Friday, October 28, 2016
All writers have influences. One does not decide to become a writer in a vacuum. Every one of us were so moved by other writers, so emotionally marked by their books and stories and movies and comic books and poetry, that we were compelled to write our own books and stories and movies and comic books and poetry. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was heavily influenced by Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories about C. Auguste Dupin inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. What inspired me to write Crawlers?
Monster movies. Okay, so it’s not Cervantes. But I assure you I was just as moved as Flaubert.
Crawlers was originally published by Cemetery Dance Publications for their Collectors Club as a hardcover novella limited to only 303 copies and it was my first homage to the monster movies I practically lived on growing up. The second was 'Nids, my salute to the big bug movies of the 1950s, which is currently available from Open Road Media. And I’m sure at some point I will write another. I still frequently revisit those old movies and am still inspired by them.
Many of those monster movies were set in small towns, often in the desert, the kind of town where most people know each other. The monsters were sometimes aliens from outer space, as in It Came from Outer Space, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Sometimes, they were the result of science gone wrong, as in The Fly or Tarantula, or the product of atomic testing, as in so many monster movies of the era from the destruction wreaked by Godzilla in Japan to the giant ants of Them! crawling out of the southern California desert. And sometimes, they were freaks of nature, like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the result of alien tampering as in Attack of the 50-foot Woman. Whatever their origin, one thing is certain—the 1950s had an abundant supply of them.
The flowers in Crawlers invite comparisons to 1962's apocalyptic sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, it bears no similiarity to that movie. However, it’s worth noting that the movie inspired a line in the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and that The Day of the Triffids was based on John Wyndham’s 1951 novel of the same of name, and it was the opening scene of that novel—in which the protagonist wakes in a hospital bed with his eyes bandaged—that inspired Alex Garland to write the 2002 movie 28 Days Later Monsters are begetting monsters all over the place.
In Crawlers, I wanted to use a monster of my own devising—as opposed to, say, the giant spiders of 'Nids, which had been done numerous times before—and set it in the kind of small town so familiar to those old movies. I decided to set it in the town of Mount Crag—the location of my novellas The Folks and The Folks 2: No Place Like Home, although it is otherwise unrelated to those books—because it is a somewhat isolated mountain town that lends itself well to such a story.
I have rewritten the ending of Crawlers. I explain my rather embarrassing reasons in the book’s introduction. The original ending is somewhat uncharacteristic of my work because it’s...well...happy. Yes, that’s right, I wrote a happy ending. Not just happy but treacly, an ending in which the sun quite literally breaks through the dark clouds. That in itself is not such a bad thing, but the ending...well, it was a bad thing, in my opinion, a logistical mess that urgently needed changing. If you’ve read the Cemetery Dance edition, this isn’t it, and things turn out differently.
I’m likely to pop a monster movie in the moviola any old time, but it’s at this time of year when I most frequently revisit the kind of movies that inspired Crawlers. It’s just not Halloween without some monsters or even some of their remakes, like The Blob from 1958 and from 1988, or 1951's The Thing or John Carpenter's horrifying 1982 remake, or The Spider from Bert I. Gordon, aka Mr. B.I.G., who specialized in giant monsters like The Amazing Colossal Man or the huge grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End.
When 1950s audiences were tossing their popcorn during monster movies, the subconscious fears were of more down-to-earth things like nuclear war and the communist threat. The movies were in black and white, as were their morals. Reviewing my monster movie homages has helped me to understand the kind of fiction I’m writing today. It addresses more current fears, both directly and indirectly, and reflects a more complex moral landscape. Paranoia has once again seized the country, the entire globe. Now, rather than communism, it is the mythical Illuminati that is the focus of a lot of fear. Now, instead of worrying about communist infiltration, many fear the activities at Bohemian Grove and the mysterious goals of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group. Much attention is being paid to shady and nefarious government activities of the past, like Project Paperclip and MK Ultra, and many wonder what the government might be up to right now, what kind of experiments it could be performing on us today, and whether we'll be around to learn about them two or three decades in the future. And then, of course, there are the usual terrors, chief among them the possibility of another devastating nuclear world war.
From decade to decade and generation to generation, many things change, but one remains the same: We are kept in a continuous state of ongoing fear and anxiety. Therefore, we look for relief, for escape.
I humbly offer Crawlers to serve your escapist needs. It can be purchased for Kindle at Amazon. Other outlets will be forthcoming.
Take some time to smell the flowers.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
I really don’t. I’ve found the most shocking thing about being a horror writer is how many people think I do simply because I’ve written novels about werewolves.
For the last two decades, I’ve been denouncing a book I wrote called In a Dark Place, which was initially published as “the story of a true haunting.” I’ve been denouncing it because the book and the two “demonologists” who "investigated" the "case," Ed and Lorraine Warren, were frauds. (I made all of those quotation marks in the air with my fingers.) I made every effort to make the book entertaining and scary and I encourage people to read it for that, but it's certainly not a "true story." (It has been reprinted without those claims at my insistence.) In the process of denouncing the book and the Warrens, I’ve also expressed my feelings about the entire paranormal industry, which are no different. And yet, people are still appalled to learn that I don’t believe in ghosts because I wrote a ghost story called The Loveliest Dead. Or that I don’t believe in vampires because I wrote about them in three novels.
Others seem to think that writers condone everything they write about. My father believed that if I wrote about violence, then I condoned it, and if I didn’t condone it, I wouldn’t write about it. Of course, my dad left school for good in the sixth grade. But that particular excuse is not always available.
I once approached a respected, well-educated horror writer for a blurb for one of my werewolf novels, both of which include brutal rapes committed by werewolves. She explained, quite haughtily, that she had heard my books depicted violence toward women and she could not endorse that. (I wonder what she would have thought had she actually read them. We'll never know.) This suggests to me that because I’ve depicted violence against women in my fiction, she believes that I condone violence against women. She gave me no reason to come to any other conclusion. Of course, it doesn’t matter what her reasoning was because I cannot take seriously anyone who judges books not by merit but by agenda — including books she hasn’t read.
Things like rape and other violent acts do exist, they do occur, they are part of life on planet earth. If fiction cannot reflect that, then it is useless and has no purpose. If art cannot hold a mirror up to the entire scope of the human experience, then it has no other reason to exist. And if you can’t endorse horror fiction that depicts violence toward women and only because it depicts violence toward women, what the hell are you doing in the genre?
For those who have not read my fiction, I have always made a great effort to portray violence of any kind, including rape, as horrifically as possible. I don’t want it to appear on the pages of my work as anything but what it is, one of the many horrible things we humans have been doing to each other for ages now and show no signs of stopping.
Rape is an act of violence, although I have seen it depicted in fiction as a kind of rough foreplay, which I personally find disgusting. That is not how I depict rape in my fiction. I do not, for the record, condone rape. I do not condone rape by werewolves. Nor do I condone rape by any other fictional, nonexistent creatures like vampires, lizard men, interdimensional monsters, or honest, decent human beings who are successful politicians — none of which I believe in, by the way.
We as a species seem to be having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between fiction and fact, fantasy and reality. I blame video games and binge-watching.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
“See anything you like, professor?” That’s what Frank Langella asked Laurence Olivier after running through the room naked.
He knew Bette Davis late in her life, when she was, he writes, “heading toward her grave resolutely maintaining the courage to be hated.”
Rex Harrison was a “son of a bitch.”
Upon their first meeting, Anthony Perkins asked him, “How big is your cock?”
In a TV version of The Mark of Zorro, Yvonne de Carlo played his mother in front of the cameras while treating him “like a pretty girl in the back seat of a convertible on a hot summer night” off camera.
These are some of the names dropped in Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Have Known Them, Frank Langella’s sexy, funny, bittersweet, and sometimes downright sad memoir of his decades as a stage and screen actor. Each of the sixty-five chapters in the book covers someone he knew or met or had some connection with, however briefly, someone who is no longer with us and can no longer protest or, worse, sue.
Langella happily confesses his own youthful narcissism in what is, however entertaining, a litany of narcissists, people firmly convinced that they are the center of the universe. While spending time with such people is rarely an agreeable experience for us civilians, Langella, having a typically inflated actor’s ego himself, is able to cut through all of that in most cases and show us the person within all that bluster and pomp.
This is not exactly a showbiz tell-all. Rather than giving us every sordid detail, Langella teases us with bits and pieces of his life, glimpses of past moments and experiences, and manages to leave us wanting more. Dishy without being mean, it’s a breezy book filled with familiar faces and names (to people old enough to recognize all the names, anyway) that makes for pleasant reading for anyone who enjoys books about show business. Best of all, unlike so many showbiz memoirs, it doesn’t leave us feeling like we need to take a shower with lye soap and a steel brush.
While I’m on the subject, I want to point out one of my favorite Frank Langella performances in a movie that never received much attention. In Starting Out in the Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton (which I have not read), Langella plays a formerly celebrated writer who has been forgotten by virtually everyone as he works on his final novel, which he has been writing for a decade. The story involves his relationship with his daughter (Lili Taylor) and a graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who tries to convince him to let her pick his brain for her Master’s thesis. Langella gives a quietly powerful performance in a movie that is just as quietly powerful. See it if you can.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
On Thursday, March 24, I logged onto the computer in the afternoon and the first thing I saw was a headline stating that Garry Shandling had died at the age of 66. I stared at it for several long seconds, then looked for any indication that it was satire, or some kind of marketing campaign, or something, anything but the truth.
No such luck.
The older I get and the more of my favorite funny people die, the more I understand just how much, and how deeply, I value them. I’m sure it’s a little out of proportion. When Johnny Carson died, I cried. George Carlin’s death was like losing a friend. When I learned that Joan Rivers had died, I wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. The news that Robin Williams had committed suicide darkened my mood for days, and it took some time before I could watch his recorded performances, whether in movies or on stage, without tearing up. On one level, I know it’s absurd. I knew none of these people, I’d never even met them. I really have no idea what kind of people they were in their personal lives. For all I knew, they hated dogs and cats, beat their kids, or drugged women so they could have sex with them while they were unconscious. But . . .
. . . every time I saw them, they made me happy. No matter what was going on in my life at the time, no matter how down I might have been, they made me drop my problems and laugh. The more life I live, the more I understand what an awesome, miraculous thing that is.
There is no way to control laughter. When we laugh, we surrender ourselves to feeling good, no matter how bad we might feel at the time. It’s an explosive thing, totally involuntary. You can try to fake it, and you might fool others with your artificial laughter. But you cannot fool yourself. Real laughter is an uncontrollable response to something that — somehow, almost magically — reaches inside of us and tickles us in some mysterious place, pushes internal buttons that cannot be ignored.
We all have internal buttons, and when we refer to someone pushing our buttons, we usually mean it in a bad way. Someone has made us angry or hurt us by pushing a button that elicits a negative response. I would guess that we all have more of those buttons than the ones that make us laugh. The laughter buttons are buried deep in our viscera. They’re much harder to find, especially as we get older. But when someone does find one (or more) and pushes it, we are rendered helpless and we surrender to that involuntary, explosive response, like a sneeze. Maybe sneezing is a bad analogy because it’s unlikely that someone can make us sneeze, but a genuine laugh is just as spontaneous and uncontrollable.
As far as I’m concerned, the people who can make me laugh are akin to wizards and witches, people with supernatural powers. They don’t know me, we’ve never met, and yet they are able to find that button buried deep inside me that makes me open my mouth and throw back my head and let loose. Think about it for a while. We take it for granted, but it is a truly amazing and mysterious thing.
I am in awe of anyone who can make me laugh, especially if it is a deliberate act performed by someone who has never met me, knows nothing about me or my life, and yet is capable of reaching inside me and finding and pushing that deeply hidden button.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young boy. I started writing as soon as I was capable of it, and most of what I wrote was horror, very dark and violent. I’ve written a great deal about what a salvation horror movies and fiction were to me when I was growing up because my childhood in a perpetually frightening apocalyptic religious cult, with the added threat of a physically and emotionally abusive father, kept me in a continuous state of terror. Scary movies and stories were not a genuine threat, I knew they weren’t real, but they could scare the hell out of me in a way that was fun and enjoyable and safe, and it was a release from the more real terrors I faced. I wrote horror as a natural response to that, as a cathartic release. It was a way of stabbing my middle finger in the air to all the fears that I lived with back then.
At the same time, I sought out comedy, anything that would make me laugh, whether it was Mad magazine or TV sitcoms. The funny people who brightened my childhood were Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Totie Fields, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett — don’t get me started, I could go on like this for hours because, my god, the list is endless. Even though I was an almost obsessive fan of horror and spent so much time watching and reading it and, in my own primitive and childish way, writing it, my secret desire was to be Rob Petrie when I grew up. For those not familiar with the name, that was the character played by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He was the head comedy writer on The Alan Brady Show and wrote comedy in an office — with a piano, no less! — with Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers (incidentally, Dawn and I have cats named Buddy and Sally), writing monologues and sketches for the show, with occasional visits from Mel Cooley, Alan’s son-in-law. That was my dream job. Hell, it still is, even though I’ve since learned that a room full of working TV writers bears no resemblance to that today. And it probably didn’t then. I mean, it’s TV, so everything is softened, watered down. Alan Brady never held Buddy Sorrell out of a window in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, high over Michigan Avenue, as Sid Caesar once did to Mel Brooks.
It was The Dick Van Dyke Show that made me start noticing the names in the credits — written by, created by. Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, writer of 54 of the 158 episodes, and the man who played Alan Brady, was an early writing idol of mine, as were Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who co-created and sometimes wrote Get Smart, along with Neil Simon, who wrote The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite and The Star-Spangled Girl and The Out of Towners and other things that made me laugh, along with so many other practitioners of what was, to me, an amazing and mysterious art. I wanted to be them, too, when I grew up. Or maybe I just wanted to be Jewish, I don’t know. As a child, I was mystified by how they managed to get such an uncontrollable response from me as laughter. Like I said, they were wizards.
How did they do it? What kind of secret knowledge did they possess? What they did seemed so impossibly far above me that I would never be able to reach it, like writing music or having a baby. I knew what was scary and had some confidence that I could work within that, but the ability to create laughter out of thin air — that seemed like magic. Like sawing a woman in half or making doves appear out of nowhere. Of course, I soon learned that those things were merely manufactured illusion. But generating laughter? That is some real, genuine, unfakeable magic.
The pros make it look effortless. A comedian walks onto the stage, goes to the microphone, and starts talking to us in a way that makes us laugh and makes us believe that those words are spontaneous, those movements and gestures and that body language are natural and unrehearsed. A stand-up comedian is an actor, and as with all actors, the really talented ones convince you that they’re not acting, they’re just standing there, talking to you, and being funny. But first, a stand-up comedian is a writer. The entire performance on the stage is first written. That’s a damned juggling act, and I am in awe of those who do it well.
When I write, I do it alone in my office, and when I’m done with the story or book, I deliver it to its destination, and move on to the next, which I also write alone in my office. The worst thing that can happen to me as a writer is having to write a synopsis of a book, whether it’s one I haven’t written yet or one I have, it doesn’t matter. I complain about this bitterly at every opportunity. A stand-up comedian, on the other hand, then has to test the written material on stage in front of a group of strangers at various levels of inebriation. What a terrifying thought! The response is immediate — laughter or silence, possibly heckling. (If you’re a novelist, now that I’ve made you consider that for a moment and imagine yourself having to do that with your work, you’re probably going to have nightmares about it.)
What I’m trying to say is that we tend to take comedians for granted and enjoy their work without ever giving any thought to precisely what it is they do while standing at that microphone. It’s astonishing how much they have to master to convince us that they’re just telling us some funny stories and observations in a conversational way that happens to bend us over laughing.
When they leave us, people who have that talent and go to all that work to make us laugh always leave behind a painful silence once filled with laughter. In the last five years, we have lost some spectacular talent in comedy. People like Patrice O’Neal, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, David Brenner, John Pinette, Rick Mayall, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Jan Hooks, Taylor Negron, Mike Nichols, Reynaldo Rey, Rick Ducommun, Stan Freberg, Anne Meara, Jack Carter. Garry Shandling is the latest, and unfortunately he will not be the last. But like all of those other people, Shandling made us laugh in his own unique way. Other comedians do impressions of his distinctive voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms, as they do of other legendary comedians from Jack Benny on, and they will be doing Shandling impressions for a long, long time to come, but they are only impressions. They cannot not push our buttons in the way that only Garry Shandling could because they are not Garry Shandling. No one is Garry Shandling. Now, not even Garry Shandling is Garry Shandling. He’s been cancelled.
But we still have the reruns.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Mt. Shasta is many things to many people. In its mystical slopes, some people see a sleeping woman, others a sleeping Indian, and still others an Indian princess. I see horror fiction.
It is a beautiful sight, with a lovely, small town at its foot bearing the mountain’s name. The drive alone — from my house, it’s 45 minutes on I-5 — is breathtaking as it winds past dark forests and craggy, gray peaks. If it weren’t for all the traffic, you’d swear you were in Middle Earth. I have returned to Mt. Shasta many times over the years. In 1987, I attended the Harmonic Convergence there, a New Age fair of channels, psychics, healers, drum circles, and vendors selling just about every woo-woo goo-gaw you can think of and some that never occurred to you. Dawn and I have stayed at the nearby Dunsmuir Railroad Park Resort on a few occasions, and we enjoy visiting the town of Mt. Shasta. But I’ve returned to Mt. Shasta a few times in my fiction, as well.
My novel Dark Channel was the first story I set there, inspired by a combination of my visit to the Harmonic Convergence and popular channel J.Z. Knight. In The Loveliest Dead, psychic Lily Rourke owned a New Age book store called the Crystal Well. The area has shown up in disguise, as well. In The Folks (1 and 2, both of which will be available later this year), Pinecrest and Mt. Crag are pseudonyms for the Mt. Shasta area. My novella Vortex returns to Mt. Shasta, and it takes Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph with it.
Moffett and Keoph first appeared in Night Life, the sequel to Live Girls. Martin Burgess, a wildly successful horror novelist, has an insatiable curiosity about the paranormal. He wants to know if the stuff he writes about — ghosts, vampires, werewolves — really exist, and he has a small army of computer geeks and conspiracy theorists seeking out bizarre incidents and esoteric activity for him. When they inform him of the possibility that vampires are active in Los Angeles, he searches for the right private investigators to hire for the job. After deciding on Karen Moffett of Los Angeles and Gavin Keoph of San Francisco, he hires them and send them in search of vampires. In Bestial, the sequel to Ravenous, Burgess hires them again to look into the possibility of werewolves in the northern California coastal town of Big Rock.
I wanted to do more with Moffett and Keoph, but instead of having them show up in a sequel to investigate vampires or werewolves, I wanted to do something completely different with them. I decided to have Burgess send them to Mt. Shasta and see what would happen. I didn’t have many specifics in mind when I started VORTEX, but the novella has opened a lot of possibilities.
In Mt. Shasta, the investigators meet Penny Jarvis, a young woman with some extraordinary abilities who comes from a secret, government-run school called Aquino Academy, where all of the students have extraordinary abilities. The first thing I wanted to do after finishing Vortex was to start on a novel about Penny and Aquino Academy. I was committed to do other things, though, and had to set that idea aside. But the academy is a fertile subject and I would like to do that sometime soon. I’m not sure how, but Moffett and Keoph would be involved, as would the new nemesis they encounter in Vortex when a creature named Pyk comes out of —
Whoa. I’m getting carried away. I don’t want to spoil the story for you. My point is that Vortex is going to be a new jumping-off point for Moffett and Keoph. In it, the possibility of a relationship between the two investigators is introduced, and I will be pursuing that in future stories, as well.
But for now, I will shut up and leave you to read Vortex. At the moment, it is available for Kindle, but other formats and a paperback edition are coming very soon. If you enjoy Vortex, I hope you'll post a review and spread the word.
Go with Moffett and Keoph to Mt. Shasta. Enjoy the scenic beauty. Have a bite to eat. But don’t let your guard down. Something has come out of the mountain . . . and it’s hungry.