Finally Wrote Something New!

This weekend I wrote a book review and sent it off to an online magazine for approval. It was the first new thing I have written since last Ian FlemingNovember.

I’ve worked on edits and rewrites for Haxan and Quaternity at the request of CZP and that went pretty well. So it’s not like I have been completely fallow. But getting something else done, writing something new even if it was a book review….well, dipping my toe back into that water felt pretty good.

Got back from the Texas Library Association meeting in San Antonio this weekend as well. I made good contacts and have followups to pursue. I’m optimistic many of them will turn out well for me. Doing stuff like that keeps my mind off other things going on in my life right now.

At the moment, given how things are, I will take what I can get.

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Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby (review)

I am not a big fan of romance. I don’t think much of most fantasy, either, because a lot of it draws too much on what has been done before and comes off as lazy. It feeds upon itself too much, especially when it comes to plot and motivation and the world the characters are supposed to inhabit.

All too often much of romance and fantasy is cardboard characters stomping through yet another two-dimensional background. Popular?15808673 Extremely popular. Do these kinds of stories bring anything new to the literary world? No, not much, or rarely, nor are they expected to. So everyone wins. I guess.

Is Amy Raby’s Assassin’s Gambit one of these kinds of stories? Nope. Not even close.

Not that it’s easy to find new plots and develop them with twists that engage and surprise the reader. As a professional writer I realize there is no such thing as a new plot. Even Assassin’s Gambit by Raby, her first fantasy romance novel, doesn’t do that, nor does it set out to prove otherwise.

In Raby’s novel a beautiful assassin named Vitala Salonius (with a tragic past) is sent to, well, assassinate an emperor and ends up falling in love with him. She’s a Caturanga champion, a game much more complex than chess and one which mirrors the social and political machinations and upheavals of the world she lives in.  As you might guess the lovers battle intrigue and powerful political forces arrayed against them. Shades of From Russia, With Love at least as far as the basic plot line goes. Serviceable and robust.

So far so good. But Raby does something extra here which I find very welcome and wish more writers would take the time to do. She builds a world. More than that, her world and its culture and its unique magic system isn’t copy/pasted from some other novel or cliched background. She did a lot of research and homework for this novel, and it shows. And, boy, does it work.

It’s not often I become so immersed in a novel I stop reading critically and just read and enjoy the novel for what it is. But this is what happened to me with Assassin’s Gambit and it was a welcome change.

I read it in one sitting. You know how often I do that? Maybe once a year. So this novel was my quota for 2013. Seeing as how good this story was, I can live with that.

Amy Raby, author of Assassin's GambitI really like Raby’s magic system and how it all hangs together. Nor does Raby ignore the cultural impact her magic has on social and political institutions or the burgeoning gunpowder tech which is being developed. What’s more, the world she presents is itself multicultural, and within those cultures there are opposing factions. She doesn’t pull any punches, either, given the set up. She shows the racism and fear and hate and distrust you would expect.

It’s a believable world. I like that. As a professional writer….I like that a lot.

But aside from all that, which is considerable, I like how Raby subverts. From the cover of this novel of a pretty lady with wind in her hair, to the blurb (In the struggle for power, nothing is safe…not even her heart) you figure, “Okay, this is a fantasy romance which is maybe kinda heavy on the romance. I’ll test the water with my toe.”

And at first when you start reading it does read like a standard romance. But then Raby pulls a fast one, and this is why I liked the novel so much because not only was it subversive, it was dangerous.

It’s almost like Raby was laughing behind her hand a little and saying, “Do I have your attention? Good. Let’s get to what this story is really about.”

She pulls it off with aplomb. In essence, the novel stops being a traditional romance in an exotic setting and turns into a hard hitting fantasy tale that examines how (and more importantly why) two broken people are able to love and trust one another…while in the meantime killing some bad guys who really need killing.

Is the novel without fault? No. There are too many adverbs, too many exclamation marks (one per novel, please and thank you) and I personally would have liked it to be darker. But then again I wasn’t writing it so what do I know. I also thought Vitala made a crucial decision in a bean field that wasn’t true to her original motivation. (Although I do understand and sympathize with Raby’s limitations regarding Vitala’s decision.)

Finally, the novel actually ends on the penultimate chapter, and quite strongly, too. But, once more, Raby is playing with us a little here and it’s as if she says, “Okie doke, this is supposed to be a romance, so here ya go, one last chapter.”

I liked this novel a lot. It was damn good. Yes, it is a romance. A very good one. The characters are memorable and I found myself lost in the world. You can’t ask for more than that.

Give it a peek.

No Country for Old Men (book and novel review)

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is a very good novel that, by all rights, should have been great.No Country for Old Men

It tells the story of a drug deal gone bad and how fate impacts different lives, and ends up shattering them. Written in a minimalist style with no quotation marks, commas or apostrophes, this literary quirk of McCarthy’s presents the story in raw and bold power. The violence of the novel isn’t symbolic or splatterpunk, it’s everyday real violence: unexpected and sudden and leaves you shivering and vulnerable.

The writing is laconic and powerful in its simplicity, as this passage relates:

“When he woke it was almost dark. He rose and went to the window and pushed back the old lace curtain. Lights in the street. Long reefs of dull red cloud racked over the darkening western horizon. Roofs in a low and squalid skyline. He put the pistol in his belt and pulled his shirt outside his trousers to cover it and went out and down the hallway in his sockfeet.”

I am a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. I think Blood Meridian is one of the best American novels out there. It’s easily in my top five.

I also like this novel a lot. There’sone thing that keeps me from giving it five stars, and it’s the thing that kept me from giving the film five stars. It has to do with the malevolent psychopath: Chigurh.

He is in effect little more than a Terminator, albeit in this case a biological one and not robot. He’s an unstoppable cipher (which is fine) but at the end of the novel he disappears leaving the reader with no resolution. This is done on purpose by McCarthy and therein lies the problem.

It’s transparent. It’s so obviously literary gamemanship that we see right through it. Chigurh’s disappearance loses its full power and leaves the novel (and the film) feeling broken and unfinished.

On the other hand, in Blood Meridian, the ending again is similar. There is no neat little bow to tie things up, and in Meridian we are  abandoned. But McCarthy pulls it off with more aplomb and skill in that novel than he does with Country.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like this novel and I still like the film. I think McCarthy is damn amazing. It just does not reach the level of Blood Meridian.

Then again, no one should expect it to. No-Country-For-Old-Men-m01

SWTOR Goes Free to Play

I suppose we kind of saw this coming but it was shocking news nonetheless. I view it this way. No gaming company goes f2p because they want to. If subscriptions are healthy and show a positive climb, then it escapes me why a company would decide to go f2p. It seems to me Bioware made this decision not because they wanted to,  but because they were forced to.

I still like the game but I am worried about its long term viability. I can’t help but be reminded of the slag mess Star Trek Online became when it went f2p. Then again it was a slag mess before it went f2p and I left that game when it became apparent they were not going to fully support a Klingon faction. A lot of people point to Lord of the Rings Online as a game that has succeeded as f2p. But even so LOTRO is pretty lean on expansions and updated content. Because the f2p model doesn’t demand content but it does demand microtransactions.

Companies have this pretty well figured out. They know all the ins and outs of the sociological aspects of what drives customers to purchase extra stuff (carrots) using a f2p model. Of course, part of the disconnect here is that no game is free to play. Not if you want to experience the entire breadth of content. Dungeons and Dragons Online has figured this out to an art form. Yes, you can play the game for free. But you can’t experience the entire breadth of the game for free. Looks like Bioware now wants to dip their biscuit into that gravy while it is still hot.

I don’t like this move, personally. I haven’t had very good experiences with free to play games. I didn’t mind when SWTOR went f2p for the first fifteen levels. That’s a good way to get people to try the game and if they like it they can purchase a subscription. But, sheesh, this damn game hasn’t been free to play for the first 15 levels very long before Bioware went whole hog and made the entire game that way.

I think this says a lot about their subscription base and how soft it is. I honestly do not believe they would have made this move if the subs were healthy. And it doesn’t really take many subs (relatively speaking) to keep a game healthy. Look at Eve Online. It has about 400,000 subs and it’s still going strong and certainly shows no signs of even thinking about f2p. Then again Eve Online provides a playing experience no other MMO does. It’s a niche game. SWTOR, despite its excellent voice over work, is still a standard MMO when it comes to playability.

Oh, well, nothing can be done. Sad to say this appears to be somewhat of an epic meltdown as regards SWTOR. Too bad because as I said in a previous review I liked the story driven content.  Which came as a surprise to me because I don’t like the Star Wars mythos at all. I also liked the voice over work and how it tied to story. It spoke to the writer in me, haha. I also thought the writing within the game along with the story arcs were pretty good. But I still have Eve Online to play and Skyrim…and let’s face it as a writer I need to be writing more than playing computer games anyway, haha. But I do like computer games. I have always found them a nice way to relax. We writers are already an angst-ridden lot. We need relaxation now and then, and computer games are how I relax.

I think I will let my subscription to SWTOR end and then I will move on. It’s really not a big deal because like I said I do have other games to play and I need to write a lot more anyway. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. And I’m really going to miss my avatar Gaella. 😦

Poor Gaella...she was my favorite avatar!

Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote

Many divas have tried their hand at this role.  No one can match Diana Damrau.  She is the Queen of Night.  She’s beautiful and evil and she scares the living hell out of you. Which is what the character is supposed to do.

When she comes at you  with those eyes you can’t help but cringe. She not only sings the part, she plays the part to the hilt and will tear the stage apart in the process.  Other women sing the role but they don’t act it.  Or vice versa.  Damrau does both to perfection.

I’ve seen Damrau twist arms, throw Paminas across the stage, force them to their knees and generally browbeat them into sobbing puddles.  If you’re cast as Pamina against Damrau’s Queen of Night then you’re plain out of luck.  You don’t have to act scared.  You will be scared.

Here are the song lyrics:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame around me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel the pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge, hear a mother’s curse!

Poor Pamina.  Well, we don’t get to choose our parents. By the way, those are High Fs Damrau is hitting in the signature notes. And she’s so menacing and exudes such venom when she stalks Pamina across the stage.  It sends a chill up the spine.  She’s ready to devour poor Pamina.

Die Zauberflote is not a true opera. There are spoken parts in the production and a lot of idiotic Masonic ritual garbage.  But no one goes to Die Zauberflote to see that, they go to hear Mozart’s music.  I think it’s safe to say if you don’t believe in the Queen of Night character the entire opera suffers.  Some queens you can’t help but laugh at when you see them. They come across as clowns. You will never laugh at Damrau in this production.  She was made for it, and it for her, and it’s well known throughout the operatic universe this was one of her best performances as the Queen of Night.

Damrau retired this singing part in 2006.  Most opera stars sing the role and then put it away forever because it’s so hard on the voice.  Well, like I said, those are High Fs.  A lot of them.

Island of Lost Souls (1933) – Censored Horror with Sex and Atmospheric Bestiality

The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of my favorite novels by H.G. Wells. Published in 1896 it has deep philosophical elements whichThe garish movie poster for Island of Lost Souls Wells faces head on. It is arguably one of his least known, but best written, scientific romances.

In 1933 the novel was adapted to film by Paramount Pictures. It starred Charles Laughton as Moreau and he brings that character alive in a creepy and memorable way with his soft spoken voice and oily manner. Bela Lugosi has a small but pivotal role as one of the Beastmen called The Sayer of the Law:

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?

The film has many layers to it. It’s not a simple and straightforward story. Moreau sets himself up as God. He claims he knows what it feels like to be God. There are implied Gnostic principles at work here as well because Moreau dresses in white but he has the countenance of the Devil. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but I suspect it was. It’s too obvious to have been a mistake.

Laughton is unforgettable as the evil Dr. MoreauThe Sayer of the Law stands for man caught between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory if you will. The House of Pain, where Moreau engages in his horrific experiments to transform beasts into men using plastic surgery, ray baths, and blood transfusions, is an obvious stand-in for Hell.

The stage is set. Enter a shipwrecked man, Edward Parker, played by Richard Arlen. Moreau, in the role of God, has not only made men from beasts, he has made a woman from a panther by the name of Lota. Kathleen Burke plays Lota and she does a phenomenal job. Moreau throws Parker and Lota together because he wants to know if she is a real woman or not. As Moreau explains, Lota is too afraid of him to accurately judge her sexuality so Parker is perfect in this role. He can awaken Lota’s sexuality if it exists. (Parker has a girlfriend back on the mainland who later comes looking for him.)

But you get the main  idea. Moreau is God. He has made a woman for an unblemished “Adam” who accidentally stumbled into his horrific Garden of Eden.

He wants them to mate. Be fruitful and multiply.

There are many unsettling undercurrents to this film which got it banned three times in Great Britain and has made it one of the best pre-code films that exist today. There is obvious bestiality (the romance between Lota and Parker) and cruel vivisection and lots of irreverent talk how God must stand aside (or be shoved aside) for the coming dominance of Man. Throw in some steamy pre-code half-dressed jungle sexuality and innuendo, along with intense torture and mindless brutality — and this film becomes more powerful today than when it was released.

I love pre-code films for exactly this reason. They were willing to take dangerous subjects and leave no stone unturned. But Another iconic image from the film in which we see the juxtaposition between Man and Beast. Is Man at his basic level only a beast? That's what Wells argues. for all this it is Lota, the Panther Woman, that make this film endure today. She is the  character all the other players revolve around. The look she brings to the screen is iconic and there are subtle touches of the Flapper about her as created by Coco Chanel: she is thin and boyish, her breasts are bound tightly to her body, yet her sexuality is raw and powerful and she wants to experiment and flout the rigid laws which restrain her. That’s straight out of Flapper philosophy, btw.

Wells did not like this film. He felt it glossed over the philosophies he talked about in the book. I don’t disagree. But when I watch this film I watch it as a film. When I read the novel I read it as a novel. They are apples and oranges. That’s not to say films made from novels don’t get it wrong. They often do. But in this case the film pays homage to the philosophies Wells put forth while challenging basic human sexuality which Wells did not.

I guess what I’m saying is in this case, both book and movie complement each other. That doesn’t always happen, but in this case it does.

The final five minutes of this film are unforgettable. It is very, very intense. You cannot look away. Especially during the demise of Moreau when the Men he has created decide Hey, let’s do it, let’s murder God.

I am not going to spoil it for you more than that. You will have to watch it for yourself if you think you can stand it.

If you like atmospheric horror with underpinnings of raw sexuality then you are going to like Island of Lost Souls a lot. The use of light and shadow is wonderful in this movie. The makeup is as good as anything you see today. These don’t look like people in cheap masks. They look like real Beastmen. The sets are lush and gorgeous and reek with dripping evil. It’s a great horror film and a superb example why pre-code films are so powerful even today. Give it a peek. You should watch this film if you like horror and science fiction.

Kathleen Burke plays Lota the Panther Woman who experiments with her new sexuality.

SWTOR is fastest selling game in MMO history…and it’s only Week 4

Star Wars: The Old Republic has sold two million physical copies in four weeks, outselling all other MMOs and expansions. What amazes me is these are only physical copies. Which means people going down to Target or Best Buy or whatever and picking up the game. This is how I bought my game. It’s how I buy all my games. I’m old school. I always prefer physical copies.

This doesn’t take into account the number of digital copies that have been sold. That is to say, the number of copies downloaded over the Internet from clients like Steam or whatever. (I don’t know if SWTOR is on Steam, I’m  using an example.)

It’s an impressive number and I have to think it has grabbed the attention of the people at WOW. When you look at the number of SWTOR copies sold week by week, you see a big drop off. That’s normal for any MMO, however. The first week is always the big week and it tails off fast after that. I think one reason the numbers are so good for Week 1 is because the game was launched right at Christmas. You can’t discount that kind of market timing.

What remains to be seen is the retention rate. That’s a big if. How many people will resubscribe and continue playing the game? Any MMO that has 150,000 active subscribers can be considered a success these days. SWTOR has sold almost two million physical copies in one month. I think we can say the odds are pretty good it will retain more than 150,000 active subscribers from that pool.

Of course, one thing SWTOR has to keep in mind is that while 150K player base is good for your average MMO, SWTOR is not your average MMO. Bioware put a lot of money up front into the game. Therefore they need a high retention rate to make their money back. How much did the game cost to make? Figures have been bandied about. There was a rumor the game cost $300 million to produce. This number is totally unfounded and has been traced to a person who was fired from Bioware. More reasonable estimates put the figure closer to around $100 million. That’s still a lot of money… and a hell of a lot of groundless speculation. The only people who know the exact number are the suits at Bioware and they aren’t talking.

Another aspect of MMOs isn’t only the production money, but the continued bills of paying for servers, technicians, updates, everything else that goes into a mammoth enterprise like this one. To break even SWTOR has to have a pretty big retention rate of subscribers, I would think. One way you do that is by providing patches and extra content for the game. Again, I have seen speculation about this on other forums, but that speculation is groundless. They don’t know what the game cost to produce, they don’t know how many subscribers are currently active, they are just pulling numbers out of thin air. The only people who know those numbers are the employees at Bioware and they aren’t going to tell us that proprietary information any more than WOW will.

MMOs are a cutthroat business these days. You don’t open yourself up to attack from other companies by revealing either your strengths or your weaknesses. Bioware knows this, as does Blizzard.

Of course, all this is mere speculation. We don’t know how much the game cost to produce, we don’t know their operating costs, we don’t know how many subscribers SWTOR has…no one outside Bioware has that information. And anyone outside of Bioware who thinks they have hard numbers simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

But there is one number we do have. Selling two million physical units in one month is an impressive feat for any MMO. We will have to watch if the numbers continue to sell, what the final drop off rate of sales will be, and the retention percentage of subscribers. MMOs are all about numbers. The one number we kn0w is almost two million hard copies sold in only four weeks.

That is amazing.

SWTOR is the fastest selling MMO in history...two million physical copies in four weeks

SWTOR: Casual fun with glowbats in the classic mythos of Star Wars

I am enjoying Star Wars: The Old Republic quite a lot. I have been looking for an MMO since I quit Eve Online a while back, and bailed on World of Warcraft after the disastrous Cataclysm expansion. I think I have found my MMO at last.

I am a casual gamer. Period. I can’t and I don’t devote hours everyday to game play. I’m a writer and a publisher so gaming has a back seat. No problem. But finding an enjoyable game I can return to when I have a few free hours is a nice change. For the record, I do not like the mythos of Star Wars. In point of fact I absolutely despise it. I think Lucas is a hack and he proved it in his ridiculous and ill-fated attempt to channel Joseph Campbell’s hero mythology with his Star Wars arc.

From my perspective, because of how I feel about the original mythos, I cannot review this game without looking at the movies. As for them, the only one I can watch without puking is The Empire Strikes Back and that’s Lucas wasn't always a hack writer and director. He did make the excellent SF movie THX 1138.for a very good reason: it was written by Leigh Brackett, a real science fiction writer. Lucas views SF as background furniture for his story. He has no real love and appreciation for the history and canon of classic SF. It’s just a cartoon backdrop to him. Okay, I give him credit for the movie THX 1138.  But that was when he was young and hungry and his creativity was at an all time high. Star Wars? At the core it’s about a mass murderer (Darth Vader) who apologizes in the last reel and that makes everything all right and magically transforms him into a sympathetic character who finds final redemption and forgiveness.Think about that a moment. Try getting that story published in Analog or Asimov’s or any top flight SF magazine today. Hell, try getting that story published in the bad old days of SF pulp. Even worse, it’s a perverse parody (if not a downright misunderstanding) of what Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology was all about.

So there’s that. But, what about the game itself? It is Star Wars after all and our characters run around with glowbats and operate within the trappings of the classic mythos with the force and Sith and whatnot. Well, as a game it’s quite entertaining. Are there problems with the game? Yes, there are. I see video artifacts sometimes, and one or two of the quests I have come across are definitely bugged. But I have not experienced any game breaking bugs so far. I do very little PVP other than the battle zones so I can’t speak for those servers. I hear there are ability timing issues and global cooldown problems. I haven’t experienced them but that’s not to say they don’t exist.  But it does appear Bioware is involved and engaged and working to correct the biggest problems with the game. They released a big patch yesterday with more content and fixes to come. They’re not ignoring the game and problems inherent within the game like Age of Conan did.

WOW has been around a long time in terms of MMOs. It’s pretty polished. Therefore, since SWTOR is only about a month old I discount the angst and tears and pearl clutching from whiners and self-indulgent WOW fanbois on the Star Wars forum. One suspects they would be unhappy with everything less than instant gratification anyway. If you just go by the forums you might think the game was a broken, buggy mess. It’s not. There are problems. They are being addressed by Bioware.

Then again maybe I am a little more forgiving because I used to play Age of Conan and Star Trek: Online. And those games are still a buggy mess.

Speaking for myself I bought a six-month subscription to this game because of my style of casual play. I wasn’t the only one. This game has already sold over a million units. It’s had a very fast start. But a six-month sub will give me enough time to level my toon and maybe start one or two more. As a writer I do love the story-driven arc of the leveling process. I think it’s very well done and it would be hard for me to ever go back to WOW and read quest text. And this coming from me, someone who always said the WOW quest text was very well written.

Finally, as far as comparisons go,  SWTOR never promised to be a WOW-killer or anything of the kind. To be fair the only thing that can kill WOW is Blizzard. Just like the only thing that can kill SWTOR is Bioware. But SWTOR is engaging and fun without being too serious like Eve Online. It’s darn near perfect for the casual gamer. If you want hardcore SF gaming, play Eve Online. I still plan to return to Eve now that they’ve brought back ship spinning. But I may wait until I get my new computer, it will make the transition that much easier.

All I have left to say about SWTOR is if someone like me who has never liked the Star Wars mythos can find something enjoyable in this game, then maybe you, too, should give it a look. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and have a lot of fun swinging your glowbat and busting heads.

I’m on Soresu server and the name of my Jedi Consular Sage is Gaella. Come find me and we’ll do a quest line together and kill some Sith.  🙂

Enjoyable game so far, good story line.

Edit: Sorry about many of the grammatical errors in this review. I am having problem with my vision today. As close friends of mine know, the Lasik surgery I had some years back did more harm than good, and there have been recurring problems from time to time. Thanks for your patience and understanding. –KMH

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies and Counter-Lies in the Old West

My review of the novel Little Big Man by Thomas Berger has been published by The Western Online. Here’s the link, and I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say about this classic work. I tried to approach the review from the orientation of both an armchair historian and a writer working in the western genre. Thanks, guys! 🙂

 

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies
and Counter-Lies in the Old West

Les Miserables: “Hunger comes with love.”

I finished reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for the second time some years back.  The first time I read it was in high school.  I liked it then, I love it now, even after all this time.

I guess everyone knows about Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread and being pursued by Javert.  But, my God, does this book ever deserve its title. Everyone is wretched, in one way or another. How can we ever forget the grinding poverty and dehumanization of Fantine?  And how Cosette, her little girl, must live as a slave under the monstrous Thenardier family?

There are enduring images which have survived over the centuries.  Fantine selling her front teeth so Cosette has enough to eat,  the fight on the barricade, the flight through the sewers.  This is a huge book in more ways than one.  The writing is fantastic and there are little “Hugoisms” sprinkled throughout that make you put the book down and marvel either at the turn of phrase or the beauty of the writing itself.  Like these:

“Gravediggers die.  By dint of digging graves for others, they open their own.”

“There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once.  Yesterday we left them children, to-day we find them dangerous.”

“Hunger comes with love.”

“Humanity is identity.  All men are the same clay.”

“Women play with their beauty as children do with their knives.  They wound themselves with it.”

“When we are at the end of life, to die means to go away; when we are at the beginning, to go away means to die.”

“Then he heard his soul, again ba truly stunning and magnificent workecome terrible, give a sullen roar in the darkness.”

“Certain flames can only come from certain souls; the eye, that window of the thought, blazes with it; spectacles hide nothing; you might as well put a glass over hell.”

“Robber, assassin….these words fell upon him like  a shower of ice.”

One of the main ingredients of this novel is the depth of human emotion.  It’s never overdone, which is an easy thing for a writer to do.  We are often moved, such as the scene when Cosette marries and Jean Valjean must disappear from her life to protect her from his past.  He goes home, takes out the little dress she used to wear as a child, and pressing it against his face sobs uncontrollably.  And I challenge anyone to read Valjean’s monologue at the end of the novel and not get a little weepy.  Strong stuff.  Memorable.

This is a great book.  I’m glad I reread it and as I think about it more maybe I will read it a third time.  It might be one of those books I read again every twenty years or so.  But even if I do not I’m a better person for reading it in the first place, that’s for sure.

If you haven’t read this novel, you should.  If you have, do so again.  It’s great.

Oscar’s Restaurant & Lounge: You don’t know good Mexican food until you have eaten here

When we were staying in Abilene we ate at Oscar’s Restaurant and Lounge. I would link you to their website but they don’t have one! They are small and special and they serve some of the best Mexican cuisine I have ever eaten in my life. In. My. Life.

Forget about your Tex-Mex or bland food that pretends to be genuine. This food is authentic and spicy.  Look, I love spicy food. I am from Louisiana, bayou country, and I grew up in South Texas. So I know spicy. All too often I go to restaurants and they say their food is spicy…but it’s not. It’s bland because they have to cater to the masses.

If you are ever in Abilene I urge you to seek out this restaurant and give it a try. It is excellent. I have eaten here several times over the years and the consistency and quality of the food is always the highest standard. It doesn’t look like much on the outside or inside, I’ll give you that. It’s darn near a clapboard shack. But hoo boy is the food fantastic!

Just thinking about them again has made me hungry, haha. Here is their address if you want to look them up:

Oscars Restaurant & Lounge

1665 Texas 351, Abilene, TX 79601-4745

Tell them Mark sent you! 🙂

 

Gunsmoke: “I will not tolerate a disturbance. You know me.”

Forget everything you know, or think you know, about Matt Dillon and Kitty and Doc.  This radio series which ran for nine years was meant to be an adult-oriented western that broke the mold and challenged the archetypal Western hero.  The creators, Norman MacDonnell and John Meston wanted to shatter all Western stereotypes.  They were successful.

The result was Gunsmoke.

The first audition was a hardboiled detective story set in the West. The main character was “Mark Dillon.”  The second audition was more Western-oriented but then the project sat on the shelf and gathered dust for two years.  Eventually, a radio actor named William Conrad read for the part and was immediately hired as the show moved into production.

Everybody has an idea of the type of man Matt Dillon is. Whether it be from the television show or national iconic status, everybody knows what kind of man he is and what he believes in and how he deals with people.  Forget all that. In the radio program, Matt Dillon is damn near a psychopath.  He’s as hard and brutal as the violent men who pass through Dodge City from the cow trails.  He’s acerbic and bitter and when his gun hand moves, it moves in a blur.

The writing portrays this all the time. In one episode a man comes up to Dillon out of the dark.  “Some night I’ll get drunk enough to pull on you you, Dillon.”

Long pause, and delivered with conviction:  “Then that’s the night you’re gonna die.”

Or:

“If you’re figuring to draw on me, don’t.”

“Why not, Matt?”

“I’ve seen you in action. You’re not fast enough.”

And Dillon is always shouting at the rubbernecking crowds, telling them to shut up or he’ll club them to death, or threatening them he will NOT tolerate a disturbance, or asking with clenched teeth when they don’t disperse fast enough, “Who wants to die first?”

Yeah, he’s a psychopath barely holding himself together, nerves made of barbed wire and a soul of scarred leather.  The radio series establishes this at the beginning.  Dillon is a violent man who has moved West with violence.  He is hard and brutal; life, and his job, made him that way.  He is completely different from anything you have seen on the television program.

And Kitty Russell?  It was never implied on the television series she was a prostitute.  But if you knew anything about the Old West you knew what she did for a living.  The radio show is very different from TV.  Kitty’s not a prostitute on the Old Time Radio series.  She’s a whore. I find this incredible.  You’re talking about 1952 and it’s cut and dried: Kitty sells herself to other men and Dillon is in love with her. And if you say something bad about her, well, you’d better start digging your grave.  Fascinating with what they got away with on radio, but couldn’t even touch, or allude to, on television.

Doc Adams?  He’s a gibbering ghoul who rubs his hands over a corpse because he’s going to be paid an autopsy fee. He was played by Howard McNear, the same actor who played Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show.  His soft spoken voice and gleeful nature as he pokes and prods at a cadaver is very disturbing.

Sound effects, as you might guess, are essential in radio.  Gunsmoke was famous for layering sound to create the emptiness of the prairie, the dust-filled streets of Dodge, the cold wind blowing through the stunted trees, the sound of the night train coming into Dodge.  When you hear a gunshot on the radio program that’s an authentic weapon: carbine, six gun, scatter gun, being fired.  It’s all authentic, even the animal life was meticulously researched.

As the show progresses it begins to concentrate on the human relationships between the principal characters with violence and adult sex as an undercurrent theme.  But as good as it is, the acting, the emotive voices, the incredible sound effects, the stark characterization…nothing beats the writing itself.

John Meston wrote about 25% of the episodes. He accurately portrays the harsh brutality of what life was like in an unforgettably harsh and graphic manner.  Dillon doesn’t always win in the end. In one episode he amputates the leg of a man to save him from blood poisoning.  The man dies anyway. In another, a girl is raped for weeks by four men.  Dillon rescues her, but she becomes a prostitute.  Sometimes the bad guy gets away completely.  In one story, an entire family is slaughtered and the wife kicked to death.  Dillon finds her daughter in a copse of dark trees, raped and killed and scalped. Chester stands over the body and weeps.

These aren’t feel good stories. They’re stories.  Therein lie their power.

As a writer I like to think I know something about writing. But I’ve learned more by listening to these programs than in all the years I’ve been writing professionally.  Maybe that says something about me, but I think it speaks more to the power of these stories and what they ultimately reveal about human nature and all its brutality.

If you want to learn how to write, if you are a writer and want to learn more about theory and characterization and stark dialog, I strongly urge you to give some of these episodes a listen.  You won’t be disappointed.

One final note. Those who know about the creative process of my own western series, Haxan, know how much of an influence Gunsmoke had on me. I can’t think of a better inspiration throughout the entire genre than John Meston’s creation.

Why the Zombie Genre needs to be Re-animated from Splatter-Chomp to Mysticism

I mentioned this earlier and want to examine it in more detail. As good as it was, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has done more to limit the zombie genre than any other movie or book I can think of.

Here’s why that’s not a good thing.

Prior to this zombies were never about eating people. And they sure as heck were never about eating brains.  But here’s the problem with Romero’s film. It took what was once a genre filled with mystique and made it into splatter-chomp. And now that it’s splatter-chomp there was nowhere else for it go go except over-hyped splatter-chomp cum Apocalypse. Served with brains on the side. And it wasn’t long before the genre slid into slapstick and parody. Now we have zombies no one can take seriously a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That’s what faces us today.

It’s too bad, really, because zombies had so much going for them prior to Romero’s film. Take Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie which I reviewed. That was an awesome film. So was Val Lewton’s uber-supreme I Walked with a Zombie which uses Jane Eyre as source material.


Val Lewton’s take on Jane Eyre…with zombies, voodoo, pathos, and Gothic imagery

These movies and others like them portrayed zombies for what they were supposed to be: living people (and sometimes dead, you couldn’t always tell) transformed into the unliving. Usually to serve as slaves or to make them pay for some horrible crime. But there was always something poignant about the zombie and its plight in these movies. There’s nothing poignant about the modern flesh eating zombie. He’s one-dimensional.

Yes, yes, I’m a zombie snob. That’s already been established.

Now, zombies didn’t start off that way. I concede that. Romero’s film was both horrifying and artistic with a steady dose of nihilism. He was making a deep statement about the world he saw and he just happened to use zombies to get his artistic point across. But lesser filmmakers, and writers, only saw the cannibalism and ran with that single idea.

Now we’re left with zombies eating brains and there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s a literary cul-de-sac in my opinion.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But isn’t it also cool to examine the deep mystery, the Gothic imagery combined with Caribbean mysticism of zombiedom, rather than turning zombies into simple-minded fast food consumers?

Zombies as they are now portrayed are no longer frightening or horrific. They’re gross. But they’re not scary.

So in my opinion the zombie genre is in bad straits. I hope someone comes along and reboots it with an eye toward reviving its mystical past. If they can reboot Star Trek and Spider-Man they should be able to reboot this. Anyway, I hope so, ‘cuz I kinda like zombies. The old time zombies. The mystical zombies. The scary zombies.

So. Until this happens, where can you go to read good, memorable zombie stories that are old school? Look no further than Marvel’s Tales of the Zombie. This was a black and white comic published in the Seventies and it still rocks. It’s what zombies used to be about. It’s sexy and violent and Simon Garth, the zombie in question, is definitely old school. The only carp I have is it’s written in second person, a forced literary affectation I have always despised because it calls too much attention to itself. But the stunning artwork and layered characterization overcomes that limitation.

If, like me, you like the old time zombies, then please check out this collection. I think you’ll like it a lot.

Hell on Wheels – The Great Transcontinental Railroad on a TV Budget and a Slack Script

It’s hard to tell a lot from a single episode of commercial television without becoming dependent upon generalities to describe what you’ve seen with Hell on Wheels. But since the episode was made of generalities then I don’t feel so bad about it.

First off, it looks good. The people look sufficiently grimy, the backgrounds and offices and everything else looks decent and believable. There are artistic touches as well. The grass is extra-green and the sky is ultra-blue to give a sense of unspoiled space. Then here comes the railroad to sully everything and everyone. So far so good.

But we do have generalities we have to deal with and it’s a problem. I don’t know if it’s due to this program being aired on commercial TV or what. Maybe the program would have been better served if it had been picked up by HBO or Showtime or something. But AMC is what we have to work with, which means all the constraints of commercial television. So let’s get to it.

Like I said it looks good. But you’ve seen these characters before. There’s the Jonah Hex character (a disillusioned Confederate soldier on a path to vengeance), the rapacious and Machiavellian railroad magnate, the bitter ex-slave, the feminist trapped in a stifling male-dominated culture, the fervent preacher, the saucy whore with a gleam of fun in her eye, and others. Not to say they aren’t characterized well even if they are familiarly drawn. Everyone does a decent job (given their capabilities) and all the characters are likeable (I suppose I mean watchable) as far as it goes. I mean, it’s hard for me to become emotionally invested in anyone after less than one hour of commercial television.

So there’s that.

All in all, nothing came across to me as over the top or maudlin or mawkish even though we are only exploring one facet of this huge enterprise. The creators have determined to focus their attention on a rather narrow aspect of this part of history. I may not agree with it but I can only watch what they give me. The acting wasn’t great, though. But I’m jaded about that. I never expect superb acting from commercial television. Therefore I am rarely disappointed in that regard.

Hell on Wheels refers to an itinerant camp that follows the railroad as it moves across the Old West. I suppose the creators didn’t really want to concentrate on that aspect so much because the series would be derivative of Deadwood and would immediately be judged that way. So all in all there are many good aspects to this series so far. It looks like we have the usual suspects and plot lines to investigate in coming programs.

But there are two main problems so far that, if uncorrected, will at the very least force me to find entertainment elsewhere. First, the writing. Nothing spectacular here at all, I’m afraid. It’s serviceable but that’s all it is. All right, I admit there’s only one David Milch, but I don’t get a sense of any one artistic driving force behind this series. I don’t see a vision here at all. Again, it’s early days and we shouldn’t expect too much from a single program. But I am a writer and good writing will always keep me watching (or reading) no matter what the subject matter. I don’t see that here, and I’m only saying if I don’t see it soon I will bail.

The second problem with the series was no sense of grand scope or panoramic undertaking. If you are going to write a series about a great engineering enterprise like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad then I expect to see that. Now I do admit I liked very much the juxtaposition (or attempt at juxtaposition) between the tiny engineering camp and the open expanse of prairie. But I thought the group of people working on the actual railroad was a little thin. Believe it or not the Transcontinental Railroad was built by more than, like, twenty guys.

I don’t expect TV to show me thousands of laborers working themselves to death. Historically, it is believed one life was given for every sleeper laid on the Transcontinental Railroad. I know television isn’t going to show me that. I know there are budget constraints. But we get no sense of how extraordinarily huge this project truly was. All we ever see is the tiny camp moving across the open prairie and the railroad tycoon passing his fat, pallid hands over maps in a loving manner.

There’s a lot to like in Hell on Wheels if you’re not expecting much to begin with. And a lot to be worried about. I have no problem giving this series another two or three episodes to see what direction they ultimately decide to move into and concentrate on. One thing that interested me was the lone Cheyenne riding after a white woman at the end, tracking her down after she killed a member of his tribe during a massacre. That might be good interpersonal conflict later on. We can only hope.

But I have to be honest. If the writing on this series doesn’t get much better I will hop off at the next train depot and shank’s mare home.

Dragnet – Old Time Radio that delivers stark violence and murder for adults

I am always amazed at how “adult” OTR is compared to the sanitized candycorn of TV from the same era. Or even compared to many commercial television programs slopping their sugar water today. One such example is Dragnet. The old radio programs are very brutal and violent, very different from the watered down television programs of the same name. Though, to be fair, the tight, spare dialog, which was always the hallmark of Dragnet, remains in force.

All too often I thought the TV Dragnet was preachy and more interested in pushing a flag-waving erection bursting meme of “USA and LAW ENFORCEMENT HELL YEAH!” than delivering solid writing that examines the deep fractures in a human soul. Well, that’s TV for you. But if there’s any meme being preached in the OTR series it’s that violence is an ineluctable part of human nature and the world is a ceaseless shithole of blood, degradation, and grisly murder. That’s what the OTR Dragnet is about.

If your only familiarity with Dragnet and Joe Friday is the TV series then you are gonna be surprised at these old radio programs, I think.

Theater 13 Radio is currently running a Dragnet marathon. Click on the banner below and it will take you directly to the main website where you can find the .pls or download a media player of your choice. Theater 13 is also on StreamFinder, TuneIn and other radio sites. Google is your friend!

If you haven’t listened to these tightly written and uncompromising programs you might do well as a writer, or just a crime/mystery/suspense fan, to give ’em a try. Enjoy!

Theater 13 Radio

Gunfight at the OK Corral – A Retrospective in Three Movies

On this date in 1881, around 3.00 pm, a gunfight occurred which lasted less than thirty seconds. Oh, and for the record, it never happened in the OK Corral but on Fremont Street. Well, that’s history for you, always getting in the way with facts and verifiable evidence.

I mean, who wants to read about a gunfight on Fremont Street? So we will bow to pressure and call it the OK CMy Darling Clementine by John Fordorral.

Anyway, this gunfight has become the subject of books, movies, and innumerable stories. But it’s the treatment by Hollywood I want to concentrate on today, and three movies in particular. I want to look at how they helped shape our consciousness, our perspective, and our ideas of what happened and why, regarding this infamous gunfight.

The first movie I want to discuss is My Darling Clementine by John Ford. Ford was a master at romanticizing the Old West, and this movie is no exception. There are many good points about the movie. It looks good for one, but we are talking about John Ford so I expect it to look good from a visual perspective. In fact, I admit it’s downright beautiful. Unfortunately, the dialog and the storyline is little more than corn. The gunfight is okay, but has no relation to any historical event with which we are familiar, and for which we have  ample evidence and eye-witness account.

However, the best partVictor Mature as Doc Holliday about My Darling Clementine is Victor Mature’s masterful portrayal of Doc Holliday. Now in case y0u are not familiar with Victor Mature, he is a big, brawny, beefy man who exudes power and confidence on screen. You might think such a man would be a poor choice to play Doc Holliday, who was in actuality was a thin, skeletal man dying of tuberculosis. Yet, Mature brings deep pathos and vulnerability to the character, even when he has to deliver some very embarrassing lines. Outwardly, he looks nothing like Doc Holliday. He doesn’t even sport a mustache. But the inner turmoil of  a man facing a death sentence, and how it affects his relationships with the people around him, is very powerful indeed. It’s a nice job.

This is not my favorite OK Corral film, but if you haven’t seen it I think you will like it. Pay attention to Mature when he is on screen. He really is amazing and along with the visuals, he’s the best thing about this film.

The second film is Tombstone and it’s popular and beloved by western fans and movie fans alike. Personally, I can’t stand this film. I hate everything about it from the opening scene where Wyatt Earp (played by a mugging Kurt Russell) stoIconic (albeit incorrect) image from Tombstone ps a man who is whipping his horse (because the script must establish Russell as the good guy)  down to the horrific final shot where Earp and Josephine Marcus  are dancing in falling snow under lamplight after she reveals to Wyatt there is no need to worry about money because her family is rich.

It’s vomit inducing. Not to mention historically incorrect. It is a movie that reveals everything that’s ever been wrong with Hollywood and how it has portrayed the Old West as a cartoon. I will give it a pass on one point, however. The shot of the four lawmen walking down the street dressed in long black coats is iconic — though again inaccurate. Actually, the lawmen wore mackinaws that day. But those long black coats have become so indelibly fixed in the American consciousness I suppose it would be movie sacrilege to remove them. So I tend to give it a pass on that detail alone, as I do other films about the gunfight.

As you may have guessed by now I truly hate this film with a deep passion. I should do a separate post on why it fails so miserably on so many levels, and has actually harmed the western genre because it slams so many cliches down our throats. I know I am in the minority here. It wouldn’t be the first time. I know a lot of people absolutely love this film. But it’s pure, unadulterated Hollywood candy. Hell, even Ford did better than this, and I’m not a fan of his work to romanticize the west, either.

But, as wretched as Tombstone is, it’s not all bad. The gunfight is pretty good, I’ll give you that. Powers Booth is, well, Powers Booth, Sam Elliot is believable as Virgil Earp though he probably brings too much sexuality and moralizing to the film. But more importantly Val Kilmer delivers a superb, and memorable, performance as Doc Holliday.

Much like My Darling Clementine I don’t view Tombstone as anything more than Hollywood corn dressed up in cliche and trope. But Kilmer saves the film for me. If it were not for his amazing performance I would never watch this film again upon pain of death. But it’s worth it to watch Kilmer on screen as long as you ignore the rest of the sugarcorn this movie brings to the table.

The final film, and my personal favorite, is Wyatt Earp. Kevin Costner delivers a believable performance as a cold, uncaring, self-absorbed and determined Wyatt Earp. This is much in line with the historical figure. Other elements of the story also ring true. The gunfight is representative of historical fact, and the dialog and behavior of the surrounding characters lend extra support. When we watch the events unfolding in Wyatt Earp we can suspend belief and imagine it might have actually happened this way. In the other two movies I have described, we are never able to forget we are only watching something that has been packaged and sanitized for consumption.

I know Wyatt Earp isn’t as popular as Tombstone, and I know why. Tombstone is more fun, more joyous, more in line with what we ordinarily see coming from HoCostner's Wyatt Earp -- probably the most historically accurate portrayal of the gunfight and culture of that time.llywood. Therefore it is in a comfort zone that reinforces myth and stereotype which has taken root in American culture.

Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, is a little more gritty, and has a documentary feel. That’s probably why I prefer it, even though I am no fan of Costner. But, like the other two films, Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday is the one to watch and study here. He brings a dark, brooding violence to Holliday that seems to be missing, or at least not fully interpreted, by the other two films. His performance rounds out a strong and believable cast. When I watch this film I am more inclined to believe I am watching history. The other films are entertaining on a popcorn level, but that’s all they are.

From looking at these three films I am sure you have noticed a common thread. It’s Doc Holliday. In all three films the actors portraying this broken and violent man did a tremendous job. I think that’s important, because a film about the OK Corral almost has to have a believable Doc Holliday or it would totally collapse.

This is not unusual with film, and stories on film. In a completely unrelated genre the film Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein would collapse if the creation scenes of the monsters were not believable. Sometimes, a single scene is like a linchpin for an entire movie.

In movies about the gunfight at the OK Corral that linchpin is, and always will be, Doc Holliday. He is larger than life, he is tragic, he is a character we can understand and sympathize with, even if we don’t get on board with his reckless violence and focused pursuit of death.

All three movies are flawed. Neither one is perfect. Each has their own strengths. But all three have one thing in common: excellent portrayals of Doc Holliday and the inner demons that made him tick, and kill.

For a western writer working in the genre, that right there is worth the price of admission.

“Never Turn Your Back on a Clown”

The Devil’s Rejects (2005) is the sequel to Rob Zombie’s excellent horror film House of 1000 Corpses which I reviewed earlier.  Except it’s less of a sequeThe Fireflys are back for more fun and games....l than an entirely different film altogether.  All the old gang is reprised: Sid Haig as the clown head of the psychotic Firefly family, Sherri Moon Zombie as his blood-thirsty daughter Baby,  and everyone else.  The actor who played the grandfather in the original film died before production so Zombie dedicated this film to him.  A nice touch.

The film opens with the cops surrounding the Fireflys’ secluded home. Seems the local law enforcement has finally figured out where all those missing people went and who is responsible.  In a violent shootout the Fireflys escape but Mother Firefly is captured by the Sheriff; his brother fell victim to the family’s predations.

The remaining members of the family go on a shooting and kidnapping spree.  At first you’re thinking, “This is no different from any other pyschos-on-the-loose-who-kill-and-torture film.”  Seen it a dozen times, right?  Hell, it’s even derivative of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.  Yawn.

But I want you to stick with this film.You see, Zombie, who wrote and directed The Devil’s Rejects, knows what he’s doing.  He knows you’ve seen this setup b"Never turn your back on a clown."efore.  When he switches gears on you (and he will) you will realize he’s telling you, “Okay, this is how these films used to be made…but I’m changing the formula.”

My God, does he ever.

The Fireflys drive to Father Firefly’s half-brother who runs a whore house in the desert.  Meanwhile, the obsessed Sheriff hires two bounty hunters to find the family.  He then goes to interrogate Mother Firefly, but loses it and guts her with a hunting knife in an act that suggests sexual intercourse.  As the life goes out of her ecstatic eyes he kisses her blood-stained lips.

As you may have guessed there’s no Good vs. Evil in this film. It’s Evil vs. Evil.  And no one looks good; Zombie shoots and blocks the scenes so the light is always harsh; people’s faces are revealed as corrugations and lines which delineate their inner demons.  No one, even the hapless victims of which there are many, escape this harsh exposure under Zombie’s camera.

In a mesmeriziThe Devil's Rejects directed by Rob Zombieng sequence shot with music and no sound the bounty hunters invade the whore house and capture the Fireflys.  The Sheriff drives them in a convertible back to their home.  He will exact his revenge there.  He ties them to chairs and nail-guns photographs of their victims to their chests.  There is  a crucifixion scene.  Finally, he douses the place with kerosene and lights it up, but not without releasing Baby and telling her to run for her life.  He wants to hunt her down.

Outside Baby ducks into a cattle chute, following the metal railings into the dark.  The Sheriff comes after her wielding an axe.  We are reminded of the scene in the original film where Baby was chasing the teenager in the bunny suit before she stabbed her victim and licked her knife under the full moon.  The Sheriff pauses, a smile on his face, and remarks, “I smell rabbit.”

Baby is now flat out running.  Time to slow her up.  He pulls his sidearm and fires.  The round goes through her calf.  “I bet that hurt,” he tells her.  “I could hear the bone shatter.”

But he wants to show Baby that Karmic payback can be a real bitch so he pIt's all about family....uts the axe aside and begins to beat her with a thick leather strap.  Baby is clawing and squirming on the hard desert floor in a vain attempt to get away.  The Sheriff asks her if she likes being a victim, likes being tortured by a sadist.  Hey, this is Baby we’re talking about.  You’re damn right she does.

But the Sheriff has made a mortal mistake.  He forgot to check his six when in the presence of a Firefly.  Baby’s brother, Tiny, an eight-foot shambling freak, saves her life.  Whaddya know, that axe came in handy after all.

Tiny saves the Father and Brother Otis from the fire.  They tell him they will be back to get him.  Tiny nods and, with his deformed body silhouetted against the orange conflagration, he shambles inside the burning house to die.

The Fireflys escape only to come upon a police roadblock the next day while “Free Bird” plays in the background.  The final assault begins.  Again reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde but with Zombie’s own surrealistic touch added to the mix.  The credits roll scored by “Seed of Memory” by Terry Reid while we are shown sweeping camera moves that fly along the road and arc above the scrub-covered hills as if in a vain attempt to escape the carnage. When the screen goes black we say softly to ourselves, “Wow.”

Rob Zombie has without a doubt become the preeminent director of the horror and violence genre with these two films.  His use of music for the soundtrack is nothing less than phenomenal.  He is not only willing to take chances with both material and artistry, but to demand this is the direction horror must turn if it wants to survive, even evolve, as a genre.  Don’t miss this one.

Ginger Snaps: Not the Cookie, the Werewolf

I like werewolf movies.  No, let me rephrase that.  I like good werewolf movies.  My favorite is The Wolfman (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr.  And from a writerly perspective it gives me a tickle to know the writer of that film, Curt Siodmak, made most of thGinger and Brigittee werewolf tropes out of whole cloth.  But they’re as accepted today as any legend.  And it’s hard to pass up a late night showing on TCM with Chaney’s tour de force  performance in Frankensteim Meets the Wofman (1943).  That final scene of the dam breaking and flooding Frankenstein’s lab while the fur flies is one of the best in the genre.  Not to mention the fact Maria Ouspenskaya appears in both films; she’s always a treat to watch with her heavy accent and sorrowful, brooding manner.  Great fun.

But some years back I came across a trilogy that I immediately fell in love with, and, boy, are they great.

It’s the Ginger Snaps trilogy.  Never heard of it?  I’m not surprised.  They were indies shot in Canada which gives them a different feel both in tone and emotional texture than the slickly produced cartoonish efforts we see out of Hollywood.

The first movie, Ginger Snaps, dwells on two sisters who decide that if one of them dies the other will kill herself.  There’s the usual teenage angst and sexual awakening you would expect to see in a film about  a 16 and 15 year old sisters.  But Ginger Snaps ties those deep and powerful emotions into a stWhat's a girl to do when she has to hide her werewolf tail from the kids at school?ylish reworking of the werewolf mythos.   So when Ginger gets the bite, her sister, Brigitte, must do everything she can to protect her.  It’s a stylish film with a look and dialogue that really pushes the limits both in context and what we thought we knew about werewolves.  And you won’t need a silver bullet to whack one, because as Brigitte observes, a big knife will do since “they aren’t superheroes.”  Classic.

Of course, things start going downhill fast for the sisters.  Dogs start disappearing.  Ginger suddenly has a huge craving for meat.  When a tail appears she and Brigitte have to duct-tape it to her leg.  Well, no one ever said being a wolf-girl was easy.

The second movie is called Ginger Snaps: Unleashed.  Here’s where the trilogy takes a very unexpected turn.  Ordinarily, there would just be much more blood-spattering and chomping in a sequel like this.  Not so with the Ginger movies.  Now Brigitte is in an insane asylum, waiting for the curse to take hold of her while she wrestles with a horrific decision she had to make in the original film.  This movie dwells more on the psychological aspect of wolfdom than the usual crunching of bone by the light of a silvery moon.  Oh, and there’s a male werewolf out there who  wants to mate with Brigitte if she would just hurry up and let the transformation take its natural course.

Just when you think you’re safe, the thirThe faimily that howls together stays together. d movie, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning is actually a prequel to the other two.  Better yet, you aren’t sure if this is a parallel universe, an alternate history, or the beginning of an eternal curse involving these two young women.  Maybe it’s all three.  It doesn’t matter because the sisters are together again in 19th Century Canada in the dead of winter and they’ve come upon a fort while packs of hungry wolves roam the frozen countryside.  Hang on tight to a friend when you watch this one because it’s a doozy.

The Ginger Snaps movies.   You should check them out even if you’re not a werewolf fan.  It’s great story arc filled with pathos and sharp humor and biting (pun intended) dialogue. Enjoy!

House of 1000 Corpses (A Review)

Horror is a visceral medium.Howdy Folks! You like blood? Violence? Freaks of nature? Well then, come on down to Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Mad-Men.

When it comes to movies, horror can be very visceral indeed.  I love the old Universal monsters, mainly for personal reasons.  They are my favorite.  When it comes to other horror movies I lean towards surrealism like the excellent Suspiria by Dario Argento.

But there are other movies that, after you see them, change you in some way — and not always for the better.   I Spit on Your Grave is such a movie, along with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Hills Have Eyes.  Though a slick mainstream movie, I would place The Exorcist in that same category.

House of 1000 Corpses is another one.

This is a movie written and directed by Rob Zombie.  There’s a ton of in-jokes and black humor sprinkled throughout this film like lost spatters of black blood topped with glittering candy sprinkles.  The comedy is dark, very dark.  But, there’s fun here, too. The main characters are named Captain Spaulding, Otis Driftwood and Rufus Firefly.  All names from Groucho Marx characters.  Plus, Karen Black plays the matriarch of the Firefly family with outright verve and gusto. Hell, that’s a selling point right there.

Zombie wanted this to be an homage to the horror films of the ’70s.   He originally wanted to make the film with the same equipment and technology available to directors at that time, but money and creative pressure got in his way.  There’s still a lot here to entertain.  And, despite the body count and the buckets of gore, this film is very entertaining. Quick cuts of old black and white horror movie hosts and off screen monologues by principle characters a la Natural Born Killers keeps us confused and riveted.  Judicious use of sound, color, and a fantastic music track make the experience memorable and upsetting.

The movie starts with four teenagers are on a road trip across America writing about weird places tourists might want to visit.  In a shithole town in the Deep South they learn of a local legend called Dr. Satan.  In the interim they stumble across a family of freaks.  Oh, and it’s Hallowe’en Eve. So far it’s your normal horror-type movie fare, right?  Wrong.

Dead wrong.Baby plays with a friend under a full moon.

From the candlelit dinner, to the tortured cheerleaders upstairs, to the ersatz floor show, we are on a mind-numbing roller coaster ride…and it gets more claustrophobic with each twist and turn.  The police show up.  They’re whacked by the freaks, and one of the deputies is killed in what has to be the longest suspenseful pause in moviedom as the action reverts to slow motion, the camera flies away in the sky, yet  we cannot turn from what we know is going to happen.   It is the distance which Zombie forces us to watch, not the murder itself, that is the true horror.

But what of our four young friends?  Well, it doesn’t look good.  One of the male characters is asked by Baby to guess who her favorite movie actress is. Oh, and she’s holding a straight razor in case he gets the answer wrong.   He guesses Marilyn Monroe.  Nope, it’s Bette Davis.  Fitting she would choose such a notorious man-eater. Baby commences to scalp the young lad while she giggles.

I’m just saying that’s not something you see everyday.

The other poor fellow, well, let’s just say  “Fish Boy” and leave it alone.  The two girls are then dressed in bunny suits, along with our scalped friend, and taken outside on Halloween night for more fun and frivolity.  Teenagers dressed as bunnies on a night when they are to be tortured and murdered.  That’s not something you see everyday, either.

One of the girls runs.  She’s chased down by Baby and stabbed.  Baby licks her knife under the light of a full moon. The other two are thrown in a casket and lowered into a well.  The tortured victims from the past who are living down there reach out of the black water and drag them out, but one girl escapes.  She finds a tunnel and, still wearing her bunny suit, goes deeper into the black earth.

Shades of Alice in Wonderland…except what she’s found is a labyrinth of 1000 corpses, past victims of the Firefly family. She loses her bunny suit and stumbles into the lair of Dr. Satan.  Wow, he’s not a legend after all, who would have guessed?  But he’s deeply involved in an “experiment.”  She escapes his axe-wielding associate, crawls out into the daylight and a car comes down a dirt road to pick her up.

The denouement is typical, and most horror movies would end the shenanigans right there and call it a day.  But Zombie isn’t done with us quite yet.  Our heroine awakens —  only to find herself strapped to Dr. Satan’s table, ready to be his next “experiment.”  The final thirty seconds when she awakens and realizes where she is just might be the scariest thirty seconds I’ve eIt's a familly thing....ver witnessed in any horror film.  We don’t see anything, just her face and the whine of machinery, but that’s enough.

This movie weathered a lot of controversy when it was released in 2003.  Much of it came from young adults who think Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were the only models available for horror movies.  But this isn’t the cartoonish efforts of serial movies like Friday the 13th and the one-liner ridden and outlandish Nightmare on Elm Streets.  Rob Zombie knows what horror, real horror, is about.  Yes, there is black comedy and there is camp in House of 1000 Corpses, but there’s film-making as well. Zombie isn’t phoning it in.  This movie wasn’t written by a tube worm, as evidenced by the deliciously black comedic elements of naming people after Groucho Marx  characters and having teenagers abused whilst wearing cute bunny suits.  Horror, on any level, rarely gets better than that.

Time has been kind to Corpses.  More than a decade has mellowed the original criticism it received, and Zombie made a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, which continued the bloody antics of the Firefly family.  The latter movie even made money and garnered much critical acclaim.

If you’re looking for something different, a horror film that breaks the mold, and if you want to feel the walls close in on you, rent House of 1000 Corpses.

Then turn out the lights and hang onto a friend.

“The sky is the killer of us all.” Enemy Ace – A Review

DC’s Showcase: Enemy Ace , written by Robert Kanigher and penciled by the legendary Joe Kubert, is the most unrelentingly nihilistic comic I’ve ever read. Enemy Ace - nihilism at its best

It presents the face of war from the side of the enemy.  In this case it’s Hans Von Hammer, a WWI fighter pilot modeled after Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, better known as the “Red Baron”.  Like his namesake Von Hammer collects victory cups for each plane he shoots down and flies a red Fokker DR1, just like the Baron.  There are many other aspects of his life that parallel Richthofen’s,  which makes the comic (for those who know something about WWI aces) a real joy to read.

The technology and fighting tactics are correct for the most part. But, these are comics and sometimes you get goofy characters the Enemy Ace has to go up against and defeat, or situations that stretch credulity.  But overall the stories themselves are top-notch and crushing in their nihilism and bleak outlook of men at war.

Von Hammer has no friends.  Death follows him.  The ground crew call him a killing machine and always remark on how cool he looks and how easily he kills.  He cannot connect in any emotional way with other human beings, and his only friend is a black wolf he meets in the forest — another killer.  They develop a psychic connection.  They both know one day they will be killed.  Killers are always killed — Nature demands it.  Von Hammer returns to the forest many times between missions.  He can find solace only at the side of this black wolf, his only true friend.  It is his only moment of peace.

But more than that it is the sky which endures in these comics.  The sky, as Von Hammer notes, is the “enemy of us all.”  He is “a killing machine” but one day he knows the sky will kill him.  The sky itself is a main character in all these stories.  It is vast, uncaring, unmoving.  The sky strikes down friend and foe alike.  There are many panels where Von Hammer’s plane is but a tiny speck in the vast space.  He is nothing compared to the infinite power of the sky, and he knows he can never be anything but a lonely speck waiting his turn to be killed.  As he kills.

About the only drawback to these stories is they are presented in black and white. These were originally four-color comics and we miss the red of his plane, the blue sky, the checkerboard green quilt of the land below.  Sometimes a comic can still work published in black and white even though it first appeared in color.  The Showcase: Jonah Hex collection is such an example.  But the absence of color hurts the overall appearance of these Enemy Ace stories, I think.  We want to see his red plane.  You can tell some of the panels were set up to enhance the color and make the action more alive.

Aside from that these stories are pretty darn good.  If you want to read a nihilistic comic and are interested in WWI flying aces, this collection is the one to read.

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