One of the Keys to Keeping “Unlikable” Characters Tolerable

The recent box-office disappointment Rough Night drew obvious comparisons to the movie Very Bad Things given the shared premise of “accidental killing of stripper/sex worker leads to cover-up and further criminal behavior.” In speaking of Very Bad Things, several of the film’s detractors have pointed to just how vile and insufferable the characters were. Sure, it’s a dark comedy/thriller, so at least some of its characters are expected to be criminals. And it’s far, far, far from being the first or only movie whose primary characters are unsympathetic, selfish and even murderous assholes. And while there are certain people who are just never going to be on board with watching or reading a story featuring “unlikable” unsympathetic characters, there are many others (like me) who find such stories interesting, provided that the story is, well, interesting, and provided that the unlikable characters aren’t utterly insufferable.

So what is it about the characters in a movie like Very Bad Things that pushes their vileness over the top? Are their actions simply that deplorable? Does the story just fail them to such an extreme degree that they can’t be redeemed? In my opinion, the answer to the last two questions is “no.” The problem with most of the characters in Very Bad Things is that they don’t show the capacity to care for anyone at all other than themselves. The simple solution, then, is to give them at least the smallest sign that they are capable of caring. They can still be horrible, mostly hateful people, but showing that they have even an ounce of compassion for at least one other person can go a long way toward making them more palatable.

Examples of this can be found in more stories than I can hope to count. Pulp Fiction primarily follows the happenings of two homicidal hitmen who are very casual about killing innocent people, but they also seem to have a genuine friendship even early on in the movie. It makes them easier to get along with from an audience perspective, because even though they may argue, they generally get along with each other. Sticking with Tarantino, Mr. Pink and Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs develop a bond that carries them through a botched robbery, mortal injury, distrust and conflict and betrayals, right up until the final emotional revelation.

Branching out into other crime stories starring villainous protagonists, the main trio of violent asshole gangsters in Goodfellas start off with a strong bond, and the deterioration of the bond due to greed, impulsive behavior and drug abuse is a core element of the story. O-Dog in Menace II Society is a monstrous, murderous lunatic, but he legitimately cares about his friend Cain. Scarface, of course, is focused on the rise and fall of an ambitious madman, but he does love his sister (albeit to an unhealthy and potentially unsavory degree) and his friend Manny. He even has compassion for strangers, given his personal code of not killing women or children. His care for other people and his emotional immaturity related to that caring are crucial components to his eventual downfall. Harold Shand, the bulldog bastard of a crime boss in The Long Good Friday, is a cruel, vicious hothead, but manages to muster some affection and even a sincere apology for his lady, Victoria. Going back farther, even the psychotic Cody Jarrett from White Heat loved the hell out of his mother.

But those are all dramatic films. What of a dark comedy, like Very Bad Things? The best contemporary example I can think of is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a television show centered on a group of awful people being consistently awful to one another and to anyone else unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Granted, humor is subjective, and part of Sunny‘s success hinges on whether or not you find the show funny, but even with that in mind, the show’s writers and creators are aware of the importance of showing that even despicable people need show signs of caring for others once every blue moon. Sunny has multiple examples throughout its long run of the gang rallying to actually do something nice or to be there for one their own (“Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats”, “Dee Gives Birth”) or simply enjoying each other’s company (“A Very Sunny Christmas”, “Mac and Charlie: White Trash”).  To be sure, they are still all manipulative, selfish, horrible assholes who are frighteningly proficient at ruining lives, and none of the examples of them being temporarily decent human beings redeems them in any way, but it does make them tolerable and show that they at least have the capacity–however limited–to be selfless and, dare I say, even loving.

All of this to make one simple point: if your protagonist is a horrible person, they needn’t be thoroughly horrible. And perhaps the easiest way to keep an unlikable character from being too intolerably irritating to bother with is to simply show that there’s at least one person in their world that they care about as much as they care about themselves.

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“The Horrors of Travel”

Some of the scariest works I’ve read or seen didn’t come from a work of horror fiction, but from books about and accounts of historical disasters. The description of the sea suddenly overtaking an already flooded Galveston Island during the hurricane of 1900, as written in Isaac’s Storm, is as chilling as it is succinct. There are parts of Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire that are at least as terrifying as anything in the most affecting horror novels I’ve ever read.

While the above artwork from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, printed in September of 1865, isn’t supremely frightening, it is undoubtedly macabre. “[G]raphic, but by no means extravagant,” is how Harper’s described its illustration. The nonfiction book The Angola Horror–a recounting of the 1867 train wreck that occurred in Angola, New York–introduced me to “The Horrors of Travel.” The short article that accompanies the picture mentions the 1865 explosion of the steamship Sultana, and the drawing appears to reference it in the lower right hand corner.

In the upper left corner is a burning ship that might not to be a reference to anything specific, but the article is focused on accidents that occurred in 1865, even if it only mentions one by name. There were two other major maritime accidents that occurred in 1865: the Brother Jonathan sank off the coast of California, killing 225 people (92% of its passengers and crew) in July , and in August the SS Pewabic collided with her sister ship and took at least 100 people down with it in Lake Huron. The Sultana disaster was the deadliest maritime accident1 in world history to that point, and would remain so for at least half a century (depending on how one classifies the Halifax explosion).  It remains the deadliest maritime accident in United States History. The Brother Jonathan sinking was the tenth worst in U.S. history, and the Pewabic disaster was the fourth worst to occur in the Great Lakes. From April to August, a country that was barely exiting the Civil War witnessed three major marine shipwrecks occur along the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in the Mississippi River, near Tennessee. So while there was no major incident involving a burning boat in 1865, it’s understandable that Harper’s would want to include one more dramatic image of a foundering vessel in this illustration, driving home the point that these incidents were taking place all over the country in a relatively compact time frame.

The train wreck references are a little harder to explain, given the article’s focus on 1865. The year saw no major, deadly railway accidents, although the head-on collision from the Shohola incident from a year prior might account for the crash depicted in top center of this illustration. The associated article makes no mention of a specific train disaster. Even without a more recent, major wreck to serve as inspiration, however, the specter of railway disasters–a relatively new and seemingly grislier spectacle at the time–still loomed so large that this illustration makes it a centerpiece steered by Death itself.

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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, “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.

*Update: This was written before the first It trailer was released. Given what we’ve seen now and what the filmmakers are going for, Skarsgard certainly wasn’t the wrong choice for Pennywise.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Candyman

Have you ever seen something that you believed only you could see? Something that should have been seen by others, but somehow was not?

In the fall of 1992 I was thirteen-years-old, feeling increasingly ostracized at school, and feeling homesick away from school. The cause of my homesickness helped keep my pain in perspective, though. Hurricane Andrew had slammed into the Florida coast in August. In September, my mother and one of my brothers, both in the Air Force at the time, had been called down to help with the relief and rebuilding of the demolished Homestead Air Force Base. Living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the specter of hurricane season hovering every August–a specter darkened and magnified by the local mythology of Hurricane Camille–my sympathies were with the people of Florida.

My father was already stationed overseas at the time so there weren’t many options for where I could stay. All of my other relatives lived in Texas and my mother was only supposed to be gone for a month or two. One of my mother’s friends–a married woman with three kids–volunteered to keep me for the time being.

The family I stayed with through September and October was pleasant. They took me to church with them, brought me along to a couple of family functions, and I somehow ended up joining them on an awkward hospital visit to see one of their elderly family members. They treated me well, but I was a slightly odd kid, often stuck in my own head, a bit sickly, shy–when I wasn’t feeling clumsily talkative–and prone to occasional, unconscious obnoxiousness. I shared a bedroom with the son, who was two or three years older than me and a player on football team of the small Catholic School we attended. I was on the JV team at the time, but to call me a “player” would be generous. We had little in common. I had even less in common with the two other kids, sisters, one about three-years-old, the other maybe twelve. I don’t think I could have been anything more than an intrusion to any of them, and I was aware of it, but didn’t know how to minimize it. Gradually, I started asking if I could just stay home instead of joining them when they went to the son’s games or went to dinner with relatives, and they would let me.

I had no friends at school at this time, just a circle of kids who kept me around for easy jokes at my expense, which I accepted. A year prior things had been different, and many of these same kids had seemed to regard me well, so a part of me figured I could flip back to being “cool” again if I just rode out this wave of unpopularity. My best friend went to a different school and lived down the street from my house in Ocean Springs, but my mother’s friend who’d taken me in lived too far away from me to visit my friend, being on the other side of the Biloxi Bay Bridge. I wouldn’t say that this was a difficult stage of my young life, just a very strange one.

All of this left me even more mentally vulnerable to bizarre, intense or terrifying sights and stories than I already was. So when the night came that I first saw an ad for an upcoming film about a hook-handed nightmare who haunts a housing tenement, my mind was all too eager to pass my imagination along like a relay baton and let Candyman sprint away with it.

I can’t remember the specifics, what night of the week it was, why I was alone that evening, or what show I was watching when I saw the ad. I know the weekend was looming, so it was either a Thursday or Friday, and I want to say I was watching Martin, which debuted that year and was the popular show among the group of kids I orbited. More than any of that, I vividly remember the queasy, visceral sense of being drawn toward and into the television as I watched the commercial, like I was part of some new rule of physics: an object that wishes to retreat must come forth. I remember being mesmerized and frightened by the dreamlike scene of Virginia Madsen crawling out of the open-mouthed mural. The quick glimpse of the hook hand. The suddenness of a man crashing backwards through a window. And, right from the jump, the damned mirror summoning.

I think I will always feel a unique, almost nostalgic dread at the thought the summoning a spirit by saying its name while staring into a mirror. When I was a first-grader, having been in Mississippi for barely a year, a classmate of mine told me that Bloody Mary lived in a dilapidated two-story house a few blocks from my own, right behind the neighborhood Hardee’s. Being a gullible six-year-old, I believed him. I’ll save the details of my obsession with Bloody Mary for a later Confessions entry, but she was the first bogeyman to plague me. Well before I turned thirteen I had outgrown that particular obsession, but the Candyman commercial resurrected that first critical fear.

I remember sleeping poorly that first night, seeing the painting of the Candyman’s face in a feverish, disjointed dream. But what happened the next day at school, simple as it was, made the fear more personal and affecting.

Again, the kids I hung out with at school weren’t my friends and weren’t above ridiculing me, and every so often shoving me around. But they weren’t cruel. In hindsight, it was a simple matter of convenience and lack of imagination. People in general, and adolescents in particular, love an easy target, and there I was, a tall, lanky, underachieving, socially inept, brainy black kid living in the Deep South who “talked white.” At the time, fitting in simply wasn’t an option for me. Still, I spoke with them as though we were friendly, even though  anything I said or did might open me up to a flood of jokes. So I asked the people I knew at school if any of them had seen the commercial for a cool, creepy-looking horror flick called Candyman last night. None of them said they had.

This was peculiar. Again, I can’t remember what I was watching when I was introduced to Candyman on the small screen, but I know it was something reasonably popular. Something that at least a few other people must have been watching as well. How had I been the only person to see it? Well, everyone else had just been doing something else during the commercial breaks, of course. Or hadn’t paid any attention to it. Or hadn’t been impacted by it the way I had, so they’d forgotten about it. But you couldn’t have convinced my thirteen-year-old self this. Nor could you have convinced me that it was some sort of small-scale prank. Their answers were too nonchalant, and such a ruse, though simple, would have required more spontaneous imagination than I thought any of these kids possessed. A lie is a story, after all.

I tried to shrug it off, and by the end of the day, the cloud of dread from the Candyman movie that only I could confirm existed had dissipated. But I found myself alone in my host’s house again that evening, in this place where I didn’t think I belonged, and again I saw it on the television.

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…

Candyman-poster

I called my best friend. The person I felt I could trust. I called under the pretense of just wanting to chat because we hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, hadn’t seen each other in a longer while. But really I wanted to know if he had seen it. I asked. He said it sounded cool, but no, he hadn’t seen it. I was unreasonably incredulous–“Really? It’s come on two nights in a row.”–but he couldn’t tell me anything other than the truth. He hadn’t seen it. Only I had.

Melodramatic, I know. Foolish, too. Of course other people had seen it, just not anyone that I knew or had spoken to. But by then the obvious answer rang false to me. This thing had found me on my island and latched onto me. It knew I couldn’t turn to anyone. It knew that it could silence me, because silence would be the only way I could obtain a semblance of refuge. If I stopped asking other people about it, then I wouldn’t have to hear again that I was the only one who had seen it. Who could see it.

For the next few days I avoided the television, afraid the commercial would come on while I was accompanied in the room, and the person with me wouldn’t acknowledge it, and then it would be undeniable. I tried not to look directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the dark, in the space between wakefulness and nightmares, I saw chaos, hooks, and a painted, hungry face with its mouth wide and eyes indifferent. Flat eyes that exemplified the attitude expressed in the film’s opening quote, which I thankfully hadn’t heard Tony Todd say yet, otherwise I might have melted down completely.

They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?

My mother’s friend, who’d volunteered to take care of me, worried about me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was quieter than usual. I was making myself sick as the weather chilled and asthma hugged my lungs. And I couldn’t tell her what troubled me. It would sound absurd to her and do me no good.

Were this a work of fiction, I suppose it wouldn’t end so anticlimactically, but well, it is what it is, so brace yourself. Days went by, the next weekend came and went, and I thankfully managed to avoid seeing another Candyman spot on television. Then school came and in the midst of the standard morning routine, someone mentioned to me that they finally saw the commercial for the horror flick I had asked about, and that I was right, it did look pretty cool. Soon enough, Candyman became one of the hot topics for October among my classmates. The more people spoke of him, the less terrifying he became. He wasn’t my own demon anymore. He belonged to everyone, and I couldn’t have been happier to share him.

A few years later, when I finally saw the movie and could admire it for the classic it is, I noted the irony that, in the film, Candyman draws his power from the collective belief and whispers of the community. He is brought to life because his name is on the lips and minds of so many.

In my experience with the character, he could never be more real than he was when I first encountered him and believed he was unknown to another soul.

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On Marshawn Lynch, and Why it’s Okay to be Antisocial (or even a jerk)

Marshawn-Lynch-Media-Day-Super-BowlMarshawn 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. 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 and 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 the real world 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.

That’s okay.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: ‘Shudders’

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 to 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.

Robert-Bloch
Robert Bloch

“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 the next story. 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 guess that much of the blame for that interpretation was the fault of the listener, not the storytellers. When you’re six-or-seven years old and listening to a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into one of Aesop’s fables.

The story proper is considerably grislier than I expected it to be. 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 is 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 despair, 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…

The_Monkey's_Paw

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 so he can wish the thing 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 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.

Shudders-Book-Cover2After reading “The Monkey’s Paw” in  Shudders it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I couldn’t stop. The anthology includes 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. 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 from straight grade school level scares up to a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Simon’s Soul by Stanley Shaprio

Simon's Soul Cover1It 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.

Simon's Soul CoverAgain, 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 this particular scene was what the entire book would focus on. 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 range of human understanding, 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.

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Belated respects to Texas movie theater mogul John Santikos

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 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 through.

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.

John Santikos passed away earlier this month. He had lived for 87 years. Rest in Peace.

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