Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ghost Stories for Christmas

It's a wonderful time of year-the weather turns colder, and we all cuddle up with a nice ghost story, thinking of the chill outside as we warm ourselves by the fire. For Halloween I did a nice literary list of monsters, but at Christmas, when we're all frenzied from being pulled in a million directions, sometimes vegging out in front of a screen with a fuzzy blanket is all we want. So here it is: my Christmas gift to all of you, in no particular order, a fine collection of films that treat the traditional "ghost story" exquisitely.

Ghosthouse (1988): If you're into dolls and houses, this one has everything-weird sound effects and all.

Ghost Story (1981) : Fred Astair and an old boys' club secret? This is a slow-burner, effectively chilling and moody

"Halloa! Below there!"
Signalman (1976): Starring Denholm Elliott, this Charles Dickens adaptation is one of the best British Ghost Stories for Christmas adapted for television. You'll never look at train stations the same way again.

Woman in Black (1989): I've recommended this title before, but it really is the best of its kind. If you can get your hands on this adaptation of the Susan Hill novel, do so. But at your own peril.

The Changeling (1980): Another solid performance from George C. Scott. This one has mood and genuine scares, and should not be missed. Neither should his performance of Scrooge, but...

 Nothing says spooky like an old wheelchair, am I right? From Cryptic Rock

Mama (2013): Filmed with a modern sensibility, this ghost story still follows expected tropes, taking them to new places. A contemporary classic.

The Others (2001): /The Innocents (1961): Both based on Henry James's Turn of the Screw, and both, interestingly enough, taking a different side of the debate about the text's interpretation. Crazy governess? Ghosts? A little bit of both? You bet.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964):  Vincent Price is the perfect Christmas gift for any afficionado of the strange and macabre, especially in this Poe adaptation that plays with the author's core themes.

Ebeneezer! *Ahem* I mean, Mr. Price...A Merry Christmas to you, sir, wherever you may be.
From Scream Horror Mag

The Orphanage (2007): This movie is beautiful and sad, and another nod to my love of Spanish Gothicism, but traditional enough for all tastes, with a whistful, fairy-tale-gone-wrong theme throughout. In the extras, the director J.A. Bayona said his intention with this story was to explore what happens to the mothers of children who become part of Peter Pan's band of Lost Boys.

The Devil's Backbone (2001): You may think Guillermo del Toro and his proteges are over-represented here, but I beg to differ. It's his sensibility, you see, his passion for good old-fashioned ghost stories that he infuses with the gloomily beautiful aesthetic that only he can bring that keeps him high on the list of good Gothic.

 And I heard him exclaim, 'fore he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to All, and to all, a Good Fright!

Image result for night before christmas

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Thoughtful Surprise-Don't Breathe

I've seen plenty of home invasion movies, and some much more extreme in its violence, but there was something striking and disturbing about Don't Breathe, executed perfectly through suggestion and visual storytelling, with the production values at top notch.

Image result for don't breathe movieDon't Breathe puts a spin on the home invasion story, where the invaders - a bunch of silly teenagers looking for a way out of Detroit - very quickly fall victim to the homeowner, a blind war veteran with every reason to keep people out of his house. This twist in the narrative allows for a very interesting exploration of morality. It goes beyond being grey: it fluctuates on a scale, effected by each turn of the plot and the choices the characters make. How you felt about the film, and how justified any one character was in committing violence changed over the course of the film. That's something I haven't really seen.

The storytelling was organic. Everything made sense, even the surprises. They justified why the blind man is so keen on keeping people out of his house. Even though you don't see the reason coming, the fact that there is one, instead of just a random conceit of a kook who has more security than he needs, is much more compelling. The well-laid out plot unfolded on the screen in a way that kept the behaviors of the characters unpredictable, making it edgy and full of suspense. At no point did I feel I was watching yet another iteration of some overdone trope. Another triumph for low-budget horror.
Also, the blind man, played by Stephen Lang, is extraordinary. His voice is at tones vulnerable and menacing, (which exemplifies how our society sees broken veterans) and his movements are jerky, clipped, and stunningly horrific.

From Pop Sugar 

The production values are what really elevate this. The set of the man's house is so tight: sharp corners, narrow hallways, and at all times as the story moves through the house, you feel its confinement. This is integral to the narrative, for the blind man knows the way through his own labyrinth. The people trying to escape have a really rough go of it, especially when the lights go out and you get a wonderful shift in lighting, which is spectacularly crafted throughout. The darkness and careful lighting of the whole film is one of its best features. As is the organically made music, which sets the perfect mood, and is made all the more interesting by the short film on its production, provided with the blue ray, that shows an orchestra constructed from the kinds of materials found inside the house. Creatively brilliant.

In short, Don't Breathe is an exemplar of everything that can be done without a whole lot of money.

K Rating: 9/10

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Brillianty Brackish - The Bay

I had an earlier post about the things that make good found footage films: namely, innovative use of the cameras and an organic storytelling that requires such an approach.  A few nights ago I discovered another one: The Bay.

Set in the Chesapeake, this clever little film starts with the interesting premise of the strange phenomena Charles Fort wrote about. In this case, scores of dead fish filling the bay, and flocks of birds falling dead from the sky. They start off with actual footage of these events, then diverge from them to tell a suspenseful story about a mutated parasite that wreaks bloody, disgusting havoc on the Fourth of July festivities in Maryland.

Scariest of all? These are real. From Tree Hugger
There were many great elements to this movie, first and foremost the storytelling. It was entirely believable in every way, and the use of different cameras was explained as the collation of different footage that provided an explanation for the environmental catastrophe, but that had up to this point been suppress. The movie is the leak of this footage, so to speak. So we got lots of different styles of footage, each thoughtfully directed. My absolute favorite was the scope inside a dead fish to show isopod parasites eating the fish from the inside out.

I never liked arthropod types to begin with, but my god, this movie has some utterly gross special effects--masses of people vomiting blood, giant isopods going in and out of people's toes were tingling while I watched. That doesn't happen all so often, so kudos to them.

Helping the very realistic feel of this was a solid performance by the cast all around. It was fresh and unpretentious, the characters behaved as people entirely aware of themselves being filmed, and it made their story resonate that much more as it unfolded.

All this, and it still had time to say something very powerful about government bureaucracy, crisis prevention, corporate accountability, and industrial waste. I was very impressed.

K Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 16, 2016

Better than Fiction: The Borgias

I knew of The Borgias when it originally aired on Showtime, but finding out its historical foundations were a muse for Game of Thrones (debuted in the same year) convinced me to I give it a try. This is hands down the best TV show I have ever seen. I'm a big can of Game of Thrones, and a bigger fan of The Walking Dead, but episode to episode this show was stellar across the board.

This was a gorgeous show to watch. The sets, costumes, and art direction were carefully crafted scene to scene to imitate the style and feel of period paintings, right down to where characters stood in relation to each other. Such thoughtful design is rare.

Picture perfect - from TV Envy

Comparing it to the GOT series is useful, because it highlights all the things this show did right. All the members of the Borgia family, including the detestable Juan, are people you sympathize with, people you root for. No matter what dastardly thing that they're planning-incest, deception, murder, more murder, theft, pillage, you name it-you want them to succeed. Each character-especially Cesare Borgia and his henchman henchman Micheletto, are badass through and through. Lucrezia was spectacular. It was exciting to watch their machinations, and it was a much more positive watching experience than GOT, which has plenty of the same things, but is much more depressing in its tone.

I loved his acting before, but this performance takes
the cake

The other side effect of this flipped approach in GOT is that there is plenty for fans to hate. I hate Cersei-not just love to hate, simply hate. And the Tullys. And Jon Snow. The list goes on, because we're pulled in so many directions. The Borgias is much tighter storytelling, and not for lack of being epic. We meet the royal families of Naples, Milan, Forli, France...and it still is infinitely more cohesive.

My only regret is that they never got their fourth and final season. If you only ever watch one piece of historical fiction in your life, make it this.

K rating: 10/10

Monday, December 12, 2016

Together Again - Walking Dead Season 7

Image result for xena season 3 dahak
*Sigh* Life-changing episode...for her, I mean.
"The Deliverer" Xena Season 3
I haven't been this emotionally tied to a show since I was a teenager-and even then, season finales (the third, in particular) choked me up with the loss of an integral character.

With The Walking Dead, I am now either crying, cheering, or covering my mouth in outright shock pretty much during every episode.  Feeling this way midway through its seventh season? With no musical numbers yet, the kiss of death for any genre show?  Wow.

Part of what makes this series the powerhouse that it is is that they don't ease up. Ever. It goes beyond the precept that no one is safe. The intensity by every actor in every episode is so palpable that even if you know what's coming, or just think you do, it hits you like a...well,  like a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.

Dem's my boys- image from digitalspy
The reason that last night's episode was so uplifting at the end wasn't just the fight put back into Rick, or Daryl's successful escape. It was that for a long time, since the Governor came to the prison, really, things have been fractured-we go deep with individuals or small groups, but it's not the way they were in, say, Season 2, where for the most part everyone was in the same place. So this uprising will hopefully bring a return to form, where we see not just how interesting each character is, and their individual relationships, but how great they are on screen together. The cast is what gives this show its power. Those powers are about to coalesce. Bring it, Season 7, we're ready.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Baron Blah-I Mean Blood

Let me start off by saying, I fell asleep during this movie. Twice. I was surprised at the beginning of Baron Blood, directed by Mario Bava, by the fact that Baron Blood is apparently Dracula. Except not really. The monstrous Baron come back to life goes by the name of Otto von Kleist. I suppose impaling people at the castle gates was more common than we thought: for that's the initial story behind the Baron. Add to that the fact that he was burned to death, and cursed by a witch to forever suffer the torture of his death. The film amounts to a series of interesting propositions that don't go anywhere, or at least get there very very slowly. That threw me, as did the lackluster performance of his descendant Peter, played by Antonio Cantafora.

This dopey college kid comes back to learn about his family history, and within half an hour is in the castle, using incantations to bring the Baron back to life with Eva (Elke Sommer). It works, and immediately after, of course, the incantation to condemn him forever is blown into the fireplace. Duh. The rest of the story involves the Baron on a killing spree, and the young couple trying to enlist the help of Dr. Hummel, in charge of restoring the castle. The scene when Peter is attempting to convince Dr. Hummel of the truth is absolutely devoid of emotion. The English dubber wasn't helping, but the face of the actor was entirely expressionless. No exaggerated features, no intensity in the eyes, nothing. He could have been saying, "See Jane run fast," for all the power of his performance. So the tension of the story falls flat.

Image result for baron blood movie
She's the star here- no question
Where Bava shines is in the visual aspect of the film. When Eva is running from the killer, the shots of her running through the streets are beautiful, moody, and well-crafted.  Sommers has a distinct look: she's modern and modelesque, and watching her emote was the most stimulating thing about this film. The same is true of the scene where the Baron makes use of the iron maiden: 'nuff said. But unfortunately, these features weren't strong enough to save the plot, which had some twists and turns, but didn't keep gravity away from my eyelids. For a director on such a tight schedule, it's understandable, I suppose, that not every film is a masterpiece. 

K Rating: 5/10

Monday, December 5, 2016

WTF Lovecraft? The Dark Chamber

Who wouldn't pick this up with
an endorsement like that?
Branching out of your reading comfort zone can be a good thing--especially when your authorial comfort zone is primarily restricted to dead white guys. But in my avid search to try new fiction, there are bound to be blunders. I'm sorry to report that I've put down more books without completing them in the last six months than I have in as many years. Painfully, The Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline was one of them.

I tried hard. Really, I did. I was very patient for the story to begin as the narrator - whose name or even gender I did not know for at least ten pages - tells his drab tale of a brooding house with people all sensing that catastrophe nears them,  stemming from the undefinable research of Richard Price, the patriarch trying to transcend what he refers to as ancestral memory, which is much like mental time traveling into the consciousness of your ancestors.

It wasn't just the quote on the cover from Lovecraft, saying the book was a "work of art." It was also the back copy, with praise saying it was as good as Dracula or better. To say that these two works are similar in any way would be to say that Jonathan Harker, who comes to act as Dracula's solicitor, is vaguely uneasy in his new surroundings, yet willingly stays on in his post for lack of motivation, and is entirely content to remain with the boring company of Dracula's household as they do nothing all day but dispense idle chatter.
This one tiny scene has more tension than the 100+pages
I read- akin to Dracula my a**.

Because that, so far, is all that's happened. And I was halfway through the book. The characters are dull, their dialogue is dull, and there is no more mood or tension than the narrator's repeated suggestion that everyone is expecting something bad to happen. Except it doesn't, and they all go on with their empty routines.

I suppose I can see what Lovecraft appreciated - the ill-defined character of Price has an eldritch flavor, and there are philosophical theories put forth by Price that harken to Lovecraft's concept of the cosmic. But saying in so many words that you can't see Price's face, and his movements are eerily fluid does not a Cthulhu make. Lovecraft is the superior writer. No surprise there, but what I was appalled at was his seeming lack of a discerning eye for quality, suspenseful, horrific writing. In this case, at least. When reading feels like a chore, you've got a problem.

I didn't read the whole thing, which would normally stop me from reviewing it entirely, but as you see I did have something to say. With that, I'll refrain from a number rating. Just go pick up something else. Dracula, if you're smart.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Writing Dialogue - To Say, or Not to Say

I read a great post about dialogue this morning at another blog, This Itch of Writing, and since it's so relevant now to the WIP keeping me up nights (Up From the Bog, if you're new here), I thought I'd add my two cents.

So many authors struggle to create powerful, poignant dialogue-I recognize it in my own writing when I re-read, and it was something I had to really work at in A Vision in Crimson, my first fantasy installment. I'm proud of the finished product, coming soon, but it was one of the bigger obstacles I faced. It took many many many rewrites to get it where I thought it should be. I think for me, part of the functionality of rough dialogue was that I was just getting my feet wet as a fiction writer, so I wasn't really in my characters' mouths yet. I was hedging a lot ("Well," "you see," "you know"...) a linguistic action I'd come to recognize when I studied forensic linguistics in college.

Beta readers helped identify problems, as did the fact that I was writing something epic. During the many drafts of A Vision in Crimson,  and across volumes as I continue to write the series, I was spending a lot of time with my characters. The more I wrote them, the more natural their speech came. Because I knew them better, for one, and I was getting more practice at my craft. I'm catching myself doing it again now as I'm knocking out a first draft of Up From the Bog. I have more writing experience now than I did for my first project, but not with these characters, especially since I'm writing two first-person voices. It's a challenge. A satisfying challenge, but a challenge.

Even for people not writing a series, it could be an interesting exercise to write smaller pieces with your characters in different scenarios, to get good practice with them as being distinct voices, and discovering the right linguistic chemistry between them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Research - My Bread and Butter

All those years as a historian certainly aren't going to waste--aside from my nonfiction book, The Specter of the Indian, being released by SUNY Press in September 2017 and which I just finished the copyedits for (yay!!), my historian's brain has been hard at work for the past few months researching the ancient world for my novel in progress, Up From the Bog. I'm an American historian by training, but have used that training to become an expert in the supernatural and the gothic in the nineteenth century.

Fairly accurate assessment of the book count. For nonfiction,
multiply by 1000.
Researching as an academic is not fun. It means reading a book a day or more prepping for oral exams, and being held accountable for reading, touching, analyzing, etc. ad nauseum every source, historical and recent, that exists on your topic, and all related topics. That includes traveling to special collections archives, knowing multiple languages to do your own translations, taking serious amounts of notes and building arguments and connections. You can see why I chose a topic like ghosts, to keep my eyeballs from falling out.

Everyone knows the Witch of Endor
The characters in my new book dictated that I be an expert in Egyptology, archaeology, bog bodies, Celtic Druidism, British witchcraft, the Roman occupation of Britain, and general Roman habits--especially those relating to class divisions, social interactions, sexuality, marriage contracts, ancestor worship, and popular theater. AND, the supernatural or occultish trends in the ancient religions of Britannia, Roma, and Egypt more specifically, so I might make distinctions between religion, magic, and witchcraft. Goodie goodie.

So even though I could now write a plausible thesis on such things, I choose instead to imbue my story with the best references and facts, using actual connections and universalisms to give my narrative thematic cohesion. I was so pleased to find details that, alongside the dry but necessary things that help describe environments and behaviors correctly, there were so many wonderful connections that were just too good to be true, that really helped forge a better concept in my head about how my story would progress, and how I could execute the overall tone that I was aiming for--one that broods and toes the line b/w dark fantasy and horror, all resting on ancient and classical themes.

Confidence about progress in fiction is a great feeling-when your outline is so clear in your head that it comes out as a chapter draft on the page-that's a solid day's work. Knowing that in just a few weeks I get a month-long break from the work that gave me the skills to create this story? Even better.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I Am Most Thankful For...


The Shrouded Dead by Ash Robles

Yes, honestly. As a blogger, the thing I am most grateful for is another blog. And this one has it all--all things Lovecraft, all things weird, grotesque, and beautiful from all over the world. I have filled my home with so many things that I've found here. The genius of Jacob Petersson, Kurt Komoda, Joe Broers, and so many others have found their way into my home because of this collection of the horrific. The things I've gathered from these muses have helped shaped my home as an expression of myself, one that becomes harder and harder for friends and family without keen eyes to miss, since you know, there's like a monster or a corpse in almost every crevice of my living space. And the list of things I see on their page and want just keeps growing. And growing, and growing. Keep it up over there!

The Idol of Nightmares by Christian Alpini

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Modern Gothic at Its Best - The Shadow of the Wind

What a beautiful, beautiful book. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is full of depth, and a wonderful blending of Gothicism and modernity in which the national character of the book, and Barcelona in particular, is ever present.

Perhaps the best compliment I could pay this work is to say that while reading it, I felt it a true descendant of Don Quixote, the pinnacle of Spanish literature, the essence of the novel form, filled with every emotion you want from a great story--love, empathy, hatred, sorrow, fear, cowardice, contempt, shock, reverence, and inspiration.

Let's talk about the style for a minute. It's perfection. Zafon's language is full of magic and mystery, starting the tale off by showing the wonders of the world through the eyes of a child, and bringing all the corners of the city to life through a colorful array of characters. My favorite was Fermin. His dialogue and actions were so real, and he made me laugh out loud. Multiple times, to the annoyance of whoever was around me as I read voraciously. And the humor fell mostly to the intellectual side, even in more provocative conversations-I appreciated that intelligent sensibility immensely.

Another big compliment I have to pay - The Shadow of the Wind is the best iteration of the Gothic that I have read in a long, long while, including actual gothic works and more contemporary literature that plays on its tropes. The things we know and expect from Gothicism--dilapidated houses, ghosts and demons, family drama, dire secrets and the quest to reveal them--all these are done here in a way that is fresh, and urgent, and unpredictable, making this immensely enjoyable, breathing new life into ways of storytelling that have been sadly formulaic and drab in so many attempts at the Gothic. Part of the success of Zafon's gothicism is its intimate connection to his setting. Postwar Barcelona is so well-developed and believable, and it's the perfect place to deal with Gothic tropes of things that are hidden coming to light--in a city torn apart and changing in the wake of a war that left its mark not on the nation, but on its people. The city is in flux, and it's an ideal juxtaposition.

I have two quibbles, the first of which is Fumero, one of the villains of the story. I saw the depths of his villainy, felt his malignant presence in every scene, without making him larger than life in a super-villain, charicatured sense. It reminded me very much of the villain of Pan's Labyrinth, another beautiful story set during the Spanish Civil War. But his motivations for his acts? That fell on the weak side. He did not seem as intimately involved in the impetus of the events for which he plots his revenge.

An adaptation of Shadow of the Wind like this would make my life complete.

My second quibble: towards the end of the work, there's a confusion of voice in the lengthy narrative of Nuria Monfort, a character on whom our protagonist Daniel relies to find the truth of the past. The lengthy exposition of all that Daniel and Fermin have been working to uncover felt so much like the weighty explanations at the end of many Sherlock Holmes stories, and did not carry the immediacy and urgency that Daniel's narrative had. I desperately wish that it had. There was a slight question of how she was telling things she admittedly did not witness, so there was a little bit of head-scratching involved, but overall, it came back together for a page-turning finale.

This is a book whose power will stay with me for a while, and only increases my affinity for Spanish writers, and international writes more broadly. I feel really blessed to have read it - a real contribution to art, literature, and all that is beautiful in this world. The best part? There are two more books in this series.

K Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ripper Street - Ripping Great Fun!

I did not consume the British TV program Ripper Street in a single sitting, but rather savored it over the course of weeks and months as I watched lots of other things in tandem-Marco Polo, Stranger Things, Broadchurch.... but now that I have finished the first season,  I could not be more pleased with the result.

What drew my attention to Ripper Street is the same thing that would draw most in: mention of the infamous Ripper of Whitechapel. I'm no stranger to cinematic renditions of this, and was wary of yet another telling of whodunnit, until I realized that's not with this show is about at all. It uses the Ripper killings merely as it setting-Whitechapel after the spate of grizzly murders, where the Ripper has fallen silent, never to be named. But not all is silent on Ripper Street. This show tells the tales of crime in the wake of the notorious Ripper, with varied and unique plots dealing with American pinkertons, shipwrecks, human trafficking, the first erotica on film, and much, much more. The show has a sharp wit and innate authenticity, taking itself seriously when it must, but always bursting at the seams with high-octane action and hearty doses of comic relief. Relief that comes mostly from seeing the backlot of Game of Thrones flitting in and out of episodes. Bronn is one of the leads, Inspector Reid's right-hand-man, and Jorah Mormont and Roose Bolton had showcase roles. Tonight at the season finale, I got surprised by Hodor, and Juan and Cecilia from The Borgias, a show I am currently watching and will review in very short order.

Memory of the Ripper as backdrop, not plot? Genius.
Ripper Street expertly balances being episodic and having an overarching narrative. Criminal investigations are, for the most part, contained within each episode, but treated with enough depth to be compelling and unpredictable. Yet you are equally drawn in by the deeper plot threads woven throughout the episodes regarding the investigative trio, their origins, temperments, and home lives.

Special touches are places where other Victorian trends like photography, emergent cinematography technology, and charity houses are concerned. These are things of immense interest to me as a scholar of the period, but get so little shrift in our media. To see them showcased here, and so well, was a pure delight for me. So too was the treatment of prostitution. There are plenty of working women on this show, but their active participation and society and their interactions with the police in particular are a master stroke, and elevates this common media type above its standard, flat stereotyping. Prostitution was a bigger portion of society in those years than most people realize, and they did not live as lepers--they were living, breathing members of a community. For a show ostensibly inspired by a whore-killer, to un-objectify them is one of the show's greatest triumphs.

In short, I would recommend this to a wide audience: those who love Victorians as much as I do, but also to those who like procedurals, actions, historical fiction, or even biting social commentary. There is something for everyone on Ripper Street.

K Rating: 9/10

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Blow Up - It's No Deep Red

I had high hopes for Blow Up, the giallo-esque film by Michelangelo Antonioni. It stars David Hemmings, who also played the lead in Dario Argento's Deep Red, a triumph of the giallo style and arguably Argento's masterpiece. I was just talking about its greatness at the blog Fantasy Literature, and knew that this earlier film had a similar premise--a young man realizes he's seen a murder, this time through his photography.

Image resultThis title fell short for me in a lot of ways. For one, it was agonizingly slow. It leaned very heavily towards the artsy, which is not necessarily a problem, but there are some European filmmakers out there who think that showing things happening at a snail's pace make them magically more interesting. This, unfortunately, was one of those cases. But what really happened was--well, not much, as the premise of the plot is essentially all you get-just the idea that the photographer inadvertently captured a murder while he thought he was capturing an adulterous couple. The female subject of his shots comes to his studio, desperate to collect the negatives once she discovers she's been filmed, and only in developing those shots does Hemming's character realize what she was actually looking at. 

The photographer goes back to the scene of the crime, but for some inexplicable reason does not shoot pictures of the body he finds there. When he goes back later, the body is gone. So the film does have something going for it, because it makes you wonder what, if anything, Thomas and the woman saw. When he blows up the pictures to get a better look, they're too enhanced and grainy to see anything, so there's a trick of the mind there at play--or possibly. And the photos themselves in the long shot are gorgeous. 

Spoiler Alert! Profundo Rosso
It has other hallmarkers of gialli - the modern backdrop, for example. But in this case, I feel like that's almost all I got. If I wanted to know anything about mod culture, I don't anymore. It was overkill, and nearly swallowed the plot whole.

But something I consider essential to gialli is missing: the reveal of the killer. This revelation is usually the crux of those issues about memory, reality, sexuality, selfhood, and all the lovely undertones that make gialli so powerful and culturally relevant. And of course, blood. No blood. None. Very, very sad. Any redeeming virtues this film has, I'm sorry to say, are done better in Deep Red. So just go watch that.

K Rating: 6/10

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trick r' Treat - A Delight!

Slightly off from Halloween itself, but the horror box that I created for October and beyond pulled up Trick r'Treat. What great fun. This is an anthology film: separate little concepts pulled together by the common theme of Halloween and the age-old practice of trick-or-treating. What was unique about this anthology was the frame story that connected each segment was an integral part of the film, and so the pieces were part of a continuous whole. The film records a Halloween night in a single community, and each piece was a focus on different individuals or groups. Some of my favorites were the murderous schoolteacher and the crochety neighbor, represented by Dylan Baker and Brian Cox. I was surprised to see such well-known actors in this popcorn blockbuster, but each played their role so very well. Anna Paquin was a sorority girl in a segment played all too well, which harkened back to Ginger Snaps, a fantastic film about female sexuality and the monstrous. We get a prank gone wrong, too, as well as an urban legend. All the high points of Halloween in middle America.

It's not often that a horror film makes you laugh out loud, but this one hit that mark multiple times. It was a perfect blend of grotesque and well-shot special effects with black humor, so you're disgusted and tickled at the same time, which is really quite an accomplishment for the writers and director. The film is reminiscent of things like Tales from the Crypt, which horrified audiences with a good dose of sinister entertainment.

Word to the wise-don't buy what he's selling.
The way the stories weaved together was very thoughtful, giving glimpses of how different characters are connected to each other. That's something that other anthologies that I've loved, like the Amicus collections starring greats like Peter Cushing couldn't do, because of the separate nature of each of the tales. These tales were all happening at the same place at the same time, a master stroke.

So though I do tend in my horror tastes towards the dark and extreme, this was a supremely enjoyable experience, and one I could recommend to horror afficionados trying to share their passion with the less initiated.

K Rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 10, 2016

All My Scottish Children - Outlander Season 1

Following my reading of the first Outlander novel by Diane Gabaldon, I looked to the Starz adaptation to see if they could fix some of the flaws I laid out in my earlier review. Namely, bad characterization of the protagonist Claire.

I don't know if I could call the show better or worse, simply because it adhered so strictly to the book's plot. Very little was changed, with the exception of one or two welcome scenes that showed what her 1940s husband Frank Randall is doing in her absence. It gave us a hint about how the veil of time might be thinned near Craigh na Dun, the standing stones that send Claire back to 1743.

Image result for outlander showThe actress playing Claire showed emotion, which was an improvement upon her cold telling of her life in the book. And watching the show was enjoyable--very nice production values, good art direction, and an opening theme that was magical in its own right. But watching all the episodes in close succession, the flaws of the book that we see replayed in the show only got sharper. The chemistry between Claire and Jamie, her new Scottish husband, is scant, even though the physical relationship is not. It leaves you questioning both their motives towards each other, until the end, where they seem to start caring about each other beyond physicality. That's a major flaw in characterization, because it stops me from seeing every turn in their relationship with the power that it should have.

Seeing how faithful the show was left me with a choice--to continue watching the show in lieu of reading the books, or not at all. I never do this, but I have no time to waste on bad writing, and I was told that was the case with the later books. So I looked up the plot synopses of the later books. What little I could understand of that convoluted summary sounded like a soap opera at the height of ridiculous, where you can't understand the choices that characters make. I have no desire to see those stories in their own words. So I'm done with Outlander in all its forms. Gabaldon had something there, to be sure, but she didn't know how to handle it, or else is drawing inspiration from melodramatic forms I don't value, turning what should be solid fantasy into a trashy read. Being popular, unfortunately, doesn't make it smart writing. But in a new world where Trump is the President-elect, I shouldn't be surprised by that.
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The handsomest man that every lived

For better time-travelling romance, try Somewhere in Time, a Richard Matheson novel brilliantly adapted into the cult classic starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

What is a very smart read is the one I'm working on now, The Shadow of the Wind. More on that soon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Friday, November 4, 2016

Blurbs and Elevator Speeches-A Necessary Evil

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."

Image result for letter writingThat is exactly the problem I think all writers face when attempting to present their work to the public. This is not just true for self-publishers, who are responsible for every word written about their books. For my upcoming nonfiction with SUNY Press, I was asked to provide copy as well. When it was still a work in progress, my classmates and I rode the elevator up and down practicing our perfect speeches for employers and grant funders.

If I could say everything in a few sentences, I would not have written the book. 

That's the impulse that stops us from creating compelling back copy and Amazon descriptions that rope in prospective readers for said book. Brutal criticism is, I find, essential in this process of taking your writing and turning it into a fifth-grade math problem, where the most important task is picking out the essential information and chucking the rest.

Add to that there are different blurbs for different audiences. Agents for traditional publishers don't want any surprises, so you have to lay all your cards on the table. But if a reader can imagine the whole story from the blurb, why bother reading it? Then you as an author get attached to words and phrases that become meaningless in your new context. 

I tried out what I thought was an "ok" back copy for A Vision in Crimson on my Facebook groups, and the response ranged from "totally awesome" to "I'm not buying that." It's a minefield. But, if you go in eyes wide open, knowing you're going to get blown up, then what you sift from the ashes could be the best possible version of yourself. 

So here's what I've got so far, after many self edits and proffered suggestions. Whether this is what makes the cover, well, how should I know?

Katelyn knows her magic is risky, but Icaryan light is fading fast and she is desperate. Returning to Earth, she crosses paths with Luca, a rogue vampire hybrid. Their weary hearts sparked by passion, Luca forsakes his own quest to root out his father, diving headlong into a world teeming with magic and danger.

But his father has not forgotten him.

A Vision in Crimson is the first installment of a new epic fantasy blistering with romance and Gothicism.

I'm happy with that right now, which is always a good thing. More suggestions are always welcome--it's never finished until it's on the cover, and even then...

The more we read and edit each other's blurbs, the better we'll all be at it. So please, if you have a blurb you want to test with me or other readers, please add it to the comments!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Magician's Guild - Inhaled It!

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After many movies and books that left me wanting more in recent months, thank the heavens for Trudi Canavan's The Magician's Guild, Book One of her Black Magician Trilogy.

This is the second work I've read of hers, the first being Thief's Magic, Book One of the Millenium's Rule Trilogy. The second book, Angel of Storms, was recently released, and I've been doing all I can to restrain myself so that I can give the other authors on my shelf a chance. So I cheated just a smidge and picked up her other series. Best decision ever.

The Magician's Guild begins with the premise of a young girl from the slums miraculously breaking through a shield forged by an entire guild of magicians, without knowing how. The volume follows Sonea as she tries to hide herself from the Guild, using up favors with factions all over Imardin, until she realizes her unfettered magic may spell doom for her city, her family, and herself.

Canavan does something wonderful with her fantasy writing. She has such a sense for world-building, and really shines in demonstrating the structure of her societies, particularly with regards to class divisions, wealth and poverty, urban planning, the relationships between different neighborhoods, social factions, and artisans of a city, it really is something beautiful to behold. And all this done in the most integral and organic of ways--through action, plot, dialogue. No lengthy expositions from an omniscient narrator. She has a great knack for naming as well--from something as simple as interesting and thoughtfully crafted character names to renaming everyday things like rats and alcohol. She even included a glossary in the back of the book. A cute idea, but unnecessary because of the writing. I know that a fen is a spider, because she uses other identifiers, so I get the image in my head that I should, but also the sense of its uniqueness. I'm given the impression that it is spider-like, yet it can still be a fen, and not a spider. Truly great descriptions. I wish her environments were described with similar power, and it's not for lack of trying, but my mind does fill in most of the gaps on that front. It's my only quibble with her overall style as a writer.

Some of the things I loved about Thief's Magic are present here too--the class divisions, as I just fawned over, sharp dialogue and writing structure--noticeably so. And a genius approach to the romantic threads in her stories. These books are by no means romances--they are straight fantasy. But love is one of the many experiences her characters have, and she does it in such an underplayed, subtle way, until of course, she throws romance conventions to the wind and absolutely breaks your heart, that the result is quite beautiful. Without divulging too much, her broken and flawed relationships are far and away the best iterations of love I have seen in texts, most likely because of its many tribulations under her hand. It pains me to break the hearts of my own characters, and I'll admit, it's made me cry sometimes as I'm writing. I can only imagine what those days are like for her.

Also done particularly well in both series is her description of magic and how it operates in the world. Here, we had lots of interesting segments dealing with magic on an intellectual plane--as related to guided meditation. I have done guided meditation before, and found her explanations clear and extremely interesting. Talking mostly about the amount of mental control required was, for me, unique interpretation of magical systems, and overtly intuitive. The Millenium's Rule series did much the same, approaching magic from the rare perspective of an energy source, and one that can be easily overextended and thus requiring varying degrees of regulation. What makes Canavan such a fantastic writer, in my view, is her ability to take resonant, urgent issues of our own universe--race, class, energy, bureaucratic power--and bend them to her will to provide exotic and intriguing worlds that are well fleshed out and comprehensible as much as they are foreign. Her characters, in other words, and the emotions she puts them through, are hauntingly real. My highest scores go to her as an author, and to this particular title, which was consumed voraciously and will be boiling at the back of my mind until Books Two and Three show up in my mailbox. Yep. That good.

K Rating: 10/10

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Strain - Season Four? What For??

With Season Three of The Strain at an end, I'm compelled to think of Guillermo Del Toro's series as a whole up to this point. This season, by far, was the low point in the series. The first few episodes in particular felt so rushed, with overnarration as a substitute for telling us how much time was passing and what the new state of affairs was. Perhaps I can concede that Eldritch Palmer's character had the most interesting development, but I thought this should have happened last season when they killed his girlfriend Coco, a plot thread that sadly went absolutely nowhere.

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Seasons One and Two were top-notch: great development of all the major players and extremely interesting plot points. This last season felt like a poor effort to keep going even with the knowledge it was going to be their last season. Except, apparently, it isn't. So this is just a season that lost its momentum and sense of artistic effort in many ways, and watching Season 4 will be more like an obligation, never a good thing with so many other watching options. Certainly not good for getting Del Toro the funding he desperately needs to take on the projects I must see before I die (At the Mountains of Madness, Monster).

For me, how I feel about The Strain comes down to the division of the plot into different character groupings. The characters that are the best--Vasily Fet, Setrakian, & Eichorst are the ones that I watch for, and seem unobjectively to get the more interesting and integral plots. I also really liked Gus, but his plotline was sidetracked into strange and nonurgent places. I sincerely hope Miguel Gomez gets more work, because he was absolutely excellent.

Image result for carl grimesI was never really a fan of Ephraim's, though I understand his centrality to the plot, and the understanding of vampirism as akin to a disease. I just never could get in that guy's corner. But I also didn't hate him enough to relish his presence in another way. I care about Dutch even less. Nora's absence from this season did not have a sting, as she was just one more body in their vampire-hunting group, and Councilwoman Feraldo also came and went without me caring an iota. Those avenues were plot without urgency. The absolute biggest letdown is the amount of time spent on Kelly and Zach. My empathy for Zach as a character stopped a long time ago at his complete uselessness to the plot. What I'm about to say applies to the acting and the writing, and sums up exactly why I don't care about Zach. He's no Carl Grimes. And his inability to grow up and be useful just dropped an A-bomb on Manhattan. That kid's an A-hole in plain English.

I wish they had spent more time giving Gus something important to do, or spending more time on Quinlan's backstory. Their segments of historical fiction--with regard to Quinlan and to a much higher degree, Eichorst and Setrakian--were some of the best segments of this show, and I was sad not to see more of that in this season. Guess I'll have to wait a little longer for Del Toro's next best thing. In the meantime, I'll be rewatching Crimson Peak.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Blue Velvet - Weird for Weird's Sake

I have only recently becoming completely enamored of David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks, which aired from 1990-1991. I was in the first grade at that time. Not quite appropriate then, but absolutely wonnderful now. Having seen the series before Blue Velvet, I had very high expectations. It did not, sadly, live up to them. 

Part of what I loved about Twin Peaks was the smooth blend between charming small town quirks and cosmic, supernatural darkness. And the bizarre nature of the supernatural made perfect, organic sense to the story, because Laura Palmer's killer is a demon of some mysterious sort that takes possession of a member of the community (no spoilers, sorry). So the characters dig deep into the Black Lodge for very good reason. 

A Guide to Twin Peaks
"I am the arm."

Image result for blue velvetIn Blue Velvet, I don't understand why Jeffrey (played by Kyle MacLachlan, the lead of Twin Peaks) does any of the things he does. He straddles the line between small town and the bizarre, but for no obvious reason. He gets involved in said weirdness, including the very strange and fetishistic woman who is played very well. The first voyeuristic sex scene is a strong scene on its own, true to Lynch's aesthetic, but the story was very tenuous. I just didn't see the pieces come together in a meaningful way, and the characters all acted illogically. Not just weird, I can do weird, but it didn't really have a reason for being. And that made me sad. Because I know, from watching his show, and the followup film Fire Walk with Me, that Lynch can do much, much better. I wait with baited breath for the new show.
K Rating: 6/10

Friday, October 28, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Monster Mash! Literary Horror

As Halloween nears, we inundate ourselves with lists upon lists of great horror cinema to watch - I fully support this, as I did with an earlier post about found footage films. But it doesn't go far enough. We must remember that some of the scariest things are those conjured up by our own imaginations, summoned for us by storytellers of old. With that in mind, I've assembled a list of amazing horror stories that helped developed the tropes that have stayed with us--the ghost, the vampire, the mummy-- and have linked to full texts of these tales. All true fans of horror should know them, but readers, beware--bring a nightlight to bed.

For the bloodthirsty, look to Count Magnus from M.R. James. Usually known for his ghost stories, told traditionally at Christmastime, this is one of his tales that veers more towards the vampiric. Then, of course, there's Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, which predates Dracula.

Image result for m valdemarThought modern zombies started with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead? Think again, with this not as popular but oh-so-terrifying tale from Poe: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Also a healthy dose of hypnotism and mind control, some of Poe's favorite things! There's a great, creepy adaptation in the film anthology Tales of Terror.

H.P. Lovecraft is the god of sea monsters. Though his favored child has become Cthulhu, I was always more drawn to the suspense of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Done excellently on film in Dagon.

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Image result for lot no 249Mummies abound in literature and in film! Lovecraft worked with Houdini on a story, Under the Pyramids,  recently adapted into a Dark Adventure Radio Theater Drama by the Lovecraft Historical Society, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, but I am ever partial to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale Lot No. 249, and Bram Stoker's longer work Jewel of the Seven Stars. Not Stoker's best work, but it is mighty gruesome. Both of these helped to solidify the mummy tropes that continue to haunt us.
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Everyone loves a good ghost story. M.R. James does it best at Christmastime, but for this season I reserve my favor for Le Fanu's The Familiar, which James himself loved best, and Algernon Blackwood's The Empty House.

Werewolves have just as long-standing a tradition, with Wagner the Wehr-Wolf by G.W.M Reynolds, and Hugues the Wer-Wolf by Sutherland Menzies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Propnomicon: Cthulhu Fhtagn! Evergloff Edition.

Propnomicon: Cthulhu Fhtagn! Evergloff Edition.

I can't wait to see this finished product - It's perfection in the eyes and tentacles, and will surely need to be added to my Cthulhu collection!