Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year-End Clearance Blog

25th Anniversary
2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Live Girls.  It was my fourth book, and I’ve written a lot more since, but it’s still the most well known of all my work.  I’m often asked if, after all the work I've done in the years since, it’s irritating that my fourth book is still getting so much attention.  Absolutely not!

In fact, I’m pretty astonished and quite thrilled that a book I began writing 26 years ago on a spare typewriter in the offices of Pinnacle Books right after an inspiring visit to a Times Square peep show is still being read and enjoyed.  If you’d told me back then that the book would still be selling in 2012, I wouldn’t have believed you.  And if you’d told me that all these years later, I’d be working on another book set in the Live Girls universe and featuring some of the same characters from that book, I wouldn’t have believed you.

No matter how many books I write, knowing that people are still enjoying this one could never be irritating.  So happy anniversary, sexy New York vampires!

When I was a boy, my mother took me into a new book store in town owned by a friend of hers, a woman named Jean with whom Mom had worked as a nurse.  (I didn’t know it at the time, but she was also the cousin of the father of the woman I would later marry.)  Jean said to me, “I have something for you.”  She took a book off the shelf and handed it to me, saying, “You can have this one.”  She added with a chuckle, “But then you’ll have to come back and buy the trilogy.”  She gave me The Hobbit.  I burned through it quickly and loved every second of it.  I was not as fond of the trilogy.  While The Hobbit is a light, quick tale of adventure, a children’s book, the trilogy is a much more dense epic fantasy that takes itself far more seriously.  I read it and enjoyed it, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as The Hobbit.  While everyone else was waiting for movie adaptations of the trilogy, I was waiting for a movie adaptation of The Hobbit.

Be careful what you wish for.

Making a trilogy of movies based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy makes perfect sense, of course.  Making a trilogy of three-hour movies out of The Hobbit makes sense only if all you care about is the buttloads of money you can wring out of it.  A trilogy will give us plenty of time to get intimately familiar with every detail of the hobbits’ lives, right down to their personal possessions, each of which will be marketed as collectibles.  The Hobbit toothbrush!  Hobbit kitchen sponges!  I’m kind of surprised there isn’t a trilogy of movie novelizations, as well.  Some people have told me the first movie is good.  That’s not the point.  Saying the first of three three-hour-long movies of The Hobbit is good is like filling a stadium with hot oil to deep fry a turkey and then saying, “But the turkey is delicious!”

Peter Jackson is a wonderful director and I’ve enjoyed his work in the past, but I’ll sit this one out, thanks.


I’m rereading Peter Straub’s Shadowland right now.  I first read the book when it was published in 1980.  I was in high school at the time, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy, so I had to hide the book.  It was contraband.  It disrupted my life because I didn’t want to put it down.  When I picked it up again recently, I expected to be disappointed.  So often the books we read in our youth don’t hold up in our adulthood.

This one is better now than it was back then.  I’m not sure why — maybe simply because I’m older and more mature and no longer a teenager — but I’m appreciating the book a lot more this time, seeing more in it than I did before.  If you’ve never read it, I strongly recommend it.  I recommend anything by Straub, but this one really stands out and has never gotten the recognition it deserves.

For the past couple of months, we’ve been getting IFC (Independent Film Channel) for free.  We have one of those cheap, crappy packages that doesn’t include IFC, and I’ve missed it.  I tuned in after not having access to it for almost two years to find a marathon of Star Trek movies.  Wait ... Star Trek movies?  Are they independent films?  I think not.  Neither were any of the movies I've been seeing on IFC, which includes a Christmas time marathon of Jason movies.

What the hell is going on with TV?

Remember when the History Channel featured programming about history?  Those days are gone.  Now it offers Ax Men, American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and just in case you can’t get enough of that last one, Cajun Pawn Stars.  Once in a great while, it will air something about history, but only if it has Nazis in it.  The History Channel just loves its Nazis.  And aliens.

Remember the Sci-Fi Channel?  They had to change it to “SyFy” because its original sci-fi programming became so polluted with wrestling and pranks and “reality” shows in which bullshit artists run around in the dark hunting for ghosts.

The Food Network used to feature cooking shows.  Now it’s nothing but overproduced, repetitious cooking competitions to see just how whiny and nasty and unpleasant people can get over a goddamned cupcake contest.

TLC used to be The Learning Channel.  It was founded as the Appalachian Community Service Network by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA as an educational channel that was distributed for free by NASA satellite.  It was privatized in 1980 and became The Learning Channel, or TLC.  Its programming was made up of documentary content about everything from nature and science to cooking, from current events to history, and it did a better job of it than its rival, The Discovery Channel.  By 1991, the Financial News Network (FNN) and Infotechnology Inc. owned 51% of TLC, but FNN went into bankruptcy that year (there are several jokes there, but I’ll let you come up with them yourself).  The Discovery Channel bought up the TLC shares held by FNN and Infotech, and that’s when the channel’s crapward spiral began.  Now it has come to provide what people used to have to go to the circus to see — little people, fat people, polygamists, a two-headed woman, preacher’s wives, brides from hell, virgins, hoarders, people who can’t seem to stop having babies, and, of course, Honey Boo Boo.  (Let that be a lesson to us — when something, anything, is privatized, its original goals and intent immediately take a backseat to profit at any cost.)  Now TLC stands for TLC and nothing more.  Move along, nothing to learn here.

The Discovery Channel is no better.  Gone are the nature documentaries and shows about science and medicine.  Now we’ve got Amish Mafia, Texas Car Wars, American Guns, Outlaw Empires, booze, bikers, fishermen, ghosthunters, competing gold miners, ancient aliens, conspiracy theories, and a guy who drinks his own urine while pretending to be stranded in the wilderness with a full crew and provisions.

Now IFC no longer focuses on independent movies.  IFC could accurately be called the Portlandia Channel.  Along with that show, it features something called Whisker Wars (I don't want to know, really, so please don't fill me in), reruns of Malcolm in the Middle and endless airings of Trapped in the Closet, along with lots of movies that couldn’t be further away from “independent.”

I don’t know what bothers me more — what I just described above or the fact that nobody really seems to notice or mind.  This has made channel-surfing a kind of self-inflicted punishment, and it’s why I watch very little broadcast television these days.

Back in the 1980s, American television audiences loved watching the rich wallow in their wealth and flaunt their immorality.  Millions faithfully followed the exploits of the Ewings and the Carringtons and lapped up all those big, beautiful homes, fully stocked limos and globe-hopping lifestyles.  Shows like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous took up a lot of network airtime.  Now we watch shows about people who have jobs.  Any jobs, it doesn’t matter.  Truckers, bakers, fishermen, chefs, as long as they’re employed.  Employment is the new porn.


Stop Apologizing!
Jon Stewart is still publicly apologizing for his performance in The Faculty, the 1998 movie directed by Robert Rodriguez.  Am I the only person in the world who liked that movie?  Most people seem to laugh or roll their eyes when it comes up in conversation.  I thought it had a nice ‘50s monster movie vibe.  You know what I mean — the kind of movie that has a silly premise, but makes it work and manages to suck you in no matter how silly you thought it sounded at first.  For example, the idea of giant ants invading Los Angeles might make you chuckle, but Them! is a pretty damned good movie that makes you believe those ants.  That’s what The Faculty was for me.  It has some laughs and some solid chills, and a great cast of character actors like Piper Laurie, Christopher McDonald, Daniel von Bargen, Bebe Neuwirth — and yes, Jon Stewart, who plays Professor Edward Furlong.  The Faculty is a rarity these days, in any genre, in that it entertains without making the assumption that its audience has sustained some kind of brain damage.

And yet, Jon Stewart is still apologizing for it!  I don’t know why, because I thought he was pretty good.  And no one should apologize for the movie, which is a fine piece of work.  If Stewart wants to apologize for something, he can start with that Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy.  Where’s my apology for that piece of shit, huh?  I’ll never get that hour and a half back.

American Horror Story
I battle with insomnia, and Netflix streaming is the insomniac’s best friend.  American Horror Story, on the other hand, is not.  I’ve been watching the first season of this series, which airs on FX (yet another channel our crappy satellite package doesn’t include), and I can’t remember the last time I was this impressed with made-for-TV horror.  The horror genre hasn’t always worked well on broadcast TV in the past because broadcast TV has tended to be family friendly, which has resulted in a lot of watered-down horror.  That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.  This is a disturbing series that tells a different story each season.  I’m almost finished with the first season and I love the way it has managed to tell a haunted house story that feels fresh and unpredictable.

The writing is outstanding and does a good job of messing with our heads.  It’s not the show to watch if your goal is getting to sleep, though.  It’s frightening and upsetting, and so far, there has been one moment when I slapped a hand over my eyes because I didn’t want to see something.  The glimpse I got has stayed with me.

I'm not prepared to commit to this, but Jessica Lange may be scarier than Glenn Close.  I haven't decided yet.

American Horror Story reminds me of the made-for-TV movies that aired on the networks from 1969 to 1975.  Most were in the horror genre, but even those that weren’t told dark and unsettling stories in dark and unsettling ways, and they usually had downer endings.  They had low budgets and added to the atmosphere and tension with unique, creepy music and bizarre camera work.  I’m seeing some of those same techniques in American Horror Story, and I like it.  I’m also enjoying the use of familiar music from horror movies.  If I’d heard about that before seeing the show — that it used music from other genre sources — I probably would have said, “That’s just lazy.”  But I have to admit, it’s done selectively and with excellent judgment, and it works.

Among the names in the opening credits is Jennifer Salt.  I first noticed her in one of those creepy TV movies I referred to earlier, Gargoyles from 1972.  She popped up in a lot of TV shows and movies and was always a welcome presence.  I especially enjoyed her work in the sitcom Soap and the creepy-as-hell Brian de Palma movie Sisters.  Her father, Hugo Salt, blacklisted in 1950, wrote movies like Day of the Locusts and Serpico, and won Oscars for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home.  After walking away from acting, Jennifer took her father’s path and started writing for television in 1998.  She began to produce as well during her years on Nip/Tuck, and now she’s doing both on what is maybe the best horror TV series I’ve ever seen.  It’s been an interesting career to watch.

So Long, 2012!
For most of the people I know, 2012 has been a lousy year.  It sure has sucked cosmic ass for Dawn and me.  But things seem to be turning around.  Dawn finally got a good job after two years of being unemployed, and I have a new publisher, so things are looking up.

I want to thank my readers, who’ve kept buying my books while patiently waiting for a new one (it’s coming!).  Also, thanks to the people on Facebook and Twitter who put up with my bizarre sense of humor between bouts of self-promotion.  I hope 2013 is a better year for all of us.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Santa Claus in the Movies

There have been many charming movies featuring Santa Claus.  Fortunately, all of them have been Christmas movies.  It just wouldn’t work if Santa showed up in a movie about Valentine’s Day or Easter — although in a perfect world, Mel Gibson would have cast him as the guy who whipped Jesus to a bloody pulp in his gay BDSM Easter porn flick, The Passion of the Christ.  Sure, there have been a few horror movies featuring someone posing as Santa Claus that would make appropriate Halloween viewing, but they’re not specifically Halloween movies.  Santa mostly confines himself to secular Christmas movies featuring music written by Jewish people.

One of my favorite Santa Claus movies is Miracle on 34th Street from 1947.  It’s the first live-action movie I remember seeing in which Santa was depicted as a real person.  Edmund Gwenn, who was such a charming Kris Kringle, had a big influence on my idea of Santa as a small child.

We have the movie on DVD, but I haven’t watched it yet this year.  A couple of days ago, I was happy to discover that it was playing on AMC.  When I turned it on, I got a queasy feeling.  Something was wrong.  Everything was a sickening shade of pink, as if the movie had been shot through a thin filter of Pepto Bismol.  Then I became aware of the problem: it was the colorized version.

I had almost forgotten about colorization.  At least, I hadn’t thought about it in many years.  The period of years during which I did not think about the colorization of black-and-white movies was a peaceful one.  Because I did not think about the colorization of black-and-white movies.

When Ted Turner, owner of the MGM film library, announced back in the 1980s that he was going to colorize Citizen Kane, a genuine effort should have been made to have him committed.  He later said it was a joke and he’d had no intention of colorizing the classic, and even though he never did, I didn't believe him at the time.  But he colorized other classics.  Movies shot in black and white were not meant to be shown in color.  Otherwise, they would have been shot in color.  Because Turner was incapable of grasping that nugget of logic, movie buffs had a great deal of hostility toward him back then.  But the fad didn’t last long and, mercifully, it all faded away.

Before I turned on AMC the other day, decades had passed since I’d last thought about or seen a colorized movie.  I don’t know if Ted Turner had anything to do with colorizing Miracle on 34th Street, but I blamed him, anyway.  All that Ted Turner hostility came rushing back.  I felt myself tensing up, clenching my teeth, wishing that all kinds of creatively horrible things would happen to Turner.  (For those not familiar with it, this is very similar to the hostility felt by many fans toward Joel Schumacher for putting nipples on Batman’s suit — something else I haven’t thought about in a long time, so now I’ve just pissed myself off again, dammit.)  Then I remembered that he’d been married to Jane Fonda for ten years and figured the poor son of a bitch has probably suffered enough.

John Favreau’s Elf is a more recent example of Santa being depicted as a real person, portrayed in this case by Lou Grant.  Um, I’m sorry, I meant Edward Asner.  But Santa is overshadowed by Buddy the elf, played by Will Ferrell.  Your enjoyment of Elf will depend a great deal on your enjoyment of Will Ferrell.  I know many people who think he's about as funny as a pilonidal cyst.  He makes me laugh when he’s in the right role, and I think the role of Buddy fits him perfectly.  My problem with the movie is another actor in the cast.  Elf is a light holiday comedy, but casting James Caan as Buddy’s father transformed it into a light holiday comedy that could, at any moment, explode with brutal violence and bloodshed.  Or, at the very least, a bunch of F-bombs.

This isn’t the only light comedy James Caan has been in, either, which is bizarre when you think about it.  Ever see a 1982 romantic comedy called Kiss Me Goodbye?  Sally Field plays Kay, a widow who’s about to marry Rupert, played by Jeff Bridges.  So far, so good, right?  The ghost of Kay’s dead husband, a light-hearted song-and-dance man named Jolly, comes back to prevent the marriage.  James Caan plays Jolly.  Did you get that?  James Caan plays a dancer named Jolly — and that name is not meant to be ironic.  He tap dances.  No, really, I’m not kidding.  Holy crap, that movie was exhausting!  I kept waiting for Caan to drop the ruse and knock Sally Field’s teeth down her throat.

I once dated a woman who claimed to have lived with James Caan, and she said every time they had sex, when he came he would spit in her face.  I later learned she was a pathological liar and that nothing she’d told me was true, but the point is that I believed it at the time.  Because it was James Caan.  He’s a scary guy.  He is not light comedy material.  And yet he starred in Neil Simon's Chapter Two.

But unlike Kiss Me Goodbye, I’ve seen Elf several times now, and I no longer flinch when it looks like Caan might be making a move to beat the shit out of Buddy.  It’s a funny, amiable holiday movie.

I don’t mean to be a Grinch, but I have a problem with Santa movies — specifically those movies in which everyone learns that Santa really exists and really has a toy factory run by elves at the North Pole.  These movies share a flaw that, as far as I know, has never been addressed. It doesn’t seem to bother people, and I imagine most haven’t even noticed it.  But as a writer, I am annoyed by stories that contain a logical flaw and then try to ignore it by never mentioning it and just hoping nobody will notice.  Elf is a perfect example.

Walter (Caan) and Emily (Mary Steenburgen) have a son named Michael (Daniel Tay) of about ten or eleven years of age.  When Walter and Emily meet Buddy, Walter’s biological son, at first they think he’s a little goofy in the head because he insists he’s an elf from the North Pole.  Later, when they learn he’s telling the truth, they also learn that he works in Santa’s workshop making toys to be delivered by Santa to all the children of the world at Christmas.

Why don’t Walter and Emily already know Santa exists?  If he delivers toys to all the children of the world every Christmas, there should be something under the tree for Michael that was not put there by Walter and Emily.  I think it would be pretty hard to miss an extra gift under the tree, especially if it was the toy Michael had been requesting from Santa.  It seems like there would have to be some communication between Santa and parents.  You wouldn't want to give your child the same toy Santa had brought, would you?  Now that would be awkward.  I would think that discovering that Santa is real — especially for parents — would create more questions than it answered.

I don’t know how the other Santa movie fathers would react to learning that Santa is real, but I can easily imagine how James Caan would react.

“What the hell is this?  You’re real?  I mean, you gotta toy factory up at the North Pole, the sleigh and the reindeer, the whole show, and you’re tellin’ me you deliver toys to all the children of the world at Christmas?  Then where the fuck you been, huh?  Huh?  Where the fuck you been?  What about all those Christmas Eves I spent tryin’ to figure out how to assemble the kid's fuckin’ toys until five in the morning?  Huh?  What was that?  And then you get the credit for it?  After I do all the work?”

Caan rushes the fat man, pulls out his piece, levels it with Santa’s forehead and says slowly, “I am the last guy in the world ... that you wanna fuck with.  You ain’t been deliverin’ toys.  Whatta you up to, huh?  You runnin’ drugs?  Weapons?  Doin’ some human trafficking?  ‘Cause I’ll tell ya what you’re not doin’.  You’re not deliverin’ any fuckin’ toys!”

That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

If I were a parent and learned that Santa was real, I would be tempted to sue the lazy bastard.  At the very least, I would ask, “Then what the hell have I been doing the last few years?”  But that never happens in the movies.  The parents always shed their skepticism and embrace the fact that this fat guy has been flying all over the world delivering toys, but for some reason, not to their house.  And nobody says, "Oh, god, what else were my parents telling me the truth about?"

When you think about the relatively small period of time during which children believe in Santa Claus, it’s pretty amazing how much time, effort and money our culture puts into convincing them of his existence.  Movies, TV shows, books, advertisements — they all conspire to maintain for children the belief that Santa Claus is a real, magical guy who has flying reindeer, and those childre will, very soon, figure out, or be told, the truth.  It’s a short period of time, but it’s an important process, because in this way, we soften their brains for religion and politics.

Do you have a favorite movie Santa?  Was there a movie Santa who didn’t work for you?  One who frightened you?  Let's talk Santa in the comments.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Nuking the Moon Nazis

Earlier this week, a story first reported a little over a decade ago resurfaced.  It seems that in the 1950s, during the Cold war, the U.S. considered detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon as an intimidating display of power to the Soviet Union.  According to the man in charge of “Project A119,” physicist Leonard Reiffel, the project was scrapped for fear of endangering the people of earth and contaminating the moon with radioactivity.

"Thankfully, the thinking changed,” Reiffel said in a 2000 interview.  “I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered."

Does that make sense to you?  I mean, going to all the trouble of firing a nuclear bomb at the moon to spook the Soviets?

Look what we can do, ya damned commiesWe can blow up the fuckin’ moonSo you’d better behave.

Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t compute.  It sounds more like a cover story.  But what could that story be covering up?  What other reason could there possibly be for nuking the moon?

During WWII, the Nazis had a space program under the direction of General Hans Kammler.  He and his team were working on flying saucers with which Hitler planned to bomb London and New York.  They also wanted to conquer orbital space long before anyone else even had the chance to think about it.  The program was quite successful.  There are many eyewitness accounts of the Nazi flying saucers that bore the iron cross.  When the war turned out differently than the Hitler had hoped, they used that space program to flee to the moon, where a base had been under construction since as early as 1942.

A lunar Nazi base is a much better reason to nuke the moon than the one we’ve been given, don’t you think?  It certainly makes more sense.  I mean, if there are Nazis on the moon, then of course you’re going to fire a nuclear bomb at it!  Especially when you consider the fact that they’ve been monitoring us with their flying saucers all these many decades, waiting for the right moment to strike again.  All those alien encounters you’ve heard about that involve anal probes?  Probably Nazis.

The only problem, of course, is that I don’t believe any of this stuff.

I just read a book called Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson.  It’s about how the human mind works and suggests ways we can get it under control — because we don't control it as much as we think.  Wilson stirred Timothy Leary, G.I. Gurdjieff, Alfred Korzybski, Aleister Crowley, and the disciplines of Yoga together in a big pot and came up with this book.  It’s fascinating, funny, even enlightening, and each chapter ends with some exercises for the reader to do that will illustrate that chapter’s point and make it stick.

In the book, Wilson spends a lot of time discussing our “reality tunnels,” a term coined by Timothy Leary.  A reality tunnel is how a person sees the world through the filters of his senses, personal experiences, conditioning and prior beliefs, and other non-objective factors.  We all have them, like it or not, and in Prometheus Rising, Wilson tries to make the reader aware of them and show how they can be changed.

Right now, we’re living in a time of colliding reality tunnels.  There was a time when a person probably would spend his whole life in the same community, where everyone had reality tunnels that ranged from very similar to virtually identical.  But the world has gotten a lot smaller, information travels a lot faster, and so do we.  Conflicting reality tunnels are crashing into each other all over the place.  When we encounter a conflicting reality tunnel, we’re often quick to conclude that the other person is just plain wrong or maybe even crazy.  We reach these conclusions without giving any thought to the fact that the other person’s reality tunnel probably makes them see us the same way.  And that person is probably no more aware of his reality tunnel than we are of ours.  Wilson encourages us to approach these conflicts with understanding and openness rather than simply dismissing the other person as a nutjob.

We could use a lot more of that in the United States these days.  That’s why I read the book.

Some of the exercises encourage the reader to enter someone else’s reality tunnel, to believe the things that someone else believes for a little while, things that conflict with the reader’s reality tunnel.  I did some of those exercises.  One of the more extreme things I tried to believe for a little while was that there are Nazis on the moon.  It was triggered by the story of our plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon.

I’m a fan of conspiracy theories, and one of the goofiest is that the Nazis established a base on the dark side of the moon during WWII.  Yes, there are people who believe this.  Google it.  Search YouTube.  You’ll see what I mean.  There’s even a movie about it, a comedy called Iron Sky.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

I took a shot at believing in the moon Nazis.  I tried.  I want to be more understanding of other ways of thinking, I really do, but ... I’m sorry.  After a few minutes of that, I concluded that I was nuttier than a Christmas cheese log and went back to my old reality tunnel.  If you believe there are Nazis on the moon, your biggest problem is not Nazis.

I can, however, recommend Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising.  And while we’re on the subject of Wilson and conspiracy theories, I also recommend the Illuminatus! trilogy written by Wilson and Robert Shea.  In fact, I think it’s probably a good idea to read anything by Wilson, who will stretch your brain in the funniest and most entertaining ways.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I’m thankful that the founders of my country were wise enough to overcome their differences and set aside their personal beliefs to create a document as brilliant as the United States Constitution, which established a nation that embraces all of those differences — whether they’re differences in politics or religion, background or lifestyle, or anything else — and attempts to reach above them.  I hope it keeps reaching.

I’m thankful to all the men and women who have risked and lost their lives to maintain and protect what those founders created.

I am thankful to all the scientists and researchers who devote their lives to improving ours by making us healthier and safer.

I am thankful to all the writers who have filled my life with drama and comedy, suspense and scares, information and wisdom, fantasy and humanity, and who have allowed me to have experiences and live lives that would have been impossible without them.

I am thankful to all the readers who've been kind enough to let me know they've enjoyed my work.  They have no idea how much that means to me.

I am thankful to my wonderful wife Dawn for sharing her life with me for twenty-four years and for putting up with all my difficulties (writers and other creative types tend to have quite a collection of those).

And we are both thankful for our friends.  Things have been tough for the last couple of years, and it’s during tough times that you find out who your friends are.  Ours helped us through those times, and I hope to be able to do the same for them someday.  They know who they are.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker

Today is the 165th birthday of a man who wrote 18 books in his lifetime, a dozen of which were novels, the fifth and most famous of which struck such a nerve that it’s still widely read today, and its influence is everywhere as it continues to inspire writers and artists all over the world.  If you were to approach people at random on the street and ask them who Bram Stoker was, you might get some blank stares or rapid blinking.  But ask who Dracula is and there will be no hesitation.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897.  There have been at least three stage adaptations of the novel.  Orson Welles launched The Mercury Theater on the Air in 1938 with a radio adaptation.  More than 200 movies have been made that feature Count Dracula.  And think of all the movies you’ve seen that don’t feature the count, but are about vampires — all of them exist because of the character Stoker created.  And the books?  The books are endless, with new ones coming out every year, and in multiple genres — romance, urban fantasy, and, of course, horror.  I’ve written three of them, as well as some short stories.  And then there are the comic books, animation and anime, the games — for crying out loud, there’s even a breakfast cereal!  And thanks to Stoker, Transylvania has a thriving tourist industry.  115 years after its publication, the influence of Dracula is as pervasive and unstoppable as the insidious count himself.

I had a conversation with my agent recently about the popularity of vampires in fiction.  It’s a conversation we have a couple of times a year, and each time, we agree that it can’t possibly go on much longer, that it must be taking its final breaths.  We’ll probably have that conversation again sometime in the spring of 2013.

Whether it’s Count von Count on Sesame Street or Bunnicula the vegetable-sucking vampire bunny of children’s literature, whether it rips out its victim’s throat or sparkles in the sunlight, whether it’s sexy and sensitive or sadistic and brutal, whether it’s Max Schreck in Nosferatu or Al Lewis as Grampa in The Munsters, all are a part of Bram Stoker’s undying influence on our fears, fantasies, and culture.

It would be fascinating to hear Stoker’s reaction today to the longevity and power of that one novel in a dozen.  But the widely accepted story is that he’s dead.

If you’ve enjoyed the novel Dracula or any of the many movie and TV adaptations, if you’ve ever enjoyed a story, novel, or movie about vampires, then sometime today, raise a glass of ... well, whatever you drink ... and toast the birthday of the man who couldn’t have had any idea what a powerful force he was unleashing on the world.

Happy birthday, Bram Stoker.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

'Tis the Season: Halloween Movie Recommendations

Ah, it’s that time of year again.  You can smell it in the air — the decaying flesh of zombies, the fear of small children.  The decorations are up, people are planning their costumes, and once again, I’ve been spending October watching some of my favorite horror movies.

I’ve made my way through the classic Universal Frankenstein films, the Hammer Dracula series, and waiting on the shelf are seasonal favorites like Halloween (the 1978 original, of course), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the 2007 horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat.  There are some movies, though, that don’t get the attention I think they deserve.  I thought I’d recommend a few titles.

After winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1978's Midnight Express, Oliver Stone got a chance to direct his first movie for a major studio.  He made The Hand, a horror movie based on Marc Brandell’s novel The Lizard’s Tail.  It wasn’t his first dip in the horror well.  His feature film directorial debut was 1974's Seizure, starring Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins in the old daytime horror soap Dark Shadows) and Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, From A Whisper to A Scream).  I still haven’t seen that movie, but I like the fact that one of the most fascinating, unpredictable and respected careers in American cinema began in the horror genre.

Released in 1981, The Hand was met with hostility, derision, and dismal box office numbers.  Critics hated it, and so did moviegoers.  I did not agree with them.  I didn’t know who Stone was back then, but I enjoyed the movie thoroughly.  A few years ago, I watched it again for the first time in about twenty years.  As so many other movies I’ve enjoyed in the past have done, I expected it to disappoint me.  I expected to find that it didn’t hold up, that everyone had been right back in 1981, and I had simply been young and easy to please.  But I was wrong about that.  If anything, I liked the movie more.  Now I’ve added it to my list of October movies.

Michael Caine plays Jon Lansdale, a successful artist with a popular syndicated comic strip.  Lansdale is spoiled, self-centered, conceited, and seems unaware of the fact that his wife is unhappy and stifled in her job as caretaker and yes-woman to him.  When she suggests that she pursue her own interests, he sees it as a threat.  They have a heated discussion in the car while she’s driving, and in a subsequent car accident, Lansdale’s right hand is severed.  The hand is never found.  But as Lansdale sees his life unraveling, he does the same.  The hand returns to dispatch those he sees as enemies, or at least as threats.

The movie explores the power struggle in relationships and the severed hand becomes a kind of Id monster.  Lansdale wanted to keep an iron grip on his wife, as if she were a piece of property, but in addition to losing her, he loses his career because he can no longer draw.  The hand lashes out, desperately trying to keep him from falling deeper into the hole he’s been digging for himself.  Michael Caine gives a powerful performance, managing to make Lansdale somewhat sympathetic, even though he’s not very likeable.  Caine makes him human.  What Lansdale experiences could be seen as a nasty case of PTSD brought on by the accident in which he lost his hand — which, by the way, is a very brief, disturbing incident, beautifully shot, that haunts the rest of the movie.  The Hand is my favorite kind of horror movie — is there really an evil hand crawling around, or is Jon Lansdale batshit-crazy?

Another such movie is 1957's Night of the Demon.  The U.S. release was trimmed down from 95 minutes to 83 and retitled Curse of the Demon, but back in the 1980s, Columbia Pictures restored the footage while retaining the U.S. title (a DVD release has both versions).  Based on M.R. James’s story “Casting of the Runes,” the movie follows Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews, a skeptic who intends to expose black magic cult leader Julian Karswell (a cheerfully sinister Niall McGinnis).  But things don’t work out quite as Holden expects.  Director Jacques Tourneur planned to avoid directly showing the “demon” of the title, but the studio thought a monster would increase the film’s chances of commercial success and insisted it be shown.  The result has been the subject of much debate.  Would the movie be better without showing the demon?  Yes, I think it would — but I like the damned monster!  It scared the piss out of me when I was a boy.  Even with that big ugly, we find ourselves wondering throughout the movie what is real and what has been created by the power of suggestion.

There’s not much suggestion in 1977's The Sentinel, adapted from Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel and directed by Michael Winner.  It’s not a subtle movie.  But I think it still packs a hell of a punch.  Christina Raines plays fashion model Alison Parker, who wants to prove to herself — and to her lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) — that she’s capable of living on her own and taking care of herself.  She moves into a building where she has some extremely bizarre neighbors.  There’s Mr. Chazen (Burgess Meredith) and his cat, and a pair of exhibitionist lesbians (Sylvia Miles and Beverley D’Angelo), among others.  On the top floor, seated at a window looking out over New York, is Alison’s quietest neighbor, Father Halliran, an old, blind priest played by horror veteran John Carradine.  Haunted by a traumatic experience with her father and a subsequent suicide attempt, Alison is emotionally fragile and not entirely stable.  When she complains about her noisy, weird neighbors, she’s told that, other than the priest, she is the only resident of the building.  She has no neighbors.  She begins to discover that she did not move into that building by chance, and she is there for a horrifying reason.

Whether or not The Sentinel works for you will depend on how you feel about religious horror.  I’ve always had a soft spot for it.  This is religious horror with a vengeance.  I’ve seen it many, many times, and even now, as I approach my fiftieth birthday, there are scenes in this movie that make me want to hide under the bed, and I think they are among the greatest, most effective horror movie scenes ever shot.  Director Winner did something that caused a great deal of controversy at the time, something that still makes the movie stand out all these years later.  He cast as the denizens of hell real human oddities, people with shocking deformities.  As controversial and politically incorrect as this was, it was effective as hell.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, this is a great time to watch it.

Director Tim Burton has Halloween in his genes.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that his head is full of pumpkin seeds and he shits candy corn.  For me, his movies Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow are required viewing at Halloween time.  Although his 1996 box office disappointment Mars Attacks! isn't a horror movie and doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of Halloween, I think it beautifully captures the spirit of the holiday of mischief.  It’s an over-the-top spoof of 1950s science fiction movies.  And it’s crazy.  I’m always surprised when I talk to someone who dislikes the movie — I can’t take it seriously enough to dislike it.  When you sit down to watch a movie that’s based on a series of Topps trading cards, that replaces Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with the head of a Chihuahua, and features Tom Jones singing “It’s Not Unusual” to woodland creatures, it seems kind of pointless to look for flaws.

Roger Ebert wrote of Mars Attacks!, “A movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse.”  I agree with that to a certain extent.  It has too much big-budget gloss to pull off the clunky charm of, say, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the all-star cast doesn’t help.  But still, how often do you get to see a stampeding herd of cattle in flames, or Slim Whitman’s singing saving the world?  Instead of wishing it were something it’s not, I prefer to enjoy the hell out of what it is.  For me, the movie is stolen by the martians themselves, who make sounds that never fail to crack me up.  Whether or not you think the movie is successful in its attempt to spoof ‘50s sci-fi movies, it’s still full of tricks and treats, and it makes an ideal party movie.

The Universal horror movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and to some extent the ‘50s have provided much of what we now accept as the imagery of Halloween:  Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Wolf Man, the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Those faces have become iconic and instantly recognizable even to those who aren’t horror movie fans.  But my favorite Universal horror movie from that era usually gets passed over in discussions of the studio’s contributions to the genre.  It has none of Jack Pierce’s memorable monster makeup, no mad scientists frantically adjusting the flashing, buzzing machinery in the lab.  Instead, it focuses on the most diabolical, cruel, and bloodthirsty of monsters:  human beings.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 movie The Black Cat claims to be based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, but that was a white lie told to cash in on the late writer’s popularity.  It has nothing to do with Poe.  Instead, it’s about American newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) Allison, who encounter Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) on a train while honeymooning in Hungary.  Later, after a bus accident, the three end up taking refuge in the big and beautifully creepy mansion of architect and Satanic cult leader Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Werdegast and Poelzig are old rivals.  18 years ago, Werdegast left his beloved wife to go off to war and has spent the last 15 years in a brutal prison camp.  In his absence, Poelzig took Werdegast’s wife and daughter for his own, and now Werdegast has come back to claim them.  Poelzig’s mansion has been built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which he commanded during the war, and which he accuses Werdegast of betraying to the Russians.  They are more than rivals, they are bitter enemies.  But they remain gentlemen and speak to one another in a kind of code while the smiling, young American newlyweds remain completely oblivious to just about everything around them.  What they don’t know is that Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Allison in a Satanic ritual — and to be honest, the two Americans are so annoyingly stupid that it’s hard to care.

What we do care about is the struggle between Werdegast and Poelzig, and we care because Karloff and Lugosi practically glow with charisma throughout the movie.  Both actors were enormously popular at the time, the masters of horror in American film.  They were paired up in other movies, but never as effectively.  Karloff is clearly the better actor, but both of them grab you by the throat when they’re on screen.  Karloff’s wild appearance — his flattop haircut with that widow’s peak and his strange clothes — seems fitting in that weird art deco mansion.  (When I was a boy, I wanted to live in that mansion someday!)  The two horror stars tower over everyone and everything else in the movie.  Even if the movie weren’t very good, Karloff and Lugosi would make it worth watching.  But the movie isn’t just good — it’s great.

In Germany, Edgar G. Ulmer worked under F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and in The Black Cat, it’s obvious that he learned a lot from them.  He brought German expressionism to Hollywood and slathered it all over this movie.  The Black Cat was made before the crazy Hayes Code brought its church lady sensibilities to American movies.  Satanism, necrophilia, and a scene in which Werdegast skins Poelzig alive are still kind of shocking in a movie from 1934 — and they help make it memorable.

Among all of Universal’s monsters, mad scientists, and cobweb-filled castles, The Black Cat stands out like panther at a dog show.  When I was a boy, those monsters were what I expected from horror movies, and I was always disappointed if they didn’t show up.  I still love them, but as I’ve grown older, my tastes have shifted, and I find movies like The Black Cat more satisfying.  And the movies of Val Lewton, for example.

Lewton was a writer who, under a long list of pseudonyms (his real name was Vladimir Leventon), wrote novels, magazine articles, and even pornography, and, while working in the MGM publicity office, novelizations of popular movies.  That work has long been forgotten.  But the horror movies he produced for RKO have, over the years, only gained more and more respect.  While Universal Studios was keeping Jack Pierce busy coming up with one ghastly monster after another, Lewton looked inward for his horrors.  From 1942 to 1946, he made a series of dream-like psychological horror movies, each of which began with a lurid title.  Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, Ghost Ship, Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam were the antithesis of the wildly popular horror movies being turned out by Universal at the time.

The titles assigned to Lewton and his team probably would have been shot quickly and forgotten by most producers.  But Lewton wanted them to rise above their genre.  Although his budgets were small, he wanted quality and intelligence in his horror movies.  Producers at that time seldom if ever contributed to the creative process; they more commonly interfered with it and even stifled it.  But Lewton had his hand in every aspect of production.  The resulting movies look and feel different than any other genre pictures of that time.  My favorite Lewton titles for October viewing are Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim.  Every time I watch them, I wish Lewton were still around.  It would be nice if horror movies were made with such care today.

If you can think of some good old horror movies that are typically neglected these days, tell me about them in the comments below.  Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Master Plans

“I can’t believe you actually play the lottery.”

“Because you have a better chance of being attacked by terrorists while being struck by lightning than winning the lottery.”

“You think the lottery is a fake?”

“No, it’s just that your chances of — ”

“What about the people who win?  Those aren’t real people who are suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams?”

“Well, yes, of course they’re real, but the chances of you being one of them are astronomical.”

“Why?  What’s wrong with me?  What makes me so unlikely to win?”

“It’s not you.  This isn’t personal, it’s got nothing to do with you.  With all the people who are playing, the chances of you winning are extremely remote.”

“So what?  What do you care if I play?  The money goes to our schools, anyway, remember.”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s right.  The money goes to our schools.  I’d almost forgotten how much education has improved in California since 1985.”

“Yeah!  I’m benefiting education by — wait, are you being sarcastic?”

“You think?  Look, if the lottery money had gone toward education the way we were promised it would, by now people would be too smart to play the lottery.”

“Now you’re calling me stupid.”

“No!  I just don’t think you grasp the numbers.  I think if you really knew how minuscule your chances of winning are, you’d spend your money on something else.”

“Well, I deserve to win.”

“Oh?  Have you notified the lottery board about that?”


“I’m serious!  How can the fact that you deserve to win the lottery make any difference if the lottery board doesn’t know?”

“Are you done?”

“What makes you think you deserve to win the lottery?”

“Well, why the hell not?  I’m a good person.  I pay my taxes, I obey the laws.  I’ve never gotten so much as a speeding ticket.  Or even a parking ticket.”

“That means you may be a serial killer.”

“Very funny.”

“Seriously, if you haven’t gotten a speeding ticket by middle age, you should probably be looked at by experts.  Everybody gets a speeding ticket.”

“Not everybody.  I’ve never gotten one.  I donate to charities, I work at the soup kitchen every holiday season, I’ve rescued animals, and I — ”

“Hey, whoa, whoa!  Do you think the California Lottery is Santa Claus?  Or maybe Jesus?”

“No, smartass, I’m just saying — "

“Do you think the California Lottery has a list of people who’ve been naughty and nice?”

“ — that I’m a pretty decent person, and I think my karma is in good working order.  I think — ”

“Oh, my god.  Karma, too?”

“Yeah, why the hell not?”

“Let me make sure I understand this.  Your master plan in life is a combination of good karma and playing the lottery.”

“Okay, Mr. Rickles, what’s your fucking master plan?”

“I don’t think that way.”

“The hell does that mean?”

“Master plans, that sort of thing.”

“You’re winging it?”

“Oh, no, I’m not winging it, I’ve got plans, I just don’t like to — ”

“Okay, then, what are your plans?”

“Well ... I, um ... I really don’t know if I should go into — ”

“Don’t give me that.  Come on, it’s your turn.”

“I ... well, I just ... no.  I’m sorry.  I can’t.”

“Oh, for fuck’s — okay.  Okay.  Tell me this.  Is this plan something you’re working on currently?”

“Currently?  I guess I’ve been working on it my whole life.”

“Okay.  So this plan has already been put into effect.”

“Well ... no.  Not yet.”

“Oh.  When do you plan to put the plan into effect?”

“Believe it or not, this weekend.”

This weekend?  Really?”

“Yeah.  At the convention center.”

“What’s going on at the convention center?  If you tell me you’re going to see some goddamned motivational speaker, I will punch you.”

“Haven’t you heard?  It’s everywhere.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right, American Idol is holding auditions at the — wait.”

“I’m auditioning.”

“Go fuck yourself.”


“I said, go fuck yourself.”


“Because I don’t want to hear this.”

“What?  I don’t understand.  You’ve never heard me sing.”

“Yeah, that’s right, I haven’t.  I’ve known you my entire life and I’ve never heard you sing.  When the hell do you ever sing?”

“Obviously, when you’re not around.”

“No, I’m serious, when?  Where?  Do you sing in a club in town, or something?”

“Oh, no, no.  Nothing like that.”

“So you don’t sing professionally?”


“Then do you sing ... in church?”

“I don’t go to church, you know that.”

“I didn’t know you sing!  So how do I know you’re not going to church when nobody’s looking?  What I don’t understand is when you sing and where you sing.”

“Why does that matter?”

“‘Why does that matter?’  You want to sing on national television, but you can ask ‘why does that matter?’  Have you put any thought into this at all?”

“Yep.  My whole life.  And now I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“To audition.  To make it happen.”

“To make what happen?”

“I’m going to be the next American Idol.”

“I think you’ve had a stroke.”

“That’s only because you’ve never heard me sing.”

“Far as I know, nobody’s heard you sing."

“Then what makes you think I can’t get on the show?”

“I didn’t say that.  I have no doubt that you can get on the show.  You’ll be one of those free-range mental patients who gets hauled out of the building by security.  People will be ridiculing you on Twitter for a week.”

“And you say that only because you haven’t heard me sing.”

“Then sing something.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.  Right now.  Sing for me.  I want to hear you sing.”

“I’m not going to sing now.”

“But you’re going to sing on American Idol.”


"So you’re going to audition and, bang, you’re gonna be a big singing sensation, huh?  That’s your plan?”

“That’s my plan.”

“Wait till Rick Costa finds out.  He’ll start following you around and taunting you like he did in school.”

“What’s Costa up to these days?”

“Oh, you know him.  He’s nuts.  He’s going back to school.”

“School?  Now?  To learn what?”

“Something about medical billing.  He wants a new career.”

“He’s always been as dumb as a bag of hair.”

“And batshit crazy.  No wonder we never got along.”

© Ray Garton 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Book Report

I’ve never been comfortable writing critical book reviews.  I stopped years ago.  I’ll be critical of a book in conversation, but I don’t write those reviews because the fact that something doesn’t work for me only means it doesn’t work for me.  If I read a book that I enjoy, whatever criticism I might have of it, if any, is irrelevant, I think.  I’d much rather recommend it in the hope that someone else will enjoy it, too.  You might even enjoy it more than I did.  Or you might hate it.  That’s the way it works.  But at least I haven’t criticized and possibly scared you away from a book you might otherwise have read and loved.  I guess it’s kind of like that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  And this is the only time I practice it, so enjoy it while you can.  These are some of the books I’ve read in the past year that have stood out in the crowd.

I’ve read some wonderful stuff lately by writers I know.  Like Hal Bodner, whose The Trouble with Hairy takes us back to West Hollywood — well, it’s Hal’s West Hollywood, anyway, the West Hollywood of his previous novel Bite Club.  I’ve spent very little time in the real West Hollywood and really know nothing about it, but I think I’m pretty safe in saying it doesn’t actually have a vampire and werewolf problem.  But, hey, like I said, I’m not familiar with the place.

I’ve been critical of the horror genre — and I’ve included myself in that criticism — for focusing too much on the iconic creatures of the genre’s past.  Vampires, werewolves, zombies, that sort of thing.  I have nothing against them, don’t get me wrong.  I cut my horror teeth on those guys and still have enormous affection for them.  But they can only be updated, re-updated, re-imagined, re-re-imagined, revamped, repainted and redecorated so many times before they start to wear a little thin, both as interesting characters and as metaphors.

But Hal has proven they aren’t dead yet.  He has managed to breathe new — and hilarious — life into them by putting them in a place we’ve never been before and surrounding them with witty people on whom I enjoy eavesdropping.  I may find a book quite funny, but I seldom laugh out loud while reading.  Books that have made me laugh out loud include, among others, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Paul Zindel’s Pardon Me, You’re Stepping On My Eyeball, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Howard Stern’s Private Parts, Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren (although technically, that one wasn’t supposed to be funny) — and Hal Bodner’s two WeHo novels.  He blends that humor beautifully with some genuine suspense and chills.  I recommend both books.  Hal is currently at work on the third, Mummy Dearest, and I’m looking forward to it.

I read some noir in the past year, two great writers in the genre from the mid-20th century, writers I’ve read before and will read again.  Gil Brewer was heavily influenced by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), and that influence is palpable in Wild to Possess (1959) and A Taste for Sin (1961).  But Brewer’s books have a frenetic insanity that Cain never approached.  I don’t think anyone did.  His books are crazy.  In a good way.

David Goodis wrote some of the best tortured noir ever put to paper.  The Moon in the Gutter (1953) and The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954) are two perfect examples of that.  I’d read them before, but they’re good enough to read again.  You will not find likable characters in these books.  In fact, they’re populated by some pretty unsavory and even repugnant people, all of whom live in a bad part of town.  Unfortunately for Goodis, he wrote what he knew.  But the astonishing thing is that he can make you feel for them.  They might be ugly, violent people, and they might do some pretty despicable things, but they’re still human beings.

My most recent dip into the horror genre was Erik Williams’s Demon (2011).  I met Erik at last year’s Killercon in Las Vegas, along with the entire group of writers of which he’s a member, Snutch Labs, an impressive bunch of disgustingly talented writers.  Their collection, Tales from the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, is among the best I’ve read in a while.  Demon is a swiftly-paced novel that kicks ass all over the place.  Erik makes excellent use of the war in Iraq as the backdrop for his story of an ancient supernatural battle between good and evil, and he combines the two elements with a flair for action that gives the novel plenty of gritty tension.  There’s a lot here to please lovers of traditional supernatural horror, but the time and place give it an urgency and added danger that make the pages turn even faster.

Earlier this year, I watched a movie starring Sean Connery called Wrong is Right, which I hadn’t seen since its initial release in 1982.  I enjoyed the movie back then, but I remember what an angry reception it received.  Critics jeered at the idea that terrorists could get away with setting off bombs in an American city.  In the movie, the terrorists strap bombs to themselves, then jump from high places, like the top of a building, and then they blow up.  It was mocked by critics as a lunatic notion.  Could never happen.  I enjoyed the movie again 30 years later and noticed it had been based on the 1979 novel The Better Angels by Charles McCarry.  The movie takes a sharper turn into black comedy than the novel, but it’s a crackling good read that made me want to find more of McCarry’s work.  He’s been compared favorably to John le Carre and Len Deighton, and I can see why.

You think you had a bad teacher in high school?  Read Eric Red’s first novel, a thriller called Don’t Stand So Close.  This is the same Eric Red who wrote one of my favorite vampire movies, Near Dark.  He’s written and directed films and now he’s turned to fiction with a timely novel — the last few years seem to have yielded a lot of news stories about female teachers getting caught in sexual relationships with their teenage students.  But not like this.  Not yet, anyway.

The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier is a collection edited by my friends Jason V. Brock and William Nolan that doesn’t have a set theme and isn’t grounded in any particular genre.  It is a celebration of weird fiction and great writing that hits you with one strong piece after another from a stellar lineup of writers.  “The Moons” by Ramsey Campbell, a poem by William Nolan, a memoir by the late, great Norman Corwin, an illustrated children’s tale by Paul J. Salamoff with illustrations by Antoine Perkins, contributions by Gary Braunbeck, John Shirley, Richard Christian Matheson, and so many others — it’s as much an experience as a collection.

I read the best true crime book I’ve ever read this year.  I couldn’t put the goddamned thing down and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about how much I wanted to get back to it.  Steve Hodel is a former Los Angeles police detective who, right after his father’s death, began to suspect the man might be a murderer.  But not just any murderer — the killer of one of the most famous victims in American crime, Elizabeth Short.  In Black Dahlia Avenger, Hodel painstakingly presents every detail of the case he has built, and it reads like a dark, gritty novel.  The book was originally published in 2003, but I read a more recent update that included new information compiled since the book’s initial publication.  It’s a story that takes place in Los Angeles in the Golden Age of Hollywood and even has in its orbit some famous names, like director and actor John Huston and surrealist artist Man Ray.  And if you’re a fan of bizarre conspiracy theories, there’s a good deal of overlap between a couple of popular ones and this story, although Hodel doesn’t pursue that (if you’re not familiar with these conspiracies already, you won’t find them here).  But what kept me slapping those pages over was the haunting emotional heart of the book — the horror of learning such sickening things about one’s father does not leave one unscathed.  The case Hodel put together even convinced the Los Angeles District Attorney.  He’s written other books on this subject that I haven’t read yet, but they’re on my list.

I started this blog with a book that made me laugh out loud, and I’m going to end with another.  David Sedaris’s collection of essays from 2000, Me Talk Pretty One Day, made me laugh until my face was wet with tears.  Each piece builds with bigger and bigger laughs in a way that seems effortless.  I kept trying to pay attention to how he did it, but always lost sight of that as I surrendered to the sheer joy of reading the damned things.  I’m going to keep my copy handy, because it’s the kind of book I will return to repeatedly during those times when things aren’t going so well and I need some laughs.  I recommend you do the same.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

SERPENT GIRL: The Story Behind the Book

Carnivals have always fascinated me.  Lots of color, noise, clashing music and flashing lights, the big rides and sideshows, the game booths promising gigantic stuffed toys to winners, the aroma of everything under the sun being deep-fried.  But scratch that surface even slightly, of course, and you see the grime and sleaze underneath.  Even as a small boy, I could see that.  Everything looked good from a distance, but was dirty and worn up close.  Those gigantic stuffed toys were just lures — the real prizes were cheap pieces of junk that fell apart almost immediately.  And the games were rigged, anyway.  But strangely, that was what appealed to me.

The carnival, it seemed, was a big trick played on people who went to carnivals.  (This was long before I realized that most of life is made up of big tricks being played on somebody.)  I knew the carnival was a trick, and I knew I knew the carnival was a trick, and yet I kept going back.  I played the games, knowing they were rigged.  I went through all the sideshows long after I learned that the things promised on the banners in front were always, always huge exaggerations or outright lies.  I think it was the trick itself that fascinated me.

One of the sideshows I remember most vividly was the Disconnected Lady.  Garishly painted on the huge banners were disconnected arms and legs, and in the center of it all, a woman’s head on a table under glass, while a scantily-clad torso lay on a bed in the background..  “Disconnected!  In pieces!  Yet she lives and talks!  See her!  Talk to her!”

A disconnected woman who talked.  Ridiculous.  Impossible.  But it was the kind of thing that appealed to my Creature Features imagination.  It was mad scientists and spooky laboratories — it was William Castle!  I knew it was bullshit, but I wanted to see how they’d pull it off.

Behind the banners was a tiny little trailer with windows along one side.  A narrow path went past the windows and you could stop and look inside, where the trailer vaguely resembled a hospital room.  There was a hospital bed to the right and in it lay a woman.  She was on her back, with the bed in a semi-upright position.  The covers went to her chest, leaving her arms and shoulders bare.  Her head was covered with what appeared to be a large white handkerchief.  And that’s exactly what she looked like — a woman lying in a bed with her head covered by what appeared to be a large white handkerchief.  Occasionally, she would lift an arm and wave toward the windows.

To the left was a round table covered with a white tablecloth that fell all the way to the floor and then crumpled in a circular heap around the table.  Sticking up out of the center of the table was a woman’s head.  What looked like a white towel was wrapped around her neck.  She was an overweight woman in her fifties with short, curly, brown hair, large glasses, a bloated face, and a few gaps in her teeth.  I laughed.  It was so pathetic, so little effort had been put into it, that all I could do was laugh.

“What are you laughing at?” the Disconnected Lady barked at me.  Her pinched voice came over a couple of small speakers above the windows.  She looked right at me and said, “Huh?  What’s so funny?”  I shrugged nervously.  “You think this is fun?  Bein’ a head on a table?  Huh?”  She seemed genuinely angry.  “You wanna try it?” she shouted, her fat cheeks jiggling.  She wasn’t only angry, she was menacing.  “You wanna come in here?  We’ll disconnect ya an’ you can see how you like it!  Think it’ll be funny then, kid?”  My insides became watery as I thought to myself, It’s a good thing she’s only a head.

As I walked away from the Disconnected Lady, I realized it had gotten me — not with the staging of the sideshow, which was atrocious, but with that woman’s performance.  In spite of the cheesy production values and the obvious zipper in the suit, so to speak, being angrily shouted at by that woman, with only her head visible on the table, had sucked me in.  I walked in knowing it was a trick, and even so, it worked on me for a moment.  And I walked away with a smile, entertained and oddly satisfied.

I was especially interested in the people my parents called “carnies.”  The only time they ever used that word was in the summer when the county fair came along and I wanted to go to the carnival.  I was always warned to “Stay away from the carnies!”  This was sensible advice, of course, and I heeded it.  But that didn’t mean I couldn’t watch the carnies, which I did.

They were unusual people.  At a time when tattoos did not enjoy the level of acceptance they've achieved today, the carnies seemed to be covered with them.  They were loud, usually angry about something, sometimes violent, and they cursed like sailors.  For a while, I thought they spoke in code.

At the carnival with friends when I was about ten or so, I walked by a game booth — a row of pellet guns aimed in the general direction of a row of tiny red stars on the back wall of the booth — being operated by an attractive young blonde woman.  There was only one customer at the booth and he had just finished up.  As he walked away, the young woman pounded her fist on the counter and shouted at no one in particular in a loud, ugly voice, “When is he gonna come back so I can go pinch a fuckin’ loaf?”

Pinch a fuckin’ loaf?  What did that mean?  Did she need to make some bread?  If so, why would she pinch it?  Or was it code for something?  The carnies were exotic and mysterious, and whenever I went to the carnival, most of my attention was surreptitiously on them.  But I stayed away from them, as my parents had instructed, because they had an air of danger about them.  They seemed unpredictable and not very nice.  After all, they were the tricksters who were playing the big trick on people who went to the carnival.  What did that say about them?  Nothing good.  But still ...

Sometimes the most interesting people in the world are the people your parents warned you about.

This carnival syndrome — knowing something isn’t real or beneficial, or even that it’s harmful, but being drawn to it, anyway — is not limited to carnivals.  It shows up all over the place — in relationships, politics, religion, business, families.  But I think carnivals are one of the most interesting examples of it.

When I wrote Serpent Girl, I was feeling a little nostalgic for carnivals, and I wanted to write something set in one.  I knew what the title would be, that it was going to be about the woman who played the part of the Serpent Girl at a carnival and the man who falls for her, and that it was going to have a lot of sex.  I wanted to see if I could reveal character and develop a relationship using mostly sex.  That was all I knew when I started writing the book.  I didn’t know if it was going to be a horror story or a crime story, funny or scary.

What I ended up with was the story of Steve Benedetti, a man whose job is secret and solitary and has him on the road a lot.  While driving from Oregon to Los Angeles, he sees a carnival off the road and decides to stop and stretch his legs.  There he meets the Serpent Girl, a woman who stirs him like no other woman before.  He can’t take his eyes off of her.  The Serpent Girl is Carmen Mattox, and she’s decided to retire, too — from Dupree Amusements.  She hitches a ride with Benedetti.  He suffers from carnival syndrome — he knows something’s not right, but he goes along with it, anyway.  Together, they hit the road on a dark, erotic journey that will forever change them both.

Serpent Girl is available for Kindle at Amazon and for Nook at Barnes and Noble.  If you enjoy the book, I hope you’ll post a review, or a link, or tell a few friends — or all of the above!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bobcat Goldthwait: Making Movies About Things People Don't Want To Talk About

When Bobcat Goldthwait invaded comedy back in the early 1980s, no one had ever seen anything quite like him and didn't know what to make of him.  He would shout and shriek on stage, twitch and squirm, huff and puff and roll his wide, starin’ eyes like a man who’s taken an ill-advised cocktail of drugs that started kicking in about five minutes ago.  He was unpredictable, possibly dangerous, and very funny.  He’s always made me laugh as a stand-up comic and actor, but over the years, I’ve come to find him even more interesting as a filmmaker.

In 1991, Goldthwait wrote, directed and starred in Shakes the Clown, a coal-black comedy about a self-destructive clown accused of a murder he didn’t commit, set in a world where clowns never take off their makeup and spend their off hours in dark bars complaining into their booze.  It was met with a tidal wave of critical vitriol.  But I saw a lot to admire.  I liked the world Goldthwait had created and, while the movie doesn’t really hold together or go anywhere, it has some hilarious moments.  I thought Roger Ebert summed it up well when he wrote, “The movie plays like a series of scene outlines — ideas for how the movie should progress — that needed more writing and revision before the actors were called in.”  It didn’t work, but it had some tasty ingredients.  It was Goldthwait’s first movie and he was feeling his way along, trying to find his voice, and it was interesting enough for me to look forward to his next movie.  But I had to wait a while.

After the disastrous reception of Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait disappeared as a director for about a decade, although he continued acting and doing stand-up.  Then, as Bob Goldthwait, he began to show up as the director in the opening credits of TV shows like Crank Yankers and The Man Show.  He spent some years working in television, then in 2006, 15 years after his first, he came back with another feature film.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is about Amy, a young woman who, in the interest of full disclosure, is trying to muster the courage to tell John, the man she wants to marry, that she once blew her dog.  And it’s about what happens after she tells him.  In spite of the story's canine element, it’s not the kind of gross-out comedy you might expect from the costar of three Police Academy movies, either.  It’s a far better movie than Shakes the Clown in every way.  It’s thoughtful, even contemplative, and it doesn’t shy away from its more emotionally difficult ingredients — it is, ironically, a very honest movie.  It examines how we really feel about honesty.  We say it’s always the best policy, that a successful relationship requires absolute honesty, that honesty is a trait we greatly admire in people.  The only thing we don’t seem to like about honesty is having to face it.  Sleeping Dogs Lie also takes a look at our priorities and examines the difference between the things we identify as horrifying and unforgivable in others and the things we give a pass to and take in stride.  It’s about the stupid things we hold against each other and ourselves.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is a serious movie with something on its mind.  It’s also funny — it’s the only movie in which you’ll hear a woman say to her mother, “You wrestled another woman in your underwear while Elvis beat off?  And you didn’t even get laid?”  The business about the girl blowing her dog?  That’s Goldthwait’s way of luring you in with what you expect from him.  Then he dazzles you with some caustic observations about human beings and the things they do to each other and themselves.  I was impressed and pleasantly surprised.

Goldthwait’s next movie was 2009's World’s Greatest Dad.  Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school poetry teacher whose dreams of being a famous writer fade a little more with each rejection his submissions receive.  Nothing is going well for Lance.  The coworker he’s dating doesn’t want to get serious and doesn’t even want anyone to know they’re dating.  His son is a belligerent, morose boy with whom Lance can’t seem to connect.  His class is as unpopular with students as his manuscripts are with the publishers to whom he submits them.  And then Lance’s son dies.  That’s bad enough.  But he dies as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation.  In trying to cover up that fact, Lance inadvertently — and unethically — stumbles into the life he’s always wanted.  But can he live with the way he got it?
The World’s Greatest Dad was my favorite movie from 2009.  It was made with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.  It made me realize Goldthwait was doing in his movies what he’d always done in his stand-up comedy:  Making people uncomfortable by talking about things they don’t want to talk about, and then making them laugh about it.  And if there’s any doubt about that, you should take a look at his most recent movie, God Bless America

Frank has lost everything — his marriage, his job, his dignity and self respect.  And now his doctor tells him his life will be cut short by a brain tumor.  He discovers he’s lost something else:  his patience.  He’s lost patience with everything.  Unlike virtually everyone around him, he no longer finds the steady collapse of civilization entertaining or the bad behavior of people who are famous for no reason funny.  He’ll be dying soon.  What does he have to lose?  Frank decides to arm himself and start killing people who deserve to die.   Whether or not they deserve it is determined by their behavior.  And Frank’s mood.  Also, the mood of his unlikely accomplice Roxy, an adorable, perky, fresh-faced teenager who’s actually a smiling psychopath who enjoys all of this way too much.

No, it’s not terribly original.  Mickey and Mallory of Natural Born Killers spring immediately to mind.  But the similarities are only superficial, and as you watch God Bless America, you’ll find they’re quickly forgotten.  Instead of an over-the-top Woody Harrelson, you get Joel Murray playing Frank, a guy who needs no introduction, the guy whose life just didn’t work out; we all know at least one, and we recognize him right away, and not without sympathy.  He’s not necessarily a bad guy, as far as we can tell.  It’s just that, for whatever reasons, his life sucks right now.  Except Frank fantasizes about killing people he doesn’t like.  “I know it’s not normal to want to kill people,” he says.  “But I’m not normal anymore.”  Murray makes you forget he’s acting, or that he’s an actor.

Instead of the drawling craziness of Juliette Lewis, you’ve got Tara Lynne Barr as Roxy, who looks and sounds just like a girl who probably sold you Girl Scout Cookies a few years ago.  There’s an old fashioned wholesome sweetness to her, the kind of sweetness that would be right at home putting on a big show in the barn with Mickey Rooney and the gang.  But she’s not wholesome or sweet.  When she sees Frank take out his first victim, she thinks it’s the coolest thing she’s ever seen.

There’s none of the sadistic gloss you see on Oliver Stone’s movie, no booming soundtrack to distance your emotions from what you’re seeing, no slick camera work or flashy effects.  Goldthwait seems to value his stories and characters, because he presents them in a clean and simple way, with nothing to distract from them.  God Bless America is no exception.

When Frank channel surfs across television’s vast wasteland, we see the reality shows, the infomercials, the fear-mongering politicians and their talking heads, the screaming teenagers with their outraged sense of entitlement, the cruelty and stupidity and mindless violence and self-destruction and the endless chattering and babbling and maniacal cackling that accompany it all.  He sits in front of the television and every flick of the remote is like the lancing of another boil that gushes poison.  When you look at all the mind-numbing shit we absorb day after day, the stuff that bludgeons our consciousness during our every waking hour, it’s kind of surprising people don’t snap and act out violently more often.
God Bless America takes on a new immediacy in light of the recent events in Colorado and Wisconson.  With those massacres so fresh in the memory, some may want to hold off on watching this movie.  Wait a few months, or something.  There’s a scene that involves a shooting inside a movie theater that made me shudder.  I’m not objecting to it, just pointing it out.

Some of it is funny, some of it is horrifying, and that’s exactly the way Goldthwait wants it.  He’s talking about things we don’t want to talk about, showing us things we don’t necessarily want to see, then he’s making us laugh at those things even though we might feel guilty about it.  Most importantly, he's making us talk about those things  I can see the old 1980s Bobcat bouncing around, poking us in the ribs as he shrieks, “Made ya squirm!  WAAAHHH!”

After back-to-back mass shootings, I think we need to talk about things like this.  But every time it happens, we’re not allowed to discuss it because no matter what we say about it, someone accuses us of politicizing it.  So we have to remain silent and respectful and reflective ... until it happens again.  Sometimes only a couple of weeks later.

I like the fact that Goldthwait makes us talk about things we don’t want to talk about.  Stephen King once advised students to find out which books the adults didn’t want them to read, then read all of those books, because it’s likely there’s something in them they should know.  I think it’s the same with things we don’t want to talk about.  If something makes us so uncomfortable that we don’t want to talk about it, then we should probably talk about it.  If nothing else, it’s one step closer to not being uncomfortable with it anymore, and chances are good that whatever the problem is, talking about it will resolve it, or at least move things in that direction.

In God Bless America, Goldthwait offers no solutions.  But he does a great job of pointing out that mass shootings are not the problem.  They are one of many symptoms.  The other symptoms aren’t as shocking and don’t get much attention.  They don’t make the news, and they’ve become so normalized that we don’t’ even notice them anymore.  But they add up over time.

You might have a bumper sticker that reads “Remember 9/11" or “Support the Troops,” but how do you treat the clerk at the grocery store or the customer service rep on the phone?  You might disapprove of mass shootings, but how often do you call your child — or your spouse or lover or anyone else you care about — “stupid” or “useless” or “fat” or a million other casual comments that fall out of our mouths like gumballs out of a gumball machine, but can amount to emotional bullets?  We demand respect for our symbols and ideas and institutions and beliefs, but when it comes to the one-on-one stuff — all of us, myself included, everybody — we can sometimes leave a lot to be desired.

“Why have a civilization,” Frank asks, “if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?”

If mass shootings are one of the symptoms of the problem, what is the problem?  Goldthwait doesn’t answer that, either.  If you find someone who does confidently claim to know the answer to that question, proceed with caution and keep a tight grip on your wallet and your mind, because chances are good that person has something to sell you and is full of shit.  But one thing’s for sure — we will never solve problems we can’t talk about.  And that’s why we need artists like Bobcat Goldthwait, jesters who poke and prod us and keep bringing up the stuff we don’t want to talk about.

There’ve been others in the past — names like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks come to mind.  Most of them come out of comedy, because when talking about things people don’t want to talk about, it’s always a good idea to keep them laughing.  It’s also easier to swallow something bitter with a little sugar, just like Mary Poppins said.

As far as I know, though, Bobcat Goldthwait is the first to successfully meld the sensibilities of his abrasive stand-up comedy with movies that are intelligent, frank, funny, thought-provoking and even infuriating, and that absolutely refuse to soften themselves up for a bigger audience.  Goldthwait will not become a powerful movie mogul as long as he keeps making the movies he makes, because in order for his movies to achieve that kind of success, they would have to be something other than the movies he makes.  It’s a shame, too, because work like this should be generously rewarded.  Of course, if we lived in the kind of culture that rewarded quality work instead of cruelty, stupidity and bad behavior, Bobcat Goldthwait probably wouldn’t be making the movies he makes.

I guess it all works out in the end.