A smattering of what I've been reading in prep for my third novel.
A smattering of what I've been reading in prep for my third novel.
2017. The hits.
Let's start with the unexpected: documentaries. My picks for best of the year:
Electric Boogaloo and The Toys That Made Us go hand in hand, if you're in the mood for stories about mavericks who broke the rules and had great success doing so. Kedi is an amazing testament to humanity, of all things. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond and David Bowie: The Last Five Years make for an exceptional double-feature about the power of art, how it shapes the life of the artist from start to finish. Best watch them on separate nights, though. They'll both make you weep.
All of the above I saw on some streaming service, be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO NOW. Same goes for the TV below, my top 6 (because I couldn't stop at 5):
We saw the return of Twin Peaks, a limited series event that blew our minds, defied all expectations, and broke our hearts. As a third season to Twin Peaks, it's an utter failure. As an 18-hour experimental film, it's a smashing success. Dark had me from the get-go, turned compulsive after the first episode. Stranger Things 2 didn't disappoint -- except that one episode (you know the one). And, hey, have you heard of Maria Bamford? If you haven't, put your ear to the ground for Lady Dynamite. Master of None: Season 2 proved a comedy for romantic cinephiles, and Game of Thrones: Season 7 showed us the chilling meaning of "A Song of Ice and Fire."
Movies. Best I saw:
No, Golden Globes, Get Out is not a comedy. What it is is the best thriller to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. It's also a horror film. The Shape of Water is achingly beautiful moviemaking. The Last Jedi isn't perfect, but it's great, nevertheless. Rian Johnson is the breath of fresh air the saga needed. The scariest movie I saw in 2017 was on Netflix: The Blackcoat's Daughter. Wonder Woman left us all believing that superheroes might be super again. And the sweetest moment of the year in any movie goes to the most successful horror film of all time, when Beverly Marsh opens Ben Hanscom's yearbook and finds the signature pages blank.
Speaking of horror, let's talk books. Nonfiction first:
Skal's biography of Bram Stoker is about as intimate as such a book can get, the highlight being Stoker's letters to Walt Whitman, a friendship that was forged in words. Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson have reignited an old hobby with Paperbacks from Hell: my paperback collection grew considerably this year. And At Home with Monsters has served as a true inspiration, offering up Guillermo Del Toro's very personal answers to the perennial question, "Does horror matter?" (Spoiler: of course it does.)
Here are a few great fiction writers who would agree with me.
I don't read novellas often, but Mapping the Interior was a one-sitting blaze. This is a remarkable book by Stephen Graham Jones. Philip Fracassi's Behold the Void came in the mail as a friendly thank-you from the author, and I couldn't put it down. And while Michael Wehunt's Greener Pastures may not have been published in 2017, that's when I read it, and it remains the single greatest collection of modern literary horror I think I've read. The Changeling is a powerful novel about family and monsters, as is Kevin Catalano's Where the Sun Shines Out, though his stories have no need of supernatural creatures. Kevin's monsters are the plain old human kind, and plenty scary. Finally, I discovered Jeremy Robert Johnson's fiction because I've been paying attention to the people I should be reading. In the River is mythic, poetic, and utterly terrifying.
Last of all, a brief note about best intentions for 2017:
These are just a few of the books I didn't get around to, and the only reason for that is, well, what a busy a year it's been. Still, I'm making these my priorities, and 2018 will see them read, among others not pictured, including those I've yet to buy that I don't have room for. You know how it is, right?
2018 dawned cold in Georgia. But it's warm in the house, or so says Penny, our outdoor cat who came in last night and won't leave, even with the ginger cat Fred's outrage at this barefoot hillbilly who eats food off the floor. Hissing and spitting aside, it's a relatively quiet first-of-the-year morning in the Davidson/O'Leary-Davidson household. Time appropriate, I guess, with coffee, to think back on a year that's been anything but quiet.
I started keeping a journal, back in August, when I realized I would forget more than I would remember about my first year as a published writer. Here's a snippet from my very first entry, 8.15:
It's an easy thing to dream. It's harder to be awake and working. The best thing about writing, maybe, is that the two enterprises seamlessly become one. Going back to the day job after a summer of dreaming seems like trading the finest, most productive sleep for a fretful night without rest or comfort. I sit here thinking of the hills of Colorado, how far they seemed from ticking clocks and the worries of the week. I think of Sam Shepard's letters to Johnny Dark, how he longed for the smell of horses, the act of being near them. Sam's dead now, left us this month.
Since April, when the ARCs of In the Valley of the Sun first came in the mail, Crystal and I have travelled over 10,000 miles (roughly 8,000 were by car) in service of promoting the novel. We've crossed and re-crossed, passed through, or touched upon a corner of every state in the southeast and southwest, not to mention a few other regions that encompass California, Colorado -- even Kansas (brrr, Kansas). We've stood upon the shores of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. We've watched marmots scavenge on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains. We've spent nights in famous hotels haunted by the likes of Jack Torrance, seen the scaffolding that should have hanged Tom Chaney, and had our rental car washed in Walter White's front business.
In Tennessee, in August, I gave a signed copy of In the Valley of the Sun to Max Allan Collins, who wrote Road to Perdition. My journal entry from 8.26 notes:
What a strange thing, to give my book to a man who wrote many of the movie tie-in novels I read as a boy. A man I never even contemplated meeting, let along engaging at a professional level. He signed my Dick Tracy novelization. I was thrilled.
The previous month, in Denver, I signed a few books alongside Stephen Graham Jones and saw my novel shelved within reaching distance of Stephen King's The Gunslinger.
"Jones is very tall," I wrote in my journal. "A woman asked him to fetch a magazine from a shelf, as if he were a store employee. He graciously did so."
Then, about the reading itself:
It all feels very strange, sometimes, the workaday realization of a thing you've held in your heart and mind since you were able to tell a story -- even the simplest one. There is no manual. No rule book. No handy guide.
Indeed, each reading I gave this year was different, each signing a lesson in how to act and interact and be the writer your book says you are (the best sales and receptions were, by far, at colleges). One venue forgot to order books to sell at the event. Another forgot I was even coming. But it all worked out, as we say, and what a trip it's been. Publishing a horror novel in 2017 has been the gift that keeps on giving -- so many kind words, so many new books to read in 2018 by writers I met in 2017, so many new friends (and hey, for a guy pushing forty, one new friend a year would be a treasure; in 2017, I made so many I've lost count).
When I think back on the last six months, how seismically my life shifted, I can't help feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude -- not only for the new but also for the old. For every one thing that's changed, ten things have stayed the same. Crystal and I go to work, we feed the cats, we scoop litter boxes, we get the brakes fixed on the car. We buy Star Wars toys like the marks we are. We have fun visiting thrift stores and rescuing the odd, forgotten item.
2018 will mark our tenth year together, still very much "nerds in love" (which remains, for my money, the most accurate description of two newlyweds ever soaped onto a car outside a church; thanks for that, Peter Gareis).
But what about everyone else? The rest of the world? Of 2017, in one of my earliest journal entries, I wrote:
The world's a strange, often uncomfortable place for nuance in 2017. Everybody's angry. Everybody's writing poems and essays and tweets about it all. Op-eds and rants and some genuinely good journalism decried as "fake." I hurt to see America hoodwinked by a sociopath. Hell of a year to publish your first novel.... It has been a year for rare things.
Among those rare things, in September, Hurricane Irma swept through Georgia and took out power for about three days (to say nothing of the devastation it wrought elsewhere). Crystal and I put food in ice chests, lived out of those, took cold showers, and played Scrabble in the dark. On one of those days, Merricat (one of our outdoor kitties) went walking across the backyard with a furry baby squirrel in her mouth. We made her drop it, saw it was alive, and -- because Bob Ross remains a personal hero of mine -- took it in and kept it in a Converse shoebox overnight. It was in shock. By the morning, it was feisty and ready to be released. We let it go into a tree, and we haven't seen it since. There are a lot of ways I've imagined that squirrel's fate ending in dire circumstances, most of them having sharp claws and eagle eyes. But what I choose to believe is the story in which its mother comes for it in the low branch where we left it, that she takes it back up into the nest it fell from. It's a story I tell myself, one among many, to help soften the blows of 2017.
And this, maybe, is the ultimate value of stories, as Tim O'Brien is famous for saying: they save us. Not from the truth, but because they are truth. They show us our place in everything, remind us how to be, correct us when we fail. They lend structure and meaning to the chaos of our lives. To the random chance of it all.
Or this story, from September 23, an odd moment of grace in a day we set out to see Flannery O'Connor's Georgia home and were bound for disappointment:
En route to Milledgeville today, on Highway 18, between Jeffersonville and Gordon, mile markers 10 and 11, a horse came wandering up the center of the highway, hot and frothing. No person in sight. Hills and curves and fast-moving traffic. We turned around, got ahead of him. Called to him, but he walked oblivious down the middle of the road, as if he had some destination in mind. We called 911, reported it, and managed to edge the horse with our truck into a field, whereupon the homeowners came out and said they knew the horse's owners, would call them. We drove on to Milledgeville. Andalusia was closed. The horse had a beautiful tail.
And so, a year for rare things.
Even though the world around us seems to have truly lost its sanity at times, I'm feeling optimistic about the future. The pendulum swings back, always. We've seen the first hints of America attempting some correction in the recent elections in Alabama and Virginia. For Crystal and me, 2018 promises more great things book-wise, writing-wise, nerd-wise. I'm sure it won't be without its troubles. I could have written so much more about those; we all have them. We all fight against the darkness. But that's the key: we fight. We don't give up.
Here's a bit to end on, I think, from 11.15:
I fumbled through a metaphor at dinner about life being like a river -- not my best moment. But the metaphor has a certain accuracy. Maybe it's not so much about some divine plan in a folder in some cabinet in the sky, but more a kind of natural current we're all pulled along by, influenced by eddies and rocks and streams that branch. We're all swept into a branch, from time to time. Eventually, we rejoin the river.
Here's to hoping, friends. Happy New Year.
Written and directed by Bob Kelljan. 1970.
Count Yorga, Vampire has all the hallmarks of an exploitation picture aping a Hammer film, but it never feels uninspired. What's more, it even has things to say about men, women, science, etc. None of what it says is particularly new or original, but there's an energy to the movie that suggests it wasn't just a copycat production, at least not for its writer-director. The standout character is Erica, played by Judy Lang, who balances the outlandish (eating a kitten) with the cool. (Lang's bio on IMDB is shockingly short.) The good folks at Twilight Time, that red-headed stepchild to Criterion, are doing their part.
I recently talked with the great folks over at the This is Horror podcast. Among the questions I got was whether I write to music. By way of an answer, here are fourteen killer tunes that helped me tell my story.
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. 2016
The final shot of Beware the Slenderman is haunting. It shows us a construction site in progress, two roads intersecting, a patch of cleared woods. It's as banal as images get. But it's the unseen--as in all great horror--that's truly terrifying. In this case, it's the erasure of a bloody deed, the active sanitizing of a terrible blight. Quite literally paving over it. The image taps our deepest well of fear, where all the bad things get tossed, deep and dark. From Edgar Allan Poe to David Lynch to Stephen King, this has been the great theme and subject of horror: walling up or burying the bad. Forcing forgetting.
It's particularly haunting here, in the context of this story, where the space between the real physical world and the twilight universe of the unreal is so razor thin--and is, in fact, key. The filmmakers often reflect on the emotional toll taken on the parents of the child-murdering kids at the center of this story, but always on the edges are the iPads, the cameras, the Internet, the manipulation of reality through lenses and screens and technology and, most importantly, imagination. There's some key balance in all of these things that lets a mother read It and understand it's fiction, a balance missing from her daughter and her daughter's friend. Missing from their emotional lives, their psychologies. And its absence opens a kind of tear in that thin, crucial space, giving birth from a fictional, near-Lovecraftian universe to true and incomprehensible horror. A tear we're all too eager to patch with concrete and call the past.
Written by Dudley Nichols. From Vereen Bell's novel.Directed by Jean Renoir.1941.
Jean Renoir's Swamp Water is a troublesome picture. On the one hand, it is, as The New York Times allows, Faulknerian in its scope and, despite its many off-set troubles, an intensely personal movie. On the other hand, it occasionally smacks of a certain attitude toward the backwoods southerner that falls just short of barefoot caricature. There are moments that astound--a live snake striking at Walter Brennan, a man screaming to his very last breath in a quicksand bog--and threads that confound, namely the use of "Red River Valley" as a theme song (no cowboys here by a mile) and the mythic status assigned to the swamp by the denizens along its borders. If a whole community of hunters and trappers were to spring up adjacent to a swamp, surely they'd venture into its wilderness and brave it, if only for profit? I like to imagine Dana Andrews seeing Waycross, Georgia, for the first time. It probably helped his scenes as Ben, staggering around in a lost and dangerous land.
Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 2016.
I sometimes think of Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars Von Trier as two halves of the same coin. Both haunt the twenty-first century landscape of independent cinema. They make movies about esoteric ideas with heroes and heroines who are less than noble. They deal with women and sexuality and violence in an often exploitative fashion. But one has far more heart than the other, and an excess of heart tips the scales in Refn's favor. Von Trier often seems to abuse his heroines. Refn is sympathetic with them, no matter their flaws, right up until the end. The Neon Demon is an excellent vampire story, wholly original in the world it inhabits, and often quite unsettling. It gets under your skin, to borrow a phrase from the soundtrack of Drive.
Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Neil Jordan. 2012.
I've never copped to being Neil Jordan's biggest fan. I've always disliked The Company of Wolves, despite my love for Angela Carter's source material. But the truth is Byzantium charms me. Sure, Jordan goes full-Jordan here and there, with waterfalls that gush blood on what I'm pretty sure is the same island where Luke Skywalker's currently residing in self-imposed exile (wouldn't that be fun, if Luke had entered the wrong hut and come out a vampire, thebig reveal of Episode VIII). Still: I kind of like Byzantium. It's funny. It's entertaining. I'm not sure it's ever really scary, and that's a definite criticism, especially when your movie is about vampires that don't sparkle. Ultimately, this may be my disconnect with all of Jordan: his vampire movies and his werewolf movies just aren't scary. Odd, weird. Chilly, even. But not scary. He's more enamored of the eroticism that runs through vampire lore, I think. Best of all, perhaps, the film delves into the silliness of men and their brotherhoods, but Gemma Arterton's bosom is always front and center, too -- the object of a decidedly male director's gaze. It's a muddled, flawed, well-acted, diverting affair.
The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.
The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T., Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver Bullet, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast Club, Jaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.
It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.
My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.
And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."