CoolMaterial.com Recommends You Watch “Peaky Blinders”…

And I’m not going to argue with them. I’m not quite as high on the show as they are, but it’s still a very good crime drama, set in the interesting times immediately following World War I. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for any story surrounding the First World War, in part because the history of that conflict is so complicated. World War II is often oversimplified, but it’s easy to do so when you have such clear villains with the Axis powers. World War I is considerably less black and white. I digress.

“Peaky Blinders” is the name of a familial gang of British criminals who, in the story, come to dominate the town they’re based out of, and eventually look to establish a foothold in London. Cilian Murphy stars as the de facto patriarch of the otherwise fatherless clan, running things alongside two brothers (one older, one younger) and his mother. On the opposite side of the law–though largely in title only–is Sam Neill’s Inspector Campbell, whose harsh, violent stance against the Blinders almost immediately careens over into corruption. In the first few episodes there appears to be a third party at play, a local Communist labor movement leader who is at odds with the authorities and the gangsters, but that plot goes absolutely nowhere and gets abandoned pretty early, unfortunately.

The show is relentlessly bleak, which is one reason why I don’t think as highly of it as the Mike Newman on Cool Material does. I wouldn’t say I’m over the “anti-hero protagonist” thing, or that I’m averse to grim storytelling–I’m a horror writer, after all–but the perpetual dimness of Peaky Blinders can wear you down if you’re digesting it two or three episodes at a time on Netflix. There’s a sort of static hopelessness to it. Instead of descending into or struggling with darkness, these characters are all trudging forward through an unending fog. Eventually they know that they’ll walk themselves right off a ledge that they can’t see coming, but they walk on anyway because it’s what they do and who they are. Not a bad story or theme, but when it applies to just about every character it can be wearying.

Still, the overall execution of the show is excellent. It looks great, the acting ranges from good to stellar, and even the different uses of the theme “Red Right Hand” in each individual episode’s opening is frequently a sliver of mood-setting brilliance. If you haven’t seen Peaky Blinders, season 3 is coming. Take some time soon to hop on Netflix, and treat yourself to an uncommon and entertaining (if melancholic) gangster saga.

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About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.

This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.

Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.

And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.

Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent. 

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Today’s Short Story: Stephen King’s “One for the Road”

Image from "The Secretary of Dreams" published by Cemetery Dance

Image from “The Secretary of Dreams” published by Cemetery Dance

At this point, almost any horror story featuring vampires is a reclamation project. I don’t need to rehash it here, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.

Vampires have become many things. Stylish, moody, desirable, heroic, even enviable. But they haven’t been proper horror villains–at least not consistently–for a long time.

Partly due to the setting, I think, the vampires in Salem’s Lot weren’t black-garbed, urbane charmers who happened to drink blood, but monstrous sub-humans with a hunger so unchecked they’re likely to kill off or convert their entire food supply before they realize what they’ve done. Salem’s Lot is not a perfect novel, and isn’t Stephen King’s best, but it still might be my favorite of his. Vampirism as presented in this novel isn’t merely a burden or disease; it’s not something you can struggle against. Its communicability seems less bite-related and more like it’s riding on a general miasma of malfeasance that has settled over a small town already nurturing its share of unpleasantness.

In short, what came to Salem’s lot was classic, old fashioned evil. A level of evil so incontrovertible and palpable that even after the head vampire is killed, Jerusalem’s Lot is rendered a permanent ghost town. There’s no going back to the way it was. And it’s not just about the heavy death toll, damage, or the lingering presence of a bloodsucker here or there. “The Lot” is effectively cursed. In King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “effectively cursed” becomes “literally cursed,” which might be why I’m a little bit biased against that story. Salem’s Lot doesn’t need a backstory featuring an ancient, Lovecraftian presence as the forgotten source for all of its future perils.  All it needed was the pestilence of vampirism to turn it into a fallout zone. And that’s how it’s presented in King’s short story “One for the Road,” from the Night Shift collection.

Dread Central broke the news last week that “One for the Road” is being developed as a short film. This gave me incentive enough to make “One for the Road” my short story read and write-up for today. The story is strong, but flawed. The opening is straightforward enough: in one of The Lot’s neighboring towns, a desperate man comes barging into a bar just before closing time. A blizzard rages outside, and the man, an out-of-towner who had underestimated the Maine winter, has accidentally run his car into a snowbank–wife and daughter still inside–near Salem’s Lot. The man thinks the biggest danger to his family is the unforgiving cold, but the two older locals know better. There’s a reason why the Lot was abandoned, after all, and why people who venture into it tend to go missing.

“One for the Road” does a good job of selling the recent history of Salem’s Lot effectively. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you’ll have a clear enough idea about what transpired within it to understand the threat faced by the protagonists of this short story. The idea of living within short driving distance of a town known to have been overrun by vampires, a limited but unknown number of which may still be lingering there, is chilling. And I’m an unabashed sucker for a horror story set in snowy conditions. Top all of that with a no-frills premise and you can understand why I would call this a solid micro-sequel to my favorite Stephen King novel.

But, again, the tale has its flaws. King’s first person narrator gets sidetracked by wistful remembrances of deceased wives and the history of the bar that don’t add color to the setting or characters, and show up just in time to temporarily stifle the story’s momentum. There are also a few too many instances of clever dialogue that don’t mesh with the urgency that should be present in the story. When our hapless out-of-towner, Lumley, scared for his family and demanding answers, imprudently but understandably grabs one of the two men who can help him by the shirt, the latter man responds, “Mister…I think your hand just ran away from your brains, there.” In a vacuum, or in a more fitting story and moment, that’s a pretty good tough guy line. But with these characters and what’s at stake, it feels stilted. Lastly, King’s affinity for stand alone, on-the-nose closing lines gets the better of him here, and he wraps “On the Road” with a pair of superfluous sentences that are a little too clever and don’t match the established voice of the narrator.

Still, if nothing else, the simplicity of the story keeps it moving briskly enough to give little time for significant missteps. When the seemingly doomed impromptu rescue mission gets underway and the vampires start making their presence known, dread and the sense of inevitability become all that matter or exist in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters.

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Today’s Short Story: Ramsey Campbell “Call First”

Ramsey-Campbell-Call-FirstHis mind was backing away faster than he was…”

That’s one hell of a line (well, hell of a half of a line). Lean, efficient, and brilliant. As a horror writer, you sometimes face the issue of trying to come up with yet another semi-fresh way of saying, “this person is really, really scared.” It’s easy to overthink it, overdo it, and often harder to just summon a direct, fat-free line like this.

“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”

I won’t spoil what has the character’s mind retreating too fast for his feet to keep up in Ramsey Campbell’s excellent, compact short story “Call First.” But I will say that the rest of Campbell’s horror story is as terrifically composed and confident as the quoted line above. Call first begins with a “mystery” that is less mystery than curiosity born of annoyance. The story very easily could have been derailed by lingering on the insecurities and idiosyncrasies that prompt the protagonist, Ned, to put himself in the kind of perilous position that characters in horror stories often wind up in. Sometimes an author goes overboard in trying to sell you on why a character behaves a certain way, particularly if that charcter is doing something that will put himself or herself in danger.

Campbell keeps it moving, obeying the show-don’t-tell “rule” of writing without cluttering the story with junk details. Here’s Ned; here’s where he works; here’s what’s eating at him; here’s what he decides to do about it; here’s the result. Even as the claustrophobic conclusion creeps nearer, Campbell keeps the story focused and tight.  By the end, the story provides a swift, coldly creepy answer to the element of the mystery that is at once the most mundane and the most vital. Again, I’m not here to give away too many details, but by the end it’s apparent that of all the questions surrounding the mystery that stirs the story’s progress–“who?” “what?” “why?” and so on–the criticality of one renders the others unimportant. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the writer’s right to leave some questions unanswered.

“Call First” can be read in Ramsey Campbell’s collections Dark Companions and Alone With the Horrors, or in various other anthologies. Go find it and treat yourself.

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Horror Films “The Witch,” “Knock, Knock” and “It Follows” Made a Splash at Sundance

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.

The-Witch-movie-sundanceWhile 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 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.”

knock-knock-Reeves

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, none of which received 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.

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Traveler’s Book Review: Nightfall by John Farris

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. [footnote]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.[/footnote] The cover caught my attention with its Southern Gothic simplicity. Dark swampland, plantation home in the background, mother and son 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 few 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 suggest 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 the initial chapter is the only time where he’s shown to be that. For the rest of the book he resorts to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. No weaponized projectile vomit, no hypnosis. 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 it’s one more thing that gets cast aside as though it were nearly nothing. She’s reduced to 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 some more 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 is no ordinary man. He’s revealed later in the story to be obscenely strong–pinning a victim 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 keeps 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 landed. In case anyone needs it spelled out, Loomis confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before that infamous, chilling final shot of the film.

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 prose, is actually damn good–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 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 to work with, 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 obliterates it. So of course you expect this to be a major factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it isn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation is barely impacted 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 been horribly murdered!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that, at least, isn’t regrettable.

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First New Books of the New Year

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…

All-the-Lovely-Bad-Ones

…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.

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Choose Your Own End, er, Adventure – R.I.P. R.A. Montgomery

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 end up the main course for a feeding frenzy.

CYOA-Journey-Under-Sea-Shark

You also have the option of being swallowed whole by a “big mouth grouper”, a fate which also came with a helpful illustration.

CYOA-Journey-Under-Sea-Grouper

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…

CYOA-Chimney-Rock

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…

CYOA-Space-Beyond-Never-Heard-From-Again

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.

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Halloween Recommendation: Trick ‘r Treat (The movie, not the activity)

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.

trick r treat posterHere’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.

 

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Gone Girl and Others: Connecting the Dots to Politicize Fiction

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.

  • Kills several cops
  • Car bombs a judge
  • Sneaks acid-poison-stuff into Police Commissioner’s favorite drink in his own damn office
  • Gets into the front row of the Commissioner’s funeral so he can take a direct shot with a loaded rifle at the Mayor, despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Launches an expertly coordinated assault on a police transport caravan that necessitates taking out a SWAT van and police helicopter and re-routing the entire transport
  • Blows up a police station
  • Sneaks enough explosives into a hospital to blow it up despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Sneaks several drums of explosives onto two evacuation ferries despite the fact that everyone in the city is evacuating from / looking for him

– 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.

 

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