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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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 be 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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Halloween Recommendation: “Kill, Baby, Kill”

Horror fiction comes in a lot of different flavors: ideal Halloween horror is, I think, suitably scary, but not oppressively dire. It’s a fairly festive time of year, after all. I want to watch or read something that makes my skin crawl, but not necessarily something that makes me want to weep for humanity. I have no problem with “heavier” horror stories, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure Halloween is quite the time for Ligotti levels of  super-grim, gut-punching, mind-chewing horror. That said, everybody’s tolerance level for that sort of thing is different, so just bear all of that in mind as I pitch these books, movies and random other things to you for the rest of the month.

Enough preface and yammering: Today’s recommendation is Mario Bava’s film Kill, Baby, Kill. The title sounds worthy of a ridiculous exploitation flick, something involving bikers and revenge and scantily clad women. But it’s actual a period-piece horror flick set in a small European village where people are dying (or, more specifically, killing themselves) under mysterious circumstances. Well, not so mysterious to the locals. They have no illusions about what’s causing these deaths. But there are a couple of newcomers in town who will need some convincing that what’s taking place is supernatural.

Bava, for any who may not know, was basically the grandfather of the Italian horror boom of the 60’s and 70’s. His most famous horror film (and likely most famous in general) is the black and white gothic horror flick, Black Sunday. But Kill, Baby, Kill is, for whatever my opinion is worth, the better movie. Hell, Scorcese calls it Bava’s masterpiece, so it at least has that going for it.kill_baby_kill_1966_poster_01

The story of Kill, Baby, Kill is wonderfully simple: there’s a vengeful spirit in town that is liable to surface and kill anyone who goes into the wrong place, or who speaks of the ghost aloud. A doctor and a prodigal daughter come to the town at the same time as the latest kill and are immediately entwined in the mystery. Don’t expect any plot twists or developments you haven’t seen before, but that’s kind of beside the point. The fun here is in the execution and the visuals. Bava paints the picture with colors that are beautifully lurid, and luridly creepy. In some scenes it’s almost like a gothic, golden-age comic come to life. Bava has all sorts of eerie fun with shadows, contrast, giggling ghost girls, spiral staircases, creepy dolls, and a brief chase scene that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an already surreal moment that finally drives our stoic lead over the edge. The special effects are patently practical, and all the more effective because of that.

For all the death and omnipresent dread saturating the atmosphere of the film, it’s not a dour picture. In fact, it has its moments that some might call campy. I simply think it has gusto. If you were waiting for the weekend to kick off your early October, Halloween horror binging, Kill, Baby, Kill isn’t a bad place to start. And at less than 90 minutes, it will fit nicely on either end of a double-feature night. For those of you with Netflix, it’s currently available to stream. So stop reading and go put it on your viewing list.

I’ll be back soon with a fresh recommendation.

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“There’ll be scary ghost stories…”

“It was Christmas Eve.

I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin… The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.”

This is how Jerome K. Jerome introduced his short ghost story collection Told After Supper, released way back in good ol’ 1891. He goes on to describe Christmas eve as the a “great gala night” for ghosts, and state that, “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas—something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.”

This surely doesn’t fit with most (if any) common, modern views on Christmas, but it helps explain why singer Andy Williams, in the song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, croons that there’ll be scary ghost stories. Once upon a time, Christmas ghost stories were a tradition. It’s referenced in the aforementioned intro by Jerome, it’s mentioned by M.R. James in the brief foreword to his collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it’s the framing device for the story told in Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw,  It’s one of relatively few Christmas traditions from Victorian society that the modern Western world didn’t adapt, borrow or just bring along into the present one way or another.

I have no Christmas ghost stories to share today. And even to a guy who writes the stuff that I write, it does seem like a slightly odd pastime. Then again, I get what Jerome means when he mentions the inherent… well, I won’t say eeriness, but maybe uncanniness of a Christmas night, for those of us who welcome and like to entertain such feelings. A lot of us grow up reading or watching A Christmas Carol, a story that boasts four ghosts as main characters and features a chilling vision of the protagonist’s death at its climax (often presented in a graveyard, under the watchful eye of the reaper-esque Spirit of Christmas Future). And I’ll be here all day talking about how spooky Santa Claus can be if you give him even an ounce of extra thought. (Of course, my views of Santa Claus are probably skewed by a story I heard from my mother when I was very young, about why one of her uncles was missing his thumb, and how Santa so strongly disliked thumb-sucking from children that he carried a sharp hatchet around in his sack that he’d use to express his disapproval…)

So part of me wishes that instead of just watching It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas last night (seriously though, I’ll never outgrow the latter), that my folks and I could have spared a little time to read some Charles Dickens Christmas Ghost Stories, or better yet, come up with a few ghostly tales of our own. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, this gives me as fitting a moment as any to wish any readers a Merry Christmas. And if I don’t get around to it before then, here’s to a Happy New Year.

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Quick Movie Recommendation: Pontypool

Pontypool is a horror movie (labeled a “psychological thriller” on Wikipedia… presumably because it has really good reviews, and is intelligently and patiently presented, so clearly it can’t be a horror story, even though it has all of the obvious qualities of a horror story. Okay, rant over), that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario in the midst of a mini-blizzard, it takes places almost entirely within a radio station where a “no punches pulled” talk radio host finds himself besieged with reports of strange and violent happenings taking place in the typically quiet little town. Much of the story’s initial dread is built up through second-hand accounts of what’s taking place outside the walls of the radio station (which is actually located in the basement of a church), which would seem to violate the “show don’t tell” rule that is particularly applicable to films, but it’s insanely effective nonetheless. In fact, hearing about what’s happening builds up the tension better than seeing might, given how often and unimaginatively such scenes of horror are often presented in movies. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but it’s well acted overall (the leads in particular are excellent), sells the hell out of the scares when they start coming. It’s witty, it’s creative, it’s stark, and it’s reasonably unpredictable. It has a moment or two of needless exposition (one that clumsily and abruptly spells out the whole mystery a little early in the film, when there was still a bit more suspense to be mined). But it also has some moments of sincere emotion, which is something too many horror movies don’t seem all that interested in at all (odd, given that horror is an emotion). Not much more you can ask for.

 

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Why Write Horror? Because it’s always there…

It’s not much of a stretch to surmise that most horror writers will, at some point, be asked, “Why do you write that stuff?” Depending on how it’s asked it can either be seen as valid or annoying. If asked out of genuine curiosity, it’s the former; when asked with thinly veiled derision, it’s the latter. But I think most horror writers would probably acknowledge, if they’re being honest, that they’ve asked themselves that same question at least once.

In absence of anything else to blog about, I figured I’d do a quick post hashing out why I write the stories I write; partly to answer the question for others who’ve asked me in the past, and partly to help sort out my own thoughts on the subject. For me, there isn’t one simple answer for why I write horror stories. There are a  few different factors that influence my choice of genre. For starters, I write horror because I tend to see it everywhere.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Horror can’t be found in literally anything unless you have an extraordinarily morbid point of view, which I don’t have. If anything I have an indefatigable optimistic streak that persists in spite of my capacity for cynicism. If I a picture of a box of puppies or read a story about some famous person donating time and/or money to a worthy cause, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to gruesome worst case scenarios, or suspicions of dubious intent. My tendency is to give the world the benefit of the doubt even though I know that history dictates the world doesn’t deserve it from anyone, even the most fortunate of us.

But in all the places where you can make a reasonable argument that horror is present, I see it. Particularly in fiction. It’s not something I have no control over, but if I decide to flip my filter on, the horrifying elements present in damn near anything where it’s feasible become crystal to me. That’s because, some time ago, I developed my own very simple formula for mining horror from a situation. Throw the following elements into a pot and mix as desired: intimacy, personal perspective, tone, and fear. The last is, of course, the most vital ingredient, but everything else is important as well. And when you’re looking at a story through that filter, it’s easy to identify how you could transform the mundane or even the cheerful into the terrifying.

 

Example: Recently I was watching the movie Wreck-it-Ralph with my fam (at the behest of my nieces and nephews… no really, honest), and  the filter came on during the final moments when the bad guy gets his at the end (uh, (spoiler alert, the villain loses. And dies). To summarize as best as possible, the villain ends up out of control of his own body, and inexorably drawn against his will into a blazing pillar of light that incinerates him, all as he begs his unresponsive body to resist. Because of the film’s perspective (which is anti-villain, in the tradition of animated family films, believe it or not), because we obviously never get to know the villain very well, and because of its tone (joyful overall, and celebratory in the final moments since, you know, the good guys win), the horror wouldn’t be evident to anyone except some slightly off-center dude like myself who’s looking for it.

Think of it though. Imagine being pulled against your will–your own body betraying you–toward incineration. You’re screaming, “No!” You’re begging yourself to stop, but someone or something else is pulling your strings. You’re aware the entire time of your fate, but you try as you might, you can’t avert it. And then, in the end, you’re on fire. Flesh turning to cinders, organs roasting, eyes boiling out of your skull. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, you feel it all, and any of us who’ve ever felt any kind of pain know how it can elongate time. Time is, after all, a matter of perception. A second of pain expands in proportion to the level of agony. An instant of your skin burning off your bones is, I imagine, worth at least a minute of whatever makes you happiest. It’s a pain most of us can’t truly imagine, but any sincere attempt to imagine it should be sufficient to give us an idea of why such a moment is the definition of horrific.

The same could be said for a number of scenes from other family films most people wouldn’t come anywhere near thinking of in relation to “horror”; imagine Facilier being literally dragged to hell by spirits hungry for his soul; imagine Scar being torn apart and eaten alive by a team of angry hyenas. The fear is present in each of these scenes, but absent the intimacy, perspective and tone, none of them register as horrific to the ordinary audience member. Which is, of course, by design. These are family films, after all. So let’s take a look at something a little more serious, aimed at a more mature audience, but still presented with the same distance and tone and that makes a horrifying death in a Disney flick   come off as routine.

The Military Channel has a show called Greatest Tank Battles, which I wasn’t aware of until I watched it with my father (a history / WWII enthusiast) one day a few months ago. I don’t recall the precise details of the episode we watched together, but I know they interviewed veterans of the battles recreated through computer simulations to get their takes on what transpired. And those veterans surely have their own personal coping mechanisms for the things they witnessed. I come from a military family and have friends who have served as well, I have no illusions that war is anything less than hell. Yet, for morale purposes, or out of a sense of respect to those who lived it and wouldn’t want to relive it, or to emphasize the patriotism by glorifying the soldiers who served, the horrors of warfare are often downplayed in such television programs.

But for a guy like me, it’s all too easy to latch onto the terror and empathize with the deceased, as much as I can, anyway. When the program presents CGI reenactments of the battles as narrated by the veterans, and shows video-game-reminiscent special effects of tanks burning in the aftermath of battle, I tend to think about the men inside those burning metal vessels. For a lot of people that’s just a story or a quick history lesson; I see a little more. I see men screaming for their lives, cooked alive, dismembered. And contrary to what a lot of people may think, I take zero joy from such imagery. If anything, were my substantial ego also given to pretension and judgement, I’d castigate those who could watch such a program without imagining what it would actually have been like to die a violent death in a tank. The absolute panic, the sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the feeling of being trapped and wondering how in the hell your life had come to this moment before the agony took hold and any conscious wondering surrendered to fire and explosions, the smell of blood, burning metal, the immediacy of the end. Christ. That’s meant to be neither dramatic, shocking or indelicate, folks; that’s real.

And that’s one of the key factors that has influenced what I write, watch and read. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for me to enjoy stories where death and murder are treated irreverently or humorously. I love the Coen brothers, for instance.  Miller’s Crossing, that’s my shit. But when death is frequently handled recklessly or carelessly in a story, tossed around just for the sake of it being there, that can take me out of the story. I write horror because it’s out there, and while there are plenty of stories unwilling to directly address or explore it, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s present. Beyond that, I also think it’s a worthwhile exploration. But I’ll save the details on that for another entry…

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Some Thoughts on ‘Bioshock Infinite’

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a Bioshock enthusiast. One might even say an apologist. The first game might be my favorite single-player gaming experience ever. The second game was a step down, but a step down from Fantastically Amazing is what? Merely “excellent”? Sure the multi-player might have been “pandering” but who cares? Finding a Big Daddy suit in a free-for-all and wreaking havoc is damn near the definition of good times. And the attempts to shoehorn Sofia Lamb’s presence into the existing Bioshock story wasn’t terribly convincing, nor was she nearly as captivating as Andrew Ryan (or even some of the lackeys she sends to impede your progress), but she was interesting enough. And the tweeks to the combat gameplay made it even more fun than it already was to shoot bees at people with one hand while firing a machine gun at them with the other.

I say all of this because, ok, I’m probably not going to have a terribly impartial opinion about Bioshock: Infinite. Suffice to say, I loved it. As much as the original? Not quite. More than part 2? Definitely. So much that nitpicking about exactly how much I loved it compared to the previous installments is an exercise in pointless pedantry? Absolutely. Infinite is a gem.

Some further thoughts, now that I’ve played through it twice (spoilers ahoy!):

  • Columbia isn’t quite as fun to visit and explore as Rapture, but I think its in-game origin and mythology is the more intriguing of the two cities. The idea of Columbia roaming the skies, potentially haunting the present, past and future (not to mention multiple realities), is as scary as actually being in the ruin of Rapture, beneath untold fathoms of an ocean waiting for the first opportunity to crush you. But the full nightmare of Columbia’s presence isn’t something that immediately translates to the game the way it did for Rapture…
  • Except for in the visit to the bad future that takes place after Elizabeth is whisked away by Songbird. That whole sequence is brilliant and eerie. First and foremost, the idea of entering a blinding whiteout and emerging from it in a future where you’ve failed to prevent a massive catastrophe is creepy by itself, and you get the immediate impression once you come out of the white out that you’ve entered a reality where something went wrong. That “something” is Elizabeth. Various tears and recordings let you know how her mind was twisted by years of disappointment and despondence as Booker failed to come to her rescue. The masked weirdos and the “boys of silence” are notably odd villains who give off some of that creepiness that the Splicers and Little Sisters gave off in Rapture. When you finally meet the aged Elizabeth and she lets you see Booker’s nightmare come true–New York City being attacked by Columbia, drowing in flames as though it were “the Sodom below” that Comstock often referenced–it’s an arresting and harrowing sight. I hope the DLC provides an opportunity to explore this version of Columbia at least a little more.
  • Yes, I had a dignified but still seismic fan-gasm when Rapture made its cameo appearance.
  • There’s been debate about the game’s socio-political / religious “statements.” Are they profound? Are they reductive? Are they gratutious? I guess I never put that much stock into any of Bioshock’s “statements.” Ryan’s Objectivism, Lamb’s utilitarianism, and now Comstock’s exceptionalism and patriotism run amuck. I see all of these as devices, not anything majorly critical of the stories themselves. I don’t really see anything in the Bioshock series as particularly offensive, nor philosophically groundbreaking. Any “statements” made in Infinite pretty much boil down to “racism, jingoism, persecution and extremism are all bad.” But all of these things really just operate in service of the story and properly fleshing out the environment. As a writer, I dig that part of it far more than any attempts at preaching things that I’d wager most reasonable people probably already believe, if that’s what’s even being attempted.
  • The lack of a proper battle against Songbird is a bit disappointing. But after you show him destroying airships literally with one fell swoop, it might have been hard to convincingly show how Booker could have taken him on.
  • I pretty much abused the hell out of the “Murder of Crows” vigor during combat, followed by Shock Jock, and then Possession. Didn’t have much use for the rest. But I got a kick out of the variety of firearms. So on the scorecard compared to the previous games in the series, Infinite gets an “L” in the left-handed-weapons column, but a “W” in the right-handed-weapons column.
  • All right, the ending didn’t completely work for me in any literal sense. Thematically and emotionally, though, I thought it was terrific. If you’re looking for logical consistency, then this has about as much of that going for it as most other works of fiction simultaneously dabbling in alternate history, alternate realities, quantum immortality and time travel.
  • To the minds and muscle behind the game, first of all, bravo. Seriously, brilliant work. Now get on those DLC’s. I need more.
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