Let’s see if we can’t torpedo any remaining credibility I may have as a consumer of horror media, shall we? Recently, I’ve been watching the two seasons of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour that are on Netflix. Initially, I was doing this because each episode was a standalone story that was only about 20 minutes long, which fit nicely with my “watch something while I eat lunch” approach to consuming media lately. However, once I got started, it didn’t take me long to continue watching because, frankly, The Haunting Hour is actually pretty damn good.

Because I was initially just watching out of convenience, I started picking out episodes with appealing-sounding synopses, not necessarily planning to ever watch the entire thing, so I ended up watching the two seasons completely out of order. Even so, while there were better and worse episodes, there were very few that I genuinely didn’t like, which is more than I can say of a lot of anthology horror. (“Best Friend Forever” may have been the worst of the lot, but it was also probably the most overtly comedic and overall the more comedic episodes tended to fare less well than their more serious counterparts, though I was also still happy to have them, as they helped give the show variety.)

My favorite episode from the first two seasons was probably the season 2 Halloween episode “Pumpkinhead,” while “Mascot” has one of the most genuinely disturbing creatures I’ve ever seen on film. Speaking of creatures, the next time I see someone wondering where all the practical creature effects have gone in modern horror, I know what to tell them: Apparently, they all went to R.L. Stine TV shows. Seriously, while there are a few (sometimes dodgy) CGI ghost effects in The Haunting Hour, this show, like Spooksville, which I watched a year or two back, is lousy with practical makeup effects and rubber suit creatures.

While just about all of the stories are classic “campfire horror” fare, they vary somewhat in their ultimate execution. Some tales take a more lighthearted approach, with the “good guys” winning out. More often, however, things take a darker turn, sometimes in a moralistic way as unpleasant, selfish, or ill-behaved characters receive their (usually severe) comeuppance, while other times even our most “likable” and well-meaning protagonists still end up on the wrong end of whatever ghost, monster, or other weirdness is going on.  (The apocalyptic “Scarecrow” is a good example of how nihilistic the show is capable of getting without any real bloodshed.)

There are also plenty of familiar plots, even when they’re not in the “be careful what you wish for” type vein. The season 2 episode “Headshot” is basically a retelling of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” while the season 1 episode “Afraid of Clowns” is reminiscent of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” But, y’know, with clowns. There are also odd cinematic coincidences. In the season 1 episode “The Dead Body,” Brendan Meyer plays a bullied kid who strikes up a relationship with a ghost that is a lot like his relationship with “David” in The Guest four years later, while “A Creature was Stirring” has a plot that heavily prefigures Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film Krampus, even while its titular creature is more obviously inspired by Gremlins.

Some other notable episodes include “Dreamcatcher,” “Flight,” and “Catching Cold,” to name a few. There are things wrong with The Haunting Hour, of course. It has some problems with representation, and, with a few exceptions, most of its tween protagonists live in suburban mansions by comparison to anyplace I ever lived. Meanwhile, an episode like “The Hole” actually ends up being chilling due to its implications of domestic abuse more than any supernatural goings-on. Ultimately, though, if you don’t mind stories aimed at younger viewers and a PG-level lack of gore (even while often reaching for some genuinely unsettling thematic conclusions), The Haunting Hour is a surprisingly robust bunch of campfire-style horror stories, broken up into easy-to-consume chunks. At least for the first two seasons…

 

Shin Godzilla

I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. I had been kind of reticent about watching Shin Godzilla because I wasn’t expecting to like it much. I thought I was going to be getting another “dark and gritty” take on something that, frankly, I didn’t need a dark and gritty take on, and while that isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also doesn’t do the film justice at all. As it turns out, Shin Godzilla isn’t just a great alternative take on Godzilla, it’s just great. Period. Full stop.

One of the things I was most concerned about going in was that I kind of hate the new Godzilla design. Don’t get me wrong, I love him when he’s a stupid, goggle-eyed lungfish dragging himself around and coughing radioactive blood out of his gills all over the place. But the actual “final” Godzilla design doesn’t do it for me in still photos, or in action figures, or anyplace else I had seen it before finally sitting down to watch the movie. And, admittedly, there are problems with the suit’s execution, maybe most notably that it is remarkably immobile, to the point where Godzilla may as well be a giant sculpture being dragged through the city on a track for long stretches. In the course of the film, though, even when he isn’t moving much–and, it must be noted, this iteration of Godzilla does just up and literally shut down for long stretches of the movie for plot reasons, standing in the middle of the ruins of Tokyo and not doing anything–this new Godzilla design works.

Part of why it works is because this Godzilla is something very different than previous iterations. Not only is Godzilla scary for probably the first time since 1954, but this Godzilla is constantly mutating, changing from that dumb lungfish version (which, do I need to reiterate, I absolutely love) through a couple of metamorphoses before we reach the “final” form. (And the movie teases us with the possibility of other, further mutations that we never actually get to see.) As a sort of living nuclear reactor that is in a constant state of biological flux, this new Godzilla no longer seems like just a way to make one of our most classic monsters “more extreme” as envisioned by a 90s comic book artist, but instead seems like a coherent design decision. (They even address his ridiculous jagged teeth.)

And while Godzilla’s rampage lacks the immediacy of the 1954 original’s image of Tokyo as a “sea of flames,” there’s no denying its impact, especially in the sequence when Godzilla unleashes his most destructive power. Nor has there probably ever been another disaster movie–kaiju or otherwise–that showcased such an absurdly realistic take on this kind of devastation. In this case, however, “realism” does not mean a lot of shots of filthy, bloody people suffering. It means a lot of shots of people sitting around in conference rooms and talking on phones.

And that is where Shin Godzilla‘s greatest strength comes to bear. As an attempt at taking Godzilla seriously, it works remarkably well. As an attempt to make Godzilla scary again it works perhaps even better. But it works best as a black comic satire of bureaucracy. The 2014 American Godzilla remake took a lot of (deserved) flak for sidelining Godzilla, or shrouding his skirmishes in smoke and debris, or burying them on the screens of televisions in the background. But the real crime in Godzilla (2014) wasn’t “not enough Godzilla,” it was “too many boring people.”

Shin Godzilla seems to take that challenge and extend it to the next level. It’s a film that is perhaps best summarized by a montage sequence in which intense rock music plays over shots of people talking on phones. The reaction to Godzilla’s abrupt arrival on the scene is mired in red tape and internecine conflicts. One of the funniest parts of Shin Godzilla isn’t even anything that would normally be considered a joke. Instead, it’s that literally every time anyone speaks or we are shown anything, there are subtitles on the screen identifying who or what it is in weirdly minute detail. So many, in fact, that it often becomes nearly impossible to read all the words that are being hurled at you. It’s both a play on the form of the modern disaster movie, and an effective way to drop the viewer into the bureaucratic quagmire of the film.

Helping everything along is great music–often repurposing the classic score of the original film–and the fact that, aside from some dodgy CGI and the aforementioned weirdly immobile suit, Shin Godzilla looks great. It utilizes a lot of found footage elements, especially early on, but it is also full of lingering, pulled back shots of everything from crowded conference rooms to empty streets to rain-soaked railroad tracks to a bowl of ramen. It’s a beautiful movie, and a potent one, and a surprisingly funny one, if not often in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. And while the characters are constantly bogged down in quotidian tasks, everything is shot and edited with a faux-documentarian flair that never makes any of it feel boring.

Would I want every Godzilla movie to be like this? No, not at all. This feels like one-of-a-kind, and I think it is probably the better for it. But judged on its own merits, I can say without a doubt that I was wrong about Shin Godzilla. It’s a hell of a thing.

Godzilla

Artwork by Sophie Campbell.

Been busy with this and that, but felt the need to drop in with the news of a couple of recent story sales for those who may have missed the announcements on social media. What do these sales have in common? Both books have really freaking cool covers, for starters!

Terror in 16-BitsFirst off, my brand new 10,000-word novelette “The Drunkard’s Dream” will be showing up behind a pitch-perfect Splatterhouse tribute cover by Peter Lazarski, creator of Halloween Forever, in Terror in 16-Bits from Muzzleland Press and edited by Jonathan Raab. My story is inspired partly by Ghosts N Goblins-alikes, partly by the various coin-operated dioramas from which it takes its name, and heavily from extrapolated autobiographical experiences, albeit not the ones you might expect from the title. Terror in 16-Bits will be making its debut this August at NecronomiCon, and will be for sale to the public soon after.

Meanwhile, my story “Haruspicate or Scry” will be in Ross E. Lockhart’s Tales from a Talking Board, stories of auguries, divination, and fortune telling coming this October from Word Horde. (Also, it’s available for pre-order right now!) Its cover (by the great Yves Tourigny) has the distinction of being an actual working talking board, and I have it on good authority that orders placed direct from Word Horde may come with their very own planchette bookmarks!

As for my story, it involves heavy doses of Scrabble, the skeptical legacy of old-fashioned stage magicians, T.S. Eliot, and more than a dash of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, some autobiographical stuff, because I guess that’s just how I roll these days.

Tales from a Talking Board

I’ve been having adventures!

Two weeks ago today, I left town to spend a week in Colorado, just a few minutes outside of Denver. I didn’t spend much of my time there sightseeing, though I did visit a cool movie theatre, catch up with a couple of writing acquaintances, and make several trips to the Flatiron Crossing mall where I bought cool shirts, ate delicious crepes, and picked up a vintage Warhammer Armies book complete with Zoats, Fimirs, and really racist Pygmies. Most of the time, though, I was in the hotel room working while Grace was attending an alto flute workshop. I wrote a 5,000 word story in a day, and also caught up on a bunch of freelance projects.

On the way back from the trip, I stopped off at a dinosaur museum in Hays, one that I had passed I don’t know how many times on similar trips but had never visited. It was amazing, though perhaps the best exhibit wasn’t any of the dinosaur stuff but a giant alligator snapping turtle in a tank just inside the entrance. His name was Levi, and he was apparently unusually active that day, and watching him was pretty much exactly like watching a kaiju swim around.

After I got home I had to start playing catch-up on everything that didn’t get done while I was out of town, including finally getting around to buying a new desk and a new laptop. I’m still working on getting the laptop set up and configured the way I want it, so I’m currently still doing work (and typing this) on my old laptop until I get used to the new one. I got a Lenovo Yoga 910, in case anyone is curious. So far I like it, though I haven’t actually done much with it yet. I also made it out to our local cool movie theatre the Screenland Armour to catch a double-feature screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon and the practical suit-monster short film “Shallow Water.”

Catching up got interrupted a bit, however, in order to have more adventures when, for various reasons, Grace spontaneously decided that she wanted to go fishing and rock hunting his past weekend. I tagged along, made friends with a snapping turtle and a bug, explored what was clearly some sort of troll tunnel, found a mess of snakes and a tide pool, wandered among the flotsam on the shore of a big lake, and mostly had a great time. Shortly after I got back from that trip, I found a box on my doorstep containing a whole pile of copies of the first Japanese edition of Fungi, the anthology of weird fungal fiction I co-edited with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (The Japanese edition is getting split into two volumes, so this one is just the first half.)

As you can imagine, I’m still recovering from so much adventuring, and also still catching up on work, so if I owe you anything, including responses about getting copies of Fungi from Japan for those of you who were contributors, please bear with me.

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the new Mummy yet. I’ll probably do so this weekend, because I have free tickets, but I doubt I would pay money for it. Here’s why:

It isn’t because the movie looks bad (though it kind of does, and the reviews certainly haven’t been kind). I’ve said before that if the trailers were exactly the same but when the title came up it said Mission: Impossible 6 instead then it would look fine, and I stand by that. No, the problem isn’t that Mummy: Impossible is an inherently bad approach to take to a film, it’s that it’s an inherently bad angle for Universal to take to launch their “Dark Universe” shared monster franchise.

I was talking with some writing friends about the new Tom Cruise-starring Mummy movie on Facebook messenger a few days ago, and Jeremy Tolbert posited that if he were in charge, the story would focus on “a group of kids who had a disturbing encounter with a series of monsters [in 1989]. After that, they dedicated their lives to being prepared to deal with future threats.” Not only does that sound like a better setup, it actually underscores the real problem with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, which isn’t the dodgy CGI, the (apparently) lifeless characterizations, or the fact that it looks to be a goofy action movie that is largely lacking any horror to speak of.

The problem is that Universal doesn’t seem to understand what the actual value of its monster franchise is. But Monster Squad did, even while, not being financed by Universal, Monster Squad had to change all of its creatures just enough to avoid getting slapped with a cease and desist. The thing is, Universal doesn’t own the idea of a mummy, it doesn’t own Frankenstein, it doesn’t own Dracula. Which means that the biggest problem with this new Mummy movie, before you even get to whether or not it is any good on its own merits, is that any studio could have made it. It could just as easily have a Sony or a WB logo in front of it as the old, familiar Universal globe. And there’s the rub.

The value in Universal’s monster universe isn’t the monsters themselves, because, with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they’re all public domain. The value is in the aesthetics of those original movies. That’s what Monster Squad got and this new “Dark Universe” brand doesn’t. Without those original movies, you’re just making an action film with a mummy in it, and anyone can do that.

Even the Brendan Fraser Mummy from 1999 (which, I’ll admit, I love) knew that, and pulled plot elements, names, and the occasional bit of imagery from the older Universal Mummy sequels (mostly). Hell, even the largely terrible shitshow that was Van Helsing was closer to the mark than this looks to be. How, exactly, you tap into that reservoir of old film aesthetics is up for some debate, but that you have to in order to mine anything valuable out of the intellectual property that Universal still owns seems like a no-brainer.

Or they could always just have the monsters go up against the gang from the Fast & Furious movies, preferably while driving monster-themed funny cars. That’d work, too.

934No one is surprised that I’m a fan of Guillermo del Toro. Even when I don’t like his movies, they’re always full of plenty of creative nutrients for me to absorb and convert into something of my own, and his commentary tracks are, invariably, some of the best in the business, and always worth the price of the movie by themselves. Del Toro and Mignola are two influences that have been with me pretty much throughout my writing career, and both have been huge inspirations for me, not least in how they, themselves, proudly display their own influences and inspirations in their work.

So, of course, I’ve always been intrigued by GDT’s bizarre personal museum Bleak House, and when the opportunity came to get a tour of at least part of it in the form of the At Home With Monsters exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of of Art, I jumped at it. Along with some other local writing friends and colleagues, we piled into a couple of cars and made the seven-and-a-half hour drive up to Minneapolis, just long enough to see the exhibit and head home, pretty much.

It’s probably good that we didn’t budget anything else to do while we were there, because I could have spent all day inside the At Home With Monsters. Walking around the exhibit was a lot like walking around a physical projection of the inside of my own head. The overlap between GDT’s obsessions and my own may be less pronounced than mine and Mignola’s, but there’s certainly still plenty of overlap there, and I was overjoyed to find comics that I owned on the walls of comic books that the collection held.

949More than anything, it felt like a creative space, like a direct conduit between inspiration and generation. Highlights included, well, most of the place, really, but perhaps the most exciting was seeing the actual original sketches of one of Mike Mignola’s original designs for the Sammael creature in the first Hellboy movie, which has always been one of my favorite monster designs. I had seen most of the sketches before, but as is always the case with art, seeing it in person was a world of difference from seeing even a high-quality reproduction.

Speaking of that, there were a couple of original paintings there by Zdzislaw Beksinski, including one (unfortunately, I didn’t get the title) that was so jaw-dropping to see in person that I practically had to reach out and touch it to reassure myself that it wasn’t three dimensional. (I didn’t touch it, because the signs specifically asked me not to, but the urge was certainly there.)

856

 

Godless CoverWell, it kind of crept up on me, but today is actually the release day of my very first novel, so if you always wanted to read a novel by me, you’re into Warmachine, or you just like the idea of devout religious types with big robots burning heretics and fighting monsters, you might want to pick up a copy of Godless, the first book in the Fire & Faith series from Privateer Press! (It’s available in print or digital via Amazon, or you can check the Skull Island eXpeditions website.)

If you had asked me several years ago how and when I would write my first novel, I would not have guessed that it would be a licensed Protectorate of Menoth novel for Privateer Press. Even when I had already started doing various freelance work for them, and wrote what was, heretofore, my longest published piece of fiction–the 30,000 word novella Mutagenesisthe idea of working on a licensed novel never crossed my mind until Mike Ryan at Privateer Press gave me a call. (Godless is just over 90,000 words, so working on it was a big jump out of my comfort zone.)

In a lot of ways, writing Godless wasn’t like writing a novel the normal way. I’ve compared it before to what I imagine writing a novelization of a movie must be like. The Privateer folks gave me a very substantial outline, and I followed it more-or-less to the letter, with input and help from Mike, Matt Goetz, and Doug Seacat every step of the way. Which is not to say that I didn’t put my own stamp in there, both in how the book is written and also in creating some of the supporting cast.

When I’m writing a story for myself or even for an anthology invite, I generally have almost total freedom. An invite may demand that a story adhere to a certain theme, but within that theme I have an awful lot of creative wiggle room. Working on this novel–and, indeed, everything I’ve done for Privateer Press–was a different sort of challenge, because instead of deciding what happened, I already knew what happened, and had to decide how, and how to sell the beats that I knew the story needed to hit.

From that (very detailed) outline, I wrote Godless in just under two months. (I believe it was 57 days when I turned in the first draft.) Add in another few weeks for revisions, and my first novel was done. While I was able to turn it around in that time, and I think with help from Matt and Doug and everyone the finished product is pretty strong, I also learned some valuable lessons for the next novel, including that two months isn’t enough time to write one, especially if you’re also trying to do your normal freelance work and recovering from a tonsillectomy. So next time we’ll try to take it a little slower.

So what’s the book about? If you’re coming to it from my weird/horror short stories, you’ll find that it’s a big departure, but maybe not as big as it at first appears. This is a fantasy story about war and faith, about knights, robots, monsters, and epistemological uncertainty. As someone who’s been a fan of the games and the settings for years, I’m not sure how much the novel will mean to anyone who isn’t at least passingly familiar with Warmachine, the Iron Kingdoms, or Privateer Press’s line of products. But for those who are, or those who want to learn more, well, Godless is available right now.