Look What I Found In My Brain!Random!

Spellbent

Chimeric Machines

Sparks and Shadows

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger

Coffin County

Mr Hands

Home Before Dark

In Silent Graves

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Current Reader Favorites:

Tools for Wandering Writers – how to stay productive on the road
Is the publisher just a middleman? – things to consider before you try self-publishing
Finding or creating a writer's workshop group – the title says it all
Using Profanity in Fiction – when cursing works, and when it doesn't
How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
Who Moved My Cheese? – a short review of this short book
How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died – advice for handling this difficult situation
Coping with unemployment – more practical advice for a difficult situation


Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Movie Review: Grand Prix
by Gary A. Braunbeck

In 1966, director John Frankenheimer turned out a pair of films that could not possibly be more different in subject matter and execution: Seconds and Grand Prix. Frankenheimer did not want to make Grand Prix, but was forced by the studio to do so after Seconds died a miserable death at the box office.

Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a tremendous hit, and remained Frankenheimer's most financially successful film until 1998's Ronin. The script by veteran playwright Robert Alan Arthur (who co-wrote All That Jazz with the late Bob Fosse), ultimately focuses too much on the soap-opera level problems of the drivers and their families, but it's when the film gets on the racetrack that Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel "Curly" Lindon (who did a season as Night Gallery's director of photography) blindside you.

When faced with the challenge of filming a lengthy race in such a way to make it interesting for film audiences, Frankenheimer decided he wanted to have the camera become part of the actual race, so he and Lindon designed a special camera and harness that could be attached to the front driver's-side of the car, giving the illusion that the viewer was riding on the hood during the race.

You've seen this same shot about a million times over the years in every car chase that's been filmed. You have John Frankenheimer and Lionel Lindon to thank for it. Until Grand Prix, no director had ever attempted to film a race or chase in this manner; nowadays, a director would feel like a fool not to include at least one such shot in an action film.

Movie Information

Running Time: 179 min.

Rating: PG

Director: John Frankenheimer

Screenwriters: John Frankenheimer, Robert Alan Arthur

Cinematography: Lionel Lindon

Cast:

James Garner: Pete Aron
Eva Marie Saint: Louise Frederickson
Yves Montand: Jean-Pierre Sarti
Toshiro Mifune: Izo Yamura
Brian Bedford: Scott Stoddard
Jessica Walter: Pat Stoddard
Antonio Sabato: Nino Barlini
Francoise Hardy: Lisa
Adolfo Celi: Agostini Manetta
Claude Dauphin: Hugo Simon
Enzo Fiermonte: Guido

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Movie Review: The Swimmer
by Gary A. Braunbeck

1968's The Swimmer (based on the short story by John Cheever) was a labor of love for its producer/star Burt Lancaster. In it he plays a businessman who, at film's start, has decided to spend a bright summer Sunday afternoon making his way from pool to pool, swimming his way across suburbia to his own home. He lives in an upscale and trendy community where everyone knows everyone else in their chosen clique, so it comes as no surprise to anyone when Burt wanders into their back yard and tells them he is swimming home. They laugh. They make martinis. They talk about what a card Lancaster is and what a simply mah-velous party story his little escapade will make. It seems like another Peyton Place soap opera at first.

But then people start asking about his wife and daughters:

"I heard what happened..."

"I was so sorry to hear..."

"How are you feeling now?..."

"I didn't think you'd want to be around anyone for a while, not after..."

What exactly did happen in Lancaster's life that has everyone treating him either with extreme caution or overzealous joviality? Where exactly is he coming from at the beginning of the film? (Our first sight of him comes as he's running in his swimming trunks through the woods, already sopping wet, yet he tells the first back yard gathering he appears in that theirs will be his "first" swim on his way home.) And why can't he tell anyone what he's been doing lately?

These key questions are skirted for the first half of the film, but it's the very lack of ready answers that provides a good deal of tension. Hints are dropped, concerned looks are exchanged, surreptitious gestures made behind Lancaster's back, and soon the viewer wonders about Lancaster's mental stability as, piece by piece, the horror of his life comes together like a jigsaw puzzle that's missing the last piece–which may be the reason The Swimmer is such a turn-off for many viewers: there is no direct and final answer to any of the questions, no last-minute revelation, but if you pay close attention, everything you need to know is there.

Lancaster gives a typically terrific performance, one full of both internal and physical catharses; every pool is a new baptismal fount where he washes away past sins, yet by the time he reaches the next pool, a different load of sins have made themselves known.

Movie Information

Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: PG

Directors: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack

Screenwriter: Eleanor Perry

Cast:

Burt Lancaster: Ned Merrill
Janet Landgard: Julie Ann Hooper
Janice Rule: Shirley Abbott
Tony Bickley: Donald Westerhazy
Marge Champion: Peggy Forsburgh
Nancy Cushman: Mrs. Halloran
Bill Fiore: Howie Hunsacker
David Garfield: Ticket Seller
Kim Hunter: Betty Graham
Rose Gregorio: Sylvia Finney
Charles Drake: Howard Graham
Bernie Hamilton: Halloran's Chauffeur
House Jameson: Chester Halloran
Jimmy Joyce: Jack Finney
Michael Kearney: Kevin Gilmartin Jr.

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Monday, November 10, 2008

Quadrophenia
by Gary A. Braunbeck

By its musical structure alone, The Who's Quadrophenia opened my eyes and my intellect to the endless possibilities offered by the metaphor; add to that its compelling and challenging narrative structure, and you've got something that, to my mind, qualifies as a masterpiece.

Quadrophenia centers on a young kid in 1960s England named Jimmy. Jimmy comes from a hard-luck, working class family. He wants to be popular among his friends. He also wants to be a good son, a good worker, and a great lover. In the midst of trying to be all things to everyone, he realizes that he presents four very distinctive personalities to the world over the course of his days: the tough guy, the romantic, the crazy fun friend, and the troubled son. All of these separate personalities are represented by a distinct musical theme, and each personality encompasses only one aspect of the real Jimmy; none of them represent who he is in his heart. On top of all this, he's saddled with having a deeper insight into the human spirit than most people think a person of his station is capable. He admits that even he doesn't know who he really is. Being a confused angry young man with rampaging hormones, it doesn't take long before certain aspects of his other personalities start bleeding over into the parts of his life where they don't belong.

There's much, much more to Quadrophenia's story, but that's the spine of it.

This sounds like a ham-fisted cliche, but hearing this album for the first time changed my life. On side 4 of the album there's an instrumental piece called "The Rock" which remains for me one of the most amazing and moving pieces of music -- and that's music, period, not just rock music -- that I've ever heard.

In Tommy, the central character's epiphany is conveyed through words and music; but in Quadrophenia, it is conveyed solely through music. "The Rock" starts off by repeating each of the four themes separately, then, one by one, begins overlapping them until the four themes blend seamlessly into one, creating a fifth, unique, defining theme as Jimmy finally realizes who he really is.

That was a revelation -- ahem ... uh, er ... discovery -- for the 12-year-old me. Pete Townshend and The Who had pulled an incredible musical sleight-of-hand, created a musical Rubik's Cube that I hadn't even realized existed until the puzzle was completed.

I knew then that I wanted to someday create a piece or body of work that did what Pete Townshend had done with Quadrophenia's music; present you with a group of seemingly disparate pieces/themes that in the end converged into a unified whole that was not only rewarding in and of itself (as "The Rock" most definitely is), but also enriched the sum of its parts.

"The Rock" is a perfect metaphor for what we as human beings strive toward during every moment between that first slap on the ass and the last handful of soil tossed on the lid of the coffin; call it the psychological equivalent of string theory or whatever you will: we strive to bring the various Selves together to form the whole that is uniquely 'me' or 'you', all the while treasuring the journey that has led to this time, this breath, this moment.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


The Manchurian Candidate
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

1962's The Manchurian Candidate

A lot -- a lot -- has been written and said about The Manchurian Candidate, the film that put John Frankenheimer on the map as a director. How effective you'll find the film today depends on your personal level of cynicism.

Candidate -- a satire in the truest sense of the word -- deliberately sets out to make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not it's supposed to funny. Admittedly, some of the scenes in the film have an aura of comedy about them which I think was intentional, while others (scenes obviously intended to be serious) unintentionally draw chuckles. Laurence Harvey's British accent seems ludicrously out of place for a veteran of the Korean War, especially since he's supposed to be American, but once you get past his voice, you cannot help but admire his rich, complex performance.

The final sequence, filmed in Madison Square Garden, remains one of the most beautifully edited and unbearably suspenseful ever put on film. (Many critics and film scholars credit Frankenheimer as having created the template for the modern political thriller; viewing such films as Candidate, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday, and the recent HBO film The Path to War -- which is now Frankenheimer's swan song, and a great one, at that -- this accolade seems almost understated.)

Movie Information

Running Time: 126 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Richard Condon (novel), George Axelrod (screenplay)
Cast:

Frank Sinatra: Capt./Maj. Bennett Marco
Laurence Harvey: Sgt. Raymond Shaw
Janet Leigh: Eugenie Rose Chaney
Angela Lansbury: Mrs. Iselin
Henry Silva: Chunjin
James Gregory: Sen. John Yerkes Iselin
Leslie Parrish: Jocelyn Jordan
John McGiver: Sen. Thomas Jordan
Khigh Dhiegh: Dr. Yen Lo
James Edwards: Cpl. Alvin Melvin
Douglas Henderson: Col. Milt
Albert Paulsen: Zilkov
Barry Kelley: Secretary of Defense
Lloyd Corrigan: Holborn Gaines
Madame Spivy: Female Berezovo



2004's The Manchurian Candidate

A remake of the 1962 classic was released in July 2004. It's directed by Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") and stars Denzel Washington in Sinatra's role as Ben Marco, Liev Schreiber in the Laurence Harvey role as Raymond Shaw, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor Shaw.

In this version, U.S. soliders are kidnapped during the Gulf War and brainwashed. The brainwashers use the Manchurian Corporation as their front, thus justifying the retention of the title even though the Chinese are no longer the villains in this remake.

The movie is decent, not nearly as good as the original, but worth watching. Washington is particularly good; he plays Ben Marco as a man who's gradually falling apart, rather than as a square-jawed hero.

Movie Information

Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Richard Condon (novel), George Axelrod (screenplay), Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris
Cast:

Denzel Washington: Ben Marco
Meryl Streep: Eleanor Shaw
Liev Schreiber: Raymond Shaw
Kimberly Elise: Rosie
Vera Farmiga: Jocelyn Jordan
Jon Voight: Senator Thomas Jordan
David Keeley: Anderson
Jeffrey Wright: Al Melvin
Sakina Jaffrey: Mysterious Arabic Woman
Simon McBurney: Noyle
Paul Lazar: Gillespie
Alyson Renaldo: Mirella Freeman
Adam LeFevre: Congressman Healy
Robyn Hitchcock: Laurent Tokar

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Movie Review: Seconds
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Seconds is arguably director John Frankenheimer's best film. Based on the excellent novel by David Ely, in it we meet middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph in a masterfully shaded performance) whose life is so miserable he walks as if the earth might open at any moment and swallow him whole. His job drains him of humanity. His marriage is hollow and cold. His self-respect is rattling its last breath. He doesn't know how things came to this. He knows that he was once a decent man but he isn't any longer and he can't understand why. He feels alien to the world around him.

Then one day a stranger in the subway hands him a card with an address written on it; the stranger knows Hamilton's name, and as soon as we see the expression on Hamilton's face, we know that he has some idea why he's been handed this slip of paper.

That night Hamilton is called by a supposedly dead friend. "I have a wonderful new life!" he tells Hamilton. "I'm happy, old buddy, and I want to do the same for you!"

It seems there are these "people" who can give you a new life. A new face. A new voice and identity. They can give you a life where you are successful at the thing you always dreamed of (in Hamilton's case, being a famous artist). It costs a lot, and once the process has begun there is no turning back.

Hamilton, after much soul-searching, decides to go through with it, and embarks on a chilling journey to the secret headquarters where these "people" make arrangements for a new life. (He is taken there in the back of a meat delivery truck–some of the most unnerving black-humored symbolism I've ever encountered.) There he meets with the company president (Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself, who is quietly and absolutely terrifying in the role) who has created this program. The decision made, the work begins, and soon Hamilton is transformed into the younger, more vital Antiochus "Tony" Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), given a new profession, a new home, a new life. Things are idyllic for a while, but eventually Hamilton's conscience and its questions about his old life drive him to return to his widow in an effort to find out where he went wrong.

Frankenheimer always dealt with extremes in his best pictures, and Seconds is possibly the most extreme film he ever made. His penchant for lean storytelling and muscular pacing is at its peak here, as is his use of his ought-to-be-patented foreground framing technique.

The film's biggest surprise, perhaps, is the performance of the late Rock Hudson. In a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier (who the studio decided didn't have Hudson's box-office clout), Hudson displays a depth and power that viewers of Pillow Talk would never have thought possible.

Hudson's face is a subtle prism of conflicting emotions; every joy, every sorrow, every triumph and regret is there, etched into his expressions like words on a headstone. When something hits at his core, you see it on his face–and not in any heavy-handed, watch-me, watch-me way; Hudson's performance is one of impressive constriction, understatement, and substance, heart-felt and affecting, and (like the superb performance of Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler) a rare glimpse at a good but limited actor's one moment of true and undeniable greatness–which gives this film an added dose of bitter irony when viewed today: had Hudson lived, would he have wanted a second chance to prove his worth as an actor of substance and power?

Movie Information

Release Date: 1966
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: R (disturbing sequences and some nudity)
Color: B&W
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Writers: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay), David Ely (novel)
Cast:

Rock Hudson: Antiochus 'Tony' Wilson
Salome Jens: Nora Marcus
John Randolph: Arthur Hamilton
Will Geer: Old Man
Jeff Corey: Mr. Ruby
Richard Anderson: Dr. Innes
Murray Hamilton: Charlie
Karl Swenson: Dr. Morris
Khigh Dhiegh: Davalo
Frances Reid: Emily Hamilton
Wesley Addy: John
John Lawrence: Texan
Elisabeth Fraser: Blonde
Dodie Heath: Sue Bushman (as Dody Heath)
Robert Brubaker: Mayberry

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Movie Review: Sorcerer
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Sorcerer, made by William Friedkin in 1977 after his triumphs and numerous awards for both The French Connection and The Exorcist, was his own Apocalypse Now: a film that went over budget and took three times as long to film as originally planned, but one denied Apocalypse's subsequent fame, notoriety, and audience interest.

movie posterA remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer tells the story of four men, all wanted criminals, who flee to a nameless Third World country to escape punishment, imprisonment, torture, or death. When a devastating oil rig explosion offers the chance to make some big money very quickly (they have to transport old crates of leaking nitroglycerin over 200 miles of treacherous mountain road), each sees a chance to get out of this hell-hole country and forge a new life elsewhere, far from their regrets and old enemies.

Screenwriter Walon Green (who co-wrote The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah) foregoes a script filled with meaningful dialogue and concentrates instead on expressionistic imagery to tell large chunks of the story. This, coupled with Friedkin's flair for jittery realism, gives Sorcerer an effective and gritty documentary feel.

I greatly admire both Sorcerer and The Wages Of Fear, but find my preference leaning toward Friedkin's film, if for no other reason because Sorcerer takes the time to establish these men in their previous lives so the viewer can have some sense of what they've been forced to abandon. Sorcerer possesses emotional layers where Wages opts for the coldly intellectual, and though both films are potentially devastating to the viewer, Sorcerer remains the more humane and accessible of the two.

Movie Information

Release Date: 1977
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: William Friedkin
Writers: Walon Green (screenplay), Georges Arnaud (1953 novel Le Salaire de la Peur)
Cast:
Roy Scheider: Scanlon/Dominguez
Bruno Cremer: Victor Manzon/Serrano
Francisco Rabal: Nilo
Amidou: Kassem/Martinez
Ramon Bieri: Corlette
Peter Capell: Lartigue
Karl John: Marquez
Frederick Ledebur: Carlos
Chico Martinez: Bobby Del Rios
Joe Spinell: Spider
Rosario Almontes: Agrippa
Richard Holley: Billy White
Anne-Marie Deschott: Blanche
Jean-Luc Bideau: Pascal
Jacques Francois: Lefevre

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Mass Murder
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Former FBI agent Robert Ressler -- he's the man who gave us the term "serial killer" -- defines "classic" mass murder as involving one mentally-disordered killer in one location who kills 4 or more other people more or less at the same time.

These days, mass murders are taking place more and more in public places like schools and businesses, but it used to be more common for mass murder to be a more private event.

I worked with a janitorial company for several years in the late 70s and early 80s, and one night I was awakened at 2 a.m. by a call from my boss asking me if I would volunteer to join a skeleton crew for an emergency job. The night would pay $300.00 for each crew member. At first, still groggy, I couldn't understand why anyone would turn down 300 bucks for four or five hours of work; then he told me why he had to call and ask for volunteers.

Three days before, a local man had snapped, killing his family and then himself. The family was a somewhat prominent one in town, and the surviving relatives wanted the house cleaned as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Two of the family members this man had killed (with a shotgun) had been children.

I wound up cleaning the childrens' room.

You cannot help but feel the sick-making silence and overwhelming loss of life when you perform a duty like this. Three times I had to stop work to go outside to either cry or vomit. But I got that room cleaned; I wiped away every trace of those childrens' existence. There was a lot of blood, as well as other liquids, all of them dried. There was also, in places, bits of flesh and bone mixed in with that blood.

When it was all over, we collected our pay and went back to our homes. I fell asleep somewhere around nine a.m. and didn't wake up until well after four. I had thrown my clothes from that night into the corner, along with the work boots I'd been wearing. As I was gathering everything up for washing, I for some reason checked the bottoms of my boots, and found a very small but -- thanks to the mopping I'd done -- still very wet piece of human tissue wedged into the heavy treads.

I got sick all over again. This was all that remained of one of those children. But which one? And from what part of them had this been blasted? Had they died immediately or had they suffered? All this came to me in a rush and I just imploded.

Statistics and definitions don't give you any inkling of the enormity of the pain and loss a mass murder brings, nor of the nightmares the people left behind to pick up the pieces will have to endure.

Labels: ,

BlogThis!


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nunzilla's School of Reading Comprehension
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I read very slowly.

When I was in the second grade at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, our English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, required that we read aloud on Mondays and Fridays. Coming from a hard-core blue-collar background, reading was not something that was encouraged in the Braunbeck household. Not that my parents discouraged it, but because both of them worked long hours at hellish factory jobs, they were either too tired or too busy with things like bills and home repairs to find time to read much. Neither of them completed high school, and neither of them ran in social circles where "intellectual" pursuits such as reading were the norm.

No, I'm not blaming them, far from it; Mom would always buy me a book if I found one I wanted, and Dad was more than happy to read to or with me. (Aside: Mom was a big Mickey Spillane fan, and read his books whenever she could, but the only two books I ever saw her re-read were Blatty's The Exorcist and F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, which she thought was "... one of the best books I've ever read. I hope he writes another one.")

Okay, so I'm sitting there in English class one Friday, and we're taking turns reading paragraphs from some book -- I wish to hell I could remember its name -- about this kid named Johnny who works odd jobs so he can earn money to go to the movies because he likes to imagine that he's the cowboy hero or brave fighter pilot or smart detective.

Gets to be my turn, and I'm reading along -- slower than the other kids, but smoothly, nonetheless -- when I encounter a word I'd often heard but had never actually seen in print before: "aisle."

I stopped, stared at the word, and tried to figure out how to pronounce it.

Sister Mary Elizabeth made quite a show out of my inability to read this word aloud, so finally, embarrassed beyond belief, I gave it a try.

What I said was something akin to "i-sell."

Everyone laughed. Sister Mary Elizabeth told me to try it again.

I-sell. Again.

I couldn't figure out any other way to pronounce it.

Sister then pulled several other books from the shelf and opened them to selected pages, thrust them under my nose, and ordered me to read about twenty-five different words at her random choosing, all of which I'd heard, none of which I had ever seen in print before, among them "redundant", "envelope", "digestion", "automatic", and -- my personal favorite to this day -- "repetitive".

I missed every last one of them.

And everyone got a dandy guffaw out of that.

Most of the kids who attended St. Francis came from fairly well-to-do families, families who financially contributed heavily to both the church and school, who held positions on the school board or church board, and who got to wear dresses and ties to their jobs and sit behind desks.

I was one of a small handful of kids who came from, well ... not-so well-to-do families, and there was a marked difference in the way we were treated, both by our fellow students and the teachers. If one of the rich students was having difficulties, well, then, hire a tutor, arrange for special sessions with teachers after school, cut them as much slack as possible.

But if one of the poorer students was having trouble ... tough shit. Their families were barely making the quarterly tuition payments, so it wasn't worth anyone's time to give them any extra help.

Three days a week, I was provided with a free lunch because my parents couldn't afford to pay for an entire week's worth. Somehow, Sister Mary Elizabeth managed to work that into her scolding of me in front of the class that day, as well as several observations about the limited selection options available to me for my wardrobe.

"Go sit out in the hall, you're holding everyone else back, you dumb-bunny."

Dumb-bunny. Never forgot that one.

So I went out into the hall and sat there.

Which is how I came to find myself transferred to the "special" English class the following Monday.

Here is what the "special" English class consisted of:

Some assistant coach (or Darrell Sheets, the marvelous, kind man who was the school's janitor) sat at a table in the cafeteria while the rest -- there were five of us -- were seated at another table. On this table was a stack of childrens' books. Twenty of them, in fact. I remember this because these books never changed. Ever.

These were books written for children at the pre-school/kindergarten level.

This is Dick. This is his sister, Jane. Dick and Jane are playing with their Dog, Spot. "Run, Spot, run!" See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.

Goddamn page-turners were these books.

From Grade 2 until Grade 5 that is how I spent my English classes; down in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with four other "special" students, reading the same twenty books over and over. (We were not allowed to bring our own books, we had to read only those that were deemed to be "within" our "ranges of comprehension." At least at the beginning of every year they gave us twenty different books than the year before. Our big exam was to read two of them aloud at the end of the year.)

As a result of this, and the lack of reading time/assistance at home, I read at a first-grade level until the sixth grade. Even then, I was way behind the other kids. (The "special" program had been 86'd at the end of my fifth grade year because they could no longer find assistant coaches or assistant janitors who were willing to baby-sit us.)

I somehow managed to bluff my way through sixth grade English -- I squeaked by with a "C" -- but even that summer, I found that I was still having trouble reading books that, by all accounts, I should have been able to breeze through four years ago.

I was given a reading comprehension test at the start of my seventh grade year.

I was reading at a third-grade level ... and just barely at that.

But I got lucky. My English teacher that year was a terrific guy named David Kessler who had been made aware of my "learning disability" and who, even though he wasn't allowed to give me any extra help either in or outside of class, did provide me with books designed to help me read better. I guarded these books as if they were my life savings. Whenever either of them could, Mom and Dad helped me, or one of the neighbors if I offered to cut their grass. But mostly I had to do it on my own.

By the time I left the Catholic School system at the end of my eighth grade year, I was reading at the fifth-grade level.

For me, it was a personal triumph.

I haven't bothered getting myself tested in decades, because whatever level I'm reading at right now is the level I will read at until I take the Dirt Nap.

But there remain times ....

There were several sections in Dan Simmons's brilliant The Hollow Man that I had to re-read more than once before fully understanding what I was reading. As much as I admire and enjoy the work of Joe Haldeman, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe, there are times while reading them that I feel genuinely stupid, as if I'm standing there in front of Sister and the class trying to decipher "aisle" once again.

It took me three days to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a short novel that many people read in three hours.

To this day, I remain angry about that.

To this day, I still have trouble reading at times, and always will, and that has caused some measure of enjoyment to be subtracted from my life, and that saddens me whenever I think about it for too long, because the ability to read is one of the most precious gifts we possess.

Labels: ,

BlogThis!


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it
by Gary A. Braunbeck

There's a great line from William Goldman's novel The Color of Light: "Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it."

William Faulkner maintained that any child who managed to live past the age of seven had enough material to write books and stories for the rest of his or her life and never see the well run dry; Flannery O'Connor said much the same thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you encounter any authors who insists that their work isn't in some form autobiographical, they're lying through their teeth.

It's not only outward, chronological events that shape our psyches and determine who we become, but our own internal worlds; imagination, impressions, prejudices, fantasies, regrets, passions, likes and dislikes, all of it is eventually filtered through the writer's sensibilities to make an appearance in their work.


Sometimes a writer has to wait until he or she has gotten enough distance, both emotionally and chronologically, to turn a fiction writer's objective eye on an event. You can't use an actual occurrence from your own life and then defend it to people by saying, "But that's how it really happened." Fiction cares nothing for how an event 'really' happened, only how said event or events fit into the natural progression of the story you're telling.

You have to learn to put your ego aside when you write a story or novel, even if you're using something from your life as fictional fodder; you have to care enough to be quiet. Let the story be your guide, not your desire to inflict yourself and your views on the reader.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


On writing about child abuse
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus's shield, protecting them from Medusa's deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ....

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you're a fiction writer, you'll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader's emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, "Oh, I'll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth." To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there's room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story's characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called "whacking material for pedophiles." It's a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating -- and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take "Some Touch of Pity," a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg's Werewolves. Anyone who's ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn't want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story -- the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it's what defined his view of himself, and it's what keeps him standing at arm's length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That's the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn't pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character's suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I'm relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

 

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review: Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004

For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.

Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.

Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.

These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.

Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.

But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.

With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Book Review: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Those of you who have visited Arnzen's web site, or the Raw Dog Screaming Press site, or have already purchased this book, know that I provided a blurb for the cover, so you can safely assume that this is going to be a positive review. I stand by what I said in my blurb, but decided I wanted all of you to know why I said it.

Of all story forms, the short-short (defined as a story clocking in at 1000 words or less) is by far the most difficult, and the one that can often defeat even the most seasoned writer. The short-short requires a poet's skill at encapsulation of imagery and ideas, as wells as the fiction writer's ability to employ these same elements in the telling of a cohesive and coherent story — and I emphasize those two words because (more often than not) the short-shorts that appear in the horror field are written by folks who mistakenly assume that those terms are mutually exclusive, which they are most decidedly not.

Even the most surreal of short-shorts must adhere to the structure and internal logic of the short story, regardless of how dreamlike and bizarre the prose might be. The late Donald Barthelme was arguably the master of this particular form of story, but with 100 Jolts, Arnzen, without laying claim to it, emerges as the inheritor of Barthelme's crown.

Consider the following story, used here in its entirety:
A Worse Mousetrap

As I type, the mouse climbs my shoulder and leaps into my breast pocket. I laugh when his furry gray head pops out. He twitters his whiskers, watching as I finish my apology. I hug him against my heart. Later, I will sign my note as the rat poison makes it way through my system.
Looks easy, doesn't it?

Trust me, it's not.

In five sentences–count 'em, five–Arnzen not only employs the poet's skill at encapsulation and the storyteller's ability to form a cohesive and coherent narrative, but also manages to leave a great deal of the horror unspoken. This is a complete story in every sense of the word; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a central conflict; and it adheres to the single most important rule of fiction: its central character undergoes a change between the start and the finish. That Arnzen chooses to convey this through subtleties rather than graphic depictions makes it even more effective and affecting, adding a great deal of power to that final line.

Every story in 100 Jolts does this, seemingly effortlessly, time and time again.

One of this collection's most jaw-dropping achievement comes at the very beginning with the section entitled "Skull Fragments"; it contains 12 separate short-shorts, all of which can stand on their own as disturbing horror stories, but when taken as a whole, tell a 13th and even more deeply nightmarish tale.

I think 100 Jolts is a remarkable achievement, and a book that all serious readers of horror fiction should have in their hands and on their shelves.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sam Peckinpah
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Sam Peckinpah is the director who redefined screen violence; he is also one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

He was born in Fresno, California on February 21, 1925 and died of a heart attack in 1984. In between, he was married five times and directed over a dozen ground-breaking films, mainly in the 60s and 70s.

He grew up on a ranch in the California mountains. His father was a judge, and Peckinpah was a rowdy teenager who eventually enlisted in the Marines. He was never put into combat, though.

After his discharge, he discovered theater and eventually got his lucky break in the early 50s when respected Hollywood director Don Siegel hired him as an assistant at Allied Artists. Peckinpah began writing scripts (he helped rewrite and had a small role in 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and got his first job directing in 1958 when he did an episode of the television series "Broken Arrow". His feature-length directorial debut was 1961's "The Deadly Companions".

Peckinpah, with films such as "Major Dundee" and "Ride the High Country", easily established himself as a great American director. Critics were quick (before "The Wild Bunch", anyway) to mention his name alongside those of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Peckinpah hated it.

He hated it because in the "good old" Western the only characters an audience was asked to sympathize wih were, naturally, the good guys like Randolph Scott and Chuck Heston. When the so-called "bad guys" got blown away, it was supposed to make an audience cheer wildly.

Which, as Peckinpah was quick to point out, completely robbed the "Bad Guys" of any humanity whatsoever. Peckinpah was also quick to point out that the "bad guys" in "Shane" were given full identities, so why couldn't this be a trend that could set itself firmly in the American Western?

Because no one is supposed to care about the bad guys.

Peckinpah then set out to make an "anti-Western." A film that, while it might be set in the West, horses and posses intact, had nothing else in common with the type of films he'd been making -- and despising.

That film was "The Wild Bunch". In it audiences met the likes of Pike (William Holden in one of his finest hours) and his gang, a run-down, over-the-hill bunch of outlaws who time and progress has caught up with. They were old, tired, anachronistic, looking for a way out. Audiences learned to sympathize with these men as the film progressed, even side with them and, in the film's historic finale -- almost folklore now -- watch them die in blood-drenched slow motion, every agonized twitch dwelt upon until their mangled bodies lay dead before the camera.

Here was Peckinpah's genius with his bloody ballet of death: he'd made a Western, all right, but he'd shown it from the "bad guy's" point of view, and no one cheered when they died. The black and white way of presenting right and wrong was forever destroyed, and the myth of the American Western was forever debunked.

Peckinpah was then asked why he chose to make the violence so bloody, and why he chose to film it in slow motion. His reply (which I cannot quote verbatim) was something along these lines: "I thought audiences should be given a good, clear look at what they've been cheering all these years."

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much.

Partial Filmography:

"The Deadly Companions" (1961)
"Ride the High Country" (1962)
"Major Dundee" (1965)
"The Wild Bunch" (1969)
"Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970)
"Straw Dogs" (1971)
"The Getaway" (1972)
"Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973)
"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974)
"Killer Elite" (1975)
"Cross of Iron" (1977)
"Convoy" (1978)
"The Osterman Weekend" (1983)

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Why I became a writer
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.

I was not -- big surprise here -- a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.

One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C -- a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.

Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.

Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I'm still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.

It was a child's first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn't discover it until he's developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.

I figured the story was going to get me in trouble -- I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty -- nuns and otherwise -- thought I was "disturbed." (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara's office for a "chat" about "my problems getting along with the others.")

The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass "A+" in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: "Great story. You should do more."

I had written stories before that I'd kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine -- and an adult, no less -- and they'd really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn't useless.

That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don't know where I'd be now if I'd gotten the reaction I expected to get.

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


On horror personas
by Gary A. Braunbeck


I don't know about you, but if I encounter one more horror writer (in most cases, this would be a new writer) who prefaces his or her name with:
  • "The New Bad Boy/Bad Girl of Horror"
  • "The New Queen of Terror"
  • "The New Prince of Dark Fiction"
  • "The New Court Second-Scribe in Charge of Queasy Sensations at The Pit Of Your Tummy"
... or some-such other b.s. handle designed to draw attention to the writer rather than the work, I'm going to climb a tower with a rifle, I swear it.

(Wouldn't it be interesting to have someone call themselves "The Nice Guy Of Horror" or "The Courteous Queen Of Terror" or "The Really Swell Dude of Dark Fiction"? I'd actually remember that, and would probably seek out their work to read just because they were clever enough to do it.)

Sometimes -- dash, repeat, italicize -- sometime these monikers are created not by the writers themselves, but, rather, by reviewers.

One case of a writer who's employed a moniker he or she didn't create her- or himself is that of John Paul Allen, one helluva nice guy and author of the novel Gifted Trust. A reviewer for that novel dubbed Allen "...the father of nightmares."

An interviewer who read that review used the phrase to introduce Allen, so it comes as no suprise that Allen has used that phrase in publicity releases -- and why the hell shouldn't he? It's an eye-catching, memorable phrase that is going to go a long way in helping potential readers remember his name. He didn't come up with it and decide to label himself, and any writer who's handed an unsolicited blurb like that is a fool not to get as much mileage as he can out of it. Yes, writing a strong novel is damned important, but once the work is published, it all boils down to bidness and marketing, and anything that draws attention to your work can and should be used to your advantage. So, good for John Paul.

However.

I have come across (or been introduced to, unsolicited) a number of writers who, both on-line and at conventions, assume a "persona" not only for the benefit of their readers (assuming they actually have any, as they claim), but for that of other writers and editors, as well.

When asked why they insist on assuming these personae, every last one of them (at least, to whom I have spoken) have answered with something like: "Because I want readers/editors/other writers to remember me. It's a way of making a strong impression."

On the surface, it might be seem like a good answer, but it reminds me of a snippet from a Bill Cosby routine wherein two guys are talking about cocaine usage; the first guy asks the second one, "What's the attraction?", and the second guys answers, "Well, cocaine intensifies your personality." To which the first guy responds: "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"

If you focus the majority of your energy on perfecting a "persona" so that other writers/readers/editors/artists will remember you, then I guaran-flippin'-tee you that you'll succeed; they'll remember you.

But ask them to name a piece of your work and see what happens; you could probably hear a gnat fart in the silence that will follow. Which is precisely what you'll merit; if you choose to make it all about you rather than the work, then you richly deserve the disdain and/or obscurity that is coming your way.

I can say this without fear of reprisal because I do not have a persona; I barely have a personality. Trust me on this.

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Thursday, September 18, 2008

An author's view of the First Sale Doctrine
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Abuse of the first sale doctrine is fairly rampant in the small-press bookselling world. This is a real sore spot with me, and is going to take some explaining, so get comfortable.

You have possibly encountered on-line booksellers who offer copies of books (often books they did not themselves publish) for outlandish prices. I myself have seen copies of my Cemetery Dance collection Things Left Behind going for as much as $1,750.00 (which, by the way, is a good deal more than I received for writing it; not bitching about what Rich Chizmar paid me for it, not at all, but I would dearly love to have more than one copy of my first book but that ain't gonna happen because I can't afford the prices many places are charging for it). The sold-out release of Borderlands 5 turned up at several on-line auctions within days of its publication with bids starting -- starting -- at between $200.00 and $500.00.

There are some who mistakenly think this sort of thing is illegal; it isn't. It is allowed under what's know as the first sale doctrine.

According to Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act, whoever first purchases the physical copy of a copyrighted work (a book, a DVD, VHS tape, CD, etc.) has the right to do with that copy whatever they want, including transfer ownership of that physical copy in any manner they choose. They can give it away, sell it to some place like Half-Price Books, or offer it up for on-line auction. The doctrine deals with the physical object, not the intellectual or artistic expression contained within. For more info, read Lucy's article "Why you can rent a novel but not a music CD".

Here's what pisses me off about this: there are some booksellers and individuals who will purchase and hoard multiple copies of a book with no concern for the work, the author, or the work's fans -- they couldn't give less of shit about the quality of the stories or the novel. What they're concerned with is obtaining as many physical copies as possible because (as was the case with Borderlands 5) a particular book might sell out very quickly, and they, in turn, can sell their copies at a price that is sometimes as much as 700% higher than what they paid for it originally.

When confronted with their unapologetic avarice (and avarice it is, make no mistake about that), they will inevitably defend their actions by claiming that they've every right to turn a profit on their investment...and then probably have the nerve to bitch about having to pay four bucks a gallon for gas because OPEC are a bunch of greedy bastards. What's wrong with this picture?

Understand something: I am not condemning specialty-press publishers like, say, Donald Grant, who produce exquisite (and justifiably expensive) limited editions of books geared toward book collectors -- those rare birds who have a deep and abiding respect both for the physical object and the work contained within and who, it should go without saying, can afford these editions. Nor am I condemning any specialty-press publisher who at a later date offers up copies of a book they've previously published at a higher price: after all, it's their product, and if they can find a buyer for their product, more power to 'em.

I am also not condemning those who offer up for auction or re-sale books with the intent of using the money to assist others who are struggling with financial hardship or to fund charity drives.

My problem lies with those who buy books solely for the purpose of re-selling them at obscenely inflated prices so as to fatten their personal pockets just because they can.

No, it isn't illegal, but in my book it is (and always will be) reprehensible and immoral. Which is why I do not buy books from sellers who engage in this practice, be they on-line or in the dealers' room at a con. As far as I'm concerned, it's price gouging if I see a book selling at more than twice its original asking price. I'm not completely unreasonable about this; I realize that booksellers have to make a certain amount of profit to stay in business and cover basic operating costs, so doubling the price of a sold-out or out-of-print book strikes me as equitable and fair, but beyond that -- I walk away.

And God help 'em if they have the nerve to ask me to sign any books for them so they can jack up the price even more.

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On horror, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction "experts"
by Gary A. Braunbeck

My pet peeve for the day is people who claim to be an "expert" on horror, or science fiction, or mysteries, or any other literary genre because they've read absolutely everything by just a single famous author in that genre ... and smugly refuse to read anything else.

Odds are, you've met someone who's this type of "expert". You've probably had to endure their homilizing endlessly about their extensive knowledge of the field based on having read only Stephen King or Clive Barker or Robert Heinlein or Robert Jordan or Agatha Christie or Or OR ... (not slamming these writers, get it? Got it? Good.)

And you have undoubtedly heard these "experts" dismiss out of hand any writer who isn't King or Rice or Barker or Or OR... because these "experts" don't want to expand their understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of fiction offered elsewhere because to do so would be to admit (to themselves and others) that they don't really have the slightest goddamn idea what they're talking about.

For someone to claim they're an "expert" on horror or fantasy or mysteries or science fiction based solely on having read everything written by a single author is tantamount to my claiming to be an "expert" on automobile mechanics because I've read the owner's manual that's stuffed in the glove compartment of my wife's Toyota.

Try this little experiment: the next time you find yourself confronted by one of these "experts", politely interrupt them and ask them how they feel about, say, the influence M.R. James' or Nathaniel Hawthorne's work might have had on King or Rice or Barker or Or OR ... and see how quickly that stops their lecture mid-sentence.

And if they can't answer because it's obvious they've never read (or, in most cases, even heard of) James or Hawthorne or Matheson or Blackwood Or Or OR... tell them to shut the fuck up, then go have an intelligent conversation with someone who has the brains to admit they don't know everything.

In the meantime: read, people. Read lots. And for God's sake, read outside your genre.

Labels: ,

BlogThis!


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Movie Review: The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is a low-budget, sleazy, but high-spirited dirty movie from 1980 that has aged less well than many of the B-grade actors who starred in it. Adam West (Batman from the old TV series) is the most recognizable star, appearing as Lionel Lamely. The movie is supposed to show how the first "Happy Hooker" movie got made in Hollywood and is mainly a string of party sequences.

While it's pretty awful to the modern moviegoing eye, it does have a few amusing bits.

My favorite moment happens when Richard Deacon (you might remember him better as Mel, the befuddled producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show) in the role of a shifty Hollywood producer, is negotiating with a certain female author for the rights to film her book; the author tells him that she wants to make sure the essence of her book is captured by the filmmakers, and to this Deacon replies:
"Books, schmooks! Who do you know who reads books? Books are made for coffee tables or for something to look at while you're sitting on the toilet...but movies! Movies are for people with vision!"
I found it funny the first time I heard it, and I find it sharply perceptive now, something you'd never expect from a nervous-Nelly soft-core porno movie.

Movie Info

Rating: R
Alternate Title: Hollywood Blue
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Alan Roberts
Writer: Devin Goldberg
Cast:
Martine Beswick: Xaviera Hollander
Chris Lemmon: Robby Rottman
Adam West: Lionel Lamely
Richard Deacon: Joseph
Phil Silvers: Warkoff
Charles Green: Lawyer George
Lisa London: Laurie

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Dumb things people say to horror writers at SF conventions
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I've been to a lot of science fiction conventions, and while there are always perfectly intelligent, pleasant, courteous, well-read people at such gatherings, you inevitably run into those skiffy fans who are missing a lot in the way of clue.

Here's a list of things these folks have actually said to me at conventions, plus the responses I sometimes wished I'd given:
  1. Q: "You're a horror writer?" *smirks* "So tell me a scary story."
    A: There once was a writer who killed several innocent people in a hotel lobby because one person too many asked him to tell them something scary and he just snapped....

  2. Q: "What's your name again? Hmm ... never heard of you."
    A: And what do you do for a living? ... Really? You actually made a conscious decision to make that your life's work? For the love of God, man, WHY?

  3. Q: "So you, like, write that Friday the 13th stuff, huh?"
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?

  4. Q: "Do you know Stephen King? What's he really like?"
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?

  5. Q: "You write horror? Ew!"
    A: Phuck-u barada nikto.

  6. Q: "I can't write, but I've got a great idea for a book; you can write it and we'll split the money, okay?"
    A: Oh, MAY I? How long have I dreamed of this moment, when a selfless soul such as yourself would deem me worthy to WRITE SOMETHING FOR THEM while they sit on their ass and do nothing? How long have I prayed for yet ANOTHER person who isn't me to make money off my efforts while I work 3 jobs, turn insomnia into an art form, and eat macaroni & cheese four times a week? BLESS YOU, SELFLESS ONE! BLESS YOU!

  7. Q: "Why are you openly weeping?"
    (Usually asked after forty-seven minutes of sitting at an autograph table where the only person to approach you is an overweight drunk from the NASCAR convention sharing the hotel that weekend asking for directions to the "sh*thouse".)
    A: I want my mommy; my mommy reads all my books.

  8. Q: "Oh, I don't read books."
    A: Then WHAT are you doing here? Oh, you're a hooker? Here's a fifty -- there's a guy over at the autograph table who's openly weeping; go cheer him up, would you?

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Monday, September 15, 2008

Movie Review: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Early on in Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, one secondary character remarks: "Be content with your lot in life, no matter how poor it may be. Only then can you expect mercy."

movie posterNo other American director has understood or been able to capture the Mexican "culture of poverty" as unflinchingly as Peckinpah. Though Garcia may not be Peckinpah's best film (it continues to appear on several "All Time Worst" lists), it is without a doubt his most personal. From its lovely opening image (a young pregnant Mexican woman resting by a river, sunning herself) to its harrowing closing shot (a smoking Gatling gun), Garcia is unique, for no other film of Peckinpah's has so seamlessly managed to contain every element this often-brilliant director was obsessed with exploring: love, betrayal, desperation, tenderness in the face of brutality, loneliness, helplessness, anger, the struggle of integrity vs. conformity, friendship, and, of course, the futility of violence.

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much -- and on no film was he more accused of glorifying the violence he claimed to disdain than in Garcia.

The basic story goes like this: The beautiful daughter of a wealthy and powerful Mexican land baron is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by one Alfredo Garcia, a shameless gambler/drunkard/womanizer. The land baron, El Jefe, assembles his soldiers and declares his outrage at the loss of his daughter's (and subsequently the lessening of his own) honor, and shouts: "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!" And like the Knights of the Round Table questing for the Holy Grail, El Jefe's army is off and running.

Into this scenario enters an American expatriate named Bennie (Warren Oates) who is biding his time playing piano in a sleazy Mexico City bar. He is approached by two gangsters he often works for as a bagman (Robert Webber and Gig Young) who have been authorized to offer him a substantial piece of change if he'll hunt down and decapitate Alfredo Garcia. Bennie, despite many indecent instincts he's been trying to kill, accepts the offer, telling them he can use the money to take himself and his girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega, who remains the strongest female character to appear in a Peckinpah movie) somewhere far away and begin a new life.

Along the twisted way, Bennie proposes to Elita in what is arguably the most heartfelt and sadly moving scene Peckinpah ever filmed. The two run into and overcome several obstacles in their way (yes, I'm being deliberately vague here) before they find themselves at a rotting, neglected graveyard where the careless Garcia, shot by a gambling partner, is now buried.

The first half of this film has the loose narrative structure of an obscure European import; in fact, in places, it gets downright eccentric -- but I still say this film was condemned only because it came from Peckinpah; had it come from a director from New Zealand or France, critics would have drowned it in praise.

"Why does he think of this as a horror movie?" I hear you ask.

Because from the moment Bennie and Elita enter that wretched graveyard in the middle of the night, Garcia employs not only the classic visual elements of old horror movies (circling bats, wolves howling in the distance, misshapen shadows skulking in the background) but its heart and soul surrender to the horrific as well. The shadow-drenched grave robbing sequence is truly nightmarish, and from that scene on, the film begins a fast descent through all nine circles of Dante's Hell as Bennie makes his way across country with Garcia's decomposing head inside a wet burlap bag that is perpetually swarming with flies.

"Just you and me, Al, baby!" says Bennie, who spends the second half of the film slowly going insane. Warren Oates (who was infuriatingly underrated for most of his career) gives a fabulous performance as Bennie, making the man at once repulsive, sympathetic, heroic, romantic, and tragic. His fascinating and complex characterization was easily the best American film performance of 1974, yet was ignored by virtually everyone when it came time to hand out those overrated golden statuettes.

Bennie's "relationship" with Garcia's head gets so creepy by the film's end that I refuse to spoil it for you by going into any more details; suffice it to say that Bennie not only talks to Al, but often stops in the middle of a sentence to listen as Al gives him advice. (And that's not even the weird part.)

I am convinced that John McNaughton drew some of his visual and thematic inspiration for Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer from the second half of Garcia. Watch both films back-to-back and you might think you've just watched then first two movies in an uncompleted trilogy.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Gordon T. Dawson, Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah
Main Cast:
Warren Oates: Bennie
Isela Vega: Elita
Robert Webber: Sappensly
Gig Young: Quill
Helmut Dantine: Max
Emilio Fernandez: El Jefe
Kris Kristofferson: Paco

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing horror: the devil's in the details
by Gary A. Braunbeck

A writer friend of mine was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology. He asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.

Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was over-baked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to him what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway. It had to do specifically with the nature of a central character's physical and spiritual metamorphosis mid-way through on which the rest of the story's events were hinged. The precise nature of this metamorphosis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and -- I felt -- because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact; instead, they had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.

I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character's physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character's ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.

"What exactly is the nature of this change?" I asked.

"It's a supernatural transformation," was his reply.

"But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?"

"I don't know...it's just a supernatural transformation," he again said.

"That's not good enough," I replied. "In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character's psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character's ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed."

Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of criticism. My writer friend, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: "Dude, it's just horror! It's not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!"

No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that they had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life's work.

I don't know anyone who would enjoy hearing their life's work reduced to a triviality, do you?

Now, in my writer friend's defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving them problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.

I would also add that this writer has not written or read as much horror as he have science fiction and fantasy.

I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking them.

That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark -- however off-hand -- had offended me), his comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.

It's because too many writers think, Dude, it's just horror! Too many writers think that it's okay to just say "...it's a supernatural transformation", and leave it at that, because once you've let the demon out, you don't really need to think about the Hows and Whys and How-Comes; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don't matter, just so long as it's exciting or suspenseful or horrific.

Wrong.

It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story -- no matter how believable or outrageous its premise -- must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn't necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.

Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he's a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper's precise nature; we don't know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper's nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.

That's not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audience nor the characters in the film know the Creeper's precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense...but it doesn't quite work. It's the very unpredictability of the Creeper's actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper's nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn't have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.

It's sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

Conversely, the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better-written movie was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper's nature, what it wanted, why, and -- an old trick that always works -- that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain't Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it's light-years ahead of the first movie.

If you think I'm making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected.

He did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next questions: What is the true nature of the beast? Why does this happen? What does he or she want? What brought them here? Etc.

No, you don't have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you'd be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.

The details are important, folks. They are vital. They are not to be dismissed off-handedly, because it ain't just horror: it's a question of careful storytelling, because it's only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than just tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
Night Shade Books, 2003
ISBN: 1892389487
hardcover


Ghosts of Yesterday coverEarly in 2003, Night Shade Books released a stellar collection of 12 short stories and essays from the superb (and now deceased, sadly) Jack Cady that any serious readers of fantasy or horror should have on their shelves.

Ghosts of Yesterday is the best single-author collection I've read in five years. It's composed of 30,000 words of entirely new fiction, plus pieces that hadn't been in collections before.

Ghosts contains one of the best short stories I've ever read in any genre, "The Lady With The Blind Dog." The story -- like the collection itself -- is by turns thoughtful, sad, frightening, tragic, and, in the end, majestically chilling. You'd also do well to pay close attention to the essay "On Writing The Ghost Story" and the novella "The Time That Time Forgot."

Cady knows how to do it right, and makes the work produced by most of us look like high-school level attempts at Lit-rah-chure. Get it and read it. Do it now. The man's memory deserves nothing less from us.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Friday, August 29, 2008

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

nightbird coverI immersed myself in Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird for days. I first read it in 2002 when it was released in hardback by River City Publishing (Pocket Books put out the paperback version in 2003). It had been over a decade since McCammon last produced a novel; Nightbird reads astonishingly quickly for its near 700-page length, and McCammon's prose is as smooth, poetic, and unselfconscious as it has ever been.

Writing a period piece like this is never an easy task, but McCammon manages to make the dialogue spoken by the characters ring true in modern-day readers' ears, and his narrative passages easily rank alongside anything written by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen; yes, there's a certain--and necessary--austere quality to the language, but McCammon never once gets bogged down by the challenges of this particular brand of prose.

His characterization is crystalline; from the major players to even the smallest supporting roles, not one person who populates this book rings a false note--and considering the size of Nightbird 's cast (were David Lean still alive, he might well be planning this novel for his next gargantuan production), that is no small feat.

The overriding triumph of this genuinely magnificent novel is the utter believability of its core love story (and it should be noted here that, despite the death, hopelessness, and violence that surrounds the cast, there are several different types of love stories that run through this novel, one that easily takes it place in the classical Romantic tradition of Jane Eyre or Silas Marner).

It would have been easy--and arguably justified--to present the love story between Matthew and Rachel in an overly-passionate, smoldering, Sturm-und-Drang manner, playing its inherently tragic aspects to the hilt in the tradition of Victorian drama or grand opera, but McCammon has a much more subtle and affecting way of playing out the romance between his two central characters. They come together because of a mutual alienation with their fellow human beings, and because each is, at their core, a painfully lonely person who each have come to believe they will exit this life without ever having truly loved or been loved, without touching another person, without moving another human being, and in each the other finds a a hard, gem-like flame of hope amidst the madness and squalor of the times in which they are trapped.

You also cannot help but shake your head in wonder at the staggering amount of research that McCammon put into this novel, and in the way he makes this research necessary to the story's unfolding--not just as some expositional dump that screams, "Hey, lookit me! I done did all this here research and I'm gonna cram every last bit of it down your throat!" McCammon doesn't do that here--doesn't even come close. The historical accuracy present in these pages is not only impressive but vital to the deeper levels of the narrative. Plus it's all damned interesting, if at times blackly depressing.

Finishing this novel left me saddened--not because of the final outcome of the story, which is both inevitable and moving and therefore as satisfying as you could hope for, given the subject matter; no, it saddened me because, as McCammon has said, this does not signal his return to writing. In an interview I recently read, McCammon stated that one of the reasons he left the horror field was because it had become a literature that (his exact words following) "...celebrates death," and he no longer wishes to be a part of that.

Speaks the Nightbird is filled with death, but ultimately celebrates life and the possibilities offered to even the most despondent soul by love and faith. Finishing this novel made me wish McCammon would consider the contradiction at the center of his reasoning: yes, maybe horror/dark fantasy/whatever in the hell they're calling it this month...maybe it had been reduced to a literature that celebrated death, but the tide is turning, and now, more than ever, the field needs McCammon's skill and humanity to become what he himself once referred to as "...the supreme mythic literature of our time."

But let's face it; as much as we as readers (and myself as a writer for whom McCammon's craft and skill served as a strong influence) might bemoan the absence of further McCammon books, we are lucky to have this one. And the happiness of no readership--regardless how large or feverishly dedicated that readership may be--is worth any writer's peace of mind and happiness. Maybe McCammon will return to the field one day, and maybe not: I, for one, thank him regardless, for he has given me so many wonderful tales to remember and to which I can return anytime I choose. Like this one.

Speaks the Nightbird, aside from being probably the best novel you'll read this year, proves that, in hands like McCammon's, horror (in all its facets and forms, not just the traditional, boring, pale tropes), could very well fulfill that promise that he himself so eloquently foresaw. It's just a pity that the field let him down and we lost a man who was easily the most passionate and humane dark fantasist of his time. Speaks the Nightbird will leave you hoping, as it did me, that the much-missed Mr. McCammon will someday come back to us--or, rather, allow us to join back with him.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Images
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

images posterIf you enjoy truly disturbing and mind-warping films, check out Robert Altman's 1972 film Images. It's an often horrific study of a children's author (played by Susannah York) and her rapid descent into genuine schizophrenia and paranoia.

The movie is just amazing, beautifully shot and directed to keep you off-balance. It also features a very interesting, pre-Star Wars score by John Williams.

Images is available on MGM DVD for about 10 bucks and should be seen by any and all fans of serious psychological horror.

Movie Information



Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond (who was later director of photography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
Writers: Robert Altman, Susannah York

Cast:
Susannah York: Cathryn
Rene Auberjonois: Hugh
Marcel Bozzuffi: Rene
Hugh Millais: Marcel
Cathryn Harrison: Susannah
John Morley: Old Man

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There will never be another you
An excerpt from the story "The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women" by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is our last dance together,
Tonight soon will be long ago.
And in our moment of parting,
This is all I want you to know...

I remember my mother used to love this one old 1943 Nat King Cole record. It was the only one she owned, as far as I know. She played a song called "There Will Never Be Another You" all the time; it was written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. It was one of the sappiest songs I ever heard. I never understood why she liked it so much. But she loved it.

Our house was always immaculately clean when I was growing up. But give my mom even the simplest task--washing a few dishes or something like that--and she'd take about three times longer to get it done than almost anybody else. I used to think it was just her way of avoiding having to listen to my Dad complain about things, but the older I got, the more I began to notice that she didn't really do anything else with her days. She got up, made breakfast, then set about her tasks.

There will be many other nights like this,
And I'll be standing here with someone new.
There will be other songs to sing,
Another fall...another spring...
But there will never be another you.

I remember she used to have a few shots of whiskey after my dad went to bed, then she'd play that record over and over, until she got this dreamy look on her face, sitting there in her chair and listening to that song and pretending she wasn't who she was. Sometimes I could see it in her face, that wish. She was someone else and the song wasn't on a record, it was being sung to her by some handsome lover come to court her, to ask for her hand and take her away to a better life than the one she had.

There will be other lips that I may kiss,
But they won't thrill me,
Like yours used to do.
Yes, I may dream a million dreams,
But how can they come true,
If there will never, ever be another you?

I used to sneak downstairs and watch her do this, and I'd laugh to myself, you know? I'd laugh at her because I knew that my life was going to turn out differently. I'd never be so stupid as to wind up marrying a man who didn't really love me like a husband should but I stayed with him anyway because that's what the Church told me I was supposed to do. I'd never do that.

I'd never spend my days working around the house, doing the dishes and the laundry and the dusting, having no life of my own, no hobbies, no interests. I'd never spend half the afternoon fixing dinner, then half the evening cleaning up afterward, only finding time for myself after everyone went to bed so I could sip my whiskey and play a goddamn record by Nat King Cole about there never being another me.

I mean, I was eight, I was just a kid in grade school, and even though Mom was only thirty-seven she seemed old and used-up and kind of funny at those times.

But now it's twenty-five years later and here I am. I don't know if my husband still loves me; all I've got now is my work. Instead of whiskey and Nat King Cole I have two weak cocktails on Friday night after work and Jane Eyre or well-thumbed collections of poetry or a ton of videotapes, most of them romantic comedies.

She had no real life, except the one she found in her shot of whiskey and listening to that song, and I realized all of this way too late. All she had was this one little dream of some imaginary lover singing a sappy love song to her, and she spent the entire day anticipating it. That's why she took so long to get her work done; looking forward to her fantasy, to this dream she knew in her heart could never be, it was all she really had for herself.

She's gone now, but here I am, just like her.
Yes, I may dream a million dreams,
But how can they come true,
If there will never, ever be...
Another you?




Italicized lyrics © 1943 by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Monday, August 11, 2008

Pride of the Marines
a review by Gary A. Braunbeck

Pride of the Marines is a 1945 war drama starring John Garfield as the tormented marine Al Schmid. It's based on a novel by Roger Butterfield. This was one of the first movies to step away from the unconditional rah-rah nationalism of earlier WWII films and to portray the brutal nature of the conflict and terrible cost paid by the men who fought. In many ways, the movie was ahead of its time.

This movie contains one of the most terrifying and nerve-wracking sequences I've ever seen. Garfield and three of his buddies are trapped in a foxhole in a swamp, and the jungle surrounding them is swarming with Japanese soldiers. You never see the enemy soldiers, though early on you hear them yelling, "Marines, tonight you die!".

The marines can only see five feet in front of them because of the mist and fog, and one by one the guys are picked off by snipers (who take on the feeling of phantoms). Every once in a while you catch the glimpse of a shadow or hear the snapping of a twig...but that's it. As each of them falls to a sniper, the others become even more frightened and paranoid, until, near the end of the sequence (it's a good 10 - 12 minutes long, with no music, just sound effects and silence to build the unbearable tension), Garfield finally snaps and grabs the machine gun and begins firing blindily into the fog...

More would be a spoiler. It remains one of the most nerve-shatteringly suspenseful sequences I've seen.

Overall, the film is beautifully acted and it is one of Garfield's best performances. It's a pity it's not available on DVD, though you can very rarely find it shown on cable TV.

Movie Information


Rating: PG (were it re-released on DVD)
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Delmer Daves
Writer: Marvin Borowsky, Roger Butterfield, Delmer Daves
Score: Franz Waxman
Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley
Cast:

John Garfield: Al Schmid
Eleanor Parker: Ruth Hartley
Dane Clark: Lee Diamond
John Ridgely: Jim Merchant
Rosemary DeCamp: Virginia Pfeiffer
Ann Doran: Ella Mae Merchant
Ann E. Todd: Loretta Merchant
Warren Douglas: Kebabian

Labels: , , ,

BlogThis!


Friday, August 08, 2008

The Messiah on Mott Street
by Gary A. Braunbeck

The first time I was aware of art "happening" to me was when I was a little boy and was watching a first-run Night Gallery episode with my mom on December 15, 1971. The episode was "The Messiah on Mott Street," starring Edward G. Robinson, Tony Roberts, and Yaphet Kotto. The story centers on an old Jewish man named Abe Goldman (played by Robinson) who is sick and dying on Christmas Eve. Abe prays that a Messiah will save him from the Angel of Death, because if he dies, no one will be around to take care of his young grandson.

I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was this little lump in my throat, and by the time the episode reached its unapologetically sentimental conclusion, I was bawling like a baby. So was my mom. Until the day she died, "The Messiah On Mott Street" remained her favorite Christmas episode of any television show. We had both been moved by Rod Serling's simple tale of redemption and miracles among the tenements, and as Mom was pouring herself and me some hot chocolate afterward, she wiped her eyes and said, "Oh, I swear, that Rod Serling can sure write good stories."

It wasn't until Mom said those words that I came back to reality long enough to realize that Rod Serling (who I knew from The Twilight Zone) had written the words that those people had said, and that his story had made both me and Mom cry (in that good but embarrassing way you never want to tell anyone about later), and that meant that words and stories could affect people.

Not a major unveiling as far as art exhibits go, but it did the trick for me. Watching that episode, knowing my reaction to it, Mom's reaction to it, and then her reaction about her reaction, brought it full-circle and I started crying again (silly, sentimental boy), and when Mom put her arm around my shoulder and told me it was all right, it was okay, it was just a television show, just a story, all I could manage to say was, "No, it wasn't," before I started in with the spluttering again.

I hadn't the experience or the brains to fully realize what was happening to me, so how in hell was I supposed to articulate it? It seemed to me then that, if this were a fair world and just universe, everyone would be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as the people on Night Gallery had, and then maybe people wouldn't find themselves standing around with snot running down their face and tears in their eyes, frustrated because they couldn't find the words to express all they needed to convey.

So I began seeking out Rod Serling everywhere I could. I found collections of his short stories at the local library (Serling was a much-underrated prose writer) and read them all cover to cover, then started in again. Anytime a movie written by Serling came on television, Mom or dad would call me down to watch it. I became a Twilight Zone re-run junkie (still am), and you can bet your ass that mine was there in front of that television set every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. tuned to NBC for the next new episode of Night Gallery.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


The death of a child
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had a daughter. She died when she was very young. She had been sick from the moment she was born and never got better. She never learned to walk, never made a sound, never blew out the candles on a birthday cake. The only home she ever knew were the sterile walls of an ICU.

She was very tiny and she fought very hard. The last seventy-two hours of her life were agonizing, and when she died it was without the benefit of a warm, loving human touch lingering on her skin. Her mother, exhausted and sedated, was asleep on a couch in the hospital's lounge; I'd not eaten for almost a day-and-a-half and so had gone to the vending machines one floor below to get some coffee and a sandwich. The entire trip took four minutes. The coffee was lukewarm and weak, the sandwich stale and tasteless, and by the time I came back to the ICU, my daughter was dead and gone.

Her death was not a surprise, her mother and I had known for a while that it was (as the tired cliché goes) "only a matter of time."

Not a surprise, but still the ice-pick in my throat.

I remember seeing the curtain pulled around her incubator.

I remember the beeps, whirrs, and susurrations made by the various machines hooked up to the other patients in the unit.

I remember wanting to cry but being unable to.

Then it was shuffling, being taken aside, muffled words from weary nurses, uncomfortable-looking orderlies, a gurney with a squeaking front left wheel, and the last sight of my daughter: bumps and curves and patches of pale flesh inside a translucent plastic bag, rolling away, away.

Her mother and I were both young and foolish and not nearly strong enough to handle this. Our relationship crawled along for a few more months, a joyless thing, back-broken and spirit-dead, before ending in infidelity, accusations and poison.

It's been over twenty years since she died. I have since seen my writing career at last get on its feet, and finally gotten -- albeit sporadically -- the upper hand in the battle with my recurring bouts of severe depression.

Still, there are times -- periodic though they may be, usually very late at night or first thing in the morning -- when it all comes back, diminished not one whit by the passage of years, and I crumple. Simply crumple.

Don't believe what the pop-psychologists or self-help books or daytime talk-show hosts tell you about it: You never fully recover from the death of a child. The grief eventually works its way into the shadows, back there someplace, a whisper, an echo, a tendril of smoke perpetually curling in the air over a just-emptied ashtray ... but it never completely goes away.

Labels: , ,

BlogThis!


Previous Posts

⇐ Home

Powered by Blogger

Hello, and welcome!

I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

We hope you'll find this site informative and entertaining. Feel free to link to anything here, but if you want to repost something, please ask first. Thanks!

Site text is copyright 2000-2009 or as noted. Questions? Comments? Want to reprint/repost something? Send Lucy an email.