November 30, 2008

Things I Learned Today

Don't put off going to the dentist!

Katydids come in pink!

Emily The Strange is plagiarism!

There is an American Tarantula Society!

Sean Connery has a website! (Also, he was an Able Seaman.)

November 26, 2008

Web Stalker - The World Can't Wait to Love Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows

I'll be taking a break from my weekly Web Stalker column, so you'd better enjoy this week's droll rumination on a certain aging heartthrob bolstering his nerd-cred with a soap opera fetish. May be the last you see of this feature for a while!

November 25, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Human Sacrifice Via Corn Rigs, Barley Rigs and Burstyn Wigs

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. One of our commentors pointed Chris toward the 1973 classic The Wicker Man; I was afraid it wouldn't be scary or gross enough, but noting Chris's extreme susceptibility to atmosphere, I figured it was worth a shot. We also watched highlights from the misogynistic 2006 blowfest remake (which I finally caved in and bought on DVD, in light of how often I've rented it to show off the mind-boggling awfulness). The original should be watched, re-watched, and committed to memory -- if you're a virgin, however, beware the major spoilers ahead:

The Wicker Man surprised me in a number of ways, both good and bad. For every immensely atmospherically tense moment, there's a completely inane, mood-breaking blunder. Each intelligent acting choice is matched with an utterly bewildering one. The plot is at once compelling and hugely hokey. But despite the contradictions, I found myself intrigued and even frightened.

Evidently eager to hide any early signs of high quality, the movie starts out nice and slow. The establishing shots, following a plane's journey to a northern Scottish isle in what feels like real time, are actually made jarring by the concurrent music. The two songs (a single song wouldn't be nearly expository enough) seem to go together only by force; it's as though we've been treated to random selections from the iTunes playlist of a college freshman who brings up Wicca in every conversation.

Then, just when the Celtic lullaby and lyrically absurd folk mash-up has lulled you into complacency, the movie kicks into high gear. Apprehension sets in immediately as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) emerges from his plane and is greeted by the residents of Summerisle with the rather benign disinterest that proves to be the story's greatest strength. While the remake (which I hesitate to mention, as it is best forgotten) expends Herculean efforts trying to make each moment scary and important, the original is smart enough to play most everything fairly lightly. The result is far more unnerving.

The island's population proves to be the most pleasantly unhelpful group of people on the planet. Even setting foot on land is something of a hassle. Stranded on his seaplane, the sergeant's repeated requests for a dingy to shore are met with friendly refrains of “afraid not.” His investigation's dark impetus – the disappearance of a young girl – does little more to pique interest. As a picture of the lost child is passed around, the locals generally react as though they're speaking to a toddler who has misplaced his imaginary friend. “That's nice, dear. Run along now.” That no one much cares about a disquieting crime is intensely disquieting.

Lest the audience become too invested, we're then offered some more incongruous music. After walking to the local pub to truly absurd accompaniment, Sergeant Howie is gifted with two full musical numbers. Their inclusion is baffling; perhaps the implied rehearsal period is meant to foreshadow how well the island dwellers had prepared for the officer's arrival? First, the bar patrons sing an exceptionally suggestive song about Willow, the inn owner's daughter who Britt Ekland portrays as thoroughly delighted by choral harassment from a crowd of old drunks. Later that night, she offers a little melodic naughtiness of her own, shedding her clothes and seducing Howie through a wall with a rump-shaking scene that would bring a tear to Sir Mix-A-Lot's eye.

With all that out of the way, the movie hits its stride. The sergeant's hunt, while short on relevant clues, exposes him to the libertine culture that has flourished among the residents. Nude dancing, frog licking, late-night graveyard romps, fertility rituals, and polytheism run rampant on the isle. Perhaps during the movie's initial release 35 years ago, it all seemed quite shocking, but today, Howie's frequent freakouts paint him as a bit of a prude. He is thrown into a frenzy by every practice and belief that deviates from his expectations, seemingly unable to let go of the hope that somewhere on this outcropping, Jesus is being worshiped with appropriate reverence and chastity.

As I said, it's all about tone here. Sure, these folks are unconventional by some standards, but to them, it's just business as usual. Nobody behaves as though they're breaking standards or stepping outside the lines, and indeed they react with a sort of pitying tolerance when their guest is forever unable to grasp their way of life. Rather than stomping around like the Cloverfield monster (I'm looking at you, Ellen Burstyn), they simply take a deep breath and explain yet again how they roll. The threat remains that this is a cult bent on ritually sacrificing a preteen, but it seems somewhat possible that this is a misunderstanding being driven into the ground by a closed-minded cop asshole on a power trip.

Or not. Christopher Lee's expository history lesson and dulcet baritone serenading aside, it becomes clear that the missing child does truly exist and is really going to be killed. In quick succession, we're treated to a burning hand, a parade, a bit of a drag show, a faux beheading, and an entire keg emptied onto the ground for our fallen homies. It's all fun and games until someone wants to murder a kid, however, and Sergeant Howie is there to save the day. His heroics are muffled only slightly by his ridiculous costume, as well as the several cuts back to the even more ridiculous man from whom he stole it.

Then, without warning, things get pretty anxious again. Turns out the islanders have themselves a little plan for Officer Buttinsky. Still grinning like sales associates at a JoAnn Fabrics, they calmly inform him how important it is that he die for the good of local agriculture. He's understandably perturbed by this suggestion, but his protests and duress go unheeded. It's a highly creepy moment, watching one man argue for his life while a mild-mannered horde politely soldiers on, barely hearing his pleas. Into the sacrificial wooden cage you go, friend! They're so confident in the efficacy of this choice that they join together in song (of course) as their unlucky guest meets a fiery fate. One wonders if, during his increasingly desperate appeals to the Lord, the sergeant began to regret not forming a better rapport with his hosts earlier. Maybe they would have felt worse about burning him alive if he hadn't been such a consistent choad for the past couple days.

Overall, this is one of those flawed diamonds of the cinema. It tackles some amazingly pertinent themes concerning religious and sexual freedom. (It's unclear why these concepts, which were what made the movie interesting in the first place, were entirely missing from the remake.) The early '70s wasn't a good time to make something that future generations would take seriously, so some leeway must be allowed. While there are plenty of sections in this film that induce unintentional laughter, it elicits enough genuine discomfort to make it worth viewing.

My Very Own Fantasy Fragrance League -- Suddenly, Last Summer

Having noted BPAL's treatment of new releases like Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, I'm beginning to experience a strange sort of synesthesia when I read or watch movies, imagining what the smells would be. Recent screenings of Robert Altman's hypnotic 3 Women and Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (both well on their way to receiving the Trans-genred treatment) both struck me as being prize-winning candidates for a line of hand-blended perfume oils. Especially the latter film, since I've always considered its gothic "homosexual devoured (literally) by cosmic forces of cruel ambivalence" storyline to be deliciously Lovecraftian at heart. I'm no genius perfumier like Beth, in fact I don't know the first thing about how fragrances hang together, but from my If I Ran the Circus fantasy world, here's my BPAL-esque musing of a thematic Suddenly Last Summer line (to be in no way confused with any of their actual, real life products). With apologies to Elizabeth Taylor, Catherine Hepburn, and Monty Clift:

MRS. VENABLE: Such a pretty name for a disease. Sounds like a rare flower, doesn't it? "Night-blooming Dementia Praecox."

Fantastic babblings and wild delusions of an unspeakable nature. "White Diamonds" on crack.

Sebastian's entire diet during his last tragic days in the raw heat of the Spanish Riviera. White linen, water chestnuts, benzedrine, canned mandarin wedges, nitroglycerin, green olives, and coconut oil.

CATHERINE: At a Mardi Gras ball some--some boy that took me to it got too drunk to stand up! I wanted to go home. My coat was in the cloakroom, they couldn't find the check for it in his pockets. I said, "Oh hell, let it go!"-- I started for a taxi. Somebody took my arm and said, "I'll drive you home." He took off his coat as we left the hotel and put it over my shoulders, and then I looked at him and -- I don't think I'd ever even seem him before then, really! -- He took me home in his car but took me another place first. We stopped near the Duelling Oaks at the end of Esplanade Street... Stopped! -- I said, "What for?" -- He didn't answer, just struck a match in the car to light a cigarette in the car and I looked at him in the car and I knew "what for"! -- I think I got out of the car before he got out of the car, and we walked through the wet grass to the great misty oaks as if somebody was calling us for help there! He took me home and said an awful thing to me. "We'd better forget it," he said, "my wife's expecting a child and--." -- I just entered the house and stayed there thinking a little, and then I suddenly called a taxi and went right back to the Roosevelt Hotel ballroom. The ball was still going on. I thought I'd gone back to pick up my borrowed coat but that wasn't what I'd gone back for. I'd gone back to make a scene on the floor of the ballroom, yes, I didn't stop at the cloakroom to pick up Aunt Violet's old mink stole, no, I rushed into the ballroom and spotted him on the floor and ran up to him and beat him as hard as I could in the face and chest with my fists 'till--Cousin Sebastian took me away.

A torn gardenia corsage soiled with oakmoss, tobacco
and champagne, with the lingering scent of sodium pentathol and violets clinging to mink.

CATHERINE: It was white hot outside, a blazing white hot... He started up the steep street with a hand stuck in his jacket where I know he was having a pain from his palpitations, but he walked faster and faster in panic -- the faster he walked, the louder and closer that IT got-- And the sun that was like the great white bone of a giant beast that had caught fire in the sky...

Bathhouse steam, Spanish amber, brick dust, and a flock of noisy metallic musks splattered across fresh whitewash, summoning amnesia in the form of magnolias from New Orleans' Garden District.

MRS. VENABLE: I have his notebook here. Title, "Poem of Summer," and the date of the summer, 1937. And after that, blank pages, blank pages -- nothing but nothing. A poet's vocation rests on something as fine and thin as the web of a spider. It's all that holds him over out of destruction. Few, very few are able to do it alone. Great help is needed -- I did give it, she didn't.

Leather binding unveils a chaste lavender and violet duet frolicking in a garden of sun-ripened carnivorous plants.

November 24, 2008

A Skeptic Develops A Thirst For The Twilight Kool-Aid

Six months ago I wrote a column for AMC exploring my doubts that Twilight would be anything but an abstinence-porn cocktail of cotton candy and AXE body spray. This resulted in a wonderful conversation with Twilight Lexicon administratrix Laura Cristiano, in which I was urged to give the books, the fans, and the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to the input of Laura and my other interviewees (including one of the film's stars) my column wound up being far less dismissive than what I'd set out to write -- but I still wasn't about to line up for my own Dixie cup full of spiked O-negative.

It always surprises me when I actually follow up and do my homework (probably because I never bothered even when I was in school). I wound up reading the books this summer, surprised at how quickly I was sucked in, but thoroughly astonished at what I was reading. I could go on for pages in lit-crit mode, examining the arena of sexual politics faced by young Mormons and detailing the thematic similarities to lesbian erotica from the '60s (those "Twilight Lovers" of yore) but I'll spare you. Mostly I think I kept reading to see how author Stephenie Meyer would escape the corner she'd painted herself into. Pretty soon she's going to have to admit that she's writing a horror novel, I thought, or else pull the cop-out of a lifetime. Sure enough, the fourth book legitimately turned my stomach with its ruthless depictions of suffering and rivers of gore. You go, girl! I cheered, queasily. I have profound respect for authors who let neither themselves nor their readers off the hook.

So, now this movie has come out, and it's sort of the world's responsibility to deal with it amidst our holiday plans and extreme wariness of maximalist hormonal entertainments. I went to see it tonight, surrounded both fore and aft by giggling regiments whom I could tell were mostly there to mentally lap up Robert Pattinson's three-story cheekbones and poke each other in the ribs whenever a new character appeared onscreen. Not just characters -- we're talking damp gasps of gleeful recognition even when the name "Forks" (the town Bella moves to as the opening credits roll) was mentioned for the first time. But I could barely summon the energy to shush anyone. After all, I wasn't the outsider I'd set out to be. I was now complicit.

And you know what? As much as it pains me to say it as both a grouchy snob and a devoted horror fan, I'm really impressed with the final product. I'm no apologist -- the exposition is almost unendurably sluggish, and the running/leaping special effects feel utterly Stone Age, and the "edgy" Guitar Hero soundtrack that unnecessarily underscores most of the film will age more like fresh milk than fine wine. But almost every plot-wrinkle produces a new compulsively watchable actor, and before long you find yourself surrounded by incredibly vivid characters who are thinking and feeling their world with unabashed honesty. The chemistry between Edward and Bella dares you to temporarily stow your cynicism in the crusty Thermos that one carries around just for such occasions, and if you can take that dare you'll leave the theater with a little less of it than you came with.

That suspension of disbelief is especially important for horror fans, because the final quarter of the film takes a promisingly savage turn. The violence -- both real and implied -- is a cold reminder that the gauzy bubble of Vaseline-lensed limerence that these characters occupy will not protect them from the stark truth that they are, in fact, in a vampire movie. And it contains a veiled promise that the ensuing sequels are going to be a lot harder for little girls and their puff-paint-sweatered moms to stomach. When I interviewed Clive Barker about The Midnight Meat Train, he admitted that he was blown away by how violent the movie was; when we read (or write) books, our imagination has a way of glossing over the parts we don't want to confront. The sight of Twilight's villain crushing a girl's leg like a paper cup hurt me more than I'd anticipated, and if Catherine Hardwicke is still running the show by the fourth movie (she'd be crazy to give it up) then we're going to have a real white-knuckler to look forward to.

I'm happy to be able to report that the Twilight movie is greater than the sum of its parts -- or just great enough. Thoroughly decent. Totally watchable. These may sound like faint praise, but they're so much more than I ever thought I'd have to give. And that's not coming from a hater with dismally low expectations -- I think I had higher expectations than most. I'd opened myself up, through my interviews and through reading the books, to the possibility that this movie would both move me and scare me, which it did despite its many flaws. I'm a root-for-the-underdog kind of guy, but let the record show that even I can switch caps and root for the juggernaut occasionally, as long as the team has real verve and keeps the Kool-Aid flowing.

November 22, 2008

The Most Horrible Day of Your Life

I've been away a lot over the last week or so, please excuse the low postage. Hope this makes up for it:

November 13, 2008

Trans-Genred -- Every Step You Take, Judi Dench Will Be Watching You

When I decided to start writing about films that are more horrific and traumatizing than you'd ever expect, this one instantly sprang to mind. Everyone knows that Dame Judi Dench is an intimidating woman. Her scowl has probably earned her more millions than Pamela Anderson ever made off of her breast implants. The decision to cast Dench in her very own monster movie was a truly inspired one -- in Notes On a Scandal, her character joins the ranks of Norman Bates and Annie Wilkes as a human monster whose isolation has fermented into psychotic mischief...

Nothing on the surface hints at what a sublimely creepy movie Notes on a Scandal is -- it's all in the peripheral details. The diabolical tone is established right away by a nerve-shredding Philip Glass soundtrack (anything good you remember about Candyman would be null if someone else had scored the movie).

Dench's character, a self-described "battle-axe" of a schoolteacher, does a fair job of letting us know just how caustic and untouchable she is via divinely bitchy voice-over narration. She paints herself as impenetrable, but the filmmakers are thoughtful enough to paint us another picture, delivering occasional lush still-life tableaux, expertly arranged to expose the truth behind Dench's calculated facade. Observe:

Hmm. An overflowing ashtray. Figurines and face-cream. An issue of Your Cat and a trowel full of fresh grave-dirt. The stench of howling desperation is purely rolling off this end-table in great grey waves (perhaps that's what the Tic-Tacs are meant to cover up). It's sort of the suburban equivalent of Tony Perkins' room full of stuffed birds. Except here at the Dench Motel, the only person you'll ever find slumped in the bathtub is the proprietress.

Dench soliloquizes as she soaks: "People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely, but of the drip-drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing... What it's like to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette -- or to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus-conductor's hand sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin..."

As you can imagine, she is ever so much fun to hang out with. Even at her friendliest, she looks like she's plotting how to stop those Whos down in Whoville from making so much noise on Christmas morning. Despite the smile, you can practically hear the spiders running around in her brain.

It's not her face you have to watch out for, though, it's her hands. Like Gary Oldman's shadow in Dracula, they always seem to be doing something extra-creepy when you're not paying attention.

Dench does some real grade A, Nosferatu-worthy lurking in this movie, always on the prowl for juicy young flesh to draggle her carbuncular old claws across. But since she's only a metaphorical vampire, she doesn't have to hide in the dark, in fact she can be quite frank about her needs:
"When I was at school, if one of us had had some bad news or was a bit down, we used to stroke each other. You know, someone would do one arm, and someone else the other... It's a wonderful sensation... Incredibly relaxing for the giver and the receiver..."

Oh she gives it, alright. Suffice to say that although this attention is accompanied by a compliment about how good she looks in that top, Cate Blanchette has to obey her own rising gorge and wriggle out of Dench's cat-hair encrusted clutches.

Of course, if this was the extent of her perversion, she'd just be that friend of your mom's that everyone has to avoid at holiday parties once she's had a third glass of wine. But no, this is a situation where you need to keep tabs on every single strand of your hair unless you want it to turn up in a scrapbook.

This business with the hair is just one of many shades of the Rapunzel story that bleed into Notes On a Scandal (the other characters often refer to Dench as a crone or a witch, and that's even before she actually has a fair damsel locked up in her tower). What makes this so effective as horror is the fact that director Richard Eyre has turned two incredibly capable actresses loose on material with real psychological heft. The last hour of this movie is like a crazy cage-fight in which the ladies duck and grunt, swinging verbal pipe-wrenches at each other's skulls.

As my dad would be quick to point out, no one really wins that kind of fight. Crazy is like toothpaste, there's really no getting it back in the tube. Hence, Blanchette has no choice but to put on her best Courtney Love and give the British tabloids what they came for.

It's pretty obvious that Dench adores making a monster, and that Blanchette is having the time of her life playing Faye Wray/Mina Harker -- and like all good monster movies, the ending definitely leaves room for a sequel. How this film can be categorized as a mere "drama," however, is less obvious, and I mostly attribute it the lack of imagination that marketing departments are famous for (they could've at least given in to the temptation to provide a couple of poorly shot, gore-soaked alternate endings just for the DVD). Nevertheless, Notes on a Scandal will always have midnight-movie status at my house, so anytime you're in the neighborhood at 11:58, come on over. Bring Your Own Face-Cream.

MicroHorror Featured Pick -- "Salvaging Finkbottle"

It's been a while since I've provided a MicroHorror fix -- here's something to make those awful shakes go away...

"Salvaging Finkbottle"
by Ian Kay


Dr. Ellington Finkbottle was going to revolutionize the World. Everyone knew it. Or, at least the magazines knew it and everyone kinda took it from them. His work with subnuclear restructuring was still in its infancy, but since it’s a method of transforming matter and energy into anything the operator wants while wholly avoiding all the fuss of nuclear fusion and supernovae, most people agree that a slight delay is acceptable.

The man had already used his marvelous picotools to phase a particle of hydrogen into two particles of molybdenum. With his brilliant lunacy focused, it would only be a matter of years before specialized machines made rotting apples into ripe ones, breast cancer into healthy tissue, and politicians into small but quality reservoirs of fossil fuel.

So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when I spotted Dr. Finkbottle in the park three blocks from my house, swinging his legs back and forth atop the white-stained fence along the sidewalk. He was working at a pistachio ice cream cone and watching two squirrels kung fu. I was even more surprised when he fell and cracked his head open.

Now when I say “open,” I don’t mean, like, “a noticeable but largely insignificant fault line in his skull.” No, more like “open” as in “cracked porcelain,” “open.” “Open,” “there were a few pieces of scalp lying inches away from their home base,” “open.”

Besides me, there were two other witnesses.

“Dr. Finkbottle?” I called, a tremble in my voice.

His fingers twitched. We rushed to him.

Needless to say, he was not in good shape. Without wanting to get too journalistic, I’d say he was beginning to leak. His gray matter (which, I might mention, was comprised of several colors and not a one was gray) protruded at an odd angle and threatened to double over like a tall block of gelatin.

We three witnesses were all in jogging shorts, out for the early air, and therefore had neither cars nor cell phones. The closest hospital was a ten-minute drive. And the wit that had once outthought solar accretion was now dry-humping a slab of warm concrete. There was only one option.

Using the sharper edge of the scalp piece, I divvied a portion for each of us.

The man in green shorts said he’d be keeping his part.

The man with the black watch was going to try to auction his online.

And me? I got indigestion. But while on the bowl, I came up with an idea for a self-sharpening pencil, so you tell me.

Copyright: © 2007 Ian Kay

November 12, 2008

INTERVIEW - Author Marvin Kaye Sheds Light On My Favorite Anthology

When I was in high school I stumbled across a fat hardcover anthology called Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. This wasn't like other collections I'd seen; beneath the appropriately spooky Edward Gorey cover design I found dozens of amazing stories, some obscure and some beloved, some contemporary and some classic. I read the book to bits, and loaned it to friends until I eventually lost it.

A few years ago I recalled the book's title and tracked down a copy on Amazon. Revisiting the selections one by one brought back a ton of memories, and I began to realize what an effective primer this volume had been for me as I explored the genre. And once again, Masterpieces began to work its insidious way through my current circle of friends -- it's spent less time in my actual possession than out of it. This time around I paid far more attention to the curatorial role that author Marvin Kaye played in presenting these stories -- I became determined to find out more, and to let him know that his collection was still very much appreciated over 20 years later...


TB: A lot of people ask me about Masterpieces' Edward Gorey jacket, wondering whether it was created specifically for this collection. Can you tell me about it?

MK: Edward ("Ted") Gorey did the dust jackets for eight of my Doubleday anthologies, which proved a great selling point. In addition to Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, he also did the dust jackets for Ghosts, Devils & Demons, Witches & Warlocks, 13 Plays of Ghosts and the Supernatural, Haunted America, Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, and Sweet Revenge. And when I did the centennial edition of Dracula for Barnes & Noble Books, we used some of Ted's drawings from the Frank Langella Broadway play version.

I believe Ted and I exchanged a cordial letter or two, but never met. He was supposed to appear at a big book fair that ran one year on 5th Avenue, so I went to meet him, but when I got there, I learned he'd stayed home because one or more of his many cats was sick.

TB: Your headnotes (or "rubrics") to each story paint an interesting picture of why certain selections were made, and helpfully infuses the collection with your personality. There are some stories I would not have been patient enough to read without the extra nudge, and afterward I felt that interesting feeling of having shared something with someone. I don't have any other collections in my library that have this component; do you introduce the stories individually in your other collections? Is it important to you to have that opportunity to compel and intrigue (and occasionally apologize to) your readers?

MK: Yes, I do this for each and every selection, even the occasional poem. I regard one of my duties as an anthologist is to provide information, if available, about the author, and the reason I chose to include the composition. Sometimes I've selected pieces that are not personal favorites but have some valid reason for inclusion, whether it be historical significance, or representative of a style of writing that many readers enjoy. In devoting the time, energy and research that I do to my rubrics, I am paying homage to the splendid introductory notes that Anthony Boucher wrote for the contents of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the ones written by Ellery Queen for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Those two periodicals taught me more about genre literature than any other source, though honorary mention belongs to H. P. Lovecraft's important essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature."

TB: At the time of the collection, you list your favorite H.P. Lovecraft story as "The Music of Erich Zann." Over 20 years later, has any other of his stories supplanted its place in your heart?

MK: "The Music of Erich Zann" is still my favorite Lovecraft story, though "The Rats in the Walls" is a close second. "Rats" actually is more frightening; I admire "Zann" as the most Poe-like thing Lovecraft ever wrote; had it been claimed as a lost Poe manuscript, I think it would have passed.

TB: When crafting an anthology, how do you come to terms with having to choose between two equally deserving candidates? And how much does the publisher usually interfere with your selections?

MK: How do I choose between any two authors for space? This was never a problem in the majority of my anthologies [Mr. Kaye has assembled 31 of them] because they are big books with plenty of space. I don't think I ever had to leave anything out for that reason. Occasionally the rights were not available for a story I wanted to include, or the author or estate might want more money than was comfortable for my budget, but that seldom occurred. Mostly the contents of my big anthologies include all and everything I wanted.

The exception to this are the five anthologies I did for the Science Fiction Book Club from 2000 till this year. They include The Vampire Sextette, The Dragon Quintet, The Fair Folk, Forbidden Planets, and A Book of Wizards. The first of these was suggested by Tanith Lee, who said if I could sell such a book, she'd write a vampire novella that would include vampirism, sexual content, and music (thus playing on the word sextette two ways). My editor at SF Book club was delighted with the idea, but choice of the other five authors was not entirely up to me as it always had been in the past. With only six authors, the book club wanted names likely to sell well. So the editors and I came up with a priority list, and there was an "A" list, a "B" list and a "C" list. Though I didn't have as much control as I usually did, every author choice was mutually approved by me and the editors, so it worked out well. We followed the same working arrangement for the remaining four books; sometimes the editors overruled my choices, sometimes they agreed with me. It was all very cordial; the editors are personal friends.

Now I'd come up with (or rather Tanith did) the title for the vampire book, and Forbidden Planets, which is my only solely SF collection, was also my idea. The other three were the editors's ideas. I was OK with the dragons and the wizards, but personally I was a little doubtful about The Fair Folk, an anthology of six original novellas about fairies. I doubted it would appeal to as wide a market as the others, but I was wrong. Not only did it sell well, but it won me the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology of 2005.

Except in the five instances cited above, my publishers mostly let the choice of material be mine, I had a somewhat different situation with The Ghost Quartet, which the SF Book Club decided not to do. Tor Books is its publisher. This idea also derived from Tanith Lee, who told me she wanted to write a ghost novella inspired by Strindberg's play "The Ghost Sonata." She wanted it to be a quartet, since I'd done a sextette and a quintet. She also wanted me to be one of its four authors. Had the SF Book Club chosen to publish it, I would have surely been excluded, but Tor was all right with me being one of the four provided one of the others was Orson Scott Card. I'd bought stories from Scott before, but he was and is so busy with his book deadlines, I doubted he'd be able to participate. At first he said no, but when Tor said they'd only do the book if he was in it, Scott relented. I'd already done an issue of H. P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror that spotlighted Brian Lumley, so I asked him and he agreed to be the 4th of the quartet.

TB: Did you ever think back in 1985 that people would still be enjoying this collection several decades later?

MK: Did I think, in 1985, that people would still be reading and talking about that anthology? Absolutely, yes... provided it remained accessible and in print. Its contents are indeed masterpieces and would be familiar to all genre enthusiasts whether they appeared in my collection or not.

TB: From what I've read on your website, it seems that your life has become a blend of writing, theatre, and healing work. Can you tell me a little about how these overlap in your life?

MK: Writing and theatre blend because I've written plays and adaptations for the theatre. They overlap to the extent that while I'm writing various kinds of fiction I usually am involved in one or another show, mostly with my theatre company, The Open Book. Healing work is off in its own corner, so to speak, and doesn't really blend or overlap with the others, except perhaps in some vague philosophical manner.

TB: I'd like to ask you all sorts of things about the healing modalities you practice, but I'd at least basically better ask how you came to them. Was it through treatments that you yourself received?

MK: How I came to healing is a long-ish story, but basically this is what happened: the first time I was scheduled to act in the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, I was staying for a week in London. The night before I went to Scotland, I was scheduled to have dinner with the fantasy editor Steven Jones. On the way to meet him, I was crossing Oxford Circus when I was sideswiped by a double decker bus and knocked against the side of a stone fountain. Nothing was broken, but all summer I limped around Edinburgh using a cane. Edinburgh is largely up and down steep hillsides, so I didn't realize I'd sustained a back injury till I got back to NYC, where walking is mostly level.

To get relief from the back pain, I tried different modalities, but the only one that gave me real relief was energy healing. The woman who treated me taught reiki, and I enrolled in first level reiki. I became so convinced of its healing abilities, I went on to study 2nd level and eventually became a reiki master (level 3). One day, the same woman, at the start of a treatment, told me she'd just learned craniosacral therapy and wondered if I'd mind receiving such a treatment. I agreed, and was very impressed with the results, and sometime later, after reading a book about it, I decided to study it, too. I took four courses in craniosacral and became an assistant teacher of it at quite a few sessions. During my training, which was through the Upledger Institute, I discovered lymph drainage and studied that up through the first Advanced Level.

TB: Do you think that short fiction (and anthologies) stand to benefit from the amount reading and writing people do online now?

MK: I hope so, but am somewhat skeptical. I suspect online activity produces more online activity and not necessarily book sales. But I'm hardly an expert, and may well be mistaken.

November 10, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Attack of the Moon-Themed Soundtrack

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies.

An American Werewolf in London is remembered largely for its transformation scene, and rightly so. The image of a man screaming and writhing in agony as his body contorts quickly and unpleasantly cements itself in one’s mind. Despite the hokey soundtrack applied to the proceedings (I groaned when I realized that every single song would have “moon” in the title), the event plays out like an overlong nightmare, offering grotesquely convincing close-ups of how truly horrible it is to become a man-hound.

Unfortunately, this small percentage of insanely watchable celluloid allows us to collectively forget that the rest of the film kind of stinks.

It’s clear pretty early on that this movie isn’t going anywhere exciting. From the moment our good-looking hero (the hunky, dull David Naughton) and his goofy sidekick (the gnomish Griffin Dunne) extract themselves from a truck full of sheep, you can tell that the comedic aspect of this horror-comedy hybrid is going to fall short. The ongoing banter between the two leads reeks of effort: everyone involved is trying to create a funny moment, and no one is succeeding.

The young travelers, who incidentally are worse planners than the trio in The Blair Witch Project, stumble upon what proves to be the most intense village in creation. All acting that happens inside the village pub is turned up to eleven. The extreme tension and charged pauses suggest that somewhere a crucial line about the off-screen sniper was edited out, leaving behind only the clenched, dire delivery of a set of characters who we didn’t realize are all about to be shot in the head. While this makes sense after the two men exit and are clearly in danger of losing their lives, it is less plausible when they are, for instance, ordering tea.

As it turns out, these people do have some cause to worry: pretty soon, a horrible beast is unexpectedly eating Griffin Dunne. The shock of his death is mixed with relief: it’s nice to think that he won’t be around to extract laughter from me the way a student dentist might extract a molar. Sadly, he will make several subsequent appearances as a corpse in limbo, getting uglier but not any funnier.

As the newly-bitten protagonist wakes in the hospital, we’re introduced to a breath of fresh air in the form of Jenny Agutter’s Nurse Alex. The sheer competence of her performance suggests that she stumbled onto the wrong set; while Naughton limply recites his lines as if he’s still at the first table read, Agutter lays down layers of nuance that I doubt anyone else in the production even noticed, let alone intended. Sadly, despite her intelligent reading of the script, her character is an idiot: she’s quick to encourage her patient to live in her apartment even though he is a total stranger who has suffered serious trauma, behaves erratically, tells her he’s in love with her after less than a month, and claims to be a werewolf. She’s the kind of girl who ought to die first in a flick like this.

We get Next, we’re given an impressive attempt at rationalizing everyone’s fairly casual reaction to David’s repeated assertions that he is a werewolf. The whole business is unconvincing, wordy, and lacking in the horror and/or comedy that would make it feel like a viable use of our viewing time.

Finally, after some more bland exposition from the locals back at the High-Intensity Pub (seriously, those people are stern and impassioned. They need backrubs.) the film delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actual werewolfery. As mentioned previously, the metamorphosis is handled quite well. Unfortunately, David Naughton is no more interesting as a monster than he is as a man. Though several murders occur in quick succession, nothing especially scary or even gory happens. We spend all this time watching a werewolf being created, but then aren’t shown the finished product or what it’s capable of. It’s something of a let-down.

The third quarter of this movie is a blur to me. I know that Mr. Naughton frolics bare-assed through London for a while (note to Tom: more male nudity, please), and then he talks to the undead in a porno theater (an arbitrary choice of location that I accept only because it allowed for the one joke in the entire script that made me laugh). Inevitably, the moon comes out again, and the werewolf eats some people who presumably just wanted to masturbate in peace. His subsequent escape into Piccadilly Circus, while light on individual bite-induced death, causes something of a vehicular holocaust. It’s a total Monster Truck Rally. Apparently, the release of a single wild animal onto the London streets would cause untold carnage and mayhem. More hilarious still: while the patrons of the provincial bar to the North are busy trying to perfect the technique of murder by emphatic tone of voice, the city folk calmly label the unfolding twisted metal apocalypse as a “disturbance.” When we finally get to see the dog-man, the finished product isn’t nearly as exciting as the work-in-progress.

Then he gets shot, Jenny Agutter gives a better crying take that this project deserves, and the movie ends. It’s abrupt.

Bottom line: amusement and fright seem to be on opposite ends of the playing field. I neither laughed nor felt the need to cover my eyes during this movie, and it’s easy to make me do either. By trying for both, the makers of this movie ended up engaging in a tug-of-war that left them decidedly in the middle, never managing to achieve either aim. What’s left is a sketchy plot, lame dialogue, shoddy performances, and mediocre direction. Without Rick Baker’s innovative prosthetic work, this dud surely would have faded into obscurity long ago.

November 6, 2008

Trans-Genred -- Jonathan Demme's Oprahcore Horror Experiment

I've never really been able to discern between movies which exist solely to terrify and those which only do so incidentally. As a child I was just as afraid of the marauding wild hogs in Old Yeller as I was of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and now as an adult I find Glenn Close just as fearsome in Dangerous Liaisons as she is in Fatal Attraction -- maybe more. To this day, my favorite films are the ones that fly just under the radar and freak you the hell out about 40% more vigorously than absolutely necessary.

For this new regular feature I'll be presenting dossiers of my favorite examples (as spoilerlessly as possible), including choice screencaps. I decided to begin with one of the most unjustly dismissed films of the last decade, Jonathan Demme's insightful meditation on infanticide, torture, and the vengeful undead:

Oprah helped make Beloved (handy Netflix link), and she also helped kill it. Her profound investment (personal and otherwise) resulted in the movie being marketed as a heavy drama in which an aging ex-slave finds a new lease on life through a romance with another aging ex-slave. It sounded like a pretentious snooze to everyone not in Oprah's cult, which is a shame considering the film actually rivals The Silence of the Lambs as a showcase for Demme's ability to shock, maim, and cauterize.

Of course, that means that the few gentle souls who actually did show up to catch it in theaters basically received what amounts to a cinematic purple-nurple -- a three-hour hellride in which the horrors of slavery are only the tip of the iceberg. Remember when Chris March made those garments out of human hair for Project Runway and Tim Gunn recoiled, telling Chris that he'd been "in the monkey house" for so long that it didn't even smell bad to him anymore? That's the sort of denial that we can attribute to Oprah here. She was flying high on her own character's redemption-endorphins; she's sort of a redemption junkie, you know. To be fair, she probably wasn't even on-set during the baby murder scenes (though she could have warned people about the exorcism).

While it's every bit as effective a drama as it is a supernatural thriller, without these nastier elements the Oscar-worthy (and -snubbed) cast wouldn't have anything to chew on. It's certainly as dark as the novel it's based on. But tell that to the Oprahites who, within the first three minutes of the film, had to witness a dog in bloody convulsions after being poltergeisted straight into wall. Fortunately the loving hands of Dear Leader are there to pop his eye back into place. (This puts Oprah in the small but elite corps of actors who have actually handled a prop eyeball.)
The house is haunted by the ghost of Oprah's daughter who was an unfortunate casualty of the passage into freedom from slavery (the montages of those conditions alone are enough to earn the film its R rating). When the psycho ex-baby becomes frustrated with her ability to wreak invisible mayhem from beyond, she returns in the flesh, staggering out of the creek fully grown and not really minding if her face happens to become encrusted with bugs.

I don't know how we found ourselves in this parallel universe where Thandie Newton won no significant awards for her performance as Beloved. Every second she's onscreen it's miserably clear that she's just a skin-sheath surrounding a very angry dead baby (one who, anger aside, still has virtually no control over her voice, limbs, or bowels, and spends a lot of her screen-time being propped up by things.)

While to us she seems like pretty much the most frightening unexpected houseguest you could imagine, apparently in the late 19th century you had to be pretty fucked up in order to be deemed truly unsuitable company. Oprah's gang doesn't seem to be fazed by her insectile voice or her fecklessness when it comes to fluids.

Beloved is a ravenous consumer, living on a diet of sugary treats and attention (Oprah accepts the young woman as a sort of surrogate daughter, understandably not realizing that she's actually the undead real daughter she put in the ground many years ago), though ironically she's also prone to snacking on other babies. I think the look on Kimberly Elise's face here pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this movie.

I won't get into the backstory of how Beloved's toddlerhood came to its untimely end, but I'd like to clarify how far Jonathan Demme's willing to go to make you feel really, really upset about it: he is willing to go all the fucking way, that's how far.

I guess that, all things considered, it's not too surprising that Beloved wound up being the sort of undead baby-woman who will totally go all cave-man on your dining room with a fire-poker if she doesn't get her sugar-fix.

Of course, by this point Oprah's character has her own shit to work out. I don't know how many people stayed in the theater all the way to the part where she demonstrates the wrong way to hand someone an ice-pick, but I get a little satisfaction knowing that, had McCain and Palin won the election, the world surely would have seen this side of her again.

Thandie Newton, on the other hand, will probably never bother work this hard on a role ever again. Would you? Though to be fair, she did get paid to do this:

There's a lot in Beloved that I can't show here. It's profound; it's absorbing and exhausting and really will probably make you cry big blubbery tears that you didn't know you had. But the images here aren't just cherry-picked to skew towards horror -- in fact, it's so much harder, weirder and grosser than this, largely because of the skill and effort that everyone put into making it. While it left Oprah's devotees feeling a little... confused, there's no reason why the rest of us serious sickos can't go back and reclaim it for our side.

November 5, 2008

Face-plants To Feed Your Cold AND Your Fever

Came down with a cold suddenly. So you know how when you get sick the only thing that seems to make you feel better is watching moronically entertaining videos on YouTube? Well, yeah, lots of that. Thought I'd share in case anyone else out there isn't feeling particularly well.

First, you've got your insane animal videos. Shrimp running on a treadmill. Chimpanzee riding on a Segway. Hamster on a piano (eating popcorn). Cat diving into a yogurt box.

Follow that up with some of the more innocuous face-plant videos out there (trust me, the really violent ones do NOT make you feel better when you're sick.) Face-plant. Face-plant into wall. Soccer ball to the face. Body-board face-plant.

By this point there's no longer anything wrong with you that the hiccuping silly-heads over at Match Game can't fix. "Boobs." "I think Batman and Robin are _____." "You're applauding butts!" "Betty could be married to _____."

Follow up in the morning with a few old reliable live news bloopers. Woman struck by lightning. Model falls over. And my new favorite, a naïve anchorwoman can't seem to recover from having said "muff" on-air.

You'll want to bookmark this post, kids. Flu season will be here soon!

November 4, 2008

INTERVIEW - Spongebob Star Tom Kenny Can't Wait To See El Superbeasto In the Ring

Some personalities are just not conducive to a good phone-interview, but I suspect this is an area where voice-over actors really have it made. That's part of why I was excited to talk to Tom Kenny, who aside from voicing Spongebob Squarepants and many other memorable characters, plays Otto the gorilla in Rob Zombie's long-awaited The Haunted Adventures of El Superbeasto, which was the subject of this week's Web Stalker.

Unfortunately that guaranteed that me and my raspy still-in-my-bathrobe voice would be the obvious weak link in this interview, but Kenny was grateful to have something to do while trapped in rush hour traffic, so he was mercifully nonjudgmental as he shared thoughts about his castmates, Zombie's achievements, the world of voice chasers, and animation at large.


TB: Have you gotten a chance yet to screen the film in any of its incarnations?

TK: I’ve only seen a couple pieces of the it. Mr. Lawrence, the director -- who is also the voice of Plankton on Spongebob -- showed me a couple of scenes, and it looks really funny. One scene in particular, where the main character is in a strip club watching a girl do her routine... it was like a much naughtier version of those Tex Avery cartoons where the wolf is watching Red. It’s amazing how many cartoon shorts from the "golden age" are about horniness and ways to repress it!

TB: Are you an animation buff from way back?

TK: That stuff was totally my obsession as a kid – anything animated. Although I was born in ’62, so I was a little young for that wave of adult animation that happened in the '70s: Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and stuff like SCTV. I love animation and I love doing kid-friendly stuff, but I have to admit that it feels good to do something for a different demographic.

TB: In his blog about El Superbeasto, Rob said,"It's much easier to make normal shit, but getting folks behind crazy shit is a nightmare. They all love it once it make them money, but before that forget. It's the ugly child no one loves." Do you agree?

TK: Well, if he can’t get it rolling no one else has a prayer! Yeah, I agree. That’s the whole story of Hollywood, right? Trying to make something that pushes the envelope and breaks the norm, but that's very hard to explain. If it’s something simple, you can just say, “It’s sort of like Bee Movie, only with elephants instead of bees - and there are fart jokes!” and they go, “Oh, okay.” But something like this... Look, not
everything is going to appeal to a giant demographic!

TB: Has that been your experience in a lot of the offbeat stuff you've worked on?

I think it’s really hard to get stuff going. Spongebob had an uphill battle in the pitching stage; Mr. Show which I was on with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, has a big cult following now but took a really long time to sell to HBO, and when they finally put it on it was in a weird time-slot and on odd days of the week. I think a lot of it depends on the intestinal fortitude of the person doing the selling. I’ve been lucky to work with creators who won’t stop until it's on the air, long after I would have gone, “Fuck it! I have other ideas, I can’t waste any more time on driving around pitching to guys with ties on, forget it!”

When it comes to comic books, places like Japan are far ahead of us in not assuming that this art form is only for kid genres. You know, animation can be used to tell any kind of story, and just like a bookstore has a children’s section and among many other sections, so should it be for animation. There’s a weird animated French film from the ‘70s called Fantastic Planet that I saw when I was a kid; it doesn’t have any sex or anything in it, but it’s a very adult story about a world where humans are playthings for these giant, blue-skinned pet owners. It’s tough to find anything equivalent in a movie theater, everything these days is CGI farting animals.

TB: For a fringe project, the cast of El Superbeasto turned out to be pretty amazing!

TK: Yes, it's a totally crazy mishmash of people like Paul Giamatti and Rosario Dawson with others who are huge voice-over freaks like me, Rob Paulson, and John di Maggio. Celebrity on-camera actors do lots of animated films, and to me -- someone who does a lot of voice-over -- their work is often lacking. They don't really bring anything to the party except their movie-star cred. Not that anyone cares! [laughs] Character actors seem to fare better in general, because that's sort of what us voice-over types are -- our own version of that naggingly familiar guy you know you've seen in a million movies but you don't know his name. Giamatti really brings it, I really liked his Dr. Satan a lot. Rosario Dawson was really great too, and her character was really... you know, dirty. She plays a really great nasty girl.

TB: Hmm, I wonder how she constantly winds up in that position?

TK: I don't know! Because I worked with her, and that's not the side of her I saw. She was like my kid sister.

TB: I get really frustrated with bland celebrity voice-over too. Is there a special tier of fame for great voice-over work?

TK: I didn’t know about this until recently, but there are people who are sort of steeped in that, they call themselves voice chasers. They’re like storm chasers! They're just seriously into voice-over work and connecting the dots to figure out who does what voices. Being a voice-over person is usually almost like being a puppeteer or something, you get so used to being crouched behind the counter and no one’s really looking at you. It’s amazing to go online and realize how many people know everything you do! Even obscure stuff that only takes you twenty minutes and then you never think about ever again; I've seen people discussing some obscure thing that was just a stop on my way over to another voice over gig.

TB: What was your exposure to Rob Zombie's work prior to this? Were you a big fan of his other movies?

TK: I knew him more through his music; my nephew is really into him, and when we’d drive around we'd listen to it in the car,. Also there's the monster rock connection -- being a sort of middle-aged first-wave punk rocker, I revered The Cramps, and there’s definitely a crossover from what they were doing to what he’s done; he loves The Cramps too, he's used them as his opening act and stuff like that. And then there’s the world of monster movie memorabilia collecting, I’ve always heard stories about the obscure stuff he buys. As for movies, while I’m an old-school horror fan, I’m not a gore fan at all -- I have so little stomach for anything post-Halloween. So those movies are not on my radar, even though I know he has cool character actors like Sid Haig, people who are idols of mine. My tastes are different, it’s just not my thing. The people who do traffic in that are really nice, though; I’ve worked with Robert Englund a bunch of times and he’s really nice, a hilarious, sweet guy -- but I’ve never seen a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and probably never will.

TB: So, do you know anything we don't about when El Superbeasto will be released?

TK: I’ve been hearing so many different stories, and even Mr. Lawrence has no idea. He finished his work, he got paid, and now he too is just watching the pages fall off the calendar wondering when it’s going to come out. I have no idea. One of the advantages of being a session musician instead of a rock star is that you come in and play your drum part and then you forget about it and leave, you don’t have to be involved in the bullshit. It’s one of the huge perks of my job. I hope it comes out soon, I really want to see it!

November 3, 2008

The Grand Finale of Yma Sumac, 1922-2008

Peruvian-born singer Yma Sumac passed away yesterday. My obsession with her began just like any other; growing up in small-town cultural dustbin, a brush with anything exotic and otherworldly triggered intense desire and curiosity. They were beacons from an alien world just beyond the horizon, one I longed to escape to.

I remember my miserable sad-sack job folding shirts at a store in the mall. I had just (barely) graduated high school and was beginning to wonder if I had pissed off some esoteric acne-god in the process. Overall, I just didn't personify the "look" that our store was selling; my managers knew it, and my sales reflected it. I was supposed to be excited to start community college in a few weeks, but it felt like a death sentence. Generally, my inner monologue while folding polo shirts for hours went something like this: "Fuck... fuck. Fuck!"

The canned corporate-approved music that played on a loop overhead usually only added fuel to my desperation, but there were bright spots. One tape in particular had the B-52's "Summer of Love" on it, and Dj Dimitri's "A Very Stylish Girl" (I was too larval to realize the sampled lines as being from Breakfast at Tiffany's). There was also this song, which I thought I'd heard bits of on television. On a break I wrote down the song and artist from the cassette tape's label, and looked forward to hearing it at least once per shift. Eventually the corporate office sent a new tape to be played every day; I asked if I could keep the old one, but of course my managers refused, insisting that it had to be disposed of according to protocol. A few weeks later I disposed of myself mid-shift, saving them the trouble. After a long search (oh, those pre-Amazon days!) I was able to get my hands on a copy of Mambo! and contemplate the mystery of Sumac's voice and identity at leisure. What kind of person is this? How do I get there from here?

It would have required more than time-travel. Her music and image were theatrical even by 1954's standards, occupying the uncanny valley somewhere between Doris Day and Bettie Page. This is wasn't an era when most women were painting on viperous lips and fingernails and festooning themselves with every imaginable feather and ornament like silent-film stars. Yma was a stranger to Americans in more ways than one, and it suited her fine; somehow she still found her audience and made a strong case for contact with alien life-forms. Over fifty years later I could sense that without even knowing what she looked like; I didn't know why I wanted to keep listening -- I didn't even know exactly what I was listening to. There was no hope for me in the familiar, in the attainable. If I was ever going to find happiness in the world, I would have to get lost and stay there for a long time.

In most ways I probably have less in common with Sumac than almost anyone else in the world. I feel lucky, however, that I took the time over the years to dig deeper into her music, plumbing her monstrous growl and high-altitude birdsongs for secret worldly information. I suspect that I owe her for demonstrating the splendor of a unique world built for oneself, one that exists parallel to the known worlds in some ways and perpendicular in others. Yma Sumac shares credit for that with lots of other individuals, for sure -- but I think she'll always stand out in my mind compared to other artists whom I've been obsessed with over the years, because I've never for a moment fallen under the delusion that I ever really understood her. She's as much a stranger to me now as she ever was -- even moreso now that she has passed from this world, leaving me with so many unanswerable questions. What kind of person was this? How do we get there from here?