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I  have always written a lot about film, but over the last few years I have inescapably also become, among other things, a “film writer.” I have two books of essays on vintage horror cinema in print, and I regularly write reviews of both new and retrospective films for venues like Signal Horizon and Unwinnable.

To the extent, then, that I am a “film critic,” or a critic of any other kind of art, my interest is not in whether or not the art in question is “good” or “bad.” My interest is in the experience of the art itself; in placing that art within its broader context and learning to understand it better, both for myself and for whoever happens to be reading whatever I write.

This makes the experience of art – and of writing and reading about art – necessarily personal, and somewhat immune to criticism, to the extent that you view criticism as nothing more than a binary of “good” or “bad.” Siskel and Ebert, probably the most well-known movie critics of all time, famously simplified it to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” – not to knock either Siskel or Ebert, both of whom also wrote lengthy, heartfelt, highly personal takes on film all the time.

One of my favorite quotes about the role of art comes from Joe R. Lansdale writing an introduction to a trade collection of the comic book Baltimore. “Isn’t that the job of all great art,” Lansdale writes, “to kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see?”

He thinks it is, at least in part, and so do I.

As a critic, then, my job is to help art accomplish that goal. To jimmy the door just that little bit wider, to point into the light and shadow on the other side and describe what I see. To walk through the door – or at least peek through it – when others may not have the time or the energy or the inclination or the adventurousness of spirit to do so.

My job is also to keep an open mind. Not just when I sit in the dark and wait for the movie to begin, but long after I’ve seen the credits roll, after I’ve composed my careful sentences that night or the next day or the next week. This doesn’t mean pretending to like something that I don’t. It means being open to changing my mind.

Some of my favorite movies I was lukewarm on when I walked out of the theater. Some movies that I loved the first few times I saw them grew stale with time. Neither of these reactions are wrong – they’re just descriptive of how I experienced the movies.

As a reader of writing about film, one of my favorite things in the world is to find a thoughtful, engaging appreciation of a movie that I thought I didn’t like. One that helps me to view something in the movie that I might not otherwise have seen. Sometimes I still don’t like the movie when I’m done, but I get the chance to glimpse that otherwise unseen thing, and that’s really what I’m always after.

Art can only do so much to kick those doors open, after all. Sometimes we have to be ready to look.

The Movies (2)

 

I didn’t publish very much fiction this year, but I am proud of what I did publish. “Doctor Pitt’s Menagerie” in Bargains from Pine Float Press, “Stygian Chambers” in Pluto in Furs, and “The Splitfoot Reel” in the memento book at NecronomiCon Providence.

That’s it for new stories, although this year also saw my third appearance in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, this time reprinting my story “No Exit,” which originally appeared in Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road. “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” which was one of the original stories in my third collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales last year, was performed on Pseudopod this year as well.

When it comes to new work, though, this was the year I really became a film writer. I’ve been writing about film – in both my fiction and nonfiction – for a long time, but this was the year that I started adding bylines at Signal Horizon, where I am the official Monster Ambassador, and Unwinnable. Where I started receiving Blu-rays for review, and critic’s passes to preview screenings of new films.

At Signal Horizon, I also took over co-hosting duties of the Horror PodClass, where Tyler Unsell and I talk about movies and academic theories or lesson plans every couple of weeks. Most recently, we chatted about Black Christmas – both the new and the old – and subtext.

I won’t link to all the many reviews I’ve written over the course of the year, but if you want to follow along you can find most of them here, with more to come in the future.

I also had a book come out this year, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault from Innsmouth Free Press. It’s the sequel to Monsters from the Vault, as you might have guessed, but where that book collected all the Vault of Secrets columns I had written for IFP over the years, this one is almost all entirely new material, never published anywhere else.

That book launched at NecronomiCon Providence, which I was finally able to attend this year. I was on a couple of panels, attended some others, walked the nighted streets of Providence – a city at once familiar and strange, as was only appropriate – and got to introduce a secret screening of Matango.

NecronomiCon was one of the only conventions I made it to this year. Of course, I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January, and I went to Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in March.

In fact, Tyler and I made the mistake of driving down overnight, which meant that I hit the Symposium having been awake for some 36 hours straight. Either the worst conditions for the event, or the ideal ones, even I’m not sure which.

I took a few out-of-town trips that weren’t directly related to work, such as a vacation to Myrtle Beach, where I got to assume that I was going to meet my Tethered in an abandoned spook house and get murdered. Of course, that didn’t happen – or did it?

This was also the year where I got to shelter-in-place when the Screenland was nearly hit by a tornado while we were watching the heavy metal horror movie Black Roses. Which, on that subject, this was also the year that I started regularly attending Analog Sunday at the Screenland, which has changed my life in all sorts of good ways.

When October rolled around, I hosted a bunch of stuff, and attended a bunch more stuff, as part of the local Shocktober programming here in town. And then, on my birthday, I got sick. And unfortunately, the cough that came with that illness has carried with me all this time.

The doctors say its post-viral bronchitis. I coughed so much that the nerves that trigger coughing got damaged, and now they just keep coughing. Unfortunately, the more I cough, the longer it will take them to heal, so I’m now taking measures to limit my activity in order to limit my coughing. Fingers crossed, and all that.70675603_10156706916314503_8400888024463835136_n (2)

I published my customary year end wrap-up back at the end of December, but in it I realize that I perhaps gave somewhat short shrift to my publishing accomplishments for the year, so I decided that a more in-depth post on the subject was in order.

Of course, the biggest writing news of 2018 was the publication of Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, my third collection of short stories about ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and my second through Word HordeGuignol contains fourteen (14) strange tales, four (4) of them appearing in print for the first time.

Counting those four new stories, the total number of new stories I published in 2018 is nine (9). I also had two (2) reprints this year. “Goblins,” which originally appeared as a bonus story in the deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing was podcast at Pseudopod just in time for Halloween, read by none other than the Old Gent himself, Leeman Kessler, and my story “The Granfalloon,” originally in Darker Companions, was reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, marking the second time one of my stories has made it into that esteemed volume.

Other stories that came out in 2018 include “Hollow Earths” in Chthonic from Martian Migraine Press, “The Pepys Lake Monster” in Test Patterns: Creature Features from Planet X Publishing, “No Exit” in Lost Highways from Crystal Lake, “Masks” in the second issue of Forbidden Futures, and “The Hurrah (aka Corpse Scene)” at The Dark. That doesn’t seem like a ton of new fiction, but I’m proud of every one of them, and of the original stories that appeared in Guignol. I’ve also been hard at work on some other stories and projects that should be seeing the light of day in 2019.

In 2018, I was also lucky enough to get to pen the introduction to Amanda Downum’s long-awaited short story collection Still So Strange and I started publishing more of my film writing in places other than here, including reviews at Signal Horizon and Unwinnable. I’m particularly proud of this one.

There’s more stories, more film writing, and more monsters coming in 2019. In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, you could always throw a few bucks into my proverbial tip jar to help me keep doing this.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve still got, like, a week left, but it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to publish anything more in those few days, so let’s go ahead and get this dumpster fire of a year behind us, shall we? (Remember when we all thought that 2016 was kind of the epitome of a bad year? We were so adorable.)

Given the way the last few months of this year, especially, have gone, with various health crises and escalating stress, it’s easy to forget that I accomplished much of anything at all during the rest of it, but I actually published a few stories and, hard as it is to believe, two books in 2017! And by “a few” I mean roughly five new stories of mine came out in 2017, six if you count the one new story in the deluxe hardcover edition of Never Bet the Devil. I had stories in The Children of Gla’akiFor Mortal Things UnsungTerror in 16-BitsTales from a Talking Board, and Darker Companions. (For those keeping score at home, that’s actually two Ramsey Campbell tribute anthologies, and not a single overtly Lovecraft-themed one. Maybe a record?)

On top of that, 2017 saw the release of my first novel, in a manner that I would never have expected in a million years. Godless, the first volume in a proposed series chronicling the adventures of Tristan, nicest of all the Protectorate of Menoth warcasters, was released by Privateer Press back in April. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also got the distinction of being the first writer to permanently kill off a major in-game character, so that was pretty cool. The book was written in something of a rush to meet my deadlines, but it seems to have been received fairly well. I dedicated it to Ray Harryhausen, and earlier this month I got to visit an exhibit of Ray Harryhausen models, storyboards, concept art, and other ephemera in Oklahoma City, which was a rare pleasure indeed.

In non-licensed work, 2017 also saw the re-release of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, in a fancy deluxe hardcover edition courtesy of Strix Publishing. The (jaw-dropping) cover design and pitch-perfect interior illustrations are all the work of Mike Corley, one of my favorite artists in the business and pretty much my first and only choice to work on this book. Besides adding new illustrations by Mike, I wanted to make sure that the deluxe edition had some added value for those who had already purchased the (now out of print) paperback original, so we also included two additional stories that weren’t in the first release. One of them, “Goblins,” was entirely original to the collection, while the other, “A Night for Mothing,” is a difficult-to-find rarity that was originally published in The Mothman Files all the way back in 2011.

Besides heading out to the Ray Harryhausen exhibit in early December, I managed to make a handful of convention appearances throughout the year, despite my wretched health. I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January for the first time as a civilian (previous years I had helped out with booths and other odds-and-ends), something I plan to do again this year. I was a guest of the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in Atlanta back in March and at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland in October, where we actually launched Never Bet the Devil & Other Warning. I’m told that no less a personage than Barbara Steele stopped by the booth to inquire about the book, but at the time I was out getting a burrito, which is probably just as well, so that I couldn’t pitch it to her by explaining that, “I think it’s got ghosts and stuff.”

In-between all of those, I also made a trip up to Minneapolis to see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit At Home with Monsters, and a trip to the Boulder area of Colorado, mostly to accompany Grace to a low flutes retreat, though I also used the opportunity to meet up with some writing acquaintances and do a bit of writing myself, including penning a story that I’m pretty proud of which is part of a lengthier story cycle that I mostly finished during the course of this year, though none of the new additions to it have seen print just yet.

Lots more stuff happened in 2017. I watched a lot of movies, read a few books, was sick a lot, had an emergency surgery, spent my birthday recovering from that, and did a whole host of the other usual stuff that you do in a year, even one where everything is on fire. I’ll have most posts about the movies I watched in 2017, as well as a Year in Creatures, most likely, but those will have to wait until the year is actually over. For now, that’s most of what I accomplished as far as writing and publishing go, and that’s what we’re here for.

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.

Odds are you don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a rough year. Even leaving aside any political… happenstance, we lost a lot of great people in 2016. Some were losses shared by the world, others hit closer to home. But if I restrict my sights to only those things that were localized entirely within the walls of my house, 2016 was actually a pretty good year. Freelance work picked up considerably from its low point in 2015, Grace got a new job that she is extremely happy with, and I published two books: Monsters from the Vault, a collection of my Vault of Secrets columns from Innsmouth Free Press, and The Cult of Headless Men, a chapbook novelette from Dunhams Manor with an incredible cover by Michael Bukowski.

Since my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings had fallen out of print at the end of 2015, this past year also saw the launch of a successful Kickstarter to get it back in print in a deluxe, fully-illustrated hardcover edition featuring killer art from my good friend MS Corley. The new edition is due out sometime this year from Strix Publishing, and should be available for order direct from them for those who missed the Kickstarter.

Following on the heels of the Kickstarter, the last few months of 2016 were a little hectic for me. I ended September with a tonsillectomy, which more or less put me out of commission for the month of October, and then spent November and December writing my first novel in only 53 days! For those who missed the previous announcement, that novel will be a Protectorate of Menoth novel set in the world of the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer Press. It’s the first in a proposed series called Fire & Faith, and the book itself is going to be called Godless. It’s due out later this year. I’ll be posting a lot more about it–and the process of writing it–once things have gone a little farther, but for now you can read a brief interview with me over at their blog.

Over the course of the year, I published only 6 new short stories (not counting The Cult of Headless Men), but I’m pretty proud of all of them. They showed up in venues like Autumn CthulhuSwords v. Cthulhu, Children of LovecraftEternal FrankensteinThe Madness of Dr. Caligari, and Gothic Lovecraft. (Lots of “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu” titles this year.) Thanks to Children of Lovecraft, I finally got to check my lifelong dream of appearing behind a Mignola cover off my list, and my story from Autumn Cthulhu made the Bram Stoker Award reading list, which I think is a first for me. I also made my debut in the pages of Nightmare magazine, albeit in nonfiction form, writing an entry for their H Word column about creating and consuming horror that isn’t meant to be scary.

I didn’t read very many books in 2016 (a little less than 30, most of them graphic novels), but of those, a few were actually published in 2016 and were legitimately great, perhaps most notably Matthew M. Bartlett’s Creeping Waves and Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism. I was also lucky enough to provide blurbs for a couple of books that came out in 2016, including Pete Rawlik’s most recent addition to his rollicking Wold Newton-ish universe Reanimatrix, and Jonathan Raab’s The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie. (Though really, with a title like that, why do you need a blurb from me to sell it to you?)

I did watch a lot of movies in 2016, however. 333, to be exact. 47 of those were in the month of October, which is what happens when you have a tonsillectomy and can neither sleep nor do much else besides lay on the couch and watch movies. In continuing my efforts to see more movies that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, 197 of those movies were new-to-me, though of those only about 25 actually came out in 2016. Nothing I saw in 2016 ever managed to beat the first movie that I saw in theatres last year, so The Witch is probably still my favorite movie of the year. Other good ones that I saw include Green Room, I Am Not a Serial Killer, Ouija: Origin of Evil (yeah, I’m as surprised as you are), Captain America: Civil WarThe Nice GuysZootopiaThe Shallows, and the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The last movie that I watched in 2016 was Blood Diner, and the first one that I watched in 2017 was Cellar Dweller, so that seems about right.

In breaking with my annual tradition, there probably won’t be a Year in Creatures this year because, frankly, I just didn’t see enough movies in 2016 that had creatures in them. The big alien in Independence Day: Resurgence was totally wasted, and besides it and a few ghosts there was, what, a shark and that thing from I Am Not a Serial Killer? I guess Black Phillip would about have to be the Monster of the Year in 2016, though if there are good creatures I’m missing in movies that I didn’t see do please let me know, because I want to track them down!

In 2017 I’m hoping to read more books, which may entail watching fewer movies, but we’ll see how the year pans out. I’ve already picked up my full-weekend pass for Panic Fest this year, so that’s a pile of movies I’ll probably be seeing later this month. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the works for 2017, including that aforementioned novel, so you’ll be hearing from me more down the line. For now, let’s finish kicking the detritus of 2016 to the curb, and set our sights on getting through the next few days, months, and then years.

 

As I warned earlier, you haven’t heard a lot from me this month, because I’ve been engaged in hammering on a novel-length work-for-hire project that I, unfortunately, can’t say much about just yet. But I hit enough of a milestone on it today that it seemed worth stopping to mention, especially given the timing.

I’ve never written a novel, and I have never even attempted to participate in National Novel Writing Month (aka, NaNoWriMo). In my efforts to knock out 90,000 words on this project in two months, though, I inadvertently seem to have done so this time around. It took me ’til the very last day, due to some unforeseen other freelance obligations falling into my lap earlier this week, but as of today I am just over 50,000 words into this project, which I started on November 1.

Which is to say that I guess I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time ever this month after all, without really meaning to. It also means that this project is already the longest thing I have ever written, with another 40,000 more words to go in the month of December. More about it when I am allowed to say more, and in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a while again. For now, I’m off to take a well-deserved break.