Monday, October 31, 2016

Carl's Favourite Horror Films

In celebration of Halloween (a little late, I know) I am posting a second blog! It's my second-favourite time of year and a celebration of all things spooky, scary, spoopy, ghostly and the perfect time to sit in the dark and watching horror movies.

And because I like talking about movies, I'm going to talk about my five favourite horror movies! In no particular order:

1. Halloween
I remember seeing the VHS box for Halloween in video stores, as a child, and being entranced by it. The razor sharp knife held in a bulging fist like a weapon, the image repeated, blurred and coloured into a jack-o-lantern face with angry eyes and a jagged edge like monsterous teeth. It's an evocative image. I wondered for years what kind of movie sat locked inside this box. Surely it must be the scariest movie ever made.

After years of wondering, I became old enough and brave enough to rent the film and find out. Of course it isn't the scariest film ever, but it is frightening and it's a well made film. Although not the first slasher film, it was the earliest success and inspired all the slasher films to follow. It's also the movie that inspired my love of slasher films and horror more broadly.

2. The Thing
John Carpenter has the distinction of being the only film maker appearing twice in my top five horror movies. The Thing may be his best work. It inspires a sense of dread and paranoia like no other film, playing on the darkness and isolation of the antarctic landscape. The Thing also has enough gore and body horror to satisfy horror fans seeking more blood-soaked horror. The claymation looks a little dated by today's special effects but, in a way, it adds to the bizarre and alien nature of the creature haunting the poor humans. Despite its special effects, the movie holds up extremely well even after all these years and if the monster itself doesn't frighten you, the atmosphere, tone and the uncomfortable final moments are sure to chill you.

3. Ring
Ring was my introduction to Japanese horror films. It is a film with very few overt scares but the entire film is soaked with dread and terror and ever building anxiety. The idea of a haunted video tape (although, like the claymation in The Thing, it certainly dates the film) is unique, to say the least, and it speaks highly of the film that it can take something so ordinary as watching a video tape and make it so frightening. The climax of the film, the big reveal and the only appearance of the ghostly Sadako will either scare you silly or just look silly, depending on your tolerance for scares. When I first saw it, it gave me some serious chills and kept me awake hours into the night. These days it's not so effective, but that's fine, because the tension through the rest of the film is more than enough to keep you on the edge of your seat and chomping at your finger nails.

4. Aliens
Aliens is a film that needs no introduction. It is as much an action movie as a horror movie and is a landmark in cinema history for both genres. The eponymous alien monsters are a terrifying sight to behold and have become a pop-culture icon. But what makes Aliens such an effective and frightening horror film is that, at first glance, our human characters seem to have all the advantage. They're prepared for an encounter, they're armed and trained and dangerous. They've got all the guns and all the tech. But hubris is a bitch. And no matter how good their training, how big their guns, how smart their choices, how ready these colonial marines think they are, the aliens are seemingly unstopable. Horror movies are all the more frightening when your main characters make intelligent decisions and are still helpless against the dangers facing them. Aliens is a great example of this.

5. The Conjuring
If you like horror movies and you haven't seen The Conjuring, you are living your life wrong. I've seen a lot of horror movies. I've seen the good, the bad, the ugly, the uncomfortable, the amazing, the cheap, the disappointing. I've seen every kind of horror movie. After a while, you start to get numb. You start to think you've seen it all and nothing scares you anymore. The Conjuring is one of two films (the other being [REC]) that has come and kicked me right in the complacency and scared the crap out of me. It is a masterpiece. No other film I've seen creates the same atmosphere of ceaseless and terrifying oppression like The Conjuring. If there's a film that recreates the horror of a haunted house, it's The Conjuring.

And unlike so many haunted house films, it tells its story through a cast of likable and sympathetic characters. Too many haunted house movies feature a short-tempered, doubting husband yelling at his kids for telling lies and abandoning his wife to the ghosts because he's the only rational, sensible person in the world. The Conjuring avoids these tropes entirely.

Similarly, it avoids reliance on jump scares and fake outs and similar cheap shocks. When the ghosts appear in The Conjuring, they come like a spider creeping towards your paralysed hand. You know they're coming, you see them coming and there's nothing you can do about it. The film doesn't need fake outs because once the horror begins, it only lets up to allow tender moments between the characters. Then, when it's time to be scary, it goes all in.

The Conjuring uses every tool in the film maker's tool box to make you uncomfortable and afraid. It combines a great script with great actors, and presents the terror through carefully crafted lighting and photography, accompanied by a minimalist discordant sound track and the occasional ghostly whisper. Even as the film builds to an exciting and action filled climax, the horror never lets up.

Zombies Aren't Scary

Zombies aren't scary. The more we see zombies getting chainsawed, shotgunned, run over and decapitated, the more zombies become a laughable cannon fodder for action movies and video games.

But zombies have never been especially scary. Sure they're hungry for flesh and brains and will come in hordes to break through windows and smash down doors and tear you limb from limb but, when you think about it, zombies are slow moving and stupid and we non-zombie people have tanks and tall places. Any zombie threat would be easily and quickly put down by a dedicated millitary operation.

Zombies aren't scary.

But people are fucking terrifying. That's why, in any zombie movie, the real horror is the collapse of society and the descent of humanity into barbarism. In the film 28 Days Later, the addition of running zombies doesn't add much. They can still be knocked on their arse by a well swung shopping bag full of chocolate. But Christopher Eccelston and his band of rapey soldier boys is horrifying. That's the real tension. That's the scary stuff, right there.

The best zombie stories have always used zombies as a means to explore the darkness of humanity. They are a framing device for the drama that arises when people are desperate and isolated and afraid. But zombies, on their own, aren't scary.

You all know this story. A family moves into a new house. It's an old house but a nice house. It's a bit of a fixer-upper and it's a bit isolated, sitting on the edge of town, but it was cheap. It's perfect for a husband, a wife, their kid(s) and their dog. After all they've been through, after whatever vague turmoil has ravaged their life and drove them to move into a new home, this new start is exactly what they need.

But you all know this story. The house is already occupied. It's haunted. It's haunted and the resident ghosts don't want company. They create horrific visions of death and mayhem, they manifest as rotting corpses, eviscerated bodies, recreating the final horrible moments of their life. The ghosts are compelled torture the family physically and psychologically. They can't pack up and leave, now. All their life's savings were sunk into this home.

And, you know, who actually believes in ghosts?

You all know this story. It's a cliche. Family, new house, ghosts, dead dog at the end of Act 1.

There's an obvious reason that all haunted house stories begin with the family moving into the house. If they didn't just move in, they'd already be having this ghost problem. Either they've just arrived at the house or we're joining the story half way through. It's practically a narrative requirement.

But what if I told you the haunted house story is a metaphor? What if I told you the ghosts aren't really ghosts?

The ghosts represent the anxiety of being alone in a strange place. Moving house is a huge upheaval of one's life and when you're trying to settle into a new place, any number of things can go wrong. You might have bought a house practically falling apart, there might be limited professional opportunities in the area, the town might hate outsiders, the church might be fall of extremist hate mongers, the supermarket might not carry cocoa pops. A family must establish new routines and new boundaries as the change in environment forces their relationships to adapt. All of this anxiety is reduced into a spectral haunting that plagues the family while they're trying to adjust to this new life. The house is on an old stretch of dirt road outside town because the family, being new to the community, are alone in the community. They have no friends, no family, no social network at all they can call on for help. They are literally and figuratively isolated. Just a group of equally anxious and exhausted people trying to make life work.

Stop me if you've heard this one. A group of teenagers are picked off one by one by a murderer in a mask.

What? You know this already?

Of course you do. Scream spelled this out for us over a decade ago. The teenagers have sex and do drugs and they die. The killer is a punishment for breaking the rules, for acting against society's expectations, for being different to their conservative parent's generation.

But now we expect kids to have sex and do drugs. We call it normal. That's why the slasher film died out.

Okay, but let me say that Scream really didn't take it far enough and because of that, it missed the mark just a little.

Let's look at Friday The 13th, a nigh perfect slasher film. A group of teenagers, isolated from the world of adults, having sex, smoking in bed, being reckless and hormonal and irresponsible. They are stalked by Jason Vorhees and killed one by one. They are punished for their behaviour.

Well, that's not all true. It's Jason's mother killing them. She's killing them to avenge her son's death. Poor Jason died in the lake, drowning while the camp counselors were off having pre-marital sex instead of watching the children. It's not so much cosmic justice as it is revenge. But, still, that's splitting hairs. They're being punished. But it's important to note that the punishment is actually really specific. It wasn't just that the teenagers were having pre-marital sex, it's that their doing so resulted in Jason's death.

If we extend out from Friday the 13th, even beyond Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street to some lesser known slasher films like Valentine and Prom Night, and even the bigger hit that was I Know What You Did Last Summer, we see that the whole sex and drugs are punished by death theory begins to fall apart. Nobody is going to argue Prom Night isn't a slasher film. Likewise for Valentine. But neither include much in the way of sex and drugs. Valentine isn't even about teenagers.

But there is still a common theme between them and Friday the 13th. The main characters, the killer's victims, are being punished. Whether it's for bullying or accidental murder or a whole host of other crimes and social wrong-doings, the characters are guilty and they would go unpunished for their crimes if not for a masked killer.

In essense, a slasher film is a warning. Sometimes it does only go as far as pre-marital sex and drugs. In the earliest slasher film, Black Christmas, it's a warning against the debauchery and sin of being in a sorority, of abusing the freedom of early adulthood. "Behave yourself," says the slasher film. "Do as society expects, obey your elders, live a life of virtue. If you don't, your sins will be punished with death." It's an idea as old as humanity.

Slasher films are super conservative, when you think about it.

Good horror is not about monsters and masked killers. Good horror uses these spooks and creeps to say something about humanity. Michael Myers, the villain of the Halloween franchise, has been in 9 movies and has always played second fiddle in his own franchise. Michael Myers isn't interesting. He's not a character, he's a force of nature. Horror movies are never about the monster, they're about the people. They're about people dealing with adversity and anxiety and whether or not their humanity can weather the storm of terror around them.

And when Michael Myers is the main character of his film? That film sucks.

Sorry, Rob Zombie.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Jack Chick In Memoriam

I play role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons is, as the young people say, my joint.

I'm also a Christian. Never made a secret of that. I own a number of bibles and display them shamelessly on my bookshelves (right above the collected works of Lovecraft.)

I don't now or have ever seen a conflict of interest in being a gamer and a Christian. I'm not alone. One of my weekly gaming groups plays at a church as part of a church ministry. Not everyone shares my opinion.

Being both a gamer and a Christian and the kind of person who spends a lot of time on the internet, it was inevitable that I would encounter Jack Chick and his Chick Tracts. I remember the first time I read Dark Dungeons and how it made me laugh. I recognise, though, that I have been fortunate. I've never been a part of a church or Christian community that saw role playing games as works of evil or short cuts to hell. Others were not so lucky. Other gamers have suffered varying abuses at the hands of Christians, convinced they must hate role-playing games and actively work to rid the world of their corruption. This was and is a real thing. Jack Chick must share some of the blame for that.

Jack Chick's work was, largely, a work of fear and hate. His comics are inflammatory and paranoid and bigoted. They're also camp as a row of tents. They're the Leave It To Beaver of fire and brim stone sermons. It can be hard to believe they're not parody or satire.

Jack Chick is dead.

It started coming up over my Facebook news feed this morning and as the day goes on, the news articles are multiplying.

This filled me with concern.

Many of my friends are gamers. Hell, at this stage of my life, the majority of people I know well and in passing are gamers. Some of those have had genuinely bad experiences with Christians who fear role-playing games. Some have absorbed, through our sub-culture, a second hand trauma and have turned that into a resentment towards Christianity at large. Jack Chick makes a convenient target for that resentment. From the moment I saw the first article on his death, I had no doubt in my mind that soon the cheers and celebrations would be coming. "Jack Chick is dead? Huzzah!" they'd say. "I hope he's in hell!" they'll cry. "It's about time. Let him rot!" Yes, sir. The cheers would be coming.

And they did.

But not in the volume I expected.

Instead, something else happened.

People started sharing their favourite Chick Tracts. People started celebrating his work as the unintentionally hilarious insane ravings that they are. Nobody had much to say about Jack Chick himself, but they had a lot of good memories of reading Chick Tracts and laughing and sharing it with their friends so they could laugh. Their celebrations began to send others to Jack Chick's website and collections of his work, wondering what all the fuss was about and those new comers began to laugh.

And I can't tell you how happy this has made me.

No matter what Jack Chick said, no matter how crazy his comics, no matter how hurtful his words, Jack Chick was a man with friends and family and a life. His death will create real grief for real people. We should respect that. We should not celebrate a man's death.

But after witnessing the response to his death, I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something to celebrate about Jack Chick's life. No matter how hard Jack Chick tried to spread fear and intolerance but no matter how many cultures and beliefs he painted as evil, as literally demonic, no matter how hard he tried to make us as bigoted as he was, Jack Chick ultimately did something wonderful.

Jack Chick made us laugh. More than that, he made us laugh together. And laughter and fellowship is great at stripping hate of all its power.

So I encourage everybody to laugh at Chick Tracts. Laugh at them because they are absurd and camp and insane.

If Jack Chick's work can bring joy to our lives and bring people together to share that joy, then he leaves behind a better legacy than he ever could have hoped.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I Learned Writing Pilgrimage

Over three years ago, I wrote this blog entry about what I learned writing Sorceress' Blood. I had intended to write a similar blog entry after finishing Pilgrimage but for some reason I never did. Well, it's time to fix that. So here we go!

This is what I learned writing my second book, Pilgrimage.

1. Planning makes everything better

I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to begin. I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to end. I knew what I wanted the themes of Pilgrimage to be, I knew what the world would be (because it's the same world as Sorceress' Blood) and who the characters would be. This was enough for me to begin writing. A couple of chapters in, I grabbed my hand-dandy notebook and wrote myself some notes to outline the next few chapters. Every time I finished a couple of chapters, I'd go back to my notebook and do the same. This meant I knew not only where the story was ultimately going, but where it was going next. Very little of my writing time went towards staring at the screen thinking "what happens now?" because I had done that work before hand. This was invaluable in making my writing time productive. I have been a committed planner ever since.

2. No, really, planning makes EVERYTHING better

Pilgrimage is a strong story, I think, because of its themes. The themes of friendship, grief and redemption are core to the novel. Without exploring those themes, it would be a far less interesting story. Those themes were always in my mind. Before the first words were on the page I had planned what themes I wanted the story to explore, how characters would relate to those themes and what the novel would say, if anything, about those themes by the time it finished or if it would leave them open to reader's decision and interpretation. There were no accidents in finished product. I said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and it has made Pilgrimage a more satisfying and memorable book for both me the author and the reader.

3. Sometimes you edit with a scalpel, sometimes with a butcher's knife

A lot of editing is a matter of fine tuning. Reworking a sentence, choosing a better word, cutting out your adverbs and your passive voice and your excessive copulas. You edit to trim the fat and make everything look and sound pretty and get your point across with maximum clarity. It's a task that requires precision. Except when it doesn't. Sometimes you don't need to trim the fat, you need to lop off a limb, behead the body, carve out the heart and lungs and dump it all in the fire. During the editing phase of Pilgrimage, I removed a number of chapters and re-wrote them from scratch. I took big chunks of those chapters and inserted them into later chapters, rewriting them to fit seamlessly. One section of the journey appeared significantly later in early drafts, but I cut it out and shoved it back in earlier on in the story. These were massive changes affecting not just large sections of text but the entire story as a result. It meant a lot of work. Everything that got chopped and sliced and shifted needed delicate stitching around it to make sure the flow of the narrative wasn't broken. But those changes improved the story. These big changes were still easier than writing the complete first draft, though. Don't be afraid to make big changes in editing. Even though the hardest part is done, don't think you can slack off.

4. Stay in school, kids

Pilgrimage is a journey. The journey is kind of like Baby's First Literary Device. It's simple stuff. Journeys are popular because they're simple. They're easy to write, easy to dissect, and they make for great extended metaphors. Every story includes some kind of journey. A character's personal arc is almost always a psychological journey for them. Linking that personal psychological journey to some kind of physical journey is first grade writer stuff. But I can only tell you this, I could only write Pilgrimage the way I did, because I learned it. I studied it. I had it all spelled out to me and I was shown examples upon examples upon examples. All this happened to me in my second last year of high school. It turns out, all that stuff we learned in English class is actually really important if you want to write. I'm glad I paid attention. I'm also glad I had an excellent teacher (to whom Pilgrimage is dedicated) who fostered in me a passion for literature and a desire to understand it. I've said before that if you want to be a writer, you forfeit the right to read for fun. Reading is now study. Understanding books is necessary to writing books.

 5. When you're stuck, look at your conflict and theme

Raymond Chandler famously said "If in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." It's one of my favourite pieces of story telling advice. It means that if you're stuck, make something exciting happen. Add some conflict and drama and mystery. But if you're brain is working, you might be asking "But who is this man with the gun and why is he here?" The way I see it, you've got two options. Firstly, this man with his gun could be the beginning of a new mysterious subplot. That gives you an interesting new direction to take and something for your characters to do right now. But obviously you can't add in a whole new subplot every time you're scratching your head for ideas. So I say, option two, tie the man with the gun into your primary conflict or your themes. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist working against each other. This man with the gun (who is probably not a literal man with a gun) represents the agenda of your antagonist. It's a new obstacle the character must over-come to keep ahead of the antagonist and if the protagonist fails, the antagonist moves ahead, putting more pressure on the protagonist. Alternatively, the man with the gun might not represent the antagonist but instead represents the theme of your story. How your character interacts with this man with a gun, how he triumphs or fails, what that means to your character, can all deepen the story's exploration of its theme. So if you're struggling to think of ways to move the narrative forward and keep reader interest, look at your theme and main conflict for ways to introduce new conflict.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Amazing Straight-White-Man!

I've talked a lot about writing minority and marginalised groups. I've stressed the importance of fiction and why we need diverse representation. I'll continue to talk about it a lot in the future.

And yet, you might say, "Carl, who are you to talk about this like an expert? What do you know about the needs and wants of a group you're not a part of and whose life experience will be totally different to your own?"

That's a fair question. I'd go so far as to say it's a good question. I've asked myself that question a lot and I'll no doubt ask myself that question again. But every time I ask that question, I come up with the same answer.

You've probably heard people talk about privilege plenty in recent memory. I may have mentioned it myself. I have a lot of privilege. Being a straight white male in the first world, I lucked into all kinds of privilege that make my life relatively easy. I'd like to stress that point that I lucked into my privilege. I didn't earn it, I didn't work for it, I didn't ask for it. I was born lucky.

It would be wrong of me to have that privilege, which I did nothing to earn, and do nothing of value with it. It is a great power I hold and with great power comes great responsibility. I am Straight-White-Man, fighting for truth, social justice and the politically correct way!

Now you might say, "What are you talking about? What power? What privilege? Not every straight white dude is successful politician or a corporate ceo or a respected academic."  You might be a straight white dude who feels like you don't have a whole lot of privilege and say "None of my gender, sexuality or skin colour has made me successful. There's plenty of straight white men living in poverty and killing themselves and having a hard time."

You're right. You are 100% correct. But the privilege that comes from being a straight white dude does not look like the privilege that comes from being born rich like Carlton Banks. If you, my fellow straight white men, are asking what possible Great Power(tm) you've received by virtue of your birth, then answer me this question.

When is the last time somebody threatened to rape you for having an opinion?

I'd bet money it hasn't happened.

But that's a reality for women.

When is the last time you told somebody what you do for a living and they said "No, really, what do you do?"

That probably hasn't happened either.

But in less than a month, I've seen two news stories about women of colour being treated as liars when they claimed to be an architect and a doctor.

When is the last time somebody called you an abomination and that God hates you or that civilisation is collapsing because of you?

I've never heard that.

But for homosexuals everywhere, that's what they hear. And don't try and shrug that off and say "Oh that's an extreme minority saying that" because that bullshit doesn't matter. It's being said. The LGBTQ+ community is hearing that. It doesn't matter if one person is saying it or a million, that it's being said at all is a problem faced by real people.

Straight-White-Man's privilege, his super power, is that society rarely tries to silence them. I can talk about feminism without being threatened with murder and rape. I can tell people I'm an author without people saying "No, really, what do you do?" I can have relationships, get married and nobody will tell me I'm a pedophile waiting to happen.

So because of that privilege, because I am safe to speak my mind, because society listens to what I say and respects me by default, and because I did nothing to earn my super powered mantle of Straight-White-Man, I have a responsibility to use that privilege and my voice to speak out for and in defense of others.

Because (and say it with me now) with great power comes great responsibility.

Before we finish, it's super important for me to mention that part of that responsibility is also shutting the hell up. When I say "speak for" I don't mean "speak over." I will never be able to fully describe the experiences and needs of the people I am not, I can only lend the legitimacy of my privilege to it and say what people wouldn't listen to if they said it. But when people from minority and marginalised groups are speaking for themselves, show your full support but don't try and take the spot light off them.

And in all things, to borrow a phrase, don't forget to be awesome.

(Also: Check out my friend's new blog Disabled Brown Female for thoughts on the world from somebody with a very different experience of the world)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Because I'm A Dentist

I'm tired. Knackered. Absolutely exhausted.

This weekend gone was Sydcon, a role-playing game convention held every October in Sydney. I attended as I always do and had a great time, as I always do.

And now I'm tired. Post-convention fatigue. I want to lay on my couch and watch Supernatural for endless hours and drink tea and recover.

But I'm at my computer. I'm writing. I'm working. I'm making the words happen.

They're not good words. I've had to rewrite paragraphs five times not just because they're bad but because they don't make sense. I've stared at an empty page for long periods of time, then typed a word, then went back to staring. I've been distracted by every stray thought, every fond memory of a YouTube video I suddenly feel I'd like to rewatch and every second song just demands I stop work and I listen to it.

It's been a lot like pulling teeth. My teeth. With copper wire tired to two legged donkey. It's painful and I'm progressing in any hurry.

But I'm still writing.

I don't mind that it's no good. I don't mind that I'll need to rewrite this even more, that I'll basically need to do a new draft of everything I've written so far. I can do that. As a writer, I have infinite retries to get it right.

What's important is I'm doing it.

This isn't writer's block (because writer's block doesn't exist.)

I'm just tired.

I just suck.

But I'm still writing.

I will write better tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. But if I didn't write today, I almost certainly wouldn't tomorrow. If I just kept delaying until I had the ideal circumstances, I'd hardly ever write and then I'd hardly ever improve and then I'd hardly ever get anything done and I wouldn't have written books and I wouldn't be a professional word wizard.

So even though it's painful, even though I'll need to do it all again, even though I'd rather just collapse on my couch and bury myself in Netflix, I'm going to keep writing. It's just what you do.

Don't let a bad day stop you. Don't let sucking stop you. Don't let fatigue stop you. Writing time is precious and if you have it, use it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go pull some more teeth.