Dark Places: Empty Auditoriums

We had our annual college-wide communications last week at the college (we're now a four-year state college, by the way!) and I was struck by the ominous feeling I always encounter in empty auditoriums. In our case, we've always met in the bleachers of a rehearsal stage in the supposedly haunted Wilson Center for the Arts.

Why do empty auditoriums tickle the old fright instincts in me? I suppose it's a couple of things. It's the odd juxtaposition of the absence of vitality in a place designed, by natural right, to be bursting with it. It's the echo of footfalls against the high ceilings and the shadows of scaffolding and set design, thrown at odd angles against the walls.

It's also the idea of masquerade. It's the fact that, even when filled with people, the natural paradigm of dramatic theatre is to lie, to be something one is not, if only for just a little while. Sure, there's freedom in that idea. But there's more than a little menace too, I think.

At any rate, like abandoned sheds and attics and closets and pools of open water and shuttered houses and dark tracts of woods, empty auditoriums are yet another place that kind of freak me out a little bit...


Navigating Narrative

This post's moniker, outside of being a pretty nifty title for a text on creative writing, accurately articulates my view of writing fiction. While Stephen King makes the analogy of discovery, comparing fiction writing to unearthing fossils, I've always thought of it as walking the path, both wary and eager for the forks that lie ahead.

Bearing in mind that ever-useful discussion of exposition, complication, crisis, climax and resolution, I feel like a I turned the corner on the novel I'm writing this wekk. I'm heading into the third act and, at about 50,000 words as it stands, that feels about right for draft zero.

I spent February creating character sketches, considering setting, writing about twenty pages in notes on how I wanted the story to unfold. In March, I set to it and began drafting. Despite the usual plotting insecurities, I think it's turning into a wonderful yarn.

This is my first first-person narrative (that's an awkward construction, eh?) in the long form, and it just feels more natural. I was initially reticent about composing in the first person, not because I don't enjoy reading it, but it felt a little...well, presumptuous.

But I'm glad I took that chance with this project. It moves better than my previous two long works (third person), and it feels crisper and more accessible.

I think draft zero will check in at around 75,000-80,000 words. That's an ok figure to begin with. Then, the real work begins when I run through it again.

There's an old saw in the writing community about the third novel being the breakthrough tale. Here's to hoping there's a kernel of truth in those old axioms...


District 9

So I've been thinking a lot about the movies. Since my folks took me to pictures like The Goonies, Ghostbusters and Superman, I've had a fascination with the moving picture. I like everything about experiencing good visual storytelling on a huge screen. I love the campy promotional cartoons and I've even grown fond of watching the trailers.
I've missed going, let me tell you.
Lyla is the greatest gift we ever could receive, but I won't deny the fact that, when Friday night rolls around, true north in my internal compass is the Regency 24 on Monument Road. For five months we've plied ourselves with copious amounts of Blockbuster rentals. It's been ok, and I've actually probably increased my film viewing, if anything.
But nothing beats being there, and that's where Autumn comes in. That's right, we found a babysitter!
So the next issue was, which film would break the five-month seal? What if we had a lapse in judgment and found ourselves in the equivalent of Beverly Hills Chihuahua?
Thankfully, that awkward situation was avoided when we decided to see District 9. Smart, energetic and wholly compelling, this film was a great reintroduction to our native habitat.
South African Neill Blomkamp co-writes and directs this speculative tale of discrimination and segregation. The premise: for thirty years an alien ship has been stalled above Jo'burg, South Africa (setting=symbolism here, of course). The aliens, dubbed "prawns" because of their frightening appearance, are loathed in South African culture. Segregated to District 9, they are bullied by the government, preyed upon by parasitic Nigerian thugs and generally despised by ordinary citizens.
It's a classic esoteric/exoteric social dynamic.
It's really two films in one: a mockumentary and a straight-ahead Hollywood action thriller. The exposition unfolds with "experts" on the prawn problem. That style of film making works best in the chronicling of the tale's reluctant anti-hero, Sharlto Copley's Wikus Van De Merwe.
Make no mistake, Copley is this film. As a mild-mannered, likable government patsy, he gets the untenable job of collecting alien signatures when the government proposes the relocation of 1.8 million prawns. He does it ernestly, until he becomes infected.
As he begins the transformation into a prawn himself, his attitude slowly shifts (in one horrible scene, he shouts happily as government agents "abort" prawn children with a flame thrower). But, after being forced to literally walk a mile in the prawns' shoes, he sees things differently. His redemption is complete in the third act, but Blomkamp wisely spells out the inevitable sequel. District 10 will be much anticipated.
The story excels on almost every level. The action is superb, the plotting is crisp and the writing is smart. It moves well, and the action sequences are nicely done. There are a few white-knuckle moments here.
But the piece is a success (B+) because of Copley. I've been running a few of Wikus's choicer lines through my head over the last few days; he's just so darn likable that this film ultimately succeeds because of Copley's portrayal.
This movie was excellent, and I have to say that the trailers caught my attention as well. Surrogates, 9 and Shutter Island all made my list, along with 2012, of course.
Oh, and speaking of signs of the apocalypse--we had a short talk today about the college's still-in-the-works protocol for the H1N1 Virus. Wow.



Finished the first draft of my scholarly explication on American narratives of the apocalypse. Seventeen pages, eighteen sources and lots of speculative goodness. I referenced:
  • The Day After Tomorrow
  • The Road
  • Escape from New York
  • High Rise
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Land of the Dead
  • "Pump Six"
  • "Bread and Bombs"
  • "The Mist"
  • "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

I'm missing a bunch, but it turned into a good look at the sub-genre. I also used about a half-dozen attendant reviews and biographies. It's a solid read and, if I can't place it with a couple of the markets I'm targeting for publication, I'll put it on Scribd and get it up here at the blog. It's been a lot of fun.

Big scene tomorrow in the piece I'm writing (Dan does ol' school calisthenics); wish me luck...


The Sound of Crickets on the Breeze

Florida's filled with night-time sounds. From screaming cicadas to the lullaby lilt of whip-poor-wills, the peninsula has its own beautiful midnight sonata.

Which makes me feel bad that there are so many crickets chirping around these parts.

My lack of attention, dear blog and faithful readers, pains me.

I enjoy talking fiction and storytelling and news stories and life, but all those things have conspired against me of late when it comes to spare time, I'm afraid. I've been writing fiction lately, pouring myself into a project that is strongly straddling the border between classic noir and fantasy. Call it spec-noir with a side of horror and that's about it. A crazy salad, to be sure...

Work is cranking. With a full-time summer schedule and this being finals week, I feel like I'm stealing time even writing this. Add to the workload all the rigors of putting together a competitive packet for potential admission to a great graduate school and I'm treading water.

Plus, I'm blessed with a pair of amazing ladies. I don't do much in the evenings but spend time with Lyla and my patient and wonderful wife, Jeanne.

No more belly-aching about my lack of inattention at the blog, though. I wanted to share with you three fantastic speculative tales that I've looked at recently that deal with apocalyptic narratives of confinement.

I've written in the past about the superb novel High Rise. J.G. Ballard's 1975 look at technology, community and devolution is a caustic and turbulent narrative--a "not-so-nice" tale of how our perception of utopia is ultimately a facade.

How about Stephen King's 1980 novella "The Mist"? I love that the surviving protagonists are sequestered in one of modern culture's safest and, typically, most sanitary places: a modern grocery store. King's piece is an indictment of both formal religion and nuclear testing, all set against a backdrop as accessible as the corner store.

The third in this trilogy of apocalyptic isolation is George Romero's underrated 2005 film Land of the Dead. This film provides the most explicit form of isolation--living, wealthy survivors spend their time and money in a high rise (huh, right?) fortified by walls and razor wire. They have access to the same goods that were popular before the apocalypse, spoils of expensive raids in the zombie territories, at exorbitant prices.

But they're willing to pay. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Meanwhile, outside the high rise, poor normals struggle in a life whose economy has unalterably shifted in the face of the zombie dilemma.

These are three awesome tales. You could do a heck of a lot worse in a weekend than knocking them out back-to-back-to-back...


The Graduate Student

I'd like to thank Kevin Colligan, editor at Well Told Tales, for producing my story "The Graduate Student." Thanks also to Bryan Robinson for his fine performance of the tale.


Finding Inspiration

It's funny where inspiration comes from. I recently asked my students to write on the topic and the answers ran the gamut. They wrote about music, family, weather, heartache, adversity, tragedy and triumph. They wrote about soccer coaches and piano teachers and single mothers and superheroes. They wrote about clouds and oceans and mountains and various gods and faiths.

It was a neat assignment, both for them and for me.

I started to think about the stuff I've been writing lately and it occurred to me that I find inspiration in life's oddities. I see it in the one boat leaning hard while all the others are moored perfectly upright. I see it in the aisle of cheap plastic novelty toys--rubber dog shit and joy buzzers and phony x-ray glasses--in the back of the corner gas station. I see inspiration in the folktales of mermaids that haunt the springs that meander through Central Florida and in the roadside fruit shacks and barbecue joints that mark time on our state's back roads.

I recently began to get a series of strange charts and graphs in my campus mailbox. They were odd because the legends for these charts and graphs never identified what was being measured; there was no identifying information about where they came from.

It was odd, but I'm glad they showed up (and I eventually found their origin). I wrote a story about it, and I think it's pretty good. We'll see how it turns out.

I would have been pleased as punch if I kept getting those bizarre charts and graphs. Sometimes, a little mystery in life is the greatest source of inspiration.

So I'll put it out there: Where do you find inspiration?


A Stone Hit Her on the Side of the Head...

They gathered on the dunes every August 10th, forever mindful of the power of tradition.
And when Allana drew the yellow bathing suit, she didn't complain.

"It isn't right, it isn't fair," the rest of the ladies lamented, but it didn't matter, for soon Allana was upon them.


Pac-10 Preview

The Pac-10 had its media days last week and, to no one's surprise, the USC Trojans were picked to finish first in the conference this year.

I can't fault the logic on that one; Pete Carroll tends to reload every year on the recruiting trail, and he certainly knows how to coach those boys up. But, without further adieu:

1) Oregon: This team is stacked. Jeremiah Masoli, Ed Dickson, Jamere Holland, Diante Jackson, LaMichael James, Tyrece Gaines, LaGarrette Blount, Andre Crenshaw--this offense is a powder keg waiting to blow. But the Ducks schedule tough, and this year they go to Boise for a HUGE matchup right out of the gate (September 3). They also play Purdue and Utah at home. That home schedule is this team's saving grace, as Autzen is one of the loudest, hardest places for opposing teams to play in the country. Playing on the turf in Boise is no easy feat but the Ducks are hungry for revenge after losing last year at Autzen. If the defense can force turnovers this year and hand off to the offense, this team will be very good. Prediction: 11-1, the lone loss coming at Arizona. The Ducks win the conference and make a bid for a BCS title in 2009/10. Mark it down, folks...you heard it here.

2) USC: It won't be all that easy this year. Mark Sanchez takes his talents to New York and last year's punishing defense is depleted by substantial losses at linebacker. The Trojans' first big test will come at The Horseshoe on September 12, when they no doubt paste another overrated Ohio State squad. The men of Troy should be 4-0 when they cruise into Strawberry Canyon for a battle with Cal (#2 in the media poll). I think they win that game and get to 7-0 before they travel north to do battle with Oregon at Autzen on Halloween. Prediction: 10-2, with losses to Oregon and UCLA...

3) UCLA: As much as I dislike Rick Neuheisel, I have to admit that he gets results. Year three of his hand at the controls of his alma mater will be a good one. Ambitious scheduling should boost the Bruins' profile and I think this year we see big steps on the offensive side of the ball. Not happy about the preseason poll, this team will be playing with a chip on its shoulder, which doesn't bode well for Lane Kiffin and Tennessee when the Bruins head east to smack the Vols. Prediction: 9-3 with losses at Oregon State and Stanford and at home vs. Kansas State.

4) Cal: Jeff Tedford is a nice guy but his teams have stalled out in terms of progress. His QB, Kevin Riley, is inconsistent and prone to prolonged slumps and, while Jahvid Best is a beast, until Riley can make teams pay, he'll take a pounding this year as teams load up against him. That said, the Bears will get a game Maryland team at home and make a little noise on the road this year to finish a little lower than where the pundits pegged them. Prediction: 9-3, with losses to Oregon, USC and Stanford.

5) Oregon State: Mike Riley's team is well coached but he simply lacks a playmaker at the quarterback position. This team will tumble a bit this year as both Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao struggle to move the ball through the air. The Rodgers brothers are dynamic but have yet to prove they can remain on the field late in the year, when the battle for the conference heats up. Prediction: 8-4, with losses to Oregon, USC, Cincinnati and Cal.

6) Stanford: Toby Gerhart is a stud (just ask the Oregon State Beavers) and Jim Harbaugh is well on his way to turning this thing around. I think Stanford will be a major player on the national stage again in college football within the next five years. The team is trending upward and it plays a favorable schedule in '09. Prediction: 8-4, with losses to Oregon, USC, Cal and Oregon State.

7) Arizona State: It's hard for me to write this with ol' Dennis Erickson down there in Tempe, but this team seems to lack an identity. They always seem to reach up and sting someone, and they tend to come from the weeds every third year or so to win nine or ten games. That said, I don't think this is their year. Prediction: They roll into Georgia 2-0 and get smacked in Athens, then lose to the Ducks, Trojans, Bruins, Beavs and The Cardinal to go 7-5.

8) Arizona: Mike Stoops was full of bravado and optimism at media day (show me a coach who isn't in the first week in August), but despite having a stud in huge tight end Rob Gronkowski, this team loses a leader in their quarterback Willie Tuitama. They lost that game at Central Michigan and, despite revisiting the 2007 euphoria of spoiling things for Oregon, they go 5-7 in '09.

9) Washington: New coach Steve Sarkisian will find things a little tougher on the banks of the Lake Washington than he did down at The Coliseum. Jake Locker is a great player and I love watching him on Saturdays, but this team is two or three recruiting classes away from being a winning program. I like the scheduling, but this team will lose to both LSU and Notre Dame and get kicked around the Pac-10 quite a bit. They beat Idaho and Washington State to go 2-10.

10) Washington State: These pour Cougs have lost their way. Paul Wulff has a major challenge on his hands to recruit top talent to Pullman, and this team's lack of talent was apparent on both offense and defense last year (although I watched the Apple Cup and really enjoyed it--nice work there, boys!). I think they'll win their bye week on October 17 and take out Southern Methodist at home on September 19 to go 1-11.

The Pac-10 was 5-0 in bowl games last year and put a lot of quality athletes into the draft a few months ago. Let's hope 2009/10 has all of the same drama ad success for America's premier athletic conference.



Murky Depths

Intentional or not, there is a definite thematic thread running through Murky Depths #9: The Quarterly Anthology of Graphically Dark Speculative Fiction. This fine collection of speculative fiction and graphic storytelling features many stories that delve into the artifice of humanity. The tales run the gamut in their investigation on what it means to be.

Matt Finucane's "Complaint From The Other World" is an amusing, claustrophobic and, ultimately, sad short story about a man banished to the cold confines of the wall of a nightclub. His imprisonment in the wall is the result of a falling out he has with his girlfriend, who is also caught up in a group of "cult people" (witches, essentially). I won't spoil the resolution, but it's a fine short story.

"Dead Girls: Episode 1" is an engaging look at the artificial nature of life through the eyes of a Doll, a futuristic sex toy that relies on nanotechnology for survival. Richard Calder's story seems interesting, though we're just in the exposition stage. Leonardo M. Giron's artwork is excellent--detailed and provocative. I'm looking forward to more in this serialization...

Juliet E McKenna's tale "Is This My Last Testament" is a werewolf tale with a compelling narrative style--the first-person narrator is tormented by his condition and McKenna makes him a sympathetic character straddling the line between man and beast.

Derek Cagemann's "Fast Learners" was my favorite tale in this bunch. Cagemann's voice is strong--accessible and immediate, drawing the reader into a dystopia that is redolent with grim possibilities. In this case, the issue's theme is stretched in the direction of artificial intelligence. The crux of the story--about propriety and human decency--is ironically revealed through the selfish behaviors of our disgusting antagonist, Lon, who is a human. Lon is bad news, friends, and he takes what he wants, relegating those around him--human or not--to mere objects.

This story, coupled with Nathaniel Milljour's haunting artwork, stands as an excellent allegory on how dangerous it can be to devalue our basic sense of shared humanity.

"Transported Man" is a neat story--memorable and creative. Anthony Malone's tale about the transcendent powers of the orgasm is completely tongue-in-cheek, but it also delivers a lesson: stress is relative, people. Don't sweat the small stuff!

Take a look at this prose:

Liam managed a couple of startled yells before he crashed--frantically windmilling his arms through a canopy of leaves, got his foot caught in some tangled vines, was up-ended and then dropped unceremoniously onto a carpet of rotting vegetation. Above him, between gently nodding branches, he saw a flock of parakeets scattering in an arc of blue sky. He looked to his left and noticed an army of bullet ants swarming up a twisted bough. It was like God had switched over to the Discovery Channel...Glenbuck Road was gone; in its place was endless jungle.

Neil Struthers did the accompanying (excellent) art. The look on that nun's face is priceless, let me tell you.

While these stories seem grouped under the general idea of varied definitions and interpretations of what it means to be human, the magazine also has a sense of duality. A number of these speculative stories are hilarious--there's a sense of glee and a bawdy wink in about half of them. The other side of the coin includes some brooding, almost somber tales.

The magazine, while beautifully appointed in terms of the visuals, has its flaws. There are some minor editing issues, including catchable typos on the full-color, glossy back cover. There are a few copy editing issues inside as well. Still, these are minor mistakes when factored into the overall quality and diversity of this anthology.

Editor Terry Martin is building something special at Murky Depths. If you enjoy diversity and spirit in your speculative storytelling, in addition to sharp illustrations and some keen interviews, then Murky Depths should find its way into your rotation...


20th Century Ghosts

In his introduction to Joe Hill's superior collection 20th Century Ghosts, Christopher Golden laments the fact that Hill popped up as a writer "fully formed." He marvels at Hill's maturity in tone and style and the broad scope of his thematic treatments.
He even professes in print his fleeting urge to whoop Joe's ass, the writing is that good.
We all have that feeling sometimes, don't we? I get sick with envy every time I read "The Lottery" and "The End of the Whole Mess" and "The Yellow Wallpaper." Those tales are so staggeringly rich, so perfectly balanced and formed, that it's almost depressing when you look at the blinking cursor and it's time to get some work done.
Still, as King's pop says in On Writing, we read to experience the spectrum of what's possible--both in the good and the bad.
I've written before that I usually read the collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes every year, and I think 20th Century Ghosts might be another yearly visitation as well. The collection is consistent, haunting and thoroughly memorable.
Like Golden, I really enjoyed "Pop Art," a story about the outsiders we've all known through the years. Let's face it--an inflatable life is hard. But Art makes due, managing to touch the lives of others in a way that is so sweet that the last five paragraphs constitute a textbook example in how to bring a tale to its most fruitful resolution.
"My Father's Mask" is a chilling story that takes a few days to reconcile. It's a fairy tale, but exceedingly dark. The story is about that fine line between adolescence and adulthood--about how well we really know the people in our lives who have shaped our personalities and beliefs. In many ways, it reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." The exchange with the appraiser in the third act is sad--so redolent with change and loss that you'll lament this one for just a little while.
"Voluntary Committal" goes into my all-time anthology. It's a novella about assuaging the mistakes of our youth. Consider all the things you wish you could take away: all the wrongs you've done others, all the hurt you've instilled upon those who've trusted you, all the chances you passed that you wished you'd taken. Think about all of those things and then ask yourself:
What would you change if you could go back?
For our narrator Nolan, the answer to that question rests in a sealed manila envelope in the lower right drawer of his office desk.
Hill really is an accomplished stylist. I enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box but, thus far, his best writing is illustrated in the short form.
If you're looking for inspiration of the type that stems from creative appreciation, pick up Hill's collection.

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...