Marshawn Lynch showed up at Super Bowl Media Day today solely to avoid a $500,000 fine and, predictably, said a whole lot of nothing. Not literally, although now that I’ve thought of it, I really wish his actual, repeated quote would have been “A whole lot of nothing.” That would be hilarious. As the title of this post likely gives away, I’m kind of on Lynch’s side on this. I say kind of because I don’t feel that this is anything worth choosing a side over. But what the hell, I’m a guy with an opinion and a website and a novel I should be working on, so why not waste some time chiming in on this.
Mind you, everything you’re about to read is coming from a person who many people probably think could stand to say less, be a little less outspoken and opinionated, and not always try to have an answer to everything.
(In my defense, I am right a lot. A lot.)
First thing: I tire of hearing sports media people make the “just trying to do the job” argument. The same argument is used when Greg Popovich gets short and sour with sideline reporters pestering him mid-game. Nobody’s getting fired because Pop is giving one-word answers, and nobody’s getting fired because Marshawn Lynch goes into “repeat the same thing over and over” mode. Now, I could understand being upset if your livelihood was actually at stake if Marshawn didn’t give a great quote, or you were trying to do something dangerous but necessary and he was preventing you from doing it, or if your family had been kidnapped and Marshawn knew where they were and just refused to tell you. That, obviously, is not the case. You’re just asking him about the sport he plays. And he’s with the same organization as guys like Richard Sherman, Pete Carroll, Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson; assorted personalities who have absolutely no problem giving you great quotes and interviews. And on Super Bowl Media Day you also have the option to go talk to big personalities like New England’s Rob Gronkowski who’s willing to literally dance for you on the spot. With that in mind it seems that wasting your time trying to drag an answer out of Marshawn Lynch means your real argument is, “I’m / They’re just trying to do the job poorly.”
Let’s also own up to this fact: sometimes doing your job means being annoying to someone. It’s okay. I’ve been a salesperson before (unlike Marshawn, I’m , I know what it’s like to basically have to be a nuisance to people for a living. I’m not judging. Your gig is your gig. But don’t pretend you’re showing up with a gift basket of full Skittles and magic lamps letters from everyone Marshawn has ever loved and he’s responding by smacking you in the face and spitting on your dinner. Reporters obviously annoy him. He in turn is annoying you. At worst this is a push. Does it make for a rough few minutes on the clock? Sure. I’d wager most of the working world has a rough spell at work on a fairly regular basis.
Now I’ve heard it argued in Marshawn’s favor that he might have a social anxiety disorder, or some other concrete medical reasoning for not wanting to speak to the media. I would counter that–while for him personally that would obviously be a big deal–for the purposes of this discussion that doesn’t matter. Let’s say there’s no disorder. Let’s say he’s just willfully antisocial, surly, maybe even a bit of a jerk if you want to say that about him. That’s okay. Now it is part of his job to make himself available to the media; that’s in the contract he signed to play in the NFL, so I get why he’s obligated to show up. But he shouldn’t be under any obligation to be personable, genial, loquacious or anything else that’s going to make it easier on the reporter to do his or her job. And even if the NFL feels the need to fine him (a lesser amount) anyway for being so stubborn about his responses in the interest of sending a message to the players (I guess?), I don’t see why anybody is so bent about it.
Maybe years of movie romantic comedy movies have conditioned us to think that underneath every unfriendly jerk is a burgeoning psychopath. But in fact, many real life jerks aren’t predators-in-waiting like Biff Tannen or quasi-homicidal nutjobs like Sack Lodge. Some of them just aren’t always terribly pleasant. It’s okay to think, “Man, this Marshawn Lynch guy doesn’t look like someone who I’d want to play a round of golf with,” but the way some people are reacting to his antics you’d think they wanted him placed under 24-hour surveillance because he’s this close to biting an elderly nun’s throat out.
Relax. He’s just a guy who doesn’t care to socialize, and might be a bit of a jerk in the way he goes about conveying that.
No really, it is.
The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.
The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.
The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.
While we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”
Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)
With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the latest trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.
So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.
And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).
Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”
Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.
Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, noneof which received near as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.
While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.
I think I’m still too young to be using phrases like, ‘They don’t make them like they used to.” Given that I don’t have kids of my own and don’t read current horror anthologies that are geared toward kids, I really have no clue if they do or don’t actually make any more anthologies like Shudders (edited by Ross R. Olney). But from what I gather from the people I know who do I have kids, I’m guessing that much of what pre-teens are given to read these days isn’t half as grim as some of the stuff I picked up from the school library when I was in third grade.
So let’s see… I must have been about eight-years-old when I picked up Shudders. I remember thinking the cover looked cool–a spookier version of the covers to Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books of the era–and then flipping to the table of contents and seeing that it contained “The Monkey’s Paw.” Not that I wouldn’t have picked it up anyway. By that time I was in the habit of devouring anything in the library that was remotely related to ghosts, monsters, madmen and things lurking in the shadows. But I point out “The Monkey’s Paw” because I think its presence in the anthology set me up to expect a certain style of horror fiction. I hadn’t read the original “Monkey’s Paw” short story by then, but I knew of the story via retellings around campfires. So with that, I opened the book thinking that I knew what I was getting into.
And then I was greeted by the opening story, “Sweets to the Sweet” by Robert Bloch. If the author’s name isn’t familiar to you, he’s the gentleman who wrote Psycho. While that ended up being the signature work of his career, thanks in no small part Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Bloch is a legendary and prolific author of horror and crime fiction. At the time, in fact, I didn’t know who Bloch was, or that he had anything to do with Psycho (again, I was 8, cut me a break). So my introduction to a master of the genre–and, to my recollection, to the world of “grown up” horror literature–came completely by surprise.
“Sweets to the Sweet” features a grisly, abrupt ending that is still one of the best examples of implied violence and gore I’ve ever read. It’s a textbook case of leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, except you’re not left to imagine what happened–that much is plain–but what it looks like. And unless you have the world’s tamest, blandest imagination possible, it can’t help but to be spectacularly gruesome. Years later, in the anthology My Favorite Horror Story, Stephen King would introduce “Sweets to the Sweet” by saying that it had “one of the most chilling snap endings I had ever read.” And it really does happen in a snap, so fast that you could mistake it for a twist, or perhaps a punchline, when really it’s a well-earned, expertly set-up knockout blow.
The ending to “Sweets” is disturbing, clever, vicious and brilliant. It’s one of the things that really made me think, “one day I’d like to write something like that, and make other people feel whatever it is I’m feeling right now.” But even before that “snap ending,” the story has proven disturbing. It raises a simple “chicken or the egg” type of question regarding evil that it doesn’t get anywhere near answering. That’s for the best. It’s an unanswered philosophical question that enhances the tale’s impact.
I remember revisiting “Sweets to the Sweet” several times immediately after reading it. At the time I told myself I was simply captivated by my new favorite short story ever, but looking back on it, I wonder if I was just scared to read any farther . If Bloch’s story was any indication, I was way out of my weight class here.
So it makes sense that I then skipped ahead to “The Monkey’s Paw.” Again, it was a story I was familiar with, even if I had never actually read it. In the campfire re-tellings I can recall, in fact, it was less horror story than morality tale with the general themes of “Be careful what you wish for” and “Don’t be greedy.” Obviously that does the story a tremendous disservice, but I’m willing to say that much of that interpretation was the fault of the listener, as opposed to the storyteller. When you’re six-or-seven years old and hearing a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into an Aesop fable in your mind.
The story proper is considerably grimmer and grislier than a fable. The beauty of this classic is that it doesn’t need any meaning attached to it. W. W. Jacobs wrote a fantastic, creepy story in which one innocent, frankly modest wish goes awry. Mister White says outright that he doesn’t know what to wish for because he already has all he wants. Happy wife. Healthy, grown son–Herbert–who’s happy to sit down with the old man and beat him in chess (“the only [child] left to us” White would grimly comment later). All White asks for is two-hundred pounds; enough to “clear the house.”
When news comes of Herbert’s death due to industrial accident (“caught in the machinery,” *brrr*) and the two-hundred pounds offered by his employer “in consideration,” it leaves his elderly parents in a condition of misery so profound they practically become the living dead. They spend days in a stupefied malaise, hardly speaking to each other, until Mrs. White is spontaneously struck by the idea to use the paw to wish for her son’s resurrection, days after his mutilated corpse has been buried in the graveyard…
Similar to “Sweets,” “The Monkey’s Paw” keeps all of the gory details off screen, but they remain vivid in the reader’s imagination. You can picture the lumbering wreck of a human being that’s on the other side of the White’s door, knocking and expecting to be let inside, even with Jacobs only giving us a hint of what Herbert’s condition must be. The final handful of paragraphs–a race between the mother trying to let her son inside, and the father trying to find the paw to wish the “it” that used to be his son away from the house–is a master class in tension and mounting dread. You know what Herbert’s living corpse must look like, but it’s scarier for you to still remain a bit unsure, to wonder whether or not the characters–and by proxy, you as the reader–will get a clear, direct look at Herbert’s undead form. Sometimes shielding your eyes from the horror is more frightening than looking directly at it, and Jacobs is all too aware of this. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends with the a moment that can make you sigh in relief for the same reason that another character screams in mourning.
The story moves fast enough for some of the other frightening elements to be lost. But I was always struck by two things that are mentioned well before the fantastic climax. For one, the man who cursed the paw to grant wishes did so to deliberately prove that people cannot escape their fates. It is, in effect, a cruel trap, specifically designed to manipulate even a humble wish–such as one for enough money to pay off a home–into the catalyst for a brutal, fatal tragedy. All just to make a lousy point. How screwed up is that? And not long after we find this out, we learn that the first man to possess the paw ended up wishing for death. What the hell could have resulted from his first two wishes to push him to that point? We never come close to knowing, and we’re perhaps better off not knowing.
After reading “The Monkey’s Paw” in my first read through of Shudders, it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I still couldn’t stop. It included a couple of other stories that remain favorites: H. R. Wakefield’s “Used Car” is another straightforward, no frills supernatural story, with some nice noir touches surrounding its haunting; “The Waxwork” by A. M. Burrage perhaps has one too many twists, but given the apparent direction of the story based on its title and setting, you can understand why the author would want to outwit savvier readers. Regardless of what you think of the ending, it has some of the coldest, creepiest lines spoken by a killer that I’ve ever read: “The world is divided between collectors and non-collectors…[t]he collectors collect anything, according to their individual tastes, from money to cigarette cards, from moths to matchbooks. I collect throats.”
Shudders made for one hell of an introduction to the assorted flavors of horror that helped form the foundation of the genre, and those that took it to the modern age. From the Lovecraftian (“Second Night Out”) to the whimsical (“The Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) to the pleasant-yet-macabre “Floral Tribute” (Bloch once again) and still more. As much as I love everything else I’ve written about thus far in my little “Fear Junkie” series, Shudders might have been the most important book I’ve ever read. Reading it at the age I did was akin to skipping the grade school classes to get a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.
Odds are this premise will sound familiar to you.
An enigmatic homicidal psychopath makes a daring, impossible escape from a mental hospital. His sole objective is to hunt down and murder a female family member. Along the way to his goal he murders a number of other people who get in his way and proves to be all but unstoppable, and there are vague allusions to him even being supernatural.
Playing “spot the similarities” between two works of fiction is often a mug’s game; paint the picture broadly enough and any story can be made similar to any other, but the details will usually belie the notion that the stories genuinely mirror one another. Nonetheless, if you’re a horror fan who likes movies as much as literature, then that description in the first paragraph probably brought John Carpenter’s Halloween to mind. It’s also an apt (albeit broad) description of the plot to John Farris’s novel Nightfall.
I picked up a paperback copy of Nightfall at a small, well-stocked indie bookstore in Universal City, Texas (a suburb of my home city of San Antonio) called The Book Rack. 1 The cover caught my attention with its Southern Gothic simplicity. Dark swampland, plantation home in the background, mother and sun frightful and on the run. Given my relatively recent affinity for the fiction of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, it’s little wonder that such cover imagery drew me in. The straightforward blurb on back brought me in a little deeper, mostly by not overselling its fairly direct premise.
“His heritage is violence and terror. A creature of nightmare, shunning all that is good in mankind, he kills without warning, without mercy. Only once has his prey survived.
Scarred emotionally and physically, Anita fled to the sanctuary of Lostman’s Bayou. But the quiet of the swamps holds no peace–she cannot escape the terror.
Angel will find her. Then she will die.”
Woman on the run; killer on the hunt; bayou as the scene. That’s all I needed to read. So, out of the many John Farris novels available on the shelves, I chose this one, and cracked into it less than a half hour after purchase.
The novel opens with the aforementioned daring, impossible escape from the mental hospital, executed by the villain of the story, Angel, aka “Dark Angel,” aka “the Angel of Death,” properly known as Dominic. Though his real name and identity appear to be a source of mystery throughout the first chapters, that mystery is dropped less than a third of the way through the book. It’s just one of many things that seem to be cast aside as the book progresses. Initially, Angel’s actions are at least suggestive that something supernatural is at work here. He wakes from a catatonic state by projectile-vomiting on command in order to stun his first victim, whom he’s strong enough to pick up off the ground and throw out of a room with one arm. He also seemingly hypnotizes said first victim into giving him some halfhearted manual stimulation before delivering the coup de grâce. He then moves quickly to promptly dispatch of three more individuals on his way out of the hospital. Throughout the book, he’s referred to as being something other than human, but here is really the only scene where he appears to be exactly that. For the rest of the book, he’s resorting more so to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. Less inhuman in the literal “not of this Earth” sense than in the “morally bankrupt psychopath” sense.
There’s a chapter early on devoted to Angel’s rather disturbed mother, who has hallucinations of the Virgin Mary and literally smothered her son on occasion when he was younger, to keep him from going wayward, at least in her fractured mind. This seems important, but again, it’s something that gets cast aside as though it were nothing. I think she gets one other brief mention for the rest of the novel. She’s just one of many hints Farris drops in regard to Angel’s motives: mommy issues; wife issues; sexual issues. Basically the guy has pretty screwed up views in regard to women as a whole. But none of this really connects or adds up. And the thing is, it wouldn’t really have to add up if Farris hadn’t set up the arithmetic before abandoning it.
I’m going to go back to John Carpenter’s original Halloween for comparison here. Michael Myers is made out to be beyond human in that story, but all of that “pure evil” talk comes from one man at first, Doctor Loomis, who appears so obsessed with Michael that his take on the situation can be justifiably questioned. By the end, though, it’s apparent that Michael isn’t just a man. He’s revealed later in the story to be obscenely strong; pinning a man to a wall with a kitchen knife would take a hell of a lot of power. He also takes a ridiculous amount of physical punishment and just keeps on trucking, culminating with the sequence of him taking multiple gunshots, falling out of a second story window, then (off-screen) getting up and leaving from the spot on the lawn where he should have fell dead. In case anyone needs it spelled out for him, Loomis straight up confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before that infamous final shot of him no longer being where he’d landed.
Farris’s Nightfall “tries” to work in reverse. I put tries in quotes, because it doesn’t feel like Farris–who, if we’re talking about straight up writing, is actually damn good with the prose–was actually trying to do anything with that aspect of the story at all. In the end, whether or not Angel is more than human isn’t left as a mystery or even a contradiction so much as a, “meh.”
In fact, much of Nightfall feels like the work of a guy who was really just trying to power through this book on his way to material he actually cared about. Again, Farris can write. That at least makes Nightfall a fast read. But it comes across as a wasted setting and opportunity. You have Louisiana swamps, mobsters and a relentless killer on display, and yet the story is wildly uninspired. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned the hero, Tomlin, yet. (No, the female lead–Anita–doesn’t get much to do beyond be scared for herself and her son, and immediately fall in love with the good guy, who likewise immediately falls in love with her.) He’s the reason for the novel’s title: he suffers from crippling night-blindness that doesn’t just hinder his vision at night, it eradicates it. So of course you expect this to factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it doesn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation isn’t impacted all that much by his inability to see. In short, the night-blindness plot doesn’t add any tension to the climax. It’s just there.
As a whole, Farris’s Nightfall is exactly that: just there. Not awful, but not anything you’d recommend either. Which actually says a lot for Farris as a writer. It should probably be worse than that, given its flaws, and its sappy, “Everything’s okay because romance has won the day” / “Uh, may I remind you that people have died!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that at least isn’t regrettable.
Yes, I know that I’m sort of cheating on the whole premise of the “traveler’s” book review by going with a book from a store that’s right here at home.↩
It took a while for me to realize that the things that scared me most were products of my imagination. That’s not to say I’ve never been scared by a movie or a book, obviously. But much of what’s really stuck with me through the years were products largely or sometimes solely of my mind. I forget exactly how young I was when I started praying for nightmare-free sleep before going to bed, but it should have been apparent to me then. And if not then, it should have been apparent around the time I first became aware of a relatively obscure novel titled Simon’s Soul.
I can’t pinpoint the exact year for this little story, but I know it was no earlier than the summer of 1988, because June of ’88 is when the original Metal Gear video game was released in North America for the NES, and that’s the game I was playing when I first heard about Simon’s Soul. Accounting for the probability that my folks didn’t buy me a new game immediately after it came out, I can narrow the time frame down to being before the summer of 1990, because that’s when the movie Flatliners hit theaters; the relevance of this factoid will become apparent shortly. For the moment, let’s say that the following took place in the summer of 1989, which would put me at 9-years-old.
I was in the living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television, glued to the game, but aware of my mother and her friends behind me, sitting on the sofa and chairs, talking about things that didn’t really interest me. I figure my mom thought I was too focused on the game to pick up on anything she said; a reasonable presumption. I’m not exactly sure why my ears perked up when she started giving her friends a quick, enthusiastic summary of Stanley Shapiro’s novel.
Here is how I remember my mother describing the opening of the story (note that this is not meant as an accurate summary of the book, just a remembrance of someone else’s summation): a group of scientists decide to seek proof of the afterlife. To do so, they set up an experiment to actually kill one of their own, Simon, while hooking him up to a machine that allows him to convey his thoughts and experience back to the others during the process. At first he ventures into death with a sense of wonder and curiosity, but gradually his isolation breeds fear and dread. There’s nothing visible, audible or otherwise identifiable out there beyond death, so far as he can tell, but there is an existence nonetheless. Not quite nothingness, but also not actually anything. He asks his colleagues to bring him back, but they either can’t or, for the sake of science, won’t. Then, finally, he starts to sense something. Wherever Simon is, there’s a place beyond that, and he senses something living on that other-other-side is trying to break through the barrier to make its way to where he is. At that point he’s begging his colleagues to bring him back to life before whatever else is out there gets to him, and does heaven only knows what from there. And then…
Then the subject changed. I have no idea how the conversation got to that point, or how it changed. Maybe my mom cut it off there so as not to spoil the rest for her friends, in case they wanted to read the book. Or maybe a phone call came in and interrupted her. Maybe they all got up to leave for lunch and she continued the story out of earshot. Whatever the reason, she stopped her recap of the novel there, and though I was terrified to know what was going to happen next, I was more terrified to never find out. Leaving off there, with Simon stuck in that strange limbo, with some unknown thing trying to get at him from some place deeper in the hereafter, did one hell of a number on me.
Isolation is a key component to horror–something that didn’t really dawn on me until it was pointed out by my outstanding 11th & 12th grade English teacher, Mister Comer. Fear can make you feel pretty lonely. Many other emotions are more apt to be communal experiences. Happiness, anger, even grief. But fear–horror–even when it’s experienced in the midst of other people is still a very private emotion. Other emotions more easily lend themselves to empathy, I think. We can have a ceremony such as a funeral where everyone can gather to mourn and express their sadness. There are parties thrown for celebratory occassions, so everyone can get together to smile, dance and laugh. You can even have rallies built around anger, where everyone can unite around how fed up they are, and how they’re not going to stand for it anymore. But for someone else to truly understand and feel how horrified another person is, they have to be horrified themselves, which means each individual is very much dealing with their own shit. You don’t have rallies, parties or ceremonies where everyone gets together to share their fear. I mention all of this because I can’t think of anything more frightening and lonely than being stuck on the other side of death with no one else around, no sights to be seen, no sounds to be heard, and no way to get back from the void.
Again, I was about 9 or 10 years old when my mom accidentally dropped the Simon’s Soul synopsis on me, so I wasn’t giving deep thought to the loneliness of horror at that point. I just knew there was something about this fragment of a story that scared the hell out of me. Scared me so much, in fact, that I couldn’t play that damn Metal Gear game for several weeks afterward. In my mind, the game’s (otherwise charmingly goofy / “spy themed”) music was associated with what I knew of Simon’s Soul; a man’s spirit locked in the stark crawlspace between our world and an antagonistic afterlife. When the movie Flatliners hit theaters in 1990, I remember telling my friends that there was a book out there that had covered similar ground, but I couldn’t get any of them to understand how creepy it genuinely was. Again, I was alone with my fear on this.
Cut to a little more than a decade later, and I would still think of Simon’s Soul on occasion, much more so out of curiosity by that point. I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of buying anything via the internet, and lo and behold, I soon discovered someone selling a used, hardback copy of the book online. Naturally, I decided to get it for my mom as for one of her birthday presents. It arrived and I couldn’t even wait for the actual occasion to give it to her. She appreciated the gesture and placed the book on the shelf, but it soon occurred to me that the book hadn’t been occupying space in her mind the way it had in mine. Not even close. For her it was just something she’d once read and recommended to friends. Besides that, she was by then a grandmother, and as it is with many people as they age and get a few grand-kids under their belt, her tastes in fiction had softened. Dark, relentless stories centered around a despairing, trapped soul didn’t much appeal anymore to the woman who had just started taking semi-annual road trips to Disney World with the family’s latest additions.
In a (very selfish) way, this was a win for me. I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t in any hurry at all to revisit the book. I didn’t have to wait for her to finish it, or even get started on it, before I could borrow it and plow through it. So I did. And…
…Well, in fairness, there was almost no way Simon’s Soul could have lived up to what I’d mentally prepared myself to venture into. The opening chapters of the book came pretty close to it, however, taking me through the journey into the dark hereafter that I’d so dreaded as a youngster. Thing is, I’d unreasonably presumed that particular scene was pretty much the entire book. So when it moved beyond that and into an increasingly imaginative and bizarre self-contained mythology involving demons amok, possession and an afterlife where Hell and Heaven exist, but souls don’t always end up where you think they should, for reasons not quite within the grasp of understanding of human beings, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It’s still one hell of an intriguing, engaging horror novel, and it doesn’t pull punches. On first read it kind of reminded me of some of the Dean Koontz novels I’d read; how the story can end in a place so far afield from where it began you want to flip back to the first chapter to be sure you aren’t mis-remembering how the story started, but Shapiro’s story is ultimately darker than any of the handful of books I’ve read by Koontz.
In the end, I don’t know if I can fully recommend Simon’s Soul the novel. But the memory of it had an indelible impact on the kid with the near-masochistic fascination with the macabre and horrific.
I actually met John Santikos once. I was much younger and was interviewing for an assistant management position with one of this theaters here in San Antonio, a position for which I was grossly, dramatically underqualified. Needless to say, Mr. Santikos made the sound decision of not hiring me to do something I’d never done before (most of my work experience then was at the ground level of office work), but he did offer me a job as part of the theater staff–taking tickets, conessions, that sort of thing–with the potential to progress. I’m still in my 30’s and that time doesn’t seem like it should feel so far away yet, but it does. Far enough that I can’t imagine what the hell I was thinking in even applying for the job, except that it must have been one of those times in my life where I was between gigs and throwing my résumé at any job in the newspaper that I thought I had a hint of a whisper of a chance at getting. The fact that I somehow ended up being interviewed by the man whose name was the same as theater’s (along with one of his managers) caught me off guard. The fact that he didn’t react as though I was completely wasting his time made quite an impression on me. In fact, he was exceedingly pleasant and patient.
I obviously can’t pretend I know much about the man just from that one experience. But it was still a small pleasure to meet him. John Santikos is a major reason why San Antonio is a pretty good city for movie lovers. My 9 to 5 has given me plenty of opportunites to travel around the country over the past two years, and talk to various people in different cities. One thing that is apparent to me is that San Antonio is a bit spoiled by its movie theater scene. I’ve toyed with the idea of leaving San Antonio for over a decade now. My move is increasingly becoming an inevitability, though it’s still hard to say when I’ll pull the trigger. When I do make the move one of the things I’ll miss (outside of fam and friends, and some pretty immaculate weather) is the movie theater scene we have. I always suspected we had it good, but I didn’t quite realize how good until I had a chance to visit other large cities that don’t have half of the options we do, or that are just now catching up to things we’ve had for years.
Having three Drafthouse locations certainly helps, but before the Drafthouse came to the city, we had the Santikos Bijou, providing the experience of in-theater dining and indie or foreign movies. I still enjoy going to the Bijou to sip wine while I watch movies that many of the masses aren’t aware of or interested in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as interested in Taken 3 as the next fan, but there’s room enough in my movie-loving heart for the most recent “Liam Neeson is unstoppable” thriller as well as the likes of Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. As far as movies like that go, The Bijou is often the only game in town.
The Santikos Palladium gives San Antonians a second IMAX option in the city, for those of us who don’t necessarily want to head downtown to see a picture on the extra-big screen. The Palladium also has a full bar, a gellato stand (which I’m sometimes inclined to go to even when I’m not interested in any of the movies playing at the time) and something called D-BOX, which is, apparently “premium motion-controlled seating.” I’ve never tried it, but if I ever wanted to go for a theater experience that included motion-controlled seating, you can be pretty sure I’d go for the premium version of the service, as opposed to the discount version that’s just a guy standing behind you and shaking your lawn chair during the explosive parts of the movie.
I also admire the apparent responsiveness of the Santikos chain. My love of the Alamo Drafthouse has been documented here before. It may be coincedental, but it seemed that the Santikos chain made it a point in some of its theaters to run a disclaimer ahead of the feature presentation advising people that anyone talking might be escorted out around the same time that the Drafthouse established a foothold in the city. Kicking people out for talking, texting or otherwise disrupting the show is standard policy for most theaters, unless they’re hosting a sing-along / quote-along or something, but it has been a noted hallmark of the Drafthouse (because, you know, they actually enforce that policy). While some theater chains considered moving in the opposite direction, Santikos theaters thankfully stood up for preserving the move theater experience. Sometimes the obvious stance to take apparently isn’t so obvious after all, and becomes laudable as a result. Likewise, Santikos provides “VIP” screenings reserved strictly for people aged 18 and over. Now, I’ve run into plenty of people of all ages who are perfectly capable of disrupting a movie, but sometimes you want to feel the added security of knowing no one is bringing their four-year-old to the horror flick that the kid will be screaming and crying from start to finish.
In summary, I have a lot of great memories of going to the movies in San Antonio, and many of those memories were made in Santikos theaters. It’s one of the major reasons why movie lovers have so many good options in this city.
John Santikos passed away earlier this month. He had lived for 87 years. Rest in Peace.
Belated Happy New Year’s greetings everyone. I promise to do more than virtually no blogging whatsoever in 2015.
On to the topic of the present post. I had never been to a library sale prior to last week. The good folks in Bandera, Texas–a forty-five minute drive northwest of San Antonio, into and through the Hill Country–were holding such a sale at the County Library. I got there a little later than I’d have liked to, but there was still plenty to choose from, and the picture above is the loot I made off with (thanks to the ladies running the sale who were kind enough to provide the box for my bounty).
Quite a variety there. Straub’s Koko has been on my to-read list for as long as I’ve known who Peter Straub was. Hannibal is a book I already own, but the copy I picked up years ago doesn’t have the hardback sleeve, as this one does. I plan to keep this new copy for the sleeve and make a gift of the other copy. Alex Kava is a name that’s always stood out to me in bookstores, though I’m wholly unfamiliar with her work. I’m a sucker for a wintry settings though, and A Perfect Evil features such a setting, so here it is, ready to be read. And T.E.D. Klein is a name I came to know courtesy of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog. Though Klein was understandably unknown to them, the ladies at the library still commented on the good fortune of my find.
The other books are Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, a twilight-of-the-Cold-War spy novel by the splendid John le Carre, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and a slim ghost story with a direct, unashamed cover…
…Mary Downing Hahn’s All the Lovely Bad Ones. It’s not meant for an adult audience, but my affinity for old school, “pure” ghost stories designed to frighten kids (and frighten the kid still in you after you’re grown) is fairly well documented on this site. So, given the size of the book and the potential allure of the story, I’m going to read and recap All the Lovely Bad Ones first. Look for a review in the very near future. Followed by more reviews, and more postings about newly purchased books picked up at various places.
It’s a new year people. I have books to read, a couple of bottles of Atlantico, and every reason to believe the coming months are going to treat me well. Hopefully you can say at least some of the same. Cheers to 2015, best wishes and happy reading to one and all.
My intent isn’t to be reductive or morbid here, but with the unfortunate recent death of R.A. Montgomery, now’s as good a time as any to reminisce about the impact that the Choose Your Own Adventure series had on me as a kid.
R.A. Montgomery was co-creator of Choose Your Own Adventure along with Ed Packard; a Williams College and Princeton graduate, respectively . These weren’t works of grand children’s literature, nor were they meant to be, but their interactive nature was effective at keeping kids glued to a book. The undisputed stars of every CYOA novel were the bad endings. Particularly for a burgeoning horror fiction fan like me, the myriad ways to die, disappear, destroy everything or otherwise accidentally choose the path of failure were fascinating.
One of my older brothers was into CYOA, which is how I got into it. They were some of the earliest books I ever read because they were readily available around the house and easily accessible. They also gave me an odd appreciation for unhappy endings. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember a single “successful” happy ending from any of the stories I read. But I can still recall being vaporized by futuristic guns, being devoured by a housecat after being turned into a mouse, and being hanged by castle executioners while stranded in the past. That’s not even a scratch on the surface of the multitude of untimely demises awaiting readers in the CYOA books. Even more interesting, nearly every book was written in second-person, placing “you” directly in the role of the lead character.
In a way the books were precursor to what was to come in video gaming, from adventure games like King’s Quest, to modern first-person games where your character is mute, or games such as Mass Effect where the choices you make can change a story’s direction, influence whether you get a good ending or bad ending, and who among your allies will survive. But while most modern video games are understandably beholden to a certain sense of “fair play,” the CYOA books had no qualms with rewarding a seemingly sound or innocuous decision with an abrupt, often brutal death.
Now to share a few of my favorite endings that I recall, some from books written by Mr. Montgomery, some by his colleague Mr. Packard:
In The Cave of Time you can find yourself in distant future or the past, relatively near or distant. And by “distant” we’re talking about far enough into the future to see the sun has become a red giant, and far enough into history that you are effectively pre-pre-history. In the latter scenario, your end comes via asphyxiation, as you’ve come to a time in the past when the Earth is effectively still in its formative stages, and there isn’t any oxygen in the atmosphere.
Journey Under the Sea has several of all-time favorites. The aforementioned vaporizing episode takes place in this book, courtesy of some overzealous security guards. Relatively early on in the story, you can be end up the main course for a feeding frenzy.
You also have the option of being swallowed whole by a “big mouth grouper”, a fate which also came with a helpful illustration.
There are plenty of unpleasant fates waiting in haunted house horror story The Curse of Chimney Rock. A lot of them involve being turned into a mouse and / or becoming a meal for a black cat. But the two that stuck with me were even more unconventional. The first involves accidentally knocking over and smashing a vase, and being ordered by the house’s resident witch to “make up for it.” You start to pick up the shattered pieces, but this immediately turns into a bizarre, Sisyphean punishment; no matter how hard you try, you can’t even gather all of the pieces of the vase, much less begin to put them together. Nonetheless you’re compelled to keep trying. Tellingly, instead of the traditional The End, this page concluded with There is No End.
Even more unusual, another Chimney Rock ending has you escape the titular house while being warned by a disembodied voice accompanying a pair of disembodied, ghostly eyes to never look back at the house again. The book gives you the option of letting it end there or (and how could you pass up this temptation?) stealing one last look. You turn to the appropriate page for the final fate of the terminally curious and…
From an adult perspective, while still macabre and grim, this is all pretty silly. But as a kid, for me, some of these endings could take on a dimension of strangeness that could occasionally prove unsettling. Particularly because, again, the stories were written in second-person. This is especially effective when it comes to my favorite type of ending in all of the CYOA books. One that was used more than once, but that I recall first reading in Montgomery’s Space and Beyond. Making the wrong decision in an effort to escape the pull of a black hole leads to this gem…
The only flaw here is that “The End” is redundant. You are never heard from again. Years later, I still find those words perfectly chilling.
Rest in Peace Mr. Montgomery, and thank you for all of the adventures.
If you haven’t done so, do yourself a favor and pick up Trick ‘r Treat for annual Halloween viewing. It’s a pretty perfect horror love letter to the season of jack-o-lanterns and gratuitously sexy costumes for the ladies.
Anthology horror films are often uneven. One good story here, one or two bad stories there, then one or two middling “could take it or leave it” stories and voila, there’s your film. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t much suffer from unevenness, in part because all of its stories improbably belong to a shared universe–hell, not even a universe; all these separate Halloween horror hi-jinks happen in the same small town and on the same night–and the movie is cleverly presented in a non-linear fashion. You get a snippet of a story here, a bit more of another one there, then that segues into the third, then eventually we lock in for an extended stretch on one tale or another, see it through to its climax before moving on yet again. Then toward the end there’s a satisfying denouement for everything we’ve witnessed.
I mention the “improbability” of the story’s setting, which is a bit pedantic given that we’re talking about a story heavy on supernatural characters. A lot of people tend to read something like that and think, “why are you complaining about implausibility / realism in a story that features the undead and the literal spirit of Halloween.” Two responses to that: one, even a story with unrealistic creatures and an unrealistic setting has to maintain plausibility within the context of its own rules and the general rules of its genre; two, who says I’m complaining? The ridiculousness of one small town becoming an inadvertent nexus for multiple, very loosely related supernatural occurrences is one of the “invisible” elements of the movie that keeps it fun and ideal for the season, despite going into some very grim subject matter. No half-assed explanations are offered or needed. The comedic elements, soundtrack and performances are move obvious signs that this isn’t designed to be extremely dark or scarring, but the setting and circumstances inform us of the same without calling attention to themselves.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the vignettes in Trick ‘r Treat: to set the tone, a woman in the opening violates a simple Halloween “tradition” (that I had never heard of before) and pays dearly; the local elementary school’s principal has to deal with backyard body disposal (and a son who’s eager to carve up a jack-o-lantern); a prank based on the legend of a horrible school bus massacre produces even worse results than you’d expect the words “prank” or “legend of a massacre” to produce in a horror flick; a young woman dressed as Red Riding Hood is stalked by a proverbial “wolf” who appears to be a vampire; and finally a curmudgeonly recluse refuses to get into the spirit of the season, and ends up getting tormented by the literal spirit of the season. The Little Red Riding Hood story (starring Anna Paquin) is probably the least of the bunch as a whole–still good, but not in the same class as the others–but it comes with a delightfully insane and audacious payoff. The rest of the stories are all running stride for stride for 1st place. I’d add more detail, but it’s so much better for you to see it for yourself.
As I mentioned in the previous recommendation, Halloween has a unique festiveness to it. It’s a grand masquerade where everyone who wants to participate is invited. It brings with it an understanding that it’s okay to have fun with scary ideas. It’s a release that allows us to be a bit frivolous with even some of the grimmest, darkest ideas imaginable. Atmosphere counts for a lot with any horror story, but especially for suitable Halloween fare. Execution as well. It helps keep the story relatively accessible and fun despite some shit that’s pretty disturbing if you think more than half-a-second about it. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t pull punches, but it picks you up, brushes you off and offers you a drink after it chins you. I can’t praise it enough.
Fiction has long been a battleground for political and philosophical warfare. The latest movie and novel commandeered by many commentators–professional and recreational–is Gone Girl. And it strikes me as a little absurd.
A little preface before I go on. For starters, I’m not big on post-modern “death of the author” stuff for this precise reason. As soon as you tell an author that their opinion of the meaning of their own work isn’t more valuable than someone else’s interpretation, you allow the interpreter to comment directly on the author themselves. The work by itself isn’t misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, etc.; the author, by necessary extension is also what the book is accused of, and I can’t be cool with accusing someone of that unless it’s blatantly obvious. Secondly, in general, I tend to have a bias toward investing more in the story itself than deeper meanings and politics of the story, particularly when you can’t draw a straight line between the story or a character and what they’re allegedly supposed to represent in the real world. Lastly, be warned, spoilers ahoy.
Getting right to the point, the biggest controversy over the movie adaptation of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is whether or not the female antagonist, Amy, is a misogynistic character representing sexist stereotypes of a crazy manipulative woman who fakes sexual assault and abuse to get her way. Now, it’s obviously sick and sad that such stereotypes exist, and I’d be an idiot to think that there are no people out there, already nursing those beliefs, who wouldn’t see Amy as reinforcing their fucked up notions of how women are programmed to behave. But those people are nutjobs who are liable to see anything as reinforcement of their beliefs. We have to pay attention to the nutjobs, as Bill Burr hilariously pointed out once upon a time, but we shouldn’t be letting them drive the gotdamn conversation. Amy is not just a “crazy woman scorned who went over the edge,” or some shit. She’s a supervillain. She’s Hannibal Lecter. She’s Tom Ripley. She’s Ferris Bueller. She’s an urbane psychopath, the murderer in what amounts to a satirical horror-thriller. I’ve met some pleasant people in my day. I’ve met some fucked up people. I’ve even met one person who literally attempted to murder me. None of these people are anywhere near the level of Amy’s character. She’s an exceptional fictional sociopath. A Bond villain who sets a trap for her victim, steps away to let the trap play out, and actually succeeds. She is in no more directly representative of any group of “normal” people in the real world than Victor Zsasz or Catherine Tramell.
If you want to somehow relate her to certain negative female stereotypes, you have to at least recognize and acknowledge that A) you’re playing connect the dots, and B) at least a couple of those dots don’t exist unless you draw them in yourself. This is happening presently with Gone Girl, but it’s far from the first work of pop fiction to have this happen, and it won’t be the last. My favorite example of extreme dot-connecting for a relatively recent, popular movie comes from The Dark Knight. I love this example because of–to me, at least–how ridiculous it is when you take what the actual story gives you at face value instead of letting confirmation bias skew your view of it.
Near the end, Batman has to rely on invasive, city-wide surveillance to stop The Joker from bombing the shit out of hundreds of people on two different boats. People ran with this as a commentary on government surveillance being ultimately good for us, to fight terrorism and secure safety. Problem is, that assessment doesn’t hold up. You can’t draw a straight-line to that conclusion; the line you’re drawing to get there has to curve around all of this obvious shit laid out in the movie:
– No official, recognized authority figures are in charge of this surveillance. It’s just one guy: motherfucking Batman. The most famously justice-obsessed and morally inflexible superhero of all time. The only guy who you can trust would only be using this for good instead of evil because he’s pathologically motivated to do the right thing. That guy. And even then he’s only using it out of desperation because…
– He’s not fighting anything remotely resembling a real world terrorist who is limited by the laws of nature. He’s fighting a monster clown who appears wherever he wants to like a phantom, and whose litany of crimes warrants its own list.
– Despite all of this, it’s made clear by the end of the movie that the only good guys who are aware of this surveillance machine think it’s wrong and see that it’s rendered non-functional after they finally get their man
Now, that’s a whole lot of information, and some people might be inclined to say that if you have to write all of that to defend the movie’s “politics” then those politics are indefensible. But the thing I shouldn’t have to write all of that; it’s all right there in the movie for anyone who’s bothering to pay attention to what they’re watching. It’s all the stuff in a story that clearly tells a reader or viewer, “Hey, the actions taken by these characters are informed by what happens to them in this exact work of fiction. Don’t try to apply everything that they do to the general rules of the real world because outside of the context of these precise circumstances that I’ve written–also known as the gotdamn plot–these actions and motivations might not make sense.” Sure it’s easier to ignore all of the obvious stuff if it inconveniences the point you’re trying to make, just like it’s easier to ignore the proof that the Earth is round if it inconveniences your assertion that the Earth is flat. But the “easier” argument isn’t necessarily the correct one, or even an argument that deserves to be made, particularly if you have to ignore the facts of the situation to make it.
The same goes for countless other stories that people love to erroneously politicize. Gone Girl is just the story d’jour. The movie blatantly shows us that Amy’s tactics and manipulations are the work of an evil genius who catches more than a few breaks for her plan to work smoothly, and whose only tactical “flaw” is hubris. It’s right there in the movie for you to see: more than likely this is not the behavior of anyone you will ever, ever, ever meet in your life. I know a lot of smart people, but very, very few master-plan-crafting geniuses, and exactly zero master-plan-crafting geniuses who can or would singlehandedly and near-flawlessly use their talents to destroy several other lives across a time span of a decade or more, manipulate national media and multiple levels of law enforcement, improvise a new course of action when the game changes, and not only not get caught, but come out on the other end looking like the good guy, and having gained even more than you wanted in the first place. Go read that last sentence again. Have you ever even been the same building with someone who would even think to try to pull all that shit off, much less succeed? Unless you’re Will Graham, I’m going to wager that no, you probably haven’t. She isn’t a misogynistic character. She’s Michael Myers, just with dialogue and a clearly stated motive. She is, in every sense, not a real person.
So I say all of this to point out that, you know… not every movie is Birth of a Nation. I know that there are irrational, reprehensible people out there who harbor irrational, reprehensible beliefs, and they can look at any work of art, or any news clip, or any historical text, or anything and twist a malformed interpretation out of it to show it “supports” their irrational, reprehensible views. And we should pay attention to those people, because they can be dangerous. But with a work of fiction, those people should not be driving the conversation about that work of fiction. We should not look at a story and say, “Well, this could be corrupted and misinterpreted by somebody with fucked up views so that they could argue that it reinforces their fucked up views, so therefore the work itself must actually be supporting those fucked up views.” No. Stop that. That does not make sense, and you know it doesn’t.
That is all.