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!


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. 


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'  


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... 


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...


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...


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

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The Wild Hunt of Odin, Arbo, 1868


Powell Fixes College Football

I am a huge sports fan, and I have a particular affinity for college sports. While I bleed green and yellow for my beloved Oregon Ducks, I also pull hard for the Portland State Vikings, Linfield Wildcats, University of Central Florida Golden Knights, and Boise State Broncos. I will stay up late on Saturdays taking in the PAC-12 After Dark, and I dropped our old satellite television provider because they couldn't deliver the PAC-12 Network.

I've thought long and hard (no, really...) about the realities of the present climate for major college football. Here's the final summation, which people much smarter than me have explored in great depth: the system isn't fair. It isn't equitable. It enriches the long-entrenched programs while penalizing those that would like to experience even a modicum of ascension. 

This is toxic for the sports landscape, and it leads to that charade of a "playoff" at the end of the year is supposed to pick a true national champion. Our current "playoff" is an improvement, of course, on the previous systems that included the AP Poll and the clown show of the BCS.

But that doesn't mean that we can't demand more. We need a more equitable system...

Look, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which was formerly known as NCAA D1AA, has a sixteen-team playoff every year. Those student-athletes, just as those playing in all of the other divisions, take final exams and have to complete their schoolwork on time. They wrap up their championship game in early January--just as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams do. 

Right now, selecting four teams for the "playoff" is subjective. There are many conferences that play FBS football, but there are five so-called "power conferences" (SEC, PAC-12, BIG-10, BIG-12, and ACC) vying for those spots.

This year, for the first time ever, two SEC teams made the playoff. That's correct--two teams from a single conference made it to the final four because there supposedly weren't enough viable candidates from the rest of college football.


College sports are at a crossroads that are bordering on a crisis. Attendance fell precipitously last year, a drop that hasn't been seen in thirty-four years! The games are expensive and season tickets, which often require a substantial "donation" to the university's booster organization, are pricing out families. Couple that with the fact that every game is on television in ultra-clear HD, and it's no surprise that people are staying home.

This trend bleeds revenue for the athletic departments, and some schools without active fan bases or big-money donors (and yes, I understand that Phil Knight subsidizes my Ducks; just another stroke of luck for ol' Powell...) flounder. 

Consider a proud university like Oregon State University as an example. They are falling way behind in the race to keep up with richer, more successful programs. They are flying to Ohio to play OSU in the Horseshoe as sacrificial lambs to begin the year for a $1.7 million-dollar payout that they rely on to keep the entire athletic department afloat. That's right, a team that went 1-11 last year, finished last in the PAC-12 in recruiting this year, and whose coach unceremoniously quit in the middle of the campaign (leaving $12 million on the table; Who does that?) is going to go on the road to play Ohio State University.

Makes perfect sense, right?

And the cost of national travel is astronomical. Please read this superb article on the discrepancies and costs of travel in intercollegiate athletics. If you don't have time to look at it, here's a quick snippet:
Travel is one of the most arduous aspects of college basketball. Hours upon hours every season are dedicated to getting to the next town, buses and planes essentially becoming players' and coaches' mobile second homes. 
Some have it easier than others. 
At the highest levels of Division I, buses park next to charter planes filled with spacious seats, teams' schedules based on when the runway is open. Convenience affords efficiency: Practice at home, fly out in the evening, play the next day, head straight home.
Most schools, though, can't afford to charter planes. The cost of travel drains resources and is distracting to student-athletes. Maybe they should play closer to home, am I right?

So, yeah, what if we could do it better? It would take some growing pains and two decades of adjustment, but I believe it would be worth it in the long run. Realignment would help institutions save money, which they could pass on to the customers that support these programs in the form of reduced ticket prices. It would also create a month of competitive football that would be unlike anything else in sports. 

You think March Madness is crazy? 

Just wait for December Delirium...

It would level the playing field, creating an opportunity for teams like 2017's undefeated UCF squad to prove its mettle on the field of play. Novel idea, right?

Here's what I'm thinking, because this post is getting long and it's only going to get longer:

We create six conferences, each with two divisions, and we play it off to decide the national champion at the end of the year.

I put some time and energy into this, and anyone reading this will likely disagree with my realignment proposal, but I took traditional conference ties, traditional rivalries, and geography into account in organizing this. 

That last component, by the way, was the most critical factor in my thought process. Simply put, I'm trying to make it all easier for the fans, athletes, and schools...

Caveats and Considerations:

  • Some current FCS schools would have to step up and join the FBS in my scenario. Some FBS teams, I think, are squeezed out (UTSA?). First draft here...
  • Some current FCS schools that rely on sacrificial whippings as payday games would suffer a blow to their bottom lines.
  • Some traditional rivalries would be disrupted. But I contend that new rivalries would emerge in less than two decades. It only took ten years for The War on I-4 (South Florida and Central Florida) to become super heated. In twenty years, the landscape would be settled. Change is difficult at first, even when it's made with the best of intentions. In fifty years, though, fans wouldn't have remembered any other configuration--just as I now know very little about the old PAC-8.
  • Teams would play nine games in their division (round robin), plus two preseason games. One preseason game would have to be against a team from a different FBS division, which might keep some rivalries in play. The other could come against a team from the FCS. For a team that falls below .500, there would be no bowl game (the bowl system would remain, albeit a formal playoff would also emerge alongside it), so they would only play eleven games (potentially losing revenue with our current twelve-game slates).
Okay, enough of that. Here's the system I would propose if I could simply make it so. Each conference has two divisions. Ten teams in each division.

These names are generic placeholders; I guess that's why we have commissioners! 

The Great West
Frontier Division:

Washington State
Oregon State
Utah State
Nevada Reno
Nevada Las Vegas
Montana State

Golden Division:

San Jose State
Fresno State
San Diego State
Arizona State
Boise State

Mountain Region

Plains Division:

New Mexico
New Mexico State
Air Force
Colorado State
Kansas State

Lone Star Division:

Texas Tech
Oklahoma State
North Texas
Texas A&M

Big South

Bayou Division:

Louisiana Monroe
Louisiana Lafayette
Arkansas State
Louisiana Tech

Heartland Division:

Middle Tennessee
Mississippi State
Southern Miss

Southern Atlantic

Sunshine Division:

Georgia State
Georgia Tech
Florida State

Low Country Division:

South Carolina
Wake Forest
East Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Virginia Tech
Georgia Southern

Northern Atlantic

Appalachian Division:

West Virginia
Western Kentucky
Miami of Ohio
Ohio University
Appalachian State

Midwest Division:

Ball State
Northern Illinois
Bowling Green

Great Lakes 

Upper Peninsula Division:

Western Michigan
Central Michigan
Eastern Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Kent State
North Dakota
North Dakota State

Colonial Division:

Penn State
Boston College 
Coastal Carolina


Notre Dame

The twelve division winners would be automatically seeded in a playoff format, with the final four at-large spots being selected by a committee of coaches and athletic directors. Ideally, we would see a slew of regional playoff games that would culminate in a true national champion that has been selected on the field.

These teams would have an 11-game regular season. After the sixteen that are selected for a playoff, there would be 30-38 teams that could vie for regional bowl games to add that twelfth game and still create local revenue and television programming content.

And there you have it--at least in draft form. I know that I've overlooked teams that recently moved up and this is simply a first run at this. But the idea here is to reduce travel costs, create efficiencies for fans (lower ticket prices and easier traveling conditions) and athletic departments, create regional and inter-state rivalries, instill more parity in college football (this would revolutionize recruiting), and create a better college playoff system.

Whew...that was a long one...

You're welcome! :)

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 hav...