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More Watching: Oct 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed 2018's The Haunting of Hill House. This October, just in time for Halloween, the same director, Mike Flanagan, returns with a new, loosely connected mini-series, The Haunting of Bly Manor.


Viewers will notice about half a dozen of the actors from Hill House have returned for Bly Manor, but all in different roles, in no way connected between storylines, much like the shuffling of talent and characters American Horror Story does. Besides a few of the same faces, Bly Manor delivers the same slow building of suspense as Hill House did and offers a similar dive deep into many characters' internal conflicts. 


In Hill House, everything came to a head as a web of details across the series becomes apparent in the finale. I haven't quite reached the end of the show, but feel like I'm walking the threads of a similar web, just not yet sure what lies in the middle. However, I'm eager to find out.

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What I've Been Watching: Oct. 2019

Penny Dreadful, a Showtime series from a few years ago, featured Dr. Frankenstien, his monster(s), Werewolves, Dracula, Dorean Gray, and much more. What could be better for Halloween?

I started this series, available on Netflix, around 2016. But I was late to it. I think I started about the time the news broke that Season 3 was to be it's last. I gobbled up the first two seasons, then my enthusiasm faded. I don't know if it was just burnout from binging the first two seasons, or if knowing that series was all but over made me not want to jump into the final season. It can't end if I don't keep watching?

Whatever the case, I shelved the series, moved on to something else, and then two years slipped by. With my yearning for the eerie as October sets in, I finally returned to finish the series.

Altogether, I enjoyed Penny Dreadful. I am a bit hesitant when it comes to new spins on old material. I generally like to see something new, so the reimagining of Frankenstein, Dracula, and so on, into one intermingled web of a story is something on the surface I might turn my nose at, but this series does pull it off well and delves into new depths of character development for these familiar stories. It also creates a wonderfully dark atmosphere and a compelling mystery. Penny Dreadful structures all the intersecting story arcs around a character new character, at least to me, named Vanessa Ives, played by the always compelling Eva Green. I think this was a good move, as not to rely on the old monsters, but rather to flirt them in and out of Ms. Ives' story.

As for season three, it wrapped things up well enough and left viewers with a few things to think about later. But I felt it was a bit rushed and pushed a lot of plot points and fewer character scenes, which was a contrast to the first two seasons. I assume that the showrunners had planned another season or two in which to complete everyone's storylines. In fact, they introduced Dr. Jekyll in season three but never got around to a Mr. Hide. I suspect they made quite a few developmental sacrifices in order to seem to have a planned wrap up to end the season. At no surprise, that leaves viewers feeling a bit slighted and wishing for more.

Thus, I recommend this series for classic horror enthusiast but consider season three the necessary cap to a series, and while falling a bit short, is far better than no series finally at all.
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What I've Been Listening to: Oct. 2019

I was a little young when Nine Inch Nails burst onto the scene in the 90s. I became aware of them but not a fan. Through the years, as a student and a fan of Cinema, I appreciated several NIN music videos, many of which, frontman, Trent Reznor directed himself. Still, I'd never have considered myself a fan of their music. Then came Old Town Road.

If you're not familiar with the silly, record-setting, country rap cross over, from Lil' Nas X, that took the Billboard charts by storm this year, then you probably just don't know it was what you kept hearing at sports arenas, malls, wedding dances, et al.

My six-year-old son loved it, so I heard it a number of times, which I'm sure should be scored by the hundreds. What I didn't realize until recently, however, is that the song sampled from a 2008 Nine Inch Nails instrumental song, which was, in fact, from an entirely instrumental album called Ghosts I-IV. Curiosity got the better of me, so I went to check it out. And I liked it.

Ghosts I-IV might be a new go-to for me when I'm writing horror or darker material. It's hunting, which fits the name, it's often subtle, but not over the top when it does get a bit heavy in the sound. The music isn't competing with vocals, so it stays atmospheric. And that's just what it does, sets an amazing atmosphere of eerie and haunting music. If you're hosting a Halloween party, and want something a bit more grown-up than the Monster Mash and Thriller to loop on the stereo, look no further than Nine Inch Nails' Ghost I-IV. Plus, at almost two hours of run time (basically like four albums), you won't notice it circling back for quite a while.
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What I've Been Reading: Sept. 2019

Reading:
A bit of a throwback, but a short read and a solid, creepy choice to kick off one's Halloween lead-up: Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan.

The story was disjoint, following several different characters in a few different places and jumping time. I found the telling of the story similar to Bram Stoker's Dracula, drawing from several sources to compile one storyline. I enjoyed the book, and as is needed for such a disjoint presentation, all the parts came together in the end to a satisfying conclusion. The characters were interesting, though I'll note the characters we follow were not particularly diverse.

My only issue with the novel would be the clarity of characters. In fact, I was thoroughly confused by the last chapter, as to what character we had returned too, and I couldn't grasp the story climax without knowing. I read it twice and ended up having to go look up online which character was narrating the last chapter. What I found was the final chapter had three distinct sections, each with its own narrator, each a return to a previous character. With that knowledge, It all made sense.

I was satisfied with the end, and the copy I got of the story was many times removed from the story's original publication. I suspect, the story has aged to public domain, and I believe the publisher took some short cuts to get the story on fewer pages. Thus, I don't know if a better-formatted edition might not have left me confused on that last chapter. As a result, I don't feel right to rate the story lower because of this narrator confusion issue. You get the benefit of the doubt Mr. Machen, five stars.
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What I've been Watching: September 2019

Two noteworthy picks for this month:

First, I went and saw the new It: Chapter Two, and really enjoyed it. The movie was creepy, of course, had plenty of scary scenes, and was psychological with many of them, which is a plus. It's natural to compare the movie to the 1990 adaptation. As an author and a screenwriter, I have a nuanced opinion on remakes and adaptations. One of my chief rules for remakes is that the film has to deliver something new, not just something different. It has to say, "I'm taking this idea you already know and putting a slant on it that might surprise you, or at least has something new to say." A few months ago, I wrote about how another King based remake, Pet Sematary, failed at that. I don't think the new It adaptation, both parts of it, fell into the same trouble.

One way this film differs is simply in how epic movies can go these days with effects. The CGI, makeup, and just the sets themselves were all bigger and better. That isn't always a plus. Certainly, Hollywood is guilty of putting too much into CGI and effects and letting us down in plot and character development. But for a horror that wants to show you something terrifying, the effects capabilities of today, are a plus. I also think this is why they chose to put It out in two movies. King's book was quite long and in turn full of plot and character development.  Had this movie been made into one, even if it were a three-hour installment, and still had all the new visuals, the plot and characters would have suffered. Instead, they drew it out to preserve some of the depth, even when making way for the new spiffy effects.

That said, I found the best part of the film was the stellar cast. Sure, we don't have the unrivaled Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise, but aside from that, the talent is Allstar, and well worth a look.

Second, Stranger Things, Season 3.
Let me start by saying I felt like this season had a lot more action, but in turn, less to dwell on psychologically. I enjoyed it, but I would say it is was not as good as Season 1, but as good or better than Season 2. Some of the drawbacks: we didn't see anything too knew about this mega creature from the upsidedown. We already knew it was scary, now the fight with it was less mental and more physical. We've got some silly Russian stereotypes. (Spoiler) There are Russians involved now. They work as an added layer of trouble, but they are not 80's Russians, they're 80's movies stereotypical Russians. Nostalgia has always been a part of the series, but when we see cool 80's toys, shows, music, and clothes referred to in the story, it is not the same as the characters being 80's tropes. 80's cliches are around the characters but distanced from the story. However, with the Russian's in this season the cliches are intermixed in the story and it was distracting.

Some pluses, the characters, and several of their relationships advance. This season sees adult and youth relationships challenged. It also explores a bit about kids growing apart as friends as their interests change, and how they overcome that to help each other when lives are threatened. There were also some good old fashioned chase scenes and monster battles, unlike what we've seen so far.

This season also felt more contained than the two previous. The story was limited mostly to our world, and mainly to the small town. However, I had a feeling this season was a bit of a transition year too, setting up a more epic season 4 and as I was writing my critique, I saw a trailer for season 4 implying that it will spend significant time, if not primarily be set in the upside-down. Thus, I reserve listing that minus.

Altogether, it was a pretty good season, and if it does, in fact, bridge us into a thrilling season 4, and dare I say even a climactic season five. (Where I personally think the show should end.) I don't believe I'll look back on it as a letdown. Give it a watch.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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Revisit the Chilling - Angel Heart


Much like my culinary appetite, I find my appetite for stories sizable, but more noteworthy, to be heavily influenced by seasonal hallmarks.  Just as the 10th month of the year brings an insatiable taste for anything with a particular orange gourd as an ingredient, so to does October fortify my craving for creepy, sinister, and macabre tales. Naturally, it culminates on the 31st, before turning to the heartwarming, playful, and jolly stories that draw my fancy through the remaining holidays of the year.
With Halloween just days away, many dark, enticing tales cross my mind, but one that emerges as not only scary, but interesting to ponder is the film Angel Heart (1987). *  Though I’ve seen it multiple times, and years ago, it still stands as a complex story with themes and details worth revisiting and contemplating from time to time.
It stars a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke, to those familiar with the actor today, alongside Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet. Rourke portrays Harry Angel. On the surface he’s an easily identifiable, hardboiled private detective – struggling to pay his bills, chasing beautiful women, and bedding a few in order to pursue his latest investigation.  But that’s only where the character begins. The missing person case that falls into Angel’s lap takes him, and us, on a dangerous path of secrets, corruption, and murder. Besides putting Angel’s own life in jeopardy, the story leads to darker territory including voodoo, deathly fortune telling, and devil worship.
This alone is enough to distinguish the story from a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe case, and to push this film into the October-appropriate realm of Horror, but this is only the surface appeal of the film. Angel Heart goes further, and doubles the detective’s investigation, with all its peril, as also a voyage of self-discovery.  As Harry Angel must go to dark and sinister places, so to must he uncover dark and sinister truths about himself.
This elevates the story from entertaining to contemplative, and is the reason this film can not only give you a welcome Halloween chill, but also leave those of you who love a good story as much as I do, ruminating on its themes and psychological consequences for years to come - revisiting this meaty morsel whenever your appetite for the menacing and direful surfaces.

* Note this film was based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel (1978).  My familiarity lies with the film and my discussion is limited to it, though I’m sure the novel shares most of the film’s admirable qualities, as well as possesses many of its own. Perhaps appropriate for a future post...
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