3.05.2019

True Detective: Season 3

Image result for hbo true detective season 3We live in a golden era for television programming. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Outlander, American Gods, and The Sopranos are classics of the new millennium. I really enjoyed the first season of HBO's True Detective, but the second season left the rails early and never quite found its way. I think I gave it up at about the midway point, so I didn't really have any expectations for season three when I noticed that the newest installment in this gritty, atmospheric series was available for streaming.

Boy, am I ever thankful that I gave it a chance. 


I streamed the third season over the course of three days, and it was an utterly absorbing piece of storytelling. Writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto excels at writing compelling dialogue, and he gives his characters plenty of room for depth and development. Season 3 is populated by complex, three-dimensional characters that are struggling to move forward in difficult circumstances. The grim shadow of the Vietnam War stands over the narrative segments taking place in 1980, and the sorrowful spectre of dementia clouds the latter segments taking place in the recent past.


Mahershala Ali is spellbinding as Wayne "Purple" Hayes. Hayes is dignified, fiery, intelligent, loyal, and stubborn throughout the series, even as his mental faculties fade with age. Ali's timing and ability to emote are amazing. He might be the best actor working today...


Stephen Dorff plays Lt. Roland West, and he is excellent in the role. While always loyal to his partner Hayes, West is more than willing to play along with the politics necessary to advance in his position with special investigations. Dorff delivers a consistent, complex turn in playing West, and his proclamation late ("What about us?" he says to Hayes as their partnership disintegrates) in the series will stick with you.


This is a story about the power of family. Some families are broken by circumstance. Some are ravaged by tragedy. Some are wrecked by addiction or parental nihilism. 


But as you watch this show, it's impossible not to think about your own youth and your own relationships with siblings and parents. It's impossible not to consider how chance and circumstance can intervene on a human life, sending a person down an entirely different pathway. 


I became engrossed in the series. It's both a personal and philosophical juggernaut, and--like The Haunting of Hill House--is well worth your time... 


12.10.2018

Horror Culture in the New Millennium: Digital Dissonance and Technohorror

In 2016, I began playing around with the idea of writing a non-fiction text that might explore the changing face of dark storytelling. I have always loved weird fiction, and I'm thankful that my parents encouraged me to read widely from an early age. When I was a kid, I devoured the catalogs of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and John Bellairs. I watched Monsters, Tales from the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone as often as I could. I relished Halloween and the changing of the seasons, and as I matured, my appreciation for science fiction, fantasy, and horror deepened and became more nuanced. 

I was fortunate to conduct interviews for Horror Culture in the New Millennium with many of the authors that I now admire. It was an invigorating piece of writing because I was able to synthesize so many of the stories that I love within a philosophical framework that illustrates the saving power of dark storytelling. 

As Joe Hill notes in this engaging interview, technology enriches the human experience immeasurably, but there is also an inevitable element of loss as we gradually adjust our customs and behaviors. I wanted to wrestle a bit with the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of that loss as communicated in our narrative tradition.

This book explores technohorror and digital dissonance--a pair of concepts located at the center of our modern literary culture. It comments on the changing face of folklore and interrogates such subjects as human longevity, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and posthumanism. 

I am very thankful to Nicolette Amstutz and Rowman & Littlefield for believing in the project and for doing such a phenomenal job of producing this book. The text will be available next week!

10.25.2018

The Beauty of The Haunting of Hill House and the Saving Power of Horror

Image result for the haunting of hill house IMDB
Nell Crain has a Hard Day
Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House is almost a perfect piece of filmmaking. The ten-part Netflix series is compulsively watchable, brilliantly acted, carefully paced, and beautifully shot. It's been some time since I watched a show that packed this much emotion and artistry into such a consistent and unified piece of storytelling. 

From the opening sequence, Michael Fimagnori's camera explores Hill House both steadily and quietly. Shots are staged so the rooms loom over the characters, and the hushed approach to exposition builds tension and fosters serious dread in the viewer. You won't listen to your own home settling the same after hearing the tap of a cane on hardwoods or the scratching in the walls. Sixteen years ago, when Jeanne and I were married, we lived in an apartment complex that had some of that scratching in the walls. It was so unsettling to come awake in the wee hours to the sound of scurrying rodents separated from our heads by a few millimeters of cheap drywall. 

Ugh!

The Haunting of Hill House hits the ground running, and it only becomes more engrossing as Flanagan's careful approach to building tension and establishing atmosphere takes root. It is patient, careful storytelling--and it's that care with the details that makes the dissolution of a loving family so hard to bear as the series sprints toward climax.

Jullian Hilliard and Violet McGraw are simply amazing in their turns as Luke and Nell Crain. These are children who work their way into your heart. I saw my own kids in them, and I thought often of my sisters and our time growing up in a drafty old house in John Day, Oregon, while watching this show. 

Flanagan makes great use of setting. The sixth episode, "Two Storms," is stunning. As a long scattered and deeply scarred family comes together to mourn the second familial tragedy, the episode splits time between a pair of bewildering storms in two macabre locales--a sterile funeral home and the terrifying Hill House. It's an emotional juggernaut to see the terror on the characters' faces as they relive a horrific and resonant memory while attempting to reconcile the wrongdoings they have visited on each other. Siblings and parents alike struggle to articulate everything they've lost, and all the while Hill House and its evil grip on them works its magic. 

A house is like a body, and the way we live speaks for who we are. Hill House is a diseased body, to be sure, but--like the black mold blooming throughout its walls--its dark core isn't strong enough to break the Crains. That any of them survive at all is a testament to the power of love and family, and even those left to stroll their haunted hallways seem strangely at peace with their fate. At least they can be together...

Art represents one of the clearest conduits we have for understanding grief and reflecting on ourselves and our past. There is a cathartic, saving power in viewing aggressive horror stories, and this series is visually stunning, carefully crafted, and keenly written. 

It's also terrifying.

I found the conclusion of the series deeply satisfying. I've read contrarian views online about the final sequence and Flanagan's treatment of the Crains in the final analysis, but I thought he nailed it. Of course, my glass is always half filled, but I thought he made the correct narrative choice in wrapping up the first season.

Like American Horror Story, I think this show will feature different motifs and familial dynamics as it matures moving forward. The show's creators have already said the Crains will not be featured in season two. It's a great choice, as the first season was just about perfect and this family has already been through the ringer enough.

Grade: 'A'  

9.24.2018

Fear the Walking Dead is...Well, Dead!

Image result for fear the walking dead
Jimbo, another unlikable character, met his end last night.
About time...
I think I'm done with AMC's Fear the Walking Dead. In its current iteration, and with only Alicia remaining of the Clark family, I simply don't find the show compelling anymore. I watched it last night and it occurred to me that the show does two things so consistently and repetitiously that it's become a joyless slog to even watch casually (it hasn't been appointment viewing for me in years, alas). It waxes (drones, actually) philosophical on the evil things humans do to each other without even remotely approaching profundity, and it has simply become a never-ending stream of run-barricade-escape scenes. 

Like its companion program The Walking Dead, the series began with promise and complexity. It was a character-driven ensemble with some impressive visuals and keen acting. Frank Dillane's turn as Nick Clark was excellent, and I always enjoy the work of Garret Dillahunt (John Dorie) and Colman Domingo (Victor Strand), but I've grown tiresome of Morgan Jones. Lennie James is a fine actor, but Jones's incessant moralizing, ridiculous staff wielding, and constant second-guessing is exhausting. 

We get it, guys. Morgan loses people. Then he loses himself.

The last two episodes have been nothing but characters finding themselves trapped before accusing each other of various shortcomings and getting away at the last minute. Oh, and they enjoy using walkie-talkies and they like to say, "Copy that." 

There is no compelling characterization here. Even Martha's (Tonya Pinkins) backstory didn't move me. The video montage of her losing her marbles was laughably bad and there is nothing in her whole, "I'm making you stronger" storyline that is even remotely interesting.

Oh, and how did she get away? I guess we just leave details like that out now. And I love how nobody even cares that she is gone. She tried to kill all of them, and they shrug it off like they missed their morning paper (people still get the paper, right?).

But, hey...Morgan has a plan and they're all going to Virginia.

This show lost its way after the dissolution of the intriguing Otto Ranch storyline. With so much interesting television out there on Netflix and HBO, I think I'm done with each of these AMC franchises. The Walking Dead foundered in its ridiculous Negan storyline and its relentless torture fetishism, and Fear the Walking Dead has gotten so desperate that it's including alligators and hurricanes in this aimless, boring, never-ending season.

Ugh. Last night's episode is my best contemporary example of a series that is ready to wrap up. Somebody needs to find Alicia Clark and her cool little carbine knife to put this thing out of its misery... 

8.01.2018

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Stephen King's newest novel checked just about every box for me in terms of including everything I loved about the stories from the early portion of his career into the mid-1990s. 

Convincing and nostalgic representation of small-town Americana? Flint City is that and more, from the communal ball fields to the small-town police force...

Vivid, three-dimensional characters that we quickly grow to care about and relate with? Ralph and Jeannie Anderson, Howie Gold,  Yune Sablo, and Claude Bolton are living, breathing people in this story--complete with the biases and flaws that nicely balance their basic humanity. The text makes it clear--almost to a fault--that some of these folks are good people that did a bad thing. 

None of these characters is as authentic, though, as Terry Maitland. Coach T. deserves his own full-length story, and I couldn't help but picture a close golfing buddy of mine--a local coaching legend in his own right--every time I think about Terry. The thing that happens to Terry is terrifying. It's one of greatest fears, and he keeps it together better than I think I ever could, that's for sure.

Supernatural boogie-woogie based on overt childhood fears and a haunting legend? Oh, yeah. The Outsider is the physical manifestation of an infamous international legend, and he's scary as hell. 

Trusted characters from other realms of the King Universe? Holly Gibney shows up here, and she's a welcome addition. 

I read this last week and it kept me up until midnight two or three times. It's vintage King, and well worth your time...

3.05.2018

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in your gut that it's good. 

Other times? 

Well, other times the words just sit there--stagnant and flacid on the page. That time is better spent washing the windows or cleaning out the garage.

Well, right now I'm happy to report that I'm experiencing the former. The writing is good, and I know it. The last two weeks have been loads of fun, and I'm excited about where this story is going...

3.02.2018

The Hunt


The Hunt

Charleton checked his watch—maybe an hour of daylight left.

There was a cabin about three miles north, and he picked up the pace, the only sound the rustle of trees in the wind and the almost constant baying of the wolves that circled him.

This would be his final hunt. Brayer Cattle paid him well, but he didn’t need the money. Hadn’t needed it in years, really.

No, when all was said and done, he simply enjoyed killing them.

But this felt different. They were closing fast and there were more than he could ever remember.

He covered terrain in sips and swallows, ducking from tree to tree and sprinting through the occasional clearings. The sky opened at dusk, spilling snow over the Oregon backwoods. Charleton sighed and hustled hard for the meadow—and the cabin in the distance.

He was halfway there when he heard their approach. He wheeled, rifle leveled. A dozen majestic wolves fanned out around him, stalking him. Herding him. He backpedaled toward safety, just as a horrible clatter of tin bells and thunderous hooves exploded in the air behind him.

He dove onto the ground as a procession of spectral creatures astride many-legged steeds thundered through the sky above him. Hounds—dilapidated creatures, their bone and gristle showing through strips of rotted flesh—snapped at the wolves, scattering them.

The procession roared past, a demonic maiden leering at Charleton from her saddle.

“The wild hunt,” he gasped, knowing all too well that the wolves were the least of his concerns, and that the worst of it all was really only beginning.

The End

File:Arbo The-Wild-Hunt-of-Odin.jpg
The Wild Hunt of Odin, Arbo, 1868

True Detective: Season 3

We live in a golden era for television programming. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Outlander, American Gods, and The Sopr...