Archive

Writing

The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, now I need like … a cup of Ovaltine and a mid-80s Tom Hanks film. I just feel like I watched a True Crime marathon and need to scrub the naked depravity from my brain.

Is there a sub-genre of children chained in the basement stories? Because this book is like that, if you crossed it with Lord of the Flies to make it even more unpleasant. I wanted to reach through the page and strangle everyone involved.

Unfortunately for me, when I get angry at a story, I can’t help but keep reading.

It’s also based pretty much on a true story, where two sisters were left with a horrible woman in Indiana and tortured by the woman, her sons, and some horrible neighborhood kids. It’s an incredibly powerful book, but the simple fact of it being so closely tied to a very real incident really fucks me up.

In the author’s note, Ketchum claims he toned some of the real-life details down.

Christ.

And I had such faith in humanity to begin with!

This is why sometimes the horror genre needs to go supernatural. Supernatural abilities come in handy in stories like this. Just ask the “I like you” girl from V/H/S how she deals with bad situations …

I’m sorry. Bad joke. I’m in a dark place right now.

Actually, that’s true. There are no lights on and it’s 1:20am.

Someone want to try and sell me on the ol’ everything happens for a reason bit again?

Now … about that Ovaltine…

View all my reviews

I get asked this question a lot, and I always feel like I’m being asked why I like strangling small furry animals (I don’t actually like strangling small furry animals — I much prefer feeding them and turning them against their owners!). So, while I was listening to the Beyond the Pale radio show on my way to sit and watch Paranormal Activity 4, all the while reading a little Jack Ketchum in between everything else … I paused and tried to think for a moment what it is about all that stuff I find so compelling.

I don’t want to waste a lot of words explaining why I love what I love. Fans of romantic comedies don’t have to justify why they like pap. But horror fans are singled out; it’s a bit unfair, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever change. So fuck it. I’ll answer the question.

A large part of what I love about horror is not necessarily being scared, but rather I just fucking love being in a world that feels more like home to me than anywhere else. Being scared is part of it, though, because being scared and feeling overwhelmed by a dangerous, powerful world is also more recognizable to me than the world depicted in your average Ashton Kutcher flick.

And really — that’s it. It’s that simple for me. Sometimes the monsters are my heroes, something they’re my nightmares, but all of it feels like it’s part of a world where I came from, a world that makes sense to me.

In other words, it always feels like home.

It may not for you. And that’s cool. We’re just not from the same place, capice?

Nightmare Magazine, October 2012
Nightmare Magazine, October 2012 by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great debut issue of a promising magazine! I also enjoyed listening to the podcasts for two of the four fiction pieces (if you want something to listen to this Halloween, I’d highly recommend going to iTunes or wherever great podcasts are available and downloading the Tales to Terrify episode from this week, featuring Laird Barron’s story, “Frontier Death Song”–the reading and the story are both a lot of creepy fun). The interviews with the authors seemed a little cursory (I’ve enjoyed interviews of this nature a little better in One Story, for example), and I’m looking forward to the column discussing the horror genre digging deeper in the coming months; this issue’s defense of horror is fine, but it also makes points Peter Straub has been making for decades. Overall, however, this magazine is exactly what I want showing up at my door every month.

The standout stories in this issue for me are definitely Barron’s aforementioned “Frontier Death Song,” about a man chased by some nasty heavies from the Alaskan wilds (Barron himself raced the Iditarod three times, and his authority over such material here is a real benefit), and also Sarah Langan’s “Afterlife,” which is a clear lock for inclusion in any self-respecting anthology of the year’s best horror. “Afterlife” tells the story of a woman, trapped in her abusive mother’s house for forty-plus years, trying to convince the ghosts in the attic to move on before it’s too late. The gift for grim, inspired details in Langan’s story reminded me a lot of the same quality I loved so much in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

The other two stories were good, but they weren’t quite knockouts for me, but I’m sure there are people who will like them better. What’s nice about the magazine as a whole is that it found four distinct voices to highlight the potential range of this great genre.

Can’t wait for the next issue!

View all my reviews

Writer/Director David Ayer’s latest film, End of Watch, employs found footage to tell the story of two LAPD cops, Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), who run afoul of a particularly nasty cartel operating in the South LA. The basic building blocks employed here–honest to goodness good-guy cops struggle to do the right thing and bring down the badguys while their girlfriends and pregnant wives worry about them at home and their superiors give them stern talking-tos in the office–should have resulted in little more than a bundle of cliches. But End of Watch is better than that.

What makes it better for me is first and foremost the investment the filmmakers and actors make in the two lead characters. The concepts behind them might well be pretty common, but the details and natural charisma between these two more than overcomes the limits of the fundamental ideas. I really liked both of them a lot, and the time spent with them in the movie’s quieter, more joyful moments pays dividends when the shit starts to hit the fan.

End of Watch transcends its cliches as much as it transcends its genre. This is not a buddy cop film, no matter how much it looks like one. It is, actually, a horror film, and the found footage aspect functions less like Cops and more like The Blair Witch Project. I have seen a lot of cheesy scenes where cops run into burning buildings to save children, but never have I seen that scene made to look so much like two people fighting their way through such a hellish inferno. The cinematography keeps you very much in the moment, and in doing so allows you to realize just how downright terrifying it could be to be a cop. There’s also some intensely gruesome scenes that went well beyond the limits observed by some recent horror films I’ve seen.

The film also does a nice job of underplaying the horrors hidden around the next corner. It’s very good at making everything appear normal on the outside, before ratcheting up the nightmare in ways that would make Fulci proud.

End of Watch is exciting, scary, and effective, and it’s high on my list of best films I’ve seen this year.

DRINK! … every time someone mentions “the chopping block” or “going home tonight”

DRINK HARDER! … whenever someone says it would suck to go home at this point in the competition

DRINK AGAIN! … every time there’s a montage of faces while dramatic music plays and no words are spoken nor actions taken

CHUG-A-LUG! … for shameless product placement

SLURP IT! … whenever you ask a co-worker about recent developments on this week’s such-and-such

BURP IT UP AND SWALLOW IT BACK DOWN! … when you feel sad when such-and-such loses and/or wins an Emmy

GARGLE IT! … when a person on the show says “it is what it is” or “it’s a game” or “I came to play”

QUAFF THAT SHIT! … whenever God is thanked for anything related to the events transpiring on this week’s such-and-such

DUNK YOUR FACE IN IT AND BLOW BUBBLES! … for use of the word “blindside”

HAVE A GLASS OF WATER! … whenever an insight into modern-day race relations or gender politics is made, because … damn! no one saw that coming!

PUMP YOUR OWN STOMACH! … whenever someone states winning such-and-such has been his or her “dream” for his or her “whole life”

PUMP YOUR NEIGHBOR’S SEPTIC TANK! … whenever the person talking about his or her “dream” has yet to reach the legal voting age

GO BACK TO THE STORE! … whenever you make it all the way through your DVR backlog, but hurry — you don’t have time to waste!

Abraham Road Cover Art

Abraham Road Cover Art

Well, folks — it looks like I drank too much whiskey last night and hit the publish button on my new novella, Abraham Road. It’s now available exclusively on Amazon and will probably remain so for the next ninety days.

I think it’s great. I was trying to hold off and get it published in a real magazine somewhere, but … I couldn’t wait. It’s October. It’s scary story season.

Also, I love this book, and I couldn’t wait for people to read it. I keep saying it’s like what would happen if H. P. Lovecraft rewrote Of Mice and Men. 

I suppose you’re right. I mean, now that slavery’s been outlawed, people of all colors seeking domesticated dependents over which they can have total control must resort to something. Why not get a pet? Don’t I know that I’m missing out on a complete life? Don’t I know that not having a pet marks me as a cold-hearted, animal-hating Cruella?

Well, yes, I suppose you’ve pegged me. Why not, indeed, but for my hatred of innocence and all things cuddly and/or quadrupedal. But allow me, for a second, to explain my misgivings.

First off, while I could take the easy road and attack pet owners for being lonely people in desperate need of the unconditional love a pet can provide and which the pet owner cannot manage to elicit from the world at large, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this phenomenon. If it really were about finding something to love that would love you back—well, so be it. But pet ownership isn’t about love; pet ownership is about power. (See: pet ownership)

Pets are quasi-human creatures valued for their ability to seem human while never developing beyond a kind of infant-like state out of which no revolution can ever be born. They are, in other words, sort of human but always less than human. An abused dog never has a chance of overthrowing its cruel master. It must suffer its abuse and at best take its frustrations out on things less likely to bite back: the mailman, passing children, and creatures generally smaller than itself.

The infant-like state of pets keeps their psychology simple, and allows every would-be master to feel superior to their trained beasts. As companions, pets are the equivalent of friends dumber than you; they will never challenge you and tell you that you are wrong, and you will always feel clever by comparison.

Further evidence of the power dynamics inherent in pet ownership is exposed through an examination of just how thoroughly being a “pet” requires the full subversion of the otherwise natural tendencies of the creature possessed. Dogs are collared, muzzled, and leashed; fish are sequestered in a small tank and made to stay relatively put; and birds? They get it worst of all. Caged and completely denied their most basic form of motion–only future veal could say it has it worse! Cats get off pretty easy, and cats may therefore be the one unmasterable pet—although their prissy arrogance has always created a certain amount of distrust between humans and felines. I have no doubt that if cats grew to the size of mountain lions, they would eat us all.

Moreover, pets are animals torn from a world in which they would be able to exist naturally and placed in a world in which they absolutely cannot function without the constant attention of a human master. This environment of enforced, isolated dependency is common in situations of domestic violence, indentured servitude, and prostitution, where people are forced through various means to do what they are told because they need something that they can now only get from the person telling them what to do. The only way a pet is ever getting out of this situation is to slip out into the street and get plastered by a bus, or start scrounging for scraps and rats with the diseased mutts in the alley.

A lot of effort goes into the maintenance of a pet, but what are the rewards? Well, you get something that is more or less happy to have you around, but eventually this gets kind of old. Face it: you will never want to play with your dog as much as your dog will want to play with you. And even if you don’t mind the inconvenience and believe that you are a very nice animal-slave-owner and that your little dumb furry slave loves you—even if all of that is true, there is still the fundamental truth that you will let your pet down. You will disappoint it, because a pet is a prisoner—your prisoner—but it has been made to love you, and love you it does. You are the most important thing in its world, but this feeling is something you will never be able to reciprocate simply because of the fact that for you, the pet is a peripheral entity—a side benefit that you enjoy visiting with now and then. Eventually, the pet’s continued entreaties for attention will grow annoying, because you’ve seen all the animal’s tricks before and you’re kind of bored. Or maybe you just have something else to do that’s more important than an unending game of Fetch the Nasty. In the end, there is hardly a better way to give yourself a guilty conscience than have some sorry animal neglected in your home that loves you more than you’ll ever love it.

Children are ultimately more satisfying, because eventually they grow out of diapers, start talking, and start changing into strange creatures you can no longer train to roll over and play dead. Pets don’t change; no pet will ever become smart enough to get a job and pay for its own Purina.

Owning pets is the privilege of the dominant race. Having subservient creatures in every household (no matter how small) is another way we show our hegemony to the rest of the natural world.

But you’re right. Sounds like I’m missing out.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book essentially contains two nested novellas, wrapped within an interlude with our favorite ka-tet. All three stories pivot on a starkblast, which is a powerfully cold storm that causes trees to implode from the sudden drop in temperature.

The books stays true to the narrative nature of the other Dark Tower books–so much so that I can’t imagine how frustrated I would have been to have read this is in sequence after Wizard and Glass, which is itself another storytelling hour from Roland.

I also think that nesting the stories provided few returns and was ultimately irritating. Halfway through each tale, King fires up the next one, and it breaks the narrative flow. Humorously enough, this book started me on a vicious round of starting books and not finishing them. I’ve had about a dozen going lately.

But though I put this book down for months, I’m glad I returned to it. The conclusions to the stories were evocative, and as a Dark Tower fan I was rewarded with some emotional moments centered on Roland when we find out who the whole thing is about. It was mature and rather subtle sleight of hand.

Overall, a well-written gem with a frustrating structure, a nice addition to the Dark Tower cycle. I hope it’s not the last.

View all my reviews

Abraham Road cover art

Abraham Road … coming later ….

The good news is that Abraham Road is in great shape. I am the worst judge of my own work, but early reader reaction suggests this short little book could be one of the coolest stories I’ve written.

I know I like it a lot. I’ve had some ups and downs with it over the last few months, but right now I’m pleased every time I go back to it.

The bad news is that I’ve decided to try and actually see what would happen if I submitted this story a few places. I’d love it if I could place it somewhere an editor might give it a look and fix it up. I’m sure there are ways it could be improved that I’m not seeing. No doubt, a writer is always too close to the work to see it best.

I have three places in mind (the market being rather limited for a piece which right now clocks in at 24,400 words). Combined rejection time for all of them: probably roughly four months.

And here I was, hovering over the ‘save and publish’ button on Amazon.com this past Sunday night. I talked myself out of it, and it was a good decision (found some typos in the morning! yeah!), but it hurts me and really tests the limits of my patience to have a real winner of a story ready to go that I can’t let anyone see.

Thinking about the long four months ahead of gathering enough rejection letters to justify self-publishing again … just makes me sad. It’s why I gave up submitting pieces to begin with — I don’t like having to wait for someone to tell me they don’t like what I wrote. Disappointment shouldn’t be so boring and time-consuming.

That’s why I love McSweeney’s and The Atlantic so much: one week response time! Got another rejection from McSweeney’s this week, in fact. Always makes my day.

Anyway, I believe this choice is the right one.

We’ll see if I can actually go through with it, though, or if I spaz out halfway through October and hit that damnable publish button.

This summer, I submitted a new short story, “Variable,” for the How Stuff Works writing contest. Of the 104 valid submissions, “Variable” was selected as one of the sixteen stories to go head-to-head in a bracket-style competition. It’s naturally my hope that you’ll all go and vote for “Variable,” but really — you should just go and check out the stories and vote for whichever you feel is best.

Here’s the link: http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2012/09/09/read-the-sweet-16-horror-fiction-contest-entries-here-2/

Many thanks for those who take the time to vote!