Saturday, October 15, 2016

Yet More Hauntings

Our leisurely ramble through the haunted houses of yesterday and today continues! Previous posts on the subject include:

The Haunting of Hill House

First, I've finally gotten around to reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I was deeply impressed with the Robert Wise film, which I discussed here earlier this year, and had been meaning to read the book ever since. The film is, for me, the definitive haunted house movie; but now that I've read the book, I can offer the movie no greater compliment than to say that it faithfully and sensitively represents the spirit of the book, which is easily one of the best things I've ever read.

It's not so much a ghost story as a bad place story, which I'm beginning to think is really what a good haunted house story is all about.
"You will recall," the doctor began, "the houses described in Leviticus as 'leprous,' tsaraas, or Homer's phrase for the underworld, aidao domos, the house of Hades; I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden – perhaps sacred – is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, for whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then; whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted."
There are various supernatural occurrences, though their ultimate cause is left unsettlingly ambiguous. The house's geometry is disturbing, misanthropic, hateful. It was designed by a sick, demented man. But what's truly terrifying is that the house is itself a monstrous and voracious organism. It's never made clear what order of "intelligence" (which is too anthropocentric a term) the house represents, however.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Jackson's supreme mastery of style is exhibited most surely in her ability to convince you that, whatever is going on, it's much more worse than you imagine. A classic haunted house story, paranormal investigator and all; a delicate, sensitive exploration of a repressed soul; a humorous satire of heavy-handed spiritualism; a bone-freezing read for the small hours of the morning: The Haunting of Hill House is all these and more.

The Shining

If a good haunted house story is one that uses subtle brushes of style to build up an ineffable atmosphere of dread, an atmosphere that clumsy delineations and explanations would tear to shreds, then Stephen King can safely be said never to have written a good haunted house story. Still, The Shining is clearly a good story; the laws of inference therefore indicate that The Shining is not principally a haunted house story.

For me, it's really the story of a father and husband destroyed by his own small-mindedness and inner demons. There are a few creepy moments, but King simply doesn't know how not to explain every supernatural occurrence in precise detail by the end. That's okay, I think. The truly disturbing events are those that occur entirely within Jack's sane mind, when he soliloquizes on his own life and doggedly lies to himself about who he is and what he has done. The ghosts' making him into a monster is merely a reflection of what he had done to himself and his vision of reality, freely and willingly, before ever setting foot in the Overlook Hotel. As a father and husband with his own inner compromises, I found that it all hit a little close to home. It got under my skin, which, I suppose, is what a good novel does.

It had been a long, long time since I'd read any Stephen King. Like Fletcher Vredenburgh, I got into him when I was in junior high; I read The Stand first, I think, and then moved on to various other things, such as Carrie, Misery, The Eye of the Dragon, The Dark Half, and The Dead Zone. I recall being unimpressed with King's portrayal of good and evil, his plot resolutions (in his longer novels), and his frequent conflation of seaminess with wickedness. He has a way of reducing people to ugly, brutal caricatures, and at the time I found it so dehumanizing that I eventually decided – as a fourteen-year-old! – to leave it aside for a future date. Well, I suppose that date has now come.

I find myself kind of wanting to read Dr. Sleep now. If it shows up at the county library, I just might! I've also been wanting to read his Dark Tower books for some time. A buddy of mine has them, so that's probably next on my list.

The Shining

Of course, I haven't been looking for haunted houses in books alone. For years I've been meaning to watch Kubrick's version of King's novel, and for years I've refrained from it, as I wanted to read the book first. Somehow I managed to hold out all this time, despite being a great admirer of Kubrick's other films, and despite somehow becoming aware of the entire plot, down to numerous scenes, by subconsciously absorbing it from the universal cultural Id.

I can see why King doesn't like Kubrick's vision. It is, nevertheless, sublime. The members of the Torrance family are reduced to opaque archetypes enacting some kind of horribly eternal play in a snowbound universe that they alone inhabit, out of space, out of time. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey more than any of Kubrick's other films. It also makes me think of Ingmar Bergman's surreal horror film, Hour of the Wolf, and Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Perhaps the less I say about The Shining, the better. If you're looking for a psychological thriller, a scary ghost story, or a point-by-point adaptation of a King novel, you'll probably be disappointed. If you're looking for a quiet, unsettling island universe existing unto itself and violating conventions of time and space like a cosmic M. C. Escher design, you've come to the right place, my friend.

The Conjuring 2

I suppose I should mention this one, too. Yes, I watched it, and, yes, I thought it was okay, though not quite so good as the first one, which I also thought was okay but not great. This one committed the exact same errors as the first installment, but more so, and with fewer memorable scenes (like that clap scene, brrr). It's genuinely scary, with good production values, an intelligent script, a realistic texture, and an ending that's actually kind of positive and inspiring. Oh, and toys. Creepy, creepy toys. (What is it with creepy toys these days? The real Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann doll.) Anyway, it's a good Halloween movie, but nothing to compare with The Haunting or The Shining.

This is neither here nor there, but the aftermath scenes in both Conjuring movies make me think of the little picnics and gatherings they always ended stories with on Rescue 911.

Local Hauntings

A couple weeks ago I discussed The Haunting of Hill House with a friend of mine, a psychology professor. He told me of a house in town that he'd been told is haunted. Bad things happen to people who live there, he said, and no one stays there long. This is all hearsay. But it's up the street from where we both live, so I went to check it out on the way home from work. It's a small, rather run-down one-story house with an oddly convoluted floor plan. Is it haunted? Hard to tell from my pick-up truck.

My own house, which was built around 1901 and actually bears some resemblance to the house in the first Conjuring movie, has a filled-in well in the back corner of the lot. The spot is visible merely as a pit of soft earth. I've always found it a bit unsettling.

There's a small pioneer cemetery at the end of the block, within sight of our upstairs windows, inhabited mainly by nineteenth-century casualties of arrow wounds and bullet holes. I've been told, however, that there are graves sprinkled here and there around the entire block...

Speaking of arrow holes, my best friend from the town where I grew up, a few towns over from where I now live, has an ancestral family member who was killed by arrows...and his family still has the shirt. It's a white shirt with little bloody arrow holes. His grandmother, who was born in the nineteenth century and lived to be well over one hundred, resided practically next door to us, and one day I was taken into a small, slightly stuffy back room of her house to see the family artifacts. Old photographs stared down on us from the walls. That was an unsettling place.

Last But Not Least

In conclusion, while we're on the subject of paranormal investigators and creepy things, I'd like to mention that John Linwood Grant of greydogtales fame, together with Sam Gafford and Travis Neisler, are starting up a quarterly print (print? yes, print!) magazine called Occult Detective Quarterly, a revival of the kinds of stories that feature William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki and his various relatives and descendants. You can check out their Kickstarter campaign here.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Release the Kraken! Eighties Fantasy Schlock

A while back I wrote about the dearth of true fantasy in film. At the time, I was searching for a Tolkienistic sense of Recovery, for mythopoeic wholeness translated into cinema, which might or might not involve what are typically thought of as fantastic elements. At least, that's what I think I was looking for. I'm still not quite sure.

What my search necessarily left by the wayside, of course, was the golden age of fantasy schlock: the 1980s. But not because I'm not fond of it! And certainly not because I'm not familiar with it. After all, it's what I grew up watching. When I went to the tiny video rental place up the street, with its tinted windows and brown shag carpet and rows of little cardboard circles hanging on hooks, I almost always walked away with a fantasy movie, usually one I'd already rented multiple times. And I never failed to watch them when they came on the local UHF station, either.

But, fond though I am of it, eighties fantasy isn't what you'd call fine cinema. Most entries fall into the category of cult favorites, which, as far as I can tell, means that they're too hokey or peculiar to be universally popular, but remain likeable in some weird way nonetheless. To watch them now, you have to be willing to take them as they are, stiff acting, laughable dialogue, synthesizer score, and all. For a while I found them unwatchable, but, now that the patina of age is settling in, they seem more like primitive insects preserved in amber. They've acquired the distinctive beauty that only the passage of years can give. In fact, it's only in hindsight that I've come to regard eighties fantasy as a thing in and of itself. I would go so far as to claim that it forms its own time-bound genre, like the film noir of the forties and fifties, that can be harked back to but never truly replicated.

I suppose the birth of the genre (if we can call it that) was sparked by the success of Star Wars, as well as the rise of fantasy as a commercial literary genre. It's hard to draw a hard line between kids' fare and films aimed at adults; it also bleeds at its periphery into science fiction and horror. The major entries (in my book, at least) include:
  • Star Wars (1977)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Flash Gordon (1980)
  • Excalibur (1981)
  • Dragonslayer (1981)
  • Clash of the Titans (1981)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • The Beastmaster (1982)
  • The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • The Return of the Jedi (1983)
  • Krull (1983)
  • Conan the Destroyer (1984)
  • Sword of the Valiant (1984)
  • The Neverending Story (1984)
  • Red Sonja (1985)
  • Legend (1985)
  • Ladyhawke (1985)
  • Brazil (1985)
  • Labyrinth (1986)
  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Willow (1988)
and, too late to be in the eighties but still clearly belonging with the rest,
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Stop-motion animation and practical effects like puppetry, models, and matte paintings reached heights of realism never before attained. It seemed like the sky would soon be the limit. And then, just like that, digital effects swept away everything else, and, with a couple exceptions, fantasy disappeared from the big screen until the rise of the turgid big-budget multi-volume epics of the naughts. It has always deeply frustrated me that George Lucas felt the need to digitize the original Star Wars trilogy. He turned the pinnacle of the eighties fantasy period into a patched-together Frankenstein monster, in which we're forced to watch a sideburned Harrison Ford chatting with a digital Jabba the Hutt, a shaggy Mark Hamill piloting a slick computerized X-wing. Like an aging actor who's gone in for extreme plastic surgery, Star Wars has merely lost what made it truly itself, visually at least.

Fortunately, the other entries on my list don't face that kind of temptation. They still smell of the dim, stuffy video rental place. A few have aged very well. Most might be described as flawed gems. And a few are indisputably terrible, but irreplaceable nonetheless. Clash of the Titans (which I've seen too many times to count) is, despite being Ray Harryhausen's swan song, quite awful in the special effects department, and further marred by horrendous acting, a ludicrous plot, and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. But can it be denied that it has a canonical place in pop culture? Does anyone need to be told what "Release the Kraken!" comes from?

For me, many of these movies derive considerable charm from their trashy / awesome pop soundtracks. The most memorable is undoubtedly Flash Gordon, with music composed and performed by Queen ("Flash! Ahh-ahhhh!"), but the Neverending Story song is up there, too as are the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for Legend, and the delightful (and slightly unsettling) performance David Bowie gives as the singing, dancing goblin king in Labyrinth.

I wrote all this after watching Krull the other night with my kids. I find it emblematic of the era. It has many good points. It's stunningly beautiful. It features a rousing score by James Horner, a beautiful princess (whatever happened to beautiful movie princesses?), battles with lasers and swords, a cyclops, truly awesome stop-motion creatures, and big, weird, surrealistic sets. The plot is...okay. It's not bad. But the script. And the acting. Even Liam Neeson (in an early role) is bad. I blame it on the director.

But, so, there you go. Cult material. It's a movie you can be fond of. It's a movie you could watch a bunch of times, unlike a lot of supposedly "great" movies. It's just not a movie you can really defend as good. That's eighties fantasy all over. It may not be cinematic mythopoeia, but I like it.

Now what does this remind me of?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Library of Enoch

If you're a reader of my novels, you might want to check out my Library of Enoch page. I use a mix of Greek and Hebrew terms in translating from the nephelic tongue (the sole language spoken in Uradon of the cosmic antipodes), together with various coinages, many of which apply to the Paleozoic plants and animals that inhabit it. The books are intended to be read without specialized knowledge, of course, but some might find it helpful to read explicit definitions and see pictures of the wildlife. It's a work in progress, so don't be surprised if it changes from day to day.

And if you're not a reader (yet!), both volumes available from Amazon, in print and e-book form:

Buy it at Amazon

Buy it at Amazon

They're enrolled in the Kindle MatchBook program, so the purchase of a print copy will get you the e-book for free.

Related posts:

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In the Year 1977

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Tolkien fans, that is.

1977 saw the publication of The Silmarillion, which critics apparently hated, I guess because they wanted some happy novel about hobbits. But 1977 also saw the appearance of the two titans among Tolkien clones: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Each might be described as The-Lord-of-the-Rings-with-a-twist: the first replaces the prehistoric past with a post-apocalyptic future, while the second replaces the merry band of doughty halflings with a cynical, s**t-head leper.

I read a stack of Terry Brooks novels back in the nineties, when I was a teenager, both his Shannara series (the first seven, I think) and his Magic Kingdom of Landover series (the first four?), checking them out one by one from the town library and devouring them. The Landover novels in particular I remember with fondness. But I recall going into Waldenbooks one day (this is when malls had bookstores) and seeing the next Landover installment on the shelf (Witch's Brew, I think), and suddenly realizing that the series was, in fact, an open-ended commercial venture. Shocked to the marrow, I turned my back on popular fantasy then and there, and began my Gollum-like transformation into the lurking curmudgeon I am today.

Anyway, it was the Shannara books I read first. Their shortcomings, which were obvious even to my tenth-grade-level literary acumen, have been pointed out many times, and I needn't dwell on them matter here. I genuinely enjoyed them. I don't know how I would feel upon rereading now. But there's no denying that the publication of The Sword of Shannara was a seminal event in the evolution of fantasy into the commercial genre we know today.

Now, I never encountered Stephen Donaldson back while I was still a happy Smeagol splashing by the banks of the Great River. But he's come to my attention a few times in recent years, and his darker take on Tolkienism interested the writer in me. So I picked up Lord Foul's Bane about five years ago...and promptly put it down when I encountered That One Part.

Let's get that out of the way before we move on.

The protagonist, toward the beginning of the novel, rapes a teenage girl, the daughter of his hosts. He's a leper. A moral leper, that is. Now, I defend the right of an author to write whatever accords with his or her artistic vision, and I'm not one of those people who think that everything a novelist writes about is some statement of their personal beliefs. Nevertheless, I put the book down at that point. It disturbed me. I didn't feel like reading a book where such things happen. Or rather, I didn't feel like reading such a book written by an author lacking the psychological profundity needed to write about such things without trivializing them. And I wasn't convinced that Donaldson had that profundity.

The strength of my disturbance, I think, owes to the identification I felt with Thomas Covenant, which was quite visceral due to the graphic depiction of his leprosy. (And this depiction is one of the novel's strengths, in my opinion.) I felt as though I were leering with him, first at a girl in the telephone company office, then at the sixteen-year-old Lena. The rape scene itself sent me down a well of vicarious guilt and horror.

[Aside: The cover of The Sword of Shannara sports a picture by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I like a lot of their work, despite the fact that it's dated and a bit goofy. The cover of Lord Foul's Bane features a lovely painting by one S. C. Wyeth, about whom I can't find any information. Is he related to N. C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth? The style recalls the elder.]

Maybe it's that I feel genre fiction to be too frivolous, written too much for pure entertainment, to justify the inclusion of such elements. Or maybe it's more a matter of style than anything else. I mean, if you're going to have your protagonist commit an unspeakable crime, then the plot sort of needs to be about that. It can't be one element among others. It's almost inconceivable that a mother would travel for weeks in the sole company of her daughter's rapist, however cogent the reasons, and the fictional depiction of such a journey should be a descent into an emotional hell. What we get, though, are descriptions of scenery.

I suspect, however, that we aren't meant to view Thomas Covenant in quite that light. The rape scene is presented as though we're supposed to imagine that he commits the act because he thinks he's in some kind of fever-dream or coma, and also because he's overwhelmed by the unexpected return of his lost virility. But if he's really the Unbeliever he always claims to be, why does he go through his VSE (visual surveillance of extremities) on every page? Why is he always reminding everyone that he's a leper? I mean, maybe I could accept the fever-dream excuse on a literary level if the presentation of the plot were consistent, if (say) he went on a febrile, Maskull-like odyssey of crime and depravity through the Land, but it's not. Covenant's supposed conviction that it's all a dream comes off more as an occasional pose. Which, I repeat, is a matter of style, not of morality.

And then there's the scene later on in the book when he lusts after another underage girl, and suddenly feels remorse for what he did to Lena, and basically decides to send her an annual present. Dude. That just makes you twice as creepy and despicable in my eyes. Which is fine if that's what the author intends, but here I don't think it is. Because it's presented as a climactic moment beginning Covenant's reconciliation with the Land and his opening up to friendship with his companions. So, ramifications continue to be felt, etc., but, to me, it all comes off as slightly phony.

Well, anyway, that's enough of that. It's a point reasonable people can disagree on. My own (purely stylistic) assessment is that the rape scene is presented so as to shock the reader's sensibilities, but that its inclusion isn't supported by the novel's subsequent meandering quest-plot. Still, there's something to be said for Covenant's moral numbness, the numbness of his leprosy, and his identification with Lord Foul, and I'll admit that there may be more to it all than I've seen at my first glance. On the moral side, I can see why it bothers people, but I'm going to suspend my judgment until I finish the trilogy.

As for the rest, well, I don't feel that it's worthwhile to comment much on the story until I've read the next installments. (Or maybe I'm afraid to throw rocks, having just published my own novel.) Instead, I'll talk about what struck me on every page of Lord Foul's Bane: the extent to which it draws from The Lord of the Rings. Just to name a few items, we have:
  • Tolkienesque place-names like Mithil Stonedown, Kiril Threndor, Trothgard, and Glimmermere.
  • People with sturdy, earthy, Anglo-Saxon names like Treeroot Branchtwig (okay, I made that one up). 
  • A long journey to a big info-dump of a Council, which takes place midway through the book.
  • Mysterious liqueurs that magically refresh you.
  • Woodsy retreats and way stations.
  • Slow, friendly giants who practically hoom-hom while they complain about the hastiness of their companions.
  • Elvish-sounding exclamations like Melenkurion!
  • A super-important gold ring that someone tries to bite off at the end.
  • A city carved in a mountainside with a layout almost impossible to comprehend.
  • Dark forests with angsty, anti-biped trees. 
  • Geologically fanciful mountains.
  • Horse People.
  • A Dark Lord who returns after a long vacation but remains offstage.
  • A volcanic climax. 
I could go on and on. It's got the potential of being a commentary on or deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, what with its s**t-head leper of a protagonist and its opening in the Real World, which might be kind of cool in a way. And I say that as a Tolkien fan. But, in the thick of things, Lord Foul's Bane just becomes a somewhat shallow retread of something that had already been done, with a twist to make it seem original. For me, the Land remains mere artificial "scenery" (to quote a word from an ironic conversation in the novel); it doesn't come to life and make me long to enter it, like Middle-Earth.

It's no coincidence that books like The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul's Bane were published the same year as The Silmarillion. For whatever reason, people were starving for more Tolkien, and there was simply no more to be had. So they had to settle with uneven compilations of his unpublished backstory material and new novels that mixed and matched his stylistic tics. It's taken a long time for the commercial genre to outgrow that. And maybe it never quite has. Certainly the fracking of Tolkien's unpublished works "goes ever on and on."

But I'm still struck by the narrowness of the adherence to Tolkien's vision. What, in fact, do we want when we want to read Tolkien? What is the real hunger that The Lord of the Rings whets without satisfying? I ask this as a writer who consciously (and probably unconsciously) adopts elements from Tolkien. What's really essential about his work? Is it something material, or something deeper, something hidden under the surface? When are you producing something truly new, and when are you just making a direct-to-DVD mockbuster?

There's not a simple answer to this, I suppose. While reserving my final judgment on Lord Foul's Bane until I finish at least the first trilogy, I'll just end with William Blake's pithy paradox:
The difference between a bad Artist & a Good One Is: the Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal. The Good one Really does Copy a Great deal.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nightspore Goes Digital

Rev up your Light Cycles! Climb aboard the Solar Sailer! It's time for an odyssey through the Grid! That's right: Keftu has been digitized!

The King of Nightspore's Crown, the second volume in the Enoch series, is now available as a Kindle e-book. Get it here.

That's the link for US customers, incidentally, though both of my books are available internationally. It's only gradually dawned on me that, while many of the copies I sell go to either the UK or the EU, the links I provide are only for my country's Amazon store. If you're in a country other than the US, this third-party redirect link should get you there, or you can just do a quick search.

Anyway, like Dragonfly, The King of Nightspore's Crown is enrolled in the Kindle MatchBook program, so, if you've purchased the print edition, you can get the e-book for free.

Thank you for your patronage!