Tag: suspense

The Creeps

HAL 9000

Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.

In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.

Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.

Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.

What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?

Book Review: Headhunters

It’s easy to assume that threats to national security and integrity only come from foreign shores. Dressing terrorists, the boogeymen of our time, in the clothes and skin color of minorities softens the reality. There will always be dissidents, malcontents, and flat-out crazy people within our own borders, working inside our own systems, either to dismantle something they see as wrong or just to get themselves ahead somehow. Fighting these threats can be a dirty, underhanded, downright soulless affair. But if the country’s integrity is to remain intact along with its security, some men must make sure certain lines are never crossed. Simon Parks is one of those men, and he is our subject as the protagonist of Charlie Cole’s Headhunters.

Courtesy Charlie Cole

Simon works for Blackthorn, a deep-cover internal anti-terrorist group working in the United States to combat domestic terrorism. While most of his duties are concerned with finding new talent for this work, his job keeps him at the office for very long hours, even days at a time, and his wife decides to leave him over it. In an attempt to get her back, Simon inadvertently causes a fatal car crash, leaving him a widower and his children without a mother. Heartbroken, he resigns from Blackthorn and tries to start life over in a new city, as a headhunter for a different firm. But his old boss isn’t about to let a resource like Simon go without a fight, not while there’s still work to do, and Simon’s new boss is not all he seems, either. Intrigue comes at Simon from all sides, with what’s left of his family caught in the crossfire.

Novels like this work or fall apart based primarily on the construction of the protagonist. A driven, stoic, nearly super-human badass (or a team of them) can carry an empty summer action flick, but not so much a modern thriller. Thankfully, Cole gives Simon a great deal of humanity and humility. He questions his actions even as they’re being undertaken, apologizes several times to friends when they become involved in his life and its trials, and continually reminds the reader that he’s “just a guy.” While it’s a realistic reaction to the sort of shenanigans that occur to Simon, he doesn’t have the difficulties Jack Ryan did in early Tom Clancy novels. He’s perfectly competent as an unarmed combatant, marksman, and strategist, even as doubts gnaw away at him.

It’s pretty clear that this is a debut novel, with some of the plot developments easy to predict and some of Simon’s abilities and resources seeming too good to be true. However, Cole has a background in the areas within which the story takes place, and while I’m certain artistic license has been taken throughout the novel, none of the flaws make the novel difficult to read or hard to believe. Simon has enough bravery to carry the action, enough humanity to invoke sympathy, and enough humility to avoid becoming insufferable. The story moves at a good pace, action scenes pop with a good dose of realism, there’s plenty of twists in the tale, and Charlie even threw in a bit of romance, presented tastefully and at the right times to allow us breathers between the tension.

Fans of tales such as 24 and The Bourne Identity will be right at home here. Charlie Cole is looking to be a decent successor to Clancy and Ludlum, and Headhunters is a fun and engrossing read. He has plenty of room to grow, which is actually exciting. As good as Headhunters is, his next yarn should be even better.

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