Ready Player One

I wonder what it’s like to read this if you’re not, say, exactly forty-two. Being forty-two, however (just like Ernest Cline), this was perfect. It rewards all the obscure trivia I prize, makes being into X set of movies and Y set of comics cool. And, it even goes what’s Z for me: videogames, which I don’t know as well as Ready Player One does. I mean, yeah, I haunted the arcades in the eighties like the rest of the world, knew Galaga (I’m even in a recent Galaga book) and Pac-Man and Joust and the rest, but I was never really a contender. My quarters always just lasted for a few minutes, never an afternoon. The arcade wasn’t the destination, for me, it was just the place you cruised between cruising all the other places. And, these text-based videogames Ernest Cline talks about—I mean, I’d seen a computer in junior high, I think, but never actually confronted one until a guy in my dorm had one in 1990. And it just sat there on a shelf, with its cassette-tape memory.

Still, the nostalgia Ready Player One summons up, it’s not nothing. Thomas Pynchon says we always have a certain fondness for the decade we were born in, right? I amend that to ‘the decade we came of age in.’ For me that was the eighties. It was every single movie and television show this novel dips into, and from—including Schoolhouse Rock. And Def Leppard’s even here, so, nothing to complain about, right?

Well, almost nothing. What Ready Player One neglects, Radio Shack gets right:

You see Chucky in there? Jason Voorhees? For my tastes, Ready Player One situates itself more with the science-fiction crowd than the horror crowd—and, the horror crowd was what drove the eighties. My eighties, anyway. However, Ready Player One‘s very structure is a videogame, so of course it makes sense to appeal to the crowd for whom videogames were the beginning and the end. And, at the arcade, there wasn’t just a whole lot of horror. We were still living under the CCA, I mean; of course our quarterdrop diversions would be bloodless.

Ready Player One hardly neglects fantasy, though, which was big in the early eighties. Krull, Beastmaster, Excalibur, Ladyhawke. There were even movies for the Barbarian Brothers. And the result of all this was that at the arcade you were either wielding a sword or a hyperspace button, pretty much. Hardly ever a machete—unless you opted for the pinball games. But pinball was always controlled by the slightly older set, who’d seen Zep in concert and believed in a completely different set of gods, thought Mötley Crüe and Poison were pretenders.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2Anyway, the story: there’s this kid in a dystopian future where the meat-world is secondary to the virtual-world of the OASIS (set-up reminds me of the Surrogates comic books, some). We’re automatically on this kid’s side just because the rest of his life seems to be against him: no real home, no parents, no money. He just has his avatar in the OASIS, has been bumming around with no credits until his obsessive eighties fascinations get him onto the trail of a legendary easter egg worth billions and billions. There’s friends and betrayals and a love interest, and there’s legit bad guys as well, and the whole OASIS is in peril, as it has to be. I mean, it’s a science fiction future, sure, but this is the boilerplate ‘chosen one’ story we all know from fantasy. And it completely works.

And, the hard part? It’s what Michael Mann says was the trick with Blackhat: making someone writing code actually exciting. Basically, with Ready Player One, we’re looking over people’s shoulders as they play videogames. It’s not like Neuromancer or Tron where we’re in the system, quite, it’s—it’s a lot more like watching someone play with their action figures, I guess. Or, it can be. That’s the danger. But Ready Player One manages to avoid this. As for how? I think it’s just that the dystopia this meat world is makes us want to look into the virtual world. Just like everybody else.

Ready Player One has an even bigger issue to try to get around, though: reconciling all this eighties nostalgia with the target audience, which I’m taking to be . . . people born after the eighties were over? The age of the protagonist and the shape and tone of the story suggest this is YA, anyway. And, I’m not saying you can’t have smart, clever, capable kid-protagonists—for some reason I always think King Dork opened the door for this ‘new’ type of YA—I’m just saying that appealing to the taste and memories of those of us born in ’72 seems a gamey proposition, when the book’s being marketed to our kids, pretty much. Nevertheless, we found this book, right? And, I mean, The Big Splash, say. Remember that one? It’s a completely intelligent, hilarious send-up/parody of the private-eye novel, complete with noir-y lines and water-gun ‘violence’ and all of it. Yet it’s definitely YA. Meaning here’s a book poking fun at a genre its audience is oblivious to, which makes me ask who’s this joke for, finally?

But, yes, the data seems to be indicating that “YA” doesn’t mean only the kids are reading it. And I’m part of that, definitely; I inhale all the YA books I can, just because it’s refreshing to read books with all the boring parts not just taken out, but maybe never even included in the first place. So-called ‘adult’ fiction should take notice.

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Anyway, reading Ready Player One, what really gets to me is how far we’ve come since Hyperion, which I consider about as good as science fiction gets. Well, okay: Hyperion and Solaris. Okay, and The Diamond Age too, maybe. And a lot of Vonnegut and all of PKD. Anyway, I keep feeling like The Fifth Element and its cousins somehow injected their blood into what had been Clarke and Asimov’s domain. Scalzi’s stuff seems to be infused with it anyway (and more—don’t mean to diminish Redshirts or Android’s Dream or any of them, or cast them as derivative). So, from Hyperion to Ready Player One: I can’t begin to fathom how we can start at one, end at the other. As to how to get from Hyperion to Altered Carbon: that makes perfect sense (one’s epic, one’s detective, but they’re definitely cousins). But the proof of how to get from Hyperion to Ready Player One, of course, it’s that we have. Wonder if we’re going to wrap back around to Hyperion kind of stuff here in America, though? Or, I wonder if a lot of current science fiction (in America) is kind of comic in tone as defense mechanism in response to the suspicion that our current world is science fiction of a sort? Does a comic slant insulate a novel from becoming immediately dated? As for where this starts, man, there’s readers much more in the know than me. Earliest I can think of is Steven Brust’s Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (1990), but of course let’s not forget what Adams and Pratchett brought to the table. And let’s not forget that David Wong’s doing very similar things, just, with and to horror. And could be Carl Hiaasan’s playing that same game with the mystery.

What I do know is we’re getting less serious fare lately, it seems. And I’m not at all complaining about that. Redshirts, say? It’s a joke of a premise that’s then beautifully executed, and it’s got an emotional punch that hits harder than a lot of the ‘serious’ books I’ve read. More than any other novel, I suppose, it reminds me of Holes.

Anyway, I got no definitive answers. Just questions. Always with the questions. And, all I really meant to say was that I really, really dug Ready Player One. And I miss Hyperion, sure, but if you stay in one place too long, you sink, I know, and I’d never want that for science fiction. Science fiction is what’s going to get us to the stars, after all. We’ve got to make sure it thrives.

So: more like this, please, yes. I finally read something on the page that approximates this old beauty:

 

My best-of 2014 list

Four or five days late, but, you know, I was finishing a novel. So. Three of my best reads from 2014 weren’t actually 2014 books, as it turned out: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder, and Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. But, from 2014, it’s got to be Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, Matt Kindt’s continuing MIND MGMT, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, and Jeff Strand’s Wolf Hunt. I wish I could erase all of these from my mind and then sit down, read them all over again.

And, I wish I could track and remember short stories, and I’m sure I could somehow search them up through my inbox—I’m always forwarding them around, assigning them—but, man, this might be more task than I’m up to. Two I remember very distinctly are Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora” from the 2013 BASS and Peter Watt’s “The Things.” But neither are 2014, alas. Oh, I know: two This is Horror chapbooks, each of which blew me away, only one of which is available yet—Ray Cluley’s “Water for Drowning” and Nathan Ballingrud’s “Visible Filth.” Both are ridiculously good. Like, I just want to stop writing because of both of these stories, because how can I ever match up?

As for best 2014 short films—I was in Texas while Mile High Horror Film Fest was going on this year, so didn’t participate in the selectioning process. But I did recently get to see Robin Schdmidt’s “Dog,” which is flat out amazing. Every love story is brutal, man. There’s so little dialogue across these forty minutes, but so much said. I would put the trailer here, but I can’t seem to find one. If you get a chance, though, see it. So worth it.

As for feature films, here’s my list:

  • Starry Eyes: this is far and away the best horror of the year, for me
  • Coherence: completely disturbed me, left me suspicious of my world
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: pitch-perfect action-comedy tone, with heart and explosions
  • Wer: I sincerely hope this is the start of a werewolf boom. very cool movie.
  • The Guest: devious and surprising, gory and fun. geat You’re Next follow-up
  • Nightcrawler: it’s not about LA, it’s about surviving in this world
  • The Lego Movie: that escalation in the third act is unlike about anything else. maybe McEwan’s Atonement (novel) might compare?
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past: this is how adapting works when it works perfectly
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: capers and comedy, irony and sentiment, all on display here
  • It Follows: until Starry Eyes, this was my best horror from 2014. This scares me more, though
  • Cold in July: such a solid adaptation of Lansdale’s novel.

And, I should add a couple that aren’t from 2014 but that I saw this past year, that completely blew me away:

  • Rhymes for Young Ghouls: this movie breaks your heart and then puts it back together again
  • Big Bad Wolves: this style of storytelling is a how-to guide. I want to watch it over and over
As for movies I missed / still plan on:
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • Zombeavers
  • John Wick
  • Rosewater
  • Interstellar (I went yesterday but there were only 23 seats left, all at the front)
And, favorite 2014 television:
  • Sleepy Hollow (who says the four horsemen won’t invade New England?)
  • Brooklyn 9-9 (I thought I’d forgot how to watch sitcoms. until this)
  • AFV (America’s Funniest Home videos—longtime fan, can’t ever get enough)

As for a wrap-up of my stuff: not sure how many stories I published, but I was lucky enough to be in the TOCs of Fearful Symmetries, The New Black, Children of Old Leech, Letters to Lovecraft, Nightmare Carnival, The Force of What’s Possible, The Starry Wisdom Library, The Cutting Room, IDW’s Zombies vs. Robots, and I showed up in The Dark and Shock Totem and Bourbon Penn and some Polish magazine I can’t pronounce (but it looks cool) and on Tor and ShocktilYouDrop and Huffington Post and Microfiction Monday and Trop, and I’m forgetting a few, I’m pre-sorry.

Had a few books published, too: The Gospel of Z, States of Grace, Not for Nothing, Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly (with Paul Tremblay), After the People Lights Have Gone Off, a standalone novella Sterling City, and the This Is Horror chapbook “The Elvis Room.” Of all my years publishing since it started for me in 2000, this has been my most full year. And, it’s good prelude to next year, when I—at my new agent’s request—have nothing coming out. Though there will be The Faster Redder Road: the best Unamerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones, ed. by Theo Van Alst (April), and, in the Fall, A Critical Companion to the Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones, ed. Billy Stratton.

And, in January I wrote one novel, Mongrels, and from Sep26th – Dec 28th, I think, I wrote another, but am still not saying its title (am still reworking it). And I did I don’t know how many readings and classroom visits and conventions and conferences, each cooler and more fun than the last, of course.

Also, I had a nice bull elk right in my scope in November, and somehow he’s still out there bugling (lie—I saw somebody else hauling him out, actually).

And, most cool: I had no ankle or knee surgeries, and no concussions or skull fractures (well, I guess I did spend some time in another Darth Vader boot, but that was hardly my fault) (and I’m fairly certain I broke a bone in my foot, but I walked it off [on a cane for a couple weeks]). That makes this officially a banner year for me. I don’t even think I had any stitches (though my finger’s currently mangled, could use a stitch or two, but it’ll heal on its own too, I’m pretty sure, and I never mind skewing the whorls and vortices of my fingerprints around some more . . .).

And, for the first time, I taught a werewolf course. Doing it again soon, both for CU and then, in Fall 2015, for University of Utah, where I’ll be a visiting prof for the fall. Packing up the family and heading west, yep. But just for a few months.

Other than that . . . oh: I finally got a jam-free stapler. This has completely turned my life around. Aside from the touch-light on my nightstand, this is about the most amazing item I own, and definitely one of the things I love the absolute most, outside of, you know, family and books and movies and old trucks. All of which I’m proud to say I got to spend a lot of time with in 2014. Now on with the next year. Can’t wait. I turn 43 here in two or three weeks, and then have my twentieth wedding anniversary in May. And, in the next month or two my son’s going to be taller than me, I’m pretty sure, and my daughter’s already light-years smarter than me. Getting a lot of silver in my hair, but I dig it, too. I want to be like William Nolan or Del Harris in a few years if I can.

Anyway, back to it, now: writing, reading, stapling things just because I can. It’s a pretty good life, all-told.

my stapler

 

SDF

Those are the three letters I’ve been tagging onto the end of each writing session since forever. Everybody do this? I can’t not do it. Just a way a laying claim to the blank page, like. Same way you leave your jacket on the seat in the theater, saying you’ll be right back, that this stands for you, that you’re not leaving, you’re going to finish this thing. However, after a while I did learn to teach each of my Pages or Words or WordPerfects or whatever to ‘learn’ this spelling—to please not put a squiggly line under it.

As for why those three letters, it’s just that that’s where the fingers of my left hand sit, and kind of like when a pianist (or, anybody, I guess) does that ‘trill’ down the keys, where they just swipe left to write, hitting them all? That’s what starting at the left is for me: it suggests that things are about to rise, and quickly, loudly. And, though I’m all the way against ritualizing writing, still, guess I’ve fallen into it some as well, in that, if I accidentally tag an ‘sdfs” at the front of the chapter, to erase the next day, replace with ‘real’ story, well, I have to go back, kill that extra ‘s.’ Not just because spellcheck doesn’t know the plural form, but because I try to be a decent person, and, while decent people CAN ‘sdf’ to their heart’s content, ‘sdfs’ or anything further down the qwerty, that’s dangerous territory. For me at least.

And the placement of the blinking cursor is of absolutely paramount importance. Obviously.

sdf

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

dvdanger2Is a serial- or spree-killer who wears a mask and kills ‘misbehaving’ teens a slasher? If not, then what of Ghostface and fifty other killers, right? But, the slashers we know and love, they usually have a signature weapon, don’t they? Michael’s got his knife, Jason’s got his machete, Leatherface rips that chainsaw to life every chance he gets. But there’s weapons of opportunity, too. Jason’s hardly above getting the job done with a speargun, and Freddy, while he actually wears his signature weapon, as often as not his victims die in ‘dreamy’ ways (barbells, television set, etc). Which is to say, this killer in the new The Town that Dreaded Sundown, he doesn’t limit himself just to that boring old knife. No, this guy, he even goes so far as to break Batman’s cardinal rule: guns. Which his why I’m asking about serial killers vs. slashers, trying to tease apart which is what: shooting lovers parked in their cars out in the woods is a bad story we know from headlines, right? And aren’t slashers a lot more made-up?

However, blurring this line, does that up the scare? Does it bring the slasher home to our world, a little?

Maybe, yeah.

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To back up for a moment, though, the original The Town that Dreaded Sundown hit in 1976. A couple of years after Black Christmas but a couple before Halloween codified things up such that the formula could be replicated all through the eighties. And it seriously had one of the all-time best slasher titles ever. Its main contemporary, I think, was Savage Weekend, right? Except Savage Weekend was more for the 42nd Street crowd, I would say. Not that the original The Town that Dreaded Sundown was necessarily aiming for the Oscars—like most horror, it was hoping to cash in at the drive-in—but it was a lot less . . . vile, I guess I would say. Less mean, less ‘exploitational,’ finally. I mean, you can tell that the original is really getting off on speeding around in all those forties cars, can’t you? And playing that funny music over all that ridiculous deputy’s Barney Fife antics? And just generally eating up screen-time with stuff not meant to scare. Like, it had three or four set pieces, and didn’t so much know what to do with the rest, really. Which was fine. And it had some good stuff going on:

  • a masked killer (a baghead, which we’d see again in Friday the 13th II, of course)
  • teens parked at lover’s lane
  • small-town ‘nostalgic’ Texas (which, in the absence of the ‘closed door’ most slashers insist upon, instead put that door at the county line, pretty much)

And, what it also had, that would hardly ever happen after this—it was 1976, remember, Randy’s rules weren’t laid down yet—was not just a task force, which is to say, not just adults who actually believed a killer was out there and were willing to organize against that killer, but a ‘Lone Wolf’ Texas Ranger somehow not named ‘McQuade.’ So, the story we see cuts back and forth from the teens to the adults, the ‘party’ to the cop shop . . . an awkward move, at best. There’s a reason it’s usually not done. There’s a reason Carpenter kept us with the babysitters, not the parents. There’s a reason Craven had the detective-father dismiss all these scary dreams.

There’s a reason the mayor doesn’t shut the beaches, right? If he does, then the monster never appears.

townthatdreadedsundown2

So, what this sequel-remake adds to that mix, it’s A) a refocus on the final girl and her set, and B) the pastor from Footloose. But still present are all the necessary red herrings, all the kids at lover’s lane, small-town Texarkana, the task force, the Texas Ranger, the baghead, the set-piece kills (and some excellent kills they are).

But let’s back up a moment: sequel or remake? I honestly cannot begin to tell. I mean, that it’s a remake is supported by so many of the story beats remaining the same, right down to the names of characters and the very particular, ‘signature’ kills. But, in a how-meta-can-you-get kind of narrative nesting, it also references that 1976 movie, and identifies it as a cheap dramatization of the ‘real’ events from the forties. There’s even a moment where the Texas Ranger from this movie is watching the Texas Ranger who shares his name in the old movie. It’s a very Spaceballs move, and I’d be lying if I said I completely understood the tension. I guess it could just be that some producers wanted it to be a sequel while some wanted a remake, and the writers, ground between conflicting notes as usual, did their best to satisfy both.

I don’t know. If you figure it out, let me know? I haven’t read any of the promo or insider stuff, so this could already be answered somewhere. Just, I can’t imagine how, provided what’s on-screen.

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Oh, too: one thing this slasher does that only Freddy ever gets to do, pretty much? He speaks. From the first kill on, he’s a talker. Which of course immediately cues us in that this is one kind of slasher, not another—nothing supernatural, all human motivations (which are nearly always ‘revenge’ for the slasher).

Which is to say, there’s some cool and risky stuff going on here. I’m not completely sure it’s all effective—more on that momentarily—but I appreciate the attempt to inject new DNA into a genre a lot of people consider ‘tired.’ Without innovation and escalation (resulting from competition at the box office), the slasher could go stale, die. And we can’t have that.

And, one thing this The Town that Dreaded Sundown schooled me on, a thing I should have already assumed, as we’ve all seen it so many times, is the fact that it’s not just the slasher who gets an origin story (as big reveal). No, the final girl can, and quite often does, have her own origin story. Which means their big battle, this movie we’re seeing, it really started long ago, like it’s fated to happen. Very cool, veining that sense of ‘providence’ in, I think. It makes the stories more grand, more The Cabin in the Woods important (i.e., ‘we need this ritual to keep the world running’).

1358502512_the_town_that_dreaded_sundown-ooLast, there something very odd about The Town that Dreaded Sundown, too. I can’t quite get my thumb on it like I want, but . . . early on, there’s some shuffle in the projector room, followed by the distinct possibility that this non-sequel not-a-remake remake-sequel-thing we’re watching, it’s itself a movie. Which is freaky—the kind of narrative gameplay I usually go for. But, here, I don’t know. Were it just happening up-front, then I’d have no problem with it all, would applaud it, even. But the way it seems to be working here is that we get these odd and unexpected camera angles, these strange compositions and juxtapositions, and  stuff done with lighting that makes the scenes look kind of fake. It’s like, each time we need to invest in this as real, ‘style’ rears its head to remind us that this is all a movie. Which, again, can be fun, but it kind of works against the dynamic by which horror scares you: you ‘think’ this is real, so you flinch. But, with all these reminders that it’s not real, it’s increasingly more difficult to invest such we can feel any dread.

It’s an odd choice, I’m saying. In an odd movie. One which I’m glad I finally VOD’d. The slasher is more and more an animal with motile skin, it seems. And even the bones under there, they’re rejointing into other places, such that the shadow this creature casts, its getting less and less recognizable. Which is fun, and necessary. Just, midway through all these contortions . . . that shadow on the wall can come off a bit ungainly.

However, The Town that Dreaded Sundown  . . . there’s something about it that makes me suspect that ungainliness is part of the intent, somehow. That I’m just not quite getting it.

Too, every slasher kind of makes or breaks itself on its closing image, yes? If that’s the case, then I submit that this The Town that Dreaded Sundown has no worries, as it closes in very cool, very self-aware fashion. Slashers are always a joke. Just, a joke with teeth. When it smiles, you can see them all. The Town that Dreaded Sundown, right at the end, it smiles, shows us a mouthful.

Oops

tried to add The Faster, Redder Road to the menus, and it somehow broke all the secondary menus. I deleted it, but the breakage persists. So, either I’ll reinstall this WordPress or re-install the theme or nab a new theme, I suppose. And hopefully soon. But right now I’m writing a novel. Sorry for any inconvenience. In the interim, you can can click on ‘Posts’ (or, about anywhere) on the top_nav menu, then use the Search box to find the book pages and whatever else. Way unideal, I know. Anyway, hopefully fixed soonish. And I so liked this theme (well, except for how it sizes absolute instead of relative, but maybe that’s a thing for mobile, I don’t know . . .).

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The Now Book

Not a ‘new’ book . . . yet. Just a book I’m writing right now. May never even finish it, who knows. As for when I started—tab, tab, tab—it looks like:

d o b

And, not really keeping this as journal of this book or anything. I have done that once, with “Where the Camopede Roam,” but that was just a seventy-two hour commitment. This has already taken longer than that.

Why I’m doing this, it’s . . . you know how when you teach fiction writing, you’re up there in front of the chalkboard saying this or that like it’s gospel, such that, when you come home to write, you kind of hear yourself saying ‘always do this,’ ‘never do that,’ and you feel kind of compelled to maybe consider following those rules, or at least giving them a test-drive? In the same way, in interviews I get asked a lot about how I write. Meaning, now, writing, I kind of find myself watching myself in a way I haven’t before. And, yeah, XJ Kennedy tells us that the goose that laid the golden egg died looking up its own arse (“if you would lay well, don’t watch”), but so far this isn’t slowing me down any. Got eighty of what feel like keeper pages so far. And, not like I have choice in the matter anyway. I can’t stop watching myself.

So, here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

RESEARCH: Which I don’t always do. But, for Mongrels, say (which’ll hopefully be on a shelf someday), I was prepping to teach a werewolf course so I went a full month inhaling every single thing I could, werewolf-wise. Books, films, articles, whatever. And then my head finally got full enough with it all that I wrote Mongrels in sixteen days or whatever (was in a crunch / had to finish before the semester started; I’m under no such crunch now, am on sabbatical). So, about a month ago, I got a suspicion that I wanted to write a cop-novel. Well, no: I’ve had this slasher in mind for a while, but it only works in a police station. So I started thinking about it more. And I realized I don’t know cop shops as well as I should. Or crime stuff. And there’s always more to learn about the thriller. So I reread The Ruins. I read Sharp Objects. I read Tell No One. I read Officer Down. I read whatever of Brian Azzarello I could lay my hands on. I watched The Departed and Narc and Dark Blue and Rush and every other of those-type movies I could rent, stream, or had (seriously, like, three or four day). And when they got to swirling around in my head enough, I just sat down, let it all start spilling back out. To me, that’s what research is. I didn’t write anything down. I don’t need a checklist.

PREWORK: I’ve never been even a halfway believer in outlining your novel before you write it. Publishers have made me, dangled checks in front of me to make me, but given the choice, I’ll figure it out as I go along. However. This summer I worked with a producer on a treatment for like eight thousand drafts, each hardly similar to the last at all. It was grueling, but, at the end of it, I was really pleased with the product. I mean, it showed me that this way of doing things, the way screenwriters do it, it can work. Treatments are a good diagnostic tool. So I did it halfway for this novel. Kind of a bulletpoint list of what was going to happen, where each bulletpoint is a paragraph with snatches of dialogue and the seeds of lines, all that stuff you can’t help doing. But, and this is maybe an important ‘but,’ I got about twenty bulletpoints in and got too excited, so just started in writing. I haven’t caught up with the bulletpoints yet, either. Maybe when I do, then I’ll beat out the rest of the story? It’s in my head, of course, but there’s something different and good about getting it down on paper, too. And no, not even once, so far, have I consulted this ‘treatment’ thing. I know it’s there, though, a tab away, and if I ever hit a wall I can go there, find the light again.

TITLE: I don’t know what the final title of this thing will finally be, but I do know I can’t write a novel with NO title. Also, stupidly, I can’t seem to write a novel without spending like thirty minutes playing with fonts and sizes and whatever Pages will let me manipulate. I mean, if the title isn’t fancy, isn’t this ridiculous umbrella over everything that comes next? Then why am I even writing. I don’t even let myself start messing with this until I’m twenty or so pages in, though; I need to be sure the novel’s going to stick before I take time to fake a pretty font. For this one, now, here’s what I see when I sit down every day (I always try to leave the file paged up to the front):

title shot

Also, yes, I did the obligatory, terrifying searches to make sure this one wasn’t already claimed. I feel confident it’s a line from a Springsteen song—okay, a corruption of a line the Boss did—but I’m going to have to stumble back onto that. Haven’t found it again yet. Also, talking frontmatter:

EPIGRAPH: I give these too much importance, I think. Still, whenever I’m writing a novel that DOESN’T have one yet, I find myself in this awkward ‘receptive’ state of being, where everything I hear has to get immediately vetted, to see if it both perfectly fits and preps the reader for my novel, and if it’s from some place or person I want associated with my novel. Something that sets the tone, like. So far I’ve got one (Theresa Schwegel’s Officer Down) that I’m liking, as it gets ‘officer down’ into the proceedings immediately:

We're all supposed to be on the same side. But we're not. Not really.

But of course, as with the title, we’ll see. I could luck onto something even more perfect. Right now I’m reading The House that Dripped Gore and one of the Surrogate volumes (comic book), I mean; every other line in those is beautiful and bulletproof and timeless.

MOVIES: Whenever I’m writing a novel—this is nothing I didn’t know before this book—I inhale movies. Right now, because it’s October, it’s all horror, and mostly slashers (of course). I watched two yesterday, I mean, plus the Tell No One adaptation. And wrote, I don’t know, ten, fifteen pages? Speaking of:

DAILY GRIND: I’d never realized this before, but the way I write a novel, it’s I get a chapter or two down then come back to it the next day and completely rewrite them. Then I move ahead, usually a chapter or two at a time. But the new chapter(s), they’re always these placeholders. They’re just the scaffolding. Just me getting down on the page what I know needs to happen in this scene. And I always leave feeling like a failure, as there’s no grace at the end, there’s no wit in the middle. But when I come back the next day, I see places where there could be grace, where the could be wit, and, fleshing that chapter out, deleting a good half of it and rebuilding it better, the chapter starts to work. So, any day I say I’ve written ten pages, that means I’ve deleted at least five.

MUSIC: For me, what fiction really is, it’s transmuting calories and playlists into words on a page. I prefer to write right after breakfast and right after lunch. And lately I eat these biker-gel energy pack things. The energy there (honey, caffeine) seems to be a bit more reliable than Sixlets and pecans. But I still go back to them some days as well. Anyway, with the music, I have the playlist for the novel, one I just made. In this case, it’s a playlist (starts with Pharrell, ends with Lita Ford, gets there via Don Williams) I made for this screenplay I wanted to write, Selfie, which I got all beat out and scened together. Except then, with it all figured out . . . I don’t know. I didn’t want to write it quite so badly. And, I mean, I wasn’t going to get paid for it either, and that makes a big, big difference. I don’t get paid for every novel I write either, of course. But, more often than not, I do. Novels are a more sure thing for me, anyway. That playlist I stole for this now novel, though, I find I only cue it up when writing new stuff. When burning through the previous day’s work, fixing it up, I have this fallback playlist just called “easy.” Like, elevator music kind of stuff; I built that playlist around Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” I mean, in the days after I heard it playing at a diner in Bandslam. It’s a ten hour, seventeen-minute playlist now, as I really dig that laid back mellow stuff. And it’s perfect for revising. But not for making new stuff. For making new stuff, I need volume and emotion and screaming. Kind of like a birth, I guess.

____________

Only thing I skipped here that I can think of now is texting a friend about a novel of his that just came out, asking how many words it was (I read it digital, meaning I couldn’t like weigh it in my hands, and I never can guesstimate word-count through a device), just to gauge what this one I’m writing might be. My suspicion is it’ll take me about 80K to get it done right. Which, I mean, I’m a quarter there already, and I suspect I’m only to the third of my incomplete list of bullets. So I could be wrong, definitely. However, I have committed to go ahead and let this book breathe as it needs to. Most novels, I hit 40K and I start looking hard for the end, usually find it right around 55K (seriously, so many of my books are 55K exactly). But I’m also starting to wonder if I’ve been forcing that. If I’ve been looking too hard in the first draft for those dramatic throughlines you’re really only supposed to find in revision and tightening. So, this novel, it’ll be however big it is. Not worried. Not afraid of going over 100k, either. I’ve only done it a couple of times, but it’s no big deal.

Too, with this one, I completely planned to do what most of the mysteries and thrillers do: mulitple third-person stuff. Not quite Tolstoyian objectivity—God-vision is pretty thoroughly out-of-bounds for contemporary writers writing in somewhat realist mode—but ‘wide,’ you know? I wanted some slashercam, I mean, I wanted to look through the killer’s eyes. Except, much as I might dig Dan Brown, those slashercam chapters always feel like cheats. He’s saying everybody else’s name, why can’t he also say the name here, right? Right. I can’t allow myself to play that game anyway. Maybe just because I don’t play it well, I don’t know. So, so far? It’s all tight over the shoulder of my main detective, who’s kind of spooklily similar in make-up to my Nick Bruiseman for Not for Nothing. Could be I only know one type of dude, finally. At least in grown-up land.

And . . . it’s now twelve minutes before lunch. I only had thirty-five minutes before lunch when I started this, which wasn’t enough time to get involved with a chapter, quite. Not without missing food. And my box of Pineapple Chicken takes 4:22 to warm. My plan? Warm it, pour up some tea, watch the third act of Halloween 5 (first two acts were last night, way after midnight, which made Michael much more surprising, as he kept waking me), then sit back down here for about three hours, hammer down some words again. Then repeat for as many days or weeks or months as it takes. Hopefully at the end of it I’ll have something to show.

 

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It’s December 24th, 2014 now, trying to sneak in a few words before the rest of everything. Sitting at 128K words now, with 11 or 12K in the scratch file (scenes/chapters I write then decide need to die)—but I mine that scratch file on and off, too. Anyway, only two chapters to go; when I’m this close to the end, I can map it out pretty tightly. Whether it’ll work or not, who knows. But I just did the one chapter that I knew was going to make or break many things, and it worked out better than I’d planned, so all’s looking well. Title changed for a while, to The Fourth Widow, and now it’s a different title. The final and real title. Which I’ll have to ask my agent about saying out loud here (but I’ll still have to finish/polish/live with/pass this one around to friends before she sees it, so it’ll be a month or two at least, maybe more). It’s one I can’t believe nobody’s used yet, though.

Anyway, biggest problem so far? It’s Cambria font. There’s a place I want to say “HQ” in a jokey kind of way, but each time I do, this disfortunate (as Francis Dalimpere might call it) thing happens:

HQ Cambria

But, if that’s the worst thing, then I guess I shouldn’t be worried.

And, what’s also happened while writing this novel is that I read Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which has completely changed the way I think about writing. For the better, I think. I don’t know if things’ll look any different on the page finally. But I hope so. I always hope so.

Also, as this novels grows and writhes, I realize it’s the most ATBS novel I’ve written since, you know, ATBS. Feels good to be back in that territory again. On the surface, though, it moves more like Not for Nothing. And, also, this is the first time in many-many bo0ks that it’s taken me three solid months to get to the end. What I discovered doing that is that no playlist is good for three months of daily listening. So I’ve had to go back and forth between two playlists—and, the last part of this novel? It’s mostly been written to the second playlist. Here they both are:

selfie

That “Crazy” is Gnarls Barkley, not Patsy Cline. Anyway, tried to make a playlist of (mostly) my kids’ music. Which lasted for a few tracks, anyway. But, I mean, how do you even MAKE a playlist without Don Williams in it? That doesn’t make sense. And, that AWOLnation song, I love it of course, but that three-minute dramatic pause towards the end drives me insane. As I’m sure it’s supposed to. I’ve tried editing my file of that song (zero point zero luck there, no matter what I do—evidently I don’t know anything about clipping a song short), I’ve looked to buy a non-annoying version . . . nothing. So now whenever that pause cues up, I have to tab over to my iTunes, next-track it. I didn’t mean to buy the clean version of “Hurricane,” either. I went back and bought the not-clean after buying this one, I think. But this one seems to always be the one that finds its way into playlists. No clue the why or how of that.

And, the playlist I’ve been defaulting to lately makes a lot happier, finally. It’s one I built for happiness, I mean, not for writing. But it turns out being completely happy while you write is actually kind of good:

seger

My initial goal there had been to top-20 my Bob Seger. But that’s a foolish, foolish effort. So it’s twenty-two songs long, now—1:35 (the initial playlist is 1:38; I’ve found that about 90mins is the perfect length for me to write for).

And, I’ve been just inhaling movies, to come down from writing. The good ones from the last couple of weeks have been: The Babadook, The Canal, Houseguest, Space Station 76, Coherence. Up soon: Wolf Cop. And Taken 2 surprised me by being pretty cool; excited for Tak3n. And I always like to start the new year with another run-through of Scream. This year I might add You’re Next and Cabin in the Woods if I can.

And, the novel I’m reading, that I’m about to go to the gym and finish? Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. Took me a bit to get into it—a new mode—but once I realized that that new mode was necessary as the character kind of WAS ‘the land,’ it got a lot better. Completely digging it now. And, though the mode is different a bit, the voice is still the same, and that’s why we go to that series anyway. Next up: Volumes 3 & 4 of Mind Mgmt. And Revival, I think. Bird Box if I can sneak it in. Horrorstor finally (it’s under the tree for me). And another burn-through of Redshirts. And I need to read Egan’s Best American Short Stories 2014 as well. Probably have that one done by the end of this year. And I just bought a book I didn’t know existed: Blackfoot Redemption. I think it’s fiction-ish? I don’t know. Looks cool. If I’d read it fifteen years ago (instead of Buffalo Child Long Lance, my touchstone), I’d probably be a completely different writer now.

Anyway, more later, maybe. Guess this is turning into a journal of sorts, though it’s kind of ragged and make-do, what with using the comments also. Still, too late to start over now. Or, I would, but I got a novel to be writing . . .

 

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And . . .. done:

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Time to go watch some heroic string of Magnum PI‘s or Rockford Files, now. Also, was completely surprised how perfect watching Maleficent on Redbox was last night. It came at the right time. Had I seen it at the theater six months ago, I’m fairly certain this would have become a completely different novel. Finally catching it last night, though, it was like thrusters. So, thank you, Maleficent. Which hopefully I remember to say in the acknowledgements. Also hope to remember Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland. Had I not read an early of it in September, no way would I have had the fire lit under me to write this book.

Ello

I’m there now. Or, I’m here:

https://ello.co/sgj

I like the smiley face a lot more than the birdhouse, and I like the distinct non-blueness of the whole thing so far. Feels a lot like a Tumblr, really, but I got on Tumblr like fourteen years too late. G+, though, I’m still one of the holdouts who doesn’t understand why that didn’t become the new way (okay, because Google was spookily tracking every move of my mouse and selling it upstream).

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Unbrokenfied Links

Took TWO HOURS yesterday to go through, clean up all the broken junk over in the navigation. And there was no small amount, either, sorry. Most were the result of other sites updating this or that, which changed the URL. Meaning, I only lost four or five stories, two or three interviews, and a couple of podcasts. So, all’s well.
zelda_dead_link

However, I would guess there’s still the occasional broken link in the posts. That kind of tending, I don’t think I’ve got the eyes nor the click-fingers for. So, if you find something in the archives needing attention, making me looking stupid, frustrating you because it’s SUPPOSED to work, maybe say it as a comment under this? I’ll get to it.

And, what you’ll also find the deeper you go into the the archives—for the moment, anyway—is that a lot of the images are absolute-sized, not relative. This is because I gave them captions. Which seemed good and great at the time, but now, with this new theme that’s got a narrower area to slap the posts up . . . not so great. Meaning, when I post NOW, I keep having to go into the html like it’s 1996, and relative-size all the img tags. Kind of sucks. I’ve tried to address it with a few plugins, but they don’t seem to be keeping up with the WordPress updates very well, so I’m out here on my own saying “90%, 90%, 90%.”

It’s not the worst thing, I don’t suppose. Next up: I need to somehow, magically call forth the ability to make another slider-thing for the front/intro/splash page here, that can include these two new fall books. Right now, I might as well try to solve a Rubik’s cube without taking it apart, for all the luck I’m having remembering how I did that. But maybe the solution will be more obvious than taking all the corner pieces out, changing the stickers, never getting anything back together again . . .

Oh, and I’ve also got to figure how to stuff Ello into the social media widget thing going on in my nav. Wouldn’t be a problem, except I need to make the image-rollovers match the tone/feel/temperature/etc of the four already up there. And I’m no image-manipulation wizard. Shuttling pixels around is far, far from what I was made for. But maybe it’ll be easier than I think.

Don’t Look (Behind You) Now

It-Follows-poster1With slashers, I’ve always been in John Carpenter’s camp: these people aren’t getting punished for having sex, they’re getting killed while naked simply because that’s when they’re the most vulnerable, the least likely to be looking around the room.

However, like Jim Rockford says, If fifty people tell you you’re drunk, then maybe it’s time to lie down, right? Meaning, when the slasher was busy getting codified back in the seventies (Black Christmas, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, on up, to, say, Tourist Trap and Friday the 13th and Just Before Dawn and The Burning), this killed-for-having-sex dynamic wasn’t so much in play. But it soon would be. Just because everybody was saying it. And, really, I don’t know if  the critics started pushing that first—Clover & Co.—or if all the films trying to cash in on Halloween etc made it real. Or if that was just the talk around the popcorn machine, and soon it was real enough that Scream and Cherry Falls could even play with it some, invert it, hang it out to dry, throw it against the wall to see what sticks.

However it happened, it quickly got to the point where killed-for-having-sex, that was considered de rigueur, pretty much, or a delimiting factor, anyway—see Behind the Mask: Leslie Vernon, say. If you don’t have some of that going on in your slasher, then how can you even call it a slasher?

It’s not ideal, and it goes a long way towards re-inscribing America’s preoccupation with villainizing sex and thus custom-making a set of people with their urges all tied up with guilt, that expresses in way unhealthy ways . . . but, as far as slashers at the box office go (I’m likely not qualified to talk about society as a whole), killed-for-having-sex, that’s a core characteristic here in 2014. It’s just assumed.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, very much in keeping with Eric England’s recent Contracted, knows this. What if instead of getting chainsawed in half while under the sheets, you instead caught a different, creepier (or, as in Contracted, grosser) version of a ‘chainsaw?’

Once there’s a trailer, I won’t have to say this, but I trust that I’m not spoiling it, either, as this is the description already posted on IMDb:

For 19-year-old Jay, fall should be about school, boys and weekends out at the lake. But after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, she finds herself plagued by strange visions and the inescapable sense that someone, or something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her teenage friends must find a way to escape the horrors that seem to be only a few steps behind.

That’s a pretty solid write-up: Jay has sex, and pays for it with a very persistent, very implacable haunting, one kind of in league with the infected in Bentley Little’s The Walking, except these sometimes-invisible juggernauts (they always walk the shortest path right to you), they shop at the same outlet mall Samara does, I think.

And it completely works. It Follows is very effective horror. And, just like Final Destination taught us, the slasher in your slasher doesn’t necessarily need a trademark face or mask or outfit or weapon. Granted, the studios might grumble, as merchandising opportunities are somewhat limited with It Follows, but within the movie, within the story, this anonymity, it significantly ups the dread. And that’s where real longevity comes from.

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And, yes, I’m fully aware that nearly every time the slasher turns out to be a ghost, then the story loses that slasher dynamic, and becomes a “We’ve got to do research and find out why this ghost is killing us, and that research will give us the tools to beat it, finally”-kind of thing, which is always disappointing, even in the steady hands of a del Toro. Only time I’ve seen it work in a slasher, I think? Prepare your boos: Texas Chainsaw 3D. There Leatherface isn’t a ghost—a shell of a person, yes, the ruined husk of a human—but still, that dangerous dynamic almost surfaces, to undercut the scare: he’s a victim, he was made, he doesn’t have any choice but to be doing this. The Francis Dollarhyde syndrome, yes.

It Follows doesn’t submit to this. Sometimes when you encounter a hungry bear in the woods, you just run, and run, and run some more, right? You don’t have to go back to the woods of yore to figure out why this bear has a taste for flesh. It’s enough that it does.

The walkers in It Follows, they definitely do. And, I should say ‘walker,’ singular, but once you’ve seen it, you might go plural as well.

And, to keep this from being a ghost story—to insist on its essential slasheriness, here’s some of the other characteristics we’ve come to know and love, that are present in It Follows:

  • all teens
  • a distinct final girl
  • no helpful authority figures
  • “let’s go out to the cabin, cool?”
  • that killed-for-having-sex thing
  • false victory
  • set-piece deaths
  • limited locations
  • high gore quotient (that opening scene is beautiful, and it puts me in mind of Mungo Lake, which never hurts)
  • about an hour and a half run-time
  • low-budget (this so often allows the vision to remain pure, not killed-with-notes)
  • mostly unknown actors (so we don’t know who to invest in)

And, the camera-work here, man. You know how Argento will drag a crane-shot agonizingly slowly up a set of stairs, then go to this window, then that? David Robert Mitchell has to be a fan of that. And he knows how horror works. As far as the camera eye goes, this is the best horror I’ve seen since You’re Next, easy.

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Also, to come back to the golden age of slashers, he remembers that one driving principle: keep it simple, dude. Horror, with its need to persistently escalate, is so easy to let get complicated. It’s what you feel you have to do, the trade-in you make in order to continually pull the rug out from under your audience’s feet.

It Follows is painfully, elegantly simple: girl has sex, catches an STD that manifests as people plodding behind her, trying to kill her, and she now has to get away from them in whatever way she can. Along the way she doubts her sanity, sure—is this just a projection of guilt?—but she finally gets to the same place Nancy does in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the same place all final girls finally get to: it’s time to turn the tables. It’s time to set some traps. It’s time to get brutal. You don’t survive just by running. Running’s only prolonging the inevitable. At some point, you turn and fight.

Where It Follows slightly, and maybe necessarily, diverges from the typical slasher development, it’s in the bodycount. David Robert Mitchell isn’t putting up Terminator numbers, here. Rather—and this is why I say ‘necessary’—he’s maybe acknowledging that each life in a horror movie, it actually counts (something I never cued into myself until The Killing). And so he’s thrifty with them. And, the effect of this? It ups the tension, it ratchets up the suspense.

It’s a trick I think I like.

Another way It Follows might be diverging from the typical slasher, it’s in what Joe Bob Briggs used to call the ‘breast count,’ back in the barely post-drive-in days, the just-after-42nd-street period. There’s no real nudity in It Follows. Unlike Cabin in the Woods—and Whedon and Goddard were both pretty uncomfortable with that nudity, by all accounts—unlike You’re Next, which just gets the nudity out of the way in the opening ‘sacrifice.’

Still, each of those films, you felt they were doing their nudity in a kind of compulsory manner. Like, the slasher audience expects it, we’ve ‘got’ to do it.

Things are changing, though. For the better.

Back in the golden age of the slasher? You watch them, and you kind of feel sorry for all these girls, fresh off the bus, being told to take their shirts off. It’s exploitation, and everybody knows it, and everybody just plays along, because it’s a convention of the genre. Or, because it’s going to pull in a few more box-office dollars, possibly, or at least up the odds of this getting picked up for late-night cable, for that demographic of the audience that can’t get into R-rated movies yet.

Still, the real danger of all that happening back-when, it was that it warped the core dynamic of the slasher. Not so much towards killed-for-having-sex, but in the ‘women become disposable once they’ve taken their shirts off’-way. Which I’m not endorsing. I do love the slasher above all other genres, but that doesn’t mean everything it does is automatically right, either. That is what I identify as finally more operant than killed-for-having sex, though: in so many of the golden age slashers, all the suspense associated with a female character, it evaporates once she takes her shirt off. Yes? I mean, there’s slashers that don’t conform, of course—Tobe Hooper’s Fun House, doesn’t it start with the final girl in the shower, and a very lingering camera?—but by and large, most of them consider their female characters worthless once the nudity’s over. Which isn’t a healthy dynamic to just accept, as we use those same eyes in the real world, I’m pretty sure.

It Follows—much like Scream, and Nightmare on Elm Street (both Craven . . .)—doesn’t accept that. And not just because its cast is underage, possibly (I didn’t look them up). The only nudity we see in it, it’s of the distinctly uncomfortable variety, very similar to the much-postered nudity Romero gave us 68. It’s skin we don’t want to see, please. I’m thinking Zelda in that back room, yes. And, you can tell David Robert Mitchell is sticking to this because, come on, in a movie where sex functions like the passed-on VHS tape in The Ring, there’s an opportunity for nudity every other scene, pretty much. But he always has his characters keep their bras on. As in soap operas, they always pull the covers over them before getting started.

I hope to see more of this. And, with this, I hope to start seeing more slashers as well, please. They’re coming back, think? Yes? Yes.

So, to sum up: David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is both the freshest concept to come down the horror pike in a while, and it’s horror that really and legitimately gets to you. It’s horror you—and this is so important, as Psycho taught us—it’s horror you take with you.

You’re going to have certain doubts after It Follows. Certain suspicions.

Only the best horror ever does that.

[ I’ll try to remember to put the trailer here when the trailer’s real ]

 

Coming Home

For the weekend, anyway. And, I’m thinking this is my third time in the Midland Reporter-Telegram? I showed up once when I was about twelve, though I cannot begin to suspect what for. Oh, no: maybe it was for Old Settlers Days in Stanton. And maybe it was the news, not the paper. I was cutting cowchips with my knife, to win the big (throwing) contest. Which, I did, but not that year. Anyway, MRT is also the first place I was ever published. I was about twelve then as well. My little brother, over cereal before school, realized he was supposed to have written a myth for homework. Like, explaining where this or that came from. So I did it for him right quick, and he won some contest with it, and then it got published in the newspaper, under his name. But it’s my story. Or, ours, I guess. Anyway, here’s the most recent write-up, some thirty years after the other times (click the imgs for full-size/readablem or click here for the on-line version):

Midland Reporter-Telegram 2014

Midland Reporter-Telegram 2014