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12.26.2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The dam burst on Christmas and the theater flooded with a fresh batch of this year's prestige pictures. Valkyrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Marley & Me, The Spirit and Bedtime Stories took the silver screen by storm. A few lucky markets got Gran Torino. But a little indie with a couple of big-time talents absolutely absconded with my heart on Christmas day, and that was Slumdog Millionaire.


From a narrative perspective, this work is very accomplished. The story follows a pair of orphaned Indian boys as they hustle their way into adolescence in many of the worst environments in India. The actors who play the youngest versions of Salim and Jamal (check IMDB for spelling of their names) are fantastic in the first act. They share an undeniable chemistry and their genuine sibling affection for each other is palpable. Salim is the elder. He's hard (as evidenced by the sale of his brother's prized autograph) and he's dangerous. He's imposing toward the other urchins in the garbage piles and begging scams. Jamal is the romantic. He's the dreamer. His character ultimately matures and blunders onto the popular Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

The sad story of the early life of these brothers sets in motion a string of coincidences, punctuated by their on-again, off-again companionship with a young girl named Latika, that ends with...well, I don't want to spoil it. You need to see this.

Latika and Jamal dream of a life together in a house on Harbour Row, but what they face is a series of degradations and hardships that only drive them further apart. The narrative initially outlines events set in the past before culminating in an impressive climax, realized in the present.

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is a strong director, though he has his bad days (Sunshine, The Beach) as well. He's 100% on top of his game here. The shots are vibrant, India alive in a wash of pastels and muted tones that come together in some form of horrific beauty. Boyle keeps the pace up, and the editing is a huge strength. The parallel narrative sequence of the first two acts rivets the audience to the action on the screen. And, as in many of his better films, he illustrates a superb grasp of sound. The soundtrack pulses through almost every shot, the songs complementary to the emotions of the characters on the screen.

And the acting. Dev Patel nails it in his portrayal of Jamal. He plays the role of the self-deprecating dreamer perfectly, and is a wonderful foil to the charismatic Anil Kapoor. Frieda Pinto is striking in her turn as Latika. All in all, this one was very well played.

I haven't been as happy leaving a theater as I was after leaving Slumdog in a great long while. I hope that the goodwill that this film has garnered in the early awards season (four Golden Globe nominations) carries it into January.

Go see this film. You'll be happy you did. Oh, and don't miss the Bollywood dance at the end.

12.19.2008

New High Temperatures in Florida


Just got back from the Round Marsh, and man is it hot. We're pushing 81 degrees, which would threaten the new high temperature for Jacksonville. While I miss Oregon's snow and it certainly doesn't feel quite like Christmas, we have to make the best with what we've got. When life gives you limes, make margaritas I guess. I'm thinking a frosty beverage (rocks, with salt) would wash down a dozen Apalachicola Bay oysters quite nicely here in a couple of hours. I'm going to knock out some Christmas shopping, then hit Sliders at Atlantic Beach, then go see Seven Pounds.
And I'll do it all in flip flops.

12.17.2008

The Genesis of a Horror Tale

I scared myself this morning. Badly.

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night and didn't drift off until after midnight. I read in bed (Bentley Little's The Academy) until about 11:50, and then just passed in and out of shallow rest until sometime after 3:00.

Then I got down to business and dreamed one of the most vivid nightmares I've had in a long while. It was set in an imposing old apartment building in Portland's Goose Hollow Neighborhood. The place, a former luxury hotel, had undergone a series of crazy renovations, and I was an architect that enjoyed touring the place a couple of times a week.

I was on the second floor when I met a little girl in a Christmas dress. She walked with me, sharing information on the people who lived in the building, until we got to a stairway leading to the penthouse apartments, which I'd never seen before. The little girl produced a key and we went up.

There were two apartments--one on the north side of the building, one on the south--divided by a long hallway. Behind one door, I could hear a low-pitched hum. The other doorway was framed with lightly frosted glass. I could see a woman behind that glass, and she was fumbling with something. She had on all of this crazy make-up, and the girl told me we should go back downstairs.

That's when the woman started shooting. And shrieking. And chasing.

I tucked the little girl under my arm and sprinted for the stairwell. The woman gave chase--down five flights of stairs until I burst into the dim lobby of the place. The girl scampered away, out into the streets I guess, and I just hid--in a hollow beneath the stairs.

The last thing I remember was the woman, her face painted hideously with Kabuki makeup, sticking the barrel of an enormous gun in my face.

I awoke moaning about a nightmare, but it was 5:56 and Jeanne was long gone. Man, it creeped me out something fierce and, though I was able to fall back asleep, the opening line to the story I just wrote in two hours played over and over in my head. It was there when I was eating my bagel and having my coffee. It followed me while I perused the sports section. It was under my skin and dying to get out.

Here it is:
The Chamberlain did not change as it grew older, but instead became more clearly itself.

It's a play on an old quote I recall from a composition text. It might not be a crackerjack hook, but it captures exactly the sentiment of the dream I had last night.

Sheesh. This story poured through me. I wasn't going to work on anything in the short form until I was through with Book #2, but this couldn't be helped. I'll polish it over the coming weeks and see where we are.

That said, I'm always thankful when the projector up there gets cranked up. It's sometimes hard to take and I get a little scared, but a few seconds of frightened moaning is worth every minute of suspense that a good horror tale can provide a reader.

Tentative title:
"Life in the Chamberlain Hotel"

12.15.2008

Alternative Christmas Movies

I filled up the gas tank today and saw something I haven't seen in a decade. The person who had gassed up before me had purchased $5.00 worth of gas. That bought a little over a gallon a year ago. Today it paid for 2.7 gallons.

When was the last time you put a fiver in the tank? Tenth grade? Amazing...

On to other things. I like holiday movies. Always have. It's not the holidays if I can't hit the theaters once a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas for the late-season prestige picks. Jeanne and I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still last week, and we both kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't anything special visually (there were a few nice shots when Klaatu and Helen tried to hide in the New Jersey woods), and the leads didn't share much in the way of chemistry.

Incidentally, I'd like to see Jennifer Connolly go back to acting. She now pretty much traipses through every movie she's in, mouth slightly agape, making that "Damn-I'm-surprised-this-is-happening!" face over and over. She can do much more. If you haven't seen A Beautiful Mind, then take that sucker for a ride. Great movie.

The critical reception of Four Christmases was dismal and that scared me off. Too bad, because with that cast, a sharp satire on America's love of divorce had potential.

But I thought I'd list a couple of films that fall outside the realm of The Santa Clause, et al. Not every holiday film needs to bubble along with holiday cheer, and these ones offer a little naughty with their nice.

Die Hard: Man, this movie changed my life. I've maybe seen it a dozen times, but the first time was transcendent, and my love of the American action film was kindled. Bruce Willis plays NYPD Lt. John McCLane, hoping to reconcile with Holly, his estranged spouse in Los Angeles. Little does he know that the purely evil Hans Gruber has plans for the Nakitomi Plaza. McClane, shoeless and battered, punches back at the terrorists, single-handedly restoring order (but not before the body count shoots through the roof). Great holiday film.

Gremlins: Joe Dante's horror comedy about when good Christmas gifts go bad is lots of fun. Just sitting here typing these words evokes that creepy little music and visions of a swimming pool filled with monsters. Speaking of that creepy music,
take a listen.

Anybody see anything good lately?

12.11.2008

Cherie Priest and Fathom

Fans of slipstream, fantasy, mythology and horror will want to hit their local bookstores or log onto Amazon this weekend to purchase Cherie Priest's fifth novel, Fathom. The book is Cherie's first American hardcover and is also a featured pick for Barnes and Noble's paranormal book club. Cherie's writing is strong and her stories are always intriguing.

Take a look at what this book means to Cherie's promising career here, and then pick up a copy for yourself or for a Christmas gift. The work is well worth it and you'll be happy that you did.

12.10.2008

"The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates"

I've had some long nights of late, friends. Just After Sunset arrived last Saturday, and I spent all of last week motoring through the stories. All in all, the collection is a little uneven. When it shines ("Graduation," "N.," "Mute," Ayana" and "A Very Tight Place"), it really shines. We're talking polished to a sheen here, folks. The rest is a bit more pedestrian. It's another quality effort by King, but much of it feels...well, limp, for lack of a better term.

Mr. King is a master short story writer. While I feel his novels have generally improved throughout the years, I think much of his earlier short fiction was superior to the stories in this collection and in 2002's Everything's Eventual. Night Shift (1978) was excellent and Skeleton Crew (1985) was great.

But Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993) was the absolute goods when it comes to King's short fiction. His three finest short tales are found in the pages of N & D: "The End of the Whole Mess," "Crouch End" and the all-time favorite--"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." The writing in Nightmares (and in the two collections listed above) has more teeth to it. Ever the American craftsman, King repeatedly espouses the practice of putting the story first. The tales in those first three collections illustrate that ethos to great effect. I haven't felt the same about the work in his last two collections, though. The stories just don't have as much zip.

But that's not to say there aren't some true gems in this batch. The story by the title listed above is one of these--maybe the best thing he's written in the short form in a decade or more.

Told in the third person, "The New York Times..." is a heart-wrenching story about loss and connection. It tells the story of Anne, whose husband has been in an accident. Days after the tragedy, her cell phone rings. I don't want to spoil the story, and I'm not by simply saying that it's him (James) on the other end.

But where is he calling from?

The story is about the afterlife, and the little things--those tiny nuances that dictate memory and create meaning in everyday life. In this case, it's there in the language, in the inside jokes James and Anne share, in the shared frustration of something as simple as not charging a cellular phone.

Consider this passage:
Anne goes to the extension on the bed-table, wrapping a towel around her, her wet hair thwacking unpleasantly on the back of her neck and bare shoulders. She picks it up, she says hello, and then he says her name. It's James. They had thirty years together, and one word is all she needs. He says Annie like no one else, always did.

King cranks up the pathos on this one, and the story really does (in ten quick pages) spur the reader to consider his or her life. It causes a person to roll over in bed and kiss the person sleeping there--to maybe lay closer to that person in the night, thankful for the solidity and proximity of a shared connection.

The tale is rife with concrete imagery and some very solid phrasing. It moves well and concludes in stunning, crushing fashion. It's the type of story that people learning to write in the short form should study, to be sure.

Stephen King's story appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction a few months ago. You can probably hunt it up on the internet, but I'd recommend taking out the collection. I'll be commenting on a couple of the stories here over the coming weeks and, while it's not as great as N & D, there is still much to discuss in this collection.

I did the second pass-through on a short I wrote in two sittings yesterday. I'll take one more run through and try it out soon. Book #2 is in the polishing stages. I hope to have it ready for Bernadette in the first month of the new year.

Here's hoping you're writing through the holidays, and taking care in these rough economic times.

12.07.2008

Australia



Man, I had a hard time with this film. Baz Luhrmann's film is certainly ambitious. It started with great promise, but then it just...kept...going.

The opening twenty minutes were pretty entertaining. The film portrayed the early '40s fetchingly; Luhrmann strung together an interesting series of overlaps, fades, dissolves and jumpcuts to divulge the backstory. We learn about Australia's Stolen Generations. We learn about the character played by Hugh Jackman, a man strangely only called "The Drover" throughout the whole film. Honestly, even after he married Lady Sarah Ashley (played in typical fussy, constipated fashion by Nicole Kidman), she just called him "Drover." What was the man's name?

But after opening with such promise, the whole thing devolves. The narration is told in broken English by an aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters). The kid has promise, but he annoyed throughout this film. It's hard to think of child actors over-playing their roles, but that's just what happened here.

The film is a series of seemingly insurmountable tragedies. Nullah's mom dies, needlessly, in one scene. They have a crazy cattle drive (one good scene in the film) and a hit-and-miss romance. Ashley's husband is murdered and a creepy aborigine named King George dances around in a thong and follows the characters throughout the movie. There's a subplot about an evil cattle baron (even the villain here is dull). Oh, yeah, and there's some stuff in there about a war as well.

I've heard critics mention this film in the same breath as Gone With the Wind. Not even close, friends. I was laughing in the third act as Luhrmann trots out every romantic cliche in the book. Slow motion shots of the little kid running for The Drover and crying his name at a reunion. "Drover! Drover!"

There's, of course, a case of mistaken identity as we worry about whether Ashley was killed in the bombing. There's a bunch of sentimental crap in there about The Wizard of Oz.

Honestly, this is the biggest jumble of cinematic hoo-ha I've seen in a while. If you still go to this film, bring plenty of supplies. It checks in at 165 minutes and they don't pass particularly quickly.

I'd like to see Milk, and Gran Torino looks interesting, but this season's pick of "prestige" films just doesn't look all that appealing to me. I'll be seeing The Spirit on Christmas day I guess.

So what are you folks looking at? Anything out there worth seeing?

12.06.2008

Hey!

I wrote eleven pages yesterday.

How many did you write?

UPDATE:

Our cat Joe snores. He's sawing logs in the glow of the new Christmas tree. Poor little sport tuckered himself out battin' low-hanging ornaments. Let's all give him a hand!

12.04.2008

Three Things I Like: Friday Night Lights, Ghost Story and Sotto Voce

Tis' the season for listing. Twelve goats a leaping, eleven zombies lurching, ten tentacles tweaking...yada, yada, yada.

We're no different here in this neck of the woods. I keep track of things. Lots of things. I'm not quite Rainman, but you could say I'm a dork and it won't hurt my feelings. Books. Movies. Stories I enjoyed. Trips. I write it all down in a journal that's making the long, hard trip back to pulp. I'll have some top-tens around here in the coming weeks. I know they can be tedious, but I've got to write them down, friends. One must justify the bookkeeping somehow, I suppose.

Here's a list of three things that I enjoy:

Friday Night Lights


I was as skeptical as the next person after this thing stunk. I loved Buzz Bissinger's book. It's on the shelf here in my office and it seems to fly away on loan quite a bit. The book is a journalistic jewel--an in-depth look at small-town, blue-collar life in West Texas. Buzz can write with the best of them. His work is fluid and lyrical, descriptive to fine point and clear.


I laughed at the premise of the show when I first heard it was coming to NBC. I thought, given the film's turdy appearance and shoddy adaptation, that it would stink it up.

But it surprised me from the first episode. The series is well played by its leads, and there are enough subplots to keep the thing going for years--a trouble spot for most high-school themed series. Rich with pathos, the writers seem to really understand why the show's small-but-devoted audience is looking for. They developed believable characters with depth and complexity.

Kyle Chandler has nailed his turn as Coach Eric Taylor. Chandler plays a kind-but-gruff smoldering volcano with perfect authenticity. Connie Britton is excellent as his wife, Tami, and the cast of "kids" is surprisingly likable and talented. Don't discount it. I'm just saying...

Ghost Story
Straub wrote this beauty when he was in his teens. It's a hell of a great yarn that features likable protagonists (older protagonists--conveyed convincingly by a young writer; it's a neat trick) and some great embedded ghost stories. Straub's writing is top shelf--smooth and descriptive and very addictive. This one keeps you up. About the book, Stephen King states: "The terror just keeps mounting and mounting."
The man knows his haunted stories, and this certainly qualifies. Put it on the Christmas list.
This magazine's impressive first issue was published just a few weeks ago. Publisher Emily Thorp has created a magazine with a network of editors who have crafted a solid market for fiction, poetry and art. The magazine showcases a new batch of work each quarter and allows for a voting system to select an end-of-the-year print anthology. I think this is one of the markets that will have some traction in the years to come.
And I'm proud to be a part of that beginning in January of 2009. My short story "The Dandy on the Doorstep" will appear in Sotto Voce's winter issue. It's a story I wrote a little while ago about the powers of temptation. I remember having recently read King's "The Man in the Black Suit" and Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" before I took a crack at my own take on that theme. I've always been fascinated by travelling salesmen, and I wanted to write a rural Oregon story. This was the result, and I think it was a pretty good one.
So there you have it. Three things I like, and the first list of the holiday season. I've got a committee meeting with a meatball hoagie, so I gotta run...

12.03.2008

A Day of Firsts...

Today marked the first time I've scraped ice from my windshield since I moved to Florida in 2005. It's been a remarkably cold winter in the Northeast corner of the peninsula. Should make for some sweet orange juice next year, ya'll.

I composed the first original fiction this morning that I've written in two weeks. The holidays can tackle your work if you let them, but I've got a clear path to a productive December ahead of me.

This wasn't a complete surprise, given the economy, but HMH was the first major publisher that I've read about halting new acquisitions.

This is the first time I've checked in online here in what feels like forever. Thankfully, I have a lot to write about in the coming weeks and I won't be such a stranger. I've got a couple of reviews to post and some good news on a couple of story placements I'm pretty proud of. I hope the Thanksgiving holiday went well for everyone, and if you haven't been reading that book there on the right of your screen, make it a priority. That man can yarn with the best of 'em, let me tell ya.

11.12.2008

Economic Downturn: I Joined a Book Club

Moonrat wrote an excellent post last week on the problems facing the publishing industry. These are troublin' times that we're living in here in America, and the news only grows a bit bleaker as retailers are bracing for a lean season. Barnes and Noble CEO Leonard Riggio is quoted in the linked news story as saying:

"Never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in."

I think Jeanne and I are going to find ourselves in that 40% of Americans spending less on Christmas this year. In our situation, it's primarily due to shipping. I do sincerely enjoy shopping for others, and I try to send things. You know, honest to goodness items? Gift cards always felt lazy, somehow.

Not anymore, my friends. I hope everyone likes Barnes and Noble...

But last night I did something I never thought I would. I joined the Book of the Month Club. I was looking for Stephen King's Secret Windows. That little gem is hard to find, let me tell you. Not a copy in all of Jacksonville's fine public library system. I had to track that tome to its source, and they had me at hello with the five books for a buck deal.

Now, I like rare books. I like first editions, and these BotM items have no collectibility or resale value. I know that. But here's the rub: I don't care. I'm going to read them and then pass them along. I only need to buy four books in two years, and the discounts are pretty good. I buy twice that many books in a month sometimes, so it's a pretty nice deal.

There's none of that sending-the-card-back nonsense, which in and of itself is a mark in the internet's favor. So why did I have a stigma about the club? I guess I was a bookstore snob. There--feels good to say it out loud. I do love bookstores, and I won't stop visiting, but in these rough times, I can buy books for everyone on my list and ship them directly from the club.

That's pretty sweet, I think. So how is this economy affecting your book buying? You grabbing 'em in stacks or peering over shoulders?

11.10.2008

Writing Theory: Embedded Narratives


I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for a good embedded narrative. An embedded narrative is a story within a story, often used for expository purposes. These stories work well in folksy narratives. Stephen King's works are riddled with secondary speculations that color character and advance narrative. Salem's Lot, Needful Things, Bag of Bones, Duma Key--these novels make good advantage of this practice and would serve as useful examples if you're in the market for a longer read.


And there's the rub if you're writing a novel. How long should I go with this? Well, by all accounts King's work is far longer than the industry average (which seems to be trending toward slimmer books). His next novel is projected to round out the first draft at 1800 pages.


That's right, 1800 pages. Not a typo there, folks.


And, admittedly, the man has free reign to take his time. It's his style, and I imagine that his publishers love it. But what about the rest of us, who've been told time and time again to keep it moving? Well, I try to keep the embedded narratives short and sweet. I don't dally over chapters, though that's ok if you do. I've found that most of my use of this technique is contained to a few short paragraphs, and usually it's weighted toward the first third of the text.


Have a character with a short temper? Tell a story about a time he or she lost it (i.e. Greg Stillson in King's The Dead Zone; he kicks a dog to death). Got a character with a fragile ego. Illustrate a time in the character's life when he or she was berated (Carrie gets pelted pretty good with tampons early on in Carrie, though I can't remember if that's an embedded narrative or an actual plot point).


I'm reminded of another quote from a King short story: It's the tale, not he who tells it. Don't lose sight of that little nugget of truth as you're developing your characters.


They have things to say. They have life experiences. Those embedded narratives are the way to let them shine through on the page...


I'd love any input from those writing this type of thing. Also, readers--yea or nay on the embedded narrative? Any examples?


By the way, for a textbook example of the embedded narrative (and a foundational horror text in its own right) I recommend Straub's Ghost Story. Those fellows in the Chowder Society have that story-telling thing down to a science.

11.06.2008

The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

Readers of genre fiction have known for years that Jeffrey Ford is a wordsmith. I'm only recently coming to the catalogue of this fantastic writer, but I'm pretty excited about the library of stories that awaits me as I look further into his work.

I just finished The Shadow Year. It's the type of novel that makes you marvel at the comfort and ease of captivating storytelling. Ford's prose is clear and perceptive and very fluid. This story is told through the eyes of a very young first-person narrator, a young man whose observational powers and imagination are clearly complementary to his passions: investigating a prowler and recording his thoughts in a dog-eared journal.

When you're in the presence of a master storyteller, the yarn seems to transcend the boundaries of time. As I read The Shadow Year, I kept telling myself just one more chapter. An hour later I'd look over at the clock and see it was after midnight. As I said, there's a purity and cadence to the prose that is worth studying. Consider this passage:

The antenna cried mercilessly all night, and I tossed and turned, thinking of the man in the white car, my fear in the library, and spying Mrs. Hayes's tit. I could sense the evil as it crept forward day by day, dismantling my world, like a very slow explosion. I woke and slept and woke and slept, and it was still dark. The third time I awoke to the same night, I thought I heard the sound of pebbles jangling in soda cans. The plan had been to send George out after whoever it was who was taking the ladder, but I didn't move, save to curl up into a ball.

Ford tells a story of a year in the life of a boy, but this is no ordinary life. The tale is filled with ghosts and villains--both of this world and outside of it. The whole thing is draped in a palpable quality of menace, a sense of dread that seems to come off the pages in waves.

The piece moves well and is a satisfying overall read. This book, and American Gods, are the best of what I've read in the long form this year.

Here is Jeffery Ford's blog. Pay him a visit and read his novels and short stories. You'll thank yourself for the investment.

11.04.2008

Editorial Ass--A Light in Dark Places

Writing can be a bit of a slog. You know it and I know it. Sure, when things are going well it can feel transcendent. It makes the days seem brighter.

But there are dark days also. There are the days of waiting. The days of revision. The expiration days, when a story finally shrivels on the branch and passes into the ether.

There are the rejections. There's that damned blogosphere and all of the snarky comments on the intertrons.

There are the naysayers, shouting from the rooftops about the death of one of the world's most vital technologies: the book.

We have the queries and the proposals and those danged synopses.

It's a lot to consider, and that's all before you find a home for your writing project.

Whenever I need a brace against all the work that accompanies the joy of writing, I visit this blog. That's right, it's called Editorial Ass. Don't worry, it's safe to look at in the workplace.

Moonrat's website is truly a beacon in the sea of information that is the world of publishing.

She's an entertaining writer with a lively voice. She's a stern educator on publishing industry standards. She's generous with her time and with her opinions, and she's passionate about promoting literacy and an appreciation for books.

I'm impressed with the attention and support she provides to her clients. One of the common complaints about the publishing industry is that editors no longer labor over the books they purchase. Just a few minutes on Moonrat's website shoot that myth to pieces.

If you've written a novel and you're serious about pursuing publication, check in at Editorial Ass and educate yourself. You'll find yourself in the company of a fine group of supportive working writers, and it won't be long at all until you think of yourself as part of the editorial mischief.

Happy Second Anniversary, Moonrat!

10.30.2008

Market Update and Horror Theme Goodness

Sotto Voce is an intriguing zine. A new market, Issue One went live last week and I've been picking through the substantial index of offerings for a few days now. I encourage you to read some of the short fiction and poetry here and participate in the voting for the annual print anthology that the magazine will run.

I thought Nannette Croce's "The Foundations of Churchill" was particularly well written. Croce's atmospheric piece is a commentary on the shifting nature of safety and security in America. It's well paced and the narrator is perceptive, if a little ineffectual.

Also, I visited the horror section of the video store today and a question occurred to me: What's the creepiest original score out there in the world of cinema?

How about this one?



I don't care how much they bug me, I won't let our children join a creepy choir...

Or maybe this one?



What about this beauty?



Yeah! Here's another:



Of course, this is maybe the gold standard:



Any thoughts?


EDIT:

Whoa! Play them all at once and let it rip. That's...well, that's weird.

10.25.2008

A Treasury of Gems and Zircons

Jeanne and I hit a matinee yesterday of Quarantine. While waiting in line to pay $20.00 (!) for a 4:20 showing (since when did they make 4:00 the cut-off?), I realized I'd seen many of the films on the digital marquee. And that they'd been, for the most part, wholly pedestrian. And also that it had really been some time since I left a theater feeling as though I'd seen something even remotely resonant.

You ever feel that way?

Well, here's a short summary of the stuff I've seen in the last few weeks. Probably more tricks in this bunch than treats.

Quarantine

Grade: B-


John Erick Dowdle's film is a series of hits and misses. He wins points for building the pathos early in the piece. I enjoyed the exposition in the first twenty minutes and the chemistry shared between horror standards Jay Hernandez and Jennifer Carpenter. The hand-held camera lent a layer of authenticity to these scenes and the first act does a fine enough job in both establishing our central protagonists and asking us to care about them at least a little.

The L.A. apartment building itself is rendered well here. I could see this as an attraction down in Orlando in a few years for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. It's an old building with strange architectural signatures. The rooms are dimly lit and cloaked in shadow, the corners of each dripping with menace. There's a scene where Hernandez's character Jake has to break down a door, and you just don't want him to do it. Pandora's box and all that.

He finds a monster on the other side. An old lady named Mrs. Espinoza who, given her advanced age, should be a docile subject to deal with. But not this one. She's wearing a bib of blood on her nightgown like she just sucked down a baby deer at a New England lobster boil. Lady is seriously messed up, and she's got a set of choppers on her.

The story unravels when all hell breaks loose. In the second act, the piece devolves into a standard "pick-'em-off" fright fest and most of the decisions that are made by the living are questionable, at best. It falls prey to one of my most despised zombie-movie cliches--people standing near windows and thinking they're safe. Come on people!

There are two or three genuinely scary moments in this film. And I applaud our cameraman, Scott, for his use of the tools of his trade. Very innovative approach to zombie control, and I love his compulsive wiping of the lens when he's done.

That said, it end abruptly and with only a few clues (Armageddon Virus--watch out, ya'll!) to the real story at the center of the film. It's an interesting vignette, though, that is worth it on DVD. Which brings us to:
Body of Lies

Grade: C+




Leo DiCaprio can act, and he's pretty good in this film. As Roger Ferris, he runs circles around a dumpy Russell Crowe here, which was more than a little surprising. This film starts off with a bang, and if Ridley Scott had let it play out in the trenches and ditched the loves story, he might have had something special here.

Ferris is the man in the streets for the CIA in Jordan. He's mining his contacts and monitoring the terrorist safe houses. Much of the technology here is neat to look at, but doesn't add a lick to the storytelling. In fact, this piece is at its best when the actors get a chance to emote. Mark Strong steals a few scenes here as Jordanian security czar Hani, and he and DiCaprio share some good moments on screen.

There is a cracker jack car chase and an RPG explosion sequence that are pretty amazing. I don't know how Scott got that footage, but it's a triumph, to be sure. Otherwise, it's a film without a definitive political message. It's a vehicle with too many distractions (the afore-mentioned love story among them) and not enough character development for our bad guys to make us care much in the climax. I mean, Omar Sadiki is a bad guy who earned a graduate degree here, in America. Dude is freaking Tarheel, for heaven's sake! Why not spend more time on him? The pay-off would have been much better.

Oh, and the payoff? (Spoiler alert!) America runs to the rescue at the last minute. Just like in The Kingdom. Just like in every other Hollywood vehicle. But what happens in real life?

People perish, and the footage ends up on the internet. I thought Scott was going to depict that in the conclusion, and the film would have had more credibility (it's sad to say) in that event.

All in all, catch it on DVD for Leo's performance. He's very good here. Which leads me too...

W

Grade: B-




Jeanne didn't like this movie at all. I was slightly more charitable, because I went in understanding that Oliver Stone probably couldn't eat a salad in under two hours. The man's movies are slow--he has a deliberate pace to his films, and he builds toward the pay-off with care.

I was surprised here. Stone was sympathetic toward George W., portraying him as an ambitious dolt with single-minded determination to win Daddy's approval (apparently Jeb is the Golden Boy--sheesh!).

Josh Brolin is so good here. It really makes me want to run out and rent this gem. This, my friends, is a great film. Brolin plays this role with such an uncanny presence. I mean, we've seen George W. on television for eight years. Like him or hate him, we certainly all know him. And Brolin inhabits him. It's eerie.

Stone flogs a Robin Hood and his Merry Men comparison for all it's worth here, and Bush's cronies come off looking bad. Cheney (played impeccably by Richard Dreyfuss) is evil in the flesh. Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a dangerous man whose war-room input put America in Iraq. And Thandie Newton is barely recognizable here as Condie Rice. And she does a bad job. I have a hard time believing Rice is such a sycophant. Again, I only see what the spinmasters show us, though.

Over a dozen people got up and left the movie. Most of them left just after the recreation of a 2004 address where Bush said we'd be out of Iraq in the Spring of 2005. In a military city that has seen its share of casualties, many here are sick of the Iraq conflict. I think that clip on the screen might have been too much for them to digest.

That, or it was just too long.

It's worth a look in the theaters and I think I'll probably enjoy it more with age. Oh, and I do appreciate Stone's most obvious metaphor--Bush as a baseball player. He does a masterful job of setting that up, and it makes the conclusion all the more impactful.

Lakewood Terrace

Grade: B
This movie is about obsession, not racial tension. Samuel Jackson is excellent here. He plays a driven father and widower. His wife died in the presence of a white man (her boss), and Jackson's Abel Turner has (despite no other plot clues pointing to this) assumed that the two were having an affair.
His wife was a black woman and her boss was a white man. There's the obsession. Turner postulates that interracial relationships aren't natural and, when white Chris (Patrick Wilson) and black Lisa (Kerry Washington) move in next door, he immediately grows cool toward the couple.
This movie is about conflict, and no one does that better than Jackson. He capers and sneers his way through the scenes here, but underrated director Neil LaBute also gives him a chance to show his good qualities. He is a good father, and he is a good provider. Unfortunately, he's also a sociopath and his law enforcement methods are questionable at best.
Abel and Chris go back and forth, one-upping each other in terms of aggression. Abel has security lights that keep the Mattsons up at night, so Chris installs brighter ones. It goes on and on, and it's uncomfortable to watch.
The plot gets a little convoluted in the third act, but it still is satisfying and, given what we know about Turner, plausible. I liked this one. I think it has a lot to recommend it.
Whew! Done. Sorry about the long post. But all this has done has made me pose the question: Is there anything worth seeing out there?

10.22.2008

Pa! Bring 'dat 'dere lingo!

We read "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor's ode to violence, in literature class yesterday. As part of the discussion, I read a few passages from a letter that O'Connor presented as part of a lecture to a group of students at Hollins College.

I'm paraphrasing, but in the letter she mentions that the capacity to commit violent acts against others is one of the truest qualities we possess. She writes that moments of senseless, explicit violence reveal our truest, most authentic selves more than almost anything else in life.

That's no epiphany, of course. O'Connor's sentiment forms the narrative essence of Fight Club. It's there in Faulkner's work--in Carver's work.

But her thoughts on the subject were interesting and certainly worth getting a look at if you're working on a piece that has violence at its center (in terms of theme, and not mere plotting).

But actually, I'm writing this post about replicating authentic dialogue. In O'Connor's story, the antagonist is a murderer called "The Misfit." He waxes philosophical in a couple of sections and O'Connor paints him with some broad linguistic strokes:

"I was a gospel singer for a while," The Misfit said. "I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet," and he looked up at the children's mother and the little girl who were sitting close together, their faces white and their eyes glassy; "I even seen a woman flogged," he said.

Considered a master of the Southern Gothic, O'Connor's got her phrasing down pat, but it becomes distracting in spots. I think there's a very fine line between believable and over-the-top on this subject.

Sometimes, King's folksy Maine feels spot on (Bag of Bones and "Rainy Season" come to mind), but other times it's too much ("It Grows on You" and "Home Delivery").

There are some unique speech patterns in Oregon that have found their way into my work. But, more often than not, I find myself pruning the "pert nears" and "up tos" in the revision process.

Composition theory question: How much is too much when it comes to replicating speech?

10.20.2008

Simultaneous Submissions and Confederate Ghosts


This has been the busiest year for me in terms of submitting short fiction. I've written eleven stories since last Christmas break. Although part of me is tempted to flood the marketplace and wait for bites, I've developed a rotation of a dozen or so magazines (depending on genre) that pay semi-professional and professional rates. I've chosen these markets as a result of a number of things: quality, longevity, diversity in authors, professionalism and pay rates.

Here, by the way, are the two best resources I've found for up-to-date market postings:


About half of these magazines don't accept simultaneous submissions, and I've been careful to observe that stipulation. I've read in the blogotron that lots of writers look the other way on this rule. They flood the market and beg forgiveness later. And, while it can feel like a long time to wait (I'm mired in a seven-month wait from an admirable market--the piece was passed up the food chain, and I'm going to put it back out there the day after Halloween), I don't want to tick off any editors.

I've read that's a naive position to take. I've read that editors abuse writers, so why shouldn't it be a two-way street?

Simple: professionalism.

These people work long hours, and the great majority of these magazines are born out of a simple love for speculative fiction. I don't know how much they make in their positions, but I know Cemetery Dance receives over 500 manuscripts per month. I imagine those numbers are similar for Weird Tales and much higher for Fantasy & Science Fiction. That's a lot to consider.

But I suppose I observe the simultaneous submissions policy for two reasons:


  • I want to work with these people for the long term. I want them to understand that I respect them and their business.

  • It keeps me writing. I had a dilly of an idea today on a jog, and I'll get to work on it soon. Eleven short stories hardly qualifies as prolific, but I'm spending a lot of time with a novel as well.

So what do any active submitters feel about the policy? Any opinions, one way or the other? Any awkward stories out there?

As an aside, the heat has finally broken out here on the peninsula. We had cool air and low humidity, and I jogged out to the Round Marsh. And you know, when it cools down like this in October and the smell of woodsmoke is thick on the air, you can almost see the Confederate Ghosts in the mangrove swamps, slogging through the muck on their futile mission.

Look closely. They may not be dressed in Confederate greys where you are, but America is filled with ghosts and this is their busy season...

10.16.2008

Cinematic Torture


We go to the movies to enjoy a few hours of escape. We go to the movies to appreciate art, to be moved by talented actors and photographers and composers to experience a range of emotion. We go for the purpose of education, and we go to experience the surreal.

And, as Stephen King posits in his instructive essay "Why We Crave Horror Movies," we go to the movies to enjoy an outlet for anti-social behavior. We go, as King puts it, to keep the gators in the back of our individual psyches fed.

Most of you probably wouldn't call Eli Roth's film Hostel a masterpiece. I certainly wouldn't. But it's more than serviceable as a revenge film and, with it's over-the-top nudity and violence, satisfies a pattern of recent horror-film production values that compels audiences to look at genre films over and over again.

This, by the way, is not a good thing. We watched The Exorcist this week in my film criticism class, and it really illustrates the fact that what we're getting in the last decade from Hollywood simply doesn't measure up. We'll chat about the mastery of Friedkin's finest in a separate post, but there have been very few films that come close to it in the last thirty-five years. Poltergeist, Jaws, Rosemary's Baby...all of these films are infinitely better than The Grudge, Hostel, Saw and their ilk.

But a comment from a man who knows his ways around the labyrinth of American movies was lodged on my post on The Serpent and the Rainbow. It's interesting food for thought, and Ryan Pence raises a heck of an interesting discussion.
What is the best torture scene you've ever seen in a movie?

Let's set some ground rules. No referencing The Passion of the Christ. Sorry, but we don't need to turn this into a religious battle. There are plenty of blogs out there where you can wage that particular war.

Here's a good one:



Deliverance (1972)

How about this one?



Reservoir Dogs (1992)

This movie had a brutal scene last year. Here's a famous one also:




Pulp Fiction (1993)

Here's my vote. If you haven't seen Audition, you have some 'splaining to do!


So let's have it. What's the worst single torture scene of all time? Which one makes your skin crawl? Which makes you look the other way?

10.13.2008

Proof Positive that there's a Market for Each of us!


I love the library. It's just very fertile territory for people watching. I eavesdropped intently as a couple of men, one of them rocking a full Santa beard and wide-brimmed farming hat, passionately agreed that Rush Limbaugh would make a helluva U.S. president and that he'd show that John McCain what for if he only had the GOP nomination on his side.

And I watched an older woman saunter over to the "held" items and hunt for her request. She carefully unwrapped the book, put the paper and rubber band in the appropriate recycling bins and then cracked a radiant smile at her treasure.
I can just see her now. The reading glasses have slid down the slope of her nose. She carefully licks her thumb every time she turns the page, twirling and tumbling into the fascinating life of one of contemporary popular culture's bastard children.
Ok, enough of that. I picked up the new Jeffrey Ford and Jason Pinter novels, in case anyone's curious. Pretty exciting stuff.
But speaking about reading tastes, I subscribe to the three magazines above. I like them all. I'll renew them in '09. The writing in One Story is consistently strong. Cemetery Dance is my favorite magazine. Its pages are filled with great original fiction, industry news and informative book reviews. And Weird Tales has more than met my expectations for an interesting read. The contents are varied, the tales well written. I'd like to spice things up a bit, maybe add another market to the fold.
So let me ask: any suggestions? Can you think of any must-read small-press publications out there that are screaming for a readership? Post some suggestions in the comments section, if you would...

10.11.2008

The Serpent and the Rainbow

In this, the season of those who won't stay buried, let's not overlook our Caribbean zombies and their contributions to the cannon of speculative storytelling.

Sure, Romero's shuffling horde has its charms. They're relentless and single-minded. They look much scarier. They tend to move in packs and I love the groans.

And you don't feel quite so bad about offing them as you would one of the true zombies of Haitian lore. These zombies, whose souls have been captured in the interests of politics, greed and personal vendettas, maintain a semblance of who they were in life. Relegated to slavery, these tortured individuals must do the bidding of the bokors who have corrupted them.

This is the central plot device in The Serpent and the Rainbow. It's a nifty little film, and Wes Craven's debut at the helm. The piece features a young Bill Pullman, full of piss and vinegar as he scours the island for a bokor (played engagingly here by Brent Jennings) who helps him attain the coup padre (zombie powder) to bring back to the states for medical testing.

The film has a creepy undertone, and Craven shoots the exotic Haitian culture with obvious delight, lingering on the Carnivalesque pageantry of the natives. There are glass eaters. Fire eaters. Human pin cushions. Possessed inmates in an insane asylum.

The film began shooting on the island of Haiti, but when political unrest threatened its production, the principals moved it to the Dominican Republic to wrap. Whatever the case, the setting is pretty in many of the shots. Craven does a nice job of making the environment stand up here as a strong aspect of the storytelling.

The effects are ok. Craven intersperses dream sequences with the residual hallucinatory effects of Pullman's Dr. Alan, who is pursued by a grotesque corpse in an old wedding dress. She creeps into his dreams, spewing a python from her decaying jaw in one chill-inducing shot.

Dr. Alan falls for Haitian doctor Marielle Duchamp. This romance brings him back to the island, despite a local general's warnings to stay away. It's here that Craven's film gets a little interesting. It dabbles, briefly, with Haiti's long history of political corruption and turmoil.

Zakes Mokae plays General Dargent Peytraud. He's impossible not to watch, stealing every scene he's in here. Those eyes! Dude might want to pop them back in his skull when he's done with a shot.

But it's a good little horror film. It's draped in mystery and menace, and although there are some corny moments, it definitely deserves a place in the discussion for inclusion in the pantheon of influential American zombie movies.

Run out and rent it, but don't let anyone blow that coup padre in your face, man. As Louis Mozart so eloquently puts it, "There are no second chances."

10.09.2008

Writing to Holidays/Themes: Halloween

This is the best month of the year. I love the cooling weather and the scent of woodsmoke drifting on the air. I love the long blocks of classic weird television shows that seem to run at all hours on Sci-fi and Chiller.

You get your Tales from the Darkside. You get your Monsters. Of course we get treated to scads of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.

By the way, I really enjoyed the mid-'80s run of The Twilight Zone. I have a dozen copies of the magazine and I recently re-watched all of the episodes from that short run. The directors were eclectic and talented, and the stories in that period slanted decidedly more toward horror tales. I think they are well worth another look for those of you with Net Flix or Blockbuster Online accounts.

I love the influx of horror films (I have high hopes for Quarantine, though I probably shouldn't). I love the perfectly timed release of anthologies and novels in the genre. And I love the ubiquitous Halloween-themed issues of speculative magazines.

I love rooms of the undead nonchalantly munching on human forearms.

I eagerly await the fall issue of Cemetery Dance over at the college. It's always packed with six or eight top-quality horror yarns. I'll keep an eye out for Arkham Tales and Electric Spec, a couple of online magazines that promise to serve up tales of the macabre right around my favorite holiday (how nice is it that Halloween is on a Friday this year?).

So I think it's pretty interesting that lots of these magazines call for submissions early in the summer. The lead time is usually late August or early September. The guidelines always ask for Halloween-themed stories, but that's pretty vague, of course. So I guess the question is, what makes a great Halloween story?

Do we need witches? The occult?

How about madmen or psychos? Stormy night slasher tales?

What about ghosts and haunted houses?

When I think about the stories I like around Halloween, I think about tales that are:
  • unsettling in tone, style and theme
  • set in the fall, and which use the holiday itself as a backdrop

Bradbury (I know, I know, I like the guy--it's not a crime, folks) played on this well. In The October Country, the title is more than just an orientation point. It is, literally, the setting for a number of the stories.

King has written a number of memorable Halloween stories, and I'll put Champion Joe Lansdale up there with the best of 'em. I'll toss the question out there if anyone is inclined to mull it out loud here: what makes a good Halloween story?

10.06.2008

Beware the Dusty Hitchhiker

My speculative tale "Dust Country" is now up on the zine Residential Aliens. I wrote this one a while back after travelling through some of the most desolate country I've ever encountered. The southeastern corner of Oregon can get a little intimidating. You can drive for hours on some of those roads around Lakeview without seeing another soul out there.

Special thanks to Lyn Perry for publishing my story.

I hope to have some very good news (I don't want to jinx it) for all of you soon about a number of projects that have garnered some flattering attention. I'll have more updates later in the fall.

As always, I appreciate all of you reading and, if you feel so inclined, please drop me a note on "Dust Country."

10.03.2008

I Dare You to Eat the Swamp Platter


I'm going to try to talk Jeanne into eating here. If it has a heartbeat, they'll cook it. Hell, I don't think it even needs a heartbeat. That menu is hoot. Check out the swamp platter...

10.02.2008

Book Review: I, the Jury


I, the Jury was purportedly written in nineteen days. On a whim, Mickey Spillane sent the piece off to E.P. Dutton. Between the hardcover and the paperback versions of the book, I the Jury sold better than 6.5 million copies in the United States.


Mickey Spillane made his fortune, and the world was introduced to Mike Hammer.


Spillane is natural storyteller, and I think he definitely improved with age. I haven't read his full catalogue, but I've read the majority of his novels. I think he was going places late in his career that were really satisfying, and far more substantial in terms of language and narrative structure. Something's Down There is probably my favorite of his novels, and just the thought of that slipstream beauty makes me want to re-read it.
And I can see why contemporary audiences were so taken with Mike Hammer and I, the Jury. Hammer is a results-driven skull buster with a serious reservoir of passion in his gut. His moral compass swings wildly, given his circumstances and mood, and he's a total creature of impulse. All that said, Spillane gives him a softer edge as well. There's a humanity to Hammer that endears him to the audience and helps us look the other way when he's torturing rats for cheese.
I'm sure contemporary audiences loved the language here as well. It's so riddled with noirish jargon that it reads like a popular dictionary from the late '40s. Some of it's cool; most of it's comical to the point of distraction.
As an aside, I think this is an interesting point that we'll discuss another day: how much is too much when it comes to popular language and cultural references? I think, in the field of YA literature, in particular, there's a place for it, but it can dominate the prose some times to damaging effect.
Ok, so the language is a bit antiquated, but Spillane makes up with that in a plot that drives Hammer on a mission, hell-bent for justice for his slain friend, Jack. Outside of the fact that Hammer never sleeps, Spillane connects the dots well here and constructs a plausible mystery. Hammer goes from mansion to flophouse and back again, smashing jerks and flushing dames from every bush. He's good, kid. You'd do well not to mess with him.
I, the Jury is ok. I'd rate it a B-. It's probably there on the recommended reading list for influential mystery writing of the twentieth century (a genre upon which I'm woefully ignorant), and you won't waste your time to give it a look if that's your thing. But look at some of his later stuff also. You might be shocked by the difference.
Tomorrow we'll chat about Lakeview Terrace...