Saturday, August 13, 2011

NEW STUFF: 21st Century Ghostbusters

Cinema of Shadows by Michael West
278 pp. w/ illustrations by Matthew Perry
Seventh Star Press  $15.95

Harmony, Indiana according to my state map of the Hoosier state is located approximately 15 miles southeast of Greencastle. Harmony may not be entirely fictional but it may one day take its place alongside purely fictional cities like Arkham, Dunwich, and Castle Rock. In Michael West's loving homage to the old-fashioned spook tales of the late 1970s Harmony is the home of the other worldly Woodfield Movie Palace which itself is descended from such familiar literary haunts as Hill House, the Rolfe home, Belasco House and the Overlook Hotel. It has a bloody and violent history that has been attracting the attention of Prof. Geoffrey Burke, local parapsychologist who teaches at Stanley University. He and a group of specially selected students will spend one night of intensive research in the movie theater hoping to record any supernatural activity. They get much more than they ever hoped for.

Part of the clever design concept of the book itself is also to pay homage to old movies.  There are section titles dividing the book that reflect a night at the movies: "Previews of Coming Attractions," "Our Main Feature" and -- what now seems to be standard practice with works of fiction -- the acknowledgement page which has been dubbed "Credits." The "previews" are two prologues which I felt completely unnecessary. This seemed to be an echo of those old 70s horror novels where every book had a prologue to introduce what happened in the past and an epilogue where the terror seemingly resolved resurrects itself. Cinema of Shadows is constructed exactly the same way and in some respects this works against it.

In fact, the entire beginning of the book is filled with extraneous exposition. Too much time is spent on the mundane lives of the not so interesting college students, and the newly found love life of the lead college student, Kim Saunders. Luckily, somewhere in Chapter 9 the ghost story element finally kicks in when Kim talks of her first real terror-filled moment with the supernatural at a covered bridge. She describes in great detail how the ghost of drowned girl attacks her while she is trapped inside a car and how the little girl still comes to her in dreams. This creepy bit is followed by a scene at the local ER where Kim's boyfriend, Tyler, a medical resident works. He cares for a gruesomely wounded man who was working at the Woodfield Theater and we begin to see that some unnatural being must be on the loose. From here on the book finally settles into itself and tells a thrilling story that incorporates demonic possession, horrible murders, an attempted exorcism, and a rip-roaring investigative night replete with high tech video, sound and thermal equipment in the haunted movie theater - a place supercharged with tortured ghosts, apparitions and the utterly bizarre.

Tashima kicks ass at the Woodfield  (art by Matt Perry)
I liked some of the supporting characters more than the leads. Robby Miller, an EMT, who has the lowdown on the Woodfield's horror-filled past is one of the best in the book. His dialogue is rich and distinctive.  A scene with him in a strip bar is a gory highlight for those who crave that kind of thing. Also Wilber Harvey, the old projectionist of the Woodfield, is a sharply drawn old codger. His tour of the theater prior to the madness that ensues is filled with movie theater lore and interesting tidbits about the long gone days of life in a real movie palace. I thought it a fascinating part of the book. Of course, I'm a diehard old movie fan. West has a real handle on making passages like these come alive and spice up the narrative. You can tell he loves his movies as much as he loves his horror fiction.

West's strengths lie in his action sequences. There are some truly original scenes here as well as some pointedly subtle allusions to horror classics. True horror fans may need a scorecard to check off all the references. I saw homages to The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House and Peter Straub's Ghost Story. There are probably even more. One of the best sequences involves Tashima, the sassy self-dubbed "black chick," who becomes a down and dirty badass and does battle with an army of animated gold statues smashing them to pieces with the back of one of the theater's seats.  It's only one of many knuckle biting, page turning scenes that make up the extended climax.

There are, however, some weaknesses in the writing like an overload on the the tired dream/nightmare sequences that occur in so many movies of this genre and a strange affinity for using "chuckle" instead of "laugh," but these are picayune compared to West's overall lively storytelling ability. I might also add that proofreading the book was a bit careless. I found some unforgivable spelling errors. Letting "Citizen Cane" slip by in a book about old movies is practically a mortal sin. Editor beware.

All fault finding aside I have to admit I was surprised by Cinema of Shadows. It delivered what I expected and then some. This is the first in a proposed series of three books set in haunted Harmony, Indiana. It will be interesting to see how far Michael West will go in taking the familiar formulae of horror novels and transforming them into action-filled contemporary shockers. He is one horror writer to watch. He's definitely got the goods on display here.

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GIVEAWAY!!  To celebrate my first legitimate review for a newly published book I'm giving away my copy of Cinema of Shadows which also includes four "Collector" post cards of the artwork by Matt Perry that illustrates the book.  The black & white illustration above is from one of these cards, but strangely the picture does not appear in the book.  In order to win the copy, leave a comment below and tell me your favorite haunted house novel of recent years or days gone by.  Anonymous comments will not be eligible as I will need an email to contact you afterwards.  I'll select a name at random and announce it here in two weeks around August 27.


  1. I'm going to say Dan Simmons' "Summer of Night," though it's more of a haunted school (although there are people living there). I love re-reading it and its sequel back to back every other year or so.

    rick at ollerman dot com

  2. Thanks, Rick. Haunted school, haunted hotel, haunted movie theater...they all count. Guess I should have said haunted location. I've only read SONG OF KALI by Simmons and thought it excellent - a very modern take on the horror novel. I keep wanting to check out CARRION COMFORT. His most recent books are doorstop size tomes that are so intimidating in length and size that I'm afraid I run in terror whenever I find a copy. Though I would like to read DROOD ...someday.

    Your name and email are in the hat. Good luck.

  3. Thanks, John. I used to love Simmons but have given up recently, despite being Dickens and Collins fans, and a follower of the Franklin expedition (and subsequent rescue missions). "Summer of Night" is absolutely classic, however, and some of the scenes in the book are among the most chilling I've ever read in a novel. Its sequel, "A Winter Haunting," is completely different in tone and style and yet the perfect complement to "Night." Read those two back to back for a memorable reading experience. "Carrion Comfort" is fine, but to me more of a run of the mill sort of horror book.