Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Review of The Black Diary: M.I.B., Women in Black, Black-Eyed Children and Dangerous Books, by Nick Redfern

(Lisa Hagan Books, 2018). ISBN: 9781945962110

Embedded in the upper righthand cover of this book is a red and white warning label: “Just picking up this book invites them in.”
Given the publishing industry’s penchant for sexy marketing strategies, it might be easy to dismiss this warning label as more of the same—a clever ploy on the part of the publisher to grab your attention and get you to buy the book.
But I know better.
And that’s what this review is about.
First of all, Nick Redfern is one of the most respected and published authorities on the subject of the paranormal, and the enigmatic (Wo)men in Black. I have read several of his books, and, having spent the past nine years studying and experiencing the paranormal, I have no reason to question anything he reports in them. He mixes field experience, interviews, and extensive research into his work, in the kind of self-checking triangulation that many investigators could learn from.
Second, and even more important, I know several of the people whose stories are quoted at length in the pages of The Black Diary. I also know them to be solid, honest folk with a genuine interest in the paranormal. I have been privileged to do field investigations with some of them.
Third, and most important, I have experienced many of the phenomena discussed in this book.
The Black Diary couples Redfern’s experiences—ranging from hard-to-explain-away synchronicities to damage to his apartment to threatening phone calls—with firsthand accounts from people who have contacted him or whom Redfern has met during his extensive travel and interview schedule.
At the heart of this complex mystery of the (Wo)Men in Black (this is the third in a trio of books Redfern has published on the subject) is just who or what they are. This question has been asked by researchers of the paranormal for decades, including by Fortean researcher and journalist John Keel. Answers are slow to come.
If you are interested in these oddly dressed, oddly behaving, weird-looking entities who drive classic black cars and seem to be unfamiliar with modern technology and at times even the most fundamental of cultural ideas, The Black Diary is for you. The range of visitations and experiences is considerable—they can turn up anywhere at any time and disappear again as quickly, instilling fear and wreaking havoc in a matter of moments.
Right in line with the debate about nuts and bolts/flesh and blood versus ultraterrestrial phenomena (from UFOs to Bigfoot), the (Wo)Men in Black mystery is deepened by two age-old nagging questions: Who or What Are They? and What do They Want?
I doubt it’s all one thing. In some cases, military-industrial-intelligence complex misdirection and intimidation seems to be in play. In others, it seems like they’ve crossed into our plane through a portal or other dimensional door and leave the same way, evoking a sense of dream-like disorientation in the people who encounter them. Oh, and speaking of—they will invade your dreams as well.
How’s that for menacing?
It’s all in the book.
My experiences with the Men in Black have been of the spectral variety, in a library in North Carolina my team recently investigated over the course of two years, and on the road home from an investigation in Point Pleasant, WV—an MIB hotspot. The phenomena reported in this book—the clothes, the facial features, the menace, and in one instance violence (choking a spirit trying to intervene on our behalf)—were right in line with our experiences in the library. The mysterious appearance (out of thin air) of a 1974 Eisenhower Silver Dollar, two UFO sightings in tandem with MIB appearances, and our encounter with a hairy, fanged interdimensional deepened the mystery of our encounters with the phenomena that are the Men in Black.
The Black Diary provided some context and a reminder that we are not alone in what we’ve seen.
The MIB are insidious, and not to be messed with unless you know what you’re getting in to—and perhaps not even then. The documented experiences in The Black Diary, collected by Redfern between 2014 and 2017 but spanning decades, are necessary reading. At times they bring warnings to forget what you’ve seen and keep silent; at other times they seem as keen to investigate a site or sighting as you are; at others their behavior is so bizarre as to defy rationale explanation.
The Black Diary includes some of each and plenty more.
Here’s a final suggestion. If, when you start to read this book, the phone rings in the middle of the night with all 0s or 1s on the caller ID (as has happened to me after several investigations)—don’t pick up.
You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Friday, August 3, 2018

“Horror with a Heart”: A Review of Locker Arms, by Zakary McGaha

 (KGHH Publishing, 2018). ISBN: 978-1-912638-27-7
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King postulates that great horror has at its core a collection of dark tropes gleaned from our reptilian brains and deepest primordial fears. In other words, it is all about character. Following the journey of an interesting, relatable (which is different than likeable) character as he or she crosses the threshold into a subterranean (literal or metaphorical) world of monsters to be battled and souls to be saved is the essence of well-constructed horror.
Applying this idea, the debut novel by Zakary McGaha, Locker Arms, is a success. Set in modern times but with a strong ‘80s feel (think Stranger Things meets Heathers meets Teachers), this splatter-fest of a tale centers around two sets of characters—one the students of your typical suburban high school and the other their teachers. The latter are joined by Henry, one of the (anti-)heroes of Locker Arms—a washed-up, aging never-was who had big dreams of making it in music after he left this very same high school decades before the story begins.
Henry’s return has almost everything to do with the unsolved mystery of a girl who disappeared into a locker when he was a student. In Henry’s mind—where we spend a good bit of time—if he solves the mystery, he just might solve his life.
Henry’s analog among the students is Tommy, a working-class kid who sounds and acts like Henry, just decades later. I kind of regret that they never do meet. This is your typical American town, where mostly everyone wants to get out but only some do—and then they come back.  
Tommy’s girlfriend is Autumn, a girl with a brain and a future who continually wrestles with the question of whether or not she is slumming-it with Tommy, who lets her down more often than not simply by being himself.
Tommy and Autumn are not the only kids in a quandary. Emily is a hypersexual fantasizer with a dark and active imagination. For all those in favor of the literal or metaphorical castration of males in the era of “the Donald,” she’s your ultimate dream-girl. Emily enters the story at just the right time in the second act to liven things up as the inevitability train starts rolling toward an ending reminiscent of Cabin in the Woods.
The teachers in Locker Arms will seem familiar to you too. Like Henry, they have a love–hate relationship with the high school and the town. They fancy themselves writers who never got the chance, who never had the material.
Until, decades after the first incident, another girl goes missing in a locker.
McGaha tells a vivid, well-paced story, using the under-used and at first hard to get used to present tense. It livens up the pace and, despite literary dogma to the contrary, helps to create complex characters and heightened suspense. His use of first person also allows him to shift points of view quickly and efficiently, making the story engagingly cinematic. We get bits and pieces of the story from multiple characters, which also contributes to the energetic pace.
What is most impressive about this novel from a young, inexperienced novelist (McGaha is a college student) is how much humanity emerges through the horror. Students or teachers, the characters in Locker Arms are thinking all the time—about unexpectedly heady things along with the “what have I done/will I do with my life?” kinds of questions. They are also given to wry observations like “why are they called textbooks; don’t all books, excluding art-books, have text”?
As good horror should, McGaha’s story makes the uncertainties of the characters’ lives just as scary—if not more so—than the monsters, which, as one would expect from splatter horror, are physically violent but that’s about all. The fact that arms are coming out of lockers and snatching people away is not important—it's what this change in circumstances does to their victims’ lives that drives the narrative and ultimately matters most.
Reading the interview with McGaha in the back of the book, it is no surprise that he has far-ranging interests across the arts. Like many of Stephen King’s characters, McGaha’s characters are trying to write or otherwise create their way out of their tiny, frustrating lives. Both adults and students are writing about the macabre goings on while the budding peddlers of cut-rate cinéma vérité record it all on their cell phones. The detachment from the horrific in the modern age is palpable—hence the outsized ending. It takes a lot to shake these characters up (and most modern readers/viewers as well).
For this reason, and in common with the third act of most splatter horror—or any boundary-pushing storytelling, including the standup routine of a raunchy comedian—Locker Arms gets increasingly sexually and violently explicit as it nears its end. The situation around the characters—who have all shown hints of their depravities and fringe fantasies throughout—has by now seriously deteriorated, so it all makes sense, and I thoroughly enjoyed the descent (literal and metaphorical) into madness they all undergo. As the story entered the third act, Oingo Boingo’s “Nasty Habits” and “Private Life” were playing repeatedly in my head.
In short, Locker Arms is an entertaining ride well worth taking. And, in doing so, you’ll be supporting the efforts of a promising young writer with much of interest to say.