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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 2020

Lovecraft Country is one of few series I can think of, which I've followed through weekly releases in the last five or six years. Usually, in this on-demand age, I tend to dig in when a series is available to plow through a few episodes at a time. With Lovecraft Country, I'd been anticipating the series for a while, and with it slated to wrap up so close to Halloween, I didn't want to wait and end up finishing the series with my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to sit on the edge of your seat through an episode, only to have it end, and realize you'll have to wait a whole week to find out what happens next. It's excruciating and wonderful, and Lovecraft Country masterfully carried suspense through every installment.

The show sits squarely at the crossroads of fantastic, supernatural horror, and grounded realistic human horror by blending the Lovecraftian paranormal with US 1960's racial terror. In one scene, we find black characters being chased from a rural town by a mob of armed white supremacists, including the local authorities. In another scene, we get characters being chased by 100-eyed devil dog monsters. We see character flashbacks to the Tulsa Massacre, intertwined with future human time travel and braided with secret-society witchcraft. Without watching, one might think the series draws from far too much, yet it all weaves together seamlessly.

Not to mention, the series has a fantastic cast, captivating character development, and incredible production value through all the monsters, period settings, and fantasy. I don't think I can say much more than; I loved this series.

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What I've Been Reading: Sept 2020

 

Devolution - Max Brooks


I'm a fan of World War Z. I thought the epistolary story structure was exciting and a refreshing take for the zombie subgenre. I also appreciated that it was more of a collection of social case studies rather than frantic horror. In Devolution, Max Brooks turns his eye to sasquatch or bigfoot. Still, the book has a similar structure as WWZ, telling the story through the protagonist's journal entries, supplemented by interviews with her brother, park rangers, etc. 


At first, I thought the story was a bit slow getting off the ground. Unlike WWZ, this is much more focused on a single protagonist, so we spend a lot of time getting to know her. In another story, we might have gotten to the action sooner and picked up more character depth along the way. However, in this structure, where we're reading from her journal, those get-to-know-you details are front-loaded. We have her entries before stuff goes wrong, and after. In the former, we learn of her everyday life problems, getting all the mundane out of the way early. It also serves the story that she is a pretty regular person, not some exceptional character. With this style of structure and this type of character, it had to be this way. 


That said, while it was slow early, it all paid off. Once the story gets going, and we aren't learning about the character, the action takes the driver seat and runs away. Having gotten to know her early, we delve deep into how the story's events change her drastically.


Best of all, like WWZ, there is an underlying theme that has nothing to do with the fantastic, like zombies or bigfoots, but rather is an indictment of real-life and society. Perhaps, here we see how dependent most of us are on our network of goods and technology. When they fail, we're far from prepared, and many lack the resourcefulness to get by. 


I would have loved this book and theme no matter what; however, given the recent and ongoing supply chain difficulties from the COVID pandemic, the book hits close to home. There are also a few theme elements I've turned an eye to in a couple of sci-fi shorts of my own. So I felt a bit of unity while reading. 


Suffice it to say, I think this book is well worth the read, and I'll be eagerly awaiting whatever Max Brooks has up his sleeve next.

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What I've Been Watching: February 2020

I read Stephen King's The Outsider about a year ago, which HBO adapted into a miniseries. The show began in January and recently aired its 10th and final episode (I'm assuming). Thus, I gave it a watch.

Let me start with a look back on the book. I enjoyed quite a bit about it. The story had a lot of cool and fascinating, dark ideas. But there was something I didn't at the time quite put my finger on that I think detracted from it. Ultimately, I have the book four stars. Now that I've seen the TV adaptation, I think I've sorted it out.

But let me mention some high lights. First, the mood in the series was spot on. I was attracted to the talent involved. I like Jason Bateman, who played a key role and directed a couple of episodes. The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Cynthia Erivo. I also found the adaptation to have a lot of fidelity to the book. There were some superficial changes. The adaptation took place in Georgia while the book was set in Oklahoma. (I'm sure production incentives are responsible for that,) There were also a few secondary characters altered. One secondary character had a mother in the book with a tiny part, which they shifted to a brother in the adaptation. I don't consider fidelity necessarily a defining point of quality in an adaptation, mostly I feel that the changes are valid so long as they bring something new. Still, in this case, where the changes are small and mostly insignificant, it can be a positive. At least they didn't change something radically and not deliver added value with the change. Altogether, I'd say its a good adaptation and an entertaining watch.

But here's the trouble, I think this story, both book, and adaptation, fail in two key points—first, the suspension of disbelief. When you tell a story, if you are going to have magic or creatures, or anything supernatural, you have to control the suspension of disbelief for the audience. If you don't, you can give them a shock that kills that story, a surprise that is too out of left-field to swallow. If magic is going to play a part in your story, you can't introduce it in the last act; it's off-putting. You have to suggest that possibility at least early in the story. Imagine reading a mystery, something like a police procedural, trying to figure out who killed so and so, only to have a new character show up in the last 20 pages, who ends up being guilty. You'd be angry that you never heard of the character. It's the same with the supernatural. In The Outsider, there is a supernatural element in the story, but it starts as a murder mystery from the POV of the detective trying to close the case. It doesn't really give us a peek at the supernatural element for a while. It's not so bad as to not appear until the last act, but probably not until a quarter of the way into the story, and I think it still manages to be problematic.


Second, one of the book's strengths is in character development. We get to know the lives of something in the range of a dozen characters who are either the people hunting the bad guy or a few who are his victims. But this proves to be a weakness as well, because the antagonist, the bad guy, who is essentially a boogie man, is almost completely undeveloped. By contrast, this, too, is awkward. He's not a creature who we might think of as animalistic. He posses as and acts like a regular person, and thus we can presume he has human intellect at the least. Yet, about the only motive we're given for his terrible acts is that he's hungry. We know he's capable of really horrific acts, but have no real understanding of why he's ok with doing them. Thus the character falls flat, and it's hard to endure through a long book or 10 hours of a tv series.

In short, the adaptation captures the novel well, but in turn shares the books weaknesses.
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What I've Been Watching: Jan. 2020

I haven't read Joe Hill's NOS4A2, but I'd heard of it and saw AMC adapted it for a series, so I gave it a whirl. It stars Ashleigh Cummings as Vic McQueen, a troubled teenager just discovering she has extraordinary powers. The series also features Zachary Quinto, of Heros and Star Trek 2009 fame, as Charlie Manx, the antagonist in the story. He is not a vampire as we usually see one, but the NOS4A2 moniker seems to label him. I didn't know what to expect going in, except for something vampire-related, which I feared might be unoriginal and tiresome. I was pleased with what I found.

Let's start with the vampire aspect. While the story alludes to a creature that lives off of others, the similarity of that with the larger canon of vampires are fairly few. Hill takes the core nature of vampire mythology, then re-imagines it in a different sort of character, with a quite different way of behaving. And none of the typical rules we are used to. Then, to go a step further, Hill makes his Nosforatu one of many extraordinary people, each with different powers, limitations, and goals. I found that fascinating, as it made the vampire-like qualities of Charlie Manx, more a result of his power and his personality, rather than just the rules he was forced into when turned into a vamp. Other people have different powers and different personalities, and thus end up vastly different characters.

I found the show to be well-acted. Cummings is convincing as Vic McQueen, and both actors portraying the parents in her dysfunctional family are fantastic. The family troubles at the root of Vic's character are palpable and honest. My one criticism here is that the story seems to remind us of Vic's problems over and over again. Sort of like a soap opera, where they won't let you forget the root drama, even if you miss an episode or two. I wonder if this is a result of coming from one book, into a multipart story, and not having quite enough plot points in Vic's personal troubles, to hit a new one in each episode, thus they have to resort to kind of replaying a few. Anyway, its a weakness, but a surmountable one, and certainly not a fault big enough to keep me from returning to the series when it comes back for season 2.
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What I've Been Reading: Oct 2019

After Finishing Penny Dreadful (see my Watching for this month) and after years of being familiar with the Dorean Gray character but not having read it, I finally decided to get a copy of the Oscar Wilde novel. I'm not quite through it, so I'll share my thoughts on this classic next time. Until then...

It's not horror or connected to Halloween, but Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries #3, Rogue Protocol, spilled over into the month. I like the series. They're all novella-length, science fiction books. The first, All Systems Red, introduced the murderbot protagonist, a snarky security/battle android. Book one showed what he could do, then book two got more into the character internally. While book two created depth, which readers should want for a multi-book protagonist, the character's demeanor began to grate on me.

One can only listen to cynism and pessimism for so long. I was glad the book was short. The outward story was enough to keep my attention, and still interested enough for me to pick up the third in the series after a few months to clear my head. I'm glad I did.

Rogue Protocol, of course, had Ren's (we're calling the Murder Bot Ren by this point) cynical criticism of humans, but it eased back on how much of that we get in favor of more action, as well as introducing another android which truly admired humans, and considered them friends. This was a great juxtaposition that makes Ren's pessimism more palatable, and maybe even teaches him a lesson or two. This installment picked up the pace for me, and I liked it. It also delved deeper into the circumstances of Ren's existence, the past he can't remember, answered a few questions, and posed more to pull readers into the 4th Novella, which I'll be picking up as well.
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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 Listening to: May 2019

This is one that totally came from catching my eye on iTunes. Billie Eilish wasn't on my radar before her new album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, came out a little over a month ago. I have an eclectic taste, but the pop and club influences I can detect in Eilish's music don't usually draw my attention. However, the haunting quality of Eilish's musical sound, voice, and lyrics are all captivating.

Her music gives me more the feeling of a horror movie soundtrack than a dance club, but her lyrics and themes go quite a bit further than horror background music. They have a life of their own. Since my writing encompasses horror, as well as darker sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, Eilish's music is right at home in my office filling the room with an eerie mood as I crank away on a particularly dark story. I'm sure I'll return to Eilish again when I'm in need of such a musical muse.
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What I've Been Reading: March 2019

I recently finished Stephen King's 2018 release, The Outsider. I've got a few King books on the shelf, but I don't consider myself a superfan. I'm a casual fan, with the Dark Tower series being my favorite of his work, though as an author who writes horror he would obviously be a difficult author to ignore.

In this case, my main reason for picking up this title was a suspicion that the story idea might overlap with a story of my own, which I'm interested in developing in the near future. I like to look around and be sure I'm not inadvertently rehashing old ideas, or too similar to another work before I get deep into development. As it turns out, I was pretty far off base with The Outsider, and that is no criticism of the book. It simply didn't resemble my new idea in the slightest. It goes to show how inadequate a back cover blurb can be in conveying the theme of a book.

Now, as for the book, I found it to be an entertaining read. The story had flares of older King works, such as a villain which brings two other King antagonists to mind, first, It, and second the laughter consuming creature from the Dark Tower series (which also reminded me of It.) So in a way, King dips into one of his most trusted wells for a third time (at least) for this one, but it is satisfyingly creepy. There were many other direct and suggested nods to other works in the King canon which devout fans will appreciate.

There were details loaded into the story which I would best describe as criticism of our current US president, of whom Mr. King has been an outspoken critic. However, this criticism seems mostly background detail, window dressing if you will, and is only lightly present, though I'd rather have seen the societal faults the author sees have a more direct impact on the events of the plot.

That aside, one aspect I loved was that an early decision from the story's protagonist, police detective Ralph Anderson, which he felt was justified under overwhelming evidence and in reaction to a heinous crime, turns out to create a cascade of tragedy. There is a murderer in this book, so people die at the killer's hands. People die in pursuit of the killer. But people also die in the fallout of how Detective Anderson handles the case, and I believe that element achieves the highest body count. To me, this was an interesting notion, a practical aspect of an otherwise fantastic plot, and the most original and compelling piece of the story.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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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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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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