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?


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


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.


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...


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?


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?


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...


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?


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...


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."


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?


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."


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...


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...


Day Baseball in America

I love day baseball.

Decades ago, men played professional baseball playoff games in the afternoon. The stadiums they played in were still largely outside the realm of corporate influence (I know, irony of ironies that the photo above is of Wrigley Field). People listened to the games on the radio.

But the nice thing about it was that kids could run home and watch the games before they had to go to sleep.

I was happy to see portions of a ballgame this afternoon. It was like seeing an old friend for an hour or so.

Sure, it wasn't on network tv; it was waaaayyyyy out there in the Yukon of satellite television (DirecTv 247, and yes, I hate that cutesy corporate spelling). Sorry if you can't afford cable or satellite. And it was so filled with commercials and sponsorships that I could never completely tune out the clutter. That stuff gets to me sometimes.

But it was still nice to think that kids might be able to look at a game. It was nice to watch all of those happy people on a three-hour vacation in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, watching a Milwaukee Brewers game, for the love of Odin, and letting all of the weight of America's present crises go for a day.

I'm excited to see Tampa's game tomorrow against the Sox. Go Rays. And I'll have to content myself with some good action until the games go to 9:30 EST starts on FOX in a few weeks and they turn the announcing duties over to the dreadful Tim McCarver.

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 you...