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jasondwittman
31 January 2015 @ 05:34 pm
It seems that Steve Jackson Games has seen fit to reissue my game Tile Chess.  This time with plastic tiles!  You can order it here:

http://www.sjgames.com/tilechess/

Try it out!  If you like it, tell your friends!  If you hate it, tell your enemies!
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jasondwittman
11 January 2015 @ 05:59 pm

I reviewed the first Woman in Black movie when it came out back in 2012.  I liked it, so when this sequel came out last week, I looked forward to seeing it.

The first movie starred Daniel Radcliffe (hence its fan-bequeathed alternate title, "Harry Potter and the Woman in Black"), and it was speculated that this played a big role in the movie's box office draw.  This sequel has no big names attached to it, but I think it succeeds on its own merits.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death takes place 40-some years after the original, during the London Blitz of World War II, when children of the city were evacuated to the remote countryside to spare them from the German bombs, much like the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Our heroine, a young teacher named Eve Parkins (played by Phoebe Fox) accompanies a small group of these children by train to Eel Marsh House, the setting of the first movie, which has been refurbished as a makeshift boarding school. Even if you haven't seen the first movie, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out that no good can come of this.



The village of Crythin Gifford, whose inhabitants gave Daniel Radcliffe's character the cold shoulder in the first movie, is now what Americans call a ghost town save for a crazed old blind man who startles Eve on her arrival (to those who have watched the first movie, this makes perfect sense). And Eel Marsh House, the crumbling abandoned old mansion which is accessible only via a causeway that disappears with the rising tide, is still haunted by the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, a.k.a. the Woman in Black. She has always existed in a sustained state of rage, leading innocent children to their deaths simply because she can, due to her being forcibly relieved of her own illegitimate son, who then drowned when he was eight years old. But it may be that she is even more enraged since the Houdini act that Radcliffe's character pulled in the first movie. And now here comes a whole new batch of children for her to play with.


Not all the children are fleshed out all that much, aside from Tom the bully and Joyce the bossy girl…and then there's Edward, the small boy who hasn't spoken since his parents were killed in a bombing raid the day before he boarded the train. So Edward is a child who has been deprived of his parents. And the Woman in Black is a parent who has been deprived of her child. See where this is going?


This may explain Jennet's change of tactics since the first movie, when she simply lured any child that was available to their death. Now she targets anyone who even looks at Edward funny -- and as in the first movie, once she targets a child, the child is pretty much doomed. It therefore falls to Eve to protect the children as best she can. She is helped in this by Harry (Jeremy Irvine), an RAF pilot who happens to be in the area (and who has a troubled past if his bouts of anxiety and hyperventilation are any indication), and somewhat hampered by Jean (Helen McRory), the headmistress who has no time for such silly things as ghost stories. And the movie cleverly reveals (well, I didn't see it coming) that Eve herself has a bit of a sad history -- in fact, it prompts the Woman in Black to essentially say to her, "You should be on MY side!" -- but Eve fights firmly and resolutely for the children, especially Edward. And resolution is just about the only weapon that has any hope of working against the Woman in Black.


This movie hasn't been getting good reviews, and it hasn't been doing well at the box office, but dangit, I like it. Some people say it's not as scary as the first movie. I say it doesn't have as many jump scares (which I don't think are very scary), focusing instead on atmosphere. And therefore, I recommend it.

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jasondwittman
Some time ago, I reviewed a movie called Destination: Outer Space, a direct-to-video effort made by local film director and producer Christopher R. Mihm.  Well, Mr. Mihm has actually made more than one such movie (go to www.sainteuphoria.com to see his entire filmography), and among them is what he calls The Late Night Double Feature, which I will now review here.

As its title implies, The Late Night Double Feature is actually two smaller movies glued together to form a single night's entertainment (the whole thing clocks in at 90 minutes, which means each movie is like an hour-long TV episode on average).  The titles of the individual movies are X: The Fiend From Beyond Space, and The Wall People.

X: The Fiend From Beyond Space gives us a familiar story: a spaceship in the midst of a lengthy voyage somehow gains an eldritch alien passenger, which slowly kills off the crew one by one.  So people viewing this flilm will immediately think ALIEN.  In all fairness, though, ALIEN itself has a precedent in the form of 1958's IT! The Terror From Beyond Space (whose most famous cast member is Dabbs Greer, who went on to play Reverend Alden in Little House on the Prairie, and the older version of Tom Hanks's character in The Green Mile).  So really, Mihm's movie is just the latest in a series of retreads.  But X also pays homage to at least one other classic SF movie: when the first character we see awakens from cryogenic sleep, she is in a tube similar to those found in 1955's This Island Earth.  The monster in X is also reminiscent of the MutAnt from that movie

The characters in X, though, are all their own.  Don't expect any Oscar-winning performances here; Mihm works with a strictly voluntary cast, and his goal is to make movies that are entertaining rather than good (Army of Darkness is a perfect example of this kind of movie).  Most prominent among the characters is Daniel R. Sjerven as the good ol' Southern boy ship captain.  X is a nice short movie that tells a neat little story.

The Wall People is a bit harder to classify. If pressed, I would say that it more resembles an episode of The Outer Limits than a 1950s B-movie.  It tells the story of a scientist, widowed for some time, whose son suddenly disappears from his bedroom without a trace. The police, as you might guess, find no trace of the kid, and the father, now twice bereaved, is intensely distraught.  So when he tells a couple of his friends that he thinks his son has been abducted by aliens from Pluto, they understandably think he's gone off the deep end.  But guess what?

To say more would spoil the story.  I'll just say it comes to a satisfactory ending.  And if you're into low-budget 1950s SF movies, I would recommend The Late Night Double Feature to you
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jasondwittman
Hi folks,

Just letting you know that I'll be doing another Dreamhaven readng next Wednesday, starting at 6:45 pm.  I'll read from my fiction of course, there will be door prizes (everyone will get something), and afterward we'll retreat to Parkway Pizza for food.

Hope to see you there!

Jason
 
 
jasondwittman

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've been intrigued by Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw for some time, ever since seeing a comic book version of the story in my middle school library. I have four movie versions of the story on DVD (the best, of course, being 1961's The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr), and I look at any pastiches by different authors (like Joyce Carol Oates' "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly") with keen interest. So when I learned of a book in which the events related in The Turn of the Screw are investigated by none other than Sherlock Holmes himself (I'm a big Holmes fan), I got it as soon as I could.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly is actually a collection of three stories, with the title story bookended by two smaller, unrelated tales. The author, Donald Thomas, was born and raised in England, and it shows. Each story is a highly detailed depiction of late Victorian culture, extremely class-conscious almost to the point of paranoia, with some characters sneering down at others who dare to earn their success rather than inherit it like God intended. Mr. Thomas really knows his stuff, and he also does the voice of Dr. Watson, serving as narrator, very well.


The big thing that has made The Turn of the Screw such an enduring classic is the furious debate over the reliability of the story's narrator. Are the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel real, as the unnamed governess believes, or are they just figments of her imagination? Well, I'm sure you can guess Holmes' opinion as to the existence of ghosts (although he doesn't deny their existence outright -- when asked by the man who hires him if he believes in ghosts, he replies, "Bring me the evidence, and I shall sift it as a rational enquirer. Probably I shall find a rational explanation. If not, and all other possibilities are exhausted, I must consider whether these events may not be produced by causes beyond my power to detect. To conclude otherwise would make me a bigot."). But I also don't think it's spoiling anything to say that what the governess saw, at least in this version of the story, aren't just figments of her imagination.


There are several things that Mr. Thomas does that Henry James does not. For one thing, he gives the governess a name (Victoria Temple), and a surname to Miles and little Flora (Mordaunt) -- although it turns out Flora died of diphtheria after being taken to London, so she does not make an appearance. For another, this being a Sherlock Holmes story, we actually get to learn why Miles was expelled from school. Many readers of The Turn of the Screw assume that Miles made homosexual advances toward his classmates -- why else would the headmaster be so reluctant to disclose the reason for Miles' expulsion? But Mr. Thomas seems to say "rubbish" to all that, because the reason he discloses is that Miles got a venerable (but highly unlikeable) schoolmaster in trouble through the adroit psychological manipulation of his classmates -- which he learned at the hands of Peter Quint when he was alive. You can't help but wonder what might have happened had the governess done a shred of investigation instead of making all those intuitive leaps, as she did in the original story. ("Oh, I know! I know!") It's easy to see Holmes (as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), saying, "Stop boring me and THINK!"


Also, I feel compelled to say that Thomas' prose is a lot more readable than James'. When I was in high school, the English teachers taught us how to diagram a sentence, which I thought was a complete waste of time -- until I read The Turn of the Screw. Here's an example of what I mean (from the first paragraph of Chapter II):


The postbag, that evening -- it came late -- contained a letter for me, which, however, in the hand of my employer, I found to be composed but of a few words enclosing another, addressed to himself, with the seal still unbroken.


Why not say:


The evening postbag came late. It contained a short letter for me from my employer, and another (unopened) letter addressed to him.


Ernest Hemingway he ain't.


This is probably why I've read no other work by James. And would the daughter of a poor country parson talk like this? It doesn't seem realistic that a young person in her early twenties, given to jumping to conclusions, would think in such complex sentences. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," H. P. Lovecraft wrote, "In The Turn of the Screw Henry James triumphs over his inevitable pomposity and prolixity sufficiently well to create a truly potent air of sinister menace…James is perhaps too diffuse, too unctuously urbane, and too much addicted to subtleties of speech to realize fully all the wild and devastating horror in his situations, but for all that there is a rare and mounting tide of fright…" (This is H. P. Lovecraft saying this. Have you read him?) Anyway, Donald Thomas doesn't write anything like that. At least when he's writing as Dr. Watson, he is very readable.


I won't spoil the story by revealing the identity of the dastardly villain behind all of this. But I will say that I highly recommend this book.


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jasondwittman
04 August 2014 @ 11:34 pm

Hi folks.  Sorry I haven't posted in a while.  I've been working some really odd hours.

I'd like to post to you now about a book I read recently, called The Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin.  Ever since my Asperger's diagnosis (and for some time before it, when I suspected I had Asperger's), I've been looking out for books on the subject of Asperger's, and for autism in general, under whose umbrella Asperger's falls.  The book currently in question falls squarely in that category.

Temple Grandin, as the blurb on the back cover of this book declares, "may be the most famous person with autism, a condition that affects 1 in 88 people."  A high-functioning autistic herself, her main job is professor of animal science at Colorado State University, but she also lectures frequently about autism, and writes books on the subject like this one.

It's a very quick read -- I went through it in less than a week, and for me that's saying something.  There were parts of this book that had me nodding my head in recognition.  There were other parts that had me thnking, "Yeah, okay, fine," like the parts where she compares brain scans of neurotypical people with those of people on the autism spectrum and says, "The neurotypical brain looks like this, while autistic brain looks like this."  I don't doubt this will help doctors and neurologists understand the condition, but for people like me who have Asperger's/autism and are therefore stuck with it, it's kind of irrelevant in a certain sense.  I have Asperger's.  That die has been cast.  There's little purpose served in X-raying the die.

What had me nodding my head was the part where autistics say they have trouble dealing with crowd noise -- they can't separate the voice of the person they're talking to from the general hubbub of the dozens of other voices talking in the bar. I readily identified with that. I've always had problems picking individual voices out of crowd noise, and it's been a serious detriment to making social connections for me.

Another thing I identified with was in the section where Ms. Grandin talks about ways for autistics/Aspergians to get employment. One instruction she gives is: Sell your work, not yourself. I have never done well at job interviews, and when I asked people why, they never gave an explanation that made sense. (I don’t show emotion? I don't show any enthusiasm? What do either of those things have to do with your ability to do the job?) In the book, Ms. Grandin says:


"If you can avoid the front-door interview, do so. Human resources departments are usually staffed by social people who tend to place a premium on getting along and teamwork, so they might not think a person with autism is the right fit for the workplace. They might not be able to see past the social awkwardness to an individual's hidden talents. A better strategy for getting the job might be to contact the head of a particular department you want to work in (the engineering department, the graphic design department, and so on)." (page 195)


Nobody likes to work with jerks. I get that. It's a big reason I didn't re-enlist after serving two years in the Army. But I like to think I'm not a jerk, and I believe most of the people who know me (cats and toddlers among them) would say I'm not a jerk. I'm just socially awkward. What Ms. Grandin is saying is: show the employer what kind of work you can do rather than the kind of person you are.


Question: isn't the work that you do what the employer is paying you for? This is why the strategies and methods of your run-of-the-mill job interview don't make sense to me. It kind of reminds me of that Dilbert comic strip where the pointy-haired boss says, "I don't know any of you personally, but you all have great hair, so you must be fabulous people!"


It also makes me wonder what would have happened had I been diagnosed with Asperger's earlier. The most frustrating part of my problem, over all these years, was that I didn't understand the problem.


 
 
jasondwittman
23 March 2014 @ 06:58 pm

Hello Everyone,

My short story "Aftergame," which appeared previously in the Summer 2006 issue of Aberrant Dreams, is now appearing in a game-themed short fiction anthology called Breaking the Rules, which is published by Boo Books, a small press publisher in Derby, England.  If you want, you can purchase the book here:  http://boobooks.net/bookshop/

This is the second time someone has come to me requesting permission to publish a story of mine.  I like to think that says something about my talents as a writer.  :-)

Hope all is well.

Jason

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jasondwittman

I only saw this movie recently, but I’d heard of it back in 2001 when I was at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop.  One of my fellow Clarionites was a speaker of Esperanto (a language artificially constructed in the 1800’s with the intent of bridging the gap between nations and cultures), so naturally this movie was of interest to him.  For you see, the dialogue in Incubus is entirely in Esperanto.

That’s not its only item of interest.  It also stars William Shatner, here seen a year before he became James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek fame.  Of course, this leads to visions of Shatner overacting in the role of a libidinous womanizer, buuuuuuttt wellllll…

The story is well nigh fable-like in its simplicity: It takes place in and around the seaside village of Nomen Tuum (Latin for “your name”), which is the location of a certain well.  This well, the opening narration tells us, has powers of healing, but also of making those who drink it more superficially youthful and beautiful.  This latter power lures the vain and corrupt — which in turn makes the area around the well a hunting ground for succubi.

In the film’s opening minutes, a man (not played by Shatner) drinks from the well and says, “It’s salt.”  A young woman then appears, and flirts with him.  With tantalizing promises of you-can-guess-what, she lures him down to the beach…where she drowns him.

This young woman is Kia (Allyson Ames), a succubus whose job in Hell’s bureaucracy is to lure corrupt mortals to their deaths, thereby sending their souls to The Man Downstairs.  But as she tells her team manager Amael (Eloise Hardt) , she has grown weary of sending souls to Hell that were probably headed there anyway.  She wants a challenge.  She wants to send a virtuous soul to Hell.

Amael warns her against this.  The virtuous, she says, have a mysterious power called love, which is truly devastating to Hell’s minions.  But Kia ignores her and goes off in search of a virtuous soul.

After looking at a handful of hypocritical monks and friars and dismissing them with scorn, she finally finds what she’s looking for: his name is Marco (William Shatner), a virtuous, pious, and (it is subtly implied) virginal soldier.  [your snickering here]  When he drinks from the well to heal a war wound, he finds it sweet.  (A simplistic but effective means of character exposition, eh?)  He lives with his sister (Ann Atmar) on a farm, and lives a God-fearing and happy life.

Having chosen her quarry, Kia introduces herself under false pretenses and begins her seduction of Marco…

Eventually, Kia’s boss Amael sees that things are going “bad” for her little underling.  So Amael unleashes an Incubus.  And we have our title.

This has the feel of a foreign film, and not just because of the Esperanto (which, according to experts, is very badly done — hardly surprising, since the lines were learned phonetically).  It was made in California (in the Big Sur area) by people involved in making The Outer Limits T.V. series, but a lot of the things done in this movie are contrary to the Hollywood norm, even of the mid-60’s.  I mean, when you think succubus (female sexual demon) in Hollywood terms, what do you think?  Long black hair and dresses with plunging necklines, right?  Well, in this movie, both Kia and Amael have platinum blond hair which is pulled back and secured with a pin adorned with raven feathers.  In fact, the darkest hair among females in the movie belongs to Arndis, Marco’s hapless sister.  As for clothing, Amael wears something like a monk’s robe, while Kia wears a shapeless black dress topped off with what looks like a cross between a sweater and a shawl.  Not the most alluring of attire.  And the ending is ominously ambiguous, not to mention unnerving — have you ever looked at a goat’s eyes?

I read online that the film’s makers chose to do the dialogue in Esperanto to give the movie “an otherworldly feel.”  I think it serves another purpose as well: I think it makes the dialogue more believable.  Some of the things said in this movie (not regarding the religious issues, but other things) would sound really weird in English.

In terms of quality, I would put Incubus in the same category as Carnival of Souls (1962), and I highly recommend it.  Jaye, if you’re reading this, this is my suggestion for the next movie night.

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jasondwittman
13 January 2014 @ 07:45 pm
I read this book a while back because of the movie that was coming out at the time.  I try to read the book before I see a movie based on it whenever I can because I want to see what movie the book creates in my head first, then see the movie that was actually created, and make a comparison.  (If you haven’t read/seen the book/movie and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.)

In the prologue before the story proper, the man who eventually interviews Pi (who narrates the main story) is told by an old man who sends him in Pi’s direction: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”  Reading this, I thought to myself, Well, that’s a bold claim, but show me what you got, and I kept on reading.

In the end, I was disappointed.  Disappointed, in fact, to the point that I never got around to seeing the movie.

Oh, the story was interesting along the way, don’t get me wrong.  The boy Pi spends two-hundred-some-odd days shipwrecked at sea, on a lifeboat smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a 450-pound Bengal tiger for companionship.  That’s an interesting premise right there, and the author Yann Martel kept me interested throughout.  That wasn’t the problem.

The problem surfaces when Pi reaches civilization.  He is interviewed by two representatives of the company that owned the ship that sank and put Pi on that lifeboat. He tells his story about being with the tiger for 227 days — and they regard him with incredulity.  Where is the tiger, the ask?  Jumped out of the lifeboat and disappeared into the jungle immediately upon reaching shore, Pi says.  They still don’t buy it. And after hours of gentle prodding, he gives them the following (as he calls them with disdain) ”facts”:

There was no tiger on the lifeboat.  When the main ship first capsized, the lifeboat contained Pi, his mother, and the ship’s cook, a Frenchman.  After a few days stranded at sea, the Frenchman kills Pi’s mother, possibly for food, possibly because he’s losing his sanity.  Pi then kills the Frenchman.  And he has to spend the rest of those 227 days, all by himself, alone with that memory.

When he’s done, he asks the interviewers, “Now…which is the better story?”  When they say the story with the tiger, he replies, “So it is with God.”

In other words, religion is a fiction you choose to believe in because reality has become unbearable.

When I read these words, I was reminded of the words of a certain science fiction writer (I can’t remember his name): “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  For me at least, this story had a downer ending because the reality was a downer.  And as a result, I completely lost interest in seeing the movie.

Pi’s story does not strike me as a reason why you should believe in God.  It does strike me as a reason why people do believe in God.  People like stories, and in general they don’t care if a story is true so long as it is good.

A perfect illustration of this can be found with Washington Irving’s story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  As you read that story, it becomes fairly obvious that it’s Brom Bones who chases Ichabod Crane out of Sleepy Hollow while disguised as the Headless Horseman.  But Sleepy Hollow’s citizens choose to believe that Crane was spirited away by the actual Horseman because it makes for a better story.  This is even true outside of the story itself: in almost every movie adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (including the popular TV series) there are two changes made:

1) The Headless Horseman turns out to be real.

2) Ichabod winds up hitched to Katrina.

This is because the idea of a Headless Horseman is interesting, and because, in fiction at least, people tend to root for the underdog.  But just because something should be doesn’t mean it is.  As the saying goes, wish into one hand, crap into the other, see which fills up first.

The flaw in Pi’s (actually Yann Martel’s) reasoning is that belief in God (my opinion, of course) shouldn’t fly in the face of reality, but take it into account.

So, you might well ask: what would be a good argument for belief in God?

How about this: belief that life is meaningless is not a survival trait.

People believe in God in an attempt to give some meaning to existence.  It might be that God is a personification of that meaning, just as the Grim Reaper is a personification of death.  But the existence of any meaning can’t be scientifically proven.  In the realm of science, questions of meaning are, well, meaningless.  According to science, we human beings are just so many walking excrement factories that function for a few decades, and then break down and decompose into all the excrement we’ve manufactured.  According to science, the Mona Lisa is just so much pigment on canvas, and Mount Rushmore is just a big rock.  But humanity didn’t get as far as it has by thinking that way.  We all like to think that we are more than this too, too solid flesh.  Thing is, you can only choose to believe that these things are more than their component parts, or not.  Meaning is something you have to choose to believe in.  And God, if He does exist, does so in the same way as that meaning.

Here endeth the sermon. :-)

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jasondwittman
23 November 2013 @ 05:44 pm
I discovered this novel while surfing online.  It was the cover blurb that initially intrigued me: "Imagine The Turn of the Screw reworked by Edgar Allan Poe."

I'm a fan of both parts of that equation, so I ordered a copy.  And the novel, though its prose is not reminiscent of Poe's in my view, makes for a very intriguing read.

Elements of The Turn of the Screw are most definitely there, as much as they can be without veering into plagiarism territory.  The story, you see, concerns two orphaned siblings, a boy and a girl, who live at their uncle's remote country estate. The uncle, a confirmed bachelor, wants nothing to do with the kiddies, so he hires a governess to watch over them while he goes galavanting abroad (quite possibly more than one).

All this sounds very familiar, right?  Well, here's where Florence & Giles diverges from Henry James.  For starters, the story is told from the point of view of Florence, the older of the two siblings.  In fact, despite the title, this is Florence's story all the way.  Giles, her brother, is eight years old to her twelve and, even taking that into consideration, is not the sharpest knife in the drawer (this may be because they're actually half siblings).  This results in Giles being a secondary character as much as the servants (including -- note the spelling -- Mrs. Grouse, the housekeeper), or the boy from a neighboring estate who occasionally comes calling, or the police inspector, or the two governesses who come to watch over the children.  The reader spends the novel entirely in Florence's head, and none of the characters knows what's going on in there.

For Florence is very smart -- possibly smarter than every other character in the book; certainly smarter than she lets on.  This is because her absent uncle, due to being dumped by a fiancée after she had spent a year or two in college, has forbidden Florence to even learn to read.  The servants, slaves to their paychecks that they are, don't dare defy this edict.  So, very slowly and surreptitiously, so that no one else is aware, Florence teaches herself to read.  And so, in time, the estate library that no one else visits becomes her own private empire.  And it is her self-education that leads to the unique words and turns of phrase that she uses in her narration.

The danger that Florence faces in the novel arrives in the form of Miss Taylor, the second governess that The Uncle hires after the first governess, Miss Whitaker, "tragicked" (to use Florence's word) out on the lake. (Miss Whitaker's death happened under mysterious circumstances, which are strangely glossed over by Florence in her narration.)  As Miss Taylor settles into the role of governess, Florence, who sees her do some strange things (sometimes in the dead of night), slowly arrives at two conclusions: 1) Miss Taylor is Miss Whitaker reincarnated.  2) Miss Taylor plans to spirit little Giles away to God knows where.

Now since there are so many elements of The Turn of the Screw in this story, that classic novella is always in the back of your head as you read it. And one prominent feature of that novella is The Unreliable Narrator.  And since Florence & Giles is told entirely from Florence's point of view, this makes you wonder about Florence.  Are some of the things she claims to see really there?  But as you keep reading, another question pops up: How else do you explain it?

A critic quoted on the back cover says: "Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless finale"  That's certainly true.  I highly recommend this book.


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