The House Next Door (1978): Architectural Southern Horror

The House Next Door (film)
The House Next Door (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will admit up front that if Stephen King had not written about The House Next Door in his own book Danse Macabre, I would have never heard of Ann Rivers Siddons let alone read her book.

King’s Danse Macabre was a look at horror as a medium in radio, film, television and literature. Before I go into Siddons book, I’d like to recommend that you have a peek at Danse Macabre (or hell, why not go all out and read the whole book). You might just find that he writes about some old friends or, like my own experience with the book, make some new ones.

Ann Rivers Siddons was born in the south and she still lives there. She writes southern based literature and does so very well. She does not write horror novels and except for The House Next Door she hasn’t visited the area of Southern Gothic stories.

The House Next Door is set in a modern day southern suburban neighbourhood. The books main protagonist is Colquitt Kennedy and although she is later joined by husband Walter, she alone is the one who recognises the threat that the house poses.

Coquitt and Walter are a childless couple who are rapidly approaching that time of life that is referred to as middle age. They are happy with their lives and do not miss having children. The Kennedy’s are the very picture of mediocrity. She has a part-time job and maintains her house, garden and pets equally. She is the more social of the married couple and she is to a degree, vain,  superficial and unchallenged by life.

The Kennedy’s live next to a  lot that has been, for years, vacant because building a house there would not only be difficult but expensive. The lot is wooded and too ‘wild’ to be turned into a building plot.

That changes with the arrival of architect Kim Dougherty. A charming and brilliant young man who has developed house plans for the plot next door for a young up and coming couple, the Harrellson’s. After initially feeling annoyance that they hadn’t bought the empty lot sooner, Colquitt and Walter warm to the young architect and they visit with him while the house is being built.

When the house is finished it is breath-taking to look at. It looks as though “it is literally growing out of the ground.” The Harralson’s move in and thus begins the first of several inhabitants of the house paying a horrific price for living in it.

The story is broken down into three families and the destruction of each when they move into the house. Colquitt and Walter become unwilling witnesses to the house and the way it destroys those drawn to it. Even the architect Kim is not safe from his creation.

The families are the Harralsons, the Sheehans and the Greens. Each family pays a higher price than the preceding family. It’s almost as if the house has developed an appetite for bloodshed, pain and death.

Colquitt and Walter finally decide that they must do something about the house next door and as a result become social pariahs in their own neighbourhood.  They then realise that the action they will have to take must be and drastic and final.

Siddons writes a haunted house tale that will grip you and make you want to discuss it with everyone. It  is a book that clings to your memory like day old custard. It amazes me that she hit the ‘horror ball’ right out of the park with her first horror novel. She knows her territory and the folks who fill it all too well.

Being born and raised, for the most part, in the south I felt that Siddons picture of life in southern suburbia was spot on. I also felt as though I had known most of the people that she wrote about.

Thankfully, I’ve never known a house like The House Next Door and hopefully I never will.

Gone By Michael Grant – But Not Over

Written by Michael Grant and first published in 2008, Gone is a brilliant start to a series about the youthful survivors of a shattered California town.

Set in the fictional seaside town of Perdida Beach. The book starts with the literal disappearance of a teacher in front of her class full of young students. There is no bang, no pop, no puff of smoke. Just there one moment and gone the next.

It turns out that the disappearance of the teacher isn’t an isolated event. As the book proceeds, we find that everyone fifteen years old and older have vanished.

The ‘hero’ of the piece is Apollonian Sam Temple (do you get what he did there, with the name?) who, with his best friend Quinn Gaither, teams up with Astrid Ellison (who might as well be named super-genius) and Edilio Escobar an immigrant from the Honduras. Their first concern is finding out who from their respective families are still around.

They finally go to find Astrid’s extremely autistic brother Pete who was with his father at the Perdido Atomic Power Plant when all  the fifteen plus people vanished.

Before the end of the first day, Sam has saved the pre-school from burning down, he and his group have found Petey and they have discovered that the entire area around Perdido Beach has been enclosed in some sort of bubble.

Within forty-eight hours the question of eating, living, and who will rule has been broached. Before the dust settles, a convoy of black cars drive into the town square. The children who step out of the cars are from the ‘rich kid’ academy on the hill Coates Academy. Coates is in reality a juvenile detention home for the off-spring of the  rich and privileged who are “discipline problems.”

Their leader is the charismatic and Dionysian Caine (again, look what he did with the name here) who is the exact opposite of Sam and who wants to control everything.

While all this has been going on, a lot of the children are finding out that they have developed new and unusual abilities.

But they face another problem. It is rapidly coming up to Sam’s fifteenth birthday and he’s not getting a cake for his special day.

Lord of the Flies

Grant has taken this small town and using it as a giant goldfish bowl shows how the children of modern society would react if all the ‘grown-ups’ were removed. It is almost like a panoramic and updated view of The Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s classic book. Or even Stephen King’s The Stand, but a microscopic version.

No matter how you look at it, the book is a cracking read. Grant paints the towns tapestry brilliantly and uses the same masterful strokes to paint his characters. I lost myself  in this book and could not stop reading it until the last page was breached.

I am now in the process of getting the rest of the books in his series. I have a feeling that Michael Grant is here to stay as a gifted story teller.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay: The Three Stages

I have not gotten this excited about an author since I got sent a Stephen King book as a Book Club “Choice of the Month” in 1979. I had never heard of King before, but the book – The Stand (and can you think of a better introduction to Kings work, than The Stand?) was huge and had a cover with a dwarf dressed as some sort of knight who was engaged in battle with some big thing.  Despite this inauspicious start, I opened the book and started reading. I did not stop until I had finished the book, I then re-read it. I have in fact re-read the book many times since then. I became a huge King fan, and yes Stevie I would read your shopping list if you so chose to write it.

I have now found a new writer to fall in love with, well with her words and her stories, Suzanne Collins. After reading the first instalment  in her trilogy, The Hunger Games, I ran down and bought the other two books in the series. I read the last two in such a state of concentration that the house could have burned down and I would not have noticed. In fact I read all three books in three days. Just in case your math skills are a little rusty, that works out to a book a day friends and neighbours.

With each book weighing in at around five hundred pages per novel, that is some heavy duty reading. And before you ask, no I have never taken a speed reading course, I just read really fast. Ask my first wife, she knows. The point I am trying to make, by going the “the long way around the barn” is this. Suzanne Collins, to me anyway has joined the short list of authors that can take me fully into the world that she has created.

That’s right, I said short list of authors.

King, always; with the exception of Carrie, I had a hard time dealing with the last of the book, with it’s press clippings and interviews. John D. MacDonald, always, especially if it was a Travis McGee book. Elmore Leonard, Always, no exceptions, Ed McBain, no exceptions; I really miss the guys at the 87th precinct. I could probably make a list of writers that could fill a good sized paragraph, but it would still be short compared to the amount of published writers that currently exist.

In a time where the mass production of the Kindle has caused ebooks to start selling like hotcakes, thereby giving exposure to a host of mediocre writers, Collins shines like a beacon. Oh how brightly she shines. In my opinion, her books should be taught in school, not Stephanie Meyer’s dreadful Twilight series. Twilight with it’s lackadaisical heroine and the poor writing style. The female protagonist in her books is so wishy washy, so lacklustre and the books themselves so sophomorically written…Sorry, but I think you can catch my drift here.

These three books are brilliantly written. Collins has given us a positive role model for a female heroine. The stories themselves serve us a powerful message: “The new boss is the same as the old boss.” Or in layman’s terms, power corrupts and we really shouldn’t trust anyone who has absolute power.

I am not going to bother going over plot points. I won’t go into any discussions about characters and their arcs. I will say one thing about Suzanne Collins’ books.

Read them, all of them.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins Appetizing Fare

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the story of sixteen year old  Katniss Everdeen, the sole provider for her family; a family of three since her father died in a mine accident. Set in the ruins of North America, is a country called Panem and it is made up of twelve Districts ruled by the  harsh dictatorship of the Capital. The Capital equals rich extravagant lifestyle and power. The Districts are the metaphorical workhorses of the country and they must follow the orders of Capital or face severe punishment.

There were originally thirteen Districts. They banded together to revolt against the Capital. District 13 was completely obliterated by the Capital. The remaining Districts now must participate in The Hunger Games. The Capital requires all young people in the Districts to register for a lottery. Two children, a male and a female are then chosen by a draw called ‘The Reaping.’ They are then transported to the Capital, wined, dined, trained and interviewed. The purpose of these Games is twofold, to constantly reinforce the dictatorship of the Capital and to provide entertainment to the citizens of the country.

The young people from each District attempt to impress the rich people of Capital to get sponsorship for themselves and also for their District. Some of the “richer” Districts train their young people for the games.When Katiniss Everdeen’s eleven year old sister Prim gets chosen to attend the games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Katniss comes from District 12. The Districts are separated into what they provide for the Capital, District 12 provides coal. It is a  poor  district that has had only one winner of the games since they started.

The rules of the game are simple, the children must kill each other until there is only one survivor. The survivor is that year’s winner and they and their District are rewarded. The entire game is televised and the Capital populace make bets on who will win. If they are lucky the participants will gain a sponsor who gives them things during the game to improve their chances of winning.

For four hundred and fifty-four pages I was Katniss Everdean. A sixteen year old girl who had been taught by her father to hunt and by her mother to gather herbs. Hunting illegally in the off-limits woodland surrounding her District she keeps her family fed. A girl who volunteers immediately when her younger sister’s name is called on the day of the Reaping.

Suzanne Collins has written a book that literally moves with so much speed that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. From the moment I sat down, opened the book and read the first page, I was hooked. I finished the book in one reading and immediately wished I had purchased the other two books in the trilogy. Through her skilful writing, Collins has created a world so real that it seems to leap off the page alive and breathing.

The book has been made into a film and I am almost afraid to see it. The images that filled my mind while I read the book can never be captured fully. The scene where the two children enter the Capital on chariots was so moving that I got goose bumps while reading it. I can only say, “Welcome Suzanne Collins to the world of literature. May you be here for a long time.”