A Collection of Dreamscapes – Haunting Horror Poems

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I don’t read nearly enough poetry, and I review even less of it. In fact, only recently was it brought to my attention that “dark poetry” is a sub-genre (and one that I need more of in my life). For readers like me Christina Sng’s A Collection of Dreamscapes is the perfect introduction into this macabre literary form!

This absorbing and haunting collection of poems is grouped into five sections: The Love Song of Allegra, Fairy Tales, All the Monsters in the World, The Capacity of Violence, and Myths and Dreamscapes. Below I will give some brief thoughts on each section.

The Love Song of Allegra

This section contains 17 poems that give us glimpses into a fantasy world of war, betrayal, and revenge. It’s a creation myth, oral history, action/adventure story, and epic battle of good vs evil (or humans vs demons) all rolled into one and set nicely in the same vein as traditional classic myths and legends. At its core is a violent, gruesome, and vivid tale of vengeance, and I like how the poems mostly focus on specific characters and scenes, while also hinting at the larger world/story surrounding them. My only complaint is I wanted to know more about this world, these characters (like the warrior Mephala or Margritte, the daughter of fire and ice), and what all happens next. Some favorites include “The Child Who Would Be Queen, “The King Who Became a Sycophant,” and “Lifegiver”.

Fairy Tales

This section contains 15 poems that all function as sorts of “fractured” fairy tales, based on stories we know and love, but with twists and dark deviations. There’s Little Red Riding Hood, whose first encounter with the wolf launches her young career as a monster hunter, a toughened orphan facing werewolves and much more. There’s Beauty, who becomes mother to Rapunzel, and the Beast, who devolves into an abusive husband. There’s the continuation of this tale where Rapunzel escapes captivity to hunt down her father and seek her revenge. And there are plenty more dark parodies to enjoy, including versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and an intriguing and humorous twist on “Snow White” that has been updated to modern times and technology. Some favorites include “Snow,” “Always a Beast,” and “Beauty Sleeps for a Century”.

All the Monsters in the World

This section contains 15 poems about, unsurprisingly, monsters. However what is surprising is just how tender, beautiful, and forlorn some of the poems are. Sng explores our conception of what a monster is and examines the term from every angle. There is much variety here, be the cruel creatures human or otherwise. The stories shift perspective and some of the most interesting poems are the ones that are written from the point of view of the monster, causing us to feel an empathy we might not have otherwise. It was in this section that I really began to think of Sng’s magical ability to hook us in and engage with just a single poem, springing characters and circumstances to life in a matter of lines. I also noticed the author’s tendency (and joy) at placing some sort of twist or “reveal” at the end of her poems. Some favorites include “The Monsters Within,” “Memoirs in the Dark,” “Concepts,” and “Into the Tall Grass”. 

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The Capacity of Violence

This section contains 17 poems of grim and ghastly brutality. Though previous sections have contained violence, the ante is certainly upped in this segment. There’s a variety of perspectives, from victim to bystander to captor to killer, and the acts of violence are carried out in numerous ways. Cruelty is committed by loved ones, by random aggressors, and even by the recently deceased. There are stories of sacrifice and stories of being scarified. A running motif seeks to answer the questions What will we do to protect the ones we love? and What lengths will we go to seek revenge?. Some favorites include “Mortal Life,” “The Deer,” “The Tooth Collector,” and “A Future Without Fear”.

Myths and Dreamscapes

This final section contains 20 poems that are, admittedly, hard to categorize (as perhaps the title would imply). They are tales that span time and space. Tales of creation and destruction, of chaos and rebirth. They incorporate characters and events from Greek mythology, fantastical dreamworlds, and new and exciting lands of adventure. The stories are woven by a connective thread of journeys, exploration, and the desire to escape (by choice or by necessity) to a better place. Some favorites include “Starlight, “Future World,” and “The New World”.

A Collection of Dreamscapes horror poetry cover

A Collection of Dreamscapes is an excellent collection of poetry, full of poems that are worth reading over and over. Needless to say the beautifully descriptive language and fervent imagination of the author make for wonderful stories. Their cruelty, brutality, and violence clearly put the collection as a whole in the category of “dark poetry,” but that’s not to say there aren’t also stories of grace, love, and redemption. Christina Sng is a master at getting right to your heartstrings, whether the poem is an epic narrative or a short snippet of a particular moment. My only real complaint is that I’m often left hanging and wanting to know more about the characters and worlds that are being created only to end several stanzas later (that and the fact that occasionally some poems come across a little too formulaic/generic). But I still highly recommend this, and I think there’s a little something everyone could enjoy as the collection overall has a wonderful blend of style, stories, and genres.

A Collection of Dreamscapes is available now from Raw Dog Screaming Press.

A Common Crime – Psychological Thriller

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A Common Crime (2021) is the new Argentinian psychological thriller with supernatural elements from director Francisco Márquez. Having not seen his directorial debut The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (2016), I went into this piece relatively blind, albeit interested in the Argentine perspective of what a grounded horror/thriller should be. What I didn’t expect was that the film might reignite memories of one of my favorite, though sadly most neglected, directors.

From its opening scenes A Common Crime permeates a sparse realism that, while inducing a mild anxiety, also for me echoes the subtle and meticulous stylings of Austrian virtuoso Michael Haneke. With majority diegetic sound and very little music, viewers are made to feel a part of the world they are watching, that is if they can get past the apparent ‘slowness’ that it shares with Haneke’s work. Long, rigorous camera takes allow each scene and the performances within them to breathe, and the result is absolutely hypnotic. 

The plot is simple enough; sociology teacher Cecilia (Elisa Carricajo) has a maid whose son is constantly harassed by the police. One night Cecilia awakens to the boy knocking frantically at her door. Fear takes over and she merely hides in the shadows as some vague struggle seems to occur. When the boy shows up dead the next day Cecilia is plunged into a personal hell of paranoia and self-blame. Clear and definite themes of guilt and grief are explored within the tight, oddly-claustrophobic framing of Márquez’s world. Subtlety and detail are offered in bucketloads, along with a surprising amount of atmosphere from such a dark and restrained story.

That being said, this is no by-the-numbers thriller. Borderline experimental in presentation, you’d honestly be forgiven for growing tired of the repetitive psychological episodes A Common Crime descends into, or at least for hoping for some kind of payoff at the end of it all. That expectation came to me from repeated past viewings of Haneke’s beautifully bland stylings which almost always involved some kind of heavy shock punishment for letting his work seep into you. While trying to navigate the minefield of spoiler-free reviewing I can only say I was left with a confused, perhaps a little concerned, expression as the credits began to roll on this one. It took until the ending for me to realise that A Common Crime was nothing like I had expected. This is, on the one hand, a testament to its mesmerising nature, though that nature was primarily the thing which left me feeling lost on more than one occasion. 

A Common Crime movie poster featuring a woman screaming

Rather than make a full-blown psychological horror, Márquez shows a lot of discipline and moderation. A Common Crime sticks to it’s drama-fuelled thriller territory while using classic horror tools to enrich the presentation of its story. While most scares are longer-running and based around reactions, any up-front chills attack within enough space to enhance their effect. Even the score felt more dreamy than dread-inducing. That being said, the parts come together quite effectively as a whole. The unease I felt during its run time did reach that of films such as Hagazussa (2017) and Krisha (2015), as it relies more on its commitment to an uncanny feeling of irregularity that admirably holds up to the very end. 

A Common Crime is an honest, bold and intellectual drama which teeters on thriller territory in plot alone. Keeping enough to its chest to allow its mystery to envelop the viewer, it thrives in its own quiet world with barely an enhancement from clever editing or sound tricks, which in itself is an accomplishment. It may not be quite what you’re looking for, but give it time to sink in and you’ll be wanting more like it in a heartbeat.

At The Mountains of Madness – Illustrated

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Francois Baranger’s illustrated version of HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, blown up to double its impact, rings out in the ears as if echoing from the highest snowy peak. This is only Volume 1 and for someone like me who has never indulged in this particular tale, it’s quite the cliffhanger. The line could easily be self-referencial of much of Lovecraft’s work, in that a lot of the ‘cosmic-horror’ that he coined and regularly explored relies heavily on the imagination of the reader. As I mentioned in a previous article on visualizing cosmic-horror in film, adding any form of physical imagery to Lovecraft’s work often poses the risk of detracting from its intended effect. That is, thankfully, not the case here. 

Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place.

H.P. Lovecraft – At The Mountains of Madness

The first thing to notice is the size of the At The Mountains of Madness Illustrated book, released by Free League Publishing. A hardback at 26x36cm, displaying the beautiful and atmospheric artwork of Baranger, has an obvious air of quality; a first glance bringing hopes that it only echoes the scale and majesty held within. It might be considered impractical by those wanting to read anywhere other than a desk, but the thing holds an intrinsic weight that makes your perusal all the richer. A foreword by Maxime Chattam compares the tale to the icy horrors of The Thing (1982) which, again for a first time reader, was rather exciting. 

Before reading I was asked by a friend, “Does he picture the monstrosities at the camp?” Of course I had no idea to which monstrosities he was referring, though it was a question I kept coming back to while wading through the heavy descriptions of the first few pages. Well-placed illustrations aid the flow of the story greatly, as well as some resizing of sentences for emphasis that helps bring home the point of many of Lovecraft’s ramblings without feeling cartoonish. Much of the artwork acts as flavouring, in the way sound effects and music would to an audiobook, and by the time the aforementioned monstrosities are encountered, and pictured vividly, it feels like a true horror payoff within an already interesting story of exploration. The things look incredible and prove Barangers skill and imagination to be far above that of simple docking ships and icy wastes, though these introductory scenes are inarguably stunning. 

Mountains of Madness art featuring people looking at alien bodies under tarps in the snow

While I can’t compare to the simple text-only format of this particular story, I can somewhat to other stories in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and here the imagery is a refreshing and welcome addition. While I fully believe that the power of Lovecraft’s monsters exists in our inability to comprehend them on a physical level, seeing the big slimy nasties in this case puts us much closer to the mentality of the poor souls at the dig site. 

Baranger’s art expertly treads a tightrope between detail and atmosphere, displaying a degree of realism that should by rights be impossible to achieve alongside the sense of wonder permeating each piece. The more you look, the more layers reveal themselves within portraits of sunset-drenched mountaintops, views of meetings through frosted cabin windows and some sparse yet effectively-placed gore including the harrowing scene of a man’s bust-open chest. These aren’t simple accompaniments but integral parts in this telling of Lovecraft’s tale, inserted with intent to aid the reader’s immersion but also to stand as their own pieces, rich and textured. 

At The Mountains of Madness – Illustrated Book Cover

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At The Mountains of Madness Illustrated Cosmic Horror Book Cover

The story itself is fantastic. A classic, even by Lovecraft’s standards. His style can be long-winded and hard to fall into for some, though this works for his longer pieces such as this one. The themes of exploration and the wonder it conjures were perfect to set up the icy horrors in the mountains; as the many details of the expedition are reeled off one can’t help but feel the excitement of it all. The overload of information, once pushed through, leads on to discoveries vivid and startling, made all the more realistic by their precursing pages. Lovecraft has the ability, mainly through his grounded and earthly first acts, to make readers begin to question just what, if any, horror (as we now know it) will be about to occur. This makes the subsequent deaths, tentacled abominations and nightmarish icy wastes that much more impactful and unexpected. All of this is helped greatly by purposeful and well-thought-out text formatting, mainly being some upsized sentences which add a great deal of weight to occurrences and help break up some of HP’s longer esoteric rants. 

A lot of the issues with visualizing Lovecraft’s elder beings are in no way as apparent here as within the realms of film and television. This particular undertaking allows the story itself, beholder of all of the real power here, to remain the focal point while all additions serve as flavor and make the whole ordeal that much more vivid and evocative. The mind still builds on these images, just as it would visualize on a story while reading. I absolutely must know what happens next in this tale, though I will wait to purchase the second volume of this version rather than find the classic story in a collection I own. That should say it all. 

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