lot less scary. Part of that is by design, because Sebastian is a straight-up badass (and is voiced by a hilariously over-the-top Kiefer Sutherland soundalike).

But as much as I liked wandering around Union, it quickly became a little too easy to hide in the bushes, wait until a monster wasn’t looking, and stab it in the back of the head. And when I did get discovered, it was always pretty simple to pull a gun and shoot until all the monsters who heard the commotion were dead. Joshua: And here is something that I learned from what you’re talking about–horror and difficulty are inextricably linked in survival horror games like this.

You had a head start playing, and when you told me that fighting the monsters you couldn’t avoid in Union took longer than you’d have liked, I started a game on the lowest difficulty setting. Midway through, I seriously regretted that. Because while some of these monsters look terrifying, sure, it’s not their appearance that you’re afraid of–it’s the potential ordeal of beating them.

So unless you are absolutely a complete newbie to video games and video game horror, do not by any means begin your game on the “casual” difficulty. You can always lower the difficulty setting if it’s too much, but you can’t crank it back up and it will leave you stuck with a game that isn’t very scary at all once you have a small arsenal for taking down murder-zombies. (Which doesn’t actually take very long.) Scott: There are reports floating around that The Evil Within 2 director Shinji Mikami recommends playing the game on the “casual” difficulty.

True or false, you should ignore that advice. As I played The Evil Within 2, I thought a lot about Silent Hill 2, which is still my favorite horror game. The two games have a lot in common.

Both are sequels that stand on their own merits. Both are set in pleasant towns full of terrifying monsters. And both feature protagonists desperately hunting for a loved one they had long since written off as dead.

The key difference is that Silent Hill 2 casts you as a skeevy dweeb and The Evil Within 2 casts you as a badass ex-cop. I feel like I’m sounding more lukewarm on this game than I am, so just to be clear: I really, really like The Evil Within 2. It’s the kind of focused, expertly-paced single-player experience that gets rarer and rarer all the time, and if you have even a passing interest in this genre, you should rush out and buy it.

But it also made me appreciate just how hard it is to make a game that is simultaneously entertaining and terrifying and thought-provoking. The Evil Within 2 is always entertaining, occasionally terrifying, and rarely thought-provoking. Joshua: Yeah, and while there’s a pivot midway through the game towards more weightier stuff, I almost prefer the part of the game that’s about you chasing the murder-artist Stefano. It’s extremely referential–like Scott said, there are touches of Hannibal there, along visual homages to Twin Peaks and The Shining–which makes for touches of fun amidst all the frights.

The best horror lingers in your mind, and while I wish there was more to chew on in The Evil Within 2, there are loads of goofy little touches to it that I love. What I’m talking about is the coffee. Scott: You don’t expect a survival horror game to make you laugh out loud, but The Evil Within 2‘s coffee mechanic–in which Sebastian gets a full health bar by drinking from a coffee pot, but has to wait until a new pot brews before he can use it again–was so unexpected and goofy. (It certainly didn’t hurt that he growled “Mmmmmm, that’s good,” in that Kiefer Sutherland voice while he drank it.)

It’s in moments like that when I like The Evil Within 2 best. The game’s idiosyncrasies only grow as you get deeper into it. The standard-issue zombies are eventually joined by much weirder monsters, and the plot piles on new oddball characters and twists that definitely, at the very, least, keep you pushing forward to see what could possibly be coming next.

For all of its influences, The Evil Within 2 is definitely doing its own kind of thing. Joshua: …Mmmmmmm. That’s good.

[embedded content]

Play it if:

You’re a fan of all things horror that doesn’t mind trading smarts for fun

Skip it if:

You want something short. And hate coffee.

Watch Now:

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References

  1. ^ Grown-Ass Gamer (www.gq.com)
  2. ^ Resident Evil 7 (www.gq.com)