Review of Suspiria (2018)

A review of the horror film Suspiria (2018), written by my buddy Jenna. Follow her at instagram.com/hermionestrangler


suspiria

Suspiria was definitely a well-made remake. I tried to watch it as a separate movie and not to compare it too much to the original version from the 70’s and it was actually pretty easy – they are very different kind of movies.

In the beginning young dancer Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) disappears from a dance academy located in Berlin in the 70’s. Before her disappearing she told her psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) the unbeliavable dark secrets of the academy and its leaders. The doctor starts his own journey trying to reveal the truth.

The main character is Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson), an ambitious young dancer from America, who attends to the dance academy and soon proves her talent to the lead choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She gets the leading part as one of the other students flees from the school after having a mental breakdown.

Susie befriends another dancer, Sara, who was also close with Patricia. Patricia’s psychotherapist tries to tell Sara what Patricia had told him, but of course he sounds crazy. Soon Sara learns that some of the rumors may actually be true. What will happen to the upcoming dance show? Where did the girls disappear? Who is the mysterious Mother Markos (again Tilda Swinton, I know, amazing)? Where is she?

The new Suspiria is a very long, complex story with lots of interesting characters and backstories. It managed to keep me interested the whole time, even though I usually can’t sit still longer than two hours. The casting was absolutely amazing and it was interesting to notice that almost the whole cast were actually women. Tilda Swinton plays three roles at the same time and as usual, she left me speechless. Dakota Johnson was definitely a fresh face in horror after her role in Fifty Shades film series.

The movie is dark, sinister, sexy and bloody. The artistic dance pieces are mixed up with blood and gore like a delicious horror smoothie. The setting was absolutely beautiful and the makeup and special effects were amazing, I truly didn’t realize I was watching Swinton as an old man the whole time.

All in all I really think that Suspiria is a very succesfull remake even though it’s not completely the same as the original. It is still very enjoyable movie with a great plot.

Interview with horror author Marko Hautala.

Marko Hautala is one of Finland’s best contemporary writers. His books employ the methods of horror and thriller literature to look into the minds and pasts of their characters – with terrifying results.

Order his books here.

Below is my interview with Mr. Hautala.


Marko Hautala

(photo Veikko Somerpuro)

1) Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m a Finnish writer who’s mainly written psychological horror, but also essays and even poetry. My writing has been translated into eight languages.

2) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I first started to write a novel when I was seven years old but didn’t finish one until I was 27. I suppose that means that the plan has been there all along! It just took time and several short stories to get there.

3) Your works are set in the city of Vaasa, which is refreshing, as most Finnish novels are set in Helsinki. Does Vaasa inspire your writing? How would you describe the city to someone who has never been there?

Vaasa is a small city on the West Coast of Finland, close to Sweden. It’s very middle class but also culturally diverse due to the big international companies in the region. That may sound a bit boring as a setting for horror stories but actually it’s not. Vaasa has a long history and all the mystery and tragedy that goes with it if you know how to look beyond the polite façade.

vaasa

(Vaasa)

4) One thing I love about your books is how you play with the feeling of uncertainty, and use it to build horror into your characters and, subsequently, the reader’s heart. The characters are often going through a period of transition of some sort, and the future is uncertain. Is uncertainty, the fear of what comes next, the basis of horror, in your opinion?

I’m really happy you point that out! Horror as a genre is often seen in too simplistic terms. For me it’s a form of fiction that offers the most suitable tools for tackling with those aspects of life that are strange and almost unbearable. For me, both as a writer and reader, the best horror stories go straight to that basic uncertainty that we as vulnerable creatures with limited understanding of reality have. It doesn’t really matter to me whether the story deals with that aspect of life through the supernatural or in purely realistic terms, but my own stories often fall somewhere in between. Whatever you believe in, you have to admit that reality is so strange and endlessly complex that our view of it is helplessly limited. A good horror story makes you acknowledge and face that fact.

5) Is there a specific method you employ to build suspense, or do you just aim to tell a scary story and things come naturally from there on?

The funny thing is that my intention is not to scare people, really. At least I don’t usually think about it that way most of the time. My main motivation is to create a strong atmosphere that would be intriguing, mysterious and yet strangely familiar. To me atmosphere is at least half the story and I do pay a lot of attention to it. Having said that, in every novel there is at least one scene that I realize might scare the reader. Then I sometimes work it up a little bit just for the joy of making someone I don’t know feel uneasy while reading a book.

6) Do you plan the entire arc of the story before hitting the computer, or do you go one section at a time, making it up as you go along?

Every novel is slightly different, but I often do make plans and drafts and synopses at some point. Usually they don’t have much to do with the final story, but they serve as temporary signposts I think. Mostly I just follow my instincts because they tend to take me to places I didn’t even know exist. If and when I get lost in my own imagination or run out of inspiration, I go back to story arcs and stuff like that just to find my way again. Often when I run out of steam, I also start drawing pictures as it seems to reactivate the verbal side of things really well.

7) How “connected” are your books in your mind? Or are they “islands” onto themselves?

Yes and no. I don’t enjoy writing series but on the other hand I sometimes feel that everything I’ve ever written is just one long story about things I try to get a grasp on or come to terms with.

8) The book Black Tongue (Finnish Kuokkamummo) employs faux folklore beautifully to create a kind of sinister past to a place. How much do folkloric tales inspire you? Do you read a lot of them?

Actually the urban legend in that novel is an authentic one! It’s from my childhood neighborhood and it really scared me when I was a kid. The legend basically included an old woman who haunted the surrounding woods and killed children. Like all urban legends, it probably had a basis in a real event (in this case in a tragic incident of a mother killing her own children decades before) but it had changed over time into this ubiquitous, almost demon-like character.

I recently also wrote a Finnish folklore-based short story that was published in several languages. The story is called Sauna Requiem and you can read or listen to it on Storytel (I don’t know if that’s available in all parts of the world though).

My latest novel Leväluhta (The Red Marsh) is also based on a real place, an ancient water burial site close to my home town. The place and all the stories connected to it have fascinated me for over a decade but it took time to find a way to write fiction about it. The funny thing is that this became possible only when I started to feel that two other seemingly unrelated elements had something to do with the place, namely a life-form known as mycetozoa (do look it up!) and early 1990’s black metal. There’s no logical connection, of course, but I felt that on some deeper level these things were connected.

Overall, I think stories and legends are important if they survive long periods of time. Although they might be factually wrong, there’s some other kind of truth in them if they survive.

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9) How and where do you write? At home, at a cafe? Can you write anywhere anytime, or do you need a certain atmosphere?

Whenever possible, I write at our summerhouse (even in the winter). In the past I used to also write in cafes and bars and places like that but nowadays I feel that other people are an obstacle to intensive writing. I’m most productive when I haven’t heard a human voice for a couple of days. Lack of speech does something to your imagination. It makes you turn inward and your dreams become crazily vivid.

10)  Have you personally ever experienced anything paranormal?

I’ve seen a ghost but I don’t think I believe in them. It was a strange experience though. When I was younger I used to work as a nurse in a mental hospital so I know that the mind can do all kinds of tricks, but that experience still sometimes bothers me. We lived in an old wooden house back then so the setting was right I guess. I woke up to noises from the front door and rose from the bed to look at what was going on. Then I saw an old woman walking towards me. I tried to wake up my wife but she only has a vague recollection of that. It might have been something like sleep paralysis without the paralysis part, but the experience was quite unusual. I wish my wife would have woken up so there’d be confirmation that it was just a hallucination!

11)  What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a novel, an audiobook, game script and a book of essays. At least those. Then there are several small ideas that I’m toying with.

12)  Where can people write to request that more of your books be translated into English?

I really don’t know! My agent Ahlback Agency takes care of my foreign rights so I don’t really get involved in that side of things at all. I’m really, really happy to get my stories translated though. [Write to elina@ahlbackagency.com -admin]

13)  Where can people keep up with you and your work?

I write a blog at markohautala.fi but it’s only in Finnish, unfortunately!

And, finally, my standard questions:

14)  Your top 3 movies and why?

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (saw it as a kid, didn’t have the slightest understanding of what’s going on but was completely mesmerised. I still watch it at least once a year)

2. Psycho (took horror film to a completely new level)

3. Rosemary’s Baby (a prime example of a great horror story: creepy, atmospheric and a great finale which is terrifying and blackly humorous at the same time)

15)  Your top 3 albums and why?

1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (this album marks the transition from the young, angry Nick Cave to the calmer one we have today. On Murder ballads you can hear both)

2. Ghost: Meliora (the best pop metal album ever. I almost feel bad for the band because they will probably never be able to top this)

3. Lustmord: Songs of Gods and Demons (a classic dark ambient album to which I have written several novels in the past)

16)  Your top 3 books and why?

This is even more difficult than the ones above! I’ll approach this from the genre angle:

1. Everything by E.A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and the best novels of Stephen King (sorry but I have to make the first slot like this, otherwise this is impossible!)

2. Clive Barker: The Books of Blood 1-3

3. Sara Gran: Come Closer

17)  Do you have a favorite place to read?

Anywhere by the sea in the summer, otherwise in my study or on a train. I also try spend two hours every day walking and listening to audiobooks.

Review: The Haunting of Hill House. Written by Giulia Bia.

My friend Giulia Bia (IG @parttimedandy) wrote this wonderful write-up of the Netflix hit The Haunting of Hill House.

Grazie, Giulia!


haunting of hill house

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE AND THE PERILS OF SAPPINESS

90% of myself subscribed to Netflix just for the horror section.

Like many hardcore horror lovers, though, I’ve been bitterly disappointed many times by the crap that has been put under that category, apart from some brilliant exceptions (e.g. “The Similars”, “The Bar”).

When I saw “The Haunting of Hill House” was available, I embarked in an epic binge and watched the whole 10 episodes while my face went from this

tie

to this

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and not because the story touched something deep inside me.

But let’s see what the maze that is Hill House has in store for us.

The story and its strong points

You probably already all know this: “The Haunting of Hill House” is based on Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece novel of the same name, and loosely so. Basically, what remains is the title and the house itself.

The story revolves around a family composed by parents Olivia and Steve Crain and their children Shirley, Luke, Theo and Eleanor (Nell). Olivia and Steve’s job is to buy decrepit old houses, flip them and sell them: what better investment than the stately and haunted Hill House?

When the series opens, the children are troubled adults, father Steve is almost absent from their lives, and mother Olivia has been killed many moons ago by Hill House.

Nell’s call for help will bring together the semi-estranged members of the Crain clan, wo will have to fight their own demons to defeat the lingering power of Hill House.

I must say the first episode is one of the most gripping I’ve watched in years. So many hints of horrible past and future events are scattered around that one can’t help but keep watching episode after episode.

The telling of the Crain family’s last night at Hill House sent a shiver down my spine, mostly because one doesn’t see what’s really happening and everything is left to the imagination of the viewer. The blurred image of Olivia running after her fleeing family is rather haunting (forgive the pun), and the hysteric pack of children is enough to convey all the terror of the unknown. Far be it from me to spoiler: suffice to say Olivia dies in the house under circumstances that will be revealed later.

The closing of the first episode is notable too, as Luke, now a writer of paranormal stuff, finds himself face to face with the ghost of someone close and dear to him.

The series gives us many blessed moments of delightful horror: just to mention a few, the sixth episode, “Two storms”, juxtaposes a tempest that occurred during the Crain family’s stay at Hill House and the storm that is raging in the present time while the siblings share stories about Nell around her coffin. Pity “something” keeps messing with her body…

The Bent-Neck Lady, too, is pretty memorable, and I must say I didn’t see the twist coming. Hope this doesn’t sound conceited, but 99 times out of 100 I spot the horror gimmick a mile away: this wasn’t the case. Plus, one of the stories that scared me the most when I was little was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet”, and because of that I tried not to look at Bent-Neck Lady too much.

Episode 3, “Touch”, offers us another creepy moment when young Luke accidentally descends to the basement because of a faulty dumbwaiter and is attacked by a vicious zombie-ghost thing.

I also loved how Hill House reveals time and time again its labyrinthine nature, especially when the mysterious “Red Room” shows its true face and how it has molded itself over the desires of its occupants.

Many are the strong points of “The Haunting of Hill House”: the seamless alternation between past and present, the depiction of Hill House as a restless, evil Venus flytrap patiently waiting for its victims, the duplicity of the house as a place of death and eternal life, the accurate depiction of the characters and the relationship with each other.
But there are also numerous flaws that ruined the series for me, which are totally underrated in the reviews I’ve read so far.

Why sappiness should never have anything to do with horror

Let’s start with a general consideration: the last two episodes are incredibly soppy. So soppy I swear I had an unbearable desire to punch everyone, and especially sweet Olivia, in the teeth. So soppy they ruined the whole other excellent 8 episodes. So soppy they cemented my hope there isn’t an afterlife for anyone.

Carla Gugino, who portrays Olivia, is a beautiful woman and a talented actress. Pity her character, which is a pivotal part of the plot, is one-dimensional and, well, unbearably sappy.

Olivia has a dark side: why would she be the first of the family to fall prey to the lure of Hill House? She somehow echoes Jack Torrence’s role in Stephen King’s “The Shining” (which, in fact, was inspired by Shirley Jackson’s novel), but she is portrayed as the All-American mother, an almost angelical figure whose main job is to be the rock of the family. Her “darkest” moments are the migraines that sometimes plague her and make her snap at her kids. Even in death she lovingly hovers at her husband’s side whispering mindful suggestions. Her sweet facial features, large green eyes, long flowing hair reminded me of those corny statuettes of the Virgin Mary one finds in Catholic churches.

And don’t get me started on the stupidity of her reasons for wanting to kill her whole family inside Hill House.

In the infamous last two episodes, the “Virgin Mary” aura looms also around Nell, and her speech in the Red Room reeks of such do-goodism that I seriously considered switching to some other series.

It’s such a departure in tones and mood from the rest of the series that one can’t help but feeling cheated and, well, deprived of a good old bloody ending.

The ghosts, too, play such blatant mind tricks one should be really an idiot to fall for them.

All in all, “The Haunting of Hill House” remains one of the best things offered by Netflix so far; some more courage in denying the viewer a reassuring and pleasing ending would have been appreciated.

The Martin Croft Devil. A Finnish poltergeist tale.

The following is an English translation of a chapter in the book Olevaisen yöpuoli (1993) by Heikki Tikkala, a collection of poltergeist and ghost stories from Finland. The translation was done with permission from Mr. Tikkala himself. Translated by Salla Juntunen.


Martinin_torppa

(the Martin croft)

The poltergeist of Martin’s croft is not exceptional when it comes to the quality of the case – similar phenomena have occurred in most other Finnish cases of poltergeist disturbance. What makes Martin’s poltergeist particularly noteworthy is the associated trial, during which fifteen affidavits were filed. The weight of these witness statements is significant even on an international scale.

The witness statements from the trial have been presented in numerous writings, most recently in Jarl Fahler’s book Parapsychology. Therefore I will not recount them in full here. While describing the event I rely heavily on Matti Seppä’s thorough report, which reviews almost everything that is known about the case.

On January 12th of the year 1885, the croft of Efraim Martin, the chairman of Ylöjärvi’s parish assembly and a former teacher, became haunted. The croft’s three inhabitants, Efraim, his wife Eva, and Emma Lindroos, their 13-year-old maid, noticed objects moving inexplicably. The door would not stay closed, papers from shut desk drawers flew on the floor, tens of litres of plastering fell on the floor from somewhere. The phenomena seemed to centre around the fatally ill Emma. The haunting continued for a little over two weeks up until January 27th and then ended as abruptly as it had begun. The writings of Tampere newspapers drew out so many people that master Efraim saw it best to move to Tampere for a few days in order to escape the curious eyes. Many visitors were in high spirits and heavily inebriated, which was likely a factor in Martin getting served a summons to appear in court.

Efraim Martin (1814-1890)

Alerted by the rumours, parish bailiff Kasimir Liljestrand visited the place and sent the governor of the province of Häme a letter in which he attempted to sort out what had happened. In his response the governor ordered the Martins to be prosecuted for witchcraft and the illegal sale of alcohol.

The hearings for the Martin case were held at the district court of Ylöjärvi on March 24th. The charges were deemed unfounded, but the most interesting part of the trial were of course the eyewitness accounts of the haunting. Out of the fifteen people called as a witness only one reported that they had not observed anything supernatural. The rest described 78 inexplicable phenomena altogether. Many of the most impressive ones are found in the testimony of Efraim Eerola:

From January 14th onwards, throughout the whole period of time in question, the witness had visited the Martin croft every day. The first time he visited – – he noticed that the window screens of the living room were smudged with clay, as were the floor and the furniture. He did not, however, notice any visible damages in the wall plastering. Upon inspecting the window screens they appeared to be stained with soap, not, however, stroked by a human hand. In the presence of the witness, crumbled clay accumulated on the floor in an invisible manner without anyone touching it or noticing from where and how it came. Three whole baskets worth of clay crumbs accumulated. – – Clay appeared on the floor twice and both times it was swept away carefully.

When specifically asked, the witness explained that the room’s ceiling was somewhat fragile and cracked, but he was prepared to assure under oath that the clay did not appear on the floors through the ceiling, as such amounts of clay travelling through the air would certainly have been noticed. Furthermore, one day the witness observed a massive knife fly past his face six times in a row, although without hitting him. He assumed that the knife initially flew from the next room and was then moved back and forth by some inexplicable force.

When the witness took a break from smoking and laid his pipe on the table, the pipe flew into the air as did stones and whetstones, as if moved in the air by an invisible force. One day the witness saw various objects and books fly out of a drawer that had been locked and, due to prior similar events, bound shut by a firm rope, without the drawer ever even slightly opening. One morning he was told that the legs of the sheep in the barn were tied. He went to release them and as he left the barn the latch on the door spun around in an unexplainable manner. When he went to the living room, under the table were discovered some strange rocks and Efraim Martin’s glasses, which had been thrown there from the desk drawer without anyone knowing how. The frames of the glasses had partially snapped and appeared to be burned. All these and many other events the witness saw every day, although he could not now recall them in full detail, and he assured upon his word that they were not brought about by humans but by spirits or other forces unknown to the witness. – –

Witness Eerola furthermore added that one day when he was in the croft’s kitchen he noticed a large amount of medicine bottles containing nitric acid, hydrochloric acid and other private substances gather on the table in an unknown manner. The bottles began jumping spontaneously, spilling their contents on the table where they began to boil and foam. The witness was also present during the back end of the haunting when ladles, buckets and other such household items appeared in the oven and there caught fire. The witness also assured that no cellar was found underneath the Martin house and therefore no such items could have been hidden there since the room stood on hard rock, and that the witness never checked whether some stranger could have been hiding in the room’s loft.

Most commonly the witnesses saw objects moving for no reason. A key, a pot, a saw, a pair of shoes, a candlestick, a brick, a hymn book, a matchbox and a stool, among others, jumped or outright flew in the air even though no one moved them. The candlestick appeared to have been the most popular target:

Gustaf Hellen sat at the end of the table. At that moment a piece the size of an egg detached from the candlestick standing on the table and inexplicably flew atop Emma Lindroos’s head, rotated angularly and fell at the witness’s feet, rotated once more on the floor and rolled into the corner of the candlelit room.

Karl Lindholm saw a candlestick twice fly towards the door and on the third time to the back of the room. The witness could not figure out from where the candlestick flew, but he believed that it could not have been launched by any human means, as the candlestick moved in a spinning motion as if held up by an invisible force. The candlestick had moved in a slow weaving motion, always turned upside down. Simultaneously, a clatter was heard from beneath the table. – Helena Punala had been sitting by the table alone when the candlestick flew off of it, therefore it could not have been thrown by any human.

The bread poles were another favourite target of the disturbances, three incidents relate to them. On one occasion four people witnessed them moving:

Gerhard Grönfors had visited the Martins in the middle of the day on January 18th. On that occasion, in a room where neither the Martin couple nor Emma Lindroos were present, shingles in the corner of the oven began jumping and spinning around each other. Additionally, two bread poles in the corner danced and struck together. At this point Eva Martin arrived, took one of the poles in her hand and slammed it to the floor three times saying: “Won’t you behave.” The witness inspected the corner in which the poles had stood thoroughly and found nothing suspicious. Alku Eerola confirmed Grönfors’s description and explained that he also inspected the corner. Gustaf Hellen and Henrik Asuntila also concurred with their statement.

The most famous singular phenomenon in the Martin disturbance was the knife flying six past Efraim Eerola’s face times in a row; it is referenced not only in Eerola’s witness statement but also in the broadside ballad written about the event. These witness statements clearly demonstrate objects flying unnaturally slowly or weavingly, which is typical of a poltergeist. In most cases, however, the objects simply flung themselves around.

There are some statements of teleportation, or objects transfering inexplicably. The accumulation of plastering on the floor must likely be considered teleportation since according to Efraim Eerola’s statement no one could explain where it came from. The case of Efraim Martin’s papers flying on the floor from a drawer tied with string without the string untying, which Alku Eerola also describes in his witness statement, must also be counted among unexplainable events.

martin

(another shot of the croft)

There were hardly any sound phenomena linked to the Martin poltergeist. On a few occasions the witnesses mention an unexplainable clatter or rumble. The clearest case has to do with the visit of sexton Lindell. The sexton had come to the croft to write a news piece, but had relocated to the shed in the yard due to the restlessness of the cottage.

Alerted by the noise, sexton Lindell hurried back into the room. There he saw the two boards of a dining table banging on its legs. When the witness pressed the other board with his knee, the other struck that much harder. Therefore the sides of the table were bound and also wedged with ropes for a good measure. Now the boards stayed immobile, but a puffing sound came from between them. The table jumped spontaneously a few times, approximately an inch off the floor. No hatches, loose planks or secret strings were observed by the sexton and therefore he did not deem it necessary to inspect other parts of the room.

The moving of objects and teleportation are the most strongly substantiated phenomena of the Martin croft. The testimony of sexton Lindell which stated that the spirit tied Emma Lindroos with rope as she lay in her bed is also rather interesting. The case of Eva Martin’s hands catching fire, which was mentioned in Jarl Fahler’s book, was proved by Matti Seppä to be a translation error: the witness meant that candles wouldn’t stay in Eva Martin’s hands.

The study of the case of the Martin croft is based almost exclusively on court documents. There is not a single eyewitness to be found in folk tales. An interesting addition to the case, however, is baron Schrenck-Notzig’s account of the haunting. He had received the German translation of the court transcripts as well as some additional information from his doctor colleague Yrjö Kulovesi from Tampere.

In 1921, Kulovesi had interviewed Efraim Martin’s then 79-year-old son Berndt Erland Martin in Tampere. Berndt Martin had not been home at the time of the haunting. The only witness Kulovesi met was Emil Keso, a householder from Aitolahti. He had visited the Martins together with Simo Laalahti and Efram Eerola, who was mentioned in the court transcripts.

The guests arrived between three and four in the afternoon. It was still light in the cottage. As they sat down, Laalahti’s mitten was thrown to Keso’s side of the bench. Keso then said: “Enough with the tricks, didn’t we just agree to avoid such mischief.” His mittens then flew away as well. Laalahti claimed that he had not thrown the mittens. In order to observe the situation as clearly as possible, the men sat on chairs in the middle of the room. Suddenly shingles began to fall from the beams in front of Keso’s feet. They flew closely side by side as if tied together by an invisible force, and when they fell at his feet they did not slide at all in the direction one would expect, but rather stayed still as if captured by a mysterious power. Ten shingles fell, all in all. In the room at the time were Eva Martin, Efraim Eerola and both householders. Keso could not recall if Emma Lindroos had also been present. At the same time, cobbler’s tools were thrown from the corner to Laalahti’s feet.

The Martin haunting was so versatile and the eyewitness statements so detailed that the ghost has certainly earned its international reputation. As the only Finnish poltergeist it rose to international fame when the court transcripts were published as widely distributed pamphlets. Considering the weight of the material it is therefore strange that the ghost was soon buried into dusty local history publications as a mere freak of folk religion. A truly encompassing analysis of the Martin poltergeist and its impact on our worldview remains in unmade in our cultural conversation.

kyltti-kummitustalolle

(a sign indicating the spot where the croft once stood. The sign says: “The spot of Efraim Martin’s croft. The building was moved downtown after Efraim’s death in the 1890s.” Photo: Pentti Säynäväjärvi)

Book review. Visalia Ransacker – Secret Origin of the Golden State Killer, by Kat Winters and Keith Komos. 2018.

visalia

Winters and Komos continue their important work in making the complicated East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer case readable to both the general public as well as more advanced researchers. Now that Joseph DeAngelo has been arrested as a suspect in the EAR/ONS case, more and more people will probably be interested in understanding the case, and Winters’ and Komos’ books provide a fantastic “road map” through the complex terrain.

Some time ago, the duo released the book Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer, a masterpiece in true crime writing. This time, they are digging into the weird case of the Visalia Ransacker, a burglar with an M.O. similar to the EAR/ONS/GSK. Whether the VR actually was the EAR has been debated for some time; this book, I believe, makes the case pretty convincingly that the VR and EAR are one and the same.

The book has been laid out similarly to the aforementioned Case Files… The incidents involving the VR proceed from the first to the last. The structure is heaven-sent in a case as all-over-the-place as this one: we finally get a cohesive idea of where the nightmare started and what it entailed. The VR’s actions were easily as creepy as those of the EAR, and this book is not for those with a tendency towards bad dreams and/or anxiety. In fact, even if you’re of a steely mind, you’ll be looking over your shoulder at night for months after reading Visalia Ransacker.

The question many will be asking themselves is “Is this worth buying and reading now that Joseph DeAngelo has been arrested as the EAR?” The answer is yes – indeed, it’s MORE pertinent now that the VR/EAR/ONS/GSK has most likely been captured, because we’re now at the beginning stages of trying to understanding the mind, the human being behind these terrifying crimes, and a book like Visalia Ransacker is worth it’s weight in gold in such a process.

Highly recommended.

Buy it here.

 

Interview with Marit Higraff, co-host of Death in Ice Valley (podcast)

This year’s best mystery/true crime podcast is, without question, Death in Ice Valley. The show is an investigation into the Isdal woman mystery (if you don’t know what it is, read on below). The show is a breath of fresh air in a “podosphere” filled with true crime shows featuring two people chatting and giggling among themselves: Death in Ice Valley features interviews, excursions into the field, and discussions with cops, locals, and other people who were actually involved in the events when they happened.

Death in Ice Valley is a collaboration between the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK and BBC World Service. It is hosted by Marit Higraff and Neil McCarthy.

Here is my interview with Marit Higraff, Norwegian investigative journalist and co-host of the podcast.

Thank you, Marit, for taking the time to talk to Books, Bullets and Bad Omens!


deathinicevalley

Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am an investigative journalist and reporter working for NRK, Norways public broadcaster. I have been working as a tv-reporter in different departments and for different programs in NRK for many years – investigative journalism is my special field. So originally, tv-journalist, lately also online and audio 😉

I am from the northern part of Norway – the land of the midnight sun – but have lived in Oslo since I started studying. Also lived 8 years in Salzburg, Austria.

I have a 15 year-old-daughter, Hannah.

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(Marit Higraff. Photo: Sigrid Winther)

In your own words, what is the “Isdal Woman”? What does that term refer to?

In November 1970 a woman was found dead and severely burned in a desolate valley outside of Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway.

Objects were laid out around the body, and couple of days later, the police found her two suitcases at Bergen railway station – containing lots of curious clues, like sophisticated clothes, a wig, and glasses without prescription. The most significant thing common for the suitcases and the things found at the scene: there was nothing to identify who the woman was. The labels had been cut off her clothes, and scratched off the items.

The case immediately hit the headlines in Norway. It was a mystery: who was she – and what happened to her? The newspapers called her the Isdal Woman, because of the name of the remote valley where the body was found, called “Isdalen” in Norwegian, or “Ice Valley” in English.

The police investigated intensively for some weeks, and found that the woman had been traveling a lot, and with different fake identities. But then suddenly shut down the investigation – concluding with most likely suicide. A conclusion most doubted – then, and now. Without finding her identity..

Speculation went high that she could have been a spy, as this happened in the middle of the Cold War.

And the speculations have been going on, for almost 50 years. Still today, nobody knows who this woman was, what she was doing in Norway, and how and why she died in that remote valley.

Isdal-Corpse

(police photo of the body of the Isdal woman as it was found that day. Photo: Bergen Police Archives)

When did you first hear of this case? Were you hooked immediately?

I was an early newspaper and magazine reader as a child, and I remember reading about the case. It has been in the media every know and then.

When I was asked to have a look at it a couple of years ago, it immediately triggered my curiosity and investigative tentacles. Then, when reading thousands of files, I saw the potential of the case – riddle upon riddle – and the possibility of starting a whole new investigation, based on modern methods and technology.

Would you say the Isdal woman is the number 1 most well-known unsolved mystery in Norway? Are there other mystery cases that “compete” with the Isdal woman for that title?

Well, there are some other cases – but since we started publishing our investigation 1,5 year ago this case has got very well known in Norway. Also to the younger generations. And I guess it’s the one case with the most spectacular riddles and facts.

Is there a kind of unofficial prevailing consensus in Norway regarding the woman’s identity? In other words, what is the most popular theory as to who she was and why she ended up the way she did?

There have been a lot of theories and speculations about who she was and what she was doing in Norway. During almost 50 years one of the most discussed theories has been that she was some kind of an intelligence agent or spy, because of the use of several fake identities, the content in her suitcases, and her movements.

The reason we’re discussing this case is because you are the co-host of a podcast I consider the best of 2018, Death in Ice Valley, which deals with the Isdal woman. Can you tell us about the podcast? How did it come about, how are you approaching the case, etc.

Thanks a lot for your opinion on “Death in Ice Valley”! I really appreciate that.

Me and my colleagues in the NRK-team started working on this case two years ago, and have been publishing our steps in the investigation as an online-project since autumn 2016. We were surprised to get attention abroad, as we published only in Norwegian. But, we discovered that people were following us internationally, using Google translate.

Some journalists from international media also took contact, and made stories about our investigation and the project. And then, one year ago, we were contacted by the podcast editor of the BBC World Service, Jon Manel. He saw the potential of the case, and wanted to make the investigation into a podcast-series for a world audience, in collaboration with us. In autumn 2017 me and my colleague Neil McCarthy from the BBC started the work with the podcast. Simultaneously we continued our ongoing investigation into the case.

IMG_0327

(Marit and co-host Neil McCarthy interview a police officer at the exact spot where the Isdal woman was found. Photo: Anette Berentsen / NRK)

One reason I love Death in Ice Valley (besides the intriguing case it deals with) is because, rather than just sitting in a studio and chit-chatting about an old case amongst yourselves, you actually talk to people who were involved in the Isdal woman incident: cops, witnesses, et cetera. How did you go about finding these people? Was it hard to convince them to discuss the case with you?

I am glad you say that. Because, to us it was important that we wanted to take the listeners with us out in the field. To experience places, to meet people. We wanted to be as little studio based as possible – the opposite of most podcasts. We wanted to give the audience a great listening experience, in addition to the great story, and the ongoing investigation.

To find still living witnesses, police and so, has been a challenge in this project. It all happened in 1970, so most of the witnesses are dead – senior officers in the police and so. While reading thousands of police files and documents, we thoroughly registered interesting names of different witnesses. And then had to search in the registers, if they live or are dead. Some got married, changed names, were difficult to find.

Some were really hard to find.

We ended up with a list of rather few possible interviewees still alive. I interviewed many of them for the “Norwegian” part of the project, but we expanded for the podcast, and I contacted more of them. These are mostly quite old people, and it was hard to convince them to try to speak English for a world audience. But most of them participated.

Without spoiling anything for listeners, tell us, we’re you able to dig up anything surprising in your investigation for the podcast?

Yes, definitely! We continued our ongoing investigation along the production – and it was a challenge(and long days!) to research and produce at the same time. But we found some interesting new leads along the way.

And, first of all: we knew that we need attention “out there”. This woman was not Norwegian, we know that. So, our hope was and still is, that someone out there might know something. The goal was to reach out to that person or those persons who might recognize something about the story: about an aunt, a neighbor, a woman who disappeared in 1970…

And we have gotten some very interesting leads to follow up on, from listeners.

What are you currently working on? A new podcast series, perhaps..?

Currently I am spending the summer in the Caribbean, resting and learning Spanish😊 It is a good and necessary break, after an extremely intensive year at work.

Then, after summer, there are some very interesting leads to follow up on, as said. The team will go on investigating this case, and if we get any further – which I still strongly believe – we might come back with another podcast series, Death in Ice Valley season 2..😉

Where can people keep up with your work?

Everything published in our project about the Isdal Woman – articles, videos, timeline – can be found at nrk.no/isdal

It’s in Norwegian though.

Some main articles are translated; they can be found here nrk.no/isdal.en

The podcast “Death in Ice Valley” can be found on iTunes and everywhere else you find podcasts.

My investigative work from earlier on can be found by googling me.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?

Yes.

To me, as an idealistic investigative journalist, always driven by the motivation that I want to make life better for people, want to reveal the errors and gaps in the society, and so on.. I had to ask myself many times in this project: “Why? Why am I spending years of my life – and far too many working hours – on this case? It’s a woman found dead. A concluded suicide.”

And every time I come to the same answer: because it’s a life. A human being. A family that didn’t get to know about their loved one.

I want to give her back what she lost: a name. A dignity. And perhaps justice – if someone did that to her.

And, if possible – I want to bring her home, where she belongs.

FInally, my standard questions.

Your top 3 books?

When I have time, I prefer to read crime – I’ll answer with some favorite authors:
Swedish Jan Guillou, and the Norwegian Jo Nesbø. I also love reading John Irving.

And also historical books that give me new knowledge and reveal new truths, like the unknown story of Norwegians fighting “on the wrong side” during WW2, by Eirik Veum.

Your top 3 films?

Films, the same – crime, and also romantic films;

– The Bridges of Madison County
– Titanic
– Braveheart

And some more faves, all of them old…😄

What model phone do you use?

iPhone 7