Netflix List Blitz: The Man From Nowhere

New Year’s resolutions are, of course, arbitrary. That doesn’t mean the start of a new year is any worse starting point for making a change or doing something you’ve been meaning / wanting / needing to do. I told myself I would write much, much more in 2017, and writing in my long neglected blog is going to be part of that increased writing output. That said, blogging doesn’t always come so easily to me. Sometimes it’s not a matter of procrastination, sometimes I just don’t feel like I have anything to write about. So, to help ensure that I will write frequently, I’ve decided to employ a ringer. I’m going to blog about my attempt to power through my never-ending unwatched Netflix queue.

I don’t have a DVD account anymore (does that even need to be said at this point?), so this is strictly a streaming queue. Like so many other people, I’ve let the Netflix list get unwieldy, to the point that I’m sort of relieved when something I’ve been meaning to gets dropped from Netflix’s streaming service. Well, starting today, I’m setting myself a benchmark. I will get through at least 3 titles a week, and hopefully more, and will write something about each flick after completion. I’m giving myself a couple of outs and setting up a couple of rules for this as I go along.

  1. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any movie I’ve ever seen where at some point I thought, “Wow, this is awful,” and then later thought, “Glad I stuck it out through the awful parts to get to the fantastic stuff.” It’s okay for a movie to start slow, or have a lull or dip or three, but if I get a sense at any time that what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  2. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  3. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random. And I suppose it essentially is.
  4. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Meaning that some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. Given my propensity for tangents and long-windedness, if we set the wordcount over/under at 400, the safe money would definitely be on the over. But there’ll probably be some occasions where I’ll keep things to a few paragraphs and move on.

With all of that established, let’s get to it. First up…

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE

There was a time in my life  when I went out of my way to watch any remotely notable Asian gunplay movie. I spent a couple of years fawning over John Woo, then I saw Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and chased any movie that could come close to giving me the feeling it gave me upon first watch. Then I spent a few years catching up to solid flicks such as Fulltime Killer and Shiri, appreciating them for what they were while part of me thought, “Nice, but you’re no Time and Tide.

At some point, my wild affinity for Asian action flicks completely subsided. The movies still looked relatively appealing to me, but I didn’t feel so compelled to watch them. I’ve added and subtracted (and re-added) The Man From Nowhere to and from (and to) my Netflix list two or three times. I add it because it looks good, and comes highly recommended. I subtract it because it feels like one of those movies I’m never going to be in the mood to commit to viewing. The solid 2-hour runtime didn’t help. Remember when action movies seemed to get right to the point, got in and out in90-minutes or so, an hour-forty-five tops? The Terminator is 107-minutes long and it has to establish a premise involving time travel and futuristic murder-droids and shit.

“But Johnny, what about Die Hard, and Terminator 2, and other rather long action movies from the 80’s and early 90’s.”

Bah. Begone with you and your facts.

The Man From Nowhere has one of those classic action movie premises where the bad guys mess with the wrong man. I love movies with that plot, if for no other reason than they remind me of the end of the 1991 Patrick Dempsey movie Run. After Dempsey’s bumbling character lucks into killing one last villain, the cop who’s spent the whole movie one step behind being helpful all night finally catches up to Dempsey, smiles at him and says, “They sure fucked with the wrong guy.” Uh, nah, Detective, sir, that’s not an accurate assessment of the way things went down. Dempsey’s character spends the whole movie accidentally surviving and accidentally taking out the criminals chasing him. It’s a surprisingly fun flick, but his success leaves his enemies relatively blameless, tactically speaking. You can’t fault the bad guys in Run for thinking that a guy who looks and acts exactly like the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love should be an easy kill.

The bad guys in The Man From Nowhere, on the other hand, have legitimately eff’d with the wrongest of wrong men to eff with. The primary villains of the film, two psychotic brothers with promising futures in the murder/narcotics/exploitation/evildoer business, don’t have direct run-ins with the hero initially, and are dismissive of a lackey who tries to tell them about how quickly and casually our hero, Cha Tae-sik, snatched a knife out of said lackey’s hand. Okay, fair enough, no bad guy ever takes a cowardly bastard lackey’s word for it when he tries to warn them that the hero is more dangerous than he initially appears to be. But then their chief lieutenant / hitman doesn’t dispute the lackey’s story, and also goes out of his way to comment about how calm Tae-sik was when the hitman shot someone else right in front of him.

I’ve never run a criminal enterprise myself, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about it, but I like to think that if I did run one, and the highest ranking murderer under my employment even hinted at warning me about some seemingly innocuous guy I may have made into an enemy, I’d have some follow-up questions. “Did he say he was coming after us? Did he mention anything about having ‘a particular set of skills’? Should we maybe not kidnap the little kid who’s the only person to befriend him and make him feel remotely human again?”

The movie has some similarities to John Wick, which means it has some similarities to Taken, which means it has some similarities to Man on Fire, which means it has some similarities to The Professional and probably several other movies and stories that predate all of the aforementioned. Hell, viewed from a high enough altitude, it has some very basic things in common with The Searchers. Tae-sik is a warrior with some disturbing things in his past–things he’s done and had done to him–and So-mi, the abducted girl, is his lone tether to humanity.

The big difference between The Man From Nowhere and the other movies I’ve mentioned is just how much more emotionally unashamed it is, and I say this as a compliment. As I watched the film, I realized just how much I had missed the naked melodrama of so many Asian action / crime thrillers that just doesn’t come naturally to most American/”Hollywood” flicks in the same genres. Those who’ve seen Infernal Affairs and its remake The Departed should know exactly what I’m getting at. For those who haven’t, or who’ve seen the latter but not the original, here’s a video that does a great job of highlighting the very different approaches to the same scene.

Naked, unashamed manipulation and emotion. I forgot how much I enjoyed that sort of thing in my action thrillers. The Man From Nowhere is a film very much in that same vein. It comes through in the stories and characters. Unlike his American counterparts John Creasy or Bryan Mills, Tae-sik, is apt to cry or tremble with fury or shock when the moment calls for it. When he sets up a villain to die with a timed explosive, somewhat reminiscent of Creasy’s actions in Man on Fire, he doesn’t preface it with a cool one-liner and then walk off without looking at the explosion. Instead he gives the villain a rundown of exactly why the horrible things he’s doing are may be even more horrible than they already appear to be. And he is seething. I like Man on Fire well enough, but outside of Christopher Walken’s “masterpiece” mini-logue, it’s got nothing on this flick.

By the way, about that horrible stuff that the villains are up to. So-Mi is one of many children who’ve been sold to the Chinese Mafia operating in Korea as “ants”–child slave laborers. They’re forced to act as drug couriers, money couriers and meth-lab workers, and when any of them eventually collapse from the exhaustion of running around town doing drop-offs and pick-ups and, you know, working nonstop around all of those horrible meth chemicals, they’re killed and harvested for organs to be sold on the black market. Which is already fucking appalling and leaves any action flick fan eager to see these bad guys get the shit killed out of them. Then Tae-Sik briefly takes things up to the border of horror story territory while lecturing the villain; he notes that with the children’s organs being involuntarily harvested and sold to different people in different parts of the country, their souls can never rest, and they’re forced to wander without peace or respite in death. With that in mind, it almost feels like the villains merely getting shot, stabbed and/or blown up to death are getting off a bit easy.

The Man From Nowhere performs one hell of a balancing act; it’s gruesome, it’s melodramatic yet affecting, it’s thrilling despite dour and largely humorless, it’s predictable but still builds anticipation. Save for one knife-fight near the climax that features some exhilarating first-person POV camerawork, the action is unexceptional, but it’s very well-executed, and worth your time if you’re an action-thriller fan. Had I not just committed myself to this “Netflix list blitz” idea, I’d be in the mood to spend a week or two catching up on all the Asian action flicks I’ve been neglecting. Instead, the next movie will steer me into somewhat surreal world of a “cozy”-dystopian drama.

Next up: High-Rise

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Today’s Short Story: “The Four-Fingered Hand”

Barry Pain’s short story “The Four-Fingered Hand,” initially published in 1911’s Here and Hereafter, is a great, swift tale that can be read on Project Gutenberg for free. You should, perhaps, read the story first, then come back to read this post because I’m going to dive into story details, including the ending.

Ready now? Let’s get to it.

If you read enough ghost stories, you know that supernatural omens and phantom harbingers are plentiful in ghostlore; banshees, La Llorona, black dogs, death coaches, The Flying Dutchman, and a host of others that I’m not naming and plenty more that I’m sure I’ve never heard of. These entities and their freshly imagined stand-ins often pop up in horror fiction, because a being whose mere presence foretells death is ripe for producing frights. Given the familiarity of this character type, stories often add some twist to try to keep the audience on its toes, often utilizing dramatic irony that suggests predestination (the cursed person tries to avoid their death, only to accidentally cause their death through very actions meant to prevent it), or a plot turn involving a false presumption (the banshee appears, but the person sick in bed recovers, and someone else in the house ends up dead instead).

“The Four-Fingered Hand” has a simple, smart and horrifying twist on such a being. For any who didn’t take a moment to read the story, here’s a rundown: The titular, phantom four-fingered is a heriditary haint that used to appear to the forebears of a man named Brackley. Any sighting of the spectral hand was a sign to “stop anything on which he was engaged.” Brackley’s now-deceased grandfather, a wealthy man, would cease specific business dealings or cancel planned journeys whenever he saw the hand. In the story, Brackley spies the hand, but is persuaded by his skeptical acquaintance, Yarrow, to ignore the hand’s warning, which on this night seems particularly mundane and silly. The hand appears to be warning Brackley not to continue playing a game of cards. Brackley disregards the warning, plays cards with Yarrow and another man named Blake, and nothing horrible befalls him while playing.

And then Brackley excuses himself to his room, where he’s promptly strangled to death. An imprint of the hand that choked the life out of him remains on his neck for his friends to see, and that handprint is missing a finger.

It’s simple and, I’ll go ahead and gush here, brilliant. A warning and a threat may not quite be synonyms, but they’re very close cousins, and one very can easily be mistaken for the other. Take the following sentence: “Do as I tell you, or you will be killed by me.” Shave the “by me” off the end and you’re still essentially saying the same thing, but that omission can lead someone to misinterpret your intent.

As Yarrow tells another man at the end of the story, there’s no reason to believe that an apparition that seemingly appears to caution people against danger or give advance notice of impending, possibly avoidable danger is actually doing anything of the sort. It could be in business for itself, showing up for “unfathomable reasons” that they don’t bother to explain. We read and write often about such specters and treat them as though they must be stuck on rails, set on a path leading to a destination everyone has marked on their map. I love this story for providing the simple reminder that even a ghostly, maimed hand might be more than just a plot device. It might have a motive, and might not care to share that motive with the reader, or any other characters.

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DON’T KNOCK TWICE Trailer Checks Off a Few of My Boxes

Spindly-limbed creature? Check.

Title that doubles as a warning? Check.

Black-and-white ink illustrations that look like they could be pulled from a fake grimoire? Pretty damn specific, and yet, that’s a check.

This isn’t a particularly great trailer. Pretty by the numbers, in fact. But I’m a sucker for the things that I am a sucker for, so it’s a given that I’ll be at least slightly interested in Don’t Knock Twice based just the small sample of it shown here.

There are some elements present here that I’ve come to  be wary of over the years, in particular the whole “incredibly powerful supernatural being is summoned by the most mundane action” thing. On one hand, I have a soft spot for such summoning, since Bloody Mary might be the first major fear I can remember in my life, and probably should be a subject of a future Confessions of a Fear Junkie entry. On the other hand, for many stories it makes very little sense, particularly when the supernatural creature is summoned to do someone’s specific bidding.  That said, the act of knocking on a door may not be what actually summons our supernatural antagonist at all, so I’ll won’t hold that against the movie just yet.

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45-minutes of Horror Stories From the Freddy Krueger Hotline

For a relatively brief period in the 80’s and early 90’s, back before every entertainment enterprise had a dedicated website, 1-900 numbers were ubiquitous. While some people might remember the 1-900 numbers being associated with phone sex operations, R&B singerspop stars, teen idols and cartoon characters had their own hotlines as well. This latter group of hotlinesd blatantly targeted children, with their commercials often closing with a quickly uttered, “Kids, get your parents’ permission before you dial.” One of the other hotlines for fictional characters that targeted children, somewhat inexplicably, belonged to Freddy Krueger.

And now, courtesy of Dwayne Cathey’s Soundcloud account and the adolescence of actor/director Taylor Basinger, we have a 45-minute long archive of Freddy’s phone nightmares, recorded by a 14-year-old on his Darth Vader speakerphone.

Freddy doesn’t feature at all in any of these stories and for the most part only provides canned, repetitive introductions.  The stories themselves play out very much like super-condensed old-time radio horror stories. Just as gruesome as the darkest that Lights OutThe Witch’s Tale or Quiet, Please used to be, but with more swearing than you could get away with on the radio. The voice actors are all committed and once you get used to the rushed performances you might find the material more charming and entertaining than you’d expect.

Given the decidedly R-rated nature of the Elm Street movies, it might seem odd for Freddy to have a phone line that kids would be eager to call, but the Krueger character was always more popular with kids than with adults. Likewise, the character was bigger than the movies that spawned him, which paying adults made reasonably successful, but didn’t turn into breakout hits. Even adjusting for ticket-price inflation, none of the movies in the original Elm Street run come close to touching Scream, the original Halloween, or even Friday the 13th or I Know What You Did Last Summer when you’re looking strictly at the numbers. Many of the kids who thought Freddy looked scary and “cool,” and who dressed up in a hat, sweater and rubber-bladed glove for Halloween, often had to wait for the movies to come to home video or HBO to see their preferred horror icon in action.

Or they could dial a 900-number to get their Freddy fix, and hope that their parents wouldn’t notice those extra charges on the phone bill.

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Ellie Kemper Could’ve Been a Good Pennywise (At Least on Paper)

The title of this blog post just occurred to me after I saw an image of Ellie Kemper on an AV Club article today. Expressive, toothy grin. Proven ability to play a character who’s so impossibly cheerful it seems as if they’re from another world. She even has the red hair. Just let her play up the gleefulness until it’s unsettling, throw in some Kubrick stares, and I’m confident she could come off as perfectly menacing Pennywise the Clown.

I’m not one to suggest “gender swapping” characters at random, or just because it seems like the thing to say. I am, however, one to believe that certain characters needn’t be gender exclusive. There’s nothing particularly male about Pennywise. “It,” after all, is very much an “it.” Psycho clown, abominable pregnant spider, wolfman, mummy, incomprehensible eldritch being from another dimension. It can be anything It cares to be.

Pennywise being a man is, at absolute most, secondary to it being a creepy clown. And a big part of It being a “creepy clown” is that It looks a lot like a genuinely happy, friendly clown, who’s getting a kick out of doing horrible things.

pennywise-laughing

Some years ago, in my article about The Blair Witch project, I called out the fact that It and Poltergeist seemed to make adult coulrophobia sort of trendy. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, or that people who legitimately have this phobia should be ridiculed for it, but I do think it’s one of those things that other people commandeer because it somehow sounds cool nowadays to say, “Clowns are so creepy.” No, they’re not, at least not inherently, and sometimes the more deliberately “frightening” they are, the sillier and, well, more clownish they end up being.

This, for instance, is not at all scary.

clowns-are-not-scary

And neither, really, is this.

clown-trying-to-be-scary

The most recent high-profile “scary clown” in pop culture came from American Horror Story: Freak Show, and “Twisty the Clown” has a design trying so hard to be scary he looks more like some sort of “edgy” Juggalo cosplayer. A hulking maniac wearing a human scalp over his head and a fake giant mouth to cover his shotgun-erased jaw doesn’t need the clown motif to be ostensibly menacing. It’s like giving Leatherface a clown outfit and face paint, as if the human-skin-headgear, chainsaw and homicidal childishness didn’t make him threatening enough.

Similarly, the new Jared Leto take on The Joker for the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t even a clown anymore. He looks like the leader of some goth-metal-worshiping, heroin-freak street gang from the movie The Warriors.

I point all of this out because people seem to forget that what made Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise so iconic is that he often looked like this.

Pennywise_shower

If you were unfamiliar with the miniseries or novel, you might think he was delivering a harmless, misguided PSA about wearing shower shoes or something. He looks like the host of an 80’s Saturday morning kids show: Pennywise’s Playhouse. This picture of Pennywise has a lot more in common with the three goofy, mugging, Seussian clowns two pics up than that picture of the snaggletoothed fang monster with a colorful ‘fro. I can absolutely see Ellie Kemper exuding this kind of affability onscreen.

This guy that they actually picked for the part, meanwhile…

Bill-skarsgard

bill-skarsgard2

…look, hell, Bill Skarsgard might knock it out of the park, but on first sight he gives me that Leto Joker vibe. Like he’s going to show up as Pennywise with “Deadlights” tattooed in cursive on his forehead.

I’d rather have the Tim Curry / Ellie Kemper type. Someone whose smile seems a little too big when you look at it for a few seconds. A little too friendly. Someone who appears sincerely happy, yet also looks like they’re up to something.

ellie-kemper-1

Yeah. That’s the face of someone who’s genuinely thrilled to be giving out a bunch of blood-filled balloons.

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New Short Story Published in Devolution Z

The July 2016 edition of Devolution Z is available on Amazon now, either in Kindle format or paperback. My short story “TMI” appears second. It’s a story about the voices of history and the dead–specifically the ones located under and around a long bridge in Louisiana–and the modern outlets they can find in order to be heard.

Thanks to the Devolution Z staff for publishing the story.

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‘Baskin’ May be as Close as We’ll Get to a Good Silent Hill Movie

While the pull-quotes in the trailer for the Turkish horror film Baskin compare it to Hellraiser, the actual content of the trailer is more reminiscent of the best of the Silent Hill games. It appears to be a story about location that is damnation incarnate, and the story kicks off due to a car accident involving someone suddenly appearing in the middle of the road. Check out the IFC Midnight trailer and the shorter, TIFF trailer below. Neither is graphic enough to enter red-band territory, but if you’re on the squeamish side of things, you may want to brace yourself.

Of course, comparing Baskin to either Silent Hill or Hellraiser simultaneously pays it a compliment and–at least potentially–does it a disservice. After all, who’s to say that this slice of cinematic Hell won’t edge the other two as a genre classic? Unlikely, of course, but it’s worth rooting for just the same.

The alternative is that the movie lands in Event Horizon territory: horrifically splendid visuals, but otherwise a missed opportunity. Based on the trailer, that also strikes me as unlikely. This looks inventive and brutal. I’ve seen a couple of blogs refer to this as an “extreme” horror film, at least based on initial impression, but I’m hoping this deserves a better description. Granted, it’s probably a product of my own bias, but when I think of “extreme” horror films, I think of unimaginative flicks that set out to be gore-fests, as opposed to clever, creative works that just so happen to be gory. Plenty of silly slasher flicks could qualify as “extreme” given the blood and guts on display, for instance, whereas the aforementioned Hellraiser is brutally, disturbingly graphic, but the gruesome images are in service of the film; they aren’t the point of the film.

Some reviews from the film’s showing at the Toronto Independent Film Festival are less than enthusiastic, and even one of the positive reviews that provided a pull-quote isn’t exactly effusive1 Still, I can’t help but keep this on my radar.

EDIT: By the by, these posters for the movie are terrific. The keyhole poster up top is the better of the two–and will likely be among the best movie posters I’ll see all year–but I appreciate the retro appearance of the one below.

 

Baskin-Movie-Poster-Can-Evrenol

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Creative Cover Art: The Catalyst Killing

It’s very easy to overdo an homage. If you hew too close to the source of inspiration it can feel redundant and ironically uninspired. The iconic “watchful eyes” effect from the The Amityville Horror, for example, looks watered down and wholly unimaginative when mimicked on the poster for the remake of The Haunting. While I’ve never believed that subtlety is inherently better or more artful than bombast or conspicuousness, in the case of an homage, less is often preferable to more.

The cover of The Catalyst Killing, the third book in Hans Olav Lahlum’s series of murder-mysteries, appears to be a product of evolutionary homage that gets it right after two admirable-but-flawed efforts. Let’s start with the cover to the first book in the series, The Human Flies.

Human-Flies-Hans-Olav-Lahlum

If the inspiration for this cover doesn’t immediately leap at you, perhaps it’s because it comes from a source that’s about as far removed from the mystery thriller genre as can be.

Saul-Bass-West-Side-Story

Saul Bass’s poster for West Side Story is an interesting–if unexpected–slice of art for a book cover homage to be based around, particularly a book with the tagline “They Were Being Killed Off One by One”. Comparing the book to the poster, however, the homage becomes fairly obvious. This puts the cover in an odd place, being an homage that’s too blatant, yet difficult to recognize. Besides that, however, the biggest issue with the cover to The Human Flies–which isn’t bad, by the way–is that it feels somewhat lifeless. It feels almost like something is missing, but not in an intriguing or mysterious way. It demands no questions, demands no attention. Again, not a bad cover, but it’s lacking.

The cover to the next book in the series, Satellite People, triples down on the homage, drawing from multiple Saul Bass works.

Satellite People

Saul_Bass_Posters

vertigo-movie-poster-saul-bass

The puppeteer’s hands are lifted from The Man with the Golden Arm, the segmented doll-bodies are slightly reworked versions of the body from Anatomy of a Murder, and we get a white, spiraling background shape that references the Vertigo poster.

As a hodgepodge homage to Bass, it’s an admirable effort, but it strikes me as a little haphazard. The borrowed components don’t work that well together. The Vertigo spiral in particular is pointless. In Bass’s poster it conveys the disorientation suggested by the title. In the Satellite People cover it’s just background dressing. The twisted arm in the poster for The Man With the Golden Arm makes for a great visual complement to the ironic title of a movie about a man with a heroin addiction. The hands in the Satellite People cover aren’t good for much beyond looking familiar. The segmented body in Anatomy of a Murder‘s poster suggest a clinical, calculated approach to looking at a corpse, which again fits well with the title of the film and works within the theme of movie centered on a murder trial. Further segmenting the bodies for the cover of Satellite People helps emphasize the puppetry of the cover, which works well enough, but would have worked just as well if done in an art style that didn’t mirror Bass’s work. I know I’m repeating myself by saying the following, but this isn’t a bad cover. In fact, side-by-side with the cover to The Human Flies, my vision would be drawn to the cover of Satellite People. But given how many Saul Bass-inspired posters exist, created by professionals and amateurs, a grab-bag approach to appropriating his work comes off as unmotivated.

Fortunately, the cover for the third book in the series dials back the appropriation considerably, and is considerably better than its predecessors.

THE CATALYST KILLING

Every single damn thing about this cover is an improvement over the two that came prior. The homage is more subdued. None of Bass’s signature style is present in the primary image of the falling man. The lettering for the author’s name and tagline still mimic Bass’s text, but that’s all. When I first saw this poster it actually made me think of the Vertigo poster above, even though it bares no resemblance to it. I can only guess that the familiar font combined with the semi-spiral effect suggested by the echoing body pushed that thought to the front of my mind. The next thing I thought of was the classic 70’s paranoid thriller The Parallax View, but that poster only has a general idea in common with this cover.

parallax-view

The still image of a man who’s been just struck (by an assassin’s bullet, it’s easy to presume) isn’t exactly uncommon, and the picture in The Catalyst Killing is more dramatic. Still, the 60’s- early-80’s conspiracy thriller vibe I was picking up from this cover was strong enough to make me look up posters for The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation, Blowout and dozens more in that vein to see if there was a clear homage at work here. Maybe my research wasn’t duly diligent, but I couldn’t find one. This cover captures a fairly specific style without resorting to mimicry, so far as I’m aware. It’s brilliant, in that regard.

Beyond that, I feel this cover is more dynamic, and captures hints of a story better than the preceding efforts. The staggered presentation of the title sells importance and urgency that’s worthy of the words. The tagline is perfect: it’s not as flat as “They Were Being Killed Off One by One,” but not as faux-dangerous sounding as “Were They Getting Too Close to a Killer,” which sounds more appropriate for a “gritty” new Scooby-Doo reboot. Sure, “The First Murder Was Only the Spark” might be viewed as somewhat redundant paired with the title, but I think it serves as a proper continuation of the title, and invites questions (specifically “Who gets murdered?” and “The spark for what?”) that add to my desire to read the book.

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Creative Cover Art: Stephen King’s Joyland

We know the adage that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. But you can judge cover art by whether it complements the book, or stands alone as excellent art in its own right. Some covers are arresting, creative, provocative, or otherwise appealing, while others exist only because you can’t have a book without a cover, and still others are simply awful.

There’s never been a shortage of bland, middling book covers, and given the volume of self-published / fledgling-press books available today we’re not lacking for amateurish covers either. I’m not looking to pick on blatantly bad book covers, though. There are sites, blogs, tumblrs and more already devoted to that, for starters, and the worst covers really need no words to describe what’s wrong with them. I’d rather take a look at covers that I think work–or that I at least find interesting–and offer an explanation of why I think they work, while contrasting them with other covers that strike me as lacking, lesser or lifeless.

One of my favorites from the past few years is the first edition cover art to Stephen King’s novel Joyland. Created by the late Glen Orbik, it evokes the best of the artwork from pulp novels and magazines of decades past. In addition to the visual flair, what makes this cover effective is how it captures a micro-story of its own that sells a potential reader on how much more the novel contains.

joyland-cover-first-edition

 

The story shown on this cover is straightforward, but nonetheless intriguing. Here we see a young woman investigating an amusement park who appears to be frightened, looking up at someone with bad intentions. How do I know she’s investigating? Well, frankly, I don’t. Not for sure. For all I know the camera in her hand was just for sightseeing, not for sleuthing. But her facial expression, physical posture and position doesn’t just register surprise or fear. It’s the look of someone who’s been caught in the act. There’s no reason for her to back herself up against the fortune teller’s tent, unless she was already near it, using it as an obstacle to remain unseen.

For more “on-the-nose” evidence of what she’s up to, the type of camera she has is one of those old-school “I’m with the press” cameras. A different type of camera could have been painted, or the camera could have been left out, if there was no intent to depict her as a snoop.

Presenting her as an investigator in trouble gives the story of the cover details that would be absent if she was just your everyday distressed damsel in a thriller. The titular Joyland isn’t just a dangerous place, it’s a place that has something to hide, and whoever she’s looking at is one of the parties interested in helping Joyland keep its secrets, by whatever means necessary. Instead of being content to show a character in peril, this cover adds elements that suggest backstory and tickles your curiosity. Who is this woman? What did she see or notice before that prompted her to investigate the park? Who is menacing her, and what secret are they protecting? The cover teases a story that can compel interest in what the novel actually contains.

Contrast this with two alternate Joyland covers that are artistically fit, but altogether uninteresting.

joyland-cover-Illustrated Edition

 

Let’s start with the illustrated edition cover art, which was also painted by Orbik in his characteristic pulp-noir style. We have a near-naked woman holding a rifle, leaning against a rail, looking over her shoulder at the park in the distance. It’s pulpy, well-painted, and yet, compared to the first edition cover, it elicits indifference. Whereas the first edition cover presents a story and raises questions that suggest a mystery, the illustrated edition cover simply offers a character in pose and raises questions that suggest what you’re looking at is a little absurd. Why is this woman outside (on a deck presumably) barely covering herself with a towel? Why does she have that rifle? Why is she looking at the park with no particular emotion? Why should I care about any of this?

joyland-cover-Limited-Robert-McGinnis

The same goes for the limited edition cover above, painted by another talented, prolific pulp artist, Robert McGinnis. Many of McGinnis’ paintings fit the description of “character(s) in a pose” as well, but he was also capable of capturing a small story or clear emotion when needed. For Joyland though, he basically gives us the same odd scene that’s found on the illustrated edition. Scantily clad woman holding a rifle near a body of water, amusement park in the distance. As art, it’s competent. As cover art, it’s uninteresting, especially in comparison to the original cover design.

Joyland is one of the relatively few Stephen King novels I haven’t read (though I have read the blurb), so I can’t say how relevant the near-nudity, rifle and house by the water are to the story, though I have to imagine the gun and the location–if, perhaps, not the cheesecake–have to play at least some part in what takes place. But even if those elements of the limited and illustrated editions are more relevant than anything shown in the first edition, the original cover is nonetheless more effective.

Beyond showing a more interesting story than the two other covers, the first edition feels more inspired. The red, orange and yellow lights behind our protagonist–but not too far behind her–make it look like the park is burning. The slight dutch angle of the painting adds to the sense of menace coming from the confrontation between the unseen threat and the discovered sleuth. The painting gives the viewer the perspective of the threat, and the tilt provides a sense of movement. There is action and urgency in this painting.

The motion and emotion of the first edition painting frees the tagline to be a fun imitation of a carnival barker’s taunting pitch. Conversely, the tagline of the limited edition–“Beyond the lights, there is only darkness”–is a sort of standard statement of foreboding that you can find on any number of horror or thriller novels. It’s not an ideal fit for a supernatural murder mystery set in an amusement park written by perhaps the most famous and successful horror author to ever live. McGinnis’s painting feels moody, chilly and lonely, but not especially dark, so the tagline doesn’t fit in that regard either.

Meanwhile the illustrated edition cover abandons a tagline in favor of promoting the book as a best-seller, with a pull-quote from the Washington Post, as if anyone needs a reminder that a Stephen King novel hit the New York Times bestseller list, or that it has been lauded by at least a few prominent reviewers.

In the end, the first edition cover is magnetic and alive. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a more static cover, and of course there will be people who prefer the limited edition or illustrated edition. To me, even as inoffensive as the alternate covers are, there’s no competition here. I wish more covers would seek the dynamism of the first edition to Joyland, not for the sake of making the books more appealing, but for the art of it.

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New Short Story Published in Fantasy Scroll Magazine

It’s been a while since I’ve sold a story, and it always feels good to see your work pay off, so many thanks to Iulian Ionescu and the other editors and readers at Fantasy Scroll Magazine for finding my story “The Genie and the Inquisitor” worthy of publication. For any who’d care to read it, it’s available now in Issue #10 of Fantasy Scroll Mag, so feel free to use either of the preceding links to check the story out. Much obliged, in advance.

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