Thursday, October 17, 2019

How To Improve Original FRIDAY THE 13TH (SPOILERS)

As part of the "Heavy Hitters of Horror" month on Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we did episodes on the original Nightmare on Elm Street and just recently the original Friday the 13th. Here's the Friday the 13th episode, in which you can hear us griping about how the movie really isn't that good and only spawned the sequels we know and love because it cost so little to make and made so much profit.

Well, criticism is easy. Here are some ways to make it better. Note that there are spoilers for a nearly forty-year-old movie contained herein:

*I'd begin the film in 1957 with young Jason drowning in the lake due to the counselors who are supposed to be watching him off having sex. His mother Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), perhaps sensing something is wrong, comes running from the camp kitchen where she works but is too late to save her son. She loses it, lashes out at the counselors who arrive at just the wrong time (per TVTropes, in the Pamela's Tale prequel comic Jason found the two counselors going at it and the male counselor chased him into the lake, so they're probably close by) and kills them. Then she sets the camp kitchen on fire. The fire spreads, destroying much of the camp, and Mrs. Voorhees gets arrested. She's taken off to jail or a mental institution (I doubt "temporary insanity" was a thing back then, but a newly-bereaved mother of a sickly son who died due to others' negligence is likely to get more sympathetic treatment than a premeditated stabber), but owing to the bad press and destruction of the facilities, the camp is closed. The actual movie prologue didn't really make a lot of sense. In 1958 the counselors sneak off for some lovemaking and get stabbed by an unknown assailant for unknown reasons (although the counselors do seem to know who's attacking them based on their initial reaction to being caught), then a time-jump of 20-30 years.

*The above scenario would deal with one of big problems that I and other members had with the film--Mrs. Voorhees isn't introduced until the last fifteen minutes of the film. If I hadn't already known the first movie's killer was Jason's mother rather than Jason himself, I'd have been in serious Flat What territory. If there needs to be a reference to her in the film's "present day," have the creepy trucker who drives Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan) to the camp pass by the Voorhees family home and point it out to her and relate to how Mrs. Voorhees is in jail for the disaster at the camp back in the 1950s or was eventually released (two counts of manslaughter or second-degree murder and a couple counts of arson and reckless endangerment--she might've been released in the 1970s after serving 15-20 years) but secluded herself in the home and ultimately died. To cite the almighty Chekhov's Gun, if you fire a gun in Act 3 you need to reveal it in Act 1, and Mrs. Voorhees is neither discussed nor appears until the end of the movie.

*The first hour or so of the film need to be tightened up a bit--we see the camp getting repaired and get a little bit of characterization, but it takes too long. The scene where all six of the counselors kill a snake in the cabin after it startles one of them epitomizes the problem--were they all that bored they all had to pile into the cabin to deal with a snake?

*I was actually impressed by some of the cunning and tactical skills Mrs. Voorhees used. She's basically a 40-60-year-old woman (Pamela's Tale suggests she was pregnant with Jason as a teen, which means she could have been in her 20s when he died) and not a very big one, unlike her 400 pound muscle-mountain son of the later films. Physically overpowering most of the cast is going to be beyond her. So she strikes from ambush or uses lights (the archery range lights, her flashlight) to night-blind people before killing them with knives or other weapons. She also takes pains to cut the power and phone lines. When dealing with an alerted and younger, stronger opponent, she's notably ineffective as a fighter. My proposed new Act III would put this to good use.

*Owing to the spread-out nature of the kills and how nobody seems to be really aware of what's going on until the very end of the film, there's no tension and suspense. To remedy this and put Mrs. Voorhees' tactical skills to good use, I would have the counselors, many of whom seem to suffer from what TVTropes calls Too Dumb To Live, figure out what's going on much earlier. Perhaps when the obnoxious Ned (Mark Nelson) disappears on top of Annie not showing up like she was supposed to, they start searching the camp and find the body of Marcie (Jeanine Taylor) in the bathroom and the corpses of Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Ned in the cabin where they'd assumed Marcie and Jack were off having sex.

That still leaves half the camp staff alive and we can have them trying to hunt the killer themselves (it's ten miles back to town, in the rain no less, so they're basically stuck) or flee the campsite completely. Either way they get attacked in the dark by Mrs. Voorhees, who has just killed the new camp owner Steve Christy (Peter Brower). This would account for Brenda (Laurie Bartram), leading to a siege where Alice (Adrienne King) and Bill (Harry Crosby III) are barricaded in the cabin with Mrs. Voorhees prowling around outside. Mrs. Voorhees, going back to the arson in the new prologue, blocks the main door of the cabin they're hiding in and sets it on fire, killing Bill as he jumps out a window. Alice (Adrienne King) manages to get out of the burning cabin, paving the way for the final confrontation.

*During that confrontation in the actual film, Alice evades Mrs. Voorhees and even injures her multiple times, but Mrs. Voorhees keeps getting up and coming after her. After the second time this happens, even if Alice lacks the skill or inclination to actually kill her after all this crap, she should at least disarm her or tie her up to make good her escape. Perhaps in trying that, Mrs. Voorhees is able to injure her with a hidden second weapon or just hit her on the head really hard, leveling the playing field and putting Alice in very real danger. That would make the final confrontation less laughable and generate more suspense.

*Instead of the "dead lake Jason nightmare" and the hospital scene, end the film with police, fire, and ambulances arriving at the camp (perhaps drawn by smoke from fires Mrs. Voorhees has set) and discovering the injured Alice and the dead Mrs. Voorhees. We see Mrs. Voorhees being loaded up (in pieces) in the ambulance and cut to...

THE DISFIGURED ADULT JASON WATCHING FROM THE WOODS. Although the Wikipedia article about the first movie states the creator didn't like making Jason into the villain of the later films when he was the victim of negligent camp staff, I think the "dead lake Jason" was included as a sequel hook. This would show that Jason is not in fact dead, but grew up into the mute and vengeful machete-machine we all know and love.

You guys like? It keeps the few good parts of the film (Mrs. Voorhees as a tactical genius with a very understandable beef with the camp), but tightens it up and makes it a lot more suspenseful.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

My Next Convention: MultiverseCon (Plus Panels I Wish I Could Attend)

In my admittedly limited experience as an author, I make more money from going to events and signing books than from royalties, much like how musicians make more money from going on tours and concerts than from selling records. Consequently, I go to a lot of events--this past year's adventures included the Decatur Book Festival, Hypericon in Murfreesboro (where I was a panelist), various bookstore appearances, a gun show, and the new Next Chapter Con in Ringgold where I sold a bunch of books and definitely plan to come back.

At most book events I have two books to sell, The Thing in the Woods and The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2, which contains my short Viking monster story "Nicor." In November I will have a new book coming out, Little People, Big Guns from Deadite Press, but there's one more big fandom convention in Atlanta between now and then and that's MultiverseCon. It seems to be a relatively new event at the Hilton Atlanta Airport 10/18-20 and not only was the author table price relatively cheap but it's pretty close to my day job, so off I'm going.

Not only will there probably be a lot of vendors at the event (the vendors are sold out this year), but MultiverseCon's schedule shows a lot of really interesting panels. Given my table responsibilities I would only be able to attend the ones after the dealers' room closes, but here are some I find particularly interesting:

Friday, 10/18

Where Horror Lives (2:30 PM)-As a teen and then an adult there's not a lot in horror movies or books that really scares me, although there is stuff I do find really depressing (the unnecessarily bleak ending of the film The Mist that I have no interest in seeing comes to mind). I think the only time I've ever gotten straight-up nightmares from something was James Tuck's (as Levi Black's) first Mythos War novel Red Right Hand and my own short story "I am the Wendigo," and that's having been interested in the scary stuff since preschool (I wasn't allowed to see Arachnophobia and Gremlins 2, which was for the best). So looking for ways to crank up the fear would be a wise use of time.

Flash Your Fiction: How Short Can You Go? (5:30 PM)-I've heard that flash is hard to write but easy to sell and my first paying sale, "I am the Wendigo," isn't that much longer than flash. This might help me churn out salable material in a relatively short time.

Meetup: Podcasters and YouTubers (5:30 PM)-I'm a regular on the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and an occasional contributor to The Geekly Oddcast. I've also considered starting my own YouTube channel as an additional income stream and as an additional marketing mechanism. I've also appeared on podcasts to promote my work and have promotional appearances lined up for Little People, Big Guns, so this would be a good place to network too.

Pub Pitch (10 PM)-Various writers help each other refine their elevator pitches.

The Virtue of Villains (10 PM)-The villains that inspire the most discussion (and thus money-generating word of mouth) are often at least some degree sympathetic. A lot of people sympathized with Killmonger from Black Panther for example, while I've repeatedly defended Magneto from The X-Men and been very critical of his unnecessarily-evil portrayal ("Kill all humans") in the second X-Men film. I've worked hard to make the Big Bad Grendel and his son and heir Falki in my upcoming "Dark Tower meets Game of Thrones" novel Battle for the Wastelands deeper and more developed characters with understandable and even sympathetic motivations, even when they do really bad things like execute people trying to surrender, keeping defeated enemies' teen daughters as concubines, etc. This panel is noted for featuring Falstaff Books overlord John G. Hartness, whom I've met at DragonCon several times.

Saturday, 10/19

Beyond Ghosts and Goblins (10 AM)-Creating new and innovative monsters, especially ones that tap into current fears.

From Smaller to Baller: What Technological Advances Can Help Build Galactic Empires? (10 AM)-How to conquer defended planets, build interstellar polities, etc. This could be really helpful for my Federated Worlds universe, which features interstellar warfare and governance.

Publishing Q&A (10 AM)-Also featuring Mr. Hartness and writer Terry Maggert, whom I met at Hypericon over the summer.

Girls Rule (11:30 AM)-Female writers on how to write female characters. This could be useful for improving my personal writing.

Beyond Vampires and Werewolves (11:30 AM)-This is like the earlier "Ghosts and Goblins" panel, but with a focus on urban fantasy rather than horror. I don't think I've written a lot of (if any) UF, but I have written across many genres and what's one more? The more varied one's product, the more successful one is.

Teaching Speculative Elements (11:30 AM)-As you might've seen on Twitter, my day job is a high school teacher. This is something that could help me improve in that area.

Beyond the European Paradigm: Creating Fantasy Worlds for your TTRPG that Aren't Anglo-Saxon (1 PM)-I'm not a gamer, but this could be a good place to learn some interesting world-building elements.

Social Media For Writers (1 PM)-Social media is a pretty big time sink and I need to learn how to use it more effectively.

Sunday, 10/20

Let's Do the Mash! The Genre Mash! (10 AM)-As the panel write-up points out, mixing sci-fi and horror created the wonder that was the Alien franchise and I explicitly describe Battle for the Wastelands as "Dark Tower (Weird Western) meets Game of Thrones (deliberately subversive high fantasy)." I've also supported the idea that horror is an aesthetic more than it's own genre--Alien, Terminator, and the works of Lovecraft are sci-fi, Hellraiser is fantasy, etc.

ASK ME ANYTHING: How to Get Into Working on Licensed Properties (11:30 AM)-I've written for the BattleTech fictional universe before with my short story "Skirmish at the Vale's Edge," but that was a very long time ago. Scoring a gig in an established property like Star Wars or V-Wars like Delilah S. Dawson and James Tuck (whom I knew when we all lived in the general Atlanta area) would be awesome.

Craft of Writing: Characterization (11:30 AM)-Although I've gotten better at it, I remember writing-group critiques of "make us care about them before you kill them" and this would be a big help.

The Many-Faced God: Unraveling Sub-Genres in Fantasy (11:30 AM)-Lots of potential market research here.

Advanced Craft: Characterization: Writing the Anti-Hero(ine) (1 PM)-This ties in with my desire to improve my characterization--flawed heroes and sympathetic villains are more interesting characters. Some of my favorite fictional characters (Magneto, Snape) would fit in this category. Hell, in my Harry Potter fan-fic "Lord of the Werewolves" I took the kindly Remus Lupin of all people in this direction.

Pushing the Envelope: Religion, Politics, and More in Horror Fiction (1 PM)-Although I don't buy the adage that "all art is political," a lot of time the arts are more political than you think. Hell, my novel The Thing in the Woods deals with "retro vs. metro," religion, racial and class prejudice, etc. I've even written an article about it. And Little People, Big Guns deals with religion, disability, etc. These days when there's an increased awareness of that sort of thing, this could be useful.

Unless the vendor's room is truly dead I'm not likely to abandon my post to check these out, but the rest of you might find this interesting. So if you're in the Atlanta area 10/18-10/20 or are able to come down for the weekend, definitely check out MultiverseCon.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Both My Supervillain-Protagonist Stories Are Now "Wide"

Back in 2013 when I was in graduate school, I wrote two short stories featuring Indian-American supervillain Andrew Patel as the protagonist, "Ubermensch" and "Needs Must." Although I would consider myself a political conservative, I do agree with the concept of more minority representation in speculative fiction, not just on the grounds of giving children the chance to see themselves as superheroes but also because members of these groups have money to spend. Look at the success of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino hero of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or the Muslim Miss Marvel who will be getting her own Disney show soon. When I first tweeted them out, none other than Muslim fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed retweeted the links for me.

Although I had plans to write more stories featuring Patel, there wasn't a whole lot of reader interest compared to my alternate history and straight science fiction and fantasy projects. I've got a draft of a third story that actually links Andrew and his world with The Thing in the Woods in a Stephen King fashion (I got the idea from my friend Nic, overlord of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood), which I might include in a collection someday. However, that's likely all we'll ever see of Andrew Patel until we get to that future Thing sequel where he makes an appearance.

In the meantime, although I do make sales now and again (I sold a copy each yesterday, for example), the Kindle Unlimited borrows really dried up. According to one of the writing podcasts I listen to, one should stay in KU until the borrows stop coming in and then one should go wide on outlets like Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc.

To that end, the two tales of supervillain Andrew Patel are now "wide" on non-Amazon markets. "Ubermensch" can be found on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple here and "Needs Must" can be found in these markets here. They are also various library markets like Overdrive, but they're not live there yet.

So if you're interested in the tales of an Indian-American biomedical engineer who read a little too much Nietzsche in college and has transformed himself into a cyborg to achieve transcendence, enjoy!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

How To Improve WILD WILD WEST (1999)

For the 200th episode of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, our mighty host decided we ought to do Wild Wild West, the Will Smith and Kevin Kline vehicle based on the 1960s TV series). I'd only seen some bits of the movie on HBO at my parents' house long ago and I'm an aficionado of steampunk, so this was something I wanted to see. Here's the podcast. Although I found much of the film hilarious--the only member of the crew to do so--I admit there were some areas that needed improvement.

So here's how I would have improved Wild Wild West while keeping as much of the film intact as possible. Here there be spoilers for a movie that's 20-odd years old, so be ye warned...

*Instead of the prologue with the scientist being killed by the flying blade pursuing the magnetized collar around his neck, have a flashback to the end of the Civil War in which Confederate General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine) and Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) attack the free black town of New Liberty with their steampunk war machines. Fortunately a nearby detachment of black cavalry including Jim West (Will Smith) is nearby and is able to relieve the town. In the process Loveless loses the lower half of his body and this can be played for laughs. I'm thinking some kind of explosion triggered by West blows Loveless in half, with body parts flying through the air.

(Given how the podcast group objected to the mood whiplash between silliness and serious James Bond-type spycraft, combining a massacre of civilians by evil racists with said racists getting hurt in hilarious ways would be tricky to pull off. Still it's probably doable.)

*Trim down the opening credits. They're more entertaining than the over-long opening credits of Spawn, but they go on and on and on...

*The first chunk or so of the film is generally good, with a lot of goofy humor, fight scenes, and the introduction of steampunk techie Artemis Gordon (Kevin Kline) but it reveals one of the film's major flaws. Many of the jokes in the film are funny, but they go on too long. We're talking Family Guy level of jokes going on too long here. The scene where West is having sex with a woman in a town's water tower is amusing, but the joke about him pretending to kiss her when he's really kissing empty air and she's getting progressively more annoyed goes on much longer than it needs to. The point has been made; let's get to the gunfight in the bar.

*In general, more practical effects. A lot of the CGI in the film is simply bad.

*Nixing the opening with the fleeing scientist losing his head means we lose the "that's a man's head" scene between Gordon and West, but perhaps someone else can lose their head instead. Somebody at the bar at the beginning, perhaps? McGrath is there and he's intent on running nitroglycerin to Loveless in New Orleans, so perhaps one of his minions' corpses is captured? That scene was pretty funny and it would be a shame to lose it.

*Considering how one of the guards on Loveless's estate accosts West and berates him using racist language (calling him "boy") when he sees him skulking around outside, I would expect him to have a much more hostile reception inside. Instead none of the Confederate die-hards attending his ball seem to care that a black man (and a member of the current U.S. Army no less) is roaming about armed and talking to white people as an equal rather than a servant, at least until he gropes a white woman he thinks is Gordon in disguise. Given how he absolutely refused to go as Gordon's manservant--his explanation allows for both humor and to show how incredibly degrading that would be. Perhaps instead he could have gone in disguise as some kind of African prince, Coming To America style? Ex-Confederates would disdain former slaves but might think somewhat better of a wealthy foreigner.

*When we first meet Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) she's being held prisoner by some scantily-clad entertainers. The vibe I was getting was that Loveless had hired prostitutes to keep his captive scientists entertained, with Rita pretending to be a more respectable actress or singer who refused to participate. The idea that Loveless is using the carrot as well as the stick to control the scientists--and especially the particular nature of the carrot--could be played for more comedy.

*Although most of the group objected to the scenes where Loveless needles West about being black and West in turn needles Loveless about being disabled, a lot of that I actually found pretty funny. Not only does it appeal to my sense of humor, which relies heavily on wordplay and tasteless, shocking comments, but it would be realistic for its time. Loveless, being a Confederate die-hard, would be incredibly racist, while West would retaliate using the most obvious avenue, especially given how sensitive a subject this is for Loveless.

*The way they talk to each other implies they've interacted in the past, although there's really no reason for them to have. Perhaps they fight, or at least talk to each other, in the new prologue?

*That said, the attempted lynching of West that's played for comedy (!) doesn't go well at all. Gordon deliberately set it up (!!) to distract the guests from his searching Loveless's estate to find the captive scientists and it does allow for some amusing Will Smith jokes, but they're not going to be letting a man they intend to murder talk for so long like that. I would have made it so Gordon just needs to distract the party guests long enough to rescue Rita and then the two of them quickly intervene to keep West from being killed. Searching the estate would take hours and West would be long dead by then, but springing Rita from Loveless's sex-dungeon bedroom and then saving West is much less risky. Later in the film, West can in turn put Gordon at gross risk of bodily harm that's both funny and makes the point that what nearly happens to West is serious Dude Not Funny territory. Given how West absolutely refuses to pretend to be Gordon's servant we know that enslavement left a mark on him even though he escaped as a child, and lynching would be a much more fearful possibility for him than for a white man like Gordon.

*West references having been raised by Indians after escaping slavery as a child, but nothing about Native Americans happens at all even though they're in the Old West. His revealing how he was separated from his parents and how they were killed by McGrath at New Liberty was necessary plot-wise to get Gordon to stop feuding with him, but there was no need for the Indian back-story unless it was relevant--say if his adoptive Indian tribe showed up to help fight Loveless or something. I'd just nix that completely because bringing in an Indian war party on top of everything else would make the whole thing needlessly complicated.

(Unless of course West sets up Gordon to be scalped or undergo something like the "sun vow" scene from A Man Called Horse in revenge for Gordon trying to get him lynched earlier. That might actually be funny.)

And that turn ties in with my next point...

*Loveless's plan to divide up the United States between various former colonial powers makes things needlessly complicated and raises some awkward questions--namely an alliance of Mexico and various European powers supporting a terrorist to break up the United States would be grounds for immediate war if it went wrong. And given how President Grant knows the various European countries are involved, that's the obvious sequel and people would be wondering. I'd have just stuck with him trying to kidnap and/or kill President Grant, perhaps using McGrath and his Confederate die-hards as cannon fodder to punish them for losing the war. After all, I did like that Loveless hated the Confederates for losing the war and making his crippling ultimately pointless as much as he hated the Union for crippling him--it shows how much of a narcissist he is. Loveless's betrayal of McGrath and the murder of his men could be here instead of much earlier at the estate.

*Given how much West needles Gordon about dressing in drag for his missions, West having to dress in drag to rescue Grant and Gordon is an amusing ironic punishment. However, like many of the film's jokes, the scene goes for way too long. Yes, Will Smith pretending to be a sassy belly dancer in a veil to secretly unchain some people is funny, but get to the point already.

*The big reveal at the end that Rita's "father" isn't really her father but her husband would've been a lot funnier if the actor was someone younger and better-looking than Gary Cervantes. As someone pointed out on the podcast, perhaps Antonio Banderas? Given how West and Gordon are competing for Rita's affections the entire time, I get they were going for the shocking reveal she was married, but it would have been funnier if it was to a man widely-regarded as a sex symbol in a way Kevin Kline is not. And as they leave at the end, perhaps Mr. Escobar can wink at them? That would be pretty funny, plus it shows he's perceptive enough to know that his wife had been playing them the entire time and he's gloating that at the end of the day, it's him she's going home with. Maybe that'd make him a bit of an Ungrateful Bastard, but it'd be funny.

Hopefully all these suggestions would tighten the film up and fix some plot holes all while preserving the good bits.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A 1632 War Between the Spanish and Tokugawa Japan?

Although I'm self-banned from the alternate history forum to keep myself from wasting too much time online, I do drop in the public forums to check for interesting new material. Here's one new story, "Reconquista Basara: A 1632 Spanish-Tokugawa War TL."

It diverges from real history in 1632 when Matsakura Shigemasa, a strongly anti-Christian daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) escapes an assassination attempt that might have been ordered by the Shogun due to his misrule and brutalization of the peasantry. Per the Wikipedia article he was planning to launch a maritime invasion of the Spanish colony of Luzon in the Philippines!. Not being dead this time around, he's able to launch the campaign with the assistance of the Dutch, who would welcome the chance to open up another front against the Spanish and don't like the Jesuits much more than he does. Luzon falls, but the Spanish (and the Portuguese, with whom they were in a dynastic union at the time) strike back, landing an army in Japan proper and gaining  support from the Catholic peasants and ronin (masterless samurai), who in real history would soon launch the Shimabara Rebellion.

Some highlights of this timeline include:

*Early modern Japanese expansion outside of the Home Islands, which with the weakening Ming Dynasty in China and the relatively weak European presence elsewhere in Asia would have been something they'd have a strong chance at pulling off. Yes, they failed in real history to conquer Korea the first time, but Korea was a well-organized state backed up by Imperial China. The Philippines are farther away, but the Spanish and their local allies are far weaker on the ground. Although the Shogun knows there's going to be hell to pay for this, the other lords of Japan view Matsakura as a hero and Japan as whole is now in on this for reasons of saving face if nothing else. That in turn has consequences--see below.

*When the Iberians strike back, the Shogunate gets what is coming to it for its mistreatment of Japanese Christians and squeezing of the peasants more generally. Although I have a fairly high tolerance for movie violence, one film I'm not interested in seeing is Silence because based on the trailers it looks like a cavalcade of "Japanese Christians getting tortured and murdered by the Shogun." The near-genocide of Japanese Christians is proof that one can kill an idea (although "hidden Christians" survived here and there until the end of the Shogunate Christianity was effectively obliterated) and the fact that some idiotic modern people view this as some kind of anti-colonial campaign or an attempt to protect traditional Japanese religion from the Inquisition is even more galling. This time around Japanese Catholics might be on "the right side of history" and the Shoguns on the wrong, even though as a Christian I'm inclined to think Judgement Day will see the Church's ultimate vindication.

*This additional front in the worldwide war between the Spanish and the Dutch and the Protestants and Catholics in turn has some major effects in Europe. Although globalization is typically viewed as a modern phenomenon, even then the world was very interconnected--silver from the Americas funded Spain's wars against the Ottomans and Protestants and purchased luxury goods from Asia via the Manila galleon. I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

The last update on the timeline was last Thursday, August 22. I hope the author keeps up the good work.

THE THING IN THE WOODS, The Workers in the Vineyard, and the Cost of Discipleship

Although I don't buy the idea that all art "has a message" or "all art is political," odds are the longer one's book or the deeper its ideas, the more likely it's going to touch on something pertaining to politics, culture, spirituality, morality, etc. even by accident. And art very often reflects its historical-cultural context and the values of its creator. Since I am a Christian, my horror novel The Thing in the Woods does reflect that, in particular the journey of the character Sam Dixon.

The following discussion contains spoilers for Thing, so be ye warned...

Sam, one of the four (human) point of view characters in the book, is a middle-aged veteran of the Persian Gulf War and a member of a cult that has been worshiping an alien horror in the woods outside the small Georgia town of Edington for several centuries. Early in the novel, he begins to question the cult for its murder of a homeless veteran. Later on, he begins to suspect the thing in the woods is not actually a god (after all, an "unethical" deity is still a deity and disobedience will likely have unpleasant consequences, but something lacking in demonstrable supernatural powers might not be), undermining his faith still further. The final straw is when the cult leader sends his enforcer Reed after Sam (ostensibly just to beat him severely rather than kill him), but Reed exceeds his orders, beating Sam's wife and nearly killing Sam himself before another character intervenes. Not long after, Sam explicitly renounces the worship of the monster in the woods and vows to serve "the real Lord."

Sam's story is explicitly based on Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, in which a generous landowner pays day laborers a full day's pay whether they worked a full day or only a short time. Per my college pastor, if you were a hired laborer in Roman Judea, if you didn't work a particular day, you didn't eat that day. From a salvation point of view, someone who becomes a Christian later in life is just as "saved" as someone who has served the Lord from childhood. Although many critics of Christianity object to the idea that one can repent of a lifetime of horrible behavior (including theoretically Hitler--the movie Fury features a discussion on this) and still be saved, someone who intends to sin until the last minute and then "repent" and be forgiven is clearly not remorseful and thus isn't really "saved." A person who is aware of this particular doctrine and believes that God will decide their fate in the hereafter clearly believes in God, but he isn't obeying him. As the Apostle James pointed out, even Satan believes in God.

Furthermore, as James put it, true faith produces works. The man who would become Saint Francis of Assisi abandoned his hedonistic lifestyle and crass materialism to become a begging friar, the murderous WWII governor-general of German-occupied Poland Hans Frank voluntarily turned over extensive documentation of the Nazis' crimes that was then used to convict and hang him, serial killer David Berkowitz refused to seek parole for many years (to the point of skipping mandatory parole hearings), admitted he deserved his life sentence, and wanted monies made off him by lawyers and others donated to his victims' families, and the infamous "General Butt Naked" of Liberia testified before the country's war-crimes tribunal and is now a preacher who raises money to rehabilitate child soldiers.

(A more secular example of this is the 1998 American Godzilla film in which the reporter Audrey steals military secrets from her still-infatuated ex for what she hoped would be the scoop of a lifetime, causing him to lose his job. She--and her wacky ethnic comic relief cameraman who along with his wife had encouraged her in her misdeed--follow him into Godzilla's lair and ultimately plays a pivotal role in preventing a mass breakout of Godzilla's offspring that could destroy human civilization. Given how pretty much everybody involved knew the risks, most of them ultimately ended up lizard lunch, and it was Audrey herself who broadcast the "kill us to save humanity" message, "prove your repentance by your deeds" indeed.)

And although American Christianity doesn't emphasize this to the degree it should (*cough* prosperity gospel *cough*), following Jesus has a cost. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote The Cost of Discipleship on this very topic, ultimately died in a concentration camp for his involvement in the German resistance against Hitler. In Thing, Sam assists protagonist James Daly and his not-yet-girlfriend Amber Webb in infiltrating the cult's compound to rescue James' abducted father where, to make a long story short, he ends up getting eaten alive by the monstrosity he'd spent most of his life worshiping. His repentance, although it meant he would go to Heaven rather than Hell, ultimately cost him his life.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guest Post: T.S. Dann Reviews SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK Movie

Greetings, ladies and jerks.

Apparently, the Matthew Quinn values my opinion enough to ask my thoughts after a recent trip to the moving pictures. The picture show in question is the recently released film Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. 

Why should you care what the hell I have to say about this movie? Well, let’s just say as an almost lifelong fan of the books and current author and artist, they are something I have held very near and dear for several decades. They are ingrained into the psyche of myself and many others of my generation (mid 30s now) and endure to this day for new readers. What’s more, is during the almost thirty years (as of this writing) of these books’ existence, they have survived a Satanic Panic, book bans, and other overzealous idiocy.

With that out of the way, I originally heard there was going to be a movie based on the books in early 2019. I was not optimistic. Another piece of modern Hollywood schlock that would probably be some goofy crapfest with a few haphazard nods to the books here and there. In fact, I wondered how a Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark movie could work outside an anthology of very short pieces. That being said…the part of me infused with an ever-morbid curiosity said, “If I don’t have to pay for it.”

Well, through a series of happy accidents, my girlfriend and I ended up with passes to a sneak preview on August 7 (general release was August 9). Ever the cynic, I went in with very low expectations. Well I gotta say…my pessimistic ass was not only kicked out of the olde tyme hearse, I bounced off the gravelly old road and landed smiling like that big pipe-smokin’ head on the cover of the first volume. I fucking love that guy.

The movie begins on Halloween of 1968 in a rural American town. The tale of three townie kids and an outsider is woven amidst a backdrop of the doomed anxiety of the era. Televisions broadcast about the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and other political angst. One of the local jock bullies walks out of a military recruiting center jazzed about going to shoot commies. The three kids navigate adolescent tension with all this as the backdrop. Early in the movie, they end up in a rather spirited conflict with said jock bully and his crew. The rubes chase them to the drive in theater where Night of The Living Dead is playing and they hide in the car of a passing outsider. From there, they convince the outsider to go see a local haunted house. Well, you know that can never go wrong in a horror movie.

Upon entering the house, we learn the sad tale of Sarah Bellows and her high falutin’ family. Apparently poor old Sarah was not quite “normal” and was locked in the basement where she eventually died. Leading up to her death, she would tell stories to kids who would come try to talk to her through the walls. Then weird things started happening…and the whole family disappeared, leaving their Gothic mansion abandoned. The legend goes that if you enter the house and tell Sarah you want to hear a story, she will tell you one. Or…you can find her personally written book of stories in the basement and get locked in there by the local drunken jocks. The problem is Sarah is still writing in that book of stories…despite having died in 1899.

From there, the movie incorporates five stories from the original books into the plot: "Harold," "The Big Toe," "The Red Spot," "The Dream," and ultimately a composite of “Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker”, “What Do You Come For?”, and "Aaron Kelly’s Bones." While not exact adaptations, they are quite faithful to the feel of their literary counterparts. In fact, in the final segment, there is a part where a head and dismembered body fall down a chimney…and it looked exactly the way I pictured it back in the day when I first read “What Do You Come For?” and “Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker”.

The plot and action are actually quite morbid and macabre. The haunting creatures manifested by Sarah’s tales are not only scary, but lethal. This one does not play it safe. They kill high school kids and townsfolk alike per Sarah’s tales, imbuing the film with a sense of foreboding danger. While not particularly blood-drenched, the movie does not shy away from gore either. What is there is used to good effect. There is also a fair deal of profanity and the movie does not shy away from heavy subjects such as racism, widespread anxiety during war, strained family relations, underage alcoholism, and other themes not commonly explored in PG-13 horror.

I really don’t want to blather on too much about the stories for the sake of not spoiling anything. What I will say is as an avid reader of the books and someone who has gone on to own many other books illustrated by Stephen Gammell, is that the effects and atmosphere in the movie do justice to the source material. Elements of some stories are combined, I.E. the hot dead chick illustrated in "The Haunted House" appears as the antagonistic spirit in the movie’s adaptation of "The Big Toe." She’s not a graphite portrait, but the effects used create a strong representation of the original.

If you are a fan of good horror in general or an original fan of Alvin Schwartz’s retold folklore, or even just Stephen Gammell’s immortal illustrations, you will be pleased with the film adaptation of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I expected the worst and found my old hollow heart slightly filled by this love letter to the tales and illustrations that I fell in love with all those years ago.

-T.S. Dann is a former police detective and forensic investigator from DeKalb County, Georgia. He is currently an author and artist who is working on his second book in the brutally dark Nightmarescape series. He has shared tables with Matthew Quinn at several Atlanta area events, mainly because he likes annoying him between customers. 

You can check out his artwork and books on Amazon, Instagram, and Etsy.

Monday, August 12, 2019

My Decatur Book Festival 2019 Schedule

Last year I manned a tent at the Decatur Book Festival on behalf of the Atlanta Writers Club and Posman Books. I also spoke at the Emerging Authors Pavilion at the festival. Although I will not be participating in the EAP this year and Posman Books will not be present, I will be returning to sell copies of my two extant books The Thing in the Woods and The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2 and network with fellow authors and book fans.

Saturday, 8/31

On Saturday, I will be volunteering with the Atlanta Writers Club from 10 AM to 11 AM, signing up new members and generally hyping up the club. From 11 AM to 12 PM, I will be selling/signing books. So if you'd like to stop by to talk or get a book signed, 11 AM to 12 PM is the best bet. The Atlanta Writers Club tent will be in front of the Masonic Temple near the intersection of Clairemont and East Ponce De Leon Road.

Later that day, from 4-6 PM, I will be selling and signing books at the Horror Writers Association Atlanta Chapter's tent, which is marked 505/507 on the festival map near the Masonic Temple. The HWA has the added bonus of a gift basket consisting of signed books from many of the club members (and some other swag besides) that will be raffled off at 5:45 PM. You can get tickets throughout the day, but you must be present to win.

Sunday, 9/1

From 12 PM to 1 PM on Sunday I will be volunteering again with the Atlanta Writers Club and selling from 1 PM to 2 PM in front of the Old Decatur Courthouse. From 2-4 PM I will be signing with the HWA, again at 505/507 on the festival map near the Masonic Temple. There will be another gift basket raffled off at 5:45 PM that day. The same rules as before--you can get tickets throughout the day, but must be present to win.

For those who are interested, here's the Facebook event for the HWA event. The more the merrier. :)

Sunday, August 11, 2019

THE HUNT, or Universal Gives In To Trump

Some years ago, I wrote one blog post and then another about how Sony pulled from release the movie The Interview in which the CIA recruits a couple media personalities to assassinate Kim Jong Un. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation in which Universal has pulled its upcoming film The Hunt, in which rich liberals from the coasts hunt "deplorables" from the heartland for sport, after Twitter criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.

(Given how the liberals are actually murdering people and I expect the "deplorables" to triumph in the end in typical Hollywood fashion, doesn't this mean the conservatives are the heroes and the liberals are the villains? Given how the main "rich liberal elites" I can think of are Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and other members of Kristol's "new class," wouldn't this be a case of Hollywood taking shots at itself?)

This is even more pathetic and cowardly on Universal's part than delaying The Interview (which was ultimately released, albeit for the most part not theatrically) was on the part of the theater companies who feared being held legally liable if someone did attack a movie theater screening the film and whose refusal to screen the film pushed Sny to delay and limit its release. North Korea has extensive hacking capabilities. It has sent agents abroad to kill and to kidnap people, the Korean community in Japan (where Sony is based) has a significant number of North Korean sympathizers who could cause problems, and in the absolute worst-case scenario, Japan itself is in easy weapons range of North Korea itself. North Korea has shown itself capable and willing of unleashing physical violence on critics abroad, especially in Asia. It's easy to call someone a coward from the safety of the East Coast of the United States; less so when one is relatively close to a country that functions like a real-life Bond villain, complete with participating in actual criminal activity like drug dealing. Although the likelihood of anything significant happening didn't seem particularly high (after all, the movie did ultimately get released and nothing happened beyond whining), at least there was precedent.

Donald Trump, however, is a paper tiger. The US's extensive free-speech protections stop him from preventing the movie from being screened, arresting the creative team or studio bosses, etc. Since The Hunt as far as I know makes no claims against him personally, he cannot sue for libel. He raged and fumed about the book Fire and Fury, threatening to sue for libel, but when the publisher refused to back down and released the book, nothing happened and the book ended up being number one on Amazon for a long time. And although Trump is often accused of inciting violence, no skinhead or red-hat type invaded the publisher's office with guns in the vein of the jihadi attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, nor did anybody attempt violence against Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during NFL games to protest police brutality. The worst I could imagine Trump doing is stirring up his supporters against Sony the way he stirred them up against the NFL and Kaepernick, but between people whose curiosity is roused by the controversy and people determined to see it to spite Trump (something I suspect is far more common among moviegoers than NFL fans who did reduce their football consumption over the issue), I could imagine even more people seeing the movie than they otherwise would have.

(If I were one of the people in charge of Universal, I'd be promoting the hell out of this as "the movie the president doesn't want you to see." But then again, if I get mad or feel threatened enough I can get a bit...abrasive.)

One would hope Universal releases the movie sometime later once the controversy about the recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso (another contributing factor, since this article doesn't reference Trump's complaints at all) has died down, hopefully using the controversy to its advantage in a more subtle fashion.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Tim Hawkins' Parody Songs About Chick-Fil-A

I was at a Horror Writers Association meeting the other day and a fellow group member showed me these two videos by Christian singer and comedian Tim Hawkins about none other than Chick-fil-A. Here's the first, parodying the Beatles' "Yesterday."

And here's another one, parodying Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The USA."

Is that Truett Cathy there at the end? :)