Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Oh Bloody Hell Eleven Books Of 2013

11) The Flamethrowers:

Following a rootless young woman as she drifts from the Bonneville salt flats, through the pretentious art scene of 70’s New York and into violent revolution in Italy, The Flame Throwers paints a portrait of a character who is adrift in a world that is unmoored. Written with an eye for character, place, a wry sense of humor and a just this side of detached style that recalls vintage McMurtry, but wedded to a sinister undercurrent and global spanning, time slipping narrative that makes it feel like something else entirely, The Flamethrowers is hypnotic, ineffably disturbing and unlike anything else I read this year.

10) The Ocean At The End Of The Lane:

Neil Gaiman’s fable is deceptively slight and simple, but like all of the great man’s work it contains multitudes. Bringing the mystery and terror of childhood to life in a way that few books have. 

9) Double Feature:

What more canbe said of Double Feature than that one critical moment of schadenfreude made me laugh so hard in public that I actually disturbed passersby? It's not isolated either, and a consultation with a severely incapacitated poetry professor provoked a laugh nearly as loud. To give too much of the plot away would be the very definition of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that Double Feature follows the estranged son of a B movie icon, whose own career as an aspiring director takes some unexpected turns. Intercutting a modern day Amisian farce with wistful remembrances of the initial fracturing of the father son relationship. Funny and humane, Double Feature's final chapters do wraps things up just a touch too neatly. But then again there are far worse sins for a novelist to have than an abundance of generosity towards his characters. Funny novelists are rare, funny novelists free of misanthropy are virtually as common as Dodos. I eagerly await King’s next book.

8) The Double:
Despite featuring what is without a doubt the worst author’s photo I have ever seen, George Pelecanos delivered a superb sequel to The Cut. As he did two decades ago with Nick’s Trip Pelecanos really finds his rhythm on his second go round. The Double deepens Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran who works as a PI, making him a flawed man who try as he might can’t solve everything. And who Pelecanos seems to understand to his core. The plot of The Double starts with a neat set up and ends with a fray of unsolved strands and unavenged deeds, with Lucas not so much saving the day as performing triage the best he can. Pelecanos tends to abandon reoccurring characters after three or four books, but I truly hope he shoots for a longer run with Lucas. He has a rare hero here and despite his flaws Lucas earns that designation, one with a lot to learn and a lot to lose. Most authors would kill for a character this rich. I eagerly await seeing him do so.

7) In One Person:
About fifteen years ago Tom Wolfe engaged in a vicious feud with John Irving and I’m not even going to pretend I was on Irving’s side. But looking at their last two novels side by side I cannot help but feel that some particularly vicious act of literary karma has taken place. Wolfe has descended into shrill self parody going from one of the most engaged working writers to one of our most tone deaf, meanwhile Irving has produced two of his most vital works. Novels every bit as strong as those he wrote in his eighties heyday. I’m not saying Voodoo is involved but I’m not saying it’s not.

Either way In One Person is a remarkable novel. Crafted with Irving’s trademark open heartedness. This is simply put one of the most sympathetic novels, let alone mainstream novels, involving transgendered sexuality, or hell sexuality in general, that I've come across. Funny, tragic sweeping and generous In One Person shows Irving’s skills to be fully intact.

6 & 5) Doctor Sleep, Joyland

As do these two numbers. As I've written before I was genuinely frightened that reengaging with one of his best works would derail King’s late period winning streak, I needn't have feared. Doctor Sleep shows King doing what he does best, ripping into a porterhouse of a narrative, populating it with characters both light and dark worth getting invested in and setting up stakes that truly matter. King doesn't try and best The Shining, he just uses it as a base to tell one hell of a yarn. And if it takes it’s time getting started it’s only because how clearly it all matters to King, both the legacy of his original novel and Torrance’s experiences with addiction and recovery which feel nearly as raw as the material in On Writing.

Joyland, is a slighter novel, but no less pleasurable. Time, place and character have always been King’s tools as a novelist and Joyland excels at all three. Even if it does occasionally feel as though King would like to pull a Colorado Kid and just forget the whole mystery thing.  A few fans groused that together they represented a softer King, this being the same guy who recently wrote the end of Duma Key, Full Dark No Stars, and cheerfully BBQed an entire town at the climax of Under The Dome. But as I said of his son’s novel, generosity is no vice in a novelist.  Watching King practice his craft over the last seven years has been a pleasure. I can’t wait for the next three decades or so.

4) The Republic Of Thieves: Now this is an interesting little bugger. No one in the fantasy genre writes quite as well as Scott Lynch. Oh sure Patrick Rothfuss has the whole conversational literary style down pat, and Sanderson has his efficient world building and can plot like a mofo. But where Rothfuss can occasionally be ponderous when his humor fails him and slide into self parody when his reach exceeds his grasp (“Bless the moon for sending me this lusty young manling” and so forth) Lynch slides through his narratives with the propulsion of a con man convincing you to get a second mortgage. And while Sanderson makes his world building unobtrusive Lynch makes exploring his world feel not like a chore but fun

Lynch through fans for a loop by backing away from the high stakes of the first two novels for what seems like a particularly ingenious game of Spy Versus Spy. For all but the last thirty pages or so of the six hundred fifty page novel, all that seems at stake for the characters in The Republic Of Thieves is their hearts. It is testament to Lynch’s skill that seven year hiatus or no, this seems more than enough.  

3) You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me:

If you know Nathan Rabin, chances are you will be unprepared. I walked into You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, expecting one of Rabin’s trademark outsider looking in works. In the vein of his famous Year(s) Of Flops, or his sojourn through country music. That’s not what this is.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, is one of those happy books that increases your good opinion of the author (especially nice when you already like the author in question a great deal). Showing him capable of more than you expected. Simply put You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is self laceratingly honest, incredibly dedicated and howlingly funny. Rabin never condescends to his subject matter and instead throws himself into the loathed subculture of The Juggallos and Phishheads with an intensity that recalls Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. No I’m not shitting you.

Take that aforementioned work and mix it with the hurt, passion and soul of Scott Raab’s The Whore Akron and you might have some idea of what You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me reads like. Buy it. Buy it now. The next three books might be “better” but You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is easily the most undervalued book of the year.

3)Bleeding Edge:

This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel that hasn't read as a period piece to me (which is not to say the first he has written) and to be honest that kind of sort of scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to be unnerved for so long when the man holding the fun house mirror up to your own time is such a charming host. Bleeding Edge has all the head long energy, virtuosity, absurdest humor and manic paranoia of Pynchon’s best work. A cross between the Gospel according to Groucho Marx and Kafka’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Pynchon remains line by line the most brilliantly unpredictable writer I've come across. Like a man who walks into a drawing room with a sledgehammer which he uses to tap out a delicate version of Fur Elise. Slapstick broad one page (Perhaps no moment of my reading in 2013 was quite so odd as realizing that Thomas Pynchon had made a fucking Daikatana joke), almost unbearably delicate and poignant the next.

Like King Pynchon hasn't so much softened as he has chosen to highlight elements of his work that served as a background hum. Here he adds a wholly unexpected portrait of observant Judaism sans the usual neuroticism and regret, as well as a dedicated portrait of family life. Neither of which shield Pynchon’s heroine from his trademark waves of conspiracy and counter conspiracy and shadowy organizations who never quite coalesce. But which, Pynchon seems to suggest, might serve as consolation enough.

The world Pynchon writes is the world I see outside my own window (how perfectly Pynchonian was PRISM?) this is welcome news.

2) The Wes Anderson Collection: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection isn’t merely a scrupulous piece of criticism blended with an incisive career spanning interview. Instead it is a book with such a keen understanding of its subject that the book feels less like a book on Anderson as his films as it does an object from one of Anderson films. Few books have brought me as much pleasure. In fact only one book has…

1) N0S4A2: It seems dismissive to describe N0S4A2 as a complete blast and dishonest to call it anything else. At it’s core it’s a page turner, with a stripped down roaring engine of a story. The kind of book that has you glancing at your clock at 3AM as you try and convince yourself that you’ll function perfectly fine at work with five hours of sleep so you might sneak in a few more chapters.

But it only works that deviously because of how thoroughly Hill invests himself in his characters and in his world. N0S4A2 isn't a throwaway, and Hill’s empty devils and tattered angels aren't merely cardboard cut outs and or victims. But people who matter. Hill’s darkness is not simply the darkness of grotesquery but the darkness within the human heart, to be rejected or fed at our will. He gives evil its weight, and as a result good gets its own as well.

Simply put N0S4A2 is a great story told to its full potential by a master storyteller in full command of his craft. And if there’s anything better than that I haven’t found it. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unlockeing Keyhouse

After 5 years and 40 densely imaginative issues Locke & Key is drawing to a close on Wednesday. And I'm going to lose my monthly dose of literary smack.
So in tribute to what has been for my money the best book on the racks for over the last half decade. I want to do a little something different. Rather than look back on the highlights of the run I think I'll let you discover them for yourself.
But Locke & Key also offers a puzzle of another sort. Hill is a novelist and has peppered Locke & Key with all sorts of literary references. Some are fun tributes, others offer hints to the mechanics of Hill’s world offered nowhere else in the text, some might hint at whatever end is coming tomorrow. Here are a few of the more prominent ones.

H.P. Lovecraft: Locke & Key follows three siblings, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move with their Mother from California to their ancestral home of Lovecraft, Maine in the wake of a family tragedy. There they find themselves heir to their family legacy, a series of reality bending keys. If you are in a horror story there are few worse ideas than moving to a place called Lovecraft Maine. Perhaps only Satansberg, OH and That-Place-Where-All-Those-Camp-Counselors-Were-Butchered, TN can compete.
The Lovecraft influence actually lay dormant for most of Locke & Key’s run as the book developed its own intricate mythology. But the Lovecraft DNA reared its head with a vengeance in the first issue of the Clockworks arc, “The Lockesmith’s Son”. Revealing (via a fantastic Drag Me To Hell reference) that the mysterious Black Door buried beneath the ancestral Locke home leads to the Lovecraftian Gods, the Great Old Ones. Making it approximately the 798th portal to the Great Old Ones that protagonists in horror fiction have stumbled upon.
I have mixed feelings about Hill making the Lovecraft connection explicit- well explicter. On one hand it’s not the first time Hill has used the device, his novella “Voluntary Committal” hinged on a similar reveal. But as Lovecraft himself noted, “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" and ironically Lovecraftian horror has become a very well known quantity. Hill’s homebrewed mythology was up until that point not. Which brings us to…

N0S4A2: In Hill’s latest (and absolutely phenomenal) novel, N0S4A2 the Locke Family makes a cameo on a list of Inscapers. N0S4A2 was an ambitious book, among other things it ties Hill’s previous work into one cohesive universe using the concept of Inscaping.
To simplify, Inscaping is the power to make imaginary things real, or to be more precise, the ability to bring the things inside of your head into the real world, whether they’re actual physical things or abstract concepts (such as when Kinsey Locke first removed and then imprisoned her capacity for grief and fear). Hill uses the Head Key to literalize the process, which allows characters to physically open the mind and access whatever is within it.
Inscapers can be benevolent or malevolent but all eventually pay a great price for the use of their ability. The Lockes are no exception.  
Bill Waterson: In one of the oddest stand alone issues, the first issue of Keys To The Kingdom, “Sparrow”, found Gabriel Rodriguez drawing almost the entire issue in the style of Bill Waterson. It tells the story of youngest Locke sibling, Bode, as he uses the keys to explore the wilderness, recruiting a flock of sparrows in the fight against the evil stalking the family.
What at first seems like an out of left field choice pays off brilliantly, utilizing Waterson’s signature style to bring the New England winter woods to starkly beautiful life. A simple, unshowy mastery and respect for nature and wildlife were always a hallmark of Watterson’s art. It’s put to beautiful use here, as is the emotional transparency of Watterson’s signature character style.
But the true brilliance of the reference comes at the end of the story. After all what is such a situation for a child than one of Calvin’s daydreams come to life, with the stakes risen to terrible proportions.
Ray Bradbury: Bradbury is one of Hill’s biggest, yet least cited influences. Hill has played with Bradburyian conventions before. His first published collection, 20th Century Ghosts, featured the short story “Last Breath” which could have come straight out of The October Country. He also contributed “By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain” to the collection of Ray Bradbury tributes, Shadow Show.
The Locke & Key standalone “Open The Moon” finds Hill once again trying on Bradbury’s voice for size (the issue is dedicated to him). Exploring Bradbury’s style at his most wistful, “Open The Moon” tells the story of a Locke ancestor’s attempt to use the keys to create a refuge for his terminally ill son.
The story is true to Bradbury’s voice, paying tribute to his singular ability to blend whimsy and sentiment with melancholy, to take the awareness of the omnipresence of death and to use fantasy to disarm it.


The Tempest: But by far the text most central to Locke & Key is The Tempest. The image of the Shakespeare play performed with real magic is introduced in “Intermission” the first issue of Headgames, arguably the best issue of the entire run. It’s an event returned to time and again, the lynchpin that sealed the fate of the Locke family.
Echoes of The Tempest can be seen across Locke & Key. Like The Tempest, Locke & Key is about a child (or in this case children) kept in ignorance of their legacy by their parents. It also doesn’t take much to connect The Tempest’s magical character Ariel, sealed in a pine, to the main antagonist of Locke & Key the demonic Dodge who begins the story sealed in a well.
But I am most interested in how The Tempest might hint at the ending of Locke & Key. The Tempest ends with Prospero, a practicing sorcerer, drowning his book of spells. Given the handy grotto beneath Keyhouse, where several of the principles are now trapped, it’s possible that the story might end with The Locke children drowning their keys.
However, it is possible that another, darker, meaning is hinted at by the reference to The Tempest. After all among the play’s most famous lines is the phrase, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
If you REALLY want to hear me geek out about Locke And Key (and other things Joe Hill) over an extended period of time, be sure to check out my book Son Of Danse Macabre, available on
The Kindle and Nook.  2.99 Cheep!

Friday, December 6, 2013

That Obscure Object Of Remakes With Potential That Somehow Do Not…

Since it was released a decade ago Oldboy has felt almost like a dare to American filmmakers. The shock still hasn’t come off of it. It is a caustic film, rage choked in a way that makes it feel legitimately dangerous on a level above the average foreign melodrama or fanboy geek show. And it accomplished this not because it pushed away from American ideals of filmmaking but because it embraced and made sweet unnatural love to them. Oldboy isn’t a great film because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, we know the tools it uses; a premise that is like some sort of Hitchcockian platonic ideal, an eye for action and a well shot showdown, a gripping mystery and a gloating villain. Like Oh Dae Su’s hammer, Oldboy takes these familiar tools and uses them to hurt us- to say nothing of the hero. And ever since Tarantino anointed it with the Grand Prix it’s like it's been grinning, asking, “Can you do the same? Can you still hit this hard? Play this rough?”

Well points for trying.

Out of all the directors who have taken up, and then put down the challenge I found Lee the most intriguing in a just crazy enough to work sort of way (yes even more than Spielberg- let’s face it fellas there was no way certain stuff was going to show up in a Spielberg movie, in one of his “This Is For A Serious Purpose” films such as Munich sure, but not one of his “entertainments.”) Sure it was nothing much like anything else in his filmography, but then again there’s no two films that are much like one another in Lee’s filmography. While there’s a certain image everyone has of a Spike Lee joint, he’s also able to put on other writer’s voices (albeit through his own filter) like Richard Price or David Benioff, step offstage for his documentaries and follow his various muses through the structures of musicals and biopics. Nothing in his filmography immediately made me think of him for Oldboy, both nothing discouraged that notion either.

It’s not even fair to stand by the old critical phrases like “interesting failure” when it comes to Oldboy, because Oldboy doesn’t so much fail as it does succeed at aims that no one else is going for. It’s as though Lee invented an alloy that no one knows what to do with, let alone wants.

The smartest decision Lee makes with the material (and oddly enough the one he seems loath to admit to) is setting the film in New Orleans. By transplanting Oldboy into the south, he transforms the story into an maniac Southern Gothic. It’s one of those head slapping, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that,” ideas, because it’s the only Western context in which Oldboy can even be parsable. Set Oldboy anywhere else and the long imprisonment and web of incest at the heart of its plot would seem outlandish, but in the south, well that just feels like another day in Yoknapatawpha County.

Brolin does dedicated work bringing “Joe Doucett” to life. Both as the grieving monster he becomes when he’s unleashed and as the tormented figure he embodies when he’s torn down again and again. The hotel sequence at least matches the original, and nearly tops it with Lee cooking up a vignette involving a short lived pet of Brolin’s that’s more personally cruel than anything that happened to Oh Dae Su. When he’s unleashed, he’s less showy than Min-sik Choi’s performance, but arguably more damaged. In one key substitute Lee exchanges a scene where Dae Su fought a street gang in some generic violence, with Joe going up against some well meaning Dudebros in the middle of a pick up game, who as far as they know are merely trying to prevent an assault. Brolin nearly cripples them. There’s a real sense that he may no longer be a man fit to be released. That the damage done to him has already run too deep and may be permanent.

And it’s moments like these that make it all the more frustrating when Oldboy just goes dead for long periods of time. Including the infamous Hammer sequence which now plays out with all the impact of Side Scroller The Movie (though interestingly enough Lee has a much better handle on the up close and personal violence that precedes it). There are some, well let’s call them deliberate, choices that make up the film. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Sharlto Copley fan than I, but man I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m not going to be as condemnatory as nearly every other review I read, because it feels like he was giving Lee exactly what he was asking for. But he plays the mastermind, the cancerous heart of the mystery, as history's most malignant Upper Class Twit Of The Year contestant.

His character is Lee’s most overt political statement in the film, portraying the one percent as decadent and depraved lunatics. Emphasized by one of the few deviations from the plot that Lee makes underlines this with a sequence, that once again, only works if you’re thinking of Oldboy as a Southern Gothic.

Lee does makes some other changes to the ending, though not the one you are thinking of, credit Elizabeth Olsen for not flinching from the material (and while we’re at it Michael Imperiolli does well and Samuel Jackson seems to be having the most fun). And, just for a little extra kick of confusion out the door, I’m reasonably sure I find this ending more satisfying than the original’s.

So here we have a movie equal parts infuriating and fascinating. One that strings perhaps forty minutes of electric scenes between eighty minutes of dead weight. I can’t in good consciousness recommend Oldboy to anyone as a film. But I would absolutely recommend anyone who was interested see it as an experiment. I guess at the end of the day I feel like my biggest problem is that if someone were to capture Spike Lee and pose him two all important questions of his own, “Why a remake?” and “Why this film?” I’m not sure he could answer.

And now to a remake that I’ve just been plain too dispirited to write about until Oldboy got me thinking about it again.

Let me be perfectly clear, there are other directors whose underuse disappoints me. Kim Peirce is the only one who makes me angry.

It’s not just because she’s an auteurist woman working in a field where both are in short supply. It’s because she’s really fucking good. If the director of Boys Don’t Cry and Stop Loss had a nine and five year gap between films respectively and was named Jim Bob I would still be pissed. And unlike so many films that get shucked for their last ounce of name recognition Carrie was ripe for reinterpretation.

Few works capture the nastiness of adolescence as sharply as Carrie. The rage, the isolation, the loneliness, the thwarted potential, none of it has aged a jot. And in the wake of cyber bullying scandals, school violence and the highly publicized rash of gay teen suicides Carrie hardly needed to remind anyone that it was still a pertinent, potent piece of material.  So let’s just recap. We have a remake that is:

A)     More socially relevant than ever.

B)      Despite the excellence of the previous adaptation, there was material in King’s novel that just couldn’t be portrayed at the time, most of Carrie’s apocalyptic final rampage was excised. Leaving plenty of plumb new material to mine for the new adaptation.

C)      Would be helmed by a director who not only would almost have to offer a more interesting take on the gender politics than Brian DePalma, who has always had a well let’s just call it complicated relationship with women, but who knows the rhythms of small town life in her bones. This was someone who wouldn’t just make Carrie matter, she’d make it hurt.

So there you have it. A remake with a bonafide reason, strike that, multiple reasons to exist.  Why the only way they could screw it up is if they ignored the book completely, pretended that the last thirty five years never happened, and just readapted DePalma’s film!

…anybody want to guess what they did?

It’s hard to know who to be mad at with Carrie. Sure Chloe Moretz was miscast, but she does honorable work, and she’s able make at least one line near the end really hurt. I understand that Peirce may not have had as free of a hand as she was accustomed to and some of her detractors have been unfair in their criticism of her handling of her horror material, there’s at least one gore gag here that goes cheekily far, and while her prom scene may not match DePalma’s it has its moments. Julianne Moore does fine work as Margret White. It would be easy enough to call it a hard won single, off of what should have been an easy grand slam.

And yet, the sheer, stubborn unwillingness of Carrie to engage with anything leaves such rationalizing feeling hollow. There’s NOTHING new here, no unused material from the book, no attempt to understand the new kind of bullying that will follow kids home through their computer, no attempt to portray how questions of sexuality are used as an attack, no new empathy, no new insight. It might as well have been titled Carrie! Again! And that’s the last thing it should have been.

Well it made money at least, which means that maybe Peirce’s next film will get off the Launchpad a bit easier. But now her all too short CV carries something else new. A disappointment.

Oh also I saw Frozen, it was pretty neat.      

Friday, October 18, 2013

31 Days Of Horror: The 31 Dayening: Doctor Sleep

There’s no point in mincing words, I’ve been dreading Doctor Sleep pretty much since it’s been announced. Not in a good way either. I’ve been a big proponent of King’s late period. By my mark everything he’s written since Cell has been worth reading and a good deal of it (particularly Full Dark No Stars) deserves mention among the best work he’s done. While the last seven years haven’t been entirely without missteps (I still say Under The Dome stumbles at the finish line) taken as a whole the body of work King has produced is incredibly strong.

This did nothing to bolster my confidence in Doctor Sleep.

The Shining is a perfect popular novel. If you have any interest in writing genre fiction, not just horror fiction, you owe it to yourself to read it. It’s a freaking machine. The word page turner is often used dismissively, but the construction of The Shining, the way every revelation baits you deeper and deeper into the book is a thing of beauty. And it’s all in the service of a story with so much empathy and hurt that it matters. The fact that the book is scary as hell almost seems like a bonus. That’s not the kind of thing you can just replicate. Particularly thirty five years after the fact.

And as details on Doctor Sleep leaked out it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The initial premise, Danny Torrance working at a hospice where he helps ease his patient’s transition into death, sounded promising, but then King announced that “psychic vampire pirates” would be in the mix and sometime after that I trained myself to stop reading articles about Doctor Sleep.

So color me pleasantly surprised that Doctor Sleep is a complete blast of a novel, it might not have the ambition of 11/22/63, it might not be as introspective as Duma Key, or push his limits like Lisey’s Story. But it ranks among King’s most purely entertaining work. God help me I never thought I’d type this, but the story in which Danny Torrance battles what for all the world reads like the world’s first NC-17 Sailor Moon villain, ends up being not merely an entertaining read but a genuinely satisfying conclusion (continuation?) to The Shining.

After a brief prologue Doctor Sleep opens with Danny Torrance as a wreck, having followed his father’s footsteps much closer than the ending of The Shining would have you guess. Drifting and self destructive Danny finds himself drawn to a New England town where he joins AA, finds work at a hospice, and prepares himself for a destiny he can faintly see coming.

Doctor Sleep is one of those happy books were even its flaws end up working for it. At first The True Knot, arguably the best villains that King has cooked up since Annie Wilkes, and their carny slang patois seem jarring and out of place. But they end up being conduits for the sheer love of language that has always been one of King’s best qualities. No other popular novelist has King’s pure pleasure in playing with words, deconstructing them into babble, smashing together disparate bits of counter slang into inimitable phrases. It takes Doctor Sleep a bit to kick into its main plot, but that’s only because the AA material is so obviously heartfelt. And if Doctor Sleep, like this year’s Joyland, is kinder gentler King, with characters he can’t quite bring himself to really put the screws to, he’s still capable of hitting hard enough in the early goings of the story that you never take anyone’s safety for granted.

Heartfelt, funny, and genuinely eerie at times, far from derailing King’s late period resurgence as I feared it might Doctor Sleep continues it in high style. Hail to the king baby.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Our Lady Of Darkness

For six years now Bill Ryan has been running 31 Days Of Slash. And if you want an education in horror literature there is no better place to go.

This year he's invited some of us to play along, and I somehow got on the guest list. My contribution was Fritz Leiber's Our Lady Of Darkness. Check it out here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Evil Dead

I did everything short of suffer a major head wound in order to walk into the new Evil Dead with an open mind. After all, this wasn’t a Platinum Dunes situation. Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell retained the rights to their breakthrough movie. The remake was put into production by the three. They handpicked the director and the script. No reason it couldn’t be good. Why there’s no reason to think of it as a remake at all really, just a film set in the same universe, another group of unlucky so and sos who stumbled across the wrong book and got possessed by some nasty Kandarian demons for their trouble. To quote another beloved cult film, I walked into Evil Dead thinking, “I have a positive feeling about this.”


In all fairness Evil Dead isn’t as bad as most of the remakes of classic horror films that have oozed out over the last decade and a half. The fact that it’s made by people who clearly understand and care about the source material, rather than seeing it as a license to print the coin of the realm shows. This is more on the level of the profoundly miscalculated remake of The Thing. Which is even more baffling.

Evil Dead actually starts of pretty strong. With an opening prologue that cleverly inverts expectations and actually bares a closer resemblance to Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell than Evil Dead (not that this is at all a bad thing). But things get off to a bad start just as soon as we get to the plot. The story is basically the same as the original, five friends go to an isolated cabin in the woods, where they find a book bound in human flesh and inked in human blood (also wrapped in barbed wire with a helpful note urging them reconsider reading it, no points for guessing what they immediately do). The twist on the remake is that the friends have gathered for an intervention not a vacation and so when one of their members starts shrieking, convulsing and cursing its hardly unexpected.

In the early going Evil Dead is an effective, if still vaguely pointless remake of The Evil Dead. It’s not shot with the innovation or the passion of Raimi’s original, but there’s some decent character rooted horror in the mix, and a few intense scenes that make good use of the film’s hard R. But things go off the rails and hard when for some bizarre reason the filmmakers decide that the threat of being murdered by your demon possessed friends isn’t a strong enough hook for the film to rest on, and they instead must bring in a master plot, about prophecies and chosen ones and the apocalypse and yadaddaaddaaa because now even freaking Evil Dead needs to have the exact same plot as ninety percent of what comes out of Hollywood.

The original Evil Dead is as organic and eccentric as movies get. It’s a film that made because the creator had to make it and was determined to have a career directing. It’s more than a labor of love it’s a labor of will. The remake never really had a hope of matching that passion, and all the cute call backs and gallons of gore can’t disguise the fact that the urgency just isn’t there.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

31 Days Of Horror: The 31 Dayening: The Horror Of Self Publishing

So not exactly the roaring start I wanted to get off to. But circumstances beyond my control kept me from getting this up earlier. 

A year (and some change ago) I self published the e version of my book Son Of Danse Macabre. If you've ever been to this site before you've heard of it. Since then I've sold more copies than I have friends or family thus ensuring that my head would come out of the oven. I'm modestly in the black and proud of the little bugger. I've received great reviews and pans. In short it's been a blast.

So for the one year anniversary (more or less) I've decided to write up some reflections on the whole ebook thing. Make no mistake the learning curve was steep and brutal. If you're thinking of entering the lofty realm of epublishing, see if you can't avoid some of my mistakes with the advice below. Or just, you know- laugh at my pain. 

So you’ve decided to self publish an ebook! Congratulations. No you’ve earned it. Spending all that time muscling through your first draft. Then taking the time to painstakingly fine tune it through a couple more drafts, to make sure that it was theoretically something people might want to read. Giving it to a few Beta Readers so you can make sure that it’s actually something that people would want to read. Hiring a copy editor to- Wait you have done all this right?

Because if you haven’t that’s a whole ‘nother article’s worth of stuff. This is for after you have already gone through all the travails and psychological damage of actually writing your book, and having given traditional publishing a miss for one reason or another (They didn’t want your book, or you’re looking to take advantage of the exciting new paradigm…they didn’t want your book) you are now actually trying to get people to read it. Because brother, I know you’ve put a lot of work into it already, but we’ve got a whole new mountain to climb.

I published my ebook, Son Of Danse Macabre at the beginning of October, and I’ve learned a lot. True, much of what I learned, I “learned” the way a hapless schmoe learns not to make bets with a bookie he can’t afford to pay when a thug with forearms like Popeye’s shatters his knees with a lead pipe. But learning is learning so lets see if we can’t save you the trouble.

5. It Isn’t Free: If you take one lesson from this article let it be this one. Ebook publishing is “free” the way that digital filmmaking is “cheap.” It’s true in a very loose sense, and you can upload a video of you and your buddies hitting one another with your cars (or whatever the kids are into these days) for next to nothing. But if you want something that looks more professional than sour owl poop you are going to need to shell out some bucks somewhere.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you have a cover? Can you draw? Does your drawing look better than something on the side of a van? Can you ink what you’ve drawn? Can you blend your illustration with a graphics like your title, and author? Can you do this all so it is legible on a tiny ebook screen, and the tinier version that the ebook shop will give it? No? Can your cousin Cletus? Would you buy a book that only had size fourteen Times New Roman on its cover? No? Than why would you expect someone else to? Prepare to shell out to pay for an artist, and if you’re extremely lucky an artist with a halfway competent sense of graphic design.

But lets say that you’re an amazingly talented artist with photoshop skills that would make the angels weep. Do you know anything about coding? Yes coding. Ebooks need to be formatted. No? Are you willing to spend hours wading through contradictory tutorials and advice? Are you willing to spend further hours experimenting with trial and error in order to get something that looks halfway legible up on the mock e-reader screen that Barnes and Noble and Amazon provides (Oh how you will grow to hate that screen). Are you willing to throw up your hands and weep tears of blood when there’s stuff that still just won’t work even after you’ve painstakingly learned the principles and made sure that there’s no logical reason for it not to work. (My author photo won’t show up in my Kindle edition of the book for reasons that no one, least of all Amazon can figure out. In the nook edition There is word that the nook decided should be represented vertically? Why? Why not? Though it was at the beginning of an article on Lovecraft so perhaps I was asking for it.) Would you perhaps like to use that time for something more productive? Like say drinking and staring at a wall?

Here’s another one for size. Are you a good copy editor? No let me ask that again. Are a good copy editor? Not do you think you’re a good copy editor. Do you know you’re a good copy editor. The importance of this is impossible to overstate. I feel like my generation was brought up with a very Laissez Faire approach to grammar. But nothing separates the amateur from the professional quicker than a quick look at the neatness of copy. A fact I learned to my sorrow when I sent my manuscript to an author I truly admire, something of an elder statesman in the field of my book, who sent me back an email that so indignant that one would have thought that I had sent him a slate with that consisted of the single word Cat spelled K-A-T-T with only a crudely etched picture of Mr. Whiskers beneath to give him the context I felt he needed to decode the work.

And in all fairness, he wasn’t the only one. The copy editor I sent the book to for triage sent me letters that often sounded as though he was considering seppuku rather than finish my work. Because no matter how many times I went over the book with a fine tooth comb there came a point of saturation when my brain was simply reading what it wanted to be there instead of what was actually there. This is common. No matter how talented of a writer you are. Trust me.

Which brings us back to our original point, lets say that you’re lucky enough to know three dependable people who can help you out in these areas. Let’s take it a step further and say that you know three people who will help you out in these areas for friend prices (Because I don’t know about you guys but I like to pay my friends when they do work for me. I’m funny that way) as I was, farming my cover out to a talented web comic artist  and the copy editing out to a seasoned copy editor I was lucky enough to know (The formatting I did myself but it wasn’t fun. Trust me.) You’re still starting out two to three hundred dollars in the hole. And that’s assuming that like Disco Stu you have decided not to advertise.

4. Pricing Mysteries

“Well that’s no problem!” you say to yourself. Three hundred bucks I can make that back in no time! I’ll just price the book at .99 cents and three hundred copies later whammo!  (We’ll strip you of that delusion when we get to number three.) I’ll be swimming in profit just like the swells!” Why you have started talking like Frankie from The Goon is a separate issue, and this article cannot help you with it.

There are several things wrong with this line of thinking but let’s tackle the biggest first. Let’s try a little thought experiment shall we?

Lets say you are walking down the street when you pass a shady looking character sitting atop a large red cooler, Tilde Cap pulled down over his eyes, handle bar mustache waxed to a gleam, only the absence of a Pabst Blue Ribbon makes you think he’s not a hipster. “Psst… Buddy,” he whispers, “Wanna by a human liver?”

Being a sharp fellow with an open mind you stop in the street to consider, “Welllll…” you say stroking your chin, “I do like a good human liver? How much is it?”

And that’s when the guy grins, “That’s the best part chum. It barely costs nothing! Just .99 cents.”

Which is the part where you cry out, “Aw nuts to you!” and keep making your way down the road, grumbling, “Who does he think he is, gonna offload his lousy busted human liver on me. What does he think I was born yesterday? Never bought no black market organs before?” Down the block you meet a second gentleman, very much like the first, who offers you a human liver for 100 bucks, “A hundred bucks!!!” You exclaim, “Now thems’ human liver prices!” You put the liver in your pocket and walk away whistling, “Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing!)”.

The point is that we as human beings immediately assume that if something is cheap there is something wrong with it. Or in the wise words of Lt. Aldo Raine, by whose model I always attempt to live by (the rash of recent scalping in Austin TX has nothing to do with this) “If it sounds too good to be true, it ain’t.”

Assuming that you can sell a lot of copies by making your work unbelievably cheap is foolish. All you’re going to do is make potential customers think that you don’t believe your work is worth very much. And if you don’t think its worth anything, then why the hell should they?

To make matters even worse for you, you have to remember that it’s not like you  get all the money you make off your ebooks. Amazon and Barnes And Noble aren’t making giving you a publishing platform because of their altruism (trust me I worked for Barnes And Noble, Ebenezer Scrooge was a more generous employer) They’re doing it to make money, and because of the smaller amount involved in a .99 cents sale they take a larger cut of the royalties. As in a seventy percent one. So lets say that you did sell your three hundred copies in the first month (you won’t) that wouldn’t get you the needed 300 dollars to cover your expenses. It would net you closer to 90. Still 210 in the red. And it’s not like you’re getting the money the next day either, it takes two months for the big two to cut you a check, assuming that you’re using direct deposit and assuming that your book has made the minimum amount of money for them to bother.

Thankfully there’s an easy solution, raise your price, at least to the point where you get a seventy percent royalty. Go on be a man, stick out your chest, tell the world “I deserve it!” That’s what I did, taking my book all the way up to the giddy heights of 2.99. Isn’t that still pretty cheap you say? I’m glad you asked oh hypothetical guy who lives in my head because that brings me to my next point.

3. Know Thy Audience Or Lack There Of.

Part of the reason that my book was so cheap was that it was a work of criticism. More specifically a work of criticism on the last thirty years of the horror genre. Covering films, comics, games and literature.

I know what you’re thinking, “Oh man he must be rolling in that Lit Crit money!” It’s true it’s true, with the obscene amount of wealth I’ve made from my royalties from my Literary Criticism I’ve been able to buy a gold plated Audi which uses Evelyn Waugh’s writing desk as the passenger seat. The back seat is filled with crates of The Complete Poetry Of Czelaw Milosz. I throw them at the heads of random passersby screaming, “EDIFY YOURSELF.” It’s a fine life if you don’t weaken.

The point is that my book is selling not just to a niche, but to a niche within a niche within a niche. Not just to horror fans in other words, but horror fans who care to read what someone else things about horror, and furthermore care to read what I think about horror. It’s only fair that I meet them halfway, hence the low price point.

You should also make sure you know what you’re getting into. For all the wonderful democratizing elements about electronic self publishing, readers still treat Publishers as gatekeepers who ensure a minimum standard of quality. They see buying self published work as a risk. And in all fairness, they’re not wrong.

Of course some readerships are more open to it than others. As a rule Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy readers are all relatively open to the prospect since they are the readers of work that is pretty much on the fringes anyway. This is the same reason why these are the only genres that are able to support anthologies of short fiction (barely). They are genres built on a readership that knows the rewards of taking risks.

If you’re working in general fiction, mystery or various non fiction sectors (A Modest Proposal: Was John Swift Really That Far Off The Mark?), I’m sorry to say you are facing a much bigger uphill climb. Which funnily enough brings me to my next point…

2. Be prepared to whore thyself in new and Interesting Ways.

Lets get this out of the way, advertising for books doesn’t really work. It was something I was eager to experiment with. I bought space on the popular cult film web series The Cinema Snob. It resulted in zero sales. After that I tried a campaign on Facebook. It also resulted in zero sales. After that I tried working with Project Wonderful, and when I awoke from my nightmare coma (seriously don’t work with Project Wonderful) I found it had resulted in zero sales.

I’m currently running a campaign on Goodreads, a campaign that has thus far resulted in, let me just check the numbers here real quick... Ah yes. Zero sales.

The point is that traditional advertising doesn’t really work so well for books, or at least for ebooks. Another avenue is of course trying to get your work reviewed by web sites and magazines. You should totally do this.

But as Brian Michael Bendis (back when he was still interested in telling stories that other people hadn’t already told a million times before) wrote in his comic memory Fortune And Glory, you should do this with the same attitude of sending out a resumes. Send a hundred out in the hopes of landing one return response. Of the magazines and bigger sites I’ve sent my work to, I have been reviewed in a grand total of two and one was pan (And I know I shouldn't respond to bad reviews but Henry Potrait Of A Serial Killer was completed and screened in 1986, Hammer is British thus doesn't have any bearing on my thesis and I didn't cover short stories because I was following King's structure. That's why.) Don’t get me wrong I did the Snoopy Dance when I landed both, but it was a matter of playing the percentages. And trust me, seen that way it took a lot of work to get those two reviews.

You can also try reaching out to smaller blogs, but don’t expect a much higher rate of success. As anyone who has blogged and had any semblance of a readership knows, the second more than a dozen people who were searching for monkey porn and accidentally stumbled across your blog and start reading you, you are instantly inundated with requests to review everything from student films, to well… monkey porn. Often the monkey pornographers compose themselves with more dignity. It quickly becomes difficult for even the most modest blogger to respond to these people, let alone review them. However, if you have an ebook to sell I hope you treated these folks kindly, because in a nightmarish act of Karmic Retribution you become one of them. Clogging folks emails, the way you yourself have been clogged.

You can only depend on the kindness of strangers, and hope that they aren’t actually dragging you off to a mental institution.

So if advertising doesn’t work, and reviews are at best a crapshoot what does that leave you. Well unless you’re a complete sociopath (and lets face it this is the internet odds are about 50/50) you probably know some folks on the internet. And chances are if you know them on the internet, they probably have some sort of web presence as well. Use that.

By far my biggest boosts in sales came from my friends. Guys like the twin national treasures of Tim Brayton and Bill Ryan who were generous enough to give me plugs. Guys like the dudes I podcast with at the On The Stick collective, who let me flog the book relentlessly on their various shows. Or stand up fellas like JD. LaFrance or Le0pard13

Get creative, if you’ve written an entire book, chances are its not the first thing you’ve written. Maybe you’ve written for a website, maybe they’ll let you write about the book (http://www.inreads.com/2012/10/02/diary-of-a-reluctant-e-publisher-the-books-the-thing/). Maybe you’ve written for a paper, maybe they’ll have someone review the book. (http://www.newtimesslo.com/cover/8517/the-man-who-knew-too-much/) Why the hell not? Stranger things have happened.

1. Prepare for Exhilaration When You Sell.

So right now you might be wondering why you should bother at all. After all, You’ll have to shell out cash, work really hard to get the book seen by people, work even harder to get them to buy it and even harder than that to get them to read it. And if that all goes right you probably won’t make much money at all doing those things. So why the hell should you bother.

Because I guarantee you, that if you stick with it there will come a day when you look at your sales figures and go, “Wait a minute. I don’t have this many friends and one side of the family is no longer speaking to me. So that can only mean…” And then it will dawn on you. Someone, multiple someones, who you don’t know, have paid there good hard earned money to read what you have to say, and they have not apparently demanded there money back. There’s no other feeling like it in the world. It makes crack cocaine feel like a sip of O’Douls. Is E publishing worth the giant pain in the ass? Oh yes my friends. Yes it is.

And if you're one of the people who gave me that charge, thank you, thank you, thank you.