Thursday, July 31, 2008

Slashback: The Inmates Have Left the Asylum in 'Alone in the Dark' (1982)

Released in November of 1982 at the height of the slasher craze, Alone in the Dark is an oddball little flick that’s Assault on Precinct 13 meets One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Written and directed by Jack Sholder (who would go on to helm 1987’s The Hidden as well as a pair of franchise sequels – the chock full o’gay subtext A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies), and produced by New Line founder Robert Shaye, Alone in the Dark is notable for its stunt casting, its overreliance on convenience (bolded herein for yours), and its atypical approach to the slasher formula.

Following a surreal, pre-title dream sequence that informs us we’re not in for the run-of-the-mill slasher du jour, the film opens on the exterior of your typical neighborhood insane asylum (only this one looks more like a quaint New England college campus, resplendent in autumnal foliage and old world architecture) where Dr. Daniel Potter (Dwight Shultz) is arriving for his first day as the facility’s new therapist. His new boss is one Dr. Leo Bain (played by Donald Pleasance, who apparently had some down time between Halloween gigs), an unorthodox, empathetic, opiate-smoking champion for the mentally deranged with a penchant for referring to patients as “voyagers” and referring to his asylum as “The Haven”.

During Potter’s first group therapy session, we’re introduced to The Haven’s crème de la crème violent cuckoo birds: paranoid Colonel Frank Hawkes (a pre-City Slickers, one-armed push-ups-at-the-Oscars Jack Palance), arsonist Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff (Martin Landau, also before his Oscar-winning career resurrection in Ed Wood), child molester Ronald “Fatty” Elster (played by the late former Olympic wrestler and opera singer Erland van Lidth), and John “Bleeder” Skagg (Phillip Clark).

Despite the unnamed state’s protestations that the facility’s most violent charges should be under maximum security lock and key, Dr. Bain explains to young Dr. Potter that “I’m running a haven here, not a jailhouse” and instead opts for a super-special, less institutional security system for his third floor loonies – no bars, all run on electricity. Yep, you can almost smell the power outage in the air. The good Dr. Potter is warned by Ray Curtis (Brent Jennings) - the world’s worst wacky-ward attendant - that his new group is “intense, man.” (He later qualifies his professional assessment by informing Potter that the inmates are “fuckin’ maniacs, man.”) Even Potter’s wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) questions her husband’s choice of clientele:

Nell: I don’t see why you can’t just have a nice office and treat neurotics like everybody else.

Potter: Well, I guess I just prefer psychopaths. What else can I say?

Um, how about “Please don’t kill me and my family” for starters?

Dr. Potter settles into his new isolated-house-in-the-country digs with Nell and their smart-alecky daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward) and awaits the imminent arrival of his sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan), fresh from her own nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, back at The Haven, ringleader Hawkes gets it into his paranoid head that Potter has killed their well-regarded former therapist and plans to kill them, too. Plans are hatched. The next day, Preacher causes a fiery diversion in the yard, allowing Fatty to swipe Potter’s home address, conveniently left lying out on his desk. Ruh-roh, Raggy!

Before you can say “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest,” there’s a convenient blackout and The Haven’s super-special security system ends up being neither super nor special when the auxiliary generator fails. While the good doc’s sister persuades him and the missus to go hear The Sic Fucks sing “Chop Up Your Mother” at the seedy, CBGB-ish local punk club, the quirky quartet effortlessly escapes - but not before snapping Curtis in two and carjacking another doctor arriving for the late shift. They join other looters raiding a sporting goods store where they conveniently find more weaponry than on a homicidal maniac’s Christmas list. Armed with knife, axe, gun, bow-and-arrow, baseball bat, and a hockey mask for good measure (It’d be a clever nod to Friday the 13th if the franchise’s third installment hadn’t been filmed after Alone), the loony tunes gang – down to a trio after Bleeder suffers a premature slasher ejaculation when he eviscerates carjacking victim #2 with a garden hoe and runs off – is ready for action.

Cut to the following morning. While the Haven hooligans are on an early morning joyride during which the neighborhood bike messenger is run down for his hat, Potter heads for the asylum to head count the escapees and Nell and Toni decide to attend an anti-nuke rally(!). The good doctor’s wife and sister are subsequently arrested for their civil disobedience, so Potter calls in nasal-voiced Bunky - the blond, busty babysitter - to meet little Lyla when she comes home from school. Unbeknownst to any of them, little Lyla is already in the protective care of Fatty the molester and is learning paper craft with scissors.

Bunky dutifully arrives to find little Lyla asleep on her bed (Oh, the exhausting fun of paper crafts!) with Fatty nowhere in sight. Sensing an opportunity for sexy shenanigans, Bunky calls her dweeby boyfriend Billy, who quickly arrives for an afternoon booty call. (What is it about babysitting that makes teens horny, anyway?) A few bare breast nuzzlings and a false noise-in-the-closet-scare later, Billy gets ankle-grabbed and carpeted away under the bed. Bunky quivers and plays a few rounds of where-will-the-knife-slice-through-the-mattress-from-under-the-bed-next with Preacher (the proximity of knife-to-crotch at one point would give Carol Clover a field day!) before finally getting single-arm airlifted and strangled by Fatty – all the while little Lyla dreams of sugar plums in the next room.

Cut to squad cars and police activity as newly-sprung from the slammer Nell and Toni arrive home – with a fellow demonstrator named Tom in tow - to discover that Fatty and friends have been in their house. Momentary hysteria ensues and nary a word is said about poor missing Bunky before Tom and Detective Burnett (Gordon Watkins) - one of the investigating cops(!) - are invited to stay for a candlelit family dinner. (Since Alone attempted to forge its own non-traditional slasher formula and eschewed the usual group of teens-in-peril, it needed to find inventive ways to up the potential body count.)

Noises at dinner follow, and who goes to investigate? You guessed it – the African-American cop! It’s a forgivable lack of political correctness since the film predates the PC sensibilities of today and does dispatch with a Caucasian blond first. As the family (plus Tom) anxiously follows Burnett from window to window as he scopes the grounds, the hapless detective is caught in the crosshairs of a bow and arrow and promptly speared to a tree. It’s here that the film kicks into full Assault on Precinct 13 mode as the family goes into lockdown and tries to fortify the doors and windows from inside the house. Once the all-out assault begins, the film’s pacing is surprisingly good, the tension respectfully strong.

On cue, the phones go dead, Burnett’s body goes missing, and Toni goes for the valium. Potter analyzes, Tom postures for Toni’s benefit, and an unnaturally calm Lyla snarks. A lot.

Bain arrives and demonstrates that he’s more chemically imbalanced than the trio of crazies combined. When he realizes that he won’t be able to corral Hawkes and company back into their “space,” he tries to out-scripture the Preacher with talk of the Ten Commandments and how “thou shalt not kill.” But Preacher reminds him that “vengeance is his” – with an axe.

The action continues at a breakneck pace:

  • Burnett’s body reappears – this time pulling a Friday the 13th/Brenda move through the window;

  • Toni’s valium kicks in and she strolls off to suffer a pretty decent hallucination;

  • Preacher starts a fire in the basement;

  • In search of the fire extinguisher, Nell opens the wrong cupboard door and Bunky and Billy come a’ spilling out;

  • Potter grapples with Preacher in the basement and puts out the fire.
More charging and stabbing follow. First, Fatty with his baseball bat gets tag teamed by the unnaturally resourceful Lyla and Tom with a knife slice to the ankle and a meat cleaver to the back (it will finally take a baseball bat whack to the head to bring this big guy down). Then Preacher charges with the knife and finds himself on the wrong end of the blade. After the film’s one bonafide moment of creepy, blood-dripping ingenuity (which would later be lifted almost twenty years later by the makers of 2001’s Valentine), Hawkes emerges with bow and arrow to survey the carnage and delivers the best line of the movie:

“It’s not just us crazy ones who kill. We all kill, doctor, when we must. And we all die when it’s time.”

As the helpless Potter clan looks down the menacing point of Hawkes’ bow and arrow, the power conveniently snaps back on and the TV springs to life. What should just so happen to be on the screen? Why a news broadcast about the Haven escape, of course – complete with special guest commentary from the asylum’s former therapist who’s clearly not dead, just relocated to Philly! Comment remarquablement commode! Hawkes paranoid delusion meets reality and he exits, stage left. At movie’s end, Hawkes finds himself at the pseudo-CBGB's club from earlier, where he finds camaraderie with the drug and danger-fueled patrons of the punk scene.

Alone in the Dark is admirable in its attempts to set itself apart from its slasher brethren, although the film’s more cerebral brand of dark humor probably missed its mark among the blood-n-boobies crowd. From the histrionics of Hedwall and Taylor-Allan to the unabashed campiness of Palance, Landau, and Pleasance, the cast helped elevate the film to the level of highbrow horror masquerading as farce - without crossing over the imaginary line that separates satire from slasher. As credible as it is outlandish, Alone in the Dark never lost sight of its slasher mediocrity while attempting to infuse a modicum of novelty into the formula.

Useless Slasher Fact: Keep an eye out for perennial genre fave Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, Dead End, 2001 Maniacs, Snakes on a Plane) - sister of prolific Alone in the Dark producer Bob Shaye – in a playful, early-career cameo as a wacky receptionist!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Writerly Stuff: Notes from 'The Renewed'

Yep. That’s the name of the new book. Or should I say the name of the first new book because there are two? Anyway, after the surprising number of emails about the last installment of “Writerly Stuff”, I figured a weekly writing column might be in order. Turns out I have more than three readers who are interested in what comes next. Go figure.

So this will become a combination of sorts – some weeks I’ll reveal tidbits about the new novels as they evolve or share insights into my writing process, other weeks I’ll offer some observations – formal and informal alike – about writerly topics. Might be entertaining, might be a big snooze. You’re the reader – you decide. If your eyelids become unbearably heavy, head on over to one of the far more ingenious and entertaining blogs listed at right where you’re guaranteed to find something that’ll hold your interest. In any event, in addition to keeping you mildly bemused or piquing your curiosity enough to actually want to read one of these terror tomes when they’re published, I’m hoping the chronicling of my progress with these two projects will keep them organized and fresh in my mind – and at the forefront of my writing endeavors.

So, on to the nuts and bolts, yes?

The Renewed is the working title for the first of the new projects. Somewhat of a departure from the slasher origins of The Literary Six, the new book is decidedly more supernatural in tone. Since I tend to envision and describe my work in terms of its cinematic counterparts and inspirations, The Renewed falls along the lines of The Fog meets Village of the Damned meets Dead & Buried meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, maybe even a bit of The Ruins. Like Lit6, it’s an ensemble piece with a diverse cast of characters and multiple points of view, although I’m attempting more of the storytelling through a primary POV with this one. I did some mentoring work with Stoker-winning author Jonathan Mayberry (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song) a few months back and he helped me draft a working synopsis of the entire book. Here’s a condensed version of that ten-page abstract:

The Fountains is a nursing home like no other. While the state-of-the-art healthcare facility promises rest, relaxation, and renewal for its residents, the luxuriously appointed rest home offers social worker Mitchell Ackhart, gay, forty-something, and reeling from a split with his partner of 10 years, a new job and a new beginning in the coastal hamlet of Barberry Cove.

Following an unsettling late night encounter with a mysterious fog, Mitchell arrives for his first day of work and is introduced to the nursing home’s staff - Helena Malmesbury, the stern administrator of the facility; the Reverend Linda Lawson, the nursing home’s wheelchair-bound chaplain who knows a thing or two about being discarded by society; and maintenance worker Tobey Farnham, to whom attraction is immediate and strong despite an age difference of twelve years. He receives an ominous warning from Helena to stay away from the former building that the nursing home’s residents and staff once called home, mysteriously closed years before, now sitting dilapidated on the grounds of The Fountains, shuttered behind locked doors and guarded by an odd proliferation of barbed plants.

His ill-omened introduction to the town aside, Mitchell acclimates to life in Barberry Cove and he and Tobey grow closer. But Tobey’s ties to the increasingly mysterious town and his strange sensations of déjà vu while spending time together at Mitchell’s seaside cottage become a nagging source of concern. It isn’t long before Mitchell discovers a disturbing trend in the deaths of the nursing home’s residents and realizes that all is not what it seems in idyllic Barberry Cove or the town’s old nursing home.

Cue the ominous music.

A tease, yes. But it’s something for now. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll introduce you to the denizens of Barberry Cove and take you on a backstage tour of the literary set.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Peace Be with You...

An intricate snowflake vine gathered in sheaths of white satin folds...

Heaven is a place on Earth.

Happy Hump Day!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Slasher Clash: Round 3 (Camping Carnage)

Don't put that bug spray away yet, folks. After our gory getaways and the summer camp slaughter of our last two Slasher Clash rounds, we're forest-bound once again for some tried-and-true camping carnage. No cabins, no running water, no indoor toilets this time. Just clueless young folk pitching tents (yes, there's sexual subtext there), roasting marshmallows over an open campfire, plenty of canned franks-n-beans, and pooping in the woods - all under the watchful eyes of bloodthirsty backwoods slashers.

In this corner, weighing in at 90 minutes and featuring my pal Jamie Rose and the Uncle Fester-like Mountain Twins, hoot and holler for 1981's Oregon-lensed Just Before Dawn...

In the opposite corner, with a matching 90-minute running time and featuring a pair of genuine inbred mama's boys with an appetite for rape, torture, murder, and slapstick, slap your knees and give a big hootenanny "How-deee!" for 1980's New Jersey-lensed Mother's Day...

So which of these inbred redneck slashers get your vote? Will it be the playful rolly-polly Mountain Twins of Oregon or the seriously twisted Ike, Addley, and their maniac mama from New Jersey? Three women on a camping college reunion or five friends roughing it among the redwoods? You're not out of the woods, slasher fans, until you vote!

In our third Slasher Clash, Just Before Dawn or Mother's Day?

Just Before Dawn
Mother's Day

(View Results)

Disclaimer: No slasher film was hurt in the making of this blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Slashback: The Brooding Brothers and Boushels of Blueberries of 'Humongous' (1982)

“It’s loose…It’s angry…and it’s getting hungry!”

No, it’s not a paparazzi caption describing Rosie O’Donnell headed downtown for lunch after getting the axe at The View; it’s actually the cheesy tagline from the obscure 1982 slasher flick Humongous.

Hot on the heels of their successful Prom Night, director Paul Lynch and screenwriter William Gray collaborated on this low-budget slasher that combines everything tolerant fans love and loathe in a slasher movie. Although the film suffered marvelously from the horrendous acting of the unlikeable twenty-something’s in peril and some of the most frustratingly murky cinematography ever that renders entire scenes impenetrably black, Humongous boasted a decent backstory and an appropriately creepy, isolated setting. Also of note, Humongous bucked the trendiness of the day and opted for plenty of spinal cord snapping and skull crushing instead of the hipper, more inventive kills with power tools and kitchen utensils that were the staples of other slasher films. John Mills-Cockell also gets props for his moody film score, especially the quick intensification and drop of synthesizer notes that he uses judiciously as a powerful audio effect during some of the stalking scenes.

In the pre-credit prologue, we’re informed that it’s Labor Day Weekend, 1946, and there’s a party in full swing. As couples kiss and canoodle on a giant wraparound porch, young Ida Parsons is admiring her pen of vicious-looking dogs and trying to rebuff the unwelcome advances of a drunken suitor. Fleeing her inebriated admirer, Ida inexplicably takes shelter behind a tree and – even more inexplicably - lights up a cigarette. The admirer follows, confrontation ensues, and soon Ida finds herself thrown to the ground and being raped by the intoxicated lothario. But Ida’s faithful pooches sense trouble, their doggie ESP goes into overdrive, and they escape their cage and proceed to viciously maul her attacker in that classic slasher sense of poetic justice. But before the guy’s throat is literally ripped out by one of the dogs, Ida commands them to stop, preferring to deliver two final blows to the head of her bloodied rapist herself. The scene ends with Ida staring all loony-like out at nothing – announcing to the audience that the poor gal has gone ‘round the proverbial bend.

Opening credits flash amidst a montage of old photos meant to convey more of Ida’s backstory and show her transformation from well-to-do society reveler to matronly-looking recluse.

Following are some post-prologue opening shots that provide the obligatory introductions to the cast of character-victims. There are three siblings – brooding brother Nick (John Wildman), do-gooder brother Eric (David Wallace), and nerdy sister Carla (Janit Baldwin) – and the brothers’ model-esque girlfriends Sandy (Janet Julian) and Donna (Joy Boushel). Surprisingly, the cast resembles the gang from Scooby Doo – from Wallace’s Fred-esque blond blandness, Wildman’s Shaggy-esque hair, and Baldwin’s ridiculously oversized Thelma-esque glasses. Note: Best to let Julian and Boushel fight it out for Daphne, although you’d be wise to put your money on the latter.

So the party of five sets out on a luxury cabin cruiser across an enormous unnamed lake somewhere in Canada. Boushel gyrates on the boat’s deck to corny Euro-disco, Wildman sulks; Wallace ogles Boushel before groping Julian’s ass. All in a day in the life of the vacationing and carefree American-by-way-of-Canadian young person of indeterminate college age.

That night, navigating the boat through the foggy night waters, the group picks up a stranded boater named Bert (Lane Coleman) who warns that they’re headed for the rocks and the ominous-sounding Dog Island. Cue the baleful dog howls. Bert’s the requisite outsider whose primary purpose is to connect the prologue to the film proper, since most horror filmmakers of the era assumed that slasher fans were notoriously stupid. So Bert tells the group about the mysterious island, once owned by the wealthy Parsons family who made their fortune in the lumber business. He mentions that a strange old woman, who only comes over to the mainland for supplies twice a year at change of season, still inhabits the island with her dogs. Jeepers! I think we’ve found a clue, Scooby.

For reasons of sibling rivalry not entirely made clear, the ever-rebellious Nick decides he can navigate the boat through the treacherous waters himself, despite the fretful protestations of the group. A brotherly scuffle ensues and - before you can say “Watch out for those rocks!” – the boat runs aground at high speed, catching fire and giving the passengers scarcely enough time to jump overboard before the fiery explosion. With little choice, the group – minus Carla who goes MIA for a bit – swims to the ill-reputed Dog Island where they find themselves wet, cold, and stranded with something that snarls and growls in the bushes. Old Ida’s faithfully vicious canine sentries or the hideously deformed byproduct of young Ida’s rape thirty years earlier? You do the math, but bet on both. And, while you’re making wagers, bet that it isn’t long before the group is split, stalked, and systematically slaughtered in tried-and-true slasher tradition.

By morning’s light, Nick has run afoul of the titular slasher in the boathouse (Wildman’s overacting
notwithstanding, he lets out one of the most convincing male slasher victim screams ever), while Donna hangs back on the beach with a broken-legged Bert. Boushel, put to far better use here than she was as Terror Train’s Pet, puts her Penthouse-worthy breasts to gratuitous good use – first using her ample bosom as a makeshift basket to transport blueberries(!) and then as an impromptu warming blanket when injured-but-horny Bert eventually slips into shock. Nudity for medicinal purposes, indeed.

Eventually, Eric, Sandy, and the recently-found Carla make their way to the dilapidated lodge of the pre-credit sequence for some requisite Clue Club exploration. Along the way, Sandy notes the absence of sound, astutely noting “like there’s nothing alive here.” (The profusion of bones and skulls of the island’s missing wildlife probably should have been her first clue, huh?) At the lodge, they find a nursery complete with broken toys and a diary that tells of a baby born with acromegaly, now confirming (Thank God! I couldn’t really follow along without these cinematic CliffsNotes!) that Ida did indeed find herself knocked up following her pre-credit attack and birthed a deformed young’un. The shrinking Scooby gang eventually finds both ‘ole Ida’s corpse and Humongo’s basement lair, where the bodies are hung from the rafters with care.

After a denouement that borrows heavily (read: rips off) from Friday the 13th Part 2’s final-girl-throws-on-a-shawl-and-pretends-to-be-mama shtick and a Halloween over-the-banister-and-down-the-staircase fall, the obligatory extended final chase scene ends in a boathouse conflagration that gives us our only decent look at ‘ole Humongo (and Brenda Kirk's creature make-up, to be differentiated from and not confused with Maureen Sweeney Donati's Humongous head creation) and the requisite false-sense-of-security-before-the-final-shock shot.

The film’s closing shot is of our final girl, battered and bloody, sitting on the end of the dock, quivering, humming, and staring all loony-like over the bleak piano score. Ida Parsons come full circle. This last frame – common in the films of the subhuman slasher sub-genre like The Funhouse and Hell Night - underscores the idea that although the final girl triumphs physically in the end, her survival comes at a hefty psychological price.

Derivative and poorly made, yes, but Humongous endures because it has heart. Even the bad acting can’t disguise the actors’ earnestness. And although Wallace is far too pretty to be taken seriously as the tough leading man, Julian makes a respectable final girl. In the end, Humongous earns its place alongside better made subhuman slasher outings like The Funhouse and Hell Night, if for nothing but its sincerity and its celebration of the genre it was trying to emulate.

Fun Fact: Garry Robbins, who played the film's titular creature and was credited as "Ida's Son," showed up playing another slasher heavy in 2003's Wrong Turn as the redneck-cannibal character of Saw-Tooth.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Writerly Stuff: The Ying and Yang of Distractions

Ever get the feeling that you’re doing too much and not doing any of it particularly well? That’s the rut I’ve been stuck in for the past several weeks (months, if I’m being honest). My Aries ambitions sometimes get the better of me and I end up overextending myself only to scratch my head and ask myself why. If I only knew how to decompress…

I get the occasional email from readers (yes, all three of them!) asking where the follow-up to The Literary Six is. Good question. The answer: in my head, scribbled on pages of the writing notebook I carry everywhere, in a pseudo-outline on my laptop. Basically, everywhere but where it should be - on paper and in a publisher’s hands.

Truth is, I love writing and love writing all over the place. At the end of the day - after I’m done with blogs and message boards and my online magazine and non-fiction articles and short stories – I find that I’ve written tons, but none of it amounts to anything resembling progress on the next novel. I’m a runaway writer…a roving scribe…a loose literary cannon.

So how do you curb the muses? Focus literary ambitions? Discipline a meandering pen?

Shit, if I knew the answer to that, you’d be reading the new book right now.

And so I ask myself if all this extracurricular, non-novel writing actually amounts to anything. I surprised myself with the answer.

Yes, it does.

Since Lit6, I’ve tried my hand at short fiction. Truth be told, while I like reading short stories, it’s never been a format with which I’m comfortable writing. I’ve sent a few pieces out in the last year or so and gotten some valuable feedback from editors like Mort Castle and Nick Mamatas. In fact, this foray into short fiction hasn’t been at all a waste of time; one more substantial piece that clocked in around 7,500 words actually served as the inspiration for a new, post-new novel idea.

My non-fiction writing remains my most commercially-viable literary talent at present, with my gig as contributing editor at Autograph Magazine and contributions to several forthcoming non-fiction collections including Diva Complex (from University of Wisconsin Press) and The Ultimate Guide to Slasher Films (from Hadesgate/GoreZone). I’ll post more details about the latter two titles once the TOC’s are made available. My non-fiction work also afforded me entry into the Horror Writers Association (the genre’s national professional writers association) and quickly morphed into a gig as the org’s acting Secretary until at least the fall.

Likewise, the entrepreneurial aspects of my personality have been tapped with the creation of the virtual Dark Scribe Magazine and my corresponding publishing company Dark Scribe Press. And while it remains to be seen how well my business plan for DSP will fare – the company’s first print publication, an anthology of queer horror tales called Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, is in the production stage – DSM has done quite well with over 3,000 unique visitors per month stopping by to check out the myriad interviews, reviews, and other features we’ve got up there. As much as I like being part of the genre, I also enjoy actively supporting it. My Dark Scribe undertakings have afforded me the perfect outlet.

And my blog? Well, aside from the occasional pressure it gives me to come up with something wildly clever or insightful, it too has served a valid purpose. As literary repository for those stray hairs of interest not covered in my formal writing endeavors, Slasher Speak affords a home to my slasher film fixation, my Jamie Lee Curtis obsession, life and literary chronicles, and other related and non-related miscellany.

Even message boards – irksome and tiresome as they sometimes are – have been the catalysts for expression, fresh perspectives, and new friends and acquaintances.

Now there are at least a dozen career writers who would flay me alive for what they’d deem lost writing time - rightly pointing out that had I devoted as much time, effort, and words to the new novel, there would indeed be a new novel. No arguments from me.

But you know what? I’ve been alternately blessed and cursed with a day job – through which I ascended the tried-and-true career ladder – that affords me the opportunity to make writing something I call my career-by-evolution. No carefully plotted trajectories, no stepping stones, no formal learning curves. Just lots of experiential learning and following the passion. My healthcare career followed a carefully orchestrated series of logical and methodical steps to get me from Point A to Point B. What started out as a desire to be of service to others quickly became more about attaining the position and status and finances to allow that altruistic desire. In the process, the reality set in that simply desiring to help others doesn’t mean that others will be helped, and the realities of government and policy and over-regulation stymied any creativity I brought to the table. At the end of the day, I was faced with the reality of a well-paying job through which I could affect minor change at best within an over-complicated system that cared more about dollars and sense and less about the dignity of people. The acceptance was painful, but it gave me a valuable perspective though which I now view my writing.

So writing is – and will remain - a passion for me without the constraints and pressures of having to achieve a certain degree of success by a certain time. I’ve made a conscious decision to focus less on the career aspect – plotting, planning, strategizing. I aim for nothing but to become a better writer; to learn, to grow, to experience.

To evolve.

I want to write what I want when the muses strike me and not be shackled to minimum daily word counts or constrained to one format or genre. True art…true craft…deserves the benefit of evolution – not some cookie-cutter blueprint from a book on writing. For me, it’s more about listening and absorbing advice from writers whose work I admire – and not necessarily subscribing to a “how to” laundry list from someone who’s sold a certain number of copies. At the end of the day, I’d rather have written one really great book - the product of passion - in three years and still have to rely on my day job to pay the mortgage than to have the luxury of writing full-time and putting out four mediocre books - the product of deadlines - in a single year that pay the bills. To me, that’s the ultimate selling out. Greatness will be long-remembered; mediocrity will be soon forgotten.

Would I like a career (as in something that financially sustains me) as a professional writer? Absolutely. But only on my own terms and not if I have to sacrifice the passion, the enjoyment, the freedom, and (in many cases) the quality for that career. I did that once with something I was passionate about and it became a daily grind – a “must do” in order to pay the bills and sustain a lifestyle. I am not making the same mistake again.

My writing deserves more than that.

So, for now, I’m content with my myriad distractions and the wonderful writing destinations they take me. Distractions keep me fresh…alert…open. Blog today, four pages on the new novel tomorrow…or a short story revision…or an essay on slasher films…or a book review for an online magazine. All worthy distractions within the limitless boundaries of my evolving craft.

Take your own muses off their leashes and let them run wild. The results just may surprise you.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Harper's Island: Slasher TV?

Admittedly, I’m wary of investing too much of my time and energy in new TV shows these days. Network television is decidedly too fickle for me most days, with itchy trigger-fingered executives ready to pull the plug on promising shows at the first sign of trouble – whether real or anticipated. Too many of today’s network honchos are reactionaries instead of visionaries, talking heads going endlessly roundabout with an entire generation of attention-deficit viewers with too many choices and lightning-fast remotes. The senseless whirligig of modern TV programming.

The last shows I got excited about – really excited about – were Desperate Housewives and Pushing Daisies. Happily, both prevailed (one by default by riding the coattails of the Writer’s Strike). But for every show that makes the cut past its freshman year, three get the axe before their second airing.

So, it’s with great trepidation that I get excited – really, really excited – by what’s promising to be a slasher geek’s wet dream come true: TV’s first-ever weekly slasher drama! CBS has slated Harper’s Island as a mid-season replacement for the 2008-2009 season.

Described as Scream meets Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (I’m already plotzing!), Harper’s Island is a serialized murder mystery/horror drama that unfolds as friends and family arrive for a destination wedding on the secluded and picturesque island childhood home of the bride and groom. When the wedding guests and island locals start to be picked off one by one at the hands of a mysterious killer, attention turns to the island’s dark history and a homicidal maniac's rampage seven years prior.

Now that CBS has greenlighted the show, Jeffrey Bell (The X-Files, Angel, and Alias) has been tapped as the show’s executive producer and showrunner with much of the show now being retooled. Although original pilot star Elaine Cassidy is expected to remain onboard as a wedding guest named Abby (whose mother was one of the victims of the original psychopath, long thought killed by the island’s sheriff…who happens to be Abby’s father), recasts of most of the principles are expected. Ryan Merriman (playing Henry, the groom) has already been recast with departing Ugly Betty star Christopher Gorham.

As anyone who has read The Literary Six knows, I’m a sucker for ensemble murder mystery/horror hybrids on secluded islands! File this under “Can’t freakin’ wait!”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

New Interview with 'Bloody Valentine' Screenwriter

My new interview with screenwriter Todd Farmer is now live at Dark Scribe Magazine. During our in-depth chat, Farmer spoke at length about what slasher fans can expect from the forthcoming remake of My Bloody Valentine. From his thoughts on the film's casting to singing the praises of the new 3D technology, he waxes enthusiastically on the MBV update.

Farmer doesn't hold back with his candid insights on life as a screenwriter in modern-day Hollywood either, and he warns that what the screenwriter writes isn't often what you seen up there on the big screen. And, yes, he's the guy who sent Jason Voorhees to outer space and talks a bit about the ill-fated Jason X and the hate mail he's received from fans who were none too happy with his contribution to the iconic film franchise.

And I even get Farmer to answer the burning question on the minds of slasher fans everywhere: Will there be a Mabel character in the new MBV, and will she have her heart stolen in a laundromat?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Case for Escapism

The always insightful (and equally delightful) Sarah Langan (who's not pictured at left!) has a great essay up at The Humanities Review called "Why I Write Horror." If you're not familiar with Sarah's work, first, hang your head in shame, and then make a beeline for the nearest bookstore and pick up copies of The Keeper and The Missing. If you enjoy well-crafted, literary horror that insinuates rather than clobbers, these are two books you're not likely to soon forget.

In the essay, Sarah addresses the reaction she often receives - and one most horror writers (at least the ones brave enough to still call themselves such) can relate to - from family, friends, and associates when she drops the H-word in answer to the "So, dear, what is it that you write?" question. She goes on to explain her own motivation in writing horror, and in doing so, she draws lines between various genres and what each asks of its readers. One passage that I particularly liked:

"All genres have their intended effects. In mysteries, readers are asked to analyze. They solve puzzles. In science fiction, they imagine new, and occasionally better, worlds. But in horror, readers are asked to feel. That is why, when they put the book on the nightstand and turn out the light, they imagine that the creaking floor might actually be the ghost from the novel, bursting through the fictitious world, and into their bedrooms. They are the Gepettos of the novels they read, and in feeling, they give Pinocchio flesh."

Sarah hypothesizes that the popularity of the horror genre is cyclical and in direct proportion to the state of the world at any given time, asserting that it's no small coincidence that in the late 70's when the world was terrified by a hostage crisis and fearful of an energy shortage that authors and filmmakers with last names like King, Romero, Cronenberg, and Blatty became staples of the pop culture vernacular. Flash forward a quarter of a century later, Langan maintains, and the genre is again surfboarding across a wave of popularity as war rages without foreseeable end, nature seemingly sends message after (largely unheeded) message of environmental instability, and the country is still licking its collective wounds after an unfathomable terrorist attack in what the world thought was one of the unlikeliest places. Factor in a country poised to enter unchartered social territory with a viable African-American presidential candidate, an epidemic of home foreclosures and a suddenly unaffordable American dream, and global paranoia as neighboring countries stockpile weapons of mass destruction, and you've got the makings of a perfect storm ripe for genre consumption.

Sarah makes the case that society needs horror to channel and express the emotions bottled up inside us. It's a way to let off steam, burn off excess emotion like physical exercise burns of excess calories. Because what happens to excess calories? They gather and settle, turning into fat that weighs us down. It's the same thing with excess emotion - it festers, grows, and settles with no outlet. Emotional flab. It weighs us down, becomes overstuffed baggage we can neither move nor close after awhile.

And while some may dismiss horror (and other genre fiction for that matter) as nothing more than pure escapism, I'd caution those quick to trivialize or reject its therapeutic benefits. And I'd counter that with a big "what if." What if society has no outlet for its collective fears? These emotions can only be contained for so long. What's the risk to individual and the collective if fear and stress and frustration have nowhere to go? The human capacity to absorb stress isn't limitless. It can be stretched and strained, but, like balloons, there is a breaking point. There's only so much air a balloon can take; similarly, there's only so much emotional strain a human being can absorb.

Balloons break. But people?

Therein may lie the greatest thing to fear of all.

(More with Sarah Langan at Dark Scribe Magazine)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Points and Pointlessness

I’m back from a much-needed blogcation. I say much-needed because blogging is pressure for me. Hey, I’m the product of the Catholic school system so my compulsiveness is hardwired(!). I feel the need to be relevant with each post I make – the irony of which is that the contents of this blog may be relevant to no one other than me. I so admire those candid and spontaneous bloggers like my friend Meg Tilly, who chronicles her daily life free association-like with rambling prose while touching on some genuinely profound discoveries about the human condition. Sometimes her sincerity is startling and that makes me admire her all the more.

But that’s not me. I’m too calculated with a keyboard.

Then there are those marvelously themed blogs like Kindertrauma created by new virtual pal Lance (aka Unkle Lancifer). The thematic consistency of blogs like this where every entry, every feature, every sidebar, and even the freakin' links are so perfectly attuned to one single point of focus that the result is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

But that’s not me. I’m too creatively A.D.D. (albeit undiagnosed) to stick to a single subject matter.

Instead, you’ve got the blogging mishmash that’s Slasher Speak, the topic-jumping musings of a writer struggling to find his career niche, a newly minted 40-year-old questioning his place in life. The elements are akin to a laundry heap of cultural irrelevance – slasher films, Jamie Lee Curtis, movie reviews and film commentary - even the occasional dabble in queer politics and an intermittent meditation or two on positive aging. It’s the antithesis of cohesive. So much for branding.

Ruminations. Musings. Babble and psychobabble.

It’s not much – but I call it home. Maybe it’s more me than I care to acknowledge.