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I’ve never officially participated in National Novel Writing Month and, most likely, I never shall. This is not because of any grudge against NaNoWriMo so much as because I don’t really write novels and if I do, it will probably be under other circumstances.

In fact, the only novel I’ve ever written was a tie-in novel for Privateer Press penned, as fate would have it, largely over the course of a November and December back in 2016. (Which is, incidentally, also why I say that I haven’t ever officially participated in a NaNoWriMo – I did knock out 50,000 words of Godless in November of that year, because deadlines are a hell of a thing.)

It’s not quite so ambitious as that was, but this November I’m actually engaged in another work-for-hire project that is also game related, also due at the end of the month, and about 40,000 or so words of work.

It’ll be in a different form than Godless was and isn’t a sequel or anything, for those rare few who were hoping for such a thing. But once again I am experiencing some NaNoWriMo solidarity as I knuckle down to try to churn out a whole lot of words on top of my usual freelance work for the month.

Sadly, the nature of the project has to remain a secret for now, but as soon as I can let you know what it is, I certainly shall.

So, if you don’t hear from me much in November, that’s why. And if you hear from me a bunch more than usual? That’s also why.

Look, I don’t understand it myself – and, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t really tried very hard to understand it because most days just doing what I’ve gotta do to get by is enough – but reading has been really tough during the pandemic.

I don’t have any idea why (see above), but my to-be-read pile has basically not budged one micron since lockdown began. Ditto with writing fiction, for the most part.

Oh, I’ve been working, still. I’ve been freelancing at about the same pace I was before. I’ve read for work; done some copyedits that I was contracted to do. I’ve written nonfiction: articles and columns and also been working on some other … let’s call them projects. (Mostly homebrew game stuff no one will ever see.)

But when it comes time to actually put digital quill to page and write a story that I don’t already owe to anyone? It just hasn’t been there. Normally, that’s the horror of the writer, right? That we’ll wake up one day and it’ll just be gone. We won’t be able to do it anymore. There won’t be any stories there.

Yet, for whatever reason, I’m not too scared this time. This doesn’t feel like the end; it doesn’t really even feel like a dry spell. It just feels like the end of a long day of work, when you’re not feeling up to even watching a movie or anything more than staring at whatever happens to be on the TV at the moment.

So far, I’m okay with letting it just be that. With letting what I have to do to keep the lights burning and food on the table be enough. With my recent spate of dungeon crawl board games and D&D reading being what I do to keep out the dark, for the time being.

So far, so good.

It’s hard to believe that it’s August 2nd already, as I write this. The pandemic – and with it the rest of the garbage fire that is 2020 – has been … having an effect on my overall life and output, to be sure, and rarely an altogether positive one. (When I told my therapist – via a Zoom call, of course – that I had spent a few days freaking out the prior week, she was like, “Only a few days?! Bravo!”)

As someone who already worked from home, I am far from the hardest hit by this slow-motion apocalypse, but it’s also impossible to be an even remotely empathetic human being and not feel the miasma of strain that currently grips the world.

I am proud and envious of the folks who have turned this time toward productive ends by writing their novel, carving through their to-be-read pile, or even just watching a lot more movies; even while my own TBR pile gathers an ever-deepening layer of dust and the very notion of putting words on the page carries a kind of low-key existential dread.

To my own surprise, I haven’t even watched that many movies during the lockdown. In fact, June was the lightest month since I started keeping score several years ago, with only ten movies watched. Part of that can be chalked up to the (hopefully temporary) death of movie theaters and breakdowns in the supply chain for new review titles, but a part of it is just how I’m coping with [gestures at everything].

July picked up a bit, thanks, in no small part, to Arrow Video’s Shinya Tsukamoto collection, my review of which should be dropping any day now. At ten movies all by itself, it basically guaranteed that I was going to at least eclipse June’s paltry sum.

I’ve still been writing, of course, just not a lot of fiction. My last post was partly about my new gaming column for Unwinnable, and I also wrote about getting into Dungeons & Dragons during the plague times for our local dirtbag/cool kid newspaper The Pitch. (Observant readers may recognize a thinly-veiled version of The Pitch as The Current in my story “The Red Church.”)

This is probably my first byline in an actual print newspaper since college. Like most writers my age, I entertained some fantasies about one day being a journalist, mostly when I was in high school and later a bit in college. Even by the time I was in college, though, the future of print newspapers was already pretty close to utter collapse, so I kinda wrote off the notion of that ever coming to pass. Every once in a while, we get a nice surprise, instead of just a box full of the plague.

As you may be able to gather from that, I’ve been spending a lot of the pandemic getting really into games that I mostly can’t play right now. In addition to D&D, I finally took the plunge on Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a game I’ve been wanting to try for years, just in time for it to probably go out of print, it looks like? (Speaking of, if anyone happens to have the Stewards of the Secret expansion for it, I would love to take that off your hands.)

So far, for a game that I basically haven’t played, I’ve really been enjoying my time looking at and thinking about playing Descent, anyway. I guess there are worse ways of coping…

Apparently, I am a writer of nonfiction these days.

That’s not completely fair. I’ve had new stories in The Weird Fiction Review and The Willows already this year, and It Came from the Multiplex is coming soon, not to mention my story “The All-Night Horror Show,” which went live at The Dark and got a “recommended” from Paula Guran in Locus. I’ve got new stories coming out in Ben Thomas’ OmniPark anthology and some other places I can’t yet name.

But I also can’t deny that I’ve been publishing a lot more nonfiction of late. Besides my usual movie reviews – which, for various reasons, have actually dried up a bit due to the pandemic, but there are more in the wings – I’ve also got a column in Michael Kelly’s forthcoming digest-sized Weird Horror mag, the first installment of which is about those Crestwood House monster books.

And that’s not even my only new column! Those regular readers of this here blog may remember a while back my mentioning a new monthly column that I had coming out over at Unwinnable called “I Played It, Like, Twice,” in which I discussed the joys and sorrows of really wanting to be into board games, but hardly ever playing them.

As it did with most everything else in the entire damn world, the pandemic changed plans for that column somewhat, but I’ve still been writing it, and given that the announcement was a few months ago, I’ve written a few of them!

The first installment discussed playing Horrified during the pandemic, while later installments covered the difficulties I ran into with the rules for the otherwise-admirable Vast: The Mysterious Manor and the pleasures and perils of Rum & Bones, a pirate-themed game of shoving piles of minis around.

Though playing board games is necessarily a different proposition in this brave (?) new world we find ourselves in, I’m still plowing ahead with the column and also I’ve recently gotten really into Descent, in spite of not having yet played it even once, so expect some more about that in the future …

Dear Diary,

This is day XX of quarantine. It would be lovely to say that I don’t know how many days this has been going on because of the pandemic but, to be honest, sheltering in place is not much different than being a freelancer always is, with the exception that I can’t go to Analog Sunday and Grace is always home.

Life goes on, even under the strangest of conditions, and I figured it was high time for a check-in on what’s been happening for me in the writing arena – the stuff I can talk about, at any rate.

So far, 2020 has already seen the publication of three of my stories, which is the same number that I published in total last year, so that’s not nothing.

“The All-Night Horror Show” is live at The Dark. For those who attended last year’s Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, this was the story that I read near the end of the Symposium, before the whole spook show presentation.

My story “Prehistoric Animals” is in the latest issue of the Weird Fiction Review from Centipede Press – bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title is borrowed from. And most recently, my all-new story that is extremely critical of American imperialism, “Manifest Destiny,” is in The Willows Anthology. Pick it up, and you’ll also get a bunch of (probably regrettable) juvenalia written by me many years ag

More stuff is coming later this year, to the extent that we can predict anything ever or especially right now. I recently finished up a story with the hard-to-beat title, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop.” I wish that I could take credit for it, but it’s a misremembered paraphrase from an essay Ray Bradbury wrote about Disneyland, of all places.

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It’s bound for a shared-world anthology (something I generally steer clear of) that’s being put together by the minds behind The Willows – an anthology that’s currently accepting submissions, if you wanna try for a shot at sharing a TOC with that imposing title.

As usual, I’ve been working on nonfiction more than fiction of late, though most of it has been freelance work. Movie reviews have necessarily dropped off a bit, due to the whole pandemic thing, but they aren’t gone completely.

My first piece for Kansas City’s local dirtbag newspaper The Pitch – savvy readers of my work may recognize a thinly-veiled version of it as The Current in “The Red Church” – recently went live, in which I reviewed Robert Altman’s jazz opus Kansas City. Meanwhile, over at Signal Horizon, I covered the Vincent Price flick The Mad Magician and the Italian Exorcist knock-off Beyond the Door.

On Twitter, I’ve also been keeping a running list of my favorite new-to-me movies that I saw for the first time this year that didn’t come out this year.

Outside of the realm of direct reviews, I wrote about the works of Thomas Ligotti and cosmic nihilism in the film Gags the Clown, which we also talked about on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. (For those who don’t know, I’m now the regular co-host of the Horror Pod Class, which is weekly for the duration of the pandemic, satisfying my contractual obligation to co-host a podcast as ostensibly a white dude of a certain age.)

Next week, we’ll be talking about Attack of the Crab Monsters, so stay tuned!

Tonight, I recorded an episode of the Horror Pod Class with Tyler (my usual co-host) and Adam Roberts, owner of the Screenland, which you’ve no doubt seen me talk about a lot. I’ll edit this to put up a link when the episode goes live later this week. (The current most recent episode talks about Noroi, another of my favorite films.)

[ETA: Here’s the link to the Legend of Hell House episode!]

As we always do on the Horror Pod Class, we discussed a horror movie. Because he was the guest, Adam got to pick, and so we talked about The Legend of Hell House*, which is one of my favorite haunted house movies, and the adaptation of literally my top number one favorite haunted house novel, Richard Matheson’s Hell House.

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If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please stop reading this right now and go do so. Both are really quite good, and if you like my work, or if you and I share relatively similar tastes in horror, you are unlikely to regret heeding my advice on this, even if the tale doesn’t hit you where you live quite like it does for me.

For those of you who have read it or seen it and are familiar with my work, you may be unsurprised to know that Hell House had a huge influence on me, and on a lot of my stories. Like Clive Barker, the sadistic and psychosexual themes of the novel aren’t what hooked me or what were reproduced in my fiction, even though they are certainly what’s laying around on the surface.

You can find echoes of Hell House in the figure in the chair in “The Granfalloon,” in the history of the house in “Nearly Human,” and countless stories featuring hauntings that aren’t what they appear to be.

Matheson had a keen scholarly interest in spiritualist beliefs, and his fictionalized depictions of those beliefs factor into just about every story I’ve ever written that features spiritualism or seances or anything of the sort. His uncompleted novel Come Fygures, Come Shadowes, about a family of mediums, was the keystone to my as-yet-unpublished short story “On Blueberry Hill.”

I’ve read plenty of other Matheson novels and short stories. I Am Legend is, of course, a classic, and I remember being quite fond of his locked-room magician mystery Now You See It…

And, of course, Matheson was responsible for the screenplays of many of my favorite films. Not just adaptations of his own work, but movies like The Pit and the PendulumThe Devil Rides Out, and so on.

But it was Hell House with its matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural that nevertheless stripped it of none of its gothic grandeur that left the biggest imprint on my own fiction, and continues to do so to this day. Re-watching and talking about Legend of Hell House just reminded me of how much that was true.

* Not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House or The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill.

I missed the official 100th anniversary of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by a couple of days – it was apparently February 26 – but it seemed wrong to let the occasion pass by completely without at least marking it in some way.

Caligari was a film that I became obsessed with years before I ever saw it. Two decades ago, when Mezco Toys was still called Aztech, they released a line of figures based on classic silent horror films, including one of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, looking a bit like Robert Smith of The Cure.

Cesare was the only one of the so-called Silent Screamers toys I ever bought – a decision I regret to this day, when I would love to get my hands on a Graf Orlok or a Golem. But I also still have the Cesare figure by my desk.

The long, sharp shadows of German expressionism and early silent films have long had a major influence on my own aesthetic, even before I had ever actually seen most of them. Caligari, which I first saw in college, not long after buying that toy, remains a movie that I’ve watched only a few times, and yet one that sticks with me in everything I do.

In part, this is because Caligari is a film that can be enjoyed in still frames almost as much as it can be as a movie. I’ve said before that most entire films aren’t as gorgeous or potent as any given frame of Caligari, and I stand by that.

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A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a story to The Madness of Dr. Caligari, a deluxe anthology of stories inspired by the silent classic, edited by Joe Pulver. The story I turned in, “Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic,” concerns an ill-fated Poverty Row production of a 1946 movie called The Corpse Walks, which features some familiar figures.

But it’s far from the only story I ever wrote that had Caligari‘s long shadow over it. “Night’s Foul Bird” in Painted Monsters may be more concerned with Nosferatu and Faust and London After Midnight, but there’s no denying that Cesare is in there somewhere, or that the plot of Caligari (and its successors) runs like a dark vein through “Stygian Chambers,” the story I wrote for Pluto in Furs which, when I first started writing it, was going to be named for a line from the Robert Bloch-penned 1962 remake Cabinet of Caligari.

Even early stories like “The Mysterious Flame,” which anchors my first collection, are filled with the shadows of German expressionist cinema in general, with Caligari as maybe its most striking exemplar.

Nor am I likely to extricate myself from those painted-on shadows anytime soon. A hundred years gone by, and they’ve still never made another movie quite like Caligari – and it may be that they never will.

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.

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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.