Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thoughts on another Wall concert

(Photos taken by and displayed courtesy of Tony Wong. Thanks, Tony!)

Went to another concert of Roger Waters performing The Wall on Monday, December 13. My thoughts on the overall themes of the show can be found in a post dated November 30, but this time I’d like to just recount the experience.

I’d gotten tickets via a pre-sale, and all I can say is that my usual bad karma with contests, lotteries, and giveaways was defeated. Floor seats! I’ve never had floor seats in my life! 24th row, dead center. The only problem was that the people in front of us were tall, and that most everyone in our section stood for the entire show (hence I spent a lot of time on tiptoe) but that was a minor annoyance.

Nearly any seat at a show this big is a good one, but there’s something really special about being right there on the floor. You’re able to almost forget that the rest of the venue is there – it’s much more intimate, if a show of this magnitude can be called intimate.


As he has on every night of the tour so far, an actor portraying a homeless man wandered the aisles (a sign in his shopping cart had the words “HOMELESS NEED MONEY FOR HOOKERS AND BOOZE” on one side and the Eisenhower quote used later in the show on the other). I was able to say hello and shake hands with Mr. Homeless Guy, who in turn complimented me on my shirt (I was wearing my fangirl jacket). And I couldn’t help it – during the preshow portion when dialogue from Spartacus was played, I yelled out, “I’m Spartacus and so is my wife!” Well, the people in front of me laughed.

In the Flesh?

At the 11/29 show, the opening of this song made me let out a startled yelp, much to the amusement of my seatmates. Same thing happened on 12/13, with much less excuse. It’s so loud, and when you’re so close to the stage the pyrotechnics make it look like the stage is exploding. My head was constantly swiveling at the end as I looked from the stage to search for the crashing plane, back to the stage again, etc. Wowza.

The Thin Ice

The sound cut out briefly during this song, but only for a couple seconds. That was the only technical glitch (only one noticeable to me, anyway). The photos of fallen loved ones are still haunting on a second viewing. I found it interesting that one of the photos was of a soldier in the Wehrmacht, and that the tribute was not restricted to those on the “winning” or “good” side. Think of the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front – they were ordinary guys just like ours, who just wanted to get through this and get home to their families.

Another Brick in the Wall Part 1

This song always gets overlooked because of its flashier and more well-known brethren, but the hypnotic music and the visuals of an endless panning shot over what seems to be a red-tinted sea are quite effective.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives

The first and perhaps the best demonstration of the show’s remarkable use of misdirection. While helicopter sounds play, spotlights probe the audience. Which means that while the audience members are doing the “me me me, put me in the spotlight” thing, the crew can get the teacher puppet inflated and give it a dramatic entrance.

Another Brick in the Wall Part 2

Having the kids from local schools join the performance is one of several ideas that I wouldn’t have thought would have worked, but did.


Roger’s duet with footage of himself from the Wall shows in 1980 proves, if nothing else, that time has been extremely kind to him. And his remarks that the duet might seem a bit narcissistic? Still funny.

Goodbye Blue Sky

Now that I’m used to the new animation, I’m OK with it. At any rate, I understand and respect the point it’s making. In a strange way, the use of corporate, religious, and monetary symbols remind me of the animated short Black Hula. I think Roger should have included a McDonald’s symbol, though.

What Shall We Do Now?

Always amazing, and the added projections on the wall during the flower sequence are well done.

Young Lust

Someone described the visuals for this song as being like a James Bond movie credit sequence, only with the women visible instead of silhouetted. Sounds about right. I figure Roger realized that with no woo-woo girls along to provide eye candy, he’d offer up some T&A. Wasn’t that thoughtful? On a musical note, kudos to Harry Waters – I never knew a Hammond organ could sound so raunchy.

One of My Turns

I felt like the staging was missing something. I liked what he did in the Berlin show, when he trashed the “hotel room”. I can see how destroying several guitars a night for a few months running might get cost-prohibitive, though.

Don’t Leave Me Now

This works much better live than I thought it would. The woman’s image turning into this eyeless thing was well done – has Roger been watching Japanese horror films lately? It seemed a very J-horror image.

Another Brick in the Wall Part 3

By now the wall is nearly complete, and the entire stage area is one big screen. A TV image is smashed, then becomes three images. Smashed again, even more images, all with different information. Then it becomes a blur of babble and information, at such high speed that most of it is almost subliminal.

The Last Few Bricks

This instrumental interlude while the last bricks are put into place is one of my favorite parts of a live performance of the Wall. It’s a reiteration of the musical themes that got us here so far.

Goodbye Cruel World

I need to amend my earlier blog post. Waters doesn’t put in the last brick (he’s got his hands full with a microphone) but it is put in from the inside. Thus I stand by my interpretation that the wall-building is an internal thing.


Even in the 24th row I’m not able to read much of the information about Fallen Loved Ones that displays during intermission. My eyes were never that great and they aren’t improving with age. Still, I was able to tell that the people represented here are from conflicts ranging from World War 1 to the present day, and are not just soldiers but political activists and civilians as well.

During intermission I also got to meet fellow fans Tony Wong (who took the awesome photos you see on this post) and Simon Wimpenny. Good to meet you guys, and I hope I didn’t come off as a babbling fool.

Hey You

I can’t imagine what novices of the show must think with this one. “What? Are they doing the whole rest of the show behind the wall?” I love the sequence that makes it look like we’re peering within the wall, and that freakish animated creature who runs and swipes at the audience. He scared more than a few people, judging by audience reaction.

Nobody Home

The “hotel room in the wall” effect is great and very well realized this time.


This song has always been filler on the album, but the images of kids being reunited with fathers home from (presumably) Iraq are very moving. It seemed to get awfully dusty in the Honda Center, there was something in my eye…

Bring the Boys Back Home

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Comfortably Numb

David Gilmour didn’t play at this show either.

The Show Must Go On

Another song that works much better in the live setting than it does on the album. Kudos to Robbie Wyckoff and the woo-woo boys for a stellar job.

In the Flesh

It probably shouldn’t be so thrilling that the show and the character of Pink has gone to the dark side, but damn if this isn’t amazing spectacle on every level. Yes, I was there doing the hammer salute and begging for the spotlight.

Run Like Hell

I’ve no quibbles with the Waters-less Pink Floyd, but it’s very nice to see Run Like Hell reclaimed from its status as Floyd v3.0’s rollicking crowd-pleaser and become the “song for all the paranoids in the audience” that it’s meant to be. The “i” motif is very clever, especially the “iPaint” for an image of Hitler and “iPay” for a graveyard. And the famous Floyd flying pig, now decorated with graffiti, hovers over the audience – indeed, right above my head. Oh, if I only were taller I could have touched it…

Waiting for the Worms

Shit gets real. The images of the marching hammers fill the screen (and if you’re sitting where I was, your entire field of vision). It’s rather frightening, and reminds me of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Fantasia, when the brooms are wreaking havoc – the same feeling of things going out of control.


Maybe Roger should move with the times and retitle this as “Intervention.” Sorry, I’m getting punchy.

The Trial

Of all the elements that have carried over from the original stage show, the trial animation seems to have aged the least well. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. I may just be tired of it after three decades. Nice to see the reappearance of scary Hey You guy, this time with an “iHate” graffiti that nicely illustrates self-loathing. Hearing thousands chant “Tear down the wall” and watching the wall itself come down are every bit as thrilling and cathartic as I’d hoped they would be.

Outside the Wall

Yet another image that shouldn’t work but does: with the wall torn down, on Mr. Screen we see a silhouette of a ballerina descend slowly from above; she releases a handful of helium balloons, which fly away, then she does a curtsy and stands with arms upraised. It’s a strange image of hope and relief, and though odd is perfect for the end of such an evening.

What can I say? Probably one of the best shows I've ever seen or will ever see.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kelly's big score (December 2010)

Made our annual trip to Solvang for the Julefest, which included the town's Christmas parade. Oh, and we did a lot of eating, too.

I made my usual round of the bookstores and came home with:

The Boys from Brazil - Ira Levin

McTeague - Frank Norris

True Grit - Charles Portis

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B and Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe - Sandra Gulland

Nightmare in Pink, Dress Her in Indigo, and One Fearful Yellow Eye - John D. Macdonald

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

Yes, the Great Literary Agent Quest has resumed!

Query letter for Undertow? Check!

Spreadsheet of information about literary agents who might be interested? Check!

Stockpile of chocolate pudding for comfort when if rejection notices arrive? Check!

Let's keep the query train a-rolling!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Watch this now: Patton Oswalt takes down "Christmas Shoes"

I love Christmas, and I love Christmas music. But I hate the song "Christmas Shoes" with every fiber of my being.

If you hate it too, watch Patton Oswalt's savage takedown of "Christmas Shoes". Includes NSFW language.

His memories of the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas song is pretty funny too.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on The Wall concert

It would have been very easy to be disappointed by Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall (Monday, November 29, 2010 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles). Pink Floyd’s album The Wall (specifically the song “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”) was what hooked me on the band; I received the album for my 12th birthday. The rest, as they say, is history. Thirty years of history, and after such a long wait I was afraid that the show would not live up to expectations.

The original Wall concerts in 1980 are the stuff of rock and roll legend. So elaborate and expensive that the tour was limited to four cities, it also represented the last time the “classic” four-man lineup of Pink Floyd performed live until the 2005 Live 8 reunion. The concerts were filmed but never released. An audio recording was not released until 2000. Fans have had to make do with Alan Parker’s 1982 film adaptation Pink Floyd The Wall – a fine film and probably the best possible adaptation, but not a substitute for the concert experience – and with Waters’ 1990 staging of The Wall in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. This latter was a well-intentioned boondoggle, so beset by technical problems that a good third of the footage in the official concert film was taken from the previous evening’s dress rehearsal. Again, not what we really wanted.

I confess I felt trepidation when I heard that Waters would be taking The Wall on tour, despite (or because of) thirty years of wishing I’d been there. I was not encouraged by the fact that Waters hasn’t done any new material of note since 1992; his tours in the late 90s and early 00s have been rehashes of past glories. His Dark Side of the Moon tour in 2006-2007 was enjoyable but not earthshaking. And I was skeptical of any changes he might make to The Wall in its new incarnation. I had no desire to see Waters’ version of “Greedo shot first.”

But the new Wall tour is proof that going back to the well can be a positive thing. While the music and the staging concept remain unchanged, advances in technology have enhanced the performance in a multitude of ways. And there are other, more meaningful changes as well.

First off, the music. What you’ll hear at the show more or less mirrors what you’ll hear on the recordings of the original tour (and is not too far removed from the studio album). No one can replace Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (who will grace one of the new Wall shows with his presence, but alas it was not Los Angeles) for either vocals or guitar, but Waters has put together a solid, talented lineup of musicians: Snowy White (guitar), Graham Broad (drums), Harry Waters (Hammond organ), Jon Carin (keyboards), G. E. Smith (guitar), Dave Kilminster (guitar), Robbie Wyckoff (vocals), Jon Joyce (backing vocals), and Mark, Kip, and Pat Lennon (backing vocals).

As for the visuals, the original Wall shows were highly impressive for their time, not least because of the fundamental concept: constructing a wall across the stage that eventually blocks the band from the audience’s view. As a metaphor for alienation it’s not especially original, to say the least, but as theater it’s powerful. The show begins with the right and left side of the wall already in place, and as the songs tell of greater reasons for one to shun interaction with fellow human beings, more and more bricks are added to the wall. At the concert’s halfway mark the wall is complete. It’s simple yet quite effective, especially as one is so caught up in the show that it’s easy to overlook the smaller and smaller spaces available for viewing Waters and the band. And the first song of the second half, “Hey You,” is performed entirely from behind the wall, but with the full light show and spotlights on singers still continuing, thus reinforcing the theme of alienation and the metaphorical barrier between artists and audience.

This is not to say that the audience is left staring at a blank space for much of the show. During the Wall’s construction the band’s famous circular film screen (known as “Mr. Screen” to the fans) is in place, and post-construction the wall itself serves as a projection area. Such has always been the case with Wall concerts dating back to the originals, but new technology allows for precise animation onto individual bricks, or across the width of the wall itself. Waters uses this technology to often-stunning, occasionally heartbreaking effect, from the creepily lascivious flowers to simple photos and descriptions of those who’ve died in wars. The animation present throughout the show is a mix of cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s original sequences (save for “Goodbye Blue Sky,” the absence of which is my only complaint about the show) along with newer animation, as well as use of newsreel and television footage.

But perhaps the greatest enhancement to The Wall is the shift in the work’s themes. The overall theme remains the same: rock musician has crappy life (father killed in World War 2, overattentive mother, soul-crushing educational experience, marriage gone bad), reacts to crappy life by alienating himself, unleashes his inner fascist, puts himself on trial, tears down the wall, and learns the true meaning of Christmas. But the intervening three decades between the work’s conception and its newest incarnation have, thankfully, given Waters some perspective and allowed him to imbue the work with greater maturity and universality.

It’s ironic that what first attracted me to The Wall is the very thing that makes it no longer my favorite Pink Floyd album. It’s a very adolescent work – a friend once summed it up as: “I’m an asshole and it’s everyone’s fault but mine.” This is fine when you’re an adolescent, and frankly I doubt I’d have gotten through my teen angst phase unscathed if I hadn’t had this album in heavy rotation. But as I’ve gotten older, the album has had less appeal for me. (It’s still one of my go-to albums when I’m angry about something, though.)

Waters seems to have realized this too, and while keeping the same themes he’s given them a broader appeal. The defining loss of the character, the first “brick” if you will, is that of the character’s father. To this sequence Waters has added visuals of others’ family members lost to wars and other conflicts; during the show’s intermission the wall has photos and descriptions of fallen loved ones (these tributes were sent in by fans) giving silent testimony to the terrible costs of war. Likewise, though the song “Vera” makes specific reference to World War 2 and British singer Vera Lynn (famous for “We’ll Meet Again”), the accompanying visuals include footage of today’s children reuniting with fathers home from Iraq. There’s a greater use of metaphor as well, as the song “Mother” becomes not just an exploration of the damage parents can (un)intentionally do, but of governments that don’t trust their citizens to think for themselves.

One of my favorite improvements is a subtle one. At the close of the show’s first half, during “Goodbye Cruel World” the final brick is put into place. In past stagings, the placement of the brick has always been the job of a stagehand. But now Waters puts the brick in place himself. It may only be improved brick technology that allows this, but there is also the implication that we are the ones that build these walls. We do it to ourselves, it is not done to us. We are the ones responsible for what happens when we cut ourselves off emotionally and spiritually. And we are the ones who need to tear down the walls, no matter how painful or difficult that may be.

Overall, the evening was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. An added thrill was that everyone around me seemed to get what was going on, and enjoying not just another show but a blend of spectacle and meaning, sight and sound.

I waited thirty years for this. It was worth it.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Wingardium leviosa! My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One is up at

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Equinox

Equinox is living proof that low budget does not have to equal crap. Check it out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A little education would go a long way

Now playing on the iPod - "O Children" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Making news recently is the abysmal write-for-hire contract being promoted by James "A Million Little Pieces" Frey (see the story in New York Magazine, also comments by John Scalzi and a follow-up by Scalzi).

I confess that it took reading these articles and comments before I realized that my Bachelor of Arts in English, emphasis on Creative Writing, had not a single class about publishing: what it entails and how it works. Nothing about the nuts-and-bolts basics such as the difference between a query and a synopsis. And certainly nothing about recognizing the warning signs of bad contracts. Nor, it seems, do many MFA programs offer such information.

Creative writing classes can be very valuable to honing writing skills. But trying to make inroads in publishing without a basic education of how the industry works makes an already difficult task even more onerous.

There is good information out there, but for the most part it's up to writers to find it through research, and through trial-and-error. This takes time (time that I'm sure most of us would rather spend doing the actual writing). A week's worth of lectures on publishing would do young writers a world of good (and this shouldn't just be limited to MFA level courses - not all of us have the money or desire to get a Master's degree).

What I'd like to see discussed in a publishing lecture series:

  • the markets for fiction and how they are changing
  • traditional publishing vs. e-publishing vs. self-publishing - an overview of the pros and cons of each
  • the things you need: a finished manuscript, a query, a synopsis
  • the importance of revisions and reader feedback before you start looking for an agent or publisher
  • how to avoid obvious scams and flim-flam artists
  • the basics of copyright law, or, why you don't need to mail yourself a copy of your manuscript

If for whatever reason you're not interested in publishing and just want to write for your own pleasure, maybe run off a few copies at and hand them out to your friends and folks, that's awesome, and more power to you. But if you want to be published one day (and face it, most of us would like that, if not for the mostly mythical big bucks as for the chance to reach an audience beyond friends and folks), it behooves you to learn the ropes of the industry. Because that's what it is. It's business, and tying yourself to an awful contract or banging your head against the doors of literary agents because you don't know the basics of querying will do you no favors, and may put you off writing altogether.

Take a look to the right - those Books and Writing links are a good place to start (I highly recommend Miss Snark - the site is no longer active but the archives are a treasure trove of valuable information).

As for me, I need to get back to work on my query letter - maybe the next revision will get it into fighting shape!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Hell of the Living Dead

My review of the God-awful zombie movie Hell of the Living Dead is up at Horrorview. Read it if you dare!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: High Anxiety

My review of Mel Brooks Hitchcock homage/parody High Anxiety is up at Horrorview.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This just in: Plagiarism is bad

Yes, I know, stating the obvious. But apparently it wasn't obvious to the editor of Cooks Source magazine.

It started when a blogger found out that Cooks Source had used one of her articles in its magazine, in violation of copyright and with no permission or compensation. In her defense, after a feeble "my bad" the editor claimed:

"...the web is considered 'public domain' and you should be happy we didn't 'lift' your whole article and put someone else's name on it!"

I'm not making this up. Excuse me while my head explodes like that dude in Scanners.

With this cavalier attitude toward copyright and lack of respect for others' hard work, it should come as no surprise that Cooks Source seems to have stolen work from a variety of sources, including the The Food Network.

I'm not sure if the Cooks Source editor's behavior can be chalked up to chutzpah or just plain stupidity, but whatever it is, she's got plenty of it.

For all the grisly details, read Edward Champion's fine article, and the forums at Absolute Write. And many thanks go to the ever-awesome Lauren at BiblioBuffet for sharing this story.

Writing is hard work. That doesn't give you an excuse to steal others' work and pass it off as your own.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: APE

Now playing on the iPod - "Summoning of the Muse" - Dead Can Dance

My review of the ultra-cheap, ultra-bad South Korean ripoff of King Kong, imaginatively titled APE, is up at Horrorview. Enjoy.

Listen up: Dead Can Dance

I heard the song "Summoning of the Muse" the other day and was enthralled. And it turns out we have Dead Can Dance's album Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and I'd never listened to it. Why didn't anyone tell me how awesome this band is???

I predict this song will make it onto a future Soundtrack to an Imaginary Movie. Or at least be in an Imaginary Trailer (if you have a video editor and time to spare, let me know - I'll give you a plot synopsis and a dream cast, and you can make the trailer, and I'll pay you in cookies).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fun at the Weekend of Horror

Well, I finally made it out of the house for something besides (a) work, (b) doctor appointment, or (c) grocery store, because I went to the Weekend of Horror con.

This was a fun time, not just because I got to get over my mild case of cabin fever, but because I got to meet up with my buddy (and fellow Horrorview reviewer) AJ. We met up with my other buddies, Erik and Gerry, and had a good time.

Highlights included fun panels with FX maestro Greg Nicotero (talking about his work on the upcoming series The Walking Dead) and veteran actor Sid Haig. But the undoubted highlight was a photo op and panel with that paragon of big-chinned awesomeness, Bruce Campbell! (During our photo op he said I was "lovely"! I'm still in fangirl bliss over that!)

I also got to meet "drive-in reviewer" Joe Bob Briggs, whose reviews I've been reading for years and who has always been a great inspiration in my own movie and book reviews. He signed my copy of Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In and I bought a DVD of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies with his commentary. Visit Mr. Briggs' website to learn more about him.

All this and dinner at the Daily Grill with AJ, Erik, and Gerry. Good times!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Can this be true?

Is George R. R. Martin close to finishing A Dance With Dragons? Maybe...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Harlan Ellison's saying farewell

Now playing on the iPod - "Equinoxe" - Jean-Michel Jarre

I didn't even know about the recent MadCon in Wisconsin, but now I wish I'd been there. Because it looks like it's going to be Harlan Ellison's last convention appearance, ever. It seems that Ellison knows his health is failing, and that this con would be his last, and the book he's working on will be his last. Full details here, and thanks to the SomethingAwful forum for bringing this news to my attention.

I've never considered myself a science fiction fan, yet I'm a huge fan of Ellison - probably because, like Ray Bradbury, his work has transcended the silly limitations of "genre". They are damn good stories. (And a damn good novel, too - Ellison's Spider Kiss is a great rock and roll novel.)

Those of you unfamiliar with Ellison's work would do well to seek out the Essential Ellison retrospective, which includes many of his best-known and most highly regarded works.

My own favorites of Ellison's work include:

  • Spider Kiss
  • "Djinn, No Chaser"
  • "Night of Black Glass"
  • "Croatoan"
  • "The New York Review of Bird"
  • "Seeing"
  • "The Deathbird"
  • "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs"
  • "The Hour That Stretches"
  • "Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage"
  • "The Function of Dream Sleep"
  • "Mefisto in Onyx"
  • "Broken Glass"
  • "Soft Monkey"
  • "A Prayer for No One's Enemy"
  • "All the Birds Come Home to Roost"
  • "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes"
  • "A Boy and His Dog"
  • "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"

And there's many more where those came from.

Ellison's work used to be quite difficult to find, but much has been reprinted in recent years, and thanks to online bookstores it is much easier to track down. Do yourself a favor and read his work (his nonfiction, including his movie review collection Harlan Ellison's Watching is very good as well).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

You do it like this

A fine essay over at the L. A. Times explains how it's possible to write a novel while still being a working mother. Lots of good tips and insight here.

Monday, September 20, 2010


In honor of Roger Waters touring The Wall (can't wait for November!) and because I have a lot on my mind yet nothing to say, here are the typical elements of a Pink Floyd song (found somewhere on the Web, I honestly can't recall where).

The average Pink Floyd song contains these elements:

  • People talking at the beginning
  • Birds tweeting
  • People talking at a party
  • Cash registers
  • Heartbeats
  • Footsteps
  • Cars driving by
  • A guitar riff
  • A bunch Of fucking annoying cymbals
  • Cash
  • 4 minutes of silence
  • Scottish accents
  • Spanish accents
  • Synthesizers
  • People yelling
  • Guitar solo
  • A teacher telling children to eat their meat
  • Aforementioned teacher telling children they can't have pudding if they don't eat their meat
  • Various animal sounds
  • Satanic chanting
  • Something about World War II
  • Clocks ticking
  • Saxophone solo
  • Howling woman
  • Vocal delays
  • A few more minutes of silence
  • A helicopter
  • The second verse
  • Guitar solo
  • Special guest vocalist Stephen Hawking
  • Organ sustain
  • Bicycle bells
  • Wailing
  • Crazy guy laughing
  • Copious lap steel guitar parts
  • Screaming
  • Guitar related noise
  • Wind
  • Acid
  • Vomiting
  • Bloat
  • Guitar solo
  • "Congratulations, you've just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old Pink, care of the funny farm. Chalfont."
  • Guitar solo
  • Fadeout/More people talking
  • Quacking ducks
  • Screeching pterodactyls

Sounds accurate to me!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ode to a tomato

Bought the prettiest heirloom tomato at the store the other day. So pretty I was tempted to not cut it up for bruschetta. But I resisted, and it was damn good bruschetta.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing craft: A most invaluable resource

Now playing on the iPod - "Faccia a Faccia" - Ennio Morricone

There's a lot of information out on that there internet, and it isn't always easy to find writing advice that's actually helpful.

Lucky for writers (whether they are beginners or long-established pros), there is Backspace. Both the Backspace site and its writers' forums are full of what writers need to know. Whether you need help refining your query letter, tips on writing craft, or simply a place to hang out with like-minded people, you'll find what you're looking for.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to school

It's back-to-school time! Let's have a song to mark the occasion, courtesy of Pink Floyd.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Piranha 3D

My review of the cleverly stupid Piranha 3D is up at

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How much does a writer make?

Now playing on the iPod - "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" - Primus

So how much DOES a writer make, anyway? I wouldn't know, as I've never been paid for my fiction or my reviews. The answer can be found courtesy of The Rejecter, and let's just say that it's a good thing I love what I do and don't need to be paid for it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Watch this now: A tribute to Ray Bradbury

Not your ordinary kind of tribute either.

Rachel Bloom's song "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" has it all: proper awe for the master, recognition of the fact that talent is sexy, fangirl enthusiasm, just enough vulgarity to make things amusing, all wrapped up in a damned catchy pop song. Watch it now (though not at work, because of the naughty lyrics).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Deception

Sometimes even imaginary boyfriends can't save a movie, as I make clear in my review of the tepid thriller Deception, now up at Horrorview.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing process idiosyncrasies, part 1

Now playing on the iPod - "White Punks on Dope" - The Tubes

Probably one of the toughest parts about writing over the long term is determining your process. What steps do you take or circumstances have to happen for you to write consistently and effectively?

Some writers create outlines. Some write on 3x5 index cards. Some use a certain kind of paper. Some write in the nude. Some can write anyplace or any time; others need to be in a certain place and can only write in the evenings. Some can listen to music while they write. Some create detailed biographies of characters.

What makes the process so problematic is that it's a highly individual thing, and none of the idiosyncrasies I've listed in the preceding paragraph are good or bad in and of themselves. What matters is: is it effective for that writer?

Writers need to find their idiosyncrasies for themselves. And this is tricky - it's often a trial-and-error process. You may try to emulate a writer you admire, but that's as open to success and failure as choosing a process at random. You have to find what works for you, and not worry when people say, "Gee, but [famous writer] wrote while standing on his head, eating a strict diet of corn dogs and gin-and-tonics. Maybe if you did that, you'd get published." If you know the head-standing and corn dogs/gin-and-tonics method won't work for you, don't do it. Do what works for you.

One of the things that works for me is creating what I've named "Soundtracks to Imaginary Movies." I got the idea from the novel The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector, in which they provided a list of the various albums that they listened to while writing the book - music which helped inspire them. I started creating playlists for my books - if there were movies made of these books, these songs would be on the soundtracks.

I have a few oddball rules when creating these Imaginary Soundtracks (hey, it's an idiosyncrasy).

First, I try to avoid done-to-death songs (no "Gimme Shelter," no "Solsbury Hill," no "Knockin' on Heaven's Door") or songs that are indelibly linked with a particular film (Quentin Tarantino, I hate you for using "The Lonely Shepherd" before I could).

Second, I think of how the songs could be incorporated into the story in a "found" way - playing on characters' stereos or on jukeboxes (falling-in-love montages are generally avoided, but I allow the occasional "mopey" montage - see Sarah McLachlan's "Full of Grace" below).

Third, I take into account the characters - is this something they would listen to? I've rejected several songs that were lyrically appropriate - Joan Baez' "Diamonds and Rust," Public Image Ltd's "FFF," and the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" spring to mind - because those songs didn't mesh with the characters' tastes and personality.

Similarly, the songs have to be appropriate to the setting. I had to nix a number of songs for a party scene when I remembered that the party was put on by a church (a very hip church but a church nonetheless) and the DJ probably couldn't get away with playing The Violent Femmes or House of Pain. That said, the jukeboxes in the KellyVerse are very well-stocked and eclectic - hey, it's my imaginary world and I get to make the rules.

Below are the Soundtracks for the Imaginary Movies of my four books. I've included YouTube links to songs when available. These aren't "concept albums" - they won't tell the whole story in song - but they will give you a feel for the book's dramatic arc and overall mood. And if you're wondering why Johnny Cash is the common denominator, it's because he is awesome.

Novel: Ashes
Garry Eister - Quintet for Glass and Strings, "Dance"
Jackson Browne - The Pretender
Tori Amos - Spark
Pink Floyd - Dogs
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Run Through the Jungle
Wilson Pickett - Mustang Sally
Liz Phair - Polyester Bride
Donald Fagen - New Frontier
Dave Brubeck - Take Five
The Everly Brothers - Devoted to You
Johnny Cash - Delia's Gone

Novel: Reckoning
Dennis James - Irish Lullaby
Sarah McLachlan - Full of Grace
Gerry Rafferty - Baker Street
Danielle Dax - Touch Piggy's Eyes
Sleater-Kinney - Entertain
Johnny Cash - Hurt
The Clash - Brand New Cadillac
Social Distortion - Ball and Chain
Golden Earring - Twilight Zone
Switchblade Symphony - Dirty Dog
Elvis Costello - Watching the Detectives
Oh Susannah - Johnstown
David Gilmour - A Pocketful of Stones

Novel: Undertow
Jethro Tull - Bungle in the Jungle
Liz Phair - What Makes You Happy
B. B. King - Slidin' and Glidin'
The Beatles - Dear Prudence
Rolling Stones - Far Away Eyes
Cheech and Chong - Basketball Jones (video not safe for work)
Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues
The Cure - Just Like Heaven
Motorhead - Ace of Spades
Elvis Costello - Pills and Soap
Bob Dylan - Ballad of a Thin Man
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Gold Lion
Soft Cell - Tainted Love
Tom Waits - The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)
Stone Temple Pilots - Big Empty
Marianne Faithfull - Incarceration of a Flower Child
Isaac Hayes - Walk On By
Concrete Blonde - Joey

Novel: The Day After Yesterday
Tori Amos - Pretty Good Year
k. d. lang - Crying
The Smithereens - Gloomy Sunday
Julee Cruise - Into the Night
Sleater-Kinney - Jumpers
Phantom of the Paradise Soundtrack - Faust
Grateful Dead - Brokedown Palace
The Mediaeval Baebes - The Coventry Carol
U2 - Bad
The Pogues - Sally MacLennane
The Cars - Drive
Elton John - Harmony
Harry Nilsson - Without You
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - People Ain't No Good
Robert Plant - Big Log
King Crimson - Matte Kudasai
Tanita Tikaram - Valentine Heart
Tears for Fears - Head Over Heels
Faith and the Muse - Willow's Song
David Gilmour - On an Island
Arcade Fire - Wake Up
Pink Floyd - High Hopes
This Mortal Coil - Song to the Siren

Bonus soundtrack for The Day After Yesterday (music for the Halloween party chapter)
Dick Dale and His Del-Tones - Let's Go Trippin'
The 5 6 7 8s - Woo Hoo
The Blasters - I'm Shakin'
Van Morrison - Wild Night
Shocking Blue - Venus
Marvin Gaye - Got to Give it Up
Adam Ant - Goody Two Shoes
ELO - Rockaria
David Lindley - She Took Off My Romeos
Michael Penn - No Myth
Dexy's Midnight Runners - Come On Eileen
The Primitives - I'll Be Your Mirror

Coming soon: Writing process idiosyncrasies, part 2!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A beauty comes to the shelves

I somehow - can't recall how - learned that a new edition of William Peter Blatty's novel The Ninth Configuration was forthcoming. Not just any new edition, but one that packages the novel with its earlier incarnation, Twinkle Twinkle "Killer" Kane, and includes an essay by film historian Mark Kermode (lifted from his intro to the published screenplay of The Ninth Configuration).

Just received the book and it's better than I had dreamed of. For one, it's a gorgeous hardcover edition that includes marvelous illustrations and a number of covers used for both Ninth Configuration and Twinkle Twinkle "Killer" Kane throughout its printing history. But the icing on the cake is that the book is a limited edition of 200 - each numbered and also signed by William Peter Blatty. My copy is number 20.

This is just amazing. I'll still keep my old paperbacks (so I can re-read the books) but this is truly treasure for the shelves. Thanks to the good folks at Centipede Press for putting this edition together.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: Galaxy of Terror

If you need a good, schlocky B movie, look no further than Roger Corman's Galaxy of Terror - review is up at Horrorview.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Fair Game

Now playing on the iPod - "No Myth" - Michael Penn

My review of the sad-and-lame-at-the-same-time black mamba "thriller" Fair Game is up at Horrorview.

Now that's what I call writing: Richard Yates

Now playing on the iPod - "Hey Jealousy" - Gin Blossoms

One writer I admire tremendously is Richard Yates. His style is very straightforward and without flash, yet he uses his unadorned style to portray lives of quiet desperation. I can't read his books too often because his characters are so sad, often without even realizing it - they are people who have dreams that will never be achieved, most often because they sabotage themselves or simply don't even recognize their dreams.

Disturbing the Peace is not one of Yates' best books, but even his lesser works have a great deal to offer. In one paragraph, he tell his readers everything they need to know about a character:

[Janice Wilder] was thirty-four and the mother of a ten-year-old son. The fading of her youth didn't bother her - it hadn't been a very carefree or adventurous youth anyway - and if her marriage was more an arrangement than a romance, that was all right too. Nobody's life was perfect. She enjoyed the orderly rotation of her days; she enjoyed books, of which she owned a great many; and she enjoyed her high, bright apartment with its view of mid-town Manhattan towers. It was neither a rich nor an elegant apartment, but it was comfortable - and "comfortable" was one of Janice Wilder's favorite words. She was fond of the word "civilized," too, and of "reasonable" and "adjustment" and "relationship." Hardly anything upset or frightened her: the only things that did - sometimes to the point of making her blood run cold - were things she didn't understand.

You can guess that Janice won't take it well when, in the very next paragraph, she learns her husband has had a nervous breakdown.

I highly recommend Yates' novels Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. (Caveat: Don't read them if you're looking for something to cheer you up.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Back from Comic-Con!

Well, just one day at Comic-Con is certainly not enough. And because of Amtrak's schedule, I didn't get there in time for the panel I really wanted to attend, the one for Castle (thanks to the attendees who put the panel footage up on YouTube, especially the bit when Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic read a racy passage from the Heat Wave tie-in book. Rowr!).

Oh well - I maintained the Con zen mode as much as I could, consoling myself with some shopping. For Scott I got a rare Edward Gorey book. For myself I got Joe Bob Briggs' Profoundly Disturbing (about genre/cult movies that changed cinema), Amber Benson's Death's Daughter, and the graphic novel adaptation of Harlan Ellison's A Boy And His Dog (plus two other stories) - signed by Harlan too!

Wrapped up the day with a showing of "Once More With Feeling", the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, and then dinner at Lou and Mickey's with my friends. A good day!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

This time tomorrow... Comic-Con!

I may only get one day at Comic-Con but I'm going to make the most of it. Hoping to catch the Castle panel (and get my copy of Heat Wave signed) and the Buffy musical episode. At the very least I'll have a fun time with some friends and do some shopping. Can't wait!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More linky goodness

Some more fun to be found on the internet:

Slushpile Hell features examples from bad query letters. Let these examples be a lesson to us all.

There's a fine post at Writer Beware about the importance of self-editing. Frankly I can't imagine not self-editing - I love that part of the process. I rediscover my book, make it better, and occasionally say, "yeah, that's a pretty cool bit."

And for the truly brave and demented, here's an imagining of how Toy Story would have turned out had it been written by Cormac McCarthy. Damn.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Matango

My review of the Japanese movie Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People) is up at

Fun things to read

Now playing on the iPod: "San Tropez" - Pink Floyd

I've found some entertaining things to read on Ye Olde Internet recently and thought I'd share them with you:

Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books explores the fun of trashy pulp novels dealing with crime, sex, and melodrama. It's worth reading just for the covers, but also provides reviews should you stumble on these books in a used bookstore.

Awful Library Books showcases inane, dated, or just plain bad books discovered in the deepest recesses of library shelves. I discovered this site when searching for Latawnya the Naughty Horse Learns To Say No To Drugs (if you must know more about this book, some kind soul has done a dramatic reading of it).

From the Shelf Awareness newsletter, a peek into what a bookstore owner has to deal with every day. The highlight/nadir of the customers was probably the man who told his kid they wouldn't go into the bookstore because "Reading is stupid." Or the person who asked, "Have you read all these books? When do you watch TV." Sigh.

Lastly, for some fun there's I Write Like - use this writing analysis tool to see how your writing (or someone else's) compares to famous writers. Sample of my fiction apparently resemble works by David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, and Vladimir Nabokov, which is cool. I threw in samples of random movie review as well, and in addition to Wallace and Nabokov, got comparisons to William Gibson and H. P. Lovecraft. The weirdest thing about all this? I haven't read a thing by Wallace or Gibson. Go figure.

Friday, July 9, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things...

Oh, will you look at this!

The American Library Association has an online store, and many products to choose from (proceeds go to fund advocacy, awareness, and accreditation programs for library professionals). Their newest poster in the "Celebrity READ" series is the ever-awesome Nathan Fillion, and a perusal of older posters shows another one of my imaginary boyfriends, Ewan McGregor (see images above).

Hot guys with books. It doesn't get much better than that. And come to think of it, there is some bare space on the walls of my office...

Where was I? Anyway, plenty of celebrities in the poster series to choose from, including Anthony Hopkins, Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie, Hilary Swank, Stephen Hawking, and many more. Check it out at the ALA's online store.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What's the buzz, tell me what's a-happenin'

My apologies for the dearth of posts in May and June. To be honest, those months have not been great for me. At the risk of TMI (this isn't one of those blogs where you get to hear every little detail of my life) let's just say that I've had some health issues. The good news is that the issues are all fixable, and I'm feeling much better than I was. The bad news is that I haven't had the energy for writing or revising, not even movie reviewing.

The good news is that I've had lots of time for reading (and will have more - the upside of having surgery in September is that recovery will give me lots of reading time - I'm already planning a re-read of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series). In fact, at the mid-point of the year I've read over 40 books! I haven't finished them all, but I still think this is pretty good, considering it doesn't even take into account the Harry Potter books I've been reading to Young Master (we've just started book 5, Harry Potter and The Anger Management Issues).

So here's the scorecard for Books Read in 2010:

  1. End of Story - Peter Abrahams
  2. Looking for Mr. Goodbar - Judith Rossner
  3. The Lady in the Lake - Raymond Chandler
  4. Now and Forever - Ray Bradbury
  5. The Pale Blue Eye - Louis Bayard
  6. The Long Last Call - John Skipp
  7. Heat Wave - Richard Castle
  8. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
  9. The Grifters - Jim Thompson
  10. The Knitting Circle - Ann Hood **
  11. The Preservationist - David Maine *
  12. Dawn of the Dreadfuls - Steve Hockensmith
  13. Dragon Keeper - Robin Hobb
  14. American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
  15. Horns - Joe Hill
  16. The Cold Six Thousand - James Ellroy
  17. Goodnight Nobody - Jennifer Weiner
  18. Somewhere in Time - Richard Matheson
  19. The Boleyn Inheritance - Philippa Gregory *
  20. The Choirboys - Joseph Wambaugh
  21. Make Room! Make Room! - Harry Harrison **
  22. The Price of Salt - Patricia Highsmith
  23. The Brave - Gregory McDonald
  24. The Sheik - E. M. Hull **
  25. Anno Dracula - Kim Newman
  26. Miss Lonelyhearts - Nathanael West
  27. The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
  28. Fool - Christopher Moore **
  29. Strip Tease - Carl Hiaasen
  30. The Killer Inside Me - Jim Thompson
  31. Annie Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral - Kris Radish **
  32. The Last Boleyn - Karen Harper **
  33. Push - Sapphire
  34. Black Water - Joyce Carol Oates
  35. The Fire Gospel - Michel Faber
  36. Drood - Dan Simmons
  37. Mistress of Rome - Kate Quinn
  38. The Removers - Donald Hamilton
  39. Molokai - Alan Brennert **
  40. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
  41. The Ruins - Scott Smith
* = re-read
** = unfinished

And next up is another of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee stories: A Purple Place for Dying.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oh mais oui: Trailer for "Red"

As if Dame Helen Mirren wasn't awesome enough in so many ways, in the upcoming movie Red she gets to use a machine gun. Check it out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: Anno Dracula

My review of Kim Newman's fun alternate history novel Anno Dracula is up at

Monday, June 7, 2010

Review: The Reaping

My review of the merely OK Biblical plague horror film The Reaping is up at

My heart just went "wingardium leviosa"

Because I watched the teaser trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Can. Not. Wait.

Thank goodness I'm reading the books to Young Master (we've just started on Goblet of Fire). That should make the wait more bearable.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Here thar be treasure, arrrrr

Now playing on the iPod - "Il mercenario" - Ennio Morricone

Did some shopping this weekend at a couple of used bookstores, and came away with some nice finds, and some that border on being treasure (arrrrr).

I usually tend to buy books new. It's a way of supporting my fellow writers (let's face it, this isn't the most lucrative gig, so every sale helps). But I like used bookstores as well, and do my best to support those as well, whether it's donating books I don't need any more or making purchases.

One of the stores, a little hole-in-the-wall, was a blast. I love stacks of paperbacks that you can tell were published years (even decades) ago, just by looking at their covers and typefaces. Here I found Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, which I'm going to give to my friend Gerry as I know he'll get a kick out of it. And for myself, two of the out-of-print and hard-to-find Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton: The Silencers and The Interlopers. (I'm particularly pleased by the Matt Helm books because they're gritty, realistic stories of what it's like to be a spy. Don't base your ideas of the books off the Dean Martin movies - Helm is no drink-addled playboy but a foot soldier in the Cold War. He never wears a tux, he drives a beat-up truck, and his missions don't take him to Monte Carlo, but to the desert of the American Southwest or to an industrial town in Sweden. Excellent stuff.)

More recent but still exciting finds at another store:

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
To Hold the Crown by Jean Plaidy
Courtesan by Dora Levy Mossanen
Molokai by Alan Brennert
The Flavors of Bon Appetit 1997 (I don't mind that it's from '97 - there's good recipes from before the magazine got a bit esoteric for my tastes - I mean, really, green tea cheesecake?)
And from Writer's Digest Books fantastic "Howdunit" series, Amateur Detectives: A writer's guide to how private citizens solve criminal cases - this will be essential for researching my next project, a mystery tentatively titled Sideshow.

Last but not least, I got a new copy of Dan Simmons' Drood.

Treasure! Lots of treasure! Arrrrrr.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What if "Jaws" were made today?

I consider Jaws to be a nearly perfect film, and what makes it doubly awesome is that most of its good points were happy accidents. It's the sort of movie that could never be made today, as the CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development) site makes plain.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Goodbye, Dennis Hopper

One of my favorite actors passed away today: Dennis Hopper. I always felt he never got quite the respect he deserved. Granted, he's often remembered for films when he was clearly under the influence, or when he was doing his best balls-out crazy stuff. But as these clips from Blue Velvet and True Romance show, he was more than capable of nuanced, affecting performances. And even if the movie was bad (coughWaterworldcough) he always brought the fun.

Hope he's sharing a Pabst Blue Ribbon with Saint Peter now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review: The Silent Scream

My review of the better-than-you'd-expect slasher film The Silent Scream is up at

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fun at the Weekend of Horror con

Now playing on the iPod - "Creep" - Radiohead

This past week was not much fun, putting it bluntly. So it was a great relief when Saturday arrived and I was able to attend the Weekend of Horror con at the LAX Marriott.

I wasn't wowed by this year's selection of guests (most of the various guys who played Jason or Michael Myers - the problem is that I'm not thrilled by either the Friday the 13th or Halloween franchises) or panels (a remake of I Spit On Your Grave? Really? Why, for God's sake?). But it's always fun to see the crowds, meet some actors and others, and do some shopping.

The undoubted highlight was actress Caroline Williams (best known to genre fans for her amazing turn in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2) greeting my friend Gerry with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" and giving him a present - see the photo above. Too sweet! (I am jealous, though - how come I don't get songs and presents from my celebrity crushes?)

Other highlights include meeting Bert I. Gordon (aka "Mr. BIG"), the director of movies like Food of the Gods, The Amazing Colossal Man, and Village of the Giants. Mr. Gordon (who I found out is 90 - he looks fantastic!) signed his autobiography for me. (it will go on my shelf with bios of other film-makers such as Sam Fuller and Ed Wood.) And while we were having lunch in the hotel's sports bar, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento walked in (he seemed to be checking out the soccer game on one of the bar's TVs). We caught his eye and all waved hello.

In addition to the Mr. BIG autobiography, I got a DVD of Alejandro Jodorowsky's deliriously messed-up Santa Sangre; a lovely poster for the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a Goth-y necklace, some buttons for the fangirl jacket featuring the wit of the "Chop Top" character from Texas Chain Saw 2 (signed by the actor, Bill Moseley, who's a sweet guy).

All in all, a fine, nerdy day.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Little Golden Books as you've never seen them before

One of the Pixar animators has a new book coming out - Little Golden Books of movies that wouldn't seem appropriate for the kids' book treatment (such as Seven, Apocalypse Now, The Big Lebowski, and more).

It is a thing of beauty. Check it out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: Repulsion

My review of Roman Polanski's influential story of madness, Repulsion, is up at

Signs of the apocalypse, number 3,587

Did you know that the reason books are made into movies is so that people don't have to read them? No, really!

Monday, May 10, 2010

So beginneth the countdown...

Well, I've now got tickets for Roger Waters' performances of The Wall, set for November 29 (in L.A.) and December 13 (Anaheim). It's like Christmas will be here early!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Review: Sorcerer

My review of Sorcerer, William Friedkin's remake of The Wages of Fear, is up at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Writing craft: Yeah, what he said

Russell Hoban, author of (among other works) The Mouse and His Child*, offers this advice to young writers:

"Don't do it, unless you can't stand not to do it."

Ain't that the truth.

*By the way, Mr. Hoban, thanks for warping my brain at a young age with The Mouse and His Child and forever making me predisposed to depressing books.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April is the cruelest month: The most depressing books I have ever read

Now playing on the iPod - "Main Title (Sorcerer)" - Tangerine Dream

“April is the cruelest month” begins T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land.” I don’t agree, myself. I always find January, with its post-holiday letdown, to be the most depressing month. September isn’t much better with its blazing weather lingering long after summer has worn out its welcome. But Eliot is my favorite poet and until I can write something as good as “The Waste Land” or “Ash Wednesday” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “Marina” I’ll defer to him.

In honor of the cruelest month I offer the most depressing books I’ve read. And they are all, in their own ways, good books. They aren’t depressing in the “trees died for this” way but in the bleak, brutal beauty of their stories and the empathy they generate for their characters.

1984 by George Orwell

Probably the grand-daddy of excellent-but-depressing books. These days Brave New World is more relevant to our society, but at least in that dystopia most of its inhabitants are having what they think is fun, at times. But 1984’s world is a grim, shabby place where even the Inner Party members lead lives devoid of much in the way of comfort or sensual enjoyment. Combine that with the ruthless efficiency of the brainwashing and the inevitable betrayal and renouncing of humanity, and you’ve got one downer of a book.

The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Wangerin’s sequel to his popular Christian fable The Book of the Dun Cow is an example of truth in advertising: its very title tells you this is a book brimming with sadness. Mind you, The Book of the Dun Cow wasn’t exactly a rollicking fun time: Rooster Chanticleer and the animals he’s lord of must fight for their lives (and their souls) against a demonic half rooster/half snake beast called Cockatrice and his horde of poisonous snakes; the battle is won by the self-sacrifice of humble dog Mundo Cani. The Book of Sorrows takes up shortly after the battle has been won, but implies the war may be nearly lost. The losses of the battle, particularly of Mundo Cani, weigh heavily on Chanticleer as he descends into depression and paranoia. As a brutal winter takes its toll on the remaining animals, the characters who triumphed over external enemies start to succumb to those within, facing starvation, infertility, suicide, the semi-accidental killing of a mother and child, and more. It’s a beautiful book, though, with marvelous characterization and effective use of both Christian and pagan stories and myths. But very hard going at times.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kozinski

Kozinski’s 1965 novel is somewhat overshadowed by its author’s personality and by his claims about the book’s inspiration (once described as largely autobiographical, it was later revealed to be not so autobiographical after all). But despite that and some occasionally clumsy writing/translation, it’s a stark, grim novel that’s more frightening in its depiction of the depths humans can sink to than many horror genre novels. The story follows a nameless child in World War 2 Poland, sent to the country by his parents to escape persecution (it’s implied he’s Jewish, though he’s at times assumed to be a gypsy). When his guardian dies he’s left to wander alone in a countryside that’s populated more or less exclusively by ignorant, savage peasants. Halfway through the book (right after he’s tossed into a cesspool to drown after he accidentally drops a Bible during Mass) he’s so traumatized he’s unable to speak. It ends on a (not entirely convincing) happy note, but the horrors witnessed by the child linger in the reader’s mind, as does the suspicion that this kid is going to end up as one seriously messed-up adult.

The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

What do you get when you combine no-holds-barred splatterpunk with apocalyptic environmental horror? You get The Bridge. The titular bridge is in a small town called Paradise, and is the favorite dumping ground of the local polluter. At least until the toxic waste becomes this sentient, unstoppable force that mutates everything it contacts, inhabits the minds of every living thing, and takes over the world in a matter of days. What makes the book frightening is that the toxic force doesn’t kill – everything from plants to people just becomes an extension of the force, trapped forever in a kind of living death. What makes the book so depressing is the inevitable doom for everyone, including some very likable people.

The Brave by Gregory McDonald

Fans of McDonald’s lighthearted Fletch series definitely had to reach for the Xanax after reading his 1991 effort The Brave. Young Rafael lives with his family and some other lost souls in a shantytown community in the Southwest. There are no jobs, no government assistance, no money, and almost no food. The primarily Native American populace’s life consists of foraging in the nearby dump for food and for other goods they use to survive. Alcoholism is rampant, even among children, and if the people aren’t shot by the dump’s armed guards they die quickly in accidents or lingeringly from untreated cirrhosis or cancer. So when Rafael is given an offer of $30,000 to be tortured and murdered on camera for a snuff film, he agrees – to give his family and friends the means to escape the shantytown, and to have the chance at a quick (if agonizing) death instead of his miserable existence. And his sacrifice will help his family and friends, because the sort of people who make snuff films would never go back on their promise to give his widow thousands of dollars, and they’d never use a phony contract to bamboozle a na├»ve, illiterate young man. Would they? The Brave is a very good book but bleak doesn’t begin to describe it – it’s for those who thought Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle just wasn’t grim enough.

Now, I can hear rumblings from the peanut gallery – people asking why on earth I read these in the first place. Well, I don’t really have an answer for that. I’ll blame some of my early reading, particularly Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, a children’s book that’s grim, almost existential fare. And those Choose Your Own Adventure books – no matter what I did, I always got the “and you were never heard from again” endings. Just lucky, I guess.

Of course, not every bleak book works – there has to be a point to the bleakness, and the characters have to be people you care about. When that doesn't happen, bleakness becomes misery porn. But that’s a topic for a future post.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: American Psycho

My review of Bret Easton Ellis notorious novel American Psycho is up at Horrorview. com. Enjoy.

Fun at the Festival of Books!

Now playing on the iPod - "Questions in a World of Blue" - Julee Cruise

Every April I look forward to the L. A. Times Festival of Books. Held at the UCLA campus, it's a full weekend of devotion to all things bookish. This year's Festival was particularly dandy for me, as I got to meet one of my favorite artists.

Started off the day by getting to UCLA campus half an hour before the Festival opened. We were blessed with pleasant weather, which was welcome (2008's event had some truly hideous heat). I spent the morning shopping (and learned the hard way that books are heavy, especially when you lug them around UCLA's hilly campus). Took a break for lunch (which I'd acquired earlier from Noah's New York Bagels, so I didn't have to spend precious time waiting in line at the Festival's food court), and then headed over to the Book Soup booth to get a book signed by David Lynch.

I hadn't known until the night before the Festival that Lynch would be there; I only learned by checking his Twitter (I'm guilty of following a few Twitters, sue me). He was scheduled to be at the Book Soup booth at 2 to sign his book Catching the Big Fish (which I've discussed elsewhere in this blog) and one other item. So I was there with Catching the Big Fish and my DVD of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (underrated movie that doesn't get nearly enough love from Lynch fans). I actually showed up at 1, wanting to be on the safe side. I wasn't the only one with this idea and soon a line had been set up for the Lynch signing. (I can't help wondering if T. C. Boyle, who had the 1 p.m. signing slot, was miffed at seeing all those people line up for someone else.)

I waited patiently, and about 1:40 happened to glance to my right, where I saw a familiar figure. Average height, wearing baggy brown pants, a white shirt buttoned up to the neck, a black jacket, and shades. Gray mad scientist hair. The one and only David Lynch, a man I've been a fan of since I saw The Elephant Man in theaters (I must have been 12 or so).

Lynch took his seat at 1:45, and he signed my book and DVD. It was one of those quick signings where there's no time for conversation (he was only scheduled to go til 2:30 and the line was LONG). But I didn't mind. I got to shake his hand and thank him for his work. If the day had ended then, I'd have been quite satisfied.

But there was more fun to come. I met up with my friend Karen to chat and compare our loot. Then I headed over to catch the 3:30 panel with James Ellroy, moderated by Joseph Wambaugh. In line I met up with my Readerville/BookBalloon friend Lynn, and I sat with her for the panel. Mr. Ellroy was his usual delightfully profane self, and he and Wambaugh had excellent repartee. Afterward I got books signed by Ellroy for myself, and for my friends Gerry and A.J. Only disappointment was that unlike last year, Ellroy did not compliment me on my hat. :(

Then, more shopping until it was time to go home!

And what did I buy during all this shopping? Glad you asked.

Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics by Grant Geissman
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion
Junky by William S. Burroughs
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler
Night Walker by Donald Hamilton
Push by Sapphire

I also bought books for my husband and my son. Also coming home with me were some non-book items, including some of David Lynch's signature coffee beans (which come in this seriously awesome tin), a purple pen for signings of self-published works, and some other bits of book-related gear.

All in all, a splendid day!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Watch this now: Final scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

It's the 20th anniversary of the TV show Twin Peaks - was it all really that long ago? Tempus fugit!

So in honor of the show and of its underrated movie Fire Walk With Me, here's the final scene of Fire Walk With Me, combining David Lynch's imagery and one of his best moments of transcendence, Angelo Badalamenti's score, and Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer. Enjoy "The Voice of Love".

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writing craft: What a difference a decade makes

Now playing on the iPod - "Mauna Kea" - King Benny Nawahi

I just finished a book. For the second time.

Back in 2000 I completed a manuscript, then titled The Place of Solitude (title taken from T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday"). I was very proud of it. All writers should be proud of their first completed novel. Many people talk about writing a novel. Fewer start. Even fewer finish. That first book took years - many of those years I spent writing and rewriting selected scenes over and over again. Then about the time I was close to thirty, I realized the time had come to finish the damn thing. By hook or by crook.

I did, and I was proud of it, and I even tried to sell it. With no luck. Because there's a reason most first novels don't sell. They are first novels, and they have two major problems:

  1. You're still learning your craft as a writer. You can read all the "how to write" books you want to; some of them are helpful. You must read a lot, and absorb the lessons you learn; you need to not only recognize good writing, but bad writing as well so you can avoid the pitfalls. But most of all you have to learn the craft by doing writing, and lots of it.
  2. You may well be young in terms of life experience as well. This isn't a "write what you know" thing. But as you get older you learn more about the human condition, and ideally what you learn should inform your characters - how they behave, the dynamics of their relationships, and so on.

As time went on I wrote more and read more, and realized that the book I'd spent years on had many flaws. At the same time there was a lot of good in it as well. The characters, in particular. And a setting that has become part of my imaginary world (like Stephen King's Castle Rock, only a much nicer place!). There were also themes that I felt were important but couldn't at the time articulate to my satisfaction.

I let the book sit in the drawer and went on to write more. And read more. And learn a bit more about life. And from time to time I thought that one day I'd revisit that book and give it a do-over.

If I'm able to complete a book (and not all my ideas pan out - I've a few nonstarters in my desk drawer), most of the time when I'm done I feel satisfaction, and a sense of closure. I'm able to move on from it. There may be small things I'd go back and change, given the opportunity, but for the most part, when I'm done, that's it. I'll think about the story, but not in an "I wish I'd done that differently" way. More like replaying my favorite scenes in my head, to entertain myself.

But that never happened with The Place of Solitude. I'd re-read it and there'd be chunks I skipped over because they seemed amateurish or boring. There were parts that didn't ring true. There were gobs of exposition at the beginning because I didn't know how to tell the story more efficiently. What it did have, though, was a certain amount of sincerity and compelling characters. And the characters were what eventually saved the story. I liked them (and felt sorry for them after what I put them through). I decided after a while that I'd rewrite it one day - for me, so I could get things as right as I could this time; and in a way for my characters as well, so I could do right by them. They deserved better than I was able to give them the first time.

"One day" arrived last year when I finished my mystery Undertow. That book takes place in the same imaginary town as The Place of Solitude, and some of Solitude's characters made cameo appearances in Undertow - it got me inspired.

I decided to go ahead and instead of revising, just rewrite the whole thing from scratch. That was the best decision I could have made, for it made me change things I otherwise might not have, and I feel fairly confident those changes improve the book.

The basic story arc and character setup remain the same in the later version, but many other things changed. Some characters' roles expanded, others' were diminished, and a whole slew of secondary characters emerged. Background was no longer served up in unwieldy chunks, and the narrative drive was greatly improved. The timeline of the story was rearranged, and the beginning interaction of some characters, which had never satisfied me before, worked much better. The book got a new title as well: The Day After Yesterday. *

I miss a few things about the old version, primarily some of the dialogue that ended up getting cut. But I feel that sense of closure I never did with the earlier version. I've no plans to publish it (it's mainstream and I have no desire to write more mainstream books - any ideas would just be rehashes of this book). But dialogue can always be used in different books. I'm satisfied with the book now. And ready to move on to another, which is how it should be.

If it sounds like work - it was. A full year of it. But it was one of my more enjoyable writing experiences, not least because I was able to see how much I'd improved as a writer over the decade. That was something I didn't expect to discover, and it was very rewarding.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank William Peter Blatty - he rewrote his early comedic novel Twinkle Twinkle "Killer" Kane into the much more mature work The Ninth Configuration. His was the example I kept in mind when I decided to rewrite my book.

And I'd like to thank my constant readers. And silly as it may sound, I'd like to thank the characters. I did it in part for them and I'm glad we had this time together.

*This new title, suggested by my friend Erik, is the name Paul Giamatti's character gave his manuscript in the movie Sideways. At least mine doesn't take up two manuscript boxes...