Archive for October, 2014

clownHappy Halloween, everyone! Seems an appropriate day to address this subject.

By “horror,” I’m talking about the fiction genre. This isn’t going to be some kind of Nietzsche-ian rant about embracing the inherent horror of existence. If you want that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (You also might want to consider lightening the hell up.)

This is strictly about how books and movies with monsters in them tend to be pretty freakin awesome.

I could talk about the roller coaster adrenaline rush of horror fiction. But for now, I’d rather talk about the artistry.

Now, I know that some serious literature types would snort into their cognac at the preposterousness of using the word “artistry” to describe horror fiction. As I’d be the first to admit, I’m a man of simple tastes. I like my genre fiction.

Let’s leave the subject of literature for a second and talk about visual art, as in paintings. Personally, I’m not a big fan of abstract art. The whole idea of a painting a light blue stripe on a dark blue background and saying it represents the existential despair of life in the post-industrial age seems too easy somehow. Representational art may be the domain of bourgeois Philistines like myself. But it at least sets a baseline for craftsmanship, for competence, that the artist has to reach before accomplishing anything else.

The representational artist can still make her painting into a statement about existential despair in the post-industrial age if she’s so inclined. But she first has to achieve enough competence in her craft to make buildings look like buildings and people look like people.

That’s why I’m a fan of vaudeville-style entertainment such as juggling and stage magic. There’s also that element of a baseline level of craftsmanship before you can achieve anything else. Want to incorporate some social commentary into your juggling routine? Go ahead. But make sure those balls stay in the air. Want to turn your magic act into avant garde theater meant to illustrate profound truths about the human condition? Fine, as long as the audience doesn’t see that card go up your sleeve.

So it is with two genres of writing in particular — humor and horror. (And for the purposes of this post, I’ll expand “writing” to include movie screenplays.)

When I was on a writers panel at the Western Md. Independent Lit Festival at Frostburg State University earlier this month, I mentioned a quote by the great writer Joe Hill to the effect that humor and horror operate by essentially the same mechanism.That made sense to me. Humor and horror must both have two components to work — transgression and surprise.

But another similarity between humor and horror is that both require that baseline level of craftsmanship I was discussing. As with literary fiction, you can use them to explore whatever topic or theme you want. That’s not enough. In the case of humor, you have to provoke amusement in your audience or readership. And in the case of horror, you have to generate fear.

Nowhere near as easy as you might think, in the case of horror. Just throw in a monster, a killer or a ghost, right? Add a few jump scares. The monster jumping out of the closet or whatever. Then call it a day.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, especially if you’re writing for horror fans. They know all the conventions. Adhere to those conventions too closely, and the story becomes predictable to a point where it’s no longer scary, or even interesting. Ditch all the conventions entirely, and the story’s probably not going to work. The reason those conventions exist in the first place is because they’re effective.

A good horror author, or director, walks a fine line. He has to rely on certain conventions and techniques to get effects, yet wield them with enough creativity and innovation that he achieves the element of surprise so crucial to his chosen genre.

It doesn’t have to be anything really elaborate, either. Simplicity often yields the best results.

Prime example? During the panel, I mentioned the 1982 movie “Poltergeist.” (Written by Steven Spielberg, and directed by the great Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame.) Specifically, I brought up the scene with the toy clown, and knew I’d hit a nerve.  You could practically feel a shudder run around the room as people relived the first moment they saw that scene.

Bit of a spoiler coming up here, so be forewarned if you haven’t seen “Poltergeist.”

Anyway, sure it’s scary as hell when the animated toy clown reappears to attack the kid. But the REALLY scary part comes before that. The kid looks at the toy clown, sitting in the chair and staring at him with that creepy rictus grin. The kid makes a visible effort not to think about it as he pulls up the sheets and attempts to sleep. He can’t stop thinking about it, of course. He pulls down the sheets to check on that clown one more time. And the chair … is empty.

Man!

Think of the movies with hugely expensive setpieces and CGI effects that don’t achieve one tenth of one percent of the soul-chilling terror that “Poltergeist” pulled off by the mere act of removing a toy clown from a chair.

THAT, my friends, is artistry!

 

 

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Eleanor RigbyI love the Beatles. Maybe I should curb this habit of over-analyzing their song lyrics. But I heard “Eleanor Rigby” on the radio, and I can’t help myself.

Just as a reminder, here are the lyrics to the song (I won’t bother repeating the chorus. You get the idea.)

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

I always figured it was just a mournful meditation on loneliness and isolation. But today, I realized there was something that always puzzled me about the song.

I’m thinking specifically of the last verse, and the reference to Father McKenzie “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.” Father McKenzie’s denomination is never specified. I’m guessing Anglican. Possibly Catholic. I was raised Catholic, and I’m not as familiar with the Anglican church. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Anglican priests, like their Catholic counterparts, just deliver the funeral service for their congregants. They aren’t expected to pick up a shovel afterward and actually bury them.

So I can’t think of a reason why Father McKenzie would be burying Eleanor Rigby himself, unless … HOLY CRAP! FATHER MCKENZIE IS A PSYCHO!

Kind of puts the song in a whole new light, doesn’t it?

And another thing. How come on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album, Eleanor Rigby is the only one with her back to the … never mind. That’s a totally different thing altogether.

 

nosferatu 2A friend on mine sent me this link to some two-sentence horror stories. Pretty scary, right?

http://9gag.com/gag/av0v95O/20-terrifying-two-sentence-horror-stories

I wanted to see if I could come up with a few two-sentence horror stories myself. In all modesty, I have to say these are truly terrifying. If you suffer from a heart condition, you may not want to read them. You have been warned:

* As I settle in for the four-hour bus ride, my seatmate turns toward me. “Have you been saved?” he asks.

* The theme for the office holiday party is “A Karaoke-tacular in Candyland!” Attendance is mandatory.

* Fifteen minutes into our first date, she asks me a question. “You won’t hurt me like all the others, will you?”

* I grab the Port-o-Potty door handle. Something squelches beneath my fingers.

* “Here’s my opinion,” said the drunk guy on the next barstool. “And I don’t care if it’s ‘politically correct’ or not.”

* “Can you fix this quickly?” I ask. The tech support guy laughs.

* The fat, hairy guy in bikini briefs bends down to pick up his beach towel. I must look away, yet somehow … I can’t.

DeadoutWith his second novel, “Deadout,” Jon McGoran appears to be carving out a nice little niche for himself in the thriller genre. Like his debut, “Drift,” the intrigue centers around genetic modification in agriculture.

That description doesn’t get your heart racing? Trust me. McGoran’s novels paint a nightmarish picture where any entity with the money and know-how can warp the planet’s natural processes for malignant and deadly ends. Worst of all? They’re based in contemporary science. Picture a 1950s mad scientist horror movie, except where the lab-grown monsters are entirely plausible.

Like “Drift,” “Deadout” also uses a contemporary scientific news peg as a framework. In this case, the disappearance of bees.

“Deadout” brings back some characters from “Drift,” including Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick as the hero. A good thing about Carrick as a character is that he doesn’t know anything about all this genetically modified biological hocus-pocus either. That allows him to serve as a reader surrogate while he learns the basics to solve the case.

By bringing back Carrick, McGoran could have run the risk of what I call “Die Hard 2 Syndrome.” That’s when you have a regular-guy protagonist who just happens to stumble into an extraordinary situation in the original story. And then he just happens to stumble into a very similar extraordinary situation in the sequel, for no reason other than a twist of fate. “What? Terrorists are taking over the airport we’re in, similar to the way terrorists took over the building we were in that one time? Darn the luck!” (See also: “Speed 2 syndrome.”)

But McGoran gets around it by keeping the character of Nola Watkins on as Carrick’s organic farmer girlfriend. That gives him an excuse to walk into situations where some kind of agriculture-related nefariousness is going on.

Speaking of “Die Hard,” Carrick resembles that movie’s John McClain in his characterization as a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a relatable and endearing streak of emotional vulnerability.

That comes into play early on when Carrick and Watkins are having some trouble in their relationship. They head out to Martha’s Vinyard, where Watkins has scored a temporary job. There, they find that farmers are desperate because the honeybees necessary to pollinate their crops are disappearing. A corporation is offering to bring in genetically modified bees to make up for that loss.

Could there be something sinister going on behind the scenes? (Spoiler: Yeah. There totally is. It’s a thriller. Did you really expect the answer to that question to be “no?”)

I don’t want to reveal much more. I will say that the story goes to some pretty dark places before it plays out. As in “Drift,” a big part of the fun is the jarring incongruity between the wholesome organic farming milieu, and the scary motherfuckery revealed once McGoran pulls back the curtain.

One welcome addition to “Deadout” missing from the previous book is the suggestion of vast, shadowy forces looming on the periphery of the action. Carrick’s work, McGoran implies, is just beginning. Fine by me. If there’s an upside to the fact that modern science is venturing into some ominous places, it’s the fact that McGoran should have no shortage of material in the foreseeable future.

cuddlesWhat makes for a good haunted attraction? Effective props. Scary costumes. Evil clowns with chainsaws, of course.

But how about this? Subtlety.

It may seem weird, using the term “subtlety” in association with entertainment that involves the aforementioned clowns with chainsaws. But when I visited Bloodshed Farms Haunted Fear Fest in Columbus, N.J., I discovered that a little bit of subtlety can go a long way in driving home the scares.

Too many haunted attractions rely almost exclusively on “jump scares.” Actors trying to startle you with some variation of jumping out and yelling “Boo!” Sure, jump scares are important. But when you have too many in succession, they get repetitive and lose their effectiveness — becoming more annoying than scary.

Bloodshed Farms isn’t the biggest or most elaborate haunted attraction I’ve ever been too, but it’s easily one of the best. A lot of that comes down to excellent acting and staging. And the relatively subtle touches that get under your skin.

Prime example. You have to walk through a short trail in a cornfield to get to the main site. I saw a guy in a mask lurking around in there, and figured he was going to jump out and try to startle me. He didn’t. He quietly stepped out and started following me, saying nothing. Much more disturbing. Another example. A deranged clown walking around and interacting with visitors, who goes by the name “Cuddles McSpanky.” Consider how disturbing that name is on so many levels.

In all likelihood, one of the reasons Bloodshed Farms is so good is that it isn’t really a business, so much as a collective of people who just love this shit.

Managers Clark Bish, Jim Reed and Kenny O’Ranger were kind enough to sit down and talk to me.

This is the first year for Bloodshed Farms, but the crew had been running the Haunted Prison attraction at the Burlington County Prison Museum in Mount Holly, N.J., for the past nine years.

Clark said they outgrew the Prison Museum. People started showing up by the thousands, resulting in two-hour waits.

According to Clark, the group that puts it on consists largely of “home haunters.” Those are the people who go all out with the Halloween decorations, turning their houses into mini attractions. Many of the props at Bloodshed Farms came from such home displays. The participants approach Bloodshed Farms as a labor of love, and most of the profits will go into buying more stuff for next year.

“We just want the money to play with it more,” Jim said.

The attraction now consists of an open, central area with a DJ and concessions. Visitors have a choice of the Funhouse of Fear, Hellsgate Prison, Necropolis Cemetery and the Trail of Terror.

Unique to Bloodshed Farms is an attraction actually called “The Blood Shed.” But expect variations on the concept to crop up soon at other haunted attractions, because it’s a winner.

Clark said the idea came from movies like “Saw” and “Hostel.” What happens is that you pay money to enter the shed, and get strapped into a chair. They give you a buzzer to hit when you can’t take any more. Then a demented ghoul enters and menaces you with a number of torture implements. As an added bonus, your friends get to watch on a TV outside, and laugh at your torment.

Sound sick and twisted? It is. Hey, if you’re a horror fan, “sick” and “twisted” aren’t necessarily pejorative terms. It’s also a blast. I’d highly recommend it.

Clark said their ultimate goal is for annual visitors to feel just as invested in Bloodshed  Farms as the organizers and actors.

“We want it to be like a tradition to come here,” Clark said.

Bloodshed Farms Fear Fest is located at Columbus Farmer’s Market, 2919 U.S. 206, Columbus, N.J. Tickets are available from 6:30 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through Halloween. See more here.

 

Well, I had a great time representing Codorus Press at the Western Md. Independent Lit Festival at Frostburg State University this past weekend. Got to hang out with a few of my favorite authors, such as Gerry LaFemina, and some of my favorite publishers, such as Bill Olver of Big Pulp. Also walked away with a few new favorite authors, including Bram Stoker Award-winner Michael Arnzen. I got to sit in on a panel discussion with Michael about speculative fiction, and it was a lot of fun. An informal atmosphere and a smart, friendly audience turned it into quite a lively discussion.

As an added bonus, I picked up Michael’s new novel titled “Play Dead.” I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already impressed. Look for a forthcoming review.

Much as I enjoy all the book festivals I attend for Codorus Press, the Indie Lit Festival has a special place in my heart. The vibe isn’t about selling books, so much as participating in an event by and for people who really love books.

The cool thing about sitting in on panels is that it makes you think about what you do as a writer, and sometimes things occur to you that might not have otherwise. On the speculative fiction panel discussion, a young lady asked us why horror, fantasy and science fiction are grouped together under the classification “speculative fiction.”I’d really never thought about it before. And in answering, I realized for the first time what’s always drawn me to those three genres.

I told her the common denominator of horror, science fiction and fantasy is that they all deal with something outside the reader’s everyday life. Maybe something possible. Maybe something completely outlandish. But all three genres make a point out of taking the reader to new realms of existence and experience, and showing how characters deal with them.

And really, I think that’s what we should all be doing with our lives in one way or another. Constantly introducing new elements and new experiences that negate our previous conceptions of what’s possible and what isn’t.

Oh yeah. Michael took a picture of me striking a writerly pose. I couldn’t track down a tweed jacket or pipe on short notice, but here it is.

writer

 

This Saturday, I will represent Codorus Press at the Western Maryland Independent Literature Festival in Frostburg, — you guessed it — Md.

I’m pretty psyched. I’ve been there before, and it’s a great event. I’ll be sitting in on a roundtable discussion on science fiction. I’ll also participate on a panel that will discuss writing dialogue.

Here’s a spoiler. When writing dialogue, be sure to pile on the adverbs. And whatever you do, avoid the word “said.” eg: “Yes,” he declaimed vociferously.

Just kidding. Don’t do that. Please.

I’ll also be signing copies of my novel “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” which totally doesn’t suck according to a number of my friends and family members whose objectivity on the issue I see no reason to question.

Should you be anywhere in the area of Frostburg on Saturday, stop in and say hi. Better yet, come out and get drunk with me afterward.