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There is so much about Stephen King’s and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass that I want to know that isn’t answered by either the movie or the book.  Normally I might consider that a bad thing, but in this case it lends an air of mystery and suspense to the age old question, “What does a field of grass really want?”  In the Tall Grass is a dark tale with a mind-bending slant on other worldly experiences.  The amount of scares you get out of the story might depend on your own personal experiences with grasses, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting thing to watch happen to other people, even if you’ve never been frightened of fescue before.

In the Tall Grass – Not even a book.  It’s a 70 page short story.

Cal and his nineteen year old sister Becky are on their way cross county to drop off Becky’s still in the oven baby with a new family that wants to adopt it in San Diego.  Somewhere just south of Nebraska’s Children of the Corn in Kansas, they get side tracked when they stop and hear a boy calling for help from some tall grass at the side of the road.  They apparently didn’t have the common Midwestern knowledge of, you never stop in Kansas.  In an effort to help, they enter the grass to try to find the kid and get lost themselves; literally, physically and metaphysically.  Needless to say, mistakes were made. 

I actually read the book after I first saw the movie hoping it would expand on the story told in the movie, only to find the exact opposite.  The book is only really concerned with the characters of Cal and Becky, telling the tale of what happens to them in the grass.  The few other characters in the book have clearly nefarious motivations right from the start, and aren’t really given any characterization beyond that.  It’s a sordid little story and, while there’s nothing wrong with it, it also doesn’t stand out, especially compared to the movie.

In the Tall Grass – The Movie (or the expanded book edition).

The movie version of In the Tall Grass came out on Netflix in 2019 without much fanfare and was quickly buried by the algorithm after about a month.  It’s a pity because it may be one of the truly great Netflix original horror movies on the streaming service.  Directed by horror veteran Vincenzo Natali, with a screenplay by King and Natali, the movie builds on the framework of the book to make it what you might call a truly original work of the horror genre.     

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The story starts approximately the same as the book, Cal and Becky are driving through Kansas when they stop at an abandoned church after hearing a cry for help that draws them into the tall grass.  What makes a difference here is being able to really see and hear just how disorienting being lost in the grass is; voices carry in odd ways, the sun seems to change position in the sky, other people will be close one moment then far away the next.   

I’m not going to lie, a lot of the shots in this movie are just people and grass.

The movie also brings in the new element of the grass distorting time, as well distance and sound. It adds a whole new layer to the story and is actually one of the most interesting aspects of the movie.  I won’t give too much away, the journey is really the best part of watching the movie, but because of this time distortion it allows the movie to introduce new characters and locations that weren’t in the book at all.  Characters like Becky’s boyfriend Travis, played by Harrison Gilbertson (whom I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of in the future).  When Travis enters the movie he almost becomes the main character, and as events unfold he helps lend more backstory and depth to the other characters.

ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?!!!!

Visually the movie is stunning to look at.  Natali manages to make a field of grass truly seem like a living breathing organism.  Inventive camera angles and wide shots of people moving though the grass, or even just the grass moving on its own in the wind, lend to the eerie and ominous atmosphere of the film.  And credit where credit is due to the film’s concept art designer, manga artist Shintaro Kago for making grass seem threating in a variety of ways. Extreme closeups are used often to great effect to give a visceral feeling to feet squelching in hot mud, the fall of dirt on a dead bird’s body, sweat dripping down a face, or the relief of cool rain drops on a blade of grass.  

Because that’s a normal name for a church.

There’s so much they did right in this movie you can certainly forgive the one or two overuses of CGI here and there, and the fact it was filmed in Canada instead of Kansas.  I don’t even think I’ve mentioned the acting yet, which is spot on by everyone in the cast.  If you can’t tell, I thought this movie was one of the best of 2019, and I LOVED US and The Lighthouse (2019 pretty much rocked the horror movies in general).

Final Girl Thoughts

In the Tall Grass the book may be a bit lacking, but the movie blew away all my expectations for what a Netflix original horror movie could be.  Under Natali’s expert direction it may be one of Stepehen King’s scariest horror movies in a long time.  Clearly I think it’s worth watching and rewatching around the time the grass starts getting greener outside.  I would watch any number of prequels and sequels about this dimensional patch of grass in Kansas with a black rock in the middle of it because it clearly has more stories to tell.  How did the grass fare during The Dust Bowl?  Were Cal and Becky really chosen or was it just dumb bad luck they stopped?  And how does the grass affect your game if you’re bowling at the bowling alley across the street from the Church of the Black Rock of the Redeemer?  These are all important questions that still need answers. 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 5: a Book Review

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I can’t believe we’re already at the mid-season finale of Monastery! Time indeed flies when you’re having a blast (or feel like you’ve been hit by a bag of bricks). The fifth installment of the novel is so action-packed I don’t even know where to start. All I will say right now is that we are in for a ride of a lifetime. Buckle up, folks. 

Plot

We begin the episode with Thomas preparing to leave Monastery, a plan put in motion by his mother which is thankfully quickly reversed. Can you imagine anyone else leading the investigation? Didn’t think so. Although Thomas is still dealing with his guilt over Pop Dennis’s death, he knows there is a lot at stake. After all, his cousins need directions to get to the bottom of things. 

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For arguably the first time the group comes across something of great importance as they discover Francis’s DNA test. The group then trails him and our antagonist George Turner on their quest for the money Albert hid before his death. The characters encounter a bunch of clues that the narrator basically screams are foreshadowing but David once again disregards them. Nice going, man. 

On the other end, we have an extremely disturbing scene involving Francis digging up his father’s grave and desecrating it. I don’t blame Nicole for throwing up at the sight. Seeing him getting more and more unhinged throughout the episode is unsettling as well as riveting.

Speaking of graves, we finally get a flashback sequence of the night Albert’s family covered up his murder. We still don’t know who committed the crime but can see who helped to bury the body aka who is complicit. The scene provides some great characterization to the adults of the ensemble cast. It also explains why George Turner is so involved in everything. Hell, it even manages to make me feel bad for Cassandra. Just for a moment, though. 

Our neighborhood bully Rick continues to be heavily entangled in the story. He and Thomas have a highly emotional altercation when Rick attempts to take his own life. It’s a shame Rick doesn’t tell Thomas why he’s doing this as it would alleviate both their guilt. However, it’s also a realistic exploration of how young children handle something they are not emotionally equipped to deal with.

It is purely because of Thomas’s intentions to help him that Rick ends up being a witness to something horrible. Let’s just say, Francis finally snaps and George meets his brutal end. I definitely won’t miss the guy but this doesn’t bode well for our main cast. It can’t get any crazier though, right? 

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Overall thoughts

This is easily the most exhilarating episode of Monastery so far, with action just seeping off the pages. A lot of other storylines take a backseat (such as the love triangle that is seemingly dead but not quite). Despite that, there is still some time for emotional moments to let the readers take a breath. Words can’t say how excited I am for the next part. I just hope against all hope all my favorites will come out safe. Only time will tell… 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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More from the author:

1. This episode of Monastery was probably the most morbid one yet (the flashback of the family covering up Albert’s murder, Francis digging up his body, Thomas climbing into his grave). What is your writing process when it comes to these types of scenes as they can be quite uncomfortable to think about?

I may well be a little unhinged, as I honestly love writing these morbid scenes – probably because they always feel like the reward you get after you’ve worked so hard for something, you know? As a writer, you try to build up to those big moments, so that they feel earned. My process then ties in with ensuring those big, morbid scenes aren’t gratuitous, that they make sense to the plot and the characters. The family covering up Albert’s murder comes from a place of despair and self-preservation; Francis digging up his body comes from a place of anguish and resentment, and Thomas, well, he’s a very driven young man who will stop at nothing to find the truth, and we’re only just beginning to see that.

2. The neighborhood bully Rick turned out to be a lot more integral to the story than I would’ve originally thought. What prompted you to connect a non-family character to the action to such extent and why him?

I always knew I wanted the regular cast to be an eclectic mix of characters – we have people of all generations of the family (from young Henry to nonagenarian Nana Beth), and even a couple of characters who aren’t family. There is no real reason for that, other than a quirk of mine. But Rick’s true purpose isn’t yet revealed – he just witnessed something immense, it now remains to be seen what he chooses to do about it…

3. I picked up on the theme of beauty throughout the installments of Monastery (especially Nicole and Cassandra’s interaction). Was this choice purely to provide some context for Cassandra’s character or to provide some social commentary about how beauty and youth are worshipped and as soon as a woman starts aging she’s discarded? Maybe a bit of a mix?

A little from column A, a little from column B. The commentary here ties in with the importance that the characters give to female beauty – Nicole is smart, resilient and courageous, but all everyone talks about is how beautiful she is, whereas Cassandra is often regarded as a former, faded beauty. Both women themselves attribute a lot of importance to beauty, an importance that was clearly hammered into them by the world around them. So, when we learn that Cassandra sacrificed her beauty to protect her family, it goes to show all that she was willing to sacrifice to keep her loved ones safe. She may not be grandma of the year – but she’s the hero of a lifetime. A really nasty, emotionally abusive hero, but a hero all the same!

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Jennifer Weigel on Surviving Gen X by Jo Szewczyk

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Surviving Gen X is a dark and twisted tale of sin and salvation that comes to us from Haunted MTL’s very own Jo Szewczyk. Delving into the depths of debauchery, dysfunction, and deliverance, we follow our protagonists as they navigate the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, circa 1990. The book reads sort of like an acid trip or a fever dream or both… Good, bad, and ugly, with the gut-wrenching soul-sped journey of a candle lit at both ends, simultaneously fueled by cum, gasoline, and fire. The sexual exploits of our mostly unnamed narrator and lovelorn abused housewife Annie and friends, lovers, and accomplices craft an affair of more than the heart, of two (hundred thousand million billion) lost souls swimming eternally in a fishbowl, year after year after year after…

Surviving Gen X book cover
Surviving Gen X book cover

So you think you can tell…?

Surviving Gen X reads less as a credible story and more as an immersive experience, a theatrical performance in which you are whisked away to an alternate reality caked thick in glamour and glitter and grime. It is the sort of journey that leaves a stain on the psyche that won’t wash away no matter how hard you scrub at it. It is raw and provocative and, more than anything, screams to be seen, to be heard, to be rescued. All involved are adrift, seeking fulfillment in a world that refuses to acknowledge and cannot accept them for who they are. They are surviving, moment by moment, and in that space they are each and every one alone, isolated and forsaken. Like flecks of stardust strewn across the universe, our protagonists yearn to cast their glow, to shine forth, to unite, to be made whole… but the growing vastness of the space between them prevents such true connection and eventually all succumb to their own despair.

Despite being naked and vulnerable, this is nonetheless an adventure masked in mud, merriment, and mayhem, seeking friendship and truth as gritty glimmers of hope found only when one throws oneself into the darkest depths of dysfunction to claw their way back out through all of the layers. Only here can such elements of titillating triumph be told, through snippets of scenes that seem to spring forth from the most unreal and unlikely circumstances, like a failed double date at a family restaurant that devolves into potential death by bachelorette party. It is the spaghetti thrown at the wall in the hopes of sticking, trying desperately to hold on, to cling to some sense of relativity. The result is absurd as much as it is agonizing.

Running Over the Same Old Ground, What Have We Found?

Much like a re-birthing, or a regurgitation, this experience is messy and sometimes difficult to swallow. It defies definition and refuses reality, eschewing enjoyment even despite immersing itself in all of the pleasures of the flesh. Because what is left when the body, mind, heart, and spirit are disjointed? Just an off-kilter roller coaster jaunt through oblivion, careening off course in a fast and rapid burnout. There’s no getting off that ride once the kooky contraption gets going, best just to accept the struggle, hold on tight, and see it out to its crazy conclusion. We’re still trying to wash the confetti from our hair after falling out that window.

To quote the 2006 Wergle Flomp poetry contest winning poem, this is:

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A travesty / Of buffoonery. / As if a five-year-old child / Were pointing a handgun / At a masturbating clown. Nicholas Moore, How to Write a Poem

And a hauntingly beautiful and brilliant travesty of buffoonery it is… So I’m not going to rate this experience by Cthulhus; the Cthulhus are still too busy trying to untie the ropes to release the French midget hanging from the crystal chandelier. But if you yearn to see how it all unfolds, and to experience the gritty gaudy glitz in all of its slimy sleazy splendor, then you need only to pick up the book and read for yourself. It’s an adventure you won’t soon forget. You can find it here on Amazon. Plus if you order it now you’ll have it for VD (Valentine’s Day, ya perv, though maybe there isn’t really much difference)… Oh and here’s a sneak peek from13 Days of Krampus 2020…

And if you want to explore something of similar sentiment to set the mood, may I recommend watching Unholy by Sam Smith and Kim Petras? If the following YouTube window doesn’t work, you can find it directly here.

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