Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jaws is Not a Halloween Movie

"We need a Halloween movie."

"Jaws?"

"No, Jaws is a winter movie."

"You mean summer?"

"No, watch it when it can't ruin swimming for you."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Are Zombie Stories Always Disasters?



Yesterday I finished John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, and I wanted to call it the most creative zombie story since Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Except Handling the Undead was published the year before Brooks’s novel, and I simply took a while finding it. They’re opposed books, because World War Z is the best at what zombies always are, those rotting hordes of the apocalypse. Handling the Undead makes you question why they’re always that.

At this point, Zombie might as well be a genre. It’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, usually gory, stories of survival and moral ambiguity. Humans turn out to be the ultimate evil more regularly than in The Twilight Zone. Every year people proclaim zombies must be done, but The Walking Dead only gets bigger ratings, and more videogames and indie authors produce the rotting hordes. I haven’t fatigued of the zombie, which is the unusual promise that the world we live in will be transformed into a fantasy playground. But I do wonder about it becoming so conventional.

Early on, Handling the Undead de-fangs the zombie apocalypse by showing the police and military immediately rolling in against dangerous ones, while are others are so weak (they’ve been decomposing, for God’s sake) that their families can overtake and even keep them. It’s so matter-of-fact, both from the accounts of survivors and the newspaper-like chapters that fill us in on the world’s reactions, that it wholly disarms the fantasy of the undead toppling everything.

What they topple is the catharsis of death. A mother grieving over a dead son now has something even more inexplicable in her house. She doesn’t know if he’ll recover, if he remembers her, if she can feed or help him. She yearns to, and we read with hands over our mouths, hoping he won’t bite her the next time she leans in.

It’s not a story of headshots and desperate amputations. It made me wonder about Warm Bodies, which I couldn’t stand, but also didn’t give a chance to. YA Romance is so far from my wheelhouse that I didn’t consider it as a property changing the zombie and the story of zombieism. Handling the Undead got more leeway, both because its author wrote Let the Right One In, and because it was about the pathos of the sting of death being removed, which was more novel. Even Shaun of the Dead is really the same old zombie story, but with very funny handling. Part of its appeal is it talked about zombies the way our generation had been doing for years. It wasn’t this disruptive.

Eventually the zombie apocalypse gets so familiar that this happens.
Handling the Undead breaks some explicit and some unspoken rules about zombies. That’s what we all do now, right? You want them to run, you want the bite to be an instant change, etc. For Lindqvist, the undead don’t immediately go after flesh, and he plays on your expectation of this brilliantly, as you’re fearing for mourners who get too close. They seemingly respond to the emotional states of those around them (this is going to start the flesh-eating, isn’t it?).

More pregnant are the unspoken rules it breaks, for instance: zombies no longer spawn like hordes of videogame enemies whenever convenient. I love The Walking Dead comic, but both the comic and show get silly with the number of zombies that show up miles from any source of food or civilization, like they’re smelling the plot. You need that unspoken rule if you’re going to tell an action story. Handling the Undead, though, is about the emotional effects on loved ones of the recently returned.

It’s when you tamper with those “rules” that are actually contrived conventions that audiences can wonder why all those other stories act alike. There’s drama in a mass of zombies banging on the hero’s door when he’s only got two bullets left, but there’s a rarer drama in a devastated grandfather researching what medical equipment might keep his returned grandson alive, and the knowledge that if he can sustain the boy, he’ll have to flee the city to keep him safe from the government.

The disruption underlies what excites me most in all Speculative Fiction. We’ve seen so many cynical zombie stories that we know where most of it will go, that the old world will die and any non-protagonists will probably form negative groups, like cults and corrupt military pockets. But when you take a creature that is typically the engine of global disaster, and instead apply it to the internal life of specific people who don’t even get the reprieve of oppressive social orders disappearing, it can become something else. The humanity of it is unyielding, ironically, because it can’t die anymore.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Couple of Horrors - #fridayflash

It’s not my fault we live in the middle of the woods. It’s not hers, either, but I can use this. We finish Nightmare on Elm Street around 2:30 AM and hustle to get the Netflix disc back to the mailbox before the morning mail. That is a quarter mile trek under an overcast of clouds and oak boughs, so I bring the flashlight. An actual fog rolls between the trees, making Lita shiver despite her coat and long skirt.

“I don’t know why they remake classics,” I say, depositing the Netflix envelope. I close the lid and flip up the flag. “You know, why not just remake crappy movies? Ones that will benefit from new effects or re-writing?”

She inhales through her nose, loud and elegant, and we both know that no matter how many flaws I can find in this remake, she’ll be afraid to go to sleep tonight. It’s not my fault. Not hers, either, but I can use this. I eye the distance to the edge of the road. About three steps. When we get far enough from the mailbox, I shut off my beam.

"Wet" sold to Urban Fantasy Magazine

It's a good day to celebrate! Yesterday morning I signed the contract and sold my first short story to a pro-rate magazine. The lovely space is the newly launching Urban Fantasy Magazine, and mine is one of the first stories they've ever bought! It will be available on their site, though the publication date hasn't been determined yet.

"Wet" follows an immortal narrator who's gotten used to being eternal, and meeting a traumatized ghost that's haunting the train station en route to work. I won't spoil where it goes, but it was really fun to write a buddy piece between the deathless and the undead.

I wrote immediately after Viable Paradise 17 - it might have been one year ago today, actually. The workshop gave me so much to think about, and this was my way of working through many of those thoughts.

Now to write something new. Urban Fantasy is still open for submissions, if you'd like to join me!

And now to celebrate by watching scary movies! Feel free to recommend me one, particularly obscure things streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuke ‘Em: Pacific Rim's Problem with Kaiju Heritage


There’s a lot I love about Pacific Rim, but its ending has bothered me since opening weekend. Spoilers, naturally, if you haven’t seen it. In the last year, I haven’t heard a single person mention the oddity of a film rooted in Kaiju lore that resolves its problems by nuking the enemy army.

To start: Pacific Rim owes its existence to Godzilla. It has copious allusions to the 1954 film, and that franchise popularized the Kaiju battles that Pacific Rim is built around. Godzilla was punching giant robots a full decade before Guillermo Del Toro started making movies. It’s easy to envision the Jaeger program building Mechagodzilla in the eventual crossover – and Del Toro publicly said he wanted a crossover even before Pacific Rim screened. The appropriation is deliberate and largely affectionate.

In the fun and camp of giant battles, it’s easy to forget that the 1954 Godzilla is rooted in the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that film, the beast is both an allegory for nuclear war, and is literally woken up by the usage of nuclear weapons. These themes ebb and flow in the ensuing franchise, but the beloved character was emblematic of a real national terror.

Pacific Rim solves its conflict by dropping a nuclear bomb into the rift. The characters are explicit that the Jaeger’s core is a nuclear reactor – that’s why it works when others can't, and it goes off like a nuclear bomb, not like a reactor in meltdown. The war isn’t resolved when the two Jaegers defeat the final Kaiju. It isn’t solved by Pentecost’s sacrifice. Humanity is only safe once we’ve A-bombed the bad guys.

I reveled in most of the movie. Kikuchi, Perlman, Day and Elba are delights, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and the overall film is greatly executed. Is the movie dumb? Yes, but it’s great at its dumbness. Even the bombing, with GLaDOS counting down and the heroes racing to safety, is exciting.

But even in IMAX, it was also troubling. We clearly hit a military installation, with no idea of how many civilians live on site. It’s like the lovably dumb movie suddenly committed another Hiroshima.

It’s one thing to not make the anti-nuclear message your core point, and it’s another to explicitly go against it. Was it intentional? I like to think not. No press I’ve read around the film suggests an enthusiasm for nuclear holocaust. And mistakes happen in art because when you’re juggling a dozen things in your mind, a thirteenth can always hit the floor. What hit the floor here is an incredibly sensitive item, from the genesis of kaiju films and one of the worst evils human beings have ever committed.

And the bombing isn’t indispensible to the plot. The rift could have been blown up rather than the people on the other side. In Newton Geiszler’s mind melds with Kaiju, a solution to closing all rifts could have been revealed. The Category 5 Kaiju could have been the lord and mother of them all, and its defeat the guarantee that no more could be created, or that the remainder would have no motive to continue attacking. Rewriting a few scenes, you could craft several different endings that wouldn’t require nuking the enemy.

It's still a surprisingly haunting moment.
Re-watching the 1954 Godzilla on Friday night brought this all to mind again. If it wasn’t the first, Kaiju film began there, and that film begins with a makeshift hospital laden with bodies, dead parents, irradiated children, and a narrator dazedly waking up in the wreckage. This is the fallout of a radioactive dinosaur, an impossibility that harkened to another impossibility – a mushroom of smoke changing the world.

That’s what any alien survivors of the end of Pacific Rim will wake up to. It feels spiritually wrong.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fridging Women - #FridayFlash


As Soobin Kwan stepped from her car, a deer darted through the parking lot and for the woods. It made her pause with her hand on the door, and the deer stopped too, looking squarely at her from between two pines. Queer as it was, dappled expression reminded her of her father. It had an elegant neck and no antlers – a doe, then, not a Dad-deer. There was a circular bald patch in its left side. It seemed to turn to show her the pale scar before darting off.

“Okay, that wasn’t weird,” Soobin told herself, locking up her car. She started for the Snow White Institute. It was a tall, white building overlooking the seashore. Smelling the brine, she wondered if the sea air was important to their work. It grew colder every step she took toward the Institute, and the front doors swooshed open with frosty swirl, like someone’s breath on a winter day. It was June.

The inside was dimly lit, the first floor ceiling seeming to go upward forever. The walls were lined with stainless steel doors, and much of the lobby was a maze of additional steel units, that looked like refrigerators. Ten units down from her, a woman in a grey pantsuit and green flats was in the midst of opening one of them, and it illuminated her face just like Soobin’s fridge at home.

“Hi, I’m Alexandra,” the woman said. “Can I help you?”

“Uh,” Soobin said, which is a surprisingly common thing said when people walk in on someone checking a fridge in the lobby.

“Are you the one o’clock?”

“Yes,” Soobin said. She was the 12:45, but she was also always late. “But I’m not here about kitchenware…”

“That’s good, because these aren’t for sale,” Alexandra said, and moved to close the steel unit. Soobin neared enough to glimpse a teenage girl inside, eyes closed, tranquil under the luminescence. The girl wore a funny black headband and a green overcoat. She could’ve been sleeping behind glass waiting for a prince. Now, Soobin thought prince-kissing sounded more reasonable than the help she’d come to ask for.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Do You Segregate Fantasy and Horror?


An iconic Fantasy villain,
with his +1 cleaver.
From an early age I didn't understand most genre distinctions, and especially why stories weren't supposed to enter other territory midway through. This came to mind recently as I struggled over recommending Horror novels to someone who prefers Fantasy. John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, for instance, is technically Fantasy - it's got vampires burning in sunlight like any of a thousand Urban Fantasies. But it's widely recognized as a great Horror novel rather than a great Fantasy novel.

I've asked this on Reddit today, and will ask the blogosphere as well: how do you segregate Fantasy from Horror?

It's tricky for me as they often overlap. Horror is classically defined by the emotions it inspires in the audience (dread, tension, fear), whereas Fantasy is classically defined by things we believe to be unreal existing in the story (dragons, magic swords, other worlds). The presence of zombies doesn't make something Horror novel: Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel has zombies and is alternately slotted as Comedy, Mainstream and Fantasy. You only get Zombie Horror by doing the right things with them, but if you write a Medieval world with flying wyrms, you can't escape the Fantasy label. 

Herein lies the trick, because a genre about audience emotions can overlap with a genre about items at any time, but people will still consider something Horror rather than Fantasy.

I’d argue that Pennywise and Jason Voorhees are Fantasy characters you could slot into a RPG system. Many of our scariest ideas as a fiction-loving culture are intrinsically fantastical ones we still irrationally fear in the right contexts. Paranormal Activity even has a magic system by which its demon operates, though interestingly, it’s figuring out that system that adds much of the tension to the early movies.

Yet works like Stephen King's Misery and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho don't need any otherworldly justification. We know Horror isn’t always fantastical, just as what we usually call Fantasy doesn’t bring Horror to mind, even when Jon Snow is cornered by a wight. 

So what makes you think of a favorite book or movie as one genre?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Don't Write This: Fiction in Danger Zones

Senility as wish fulfillment.
I've already written a full review of Jo Walton's My Real Children, but I want to talk about something not in my review, and in no review I've yet read. The novel follows Patricia Cowan as she suffers a peculiar senility, forgetting most of her life, and then seeming to recall two different lives in high detail. Late in the novel, we see how the onset of senility hits her in both lives, and in one her lover dies. Patricia immediately hopes her senility will make her forget the death happened. This excited me. 

For the last two years of his life, I called my grandfather every night to make sure he had at least a little daily contact with a family member. He hated living in an old folks home, and was very demented on top of that. Our nightly contact made him remember me more than the other grandchildren, though there were still calls when he mistook me for his son, friend, and on one night, his mother. Living that intensely with a disability can stifle the way you think about it. It's easier to default to a somber, anodyne mode, both in avoiding conflicts, and in taking your mind off of things. It takes a different mind to see something so painful and be creative with it.

In reading that paragraph of Walton's novel, I wasn't offended. It was enlivening to read someone subvert our default thoughts of dementia, and simultaneously, tap into those desires, because in moments of weakness we've all wanted to forget things. In the moment, I could only compare it to FX's Archer.

I'm probably the only person to parallel My Real Children and Archer, but one of Archer's great strengths is its anarchic sense of humor. People mistake the show as dark, but it features the lightest hearted graphic tiger mauling I've ever seen. The series uses the drug trade, asphyxia fetishes, eco-terrorism, homophobia and the Oedipal complex as fodder for amazing character humor. It is neither didactic nor cynical; it's creative enough with its deployment of highly flawed characters to avoid offense while depicting the people themselves as intensely offensive. This is great for some audiences (like me), but also stifles how others think about creativity in danger zones, making them think it has to be transgressive.


Archer is often transgressive, as is most comedy about touchy subjects, because that's the easy edge for a laugh. But take George Carlin's early performances of The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television. For the first six he's juvenile and profane – and then he hits "fuck." It's the beginning of life, he says, and yet it's something we use to hurt each other. Very rare for George Carlin, he isn't sure about his footing on a topic, and only has one joke, before saying he'll try to make a full bit out of it next year. He did, and the later versions have never been as interesting to me. That he's vulnerable and unsure about something so touchy, after being so flippant about the other touchy subjects is a haunting deviation.

As I've aged, I've become increasingly attracted to artists who can remain creative in danger zones. It seems either the hardest thing to do (plausible) or so risky to market that it's avoided (also plausible). Certainly if you botch your attempt at a new angle on pedophilia then you can offend a wide audience. But if you try, you might get John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, and that scene wherein the pedophile Hakan rents a child prostitute, but is then so disturbed by how the boy is treated that he tries to give him enough money to run away. This foreshadows the compassionate angle Lindqvist later casts over the vampire/familiar relationship. The compassion of a pedophile in an otherwise uncaring world was so unexpected that it gave me goosebumps, where most vampire stories give me boredom. 

A predator in need of companionship.
These deviations stir me up. In most art you can get a sense of how touchy subjects will be handled; Grimdark Fantasy will probably slouch into rape, and a children's cartoon will probably avoid or didactically instruct about disabilities. Predictable paths are not always wrong, and often writing from a place of reliable sensitivity can avoid opening wounds. But I don't accept the failure state of attempted creativity in a danger zone as loathsome. My general reaction is discomfort for an author who probably knows they screwed up on something meaningful. It reads like seeing someone fall when both of us thought they should have flown.

Maybe I'm so attracted to these because I haven't figured out their parameters yet. There's a strong attraction for some people mired in what we don't yet understand. But to remain flexible with in writing about topics as tender as senility and pedophilia is too much for most artists. It's why most won't touch it at all. That might be why the few that can do it, even for a paragraph are so precious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bathroom Monologue: End of the World Sale


My nephew forced me to buy the chair at a yard sale. The "End of the World Sale," the plywood sign called it, and the chair was propping up the left side of the sign. The chair had only been owned for a week, real leather on the arm rests, and real steel in the supports. Walnut brown with a red undertone and yellow stitching, not as elegant as black models, but distinct. My nephew said I'd use it in my new writing room. He said I had to get writing again, which was his way of saying I needed to get over my wife. Little did he know, little did I know.

See, the seat cushion sighed when I sat on it for the first time in the morning. The same sound as so many of Ruth's sighs, when she'd get in after double-shifts and plop beside me to boot up Netflix. And I have this habit of leaning to much to the left when I'm hesitating over a plot idea, and every time I did, something in the supports grunted. I swear, grunted, like when Ruth was upset at me, the minor upsets, like I'd forgotten the turn signal on a vacant road, or put the toilet paper in facing the wrong way. I figured the chair had sat on the grass too long and some dew had gotten into whatever gears a chair has.

Then there was this Wednesday night when I wrote. Really wrote, for the first time since I couldn't anymore. A whole short story in one sitting, and I was at least a third of the way into another one when I realized I'd been holding the same posture the whole time, my back never touching the chair. I rubbed my eyelids and reclined, and the chair…

Man, I know that noise. I'm the only person who ever made Ruth make that particular squeal. Me, and peppermint gelato.

I never got it to make that sound again. You know what nephew said? To oil the chair. With peppermint oil. And people ask why Ruth and I never wanted kids.

It's not haunted. I don't know if I believe in hauntings, but I know I don't believe in this one. It's that one time I got the wrong e-mail from my sister-in-law at the wrong time, and I sighed, and I know I sat forward, and air escaped the cushion at the same time, and it sounded like Ruth was sighing with me. And that never happened when she was alive, but I spent the next two hours imagining how it could've. Wishing it did. I slept downstairs instead of in the bed across from the office.

The urge is to write about this, or take it as a sign and write about Ruth. Except I can't start a paragraph about her without devolving into how much I fucked hate and don't understand what are aneurysms are, and I'd need to research them, and I can't enter that word into Google. I can't bear the sound the chair might make, or that it might not make a sound afterward. That it might go as quiet as a floor model.

Anyway, I'm writing again. Three terrible short stories, and now something that's inflating into a novella. The chair has sounded like she was giggling at three parts so far. It's about the things you might find at an end of the world sale.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

This House That Hunts Vampires For You



The modern world has not done enough to safeguard against vampires. The corrupt the young and drink the old, but the bravest hunters still travel in Trans Ams and fight on even footing with these monsters. That’s why we’re introducing a new product: your house.

LoreHouse ™ is not a mobile home you drag on a trailer hitch. No Sir or Madame, this is a titanium-reinforced domicile, coming in one- and two-story models, mounted on indestructible chicken legs using our patented Baba Yaga technology. Not only is the house capable or pursuing and crushing any folklore you encounter, but by becoming your new legal residence, it is impossible for biters to enter unbidden. Simply leave the front open and any undesirables that accidentally fall inside will combust.

Ever wished you had more silver nitrate or crucifixes as you were stranded in a wheat field, surrounded by bat noises? With LoreHouse ™, you’ll never worry you left something at home. Home will come with you, ensuring you’re equipped and have had a good night’s sleep before you stake your claim.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Last Murder Mystery You'll Ever Need

How impractical would it be to get Angela Lansbury, Tony Shalhoub, David Suchet, Emily Deschanel and Benedict Cumberbatch to star in an Expendables-esque murder mystery*? Each playing peculiar and familiar personalities, if not necessarily named "Monk" and "Bones." I promise this isn't an excuse to have an 88-year-old Lansbury hit on Big Ben Cumberbatch, though it is an ulterior motive. No, all the detectives are on the same case to clear their names, because they are the suspects of the same locked-room murder.

Thus each will be suspicious of the others, and some directly investigating their competition. Poirot suspects Monk’s phobias are a fa├žade that would let him get away with it; Lansbury finds Deschanel suspiciously sanguine about the whole thing. But Lansbury was a mystery novelist; could she have cooked up a murder?

Whodunnit? That would spoil the fun. But the victim is most certainly their host: a butler played by Tim Curry.



*Yes, very impractical. I know.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Shame of Flash Thompson

From Pinterest.
Perhaps you know Venom. He’s the coolest Spider-Man villain. Just ask my fifteen-year-old self and he’ll tell you so. Venom has an evil costume that Spider-Man tried to throw away, and it gives him all Spidey’s powers, but also makes him stronger, sneakier, and gives him fangs and tentacles. A consummate 90’s villain.

Perhaps you know there have been multiple Venoms. The current one is Flash Thompson, a bully from Spider-Man’s high school who has since reformed, joined the military, and is using the alien super-costume to help defend his country. He became “Agent Venom.” He just joined the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, that one. 

Hasbro made a prestige action figure of him. Then they decided not to sell it, probably because of his niche appeal. You read the above paragraph, right? Nobody cared.

Except I cared. The costume was cool, okay? I don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about Hasbro and Marvel recently agreeing to sell Agent Venom exclusively at one retailer.

What retailer would you pick to sell a superhero toy? Toys R Us? Target?

Try Walgreens. Not Wal-Mart. Walgreens, the chain pharmacy you can’t tell apart from CVS and Rite-Aid, is the exclusive home of Flash Thompson Venom

So I went to my local Walgreens, because that’s where I’m at in my life. I checked their toy aisle, which was more of a toy rack. There were some Ninja Turtles, Batmen and football supplies. No Marvel goodies at all.

Before I slinked away, I approached a staffer in a lavender scrub, who was re-stocking the energy bars. She immediately perked up and asked if she could help with anything.

“Do you have a Spider-Man toy called ‘Agent Venom?’” I asked.

She looked blank at me, like for a moment she’d forgotten how to be human. Then she smirked. “Black Spider-Man?”

“Yes,” I said. “Black Spider-Man.”

She led me to the freezer cases. Propped up beside the case was a cardboard box full of Flash Thompson Venoms. Dozens of their tentacles pointed at us from behind plastic wrap.

The clerk made a show of handing me one of them. I thanked her, and slinked to Check-Out.

It feels like a universal truth. Flash Thompson, a non-entity turned into a non-entity hero, then turned into non-entity merchandise you can only buy next to the freezers, far from the toy aisle of a non-entity pharmacy most people don’t even know sells toys. It’s likely that more people in my town will read the name “Agent Venom” on their way to grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s than will ever read it in a comic book.

Now he’s sitting on my desk. We have a lot to talk about.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Happy Birthday: In Defense of the Worst Year of My Adult Life

At the last hospital visit before my birthday, the nurse said I’d had a bad year. Nurses tend to be far more positive, so when she said that, it stirred me.  In the last couple months my mother, friends, fellow writers, and even acquaintances I didn’t know were following my story said this was a bad year for me. I don’t want to agree.

I turn 33 on Thursday. Last week I realized that will mean it’s been twenty years of this neuromuscular syndrome. For our anniversary, my body began rejecting medication, and the latest thing the doctor put me on only endows me with new and unwanted side-effects. Much of 2014 was waking up every two hours with muscle spasms, of being unable to think straight, and being so beat down I couldn’t even write anymore. Family begged me to take it easy on myself, to just take May easy. May slips so easily into June, especially when all you do is suffer.

Part of me knows I’ve done more than that. As my mind’s been bogged down by pain, I reach for oversimplifications more than I ever used to let myself. Depression is alleged to work like that. So I dwell:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking through a nursing home after hours

Walking through a nursing home after hours, the halls are empty but full of our sounds: generators, air pumps, washers. It's a symphony exclusively associated with human presence. Disorients when it all plays in absence of voices, footfalls and clothes swishing. This is probably what so many Horror movies/games/books strive for in mood, and I can see how it might be creepy, but it's not. It's a tickle, like my brain is waiting for society to load in with the rest of this setting.
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