Friday, February 19, 2010

I Got Tagged

A meme, a meme. Kent Gowran tagged me for this, so I will try to live up to it. Here are the rules, cut-and pasted from his blog:

• Tell up to six outrageous lies about yourself, and at least one outrageous truth – or – switch it around and tell six outrageous truths and one outrageous lie. (See below.)
• Nominate some more “Creative Writers” who might have fun coming up with outrageous lies of their own. (Check the end of this post.)
• Post links to the blogs you nominate.
• Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know that you have nominated them.

Since it doesn’t specify, I’m not going to tell which ones are true, or how many, just that it is a mixture. You decide when I’m lyin’.

1. When I was eight years old, I was in the back seat, my dad driving, while on a trip to Georgia. A young man on a motorcycle passed us at high speed going up a hill. He was unable to clear our car before the 18-wheeler came over the hill, and I witnessed him more or less disintegrating when he hit the truck head-on. We had to stay and watch the cleanup, down literally with shovels, because some of the “remains” were splattered on our car. I didn’t think it affected me much, but I’ve never been comfortable riding a motorcycle.

2. When I was 16, I was picked on by the school bully. As luck would have it, I was holding a mallet at the time. The blow to the forehead knocked him out cold, and sent me before a judge on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

3. My grandfather, who died long before my birth, has two graves. One in Fort Hancock, Texas dated 1911, one in Alabama dated 1951. Obviously he’s in the second one, but I’ve never been able to figure out who’s in the first one, or whether his brother is in the Texas grave beside him, as the marker says.

4. I had a distant cousin, much older than I, who died in Alcatraz before I was born.

5. In college, a friend with connections hatched a scheme for us to get rich by bringing in bales of marijuana from Mexico. We were supposed to get rich, but were left broke after I dumped the bales overboard after sighting the lights of a coast guard cruiser. The lights turned out to be a buoy.

6. As a high school junior, I had to go before Bubba Scott, the director of the state athletic association. I was pitching against our arch rivals and just didn’t have it, I was getting pounded. For some reason, the coach wouldn’t take me out even though I couldn’t get anything to break, and they were teeing off on me. So I hit three consecutive batters in the head, sparking a small riot. Bubba asked me if I meant to hurt the boys. “Bubba,” I said. “I meant to kill them, but my arm was tired.” I was suspended for six months.

7. As a college freshman, I helped construct a makeshift cannon out of the hard cardboard roll from a roll of carpet, using black powder and crushed toilet paper rolls for projectiles. We used the device to bombard a girls’ dorm one winter night from a surprising distance, enjoyed the way the flaming TP arced across the night sky. We underestimated the force at which the rolls were propelled, and a couple of them smashed through windows in the girls, dorm. I had left five minutes before campus security rounded up everyone, and everyone there was expelled.

This was fun. In turn, I’ll lay the burden on John Horner Jacobs, Jim McLeod, Rabid Fox, Doc Horror, Craig Clarke, and Wulf. Have fun, lads.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sunset Gun

I’m never sure why people visit this site. For the bad jokes? Snarky reviews of movies no sane person would watch? Google misdirection? One service I can provide, however, is to inform you of better sites, where you can go to better yourself while I work on the definitive ranking of giant snake movies.

One site that I read and highly recommend is Sunset Gun, Kim Morgan’s site. Ms. Morgan loves noir movies and muscle cars, which already edges her dangerously close to perfection, but the real treat of her site is her essays, largely devoted to movie-making. She looks at things with a keen intellect, and prompts you to think about things. Even on those rare occasions when I don’t agree with her point-of-view, she forces me to examine my own opinions, which is always a good thing.

So check out Sunset Gun, for all the things you won’t find here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Print The Legend

I don’t just watch low-rent horror movies about mansquitos terrorizing the countryside, I like pretty much all genres of film. A recent bout of compulsive watching of westerns brought me to reading Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. It was written by Scott Eyman, and first published in 1999., although copies are easy to come by. Eyman also wrote Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise about the legendary director of To Be Or Not To Be, a book I found to be interesting.

John Ford’s career began in the silent era, and he continued directing until the 1960s. He is most known for his westerns, but worked in various types of film, directing prominent non-Westerns such as The Informer and The Quiet Man. It was in westerns, though, that he made his mark, directing at least three true classics, Stagecoach, Fort Apache and The Searchers, as well as a number of near-classics such as My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and others. He had a great eye for detail and composition, and the westerns shot in his prime, largely using Monument Valley, Utah as a backdrop, are some of the most beautiful ever created. He is known for using John Wayne, for whose career he was partially responsible, in a number of roles.
Print the Legend (title taken from a line near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) is an adept portrait of the man and the studio system he worked in and fought against. Eyman resists the temptation to descend into gossip, as the sexual dalliances common to the studio era are discussed but not dwelled on. At the end of it, the reader feels as close as he ever will be to knowing a man unknowable even to himself.

John Ford was a great director, but not such a nice person. He had a streak of real sadism, and never forgot any perceived slight. Sometimes, his cruelty was calculated to achieve a desired emotion in an actor, but often it was just an expression of who he really was. He harassed those who worked with him, and mostly ignored his children.

Biographies of people who live full lives are always tragedies. Talent fades, health declines. This is seen in Ford, as he progresses from being one of the top Hollywood directors to a point where he is reduced to unsuccessful attempts to get work directing ultra-low budget westerns for scale. His films reflect the dimming of his health and the darkening of his worldview. Compare the beautiful location-filmed vistas of The Searchers to the claustrophobic set-driven The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his last good movie, made when he was losing his sight, a difficult burden for a director who always said the set determines the story. Valance is also a tragic commentary of the destruction time inflicts on all of us. If you don’t believe that, re-watch the final framing segment, and reflect on the fates of the three man characters, all of whom lost what was most precious to them, although two of them got what they thought they wanted.

I’d recommend Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford to any fan of his movies, or to anyone interested in the Golden Age of movies.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Dark Matter

In the pantheon of horror writers, Stephen King sits at the top, a position he has occupied since the late 1970s. There have been few serious challengers to that throne, but one of the authors who come closest is King’s sometime collaborator, Peter Straub. In the early 1980s, Straub wrote one of the great books of the genre, Ghost Story, and has enjoyed great sales success since, often writing outside the horror genre. His latest book is A Dark Matter, which will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, February the 9th.

Many of the writers of today don’t truly love language. Words are a means to an end with them, a way to force the story out. Not so Peter Straub. His writing reveals a great love for words, simple or obscure. The emphasis on how the story is told as well as what is told makes a book like A Dark Matter into a supposedly mythical creature: a genre novel that is also a literary novel. This comes as no surprise to those of us who are regular Straub readers.

The 1960s, as we all know, was a time of the exploration of freedom, of youth asserting itself, and the rejection of societal norms. It was also a great time for con men who preyed on the intelligent yet naïve students for sex, power, money, or whatever else they wanted. One such of these gurus is named Spencer Mallon, and four high school students, Lee Truax (The Eel), Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Hootie Bly fall prey to his spell. Mallon claims he has arcane knowledge that will cast aside the veil separating this reality from others, and so the four students participate in a ritual with deadly consequences, which leave them scarred as well as gifted: Hootie goes insane, Lee goes blind, Dilly goes to prison and so on.

Years later, the one member of their group who refused to participate in the Mallon business, Lee Harwell, who married Lee Truax, becomes obsessed with learning what happened in the ritual he missed. His own wife won’t talk about it, so one at a time he tracks down the other participants to hear their very different versions of what went on. Knowledge always comes at a price, and Harwell soon realizes the risk he is running in uncovering the secrets.

As I mentioned before, no one really writes like Straub any more. The mystery unveils slowly, through somewhat contradictory testimony. Patience is required of a reader (and possibly access to a dictionary – the crazed Hootie in particular is obsessed with often obscure words. If you’re not careful, you’ll learn something.) but, have that patience, and you will be rewarded. This is not a book about a giant monster smashing Tokyo. It is a book of events that are quieter yet no less horrific, of the toll that secrets take on our lives. I recommend you put down your usual fare and give this a try. Not only is it a good book in a time when they are becoming rare, I’ve got a feeling it’s the sort of book that will hold up well to repeated readings.

The Best Of Joe R. Lansdale

Anyone who reads horror or any other literature of the fantastic knows who Joe Lansdale is, I assume. A colorful personality as well as a gifted writer, he has been at the forefront since his breakthrough in the 80s, with his novels reaching bestseller lists and his work being adapted into film (Bubba Ho-Tep). He has also conquered the medium of comic books, most notably with the controversial “weird western” Jonah Hex, and is much sought-after at conventions for reading his own work. (At Hypericon in 2008, I witnessed Mr. Lansdale reading his short story “Mr. Bear”, and his performance did much to elevate the piece. Lansdale is also the only writer I’ve ever been too nervous to speak to.)

Although he is more known in the public conscious due to his novels, die-hard fans believe it is in the short story format that he truly shines. There have been several collections of his work thus far, and now Tachyon Publications has come out with a career overview, suitably titled The Best of Joe R. Lansdale. This contains most of his best known works, including five which have won Stoker awards. I’m a persistent critic of the Stokers, but even I’m impressed by that.

Among the highlights of the collection:

“Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program”, in which everyone’s favorite giant lizard tries to reform his city-stomping ways, a good showcase for Lansdale’s trademark sense of humor.

“The Big Blow”, set in Galveston during the devastating hurricane at the beginning of the 20th Century.

“Incident On And Off A Mountain Road”, which was adapted for the Showtime series Masters of Horror (one of their better episodes, in my opinion).

“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” which won the British Fantasy Award and has never been collected.

“The Night They Missed the Horror Show”, about two young rednecks in 1968 who decide not to attend a showing of Night of the Living Dead after they learn the male lead is a black man. This is a decision that has fateful consequences. I liked this well enough to list it as Number 4 on my list of The Best Horror Stories of All Time, and most who have commented feel it should be higher.

Lansdale fans will have quibbles with the selections (I was wondering where “Tight Little Stitches In A Dead Man’s Back” was, myself), but no matter, this is a great collection. Whether you are a die hard Lansdale fan and want to get most of his best work in one volume, or you are a neophyte to the Cult of Lansdale looking for a good staring point, this is the book for you. The promotional material I received with the book says it will be released in March, although Amazon lists it being released on February 15th (and also confusingly says it is now in stock). Either way, order it, pilgrim.