Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Conjuring: good, but not great



It was with high expectations that I went to see James Wan’s new horror film, The Conjuring, at the cinema last week.

There were two factors that contributed to my expectations: First of all, I was moderately impressed with Wan’s 2010 offering, Insidious. This was a story of haunting and demonic possession. While not a movie that changed my life, Insidious was well done and modestly spooky. There were a few creepy moments that lingered with me long after the end of the film.

But nothing contributed to my expectations like the advanced publicity surrounding The Conjuring itself. I must confess that I—usually cynical to the core—was a bit taken in by all the hype. Advance reviewers across the Internet promised that The Conjuring would be “the scariest movie since The Exorcist!” In a market that is currently dominated by repetitive slasher flicks and inane comic-horror clunkers like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, this was enticing news indeed. I decided that I would have to see The Conjuring.

As a bit of background information, The Conjuring is loosely based (and I use that term—pun intended—loosely) on events that purportedly occurred in New England in the early 1970s. The film’s two main characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life ghost hunters. Moreover, Ed Warren (d. 2006) was the only non-ordained demonologist to be recognized by the Catholic Church.

Here is the basic setup: A family moves into an old house where horrific and evil events took place in the past. They begin to experience phenomena. At first they try to explain the strange occurrences away. Finally they conclude that yes, they are victims of supernatural forces. Feeling overwhelmed, they call in expert help.

You’ve seen versions of this plot dozens of times, of course. And this is what gives The Conjuring a certain feeling of familiarity. You feel like you’ve been there before, because you probably have. There were scenes in this movie that seemed like they were directly clipped from the much-ignored 1982 film Amityville II: The Possession. Viewers who have seen Wan’s earlier movie, Insidious, will also experience occasional moments of déjà vu.

The film’s climactic scene involves demonic possession. Wan pulls this off skillfully, for the most part. However, this scene lacks the punch of similar scenes in The Exorcist. The 1973 classic struck a psychological chord that hasn't been equaled since, not by James Wan—not by anyone.

Wan’s depiction of demonic possession is technically competent, but artistically bland. Once again, I was reminded of Amityville II: The Possession. (If you haven’t seen that 80s-era movie, rent it from Red Box or catch it on NetFlix; you’ll see what I mean.) The acting was good, the pacing was on-target; but no—I wasn't scared. Nor was I able to fully suspend my disbelief—something that I was able to do when I watched The Exorcist.  

So those are the downsides; but what about the upsides? While The Conjuring (as you have probably gathered by now) did not meet my elevated expectations, it did contain a few genuine chills. The movie opens in 1968, as the Warrens are conducting a counseling session with two young women who have happened upon a demonically possessed doll. This opening scene was arguably the creepiest one of the entire movie.

There were a few other scenes in The Conjuring that will float into your consciousness on those nights when you happen to find yourself awake at 2:00 a.m. The main supernatural force in The Conjuring is the vengeful spirit of a witch who hung herself in the mid-1800s. The old woman is made up to be delightfully hideous, and Wan makes her appear at unexpected moments, with satisfying results.

In summary: The Conjuring was not the twenty-first century’s answer to The Exorcist. It didn't really break any new ground, nor is it likely to keep you awake at night for weeks—unless this is your first horror movie.

However, The Conjuring does represent a much-needed shift in direction: toward the serious, thoughtful horror movie. Keep in mind, The Conjuring is in competition with unabashedly silly horror films like World War Z. James Wan deserves credit for giving the market a horror movie that isn’t based on a lame laugh track (something that is fundamentally inappropriate in a horror film) or the simple gross out (the lowest common denominator of the genre).  

I can’t quite give Wan five out of five stars, but I have to give him at least three or four. While not a brilliant film, by any means, The Conjuring far outshines its contemporary peers.   

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Why you should read the unabridged versions of classic literary works

If you plan to read The Count of Monte Cristo or War and Peace, please don't go for one of those wimpy abridged versions. Here's why...


Thursday, July 11, 2013

A logical indy/legacy bifurcation of the publishing industry?


A New York Times article about the last consolidation in the publishing industry (Penguin + Random House) suggests a bifurcation in the publishing industry: henceforth, the so-called “legacy publishers” will dominate the field of research-heavy nonfiction, while independent publishers (i. e., self-publishers) will continue to make strides in the realm of popular fiction.

“Among the imprints that survive, the tendency is to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers. 
“Legacy” publishing does best in the first category: it commands the advances needed for research, the editing talent to shape the writing and the marketing muscle to distribute those doorstop biographies on Father’s Day.  
In the more commercial genres — romance, horror, “Fifty Shades” — writers are beginning to find success in self-publishing. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because often it involves an agent who packages a book with any number of freelance editors and marketers, many of them refugees from the ever-shrinking houses. (Amazon’s publishing platform, which runs on more of a packaging model, has made inroads into these genres.)”

This makes sense to me both as a reader and writer. I read a lot of those “doorstop biographies” that are mentioned in the New York Times article. That sort of book really can be done better by a legacy publisher, in most cases. As the above article notes, it takes a good deal of upfront money to produce a 1,000-page biography of George Washington, or a 900-page reference work on the Second World War.

Moreover, this type of book isn't well-suited to the Amazon Kindle. When I buy a book like this, I typically want to read it in print. I want to be able to move easily between pages to review what I have previously read. I want to have instant access to all the maps and illustrations that are typically placed in the center of the book.

On the other hand, the functional roles formerly filled by legacy publishers in the realm of fiction are being increasingly met by a vast network of freelance editors, illustrators, and the like. This now makes it possible to produce a quality work of fiction as an independent publisher, especially if one is writing for the Amazon Kindle.

I have never viewed the “legacy publisher versus independent publisher” debate as an either-or battle of absolutes. Both have their specific niches. This will, I think, become ever clearer moving forward.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Classic fiction I plan to reread soon...

It is often said that "youth is wasted on the young". 

In my case, at least, my high school English literature classes were wasted on my youthful self. 

During my junior year of high school, I'd discovered Stephen King, and I wanted to read almost nothing else. As a result, I generally failed to appreciate some of those assigned novels. 

About the only "classic" author I consistently liked that year was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's writing has a universal appeal for young people. Even though his stories are set in the "Jazz Age" (which was already sixty years in the past even during my teenage years) his works resonated with me.

I don't think I was alone here in regard to my general disdain for the classics. Young readers failing to appreciate the classics is one of the oldest stories in the world. 

But it's never too late to appreciate an old book. And when you haven't read it since 1985 or 1986, it's almost like reading a new book. 

Here are some of the "old books" that I have recently reread or plan to reread in the near future:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (I read this in the summer of 1985.)
  • Nineteen eight-four by George Orwell (I did a book report on this in the year 1984, as it happens. And yes, I congratulated myself at the time for my sense of irony and timeliness. I reread 1984 about three years ago. I liked the book much better the second time around. I came to this more recent reading with a knowledge of history and politics that I did not have back in the year 1984, as a 16-year-old.)
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (This one is a lot easier to appreciate a middle-aged adult, by the way.)
  • Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway (This was on my school-assigned summer reading list for 1984.)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas 
  • Native Son by Richard Wright (This was one of the few assigned summer reading list books that I actually enjoyed as a teenager. I recall the basic elements of the plot; but enough time has passed that I would enjoy rereading it.)

Are any high school/college-era classics on your "to read" list for the summer?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

You can learn a lot from Clive Cussler...

A reader recently asked me what I think of Clive Cussler, who is best known as the author of the Dirk Pitt novels.

My short answer: I like him a lot. This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't strong points and weak points in his fiction. (And this is true of every author under the sun, by the way.)

So in the video below, I provide a brief analysis of Cussler's work from the dual perspective of an author/reader.



Strong points:


  • Fast-moving plots
  • High entertainment value
  • Predictable themes and conflicts. (This is actually a strong point for many readers, who don't want to be surprised by a writer taking off in a new direction every book.)



Weak points:


  • Character development is shallow (especially female characters)
  • Plot lines are somewhat repetitious (I explain in the video) 






Get the short story "The Caliphate" free on Kindle from 7/5 through 7/9




"The Caliphate" is one of the stories in my collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.







Description (from Amazon.com): 

"When a terrorist organization stages a bloody takeover of a Canadian city, two friends are forced to confront their innermost demons---and each other."



The opening paragraphs of... 



"The Caliphate"



Marty Frazier stopped to adjust the shoulder strap of his Uzi before heading down the long, gleaming expanse of Concourse A. Although he had been in the Ontario Islamic Guard for more than eighteen months now, he found that he was still uncomfortable with weapons—especially the automatic and semiautomatic kinds. He took a few steps forward before stopping once more—no doubt looking awkward by now—and double-checked the gun’s safety. The terminal was packed with what passed for Monday morning congestion these days, and Marty was taking no chances.


The sight of young men with guns had become commonplace over the past three years, and most of the passersby in Toronto International Airport didn’t even give him a second glance. Nonetheless, he kept deliberately to the side of the concourse, beyond the main flow of pedestrian traffic. Despite the authority that his gun and his uniform conveyed, he was almost shy about displaying either. Especially the gun.
So far he had never had an occasion to draw the weapon in a threatening manner, and that was just fine with him.

He spotted Phil Scherer in the distance through the crowd, walking in the opposite direction on the far side of the concourse. Marty held his hand high in the air and waved. Phil acknowledged the wave with a nod, and veered toward him. Phil was also wearing a Guard uniform, and carrying an automatic weapon of his own. People stepped aside to give him a wide berth as he threaded his way through the crowd.

Marty leaned casually against the wall and waited. The airport loudspeaker crackled overhead. It was the midmorning call to prayer, which most Ontario residents still ignored. What else did Harb expect? The announcements were in Arabic after all, which almost no one in the Canadian province understood. Just the other day Ali had asked his opinion about reading the announcements in English. Marty had replied that English-language summons to prayer were an excellent idea.

Marty smiled as Phil drew near, but Phil’s gloomy expression was unwavering.

“Anything going on?” Marty asked.

“Nope. A quiet one today. What about you?”

“Nothing so far.”

“If we’re lucky it’ll stay that way.”

“You said it. Insha Allah.”

Phil stiffened and glared at him. Marty immediately realized that his last two words had been a mistake. He began to say more, but Phil cut him off with a wave of his hand. He stepped closer, until the two of them stood no more than a foot apart.

“Don’t quote the Quran at me.” Phil spoke in a low, raspy voice, just above a whisper. “We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we? After all, it’s not like Ali’s here.”

Marty was taken aback. He and Phil had been friends at the university. In fact, Phil had acquired his position in the Ontario Islamic Guard through Marty’s connections.

Moreover, Marty was Phil’s squad leader. He could technically write him up for insubordination, if he wanted to.

But that wasn’t Marty’s style—especially not with a friend. “It’s not exactly the Quran,” Marty explained. “Insha Allah just means, ‘God willing.’ That’s all.”

“I don’t care what it means.”  Phil looked over his shoulder, making sure that no one was standing within earshot. “Look, let’s just drop it, okay?
You know I don’t like to talk their line when it isn’t absolutely necessary.”

“Fair enough.” Marty did not want to argue. “But speaking of Ali, he wants to have a meeting with us at one-thirty this afternoon. In the office downstairs. Room 115. That’s why I called you over.”

“What’s it about?”

Marty shrugged. “Beats me.”

Phil hesitated. “All right,” he finally said. “I’ll be there, I guess.”

Now that was an interesting way to respond to an order from Ali. Marty raised his eyebrows at Phil as if to say, It’s not like it’s optional.

Marty was eager to let Phil go on his way. Although they were still friends, there was a certain quality about Phil that sometimes made him uncomfortable. Since Phil had joined the Ontario Islamic Guard, Marty had detected a growing ripple of barely restrained rage just below the other young man’s surface. He didn’t believe that Phil would ever turn on him, but he wasn’t eager to put this belief to the test.

“Well, Phil, I’ll see you at 1:30 downstairs.”

“I’ll see you then.” The muscles in Phil’s throat were visibly tense. “Bye.”

“Bye.”

Marty watched Phil walk away until he became lost in the flow of people. He shook his head and pulled two coins from his pants pocket.

Good old inscrutable Phil. He had to play the tough guy routine to the last, didn’t he? Phil was an ex-high school wrestling champ who could seemingly bluff any guy who challenged him, or—for that matter—charm any girl he wanted.

Well, that might have been important before. But it didn’t mean a thing in the Islamic Republic of Ontario. Did Phil even realize this?

There was a little kiosk in the center of the concourse that sold reasonably drinkable coffee. There had been no fresh Starbuck’s in
Ontario for two and a half years, and Marty really liked Starbucks. But vendors were still able to get their hands on the canned stuff, like Folgers and Maxwell House.

The woman working at the kiosk was middle-aged, with red hair and a light Irish complexion. Marty noticed that she looked horribly awkward and uncomfortable in her chador—a long, bulky black garment that covered a woman from head to toe. Only her hands and face were exposed. Ali had told Marty that the officially sanctioned public attire for
Ontario women was modeled on the Iranian garb.   

She kept pushing the chador’s head covering back, exposing locks of red hair. She obviously saw Marty’s Guard uniform, so she didn’t dare voice a complaint; but when she fiddled with the head covering, there was something in her eyes that made him think of Phil.

“May God bless the Prophet,” she said, as she handed over the coffee.

Marty smiled and nodded. “May his name be praised, and may the blessings of Allah be upon you.” The woman nodded and became suddenly interested in rearranging the change in the cash register’s coin tray.

Marty sat down on a nearby bench to drink his coffee, exercising caution so as to avoid any accidental body contact with the Uzi. This coffee was better than usual; definitely not Starbucks, but almost as good.

His thoughts returned to Phil. His relations with his friend were likely to get worse before they got better. Marty had not been completely honest with Phil. He did have an idea of the purpose behind the meeting with Ali—and Phil was sure to loath this afternoon’s mission.

It had to be the Donovans again. He and Phil would likely be asked to deal with this local couple who persisted in preaching Christianity—despite clearly promulgated laws against such activities.

Why did people insist on pushing the Islamists so far? The affair might well end in violence. In fact, it almost certainly would. Marty would try to avoid bloodshed; but desperate times sometimes called for desperate measures. And no one could deny that they were living in desperate times.

A new mural dominated the wall opposite Marty. It was an unintentionally cartoonish depiction of a hooded Islamic warrior raising a sword over a cowering Uncle Sam, and a figure that appeared to be a medieval Christian crusader. “Defeat the infidels and preserve the Islamic Revolution of North America!” the caption below the painting read.

Yes, Marty thought. It appeared that he and Phil were going to have to do something just like that this afternoon....  

(End of excerpt)





Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hay Moon and Other Stories excerpts: "Hay Moon"

I am going to do a series of blog posts to introduce each story in, Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.





Some of these stories can be purchased individually from Amazon. Or you can get them all in the single book.

For this post, we'll look at the title story, "Hay Moon"


Description: 


In the summer of 1932, the undead invaded a corner of rural Ohio. Nearly eight decades later, one man still lives with the nightmares, and a horrible promise left unfulfilled.


Hay Moon





“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?”

It is odd how an innocent question like that can bring back such horrible memories; and even odder in this case, since the question came from none other than Lisa, my little great granddaughter.

Today is Halloween, and Lisa’s mother, Emily, brought her over to visit her sole surviving great grandparent before an evening of trick-or-treating. Lisa was wearing one of those plastic Halloween costumes that parents nowadays buy for their kids at Wal-Mart or Target. This particular one looked like a cartoon ghost character that I have seen on television over the years.

“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?” Lisa was standing in my living room, unable to contain her self-delight over her Halloween disguise. She was holding a trick-or-treat bag that bore the image of a typical Halloween cliché: a witch flying on a broomstick, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. I had just dropped two Snickers bars into her bag—her first of many before the end of the evening, no doubt. Lisa was filled with energy even without all that sugar.

“Tell me what’s the scariest thing you ever saw.” She repeated. “Tell me, pleeeease! You always tell good stories, Gramps.” She stamped her foot once on my living room carpet.

I didn’t answer her right away, because the images that stirred as I considered the question made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Then I struggled to think of a suitable response. My answer would be a lie, of course. Not for a million dollars would I tell my great granddaughter the truth.

“Well, once this scary little ghost came into my living room.” I said, recovering myself. “And I’ve never seen anything scarier than her.” I pulled Lisa gently onto my lap and she began giggling. She is only eight years old, and still light enough so that her weight doesn’t hurt my knees—even though my arthritis has gotten quite bad in recent years.

“Lisa, say thank you for the candy your great grandfather gave you.” Emily said. Lisa responded with an enthusiast thank you and more laughter, her voice muffled by the plastic mask that came with the discount store Halloween costume.

“Will you be alright here by yourself tonight, Grandpa?” Emily asked. Emily is now what—thirty-six?—and it doesn’t seem like so many years since her own mother used to bring her here to visit me, and she would be the one sitting on my knee. (Or I should say visit us—as that was back when my wife Elsie was still alive.)

“I’ll be fine, dear. Don’t you worry,” I said. “Just take this little girl out trick-or-treating before she blows a gasket. And be safe, the both of you.”

They visited for few more minutes, and then bid me farewell. As they were walking out, Emily’s husband Todd called on her cell phone, and made arrangements to meet them for a quick dinner before taking Lisa out trick-or-treating. Emily invited me to accompany them but I declined. I knew that I would be an imposition; and anyway, I suddenly found myself in a thinking mood—not a talking mood. So I waved goodbye to them from my front porch; and they both waved back at me from the front seat of Emily’s SUV.

And then I was left alone with my own thoughts. From my front porch I could survey the jack-o-lanterns and cardboard skeletons that adorned the houses across the street. The afternoon sun was fading. In a few hours, an army of imposters would descend on the neighborhood: goblins, witches, and more ghosts like my little Lisa.

(“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?)  

Every life has its dreadful episodes, its junctions with stark, naked fear; and mine is no exception. I have been profoundly frightened on a handful of occasions. I was in the war—the big one in Europe; and I had several close calls there. But those involved the simple fear of death. And when you cheat death, the feeling afterward is more often relief than dread.

That was close, you tell yourself, but I made it out alive. And after you have put the memory sufficiently far behind you, it even makes you feel lucky to be alive—or blessed—depending on your view of the world.

Once, though, I cheated death in another way—and perhaps I cheated something even worse than death. I escaped; but rather than relief, I am left with a memory that still causes me to wake up screaming from time to time—more than seventy years later.

Not that it is always with me. For years at a stretch, it leaves me alone. But then something—usually something casual and insignificant—drudges it up. And then I’m back there again—just like tonight.


I probably couldn’t tell you much about a conversation I had last week, but I can remember the summer of 1932 like it was yesterday. I was eleven years old that year. I remember the Depression, of course. My family was poor—but everyone seemed to be poor then. We lived on a small farm about thirty miles east of Cincinnati, Ohio. All in all it wasn’t a bad life.

The summer began much like any other for me.  When there wasn’t work to be done, I went fishing in nearby brooks and ponds. Sometimes I borrowed my father’s twenty-two and went hunting. Our farm was hemmed in by scores of creeks, hundreds of open meadows, and thousands of acres of thick forest. These were my domains during the summer vacation months. I sometimes left the house at eight o’clock in the morning, and didn’t return until the fireflies came out.

Therefore, I was more than a little disappointed on the day my father told me to stay out of the woods. He called me aside one afternoon in July when he was working in the corner of our barn that served as his workshop area. The barn doors were propped open, and he saw me running off with my fishing pole and wicker creel.

“Paul!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a perfect summer day, and I had bass fishing on my mind. My father’s voice hit me like a bucketful of cold water. What chore had I forgotten to perform? Or what new chore could he possibly come up with?

“Yes sir?” I called back.

He laid the sickle he had been sharpening on his workbench, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a folded up handkerchief. He was a big, burly man with wide shoulders and a narrow waist. “Come here for a minute, son. We need to talk.”

I tried to conceal my chagrin as I trudged toward the barn, somehow knowing that my afternoon plans of fishing were going to be derailed. What did he have in mind? Weeding the vegetable garden behind the house? Or perhaps he wanted me to begin setting posts to fence in a new tract of pasture. He had casually mentioned something about that a few weeks ago.

I stepped into the hot, claustrophobic shade of the barn. The smells of manure and hay mingled with the oil and metal smells of my father’s workbench. He had taken a seat on the little stool that he kept beneath the workbench but seldom sat on. That suggested that this could be a long talk. He motioned for me to sit on a nearby bale of hay.

I had barely sat down before I felt Calvin Coolidge brush against my calves. Calvin Coolidge was a tomcat that had wandered onto the farm that spring. I kept the cat supplied with water and table scraps from the kitchen, and he had stayed around in return. I leaned down and gently stroked the top of Calvin’s head. His moist sandpaper tongue tickled my hand. I was pretty attached to that cat.

“Well, Paul,” my father began, scratching his beard as he talked. “You’re not going to like this. But you have to listen to me and promise that you’ll do what I tell you.”

I nodded silently. My father was not an overly harsh parent by the standards of the time, but he was a rigid disciplinarian in many areas. My compliance with his instructions was seldom a matter of doubt. But now he seemed to need reassurance that his own son would obey him.

“Do you promise that you’ll listen to me and do what I say?”

“Yessir.”

“Paul, we’re in the middle of summer; and I know that this is the time when you like to run loose in the woods. And there’s nothin’ wrong with that—provided you get your chores done first. But for a little while, you’re goin’ to have to stay within sight of the house.”

I usually didn’t dare question my father’s orders, but the enormity of this one compelled me to speak. “What did I— ”

“You didn’t do anything,” he said. “It’s not a punishment. It’s for your safety.”

“Safety?”

Then neither of us spoke for a few seconds as my father looked up at the ceiling of the barn and exhaled loudly. I could tell that he wanted to think before he explained it to me—whatever it was.

“There was a jailbreak over in Lucasville last week, Paul. And some bad characters got loose. They don’t know for sure where the men are headin’, but it’s a good bet that they’ll head west, toward Cincinnati. And since we live close to the main road to the city, they could be passin’ through these parts. ” 

I nodded. Lucasville was located in Scioto County, about thirty-five miles to the east. Once in a while, a potentially dangerous inmate would get loose, and there would be a heightened state of caution in the surrounding counties. But the escapees were usually recaptured within a day or two. And these situations had never before prompted my father to restrict me to the vicinity of the house.

“Some really bad guys?” I asked, hoping for more details.

“Yes.” My father said.

“Bad like John Dillinger?” I persisted. The famous criminal’s name had recently been in the newspapers and radio broadcasts a lot. This was the heyday of the flamboyant, big-time bank robbers. The thought of a bad egg like Dillinger—or perhaps Bonnie and Clyde—happening upon our farm frightened the bejesus out of me. Every boy living during that era must have been gripped by a dark fascination with those characters. I had sudden, involuntary images of my entire family being cut down with Tommy guns during a robbery of our home, or being taken hostage and shot one by one during a botched police standoff.

“Bad enough, I’d say.” It seemed that my father wasn’t going to elaborate. “But don’t you be worryin’ about that none. Just stay near the house ‘til I tell you different. Do we have a deal?”

My father was asking for a lot. But what choice did I have? He was my dad, after all. So I told him that I would do what he asked. And I told myself that this was going to be the worst summer of my life. But within a few weeks, I would vow never to go into the woods again, anyway....(end of excerpt)