DWJ ReRead · Fantasy · Horror

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

“And I won’t bother with breakfast, now Lavinia’s not here to bring it me in bed, dear,” was Aunt Maria’s final demand. Mum promised to bring her breakfast on a tray at eight-thirty sharp. It’s a very useful way of bullying people. – Black Maria, Diana Wynne Jones

blackmariaMy current copy of Black Maria is also my first copy, which is kind of rare when it comes to my DWJ books – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lent it out before. I received my copy from a classmate back in high school. Even now, I wonder about it – we weren’t close, and it wasn’t a special occasion, but one day she presented me with the book with a note saying she knew I loved Diana Wynne Jones. (As a result, she is one of the very few classmates I still remember now.) Anyway, the first time I read it, I thought – how gloomy. Diana Wynne Jones’ books aren’t exactly all cheery, and books like Homeward Bounders are pretty dark, but the gloominess of Black Maria struck me deeper, probably because it was a gloominess I knew all too well from my own childhood.

Another thing about Black Maria is that even though it was first published in 1991, it was really written before The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988). Since I’m reading in published order, I figure I may as well make a note of that here. In “A Whirlwind Tour of Australia” (published in Reflections), Diana Wynne Jones wrote that unlike some of her other books that were published long after they were written, Black Maria was suppressed by her. The reason? It was too frightening. To me, it isn’t a direct sort of horror – it is that utter gloominess, a claustrophobic sort of dread and resignation that comes with having to live with someone like Aunt Maria.

Mig Laker and her brother Chris had never met their father’s Aunt Maria, not until his sudden death. Then, after a series of phone calls from poor, frail Aunt Maria who reminds them that they were her only family left, their mother takes them to Aunt Maria’s for a holiday.

It didn’t take long for the Lakers to realise that Aunt Maria – who appears to be so cozy and cuddly – rules the village of Cranbury-on-Sea. She’s the queen bee, flanked by the twelve women who live down the street. All the men might as well have been zombies in suits. And all the other children seem like clones, even if they don’t resemble one another physically. On top of that, there’s a ghost haunting Chris’ room, and a cat that looks uncannily like one of Aunt Maria’s previous servants.

For most of the book, you get the feeling that something is off, and that it was more than Aunt Maria’s pretense at frailty to manipulate everyone around her, and more than the enforced gender stereotypes that made all the women tending to Aunt Maria and the men “away” all the time. Mig played along at first, letting her brother take the active role (as a boy, he was encouraged to be outdoors while Mig had to help her mother look after Aunt Maria). But as Chris’ attitude towards Aunt Maria gets more and more rude – providing for some of the best laughs in the book – and Aunt Maria gets more awful but in this unbearably SWEET way until she finally does something to get Chris out of her way for good. This forces Mig to take the lead, to uncover the truth about the people of Cranbury-on-Sea so that she could find a way to get her brother back.

The whole story is written from Mig’s point of view, so it is only from here onwards that we truly see beyond the tea parties and coziness to all of the darkness running underneath. I love that Mig’s adventure recalls some of my favourite fairy tale tropes but of course, this being a Diana Wynne Jones book, everything is flipped over and nothing is what it seems. I had remembered this book as a horror, and in my reread I realised that it’s not REALLY horror, but it’s got elements of horror. And it has SF elements but it’s more of a fantasy – reading it, I remembered DWJ’s mentions of not wanting to be boxed in by genre in Reflections. I guess it gets claustrophobic, just like the villagers of Cranbury-on-Sea being forced into specific male/female stereotypes. I really hate the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality, and loved the way it’s treated in this book. In the end a person is a person, and a good book is a good book, and Black Maria makes a great Halloween reread.

* published as Aunt Maria in the US. Sadly, both US and UK versions are out-of-print now.
**reread earlier in the year, but reread again for the RIP Challenge.

Other Reviews:
Iris, Books & More | Shelf LoveThings Mean A Lot | We Be ReadingThe World Crafter

DWJ RE-READ no.41 | Black Maria (1991)
previous read | Castle in the Air
next read | “A Slice of Life”


Bird Box by Josh Malerman

birdboxI received this book twice – the first time, it was the UK version, and I passed on it, thinking that I wasn’t in the mood for horror. I rarely am, to tell the truth. The second time, it was the US version, and while I still wasn’t in the mood for horror, I held on to the book, because I liked the cover. And when I was thinking of what to read for the RIP challenge, this was the first book that came to mind! The setting for Bird Box is a dystopian future, years after a terrifying but unknown creature began appearing – the very sight of these creatures would render a person insane and suicidal.

At the beginning of the story, Malorie had lived with only her two children for four years in a house near a river. They spent their days in darkness, with the curtains drawn and covered with mattresses, and they wore thick blindfolds if they ventured outdoors. As far as they knew, there were no other surviving humans nearby. Deciding that she needed to try to bring her children to an imagined safer place, they left their house, and started on a twenty-mile trip up the river. Malorie had trained herself and her children to live relying only on sounds, but still, it was all too easy to imagine her fear and insecurity as they made their way into a world changed for the wilder with the absence of people.

Interspersed with their journey were flashbacks to how Malorie got to that point, beginning from the moment she found herself pregnant, hearing her sister telling her about the strange, violent happenings being reported overseas. Despite knowing that Malorie obviously made it through up to the point of the story’s present time, and that she did survive childbirth, it was these flashbacks that I found to be the most chilling. I guess it’s because there’s this heavy feeling of foreboding throughout, especially at the most dull, domestic bits, because you just KNOW something bad would happen (since the story started with all these other characters absent). While there was violence and gore throughout, what really made the fear believable was how Malerman wrote about how life was like in total darkness, when every small sound could be a signal for when things start to go wrong. I liked that although this story establishes the creatures as real (as far as Malorie could discern) it never described it/them, which made them all the more scary.

This book isn’t perfect – there are things that don’t quite make sense, although it was easy enough for me to ignore these things while reading, because I was so caught up with Malorie’s journey. I don’t know if I could say I “enjoyed” the read, but I found this book hard to put down and hard to forget, and I’m glad to have read it.

*  read for the RIP challenge!

DWJ ReRead · Fantasy · Horror

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones

timeoftheghostAnd so, my re-read enters that grim period – in which the next three novels I’m tackling (With a short story in between) are The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders, and Witch Week. All books I love, or have come to love, but also books that I’ve struggled with because either I had found them a bit dark (The Time of the Ghost, Witch Week), or found the ending unsettling (The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders).

This week’s book, The Time of the Ghost, is probably her creepiest book, and reads to me as more of a horror novel than a fantasy. This is my third read, and if it wasn’t for the fact that my second reading was almost exactly a year ago, it probably would have felt like reading it anew. The narrator starts out as this nameless, bodiless being who guesses that she is the ghost of one of four Melford sisters, but she doesn’t know which. And of course she doesn’t know why she’s a ghost, and how she got that way, so this is also a mystery. That’s two genres I hardly read. And yet I find this book so hard to put down! Continue reading “The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones”

Fantasy · Horror

Mini Review: The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones


In Jo Walton’s column on Tor.com she mentioned this thing where her least favourite books by authors she liked might end up being the new favourites, because she doesn’t reread them as often, and they end up retaining more freshness as a result. I sort of knew what she meant with this book, although the thing about DWJ is that every reread does seem to reveal something new and therefore no two reread is ever the same. And The Time of the Ghost isn’t even a least favourite of mine; it’s just one of the ones I’ve never reread before, because I tend to reread the same ones (Fire and Hemlock, Charmed Life, Eight Days of Luke, Archer’s Goon, and Power of Three mainly).

So, one day I was ordering her books for the store and realized that I had no recollection of this book at all. It’s as if I’ve never read it. My mind’s been wiped clean. I read a lot, and I read fast, so I’ve forgotten books before. I read all of Dickens in a week when I was twelve, and forgot them two weeks later. I was halfway through Riordan’s Son of Neptune the year before last, and was halfway through by the time I noticed I’ve already read the book. I don’t forget everything – usually there will be specific lines or scenes that stay with me – but it’s not unheard of for me to forget a book. I don’t think I’ve forgotten as completely as in this case, though. I reread it over a few days, and it felt like I’m reading a completely new book with just a vaguely familiar feel. It’s marvelous. It makes me wonder if I ought to reread Dogsbody next, and it makes me really want to reread Deep Secret and experience it all over again.

~ originally posted on Weebly

Horror · Manga · Review

Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (2) by Otsuka Eiji& Yamazaki Housui

I think I may have to actually follow this series now; thank you Kit for making me addicted to yet another series that I probably can’t afford to follow! :p

*spoiler alert*

While the first volume of Kurosagi Corpse was episodic, and has a different case in each chapter, this volume tells one story and works as a standalone. It’s about Sasaki Ao, the leader of the delivery service. From the first book I knew that she has access to a chat room called Corpse-Chat and has a morbid interest in the dead, but in this volume her backstory is revealed and I found out what started her out.

Born as Saito Ao, Sasaki had returned home to discover her parents and younger sister brutally murdered. (She changed her name to Sasaki after being adopted by relatives) The only survivors from the massacre were her older sister and herself, because they were not inside at the time. However, she clearly remembered a man who had asked her the pin code to the main apartment entrance when she was outside. While her sister was consumed with thoughts of revenge, Sasaki claimed to have put it behind her. However, this volume shows that she had been just as obsessed with the past, spending nights poring over the pictures of her dead family.

The Kurosagi Delivery Service was started by Sasaki, and what they do is deliver corpses to where they need to go before their souls could rest in peace and move on to the next life. Most of the time the corpses had unpleasant deaths and the delivery service would have to help them get their revenge on the living. But what about the living who want revenge upon the dead? Apparently there is another group of people offering this service – they bring the dead back to life so that those victimised by them could exact their revenge. Since the man accused of murdering Sasaki’s family was on death row (and have died), Sasaki and her sister were invited to participate in it so that they could finally revenge their family.

I really like how the story unfolds slowly, revealing the story in small pieces and putting it together at the end. A good mystery. A creepy one, too. I like stories that discuss the need for and consequence of revenge (the Blade of the Immortal series is especially good at that) . If you think “an eye for an eye”, and kill the killer, what really makes you different from them? In a smaller extent it also talks about cheating death and why bringing back the dead will not change the fact that they had died, but it didn’t explore that as much as I would have liked. The best part of this manga? It’s really somber and serious, but still funny!

~ originally posted on blogspot

Horror · Manga · Review

Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (1) by Otsuka Eiji & Yamazaki Housui

I browsed through the Chinese or Japanese version of this awhile back. I don’t remember which version it was, I just remember that a customer was looking through the book and left it at our counter, and I flipped through it before returning it to the appropriate section. It has been at the back of my mind ever since then.

First of all, the writer of this manga is Otsuka Eiji, who wrote one of my favourite manga I never finished, MPD Psycho. Before MPD Psycho I had only read manga in Malay translation, and those were mostly kiddy stuff like Doraemon, or shonen manga like Slam Dunk and Vagabond. Then Daisuke lent me his copies of MPD Psycho. I couldn’t read Japanese back then but the images were arresting. The art was beautiful, gory, disturbing. I immediately sought out scanlations online, and the story was just as compelling as the art. I stopped reading scanlations sometime ago, which means most of the manga I was reading, I never completed. Manga and graphic novels are pretty expensive, though, so for the most part I hardly read them anymore.

This one is difficult to resist. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is about a group of students from a Buddhist college with strange abilities who found a lucrative job – by helping dead people rest in peace. They are (1) Karatsu Kuro, who has the ability to speak to the dead, and sometimes cause dead bodies to be animated, (2) Numata Makoto, who is a dowser who finds dead bodies instead of water, (3) Yata Yuji, who wears a puppet on his left hand that supposedly channels a foul-mouthed alien, (4) Makino Keiko, a licensed embalmer who reminds me a lot of Yazawa Ai’s Miwako, and (5) Sasaki Ao, a hacker who runs an internet chat-room called “Corpse-Chat.” Not able to find better jobs, they formed the delivery service by using their skills to help dead spirits move on.

The story is macabre and disturbing – most of the people I know won’t be comfortable reading this. The opening chapter has a double suicide, incest, and a walking corpse. The first panel shows a corpse hanging off a rope in the middle of the woods. It’s no MPD Psycho (I’ve yet to come across anything quite as twisted), but still it’s not something that I’d recommend easily. Having said that, I absolutely love it! I’m a big fan of seinen manga, and this is a fun read. While I do wish for it to be a bit more like MPD Psycho, I also appreciate the fact that The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly enjoyable, as well as full of gore.

Horror · Review

Review: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill…

…and my relationship with the horror genre.
I chose this for my R.I.P. read for a lark. I don’t read a lot of horror; I do venture into dark fantasy, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy with vampires and demons, etc. I love Edgar Allen Poe and when I was a kid I enjoyed Dracula and Frankenstein, but those are shelved in “Literature” now. Of course, I’m not saying that that doesn’t make them horror novels. It’s just that… I rarely read books that are actually shelved in the “horror” section of my bookstore.
I’ve read a total of one book by Stephen King (It), and a total of three books by one of my favourite writers, Poppy Z. Brite (Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, Exquisite Corpse). Oh, yeah, and I had an Anne Rice obsession in high school, but like with Poppy Z. Brite, I’ve only read three of her vampire chronicles books – The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned and Tale of the Body Thief). I read them repeatedly, but those were the only ones I’ve read. I never got Interview With the Vampire because the nearest MPH (where I book-shopped before Kino) was always out of stock, and by the time I got to Tale of the Body Thief I was so disappointed (Queen of the Damned was the best book among the three, so reading Tale of the Body Thief after it was kind of a let-down) that I didn’t bother, and just re-read Queen of the Damned instead. It was always at the back of my mind, this thought that I want to read more Brite, I want to read more King. Actually, thinking back, I also want to read more Anne Rice. Because I loved what I’ve read. I really do. It’s just that I don’t think I would love anything else Poppy Z. Brite wrote more than I loved Drawing Blood, and Stephen King always takes a backseat next to other authors in my TBR list.
Enter Joe Hill. I started it for a lark; I wanted at least one book in my R.I.P. pool to be from the horror shelf, and the synopsis was interesting, and I liked the reviews I’ve read of it so far. When I opened to the first page, I was only half-serious, thinking, “okay, let’s see what this is all about” – but three pages in, I was absolutely absorbed. It was really intense, but at some parts it was funny, which I loved. It was creepy and it was spooky and it was disturbing, and not all of it was because of the horror element, the ghost that the main character purchased. What started as the minor plot turned out to be part of the major one, and it seems like the really scary parts were the ones that were the real-life horrors of the characters, and not the ones that was brought on by the ghost. Because Heart-Shaped Box was not only a story about a couple haunted by a (seriously creepy, psycho) ghost, but also about the metaphorical ghosts that have already haunted them their entire lives. It’s a story about child abuse, domestic violence, rape, incest – the horrors that actually exists now, that are still being inflicted on people today. In a way I think it’s fitting that Jude and Marybeth fighting the ghost is like confronting the personal demons that haunt them, that without first being able to face their past without shame or fear, they probably wouldn’t have got very far in the story. It reminds me somewhat of Drawing Blood in that sense
Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, definitely. And I’m going to get Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts too, as soon as it’s out in paperback!
~ originally posted on blogspot