Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Hometown Horrorible" by Matthew Bey

Source:Pseudopod (mp3)
Length: 25 minutes
Reader: Elie Hirschman

The story: Fans of H.P Lovecraft can point to his influence, popularity, and continued relevance of his horror, but they have to eventually face the negative aspects of his work. Several stories contain the subtext, and sometimes blatant statements, of racism. Lovecraft was also not financially or critically successful in his lifetime, and the frustrations of his failure come through in his work.

Bey's story fictionalizes the life of Lovecraft as a relatively unknown Wisconsin writer named Helmut Finch. As the main character of his own story, Bey describes themes and parts of Finch's writings in a mockumentary style that tantilizes by suggesting more than it reveals. There's not much actual horror until the ending, but setting the pieces up pays off in the chilling climax.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: As one of the Escape Pod family of podcasts, Pseudopod brings the same high standards to the production of this story. Hirchman gives the narrator a neutral voice, but does appropriate accents for the minor characters. His subtle reading brings out the wry humor of this piece, which might be lost in the hands of a less talented reader. The intro and wrap-up by Alasdair Stuart set the story in context and add an interesting connection.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

Source: Uvula Audio (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 )
Length: 4 hours, 53 minutes
Reader: Craig Nickleson

The story: Traditionally, horror has explored the unknown and unknowable: ghosts, demons, and similar superstitions. With the coming of the 20th century and the seemingly inexorable progress of science, it appeared that these superstitions would be overcome by triumphant rationalism. In H.P. Lovecraft's horror, progress brought with it new horrors, not of the unknown, but of knowing too much.

This novella is Lovecraft's most critically admired, though I prefer some of his shorter stories. This tale follows an Antarctic expedition that makes some startling discoveries about prehistoric times and wakes something that should have been left undisturbed. . . If it sounds like you've heard this story before, that's because this novel was hugely influential on later writers. I usually am a bit disappointed to read an influential work, since the familiarity of the copies make the original seem, perversely, unoriginal. At the Mountains of Madness is no exception, but if you can ignore what you've seen or read before, this story still has the power to chill and thrill.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Craig Nickerson's baritone works well as the voice of the narrator, geologist William Dyer, who tells the story of his polar expedition. When Dyer begins his story, Nickerson's strong voice reflects the hardness of a man who has experienced terror and is reluctantly sharing it. As the story progresses, he adds a quiver to his voice, bringing the listener along with Dyer's horror at his recollection. The recording does have a bit of an echo and some background noise, which can distract from the storytelling, but once again, Uvula Audio does a good job at bringing a classic to free audio.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Snow Glass Apples" by Neil Gaiman

Source: Seeing Ear Theatre (part 1 | part 2)
Length: 46 minutes
Reader: Seeing Ear Theatre cast

The story: Neil Gaiman has a fascination with the dark side of fairy tales. He has explored this theme in his novel American Gods, his comic series Sandman and returns to the theme again in this story. "Snow Glass Apples" retells the story of Snow White, but from the perspective of the stepmother queen.

This is not the Disney cartoon; Gaiman invokes every taboo of our society: incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, torture, and murder by children.  I was disturbed enough that several times during the story that I had to stop the recording.  The story that Gaiman weaves is so intriguing that I had to settle myself down and continue listening. This is what horror is: the fascination of looking into the darkest aspects of humankind even when we almost can't stand to look.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: This story is mostly narrated by the queen, played by Bebe Neuwirth, the actress best known for her portrayal of Dr. Fraiser Crane's ex-wife Lilith on Fraiser and Cheers.  She brings a steely sneer to the role, but is engaging enough to not push the listener away. Other characters are voiced by additional actors, all of high enough quality to complement the talents of the lead actress, though none particularly stood out for me. The music and sound effects contribute to the eerie mood of the story. Overall, this is a wonderfully done production that really enhances Gaiman's storytelling.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Personal Effects: Sword of Blood by J.C. Hutchins

Source: J.C. Hutchins (episode 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7)
Length: 3.8 hours
Reader: J.C. Hutchins

The book: While listening to NPR on a car trip last year, I heard a story about Personal Effects: Dark Art by J.C. Hutchins, who I had previously heard of from his podcast novel 7th Son. What intrigued me about Dark Art was that in addition to the printed story, the book came with additional documents, like a drivers' license, case files, and phone numbers to call. Along with these, Hutchins released this free audio novella, Sword of Blood, as a prequel to promote the full-length novel.

I love this marketing idea; it gives me the chance to meet the characters, sample the author's style, and decide whether or not I want to invest the time and money to read a longer book. In this case, though, I decided the longer book really wasn't something in which I was interested. Sword of Blood introduces Zach Taylor, an art therapist at a mental institution. When one of his elderly patients finishes a quilt and lets it slip that a coded message is hidden in the pattern, Taylor begins to investigate the old woman's background and the crime that put her in the asylum in the first place. I enjoyed the plot, though it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief, but Hutchins' writing style, which involves throwing rapid-fire nerd culture references, seemed strained and instantly dated. Although I enjoyed the audiobook enough that I didn't feel like I wasted my time, I don't think I'll be buying the novel.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Reading his own material, Hutchins gets the chance to enhance his story by putting the right emphasis on words and using his own patterns of speech for each character. He's a gifted reader and does a great job at making the scary parts more exciting. Each episode is bracketed by announcements by Hutchins for his novel, which is understandable, but gets annoying after a few episodes. The aggressive music that starts and ends the episodes fits in well, but listeners should be aware that it's coming, lest they startle themselves.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Empty House" by Algernon Blackwood

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 47 minutes
Reader: Bernard Spiel

The story: For a long while, I've figured that Algernon Blackwoodmust be the perfect name for a writer of horror fiction. In this story, he of the perfect sobriquet spins a marvelous ghost story. A young man and his elderly, but thrill-seeking aunt decide to visit a deserted house to test not only the stories of it being haunted but also their own resolve.

Blackwood slowly builds the tension with a unexplained noise here, a slamming door there, and a glimpse of face later on. He uses the contest of nerves between the young man and the old lady to amplify the fear of the reader. By the time the climax arrives, we are ready to jump out of our seats with fright.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Bernard Spiel reads with an abundance of drama in his voice. Normally, I would find this over-acting to be annoying, but with ghost stories, the spooooooky telling is part of the fun. At first, the narrator is distracting, but once the characters arrived in the house and scary things start happening, Spiel's style seems to fit the story quite well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B file)
Length: 5 hr, 22 minutes
Reader: Alan Winterrowd

The book:  Halloween is getting close, so for the remainder of October, I'll be posting reviews of horror novels and stories here at Free Listens. House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is the perfect place to start, since it was a major influence on the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and ushered in a new type of supernatural horror novels for the 20th century.

Two gentlemen vacationing in Ireland find a manuscript in the ruins of an old house. In it, the former owner of the house describes how his house lies on the border of a demonic realm and how he ends up having to defend himself against pig-like invaders from this other dimension. The beginning of this narrative is eerie while the climax is heart-thudding terrifying, but a large section of the middle, in which the narrator describes a hallucinogenic dream in which he travels to the end of the world, dips into boredom. Apart from this middle section, the novel is a short, spooky classic of horror literature.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Winterrowd is a voice that I haven't come across before. His voice is strong and confident, with an American accent. He gives a fairly straight reading, without much emotion. This doesn't mean that his reading is dull - he varies his pace and emphasis - but he doesn't try to embellish the text, which can be good or bad, depending on your taste. In some early chapters, there's a faint ringing in the recording, but later on this problem seems to go away and the sound is fine.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol

Source: (part 1 | part 2)
Length: 1 hr, 28 min
Reader: Alan Davis Drake

The story:  This classic tale, also translated as "The Cloak", is one of the most revered stories in Russian literature. Akaky Akakievich is a poor clerk in a government office who is the butt of many jokes from his colleagues as much for his social ineptitude as for his threadbare overcoat.  Many of the themes that would be common to the greats of Russian literature trace their heritage to this story: the hopelessness of poverty, the striving to move up in a class-striated society, government indifference and arrogance, and injustice for the powerless. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov would continue these themes in their own literature, building great works from common starting material. 

Despite the heavy themes, this is a story with plenty of humor. Gogol even pokes fun at the conventions of storytelling by breaking the fourth wall. Part of the genius of this story is the tension between the listener's tendency to sympathize with the plight of Akaky Akakievich or laugh at his awkwardness and eagerness to impress his colleagues.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: This may be a free recording, but that doesn't make Alan Davis Drake any less of a professional. His voice is smooth and expressive in his narration, bringing out the sometimes subtle humor in this piece. His intonations for the dialogue bring out the pattern of Russian speech without doing a broad accent. The short musical pieces at the beginning and end of each part do not distract from the reading and are not played over the narration.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Source: Lit2Go
Length: Approx. 20 hours
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: Even within the lofty lists of Western canon, there are some books that stand above the rest in reputation. Even if you haven't read them, you don't challenge the placement on these lists of books like Ulysses, Moby Dick, or Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment is one of these classics and up until a few months ago, I had never read it. Then I started to notice references to the book or its protagonist Raskolnikov in articles, books and even in music. Clearly, the universe was telling me what to read next.

It's not an easy read. Raskolnikov is mentally unstable through most of the book and Dostoevsky reflects his character's delirium in dreamlike imagery. To make matters more difficult, the characters are often hiding their true motives, and part of the effort of reading is figuring out how much each character knows about the other and how much each knows the other knows about the first.  The on-again, off-again lucidity of the protagonist, combined with the web of deception make the book a challenging, but rewarding puzzle.

Beneath this puzzle lies a theme that is familiar to many people nowadays: the tyranny of money. Almost every scene in the book concerns who has or doesn't have money, how much they are spending, or how they plan to get enough money to live a few more days. In doing the research for this review, I wasn't surprised to find that Dostoevsky himself was deeply in debt and wrote the book to pay his bills. Of course, there are other themes as well - morality, justice, love, and all the other big themes of human existence - but I find it comforting that this book about poverty is now available to people who can't pay for it.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Rick Kistner again does an excellent job with this reading. For a full evaluation of his reading style, see my recent review of The Jungle. My problem in the audiobook is not so much with the reader or the recording, but that it's a difficult book to listen to. Several times in the novel, the narrative tends to change direction in a few sentences, so that if you missed a phrase or short sentence, you completely miss the twist. It's a book that requires your full attention and several re-reads of important paragraphs, so listening as an audiobook is perhaps not the best approach to take to this demanding novel.