On the Nature of Fear

Fear is an acquired taste.

It often starts with a moment of misapprehension or an instance of disquiet. It builds slowly in one's guts and mind and heart, sometimes forming an emotion great and horrible.

Fear is that creepy house with the mangy lawn and shuttered windows and the weirdos inside who only move about at night.

Fear is the sense that you are not alone in the water, and that something large and curious is regarding you from below.

Fear is the midnight knock--the one with the terrible news on the night of your daughter's sweet sixteen birthday.

I was leaving the YMCA this afternoon in a serious Florida thunderstorm. I and others ran into the parking lot, scattering like ants in a flood while the sky filled with splinters of lightning and the percussive thunderclaps were near enough to feel on your skin.

When I got to my car safely, I sat there, dripping wet, and watched a murder of crows standing beneath a tree. It occurred to me that the things that frighten us don't scare them at all. Sure, maybe when those crows were hatchlings and heard a Florida thunderstorm for the first time, it might have scared them a little. But even then, on some fundamental level, they probably just understood the storm as nothing more than a chance to cool down and an opportunity to take a bath in thirty minutes.

Their fear, no doubt, comes in the form of that dance they do at the side of the freeway when they risk life and wing to tear into the dead armadillo on the shoulder of the road, trucks flying by at seventy miles an hour. It's there in the sly smile of the boy in the woods and the shiny stick he's shouldering that has lead to the death of all the other animals in his wake.

And for me? Well, my fear is changing as well. The other night I turned on Showtime and watched two films that really hit me on a different level: Clive Barker's The Plague and Open Water 2: Adrift.

These are 'B' movies, to be sure. They didn't make anyone's top tens; they probably both went straight to video.

But they both showed the dangers of what could happen to a parent separated from his or her child. That chilled me, and I couldn't keep myself from watching.

In Open Water 2: Adrift, a mother has fallen overboard from a luxurious yacht. She has no means to climb back to the deck, and while she treads water, her dying husband clutched in her arms, she hears her infant daughter wailing away through a baby monitor on the deck above.

As she shouts above the waves to her daughter, trying to reassure her of her closeness, it's almost too much to take.

CB's The Plague opens up with a normal child--a healthy nine-year-old on the cusp of his first day of second grade--slipping into a state of catatonia. It was another hard thing to look at.

Disconnection. Vulnerability. Isolation. These are the hallmarks of a type of fear I only understood intellectually until five months ago. Now, they seem to make things that go bump in the night look like child's play (and that's just what they are, for the most part, right?)...


Clive Barker's The Plague

This title was released back in 2006, stirring some controversy and debate in horror circles for the circuitous and, according to some, corrupted final product that Sony's Screen Gems ultimately released.
The controversy is well documented here and here.
I have to say that I was taken aback by this film a little when it popped onto Showtime last evening. Just by virtue of its straight-to-DVD status and exile to the outer bands of satellite television, my expectations had been sufficiently tempered; I was happy to find that I liked it.
It's a fight-and-run thriller whose strength lies in the first act and, while the climax was a little flat, it was still an ambitious little number with a few genuinely chilling scenes.
I think, if you get thirty minutes to read the articles about the movie in the links above, you'll see that there's more complexity to this movie than what I saw last night.
You see, I watched the producers' (fourteen of them!) cut, not the director's cut. That's the controversy--the piece making the rounds out there is a far cry from what Hal Masonberg intended.
And let me tell you, I want to see Masonberg's vision. If the framing and staging that I saw in the producers' cut is any indication, the man can build tension. Seriously, the first twenty minutes of the film had me excited.
There are any number of cautionary notes inherent in this tale of conflicted vision on the creative front--not the least of which is the one exemplified by the old adage of too many cooks in the kitchen. Whether it's bad covers on rising novels or disagreements about the extent of blood and gore in horror films, it's a sad reality that, sometimes, the things we want to create aren't always the things that find their way into the world.


Note to Self:

Matisse, Harmony in Red
Hopper, Automat

Characterization reveals irony; setting impacts mood and atmosphere, indicating tone...


The Unborn

So the latest in the stream of demonic possession films represents another squandered opportunity.

The mythology of the dybbuk seems fascinating, but writer and director David S. Goyer doesn't spend much time (the film is barely over an hour and twenty minutes long) developing the intricacies of the subject.

For a far better discussion of the topic, try this blog (scroll down for two interesting posts)...

Goyer's film is both stylish and soulless--not much more than a string of ghoulish perspective shots and obvious gotcha scares.

That said, he's got one heck of an inversion on the classic Exorcist spider-walk scene here. That one puckered the hair on the back of my arms a bit (why there are so many stairs in an old folks' home is beyond me, but we'll let it slide).

Some character development would have been nice, but I'm not convinced Odette Yustman has the chops to take advantage of backstory at this stage in her career. The potential is there, but she needs more work (her IMDB page shows some interesting projects in production, including another horror film).

Gary Oldman cashes a check here, stopping by for a few minutes in the third act.

And the story itself? Well, it's another demonic child template. Why must Satan enter the world through the legs of a mortal woman? Seriously, if Beelzebub has a thing for kids (and we're reading "The Man in the Black Suit" this week in literature class, which doesn't exactly dispel that notion), then I'm going to have to see if I can get Keanu Reeves or someone to stop by the house and play a burnt-out clergyman intent on settling old scores with the devil to bless my girl's pac'n'play.

I think the main players here can and will do better. This just felt like they were mailing it in (C-), and that's too bad. Now begins the long wait for Drag Me To Hell to make it to DVD.



My story "Revision" is now up at Brain Harvest. If you have a few moments to read it, I'd sure appreciate it.


Academic Writing

Shifting gears between writing fiction and scholarship is hard. I'm gearing up to write a scholarly article on American narratives of the apocalypse and, while I know where I want to take the piece and I have a clear notion of which resources I want to use, I'm already resisting the composition.


Well, with scholarship, the central goal is to acquaint your audience with good reasons to agree with you. Sure, there needs to be a genesis for thesis and organization, and there's creativity in that, but I've always looked at academic writing as more synthesis than initiation.

The creative burden with writing scholarship is in reasoning and advancing proof, not in building worlds and characters and driving a story through its stages.

The roads do converge at that juncture of belief, however.

Good fiction renders belief, to a degree, ineffectual to the process of understanding. What I mean is I should never have to ask why is this happening? or can this happen?

That's because good fiction insists that, like it or not, it is happening, damn it.

Belief plays a role in scholarship as well, but its power rests in selection, not creation. I mean, in a piece on the apocalypse, I'd be hard pressed to convince any rational person that the recent rash of "celebrity" deaths spelled the onset of the end times.

In the final analysis, I'm lamenting the fact that it's hard to switch hats. I know, I know--shut up and get the work done.

But for as long as I've been actively polishing my prose, I've always worked simultaneously in short and long forms. I've written a novel in each of the last three years, and I've almost always had a short story cooking at the same time. It makes it hard, but I can't imagine not doing one or the other.

That said, moving into the realm of scholarship and criticism gives me pause. Aw hell, right? Off to the library, I guess...


Zombie Madoff?

Wooh. Feels like a long time, dear blog o'mine. Sorry about the cobwebs around here, but life's been stuck in overdrive this month. Outside of the nuances of adjusting to life with a little one at home, we've had a steady stream of out-of-town company. I've been on a pair of committees at the college that have taken many hours out of the work week, and one of the terms ended at the college, which always comes with attendant grading and fresh preparation.


At any rate, I hope to get back into shape around these parts in the weeks to come. So how do we define horror? Is it the gunman who indiscriminately chooses to apply his psychosis to the fortunes of innocents? Is it the suburban vampire? The local voodoo priestess?

Is it watching your life savings dwindle in the face of wicked and deliberate fraud?

Is it the living dead, pitched up from their resting spots to slurp the brains of the living?

Perhaps it's a mixture of a couple of these elements. I'd like to thank editor N.E. Lilly for putting up my short story, "The Scheme," in which I combined a few of these elements.


"Pump Six" and "Morality"

Speculative fiction, and science fiction in particular, poses that all-important question: What if?

We briefly discussed Stephen King's short story "Night Surf" today in literature class, and a perceptive student asked a good question in light of the story's content: where does the line between science fiction and science grow blurry?

In "Night Surf," the world has been laid low by King's famous Captain Trips flu virus, the venerable A6. And while H1N1 hasn't quite been the calamity it was introduced as months ago, we've seen cycles of horrific flu strains that have killed large human populations in the past.

That question about the intersection between prose speculation and the reality of what happens on a day-to-day basis is explored to great effect in Paolo Bacigalupi's story "Pump Six." This story is about devolution. It's about living in a dystopic hell of our own creation. It's about the loss of learning and the institutions that foster creativity and intellect.

It's a hell of a cynical yarn and a truly well-written one at that.

Bacigalupi's prose style is accessible and crisp. In some passages, his ability to convey altered consciousness in noisy club is poetic:

A girl in torn knee socks and a nun's habit was mewling in the bathroom when Maggie found us and pulled us apart and took me on the floor with people walking around us and trying to use the stainless steel piss troughs, but then Max grabbed me and I couldn't tell if we'd been doing it on the bar and if that was the problem or if I was just taking a leak in the wrong place but Max kept complaining about bubbles in his gin and riot a riot a RIOT that he was going to have on his hands if these Effy freaks didn't get their liquor and he shoved me down under the bar where tubes come out of vats of gin and tonic and it was like floating inside the guts of an octopus with the waves of the kettle drums booming away above me.

That passage is so well-suited to the narrative that I recall reading it immediately twice on my first pass through the tale. Our story is told in the first person, following Travis Alvarez on his quest to keep the sewage pumps from failing and flooding the over-populated city with excrement.

The landscape is littered with subhuman groups of trogs, ape-like simpletons who roam the streets, begging and fornicating. These literal symbols of devolution show up at opportune moments to underline the story's central message: culture is breaking down.

As pump six fails, Alvarez sets out to learn about a repair. He finds that the original creators of the machine have been out of business for decades (the old saw here "They don't build them like they used to" is crucial to the story's theme), so he sets out to find some engineers to help him out. Unfortunately, Columbia University is in ruins, its smattering of privileged students just as base as the trogs humping in the alleys.

This story was chilling. A taut, tight narrative that moves well, it marks Bacigalupi as a talent to watch in the sci-fi field. His theories are not without controversy, though anyone making an argument against the dangers of global populations run amok is missing the point, I think.

Stephen King's "Morality" is another big-idea story. It plays with topics such as the relative degrees of sin, depravity and experience. It's mostly interested in toying with perceptions of internal conflict and how our actions speak for our character (both reflecting our character and revising it).

Postulate: would you punch a four-year-old in the mouth for $200,000?

Would you do it if you were broke and living in an historic recession?

Would you do it if you didn't have any job prospects?

Would you do it if you knew you wouldn't be caught?

Do any of those questions really impact your answer to the postulate?


The Signposts of Our Lives...

The passing of Michael Jackson hit me pretty hard. I remember listening to his music when we were painting the living room walls in our new house at 23 Scotland Road in Pueblo, Colorado. I remember how monotonous that task seemed back then. The walls stretched from the 9"-by-9"-inch square I was lackadaisically swishing my brush around in to Narnia.

But then Dad put the needle to the vinyl and Mike's infectious gift pulsed through those speakers. I wasn't sold on painting (show me a kid who is), but I felt the groove and the strokes were suddenly broad and high. I was painting that wall with flair, sucker, and you couldn't keep me from doing it.

Then the record was over and it was time for Mister Mister and I went back to my little square.

Mike stuck by me all through my life, and I stuck by him. I'd watched enough footage of his videos to get a feel for his style of dance, and I could do a few things. Heck, I got up in front of over a thousand people in a skit once and did "Man In the Mirror." It wasn't spot on, but it wasn't terrible either.

When our wedding DJ spun "Billy Jean," there was a panic amongst my friends and I. We hit the floor and sweated it up, pointing, gesturing, styling and generally doing it...until we couldn't...do it...any longer.

Mike had that kind of effect on most of us born before 1982. He was our legend--our warrior of cool.

Many of my younger students don't know much about him. They wonder what the hype's all about, and whether he was ever as fresh as L'il Wayne or Kanye West.

I favor them with a smile and tell them they missed what it was like to have a living, breathing spectacle in your home ten times each day (bless you, MTv).

Jackson was a humanitarian, for all of his reclusive eccentricity. He was accused of some sick stuff, but was also completely exonerated of any wrong-doing (though not without controversy and a discussion of pay-offs).

Here's where I stand on his passing: he's gone and I'm already missing him. I saw a clip tonight of footage taken forty-eight hours prior to his heart attack. Watch that and tell me, muscle memory or not, whether the man was ready to turn us all on our ear once again.

My heroes are passing, and it's hard to reconcile. I never thought we'd see Michael Jackson's artistic legacy tamped out so soon. It's hard for me to believe that now, his catalogue is finite. We'll see the late work, of course. It'll be a monster hit--maybe the biggest in the history of humanity. But there won't be anything new done next year.

That's hard.

I love Elmore Leonard. He writes like a dream and has always been consistent, even into his golden years. The same holds true for Mickey Spillane, who passed a few years back. The same holds true for the venerable Ray Bradbury, who at 89 years of age has always contributed to his chest of unforgettable art.

And I can't imagine a world in which I can't look forward to a pair of Stephen King books each year. I just can't. In nine minutes I'll retire to bed to read "Morality," and I can only say that I'm looking forward to the next third of King's prolific and creative career.

Mike, you were the best. The absolute best. May you rest in peace.

Remember When

Alas, we've had a string of visitors here in Florida of late. That, coupled with the conclusion of the first term and all its attendant grading, has led to a dearth of content around these parts. Will resume soon...

In the meantime, here's a remembrance of Papa, and a
little sentiment about the relentless passage of 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 you...