Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance Meg Hafdahl

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance by Meg Hafdahl

Don’t be alone. Not at Night. Not in Willoughby.

Willoughby, Minnesota is an idyllic small town in Middle America. It boasts one café, one motel, and a population of five-hundred-nine. But, there are more than small town secrets hiding in the shadows of the town square. Something lurks just out of sight—and out of mind—from the residents. A bloody history of accidents, violence, and murder plagues Willoughby and threatens the town even in the present.

In July 1982, someone brutally murdered three members of the Bergman family with an ax in their Willoughby home. For decades, town suspicion has fallen on the sole survivor of the bloody massacre: Caroline, the Bergman’s teenage daughter.

But Daphne Forrest knew her mother not as Caroline Bergman, but as Jane Downs-Forrest. It wasn’t until Jane’s death that Daphne found out that her mother was the suspected murderer that newspapers had dubbed The Minnesota Borden.

Daphne visits Willoughby for the first time, looking for answers to questions about the woman she thought she knew. She may not have grown up in Willoughby, but Daphne quickly finds that she shares a connection with the town that not even the residents can fathom. Willoughby wants to show her something, something that can save the town and, maybe, Daphne herself.

Thrust into memories of unfathomable violence and fear, Daphne must face her own mistakes and find a strength that her mother never had. If she wants to get out of Willoughby alive, she must face an evil that has stalked the small town since its founding.

Her Dark Inheritance follows in a glorious tradition of American ax murderers, but it’s far from the typical tale.

Meg Hafdahl creates characters real enough to climb off the page, including a monster that stalks you long after the novel’s last sentence. The town of Willoughby itself is as real as any character. Vividly described, it’s delightful and terrifying in equal measure. It embodies an abusive relationship that traps the residents in a situation where manipulation masquerades as protection and “this is for your own good” can be just as sinister as any threat. The story raises questions that strike to the core of all of us: What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be weak?

Hafdahl weaves an intricate tale of betrayal, murder, and small town intrigue. Her brilliant narrative style keeps you guessing from beginning to end about the next shocking twist. Whether it’s the truth about the Bergman murders or Daphne’s ultimate fate, Hafdahl keeps you at her mercy through every page.

I haven’t read a book in one sitting in a long time, but I couldn’t put down  Her Dark Inheritance. ‘One more chapter’ led to ‘one more chapter’ and ‘one more chapter’ after that. The book is labelled for Young Adults, but is just as gripping for adults. I recommend it whole-heartedly, especially for those who like to see the darker side of the American Dream.


Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has created a film masterpiece. And, with a stunning thirteen Academy Award nominations for The Shape of Water, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility. Elisa lives a quiet life of routine and resignation. When abrasive military man, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives at the facility with an aquatic monster from South America, Elisa is captivated by the surprising humanity she witnesses in the creature. She develops a kinship with the amphibian man, who is limited in communication much as she is. When Cold War agendas threaten the creature, Elisa risks everything to save him. Set against a backdrop of ego, intrigue, and romance, The Shape of Water is far more than the typical monster movie.

It’s difficult to characterize The Shape of Water as any one genre—whether spy thriller or romantic drama—but, in many ways, that is the film’s strength. The plot is gripping, driving from one scene to the next, always with a new question in the viewer’s mind. There are no groundbreaking twists or sharp reveals. Things move forward as expected, but at every turn the viewer is left wondering what exactly will come next. At no point do we feel as if any character is safe from the events on the screen. Unexpectedly funny moments set scenes of horror in sharp relief. It all builds to a gripping conclusion that is every bit as harrowing as it is satisfying.

The film features a diverse set of characters, not just in demographics, but in personality, motivation, and abilities. They were all equally memorable, but most importantly, they were believable. What set the characters at odds were their different motivations and values. There were no contrived conflicts. At every crossroad, each character made the decision that was appropriate for them.

Elisa Esposito was a powerful force throughout the film. Elisa is no shrinking violet. Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in the 1960’s and being unable to speak, she doesn’t back down from what she knows is right. I’m always enamored with characters who have limitations of speech, especially in horror movies. The role of a Scream Queen filled by a woman who literally cannot scream is such a self-aware implementation of the genre that it deserves praise all on its own. The ability to convey emotion without words is an incredible skill and Sally Hawkins delivers, conveying with longing looks more emotion than I felt in all of the Notebook.

As the main villain, Richard Strickland is deliciously easy to hate. A cruel and vain man, Strickland has an inflated sense of his own importance and capability. Portrayed as the ideal 1960’s husband—with the good job, suburban house, beautiful wife, and loving children—his deviance lurks deeper. He treats everyone as beneath him. At the same time, Strickland is a remarkably ordinary villain, the sort of man that everyone will recognize. Even without the backdrop of the supernatural, Strickland would be a terrifying presence. Through the film, it becomes increasingly clear that he will do whatever he wants to fulfil his own sense of overinflated importance, regardless of consequences to others. His predatory attitude toward Elisa is particularly unsettling. Watching his spiral into madness and obsession is both terrifying and satisfying.

Despite being central to The Shape of Water, the character of the Amphibian Man is surprisingly flat. What is there to say about someone that is majorly made up of a costume and CGI? He’s visually entrancing and has a few poignant moments, but his main role is to showcase the way other characters interact with him rather than to give much growth or power in his own right. As for whether you find him attractive, that’s a personal matter and between you and your own sexuality.

The Cold War setting of the movie was indispensable to the plot. The motivation to keep knowledge out of enemy hands, if they weren’t able to obtain it themselves, drives the characters to dark depths, making them willing to pay any price for their country, even if that price is their human soul. I can’t imagine any attempt to make this movie in a modern setting. The film needed the backdrop of the era’s black and white morality to properly set the stage for the movie’s central theme.

After all, what makes a monster is not circumstance or affiliation, but underlying motivations and character. Humanity extends to more than just humans. What is it that makes someone worthy of respect? Worthy of life? The Cold War, during which even other human beings were seen as lesser animals due to their political affiliations, creates a perfect environment in which to address the question of “what makes something human?”

While I would not consider The Shape of Water a horror movie in its own right—certainly not a ‘scary movie’—I think that there are elements that every horror addict will enjoy. It’s a love letter to old horror movies, taking tropes from the height of campiness and drawing them out in ways that only modern filmmaking can. It is a visual delight to watch and a gripping story to follow with plenty of nods to classic horror films. Especially in a world where it feels as if anything and everything has been remade, The Shape of Water stands apart as the only one to take an old concept and do it justice.

Movie Review: Caller ID Entity

The messages are real.

Caller ID Entity is a modern horror think piece, capitalizing on a form of reality driven fear that has become increasingly popular lately. The movie derives from actual messages and testimonials of people claiming to have been the victims of mind-control experiments. While the messages themselves are harrowing, creator Eric Zimmerman transforms them into more than the crazed ravings of deranged individuals. The film asks: whom can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?

Caller ID Entity follows four young men—Dale (Denny Kirkwood), Miles (James Duval), Noah (Nathan Bexton), and Tristan (Triton B. King)—after they enroll in an unusual graduate study program run by Dr. Adam Whitney (Douchan Gersi). At the beginning, they all believe the goal of their research is to understand the causes of psychopathy, but, as the practicalities of their studies grow increasingly disturbing, the men realize that they’re into something far more sinister than they could have imagined. They are the latest victims in a mind-control experiment that challenges the very basis of humanity. The film follows them as they spiral deeper into madness and discover a network of survivors trying to expose the people who used them. They must separate truth from paranoia and find justice before time runs out.

Set in urban Los Angeles, Caller ID Entity capitalizes on the masses of humanity to reinforce the movie’s themes. People are portrayed as pawns—easily disposed and forgotten. Cellphones and cameras are everywhere in the city. When that technology can be used to hijack the mind, the threat is everywhere.

The cinematography reinforces this further. Caller ID Entity pulls from a variety of genres, using filming styles from documentaries, reality television, and experimental film. The result is a story that feels as if it takes place just on the fringe of reality. It walks the edge between life and fiction, between the belief that it could be true and the conviction that it is too crazy to be so.

Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and interviews break up the narrative, creating a looming sense of doom. We suspect throughout that there is no happy conclusion for the characters, yet we cannot turn away from their downfall. We are kept in suspense, hoping for any outcome other than the one we’ve glimpsed and wondering how anyone could fall so far.

The story has more than one basis in reality. A psychology experiment in the 1960’s found that people are willing to commit atrocities if pressured by an authority figure (interested? Look into the Milgram Experiments). This premise finds new life in Caller ID Entity, where the four young men find themselves involved in increasingly sinister experiments, spurred on by Dr. Whitney with encouragement that it is all for the betterment of mankind. While we may sit back and say we would never do anything so twisted, science says otherwise.

Caller ID Entity does not employ jump scares or extreme gore, but if you’re looking for a form of speculative science fiction or experimental horror that piggybacks off the everyday, this film is for you.

Movie Review: CHIMERA

CHIMERA: Not quite horror, but still quite good

Fifty years in the future, the brilliant but disturbed scientist Peter Quint (Henry Ian Cusick) works desperately to save his children from a gruesome and painful death. Miles (Raviv Haeems) and Flora (Kaavya Jayaram) are dying of the same degenerative cellular disease that claimed Quint’s wife, Jessie (Karishma Ahluwalia). The cure to their illness lies in the DNA of turritopsis, the immortal jellyfish. Quint secludes himself with his family and research in a remote manufacturing facility, but without access to fetal stem cells, his progress stalls. He resorts to making a deal with his sinister former boss who has her own selfish designs for Quint’s research. Under pressure and running out of time, Quint continually crosses new ethical lines in his pursuit of a cure.

CHIMERA wastes no time on introductions, instead dropping us right into Quint’s world. The scenes follow a non-linear timeline that mirrors Quint’s unravelling psyche. The effect is to leave us wondering when events happened—if they happened at all. Yet the film never loses its sense of urgency. The entire runtime is a race against the clock as Quint faces the unforgiving deadline of death—though, in this case, not his own. Because Quint’s motivations aren’t selfish, it’s difficult to root against him, even as the nature of his research becomes ghastly. As the story winds deeper into an ethical mire, we come to question some of our own moral standing in hoping for Quint’s success.

The horror of the film rests in the intimate portrayal of the characters as flawed and complex human beings with motivations that are as simple as their resulting actions are complex.

Henry Ian Cusack carries the movie with his excellent portrayal of Quint’s fragile mind. Quint is a cold, calculating scientist in almost every regard except when faced with an immediate moral travesty. These moments where we see through the cracks of his personality give us a glimpse into the terror that Quint faces at his own actions.

Quint is both encouraged and opposed by his former employer, Masterson (Kathleen Quinlan), who wants his research for her own selfish gains. She serves as the major opposing force to Quint, providing him with what he needs but always after significant struggle and always at a high cost. It is her actions that drive Quint the furthest in his pursuit of a cure. She serves as a powerful mirror to Quint’s own obsession, wanting his research for reasons that seem altruistic on the surface, but don’t stand up to ethical scrutiny.

Quint’s family serves as his moral compass, even if he doesn’t listen to them. They appeal to the loving side of him, rather than the scientist and fear for what will happen to his soul in the midst of his work. His wife, Jessie, serves as a strange voice of reason, considering that she is comatose for the entirety of the film.

Charlie (Jenna Harrison), Quint’s former coworker and sometimes lover, pulls him in the opposite direction. She believes and supports his genius, though his deteriorating sanity concerns her. She sees the good that can come of Quint’s work beyond the scope of his immediate family and, ultimately, the profit and fame that could also result. Charlie begins as a flat and uninteresting romantic subplot, but transforms throughout the movie into a complex character with staggering implications for the events of the film that lead to the hair-raising ending.

When speaking of the film, it is necessary to also mention the setting, which is so instrumental that it acts almost as an additional character. An abandoned industrial complex serves as the backdrop for the events of the film. Beyond providing a dangerous maze of tunnels and dark corners behind which secrets and danger lie, the setting diverges sharply with typical science fiction expectations, though it feels familiar for those who watch horror. Science fiction often gravitates toward stainless steel, glass, and sterile facilities. In contrast, the dingy metal, disused equipment, and abandoned hallways of CHIMERA seem like a modern Frankenstein’s laboratory—a madman’s workspace where the line between life and death is manipulated rather than revered. It leaves us with the impression that surely no wholesome science could arise from such origins.

The true horror in CHIMERA is not in anything that happens on screen (though there is plenty to hold you to your seat), but in the implication that this story won’t stay purely fiction for long. When creating the film, writer/director Maurice Haeems tirelessly researched gene therapy and where the field is likely to go in the future. As a result, the scientific premise of the movie is chillingly real. It adds a dimension to the story that would otherwise place this firmly in the hard-science fiction category, the lingering understanding throughout that this story is right around the corner from today. It portrays humanity as incapable of weighing the moral implications of science, dooming us to a spiral of frightening ethics in pursuit of some possibly unobtainable utopian future. CHIMERA asks: if the goal is to save all of mankind, is any price too high? And how do we cope with the atrocities committed in pursuit of it?

If you are looking for violence, gore, or jump scares, this movie is not for you. It focuses instead on a more cerebral sort of horror. The suspense stems from complex characterization and deep insight into the human nature to love even if it makes us monsters. This is not a teen fright flick, but perhaps it can be viewed as a science fiction success.

Creepy Possessions: The New Orleans Doll

The only thing I knew for certain about the doll was that I received it as a gift.

My sister brought it back with her from a high school choir trip to New Orleans. It was a trinket really—a miniature jester wearing a leopard print costume, the face and hands made of porcelain. It wasn’t expensive, just a mass-produced souvenir. The heavy makeup on her painted face nearly tripled the size of her dark eyes. I had never liked clowns, never feared them either, so the doll was a strange thing for me to develop an attachment to. If she hadn’t been a gift from my sister, I never would have liked her much at all.

Odd as she was, I kept her for years, always in a prominent place on my desk or bookshelf. I suppose after a while I simply stopped thinking of her as strange. Whenever anyone asked about her, I proudly told them of my sister thinking of me while away and bringing her back.

I kept a number of art, trinkets, and toys on my bookshelves, mostly gifts from friends. That was where the doll sat since I first lived on my own. Despite being made of fragile porcelain, she survived four moves to and from college and three adult apartments. Occasionally, she would suffer an accident, when a cat or errant breeze pushed her off her perch, but she remained unharmed, now decades older and just as new as the day she arrived.

Then my sister came to visit.

“Jesus, Daphne, where did you get that thing?” she asked. “It’s creepy as hell.”

She could have been referring to anything (I own a number of things Wendy considered spooky, including my Ouija Board phone case), but was pointing at the doll on the shelf, where she sat guarding my reference books on vampire lore.

“You bought it for me,” I said, with all the confidence I had from years of telling the story.

“Why would I give you that?”

“You brought it back when the choir went to New Orleans.”

“When did the choir go to New Orleans?”

I tried to remember. She had gone to New Orleans. She had brought back the doll. Those were facts, as secure in my mind as my own birthday. She had given me the doll… but when had that been? She must have been in high school, but then why did I remember the doll from before then? And why would Wendy, who was notoriously frightened by anything remotely occult, have gone somewhere in New Orleans that sold an item so strange? It was a mystery that, I’ve admitted to myself, was unlikely to ever be solved. And without the special honor that came from having been gifted by my sister, my decades-long attachment and care for the doll no longer made sense.

The doll still sits on my shelves. I’m not one to get rid of a gift. And I am still certain that she was a gift, even if I don’t know who gave it.

Award Winning Horror

It’s awards season and, as Horror Addicts, that isn’t much to get excited about.

Film critics usually rank horror somewhere below stale theater popcorn, if they mention it at all. The only horror film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture was The Silence of the Lambs (over 25 years ago) and only four horror films made the cut for the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films (Jaws, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense). But the genre pulled in upwards of $983 million last year and was responsible 10% of the market share. Clearly, horror resonates with the public psyche and the lack of credit isn’t from lack of interest.

Perhaps horror gets a bad name from pulp monster flicks created to sell children’s toys or from movies that capitalize on sex at the expense of actual fear. Of course, exploitative movies aren’t exclusive to horror, but it seems that whenever a frightening film is acclaimed, critics are quick to characterize it as a different genre—thriller or science fiction, most often.

Are times changing?

Eliciting true terror is just as difficult as drawing tears and there is great insight achieved through examining cultural roots of fear. Get Out was a box office smash this year, indicating that audiences are ready to use horror to look at the world from a new angle. With the public seeking more than slashers that trade shock for substance, film studios—particularly indie producers—seem poised to push the boundaries of the genre further than ever before. Directors are creating defiant films that plumb the depths of human nature. If you haven’t already, go watch Raw, The Bad Batch, or The Shape of Water for a glimpse at the new frontiers producers are exploring.

Guillermo del Toro just won a Golden Globe for his directing in The Shape of Water. Get Out was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture (as a Comedy, but still… Horror wasn’t a category). Maybe it’s a sign of things to come. We could be looking forward to some nomination nods when the Oscars come around.

Blood and gore movies filled with jump scares will never really go away, (then again, neither will the Transformers franchise). That isn’t bad—those things have their place. But a new generation of movies is emerging, ones that may earn a place among industry greats as the best films of all time.

#NGHW Winner of the Character Challenge Daphne Strasert

Winner Daphne Strasert!

Daphne wins an Anime character sketch of her character from Pixel Ghost Creations!


My grandmother warned me when Aria was born. “Keep a wary eye,” she said. “The fairies will spirit away a beautiful baby if they get the chance.” It was superstitious nonsense, or so I thought at the time. Eleven years passed without a thought for her stories about fairies and changelings. Yet, ever since Aria started middle school…

It was absurd—I knew it was absurd—to even entertain the thought, but Aria… she wasn’t my daughter anymore. Not really. Gone were the days of playful giggles and lightning-quick hugs before she skipped from the car to the entrance of her school. Now she rolled her eyes when I asked if she wanted to make cupcakes and threw fits about coming to family dinner. It was as if one night my bubbly darling went to bed as the angel she’d always been and the next morning, a petulant, spoiled imposter emerged.

She looked the same—all curly red hair and freckles—but there was something in her eyes, a sinister glint behind the green that wasn’t there before.

I carried the basket of clothes up the stairs to her room. They had to be washed—had to— before she went to the movies with Christina. She needed her blue shirt, the one she insisted I buy for her because green was so last year.

The door to her room stood ajar, giving me a rare sliver view of the anti-Mom fortress that she had created. She sprawled on her bed, headphones blocking out the rest of the world and phone in her hands as it always was now, like it was surgically attached. She made faces at the screen, snapping selfies in her own private photoshoot. She straightened the hem of her tank top—the one that said “less math, more boys”, the one that bared her midriff, the one that I told her not to wear—and pulled the waistband of her jean shorts lower over her hips. She frowned, tugged at the end of an errant curl, and wrinkled her nose.

I was about to toe open the door, mouth full a lecture I’d repeated without end, when her form shimmered, like looking at her through hot air rising over pavement. Her body wavered, warped, then changed.

She stretched, even as she shrank. Her limbs grew spindly, the flesh sticking to her bones so that her joints protruded in bulbous relief. The skin greyed, then tinted green, turning the color of mint. Her hair grew and grew and grew, the curls unfurling as it did, until it pooled around her. The red drained from the strands, starting at the roots, as if an artery had been cut and all the color ran out leaving only a shimmering, silky lake of silver. Moss green spots replaced the dusting of freckles over her face and shoulders. The afternoon light that filtered through the gauzy curtains bounced off iridescent scales that had sprouted over her collar bones. Sharp cheekbones jutted from her face and her jaw and chin narrowed, giving her the triangular visage of a praying mantis. The fingers that held her phone in front of her face lengthened and her nails, once neatly trimmed, grew into wicked, curved claws.

She wiggled a little, sitting straighter in the bed, and two pairs of translucent wings sprang free from the pillows. They were narrow, like those on a dragonfly, with a pattern of veins twining like lace through the sheer material. The areas between each shone with a different color, like stained glass. She combed her fingers through her hair, arranging it, first over one shoulder, then the other, examining her face from a variety of angles in the screen of her phone, until seemingly pleased with the result. She puckered her thin lips to blow a kiss at the screen, lifting the point of her chin, and snapped another selfie.

The basket fell from my hands.

She jerked from the bed, tearing the headphones off and revealing long, pointed ears that sloped downwards from her hair. For a frozen moment, we stared at each other. Her eyes, now nearly twice as large, glowed a luminous blue. They sparkled, the colors shifting over each other like a kaleidoscope with only a thin, vertical slit of obsidian in the center.

The pupils widened as she blinked, like a cat recognizing prey. A shiver swept up my spine. She advanced toward me, one bare foot placed in front of the other in a silent stalk. Aria’s clothes hung off her skeletal frame, too large for the creature that wore them. My feet froze to the floor. A scream built inside my throat, but as the creature that had been my daughter prowled closer, the sound found no exit.

She stopped only a step away, close enough for me to smell the woodsy scent of rain and organic decay that wafted from her, too wild to be any perfume. The air stilled in my lungs. Her eyes, those swirling pools of blue, never left mine. The corners of her lips tugged upwards, like a curtain drawing back on a stage, baring dozens of interlocked needle-like teeth in a grotesque smile. Her tongue slithered out to stroke the point of each fang in turn.

God, Mom,” she said, her voice tinkling as if accompanied by chimes. “Don’t you know how to knock?” She bent to the basket, snatched the blue shirt from the top of the pile, and whirled back into the room with the slam of the door.

Listen to the contestants battle for points this season on