For this final day of October and in wrapping up our 31 Days of Horror here at Unquiet Things, we are going out in style! With reviews of twenty fragrances from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Autumn/Halloween collection!
…and also a giveaway! For one bottle of their Junji Ito-inspired Tomie perfume! If you want to read my full review of the fragrance, you can find that here.
If you would like the opportunity to win this perfume AND you live in the US, leave a comment on this blog post to be entered into the giveaway! Tell me about your favorite Halloween tradition, favorite scary movie, favorite autumnal scent–whatever you like! One winner —please note, you must be in the US to win— will be selected on Tuesday November 7th! [GIVEAWAY IS CLOSED! CONGRATS JILLIAN!]
I am sorry, but shipping outside the US is too onerous, so please, please note this giveaway is for folks who live in the US only! (I’m sorry I have to sound so desperate about it, but why does no one ever read that part? Please read it!)
Anyway, let’s get to the reviews!
A Timid Twinkling Golden Star (tuberose and sweet amber) A dusty, honeyed wistful, sepia-tinted floral; the olfactory representation of the concept of “dés-vu”, or the awareness that this moment will become a memory.
A Little Silver Scimitar (foamy orris and ambergris accord pierced by a sliver of white fir needle, moonflower, and cypress) This smells …”incisive” is the word that comes to mind. It knows something, visions of silver, fruit, blood. I picture less a scimitar and more a little letter opener, sharp-edged glinting, used to liberate clever missives, mince sour slivers of plum, impale inconstant hearts.
Witch’s Currant Cake (red currant and rosewater gooseberry cake with a sugar-dusted gingerbread crumble topping) Whenever I see the word “gooseberry” I think of the time I spent listening to Eddie Izzard’s memoir and how his British pronunciation (“guuzbury”) always makes me smile. As a matter of fact, this sweet/sour, tart/tangy scent blanketed with a molassey-gingery cozy streusel, could even be the cake he’s talking about in his “Cake or death?” clip from his Dressed To Kill special. Let’s just make it canon. Our beloved, wicked Eddie Izzard circa 1999 smells like a guuzbury gâteau, a witch’s currant cake.
Ghost Milk (goat’s milk, marshmallow, vanilla cashmere, honey dust, and white chocolate) There’s nothing fruity listed in here but this perfume is fruity, cereal-miky, and fuzzy, like slurping a bowl of Frankenberries from the pocket of your softest, pinkest, plushest hoodie. A hoodie that definitely hoodies. I watch too much TikTok.
Mummy Milk (condensed milk wrapped in coconut shavings and tea-stained linen with a hint of bitumen, myrrh, and embalming resins) Wild grains and rustic incense, something roasting over a fire until it pops and frills, and carried over the fields on the dry wind of a warm September daydream.
Snooty Bat (sugared patchouli, nag champa, black leather, and clove) and Snootier Bat (all the sugared incense you can shake a wing at with double the leather and a dollop of thick, inky black musk) These two fragrances initially reminds me of how my sisters and I might gaze at each other in abject befuddlement and say something like “That is such a bizarre thing to do–how are we even related??” Snooty with a leather that’s almost midnight-stormy sky-ozonic at the onset, and Snootier opens all gloomy musk and plummy treacle. After a moment though, it becomes apparent that they are siblings, an iron-rich vein of incense connecting them. As they wear, they grow apart and drift away from each other, Snooty becoming darker and more unrepentantly patchoulified by the hour, and Snootier, half sick of shadows, transforms into a soft, cozy creamy thing.
Batty Lace (dry flowers, aged linens, and the faint breath of long-faded perfumes with well-worn leather and caramel musk) “A leathered up, musky interpretation of BPAL’s Antique Lace.” The caramel aspect of this blend is what I notice most, a buttery-milky brown sugar caramel that wants to ooze over vanilla ice cream rather than firm up into fudgy squares. Shifting beneath the caramel are those faint, faded attic-trunk florals and creamy cobwebby linens I recall from Antique Lace and a cracked leather buckle so ghostly and elusive I’m not sure if it was actually ever there at all.
Batty Cathedral (leathery wings flapping through billows of incense smoke) I was writing this review and Ývan walked into the room, saw the label art up on the screen, and exclaimed, “Say, that bat’s wearing a fez!” So it is! Anyway. The leather in this blend is an airy, floral leather, conjuring visions of a little bat snoot dootling deep in trellis vining, moon-luminous night-blooming flowers. The incense is cool and crystalline, frost on stone, smoky winter mists high on a mountain while a witch sits in silence, tracing runes in the snow. Like a Wardruna video. With more bats and flowers and witches.
Dead Leaves, Paper, and Smoke This one has a spectral and musty quality, like shed snake skins and brittle, broken bird’s nests, but also oddly evokes spring leaves, damp and dewy and almost jittery green, teeming with chlorophyll. It culminates in a fragrance that you might attribute to an altar deep kept in the wood, obeisance to a thing so old it doesn’t even have a name, with offerings of shoots and stems, bones and claws, trinkets both living and dead.
Dead Leaves, Shortbread, and Crystallized GingerThe softly decaying dead leaves component of this perfume is so fleeting, almost as if leaf litter and loam were used as padding for a parcel of treats, but the parcel was delivered and the packaging was tossed willy nilly, and what we are left with is the sugar-crusted delight of candied ginger-flecked buttery shortbread with crisp, caramelized edges.
Skelemingo (pink grapefruit and black licorice) it’s the most bonederful time of the year! Wherein even things that do not have bony skeletons inside their skins get treated to cheap plastic skeletons and sold for $5.99 at Michaels and Party City. Worm, you get a skeleton! Octopus, you get a skeleton! And so on! The flamingo does in fact have a skeleton and as scientists know, its aroma is that of the most delicious bitter grapefruit Haribo candy cross-bred with salty Icelandic lakkrís, spliced with white chocolate.When I talk about my profound love for things that inspire a sense of demented glee, a fragrance like this is exactly what I am thinking of.
Hand-Knitted Witch Gloves(raw wool, sweet oakmoss, and cranberry brandy) I don’t talk about fragrances in terms of whether they are masculine or feminine–that’s dumb and limiting!–but I will say that this scent is initially, and surprisingly, quite “handsome.” An aroma that at first evokes some sort of rare, centuries-old cognac and things being aged in French oak barrels, but then because you have no use for stodgy tradition, you eschew drinking it neat and instead concoct a cranberry Manhattan with bitters and vermouth, garnished with a wooly frizzle of earthen moss because you are actually just three gnomes in a trench coat.
Things Are Fine (white sandalwood smoke, hinoki, white tea, and falling leaves) Washing your hair with a fragrant aromatherapeutic “spa-like” shampoo and then immediately running outdoors on a crisp October afternoon and rolling around in a pile of loamy leaves and moss, like a great shaggy golden retriever after a bath. This is stunning. STUNNING.
A Melancholy of Goths (clove smoke, champaca incense, plum velvet, and hairspray) Can you think of anything more goth than a marble gargoyle in a mourning veil perched atop a crumbling gravestone wearing perfume of honeyed funereal florals & infernal incense ash? That is exactly what this smells like. It also smells like what I imagine Anna Falchi in Cemetery Man smells like.
Pumpkin Spice Dark-n-Stormy(extra spicy rum fizzed up with ginger beer and garnished with a lime) Utterly incandescent. Crystalline radium glass lime, the sticky bite of ginger syrup + a dry dram of allspice’s mince pie charm.
Make A Face (yellow bergamot, white pomegranate rind, lemon peel, and white musk) This smells like a thick, nourishing lemon salve that you aren’t supposed to eat but holy jeez you are definitely tempted to eat it. Ývan says he thinks it smells like luxurious lemon peel soap, to which I countered “But do you want to eat it?” And he was like like “Well, I mean yes.” This is one of those simple scents that somehow doesn’t seem like there’s much to it, and yet is more than the sum of its parts and is weirdly definitely habit-forming.
Halloween Cat (cacao and coconut husk dusted on shining black fur, illuminated by electric green mandarin and raw amber) I wouldn’t typically use the words “chocolatey” and “fresh” together in the same sentence and I don’t know that’s what I am doing here either–but I don’t know that I am not? Halloween cat smells a bit like huffing dry brownie mix; absent the sweetness and gooeyness, there’s a bracing, savory aspect to the cocoa. A pale nimbus of citrus hovers, a timorous, shimmering aurora haloing the arid chocolate.
Witch in the Woods (blackthorn, mandrake root, and myrrh scratching through cypress boughs, blackberry resin, and incense smoke) A tangled orchard, a forest-jam tart, a sharpened blade kissed-thrice, batwings circling an autumn moonrise–all of these trapped in a waxen candy wrapper curse.
And PSSSST! Did you know I have collected all of my BPAL reviews into one spot? Here you will find 88 pages of my thoughts and rambles on various limited-edition scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab over the years: BPAL REVIEWS BY S. ELIZABETH (PDF download)
Are you new to one of our very favorite indie perfumers, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab? See my three-part primer here, here, and here.
Terrifier wasn’t originally on my radar, but after reading Bryan’s thoughts on it a few years ago, it lodged itself in my brain as something I was low-key intrigued by in a low-stakes kind of way. Meaning I had zero expectations, but at the same time I was semi-looking forward to watching it at some point. But it was also one of those films so far down on my list that I never even remembered I wanted to see it, even when I was wracking my brain for something new to watch.
Last night I finally remembered.
We open to a scene a year or so after the events of the film have taken place. A horrifically disfigured woman is being grilled by an interviewer who is asking some insensitive and invasive questions about the woman’s brutal attack and how she feels about her appearance after the fact, etc. The fact that these questions are couched in a phone-baloney nicey-nice facade, coming out of the mouth of a woman we would consider to be traditionally attractive makes the entire scene even more awful. After the interview, the anchorwoman is on a phone call with her partner, in the process of wrapping up for the night and ranting about how disgusting it was even having to look at the woman she was earlier interviewing…and then that woman emerges from the shadows to viciously attack her.
Halloween, a year earlier. Two drunk friends are stumbling back to their car after an evening of hitting the bars. The more sensible one convinces her even drunker friend to hand over the keys, but then realizes that she herself needs to sober up a little first, so they head into a pizza place for a slice. During this interaction they spy a strange sight from across the street: an unsettling fellow in a black and white clown suit, with an unwieldy trash bag slung over his shoulder. Sensible gets a weird vibe from him right away, but Drunky hollers and antagonizes him. He eventually follows them into the restaurant and after some creepy behavior on the clown’s part, the ladies are freaked out and take their pizza to go, that’s where the carnage begins.
They get back to the car, one of the tires has been sliced or stabbed or vandalized in some way, and while waiting for a ride from Sensible’s sister, they split up. Sensible has to pee and charms her way into a nearby building to use the facilities, and Drunky waits in the car. The building in question is being treated for rats and vermin that evening, it was the late-night pest control guy who lets her in. Although I’m not sure why anyone’s even bothering, the entire place is way past actively falling apart, it’s a monument to rot and decay, and I can’t even tell what sort of building it might have been. Commerical? Residential? The bottom seems a bit like a garage, but also a basement, and also weirdly labyrinthine, but the upper stories look like offices? And at some point, there seems to be a sort of security room, with a phone and a computer? I don’t know!
I realize I’m giving a literal, boring play-by-play, so I’ll stop right there. Art the Clown gets started in earnest and you learn what’s in the trash bag and it’s that it’s all sharp and pointy and deadly and that his loose plan, as far as I can tell, is to kill everyone he encounters in increasingly brutal and deranged ways. He never actually says a single word, but you get the jist real quick. You never really learn what this guy is all about; other than being utterly silent and dead-eyed, there’s a strange, eerie, almost otherworldy glee in his movements and expressions that’s really menacing and gut-twisting in ways I can’t explain. I’m not afraid of clowns, I don’t really have feelings about them one way or the other–but this guy gives me the heebie-jeebies.
So a whole bunch of nasty, gruesome stuff happens, and in the end, Terrifier was not a movie with a lot of plot happening, nor many (or any?) characters that we really cared about. And yet, I think I really liked it. For a 2016 film, it had a sort of gritty, grainy quality that took me back to watching late-night Saturday horror as a teenager, circa 1992. It had that surreal energy of “wtf is even happening, and why, and where are we, and who are these people?”…like, it makes just enough sense so that you are not literally confused, but it also gives you the feeling that you might have blinked and dozed off for a second and wait a second, who’s this homeless woman and her weird porcelain babydoll and has she been living in the squalor of this decrepit apartment-office-storage building this whole time? And if so, why does her hair look so great?
Another thing I found a little confusing was that many reviews talk about Art the Clown like this isn’t his first rodeo. But this is the first film in the Terrifier franchise, right? I did a little reading and it turns out this guy has been in development for over a decade in various roles as a background character while they futzed around with the character to see what worked. Huh! I think I’m intrigued enough to have a bit of an Art the Clown marathon, but I think we’ll wait til next year for that.
Wishmaster was, I thought, one of those 80’s films that I should seen by now. It was recommended to me last week, and I’ve been wracking my brains as to why it’s never really been on my radar. As it turns out, the answer is pretty simple. Centering on an ancient, evil djinn who collects souls by granting wishes that come with terrible, twisted consequences, all monkey’s paw-like, Wishmaster’s got Wes Craven’s name on it (though I don’t think he’s as involved as the movie posters would have us believe), a writer from the Hellraiser sequels, a who’s-who cast of horror gems, and, as it turns out… is actually a film from 1997.
This explains everything about why I never saw it. I was a few years out of high school by that time, and trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I don’t think I was doing much in the way of reading or movie-watching. I was doing a lot of anxious avoidance of everything, including and especially the things I loved–like horror. I had just seen Scream the year previously and that’s really the only film I recall watching during that time period. Last night while watching Wishmaster and trying to figure out the year it was made by observing the clothing and hairstyles and such (instead of the easier thing to do, looking it up on IMDB) I began comparing it to Scream for some reason, and came away with the impression that Scream just felt much more contemporary to me, whereas Wishmaster really did seem like an 80s relic. Imagine my surprise when I looked it up and realized that Wishmaster was actually released a year later than Scream!
Well, considering that Wishmaster had a bunch of ridiculously gory practical effects–some of them pretty great, actually, like the skeleton busting out of someone’s skin in the film’s opening–and Scream was a hip update of the slasher genre, I guess in comparison, Wishmaster would seem a bit retro?
There was a lot to love about this film! It begins with a Persian sorcerer trapping the malevolent djinn in a jewel, and then we fast forward to the present day, or rather, 1997. Some sort of relic is being delivered to a collector (Robert Englund!) and in a careless accident, a crane drops the box containing it, and Englund’s assistant (Ted Raimi!) is squashed and killed. A glowing red jewel is revealed in the broken statue and a construction worker pockets it and sells it to a pawnbroker, who then takes it to an auction house. This is how it ends up in the hands of Alex, who in examining the stone–which she annoyingly keeps referring to as an “opal”, but come on, it’s bright red!–somehow activates the djinn.
In the beginning, the narrator (Angus Scrimm!) explains that “God breathed life into the universe…the light gave birth to Angels…the earth gave birth to man…the fire gave birth to the djinn, creatures condemned to dwell in the void between the worlds.” And that the person who wakes a djinn will receive three wishes, but the third wish will free legions of djinn on Earth. So these are the stakes here, but no one’s ever going to follow a trail of carnage and immediately think “Ah, methinks this is the work of a djinn!” so I think it’s forgivable that it takes Alex a while to figure out what’s going on.
The djinn is played by a deliciously magnetic Andrew Divoff to gravelly-voiced devilish perfection…I don’t know that I know this actor from anything else but MAN he was creepy in this. There is a kooky, sassy professor of folklore (you can tell she’s kooky and sassy because of the statement necklaces) who is a hoot, and oh yeah–Tony Todd shows up as a doomed doorman, Reggie Bannister is a nasty pharmacist who meets a nasty end, Tom Savini plays a bit part and there’s even the husband of someone I know through Instagram who has a tiny part in this film!
And while the dialogue was just whatever, there were a few instances when the professor was talking about the lore and history of the djinn, for example, or when the djinn himself was describing the destruction and chaos he going to delight in bringing forth–I thought those parts were delightfully dark and poetic and well-written. This is coming from someone who likes a bit of purple prose, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess.
Do I want to watch the probably very silly and bad sequels? I think that I do!
When I polled my Facebook friends the other day for some fun movie ideas, it was with the caveat that Renfield was very much already on my radar–I just couldn’t watch it that particular night because it was already promised viewing. But I finally got around to it last night when we watched it with Ývan’s brother, after his birthday dinner (it was the brother’s birthday, not Ývan’s–I would never marry a Scorpio!)
I have no notes. It was everything I ever wanted in a silly comedy about Dracula’s beleaguered familiar recognizing his dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship with the infamous monster, and realizing he wants something more for himself. Sure, it got a little sidetracked with the taking down of a mob familiar and its buddy-cop shenanigans, but listen–I think Awkwafina is a goddess, and if she’s getting paid to show up in a movie and play a cop in a movie where cops are a completely dumb and useless idea, whatever! I’ll take it! Anyhow, I don’t have a critical eye or incredibly high standards when it comes to cinema (Was it pretty? Did it make me laugh? Those are the two important boxes to tick) so I thought Renfield was a bloody hoot.
Despite the fact that my reading has been on the back burner this month, I did manage to finish a few things in the almost-final-days of October…
The Dead Take A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey I’d found the previous title from Cassandra Khaw that I’d read (Nothing But Blackened Teeth) a bit off-putting. In that story, five friends convene to have some pre-wedding adventures at a purported haunted castle– but I have never in my years of reading been subjected to a group of friends who hated each other more. The Dead Take A Train, for all its bombastic horror and gore, ruthless demons and repulsive gods…is actually a tale of love and friendship? I liked that. I found the writing lush and disgusting and completely over the top –which is very much my thing!– and the story itself, that of self-destructive demon hunter/supernatural-squasher Julie attempting to prevent a cosmic-horror-end-of-the-world scenario and save her friends in the middle of New York’s gritty, magical underbelly–was an absolute hoot. It reminded me a bit of the post-apocalyptic demon-punk romp of Simon Drax’s A Very Fast Descent Into Hell!
The Keeper by Tananarive Due When it comes to a Tananarive Due story, I know I’m always in for a treat that’s going to tug at my heartstrings before straight up ripping my heart out of my chest –and The Keeper with its proliferation of childhood fears and trauma does just that. Aisha’s parents are killed in a car crash and shortly after moving in with her elderly grandmother, the ailing woman’s health takes a rapid decline. Before dying, she calls forth a dark spirit to protect her granddaughter…or is this entity actually an ancient curse?
Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror by Jordan Peele Exploring “not only the terror of the supernatural but the chilling reality of injustice that haunts our nation,” this was an outstanding collection wherein almost every story was so good that I wish it could have been expanded on for a full-novel experience. What I find interesting in these gatherings of tales across cultures, is seeing what it is that scares me (the end-of-the-world ones are particularly freaky) as opposed to something that while perhaps fascinating, doesn’t seem all that frightening–because it comes from a part of the world so wholly different from what I know. Even as I am writing those words, I realize that is some privileged white lady shit. I am not unaware. Three exceptionally memorable ones in that sort of personally-scary-for-me apocalyptic vein are Invasion of the Baby Snatchers, which is as outlandish and otherworldly as you might imagine, and both “Flicker” and “Pressure,” which begin as mundane little tales but are –absolutely– not.
Godzilla: The Half-Century War by James Stokoe Ývan surprised me with a copy of this Godzilla story about a soldier who spends the entirety of his career tangled in kaiju conflict, up to and including the very last seconds of his life. Bold, exciting, and unexpectedly poignant, I sped through this excellent graphic novel in an afternoon.
Where Monsters Lie by Kyle Starks and Piotr Kowalski (Illustrator) If you’ve ever wondered where slashers shack up between murder sprees, well, you probably would not have envisioned them as a coterie of killers relaxing in a gated community–complete with an HOA and monthly meetings. This short, vicious collection of issues 1-4 comprises those dysfunctional group dynamics, the story of a kid who can’t seem to escape them despite his best attempts, and the agent that’s been training to hunt them since the slaughter of his own family when he was a child. Be forewarned–this experience really does put the “graphic” in graphic novel, but it was SO much good(bad/awful/murderous) fun!
As you might surmise from the title, Slotherhouse is about a killer sloth on the loose in a sorority house. You don’t need to know anything more than that. Except yes, the featured image from this post is that of a sloth driving a car. She uses GPS, too!
Yesterday I implored my friends on social media to help me pick a film, which is how Slotherhouse ended up on the docket. I was in desperate need of something FUN. I have noped out of so many viewings this October, either because of the squick factor (ie Day 20’s Dead Ringers) or because they triggered massive anxiety (ie Day 25’s Speak No Evil.) Life is too short to watch things that make you feel miserable!
I asked them “What is the most fun you’ve had watching a horror movie, and what was it? It doesn’t have to be funny or satire or a parody (for example, I think Hellraiser is fun!) but whenever you watch it you’re just super jazzed, thinking, now THIS is why I’m a horror fan!”
You can read all of the resulting answers here, just in case you need something fun as a palate cleanser before the month is out! I also asked friends over on threads the same question, and you can find those responses here.
“Uncomfortable” is a word I throw around a lot. I have a very, very low tolerance when it comes to uncomfortable, awkward, or embarrassing situations.
Speak No Evil is relentlessly, brutally uncomfortable. I think if I had read the synopsis or watched the trailer beforehand, I probably would have given this one a pass. It was recommended to me later in the day yesterday, and trusting the horror-guru implicitly, I went for it.
…and then noped out at the 45-minute mark.
Two families on vacation in Tuscany – one Danish, one Dutch – meet and become friendly. Months later, the outgoing Dutch family invites the more conservative Danes to spend a weekend at their cabin. However, it doesn’t take long before things become tense and awkward as either cultural misunderstandings or the miscommunications of people who don’t know each other very well become egregiously apparent. Too well-mannered to confront their hosts’ increasingly erratic and rude behavior, the Danes politely stick it out, until something so unsettling happens that they actually sneak out in the wee hours of the morning while their bizarre hosts are asleep.
As we were only a third of the way through the film, I knew this was too good to be true. And of course, I was right! They hadn’t driven very far before their daughter starts to panic and cry, realizing she’d left her stuffed rabbit toy behind. You can see the anxiety in her father’s eyes as he is debating their options and then, sickeningly, he turns the car around.
At that point, I shouted NOPE! Jumped out of my chair so fast that it tipped over, and ran out of the room. My heart was racing and I was shaking so hard I imagined I could taste the bitter, metallic adrenaline in my mouth. Even though I didn’t KNOW-know where this was headed, I had a solid enough idea that it was ratcheting up to something awful, and I just couldn’t subject myself to the plight of a family who was going to get themselves killed because their accommodating natures overrode their sense of self-preservation.
Honestly, it felt too relatable. Up to the point I stopped watching, nothing bad had even happened, really, it was all so innocuous. But see, that’s where I, too, have been conditioned to be obliging and understanding! Because even as I am watching and thinking “well making your guests pay for a meal you had promised to treat them to isn’t exactly a crime” I know in my gut, it’s really tacky! And while practically forcing your vegetarian guest to sample a bite of your roast pork isn’t evil, it’s outrageously disrespectful. I would certainly never do that to anyone. I know better. That’s the thing. Even if on some level it doesn’t seem all that bad, the heart of who I am, it KNOWS. But would I trust what I know to be true enough to leave that situation? I don’t know!
This October I’m finding more than a few instances where I’ve had enough and I am quick to call it. I know I say this all the time lately, but I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth and I don’t want to spend it making myself miserable, even if the thing I’m experiencing or engaging with is a purported masterpiece. That’s fine. I gave it a shot, and it wasn’t for me. Afterward, I read the entire synopsis on Wikipedia, and now, knowing what I know …I think (??) I might have been able to watch it.
Not knowing where things were heading was factoring into my anxiety, so being armed with the plot–spoilers and all–might have helped. Would I have enjoyed seeing it through? I most assuredly would not have. All in all, it reminded me of Funny Games (I think many reviewers felt the same) and if you did not love that one, you probably won’t want to watch Speak No Evil.
Instead, I watched more Deadloch. I cannot stress this enough. If you are too freaked out by what you are watching this spooky season, you need to take a little break and tune into this show!
–A. I appreciate this recommendation and any time you want to share suggestions with me! Speak No Evil wasn’t my cuppa but I love that you shared it and my ears are always open for your recommendations. Also when I went to look it up, I momentarily forgot the title and almost started the 2006 See No Evil with KANE, ha!
Last October I watched X, and I promised myself that this year I would watch the prequel, Pearl (which I was able to get through my library via Kanopy, hurrah!) Pearl is the unhinged, baby-faced origin story of the horny, murderous old gal in X. And much like X, Pearl made me very, very uncomfortable
Pearl is special. She wants something more than her life on her parent’s farm, she wants something better than her mother’s dreary life and father’s invalid existence, she wants to get out of her small town and be a star. She’s married Howard, a neighbor from a nice family, with the hopes that he’ll be her ticket out of this place, but Pearl’s plans are thwarted in that regard because he actually wants to live on the farm. None of that matters anyway, because he’s been shipped overseas and Pearl is all alone in her miserable longing and loneliness. And, as it turns out, her escalating craziness. As the disappointments pile up for Pearl, she begins giving into her violent impulses in increasingly extravagant and bloody ways.
In some ways, Pearl seems awfully naive and appears to be untethered from reality. But you also get the impression that she might have a canny sense about people and can see through their bullshit–even her own, as evidenced by a heartbreaking monologue near the end of the film where she admits she is not unaware that people are frightened of her, that she’s a bit scared herself of how much she enjoyed hurting people and things. How she just wants to be loved, and how she may have ruined the future of her marriage with a good man. A good man who at the end of the film, comes home to be greeted by Pearl’s carnage.
So, why did Pearl make me so uncomfortable? As someone who could be dying in the street, bleeding out all over the place–I wouldn’t make a peep about it or cry for help, for fear of the embarrassment of it all. Pearl’s a character who runs around French-kissing scarecrows, hollering her feelings at some guy she barely even knows, she isn’t fearful or the least bit self-conscious about getting up on stage and doing a silly little dance in front of strangers and also doesn’t have the least bit of a problem about having a total screaming meltdown in front of them, when they don’t pick her for the part. Afterward, she wails and sobs like a freaking banshee on the church steps (ostensibly everyone is still inside and can hear her carrying on) and that’s just, like…Pearl. No concept that it’s weird and awkward and making everyone uncomfortable. Every particle of my being shudders at all of this.
Pearl reminds me a bit of the drama kids in high school who would be loud and obnoxious and belt out songs during lunchtime, and they’d be totally oblivious to the spectacle they were creating (or maybe they didn’t care, I guess?) and I would be thinking “OMG WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT US.”
I know, that’s very much a Sarah-problem. My super repressed hangups and such. That’s fair. And hey, you might have known those kids. You might have BEEN those kids! I’m sorry for sounding intolerant. But yeah…Sarah doesn’t like being made uncomfortable, and Pearl was massive unease and discomfort on steroids, delivered at the pointy end of a pitchfork.
One reviewer summed Pearl up as “heartbreaking in the most abject way possible” and wow. Yes. Exactly.
Due to the rules I myself am enforcing, I am contractually obligated to tell you that I watched Amazon’s Totally Killermovie, wherein our lady brat of perpetual eye-rolls Sally Draper travels back in time to prevent a returned killer from murdering her mom in the present. This movie neither commits to being scary nor being funny. I think the only fun I had with it was watching how things being changed in the past began subtly, or otherwise, altering things in the present. But I feel like they could have leaned even further into that, too! SIGH. It was fine. Whatever.
Good lord. There is no one, NO ONE who writes Southern small-town nastiness like Michael McDowell. McDowell was a novelist and screenwriter whom you may or may not have heard of depending on how much into horror you are. You may have read The Elementals (that’s the last book I read that kept me up until 4 o’clock in the morning!) or Gilded Needles or his Blackwater series. Or if those don’t ring a bell, you may be familiar with the screenplay he wrote for a little movie called Beetlejuice. He was in the midst of writing the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas when he died in 1999. Horror fans, I know you already know this, but this is for the people who are hearing it for the first time. Oh yeah, McDowell, also wrote the novelization of Clue!
From the first 30 or so pages, you would not think this book will go as hard as it does. Absolutely dialogue-free and exquisitely methodical in its descriptiveness, it sets the tone and the atmosphere in the town of Pine Cone, Alabama, a town “proud of its population of two thousand, and it might well be since there is nothing to keep them there except stubborn civic pride, overwhelming inertia, or a perverse moral self-discipline bordering on masochism.”
But, our narrative gleefully divulges, ” it can also be said that there is a great vitality in the mean-spiritedness of the town’s inhabitants. Sometimes they are creatively cruel to one another, and there were seasons in which Pine Cone was an exciting place to live–if you were a spectator and not a victim.”
The events of The Amulet most assuredly take place in such a season.
Sarah Howell finds herself trapped in a nightmare. Her husband, Dean, had a rifle blow up in his face during a training exercise before he shipped out to Vietnam. He’s been horribly disfigured (the extent of which we never even find out, he’s swaddled in bandages like a mummy through the entirety of the book) and more or less left a living corpse. Sarah is forced to care for him, while also enduring the scorn of her hateful mother-in-law, Jo. Jo is truly one of the most awful fictional characters you will ever encounter.
Dean’s friend Larry pays a visit, hoping that he is doing the right thing by stopping in, but is feeling terribly guilty and uncomfortable about being there. Larry was unable to secure a job for Dean at the rifle factory in town, which led to Dean ending up in the army. Jo has a laundry list of grievances about everything in general, but she especially blames the town for her son’s circumstances, and Larry in particular. Jo sends him away with an unusual amulet to take home as a gift for his wife Rachel.
That night Larry and Rachel’s house burns down, with them and their three children inside.
The amulet inexplicably passes from one hand to the next, wreaking havoc and leaving extraordinary carnage in its wake. Not even a quarter of the way through the book, the undertaker is running out of coffins! And no one is safe–while it may have started with someone linked to Dean’s accident, it doesn’t limit itself to locals with those sorts of ties…a poor woman passing through town with her husband gets her throat torn out by her own hogs when the amulet makes its way into her possession.
Sarah begins seeing a connection in the string of bizarre deaths and becomes convinced that somehow, the trinket is involved. As the body count rises, Sarah realizes that she must somehow stop the amulet before it’s too late. But how can she defeat an evil she can’t understand or even hands on–especially when no one believes her?
I literally exclaimed OOOOOOF aloud when I finished this book. GOOD LORD.