Monday, October 31, 2011

Three Flavors of Horror

Well, pickles, Halloween is here at last. What to do, what to say? I'm not dressed suitably for a human sacrifice and people keep saying I'm too old to trick-or-treat, so it's back to the ol' blog. Today is the last day of the celebrated Coffin Hop. I've met a bunch of wonderful authors (and their wonderful stories) along the way. Hopefully you have too. If you haven't, it's not too late. (And see the details of my contest below).

I know we should all be halfway to a sugar overdose by now, but before it gets too close to the witching hour (especially since I, in my infinite insanity, am doing NaNoWriMo this year) I want to take a moment to discuss my favorite flavors of horror.

Now some of you might be thinking, "How can horror have flavors? Horror is just horror; it isn't ice cream." That's where you're wrong, pickles (presuming that you were in fact thinking that). Horror IS like ice cream. It isn't just one giant all-consuming umbrella. It comes in flavors. Sit down to watch Psycho, The Company of Wolves and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and you're in for three very different viewing experiences. And yet, all three of these movies are classified as horror.

Before we get started, allow me to explain what I mean by horror. Funnily enough, if you were to ask three different people to define horror, you would probably get three different answers. At it's most basic, it can be defined by "that which frightens us." But fear, like love, is very subjective. Different people are frightened by different things. With this subjectivity in mind, I'm going to define horror as "that which can frighten its audience, regardless of age or genre, by exploring a dark idea." And now my three favorite flavors.

1. The Spooky Supernatural: In short, ghosts. I love ghost stories. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite books, and the blueprint for how to write a truly ambiguous, psychologically agonizing ghost story. Suggestion, subtlety, and the mysteries of life and death are all at play here. They say the best horror tales are those in which the supernatural elements can be read literally and as a metaphor for real life horrors. Most people believe in ghosts to a certain extent (even if they think they don't), because everyone is haunted by the inevitabilty and omnipresence of death. To live is to accept the fact that we all die and that's what lies at the heart of ghost stories.

2. The Grim Reality: That which, unfortunately, can and does happen. At a very early age, I developed a morbid interest in true crime that continues to this day. As a kid, I used to stay up late to watch Investigative Reports with Bill Curtis on A&E. Once, when talking about the Zodiac killer (who I became acquainted with at the ripe old age of nine), I almost slipped and called him "my favorite serial killer." All I meant was that it's the case I find most interesting, but favorite was the only word that came to mind. I'm not the only one. Shows, movies and books about serial killers, both real and fictional, keep popping up like whack-a-moles on the boardwalk. Clearly, there's a demand. My only explanation for this is that this very real horror scares us so much we can't help but to desire to understand it. If we surround ourselves with it, we think we can protect ourselves against it.

3. The Childhood Nightmare: This is my favorite. If you were to ask me which movie scared me the most as a child, I would have to say Pinocchio. Disney's Pinocchio. It was a toss-up for awhile between Pinocchio and Dumbo, but in the end, I have to give it to Pinoke. I forget when I saw it the first time, but I was very young (five or six). I remember seeing the donkey transformation scene on the big screen. At the moment when Lampwick's hands turn into hooves, I was sure I was going to die. It wasn't make believe; it was really happening. Didn't anybody else hear him screaming? Not long after, I received a VHS of Pinocchio as a present. I put it in the attic without even taking the plastic off. Such was my fear of this movie. I'm 24now and I've seen a bunch of horror movies. The Exorcist didn't keep me up at night and I fell asleep during The Ring, but that scene still disturbs me. I own Pinocchio on DVD and it's one I watch a lot, but I usually mute it for those few awful minutes. It feels real to me. A lot of people have a movie like Pinocchio in their past. I know the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did a number on a lot of kids. These scenes and characters harken back to the idea of the Boogeyman or the perennial monster in the closet, a fear that hits us in childhood and has the ability to render us children whenever it strikes, no matter how old we are. Pinocchio is not technically a horror movie, but it's relentlessly dark. None of the villains are captured; they're merely escaped. None of the donkeys turn back into boys. Hearing Lampwick call for his mother to no avail hits home every time I watch it and makes me feel like a kid again. Scary business, indeed.

Here is the scene if you're feeling brave.

Well, pickles, there's a Halloween feast for you. What kind of horror, if any, pushes your buttons? What childhood film scarred you for life? Leave it in the comments. Tomorrow I'm going to put the names of all Coffin Hop commenters into a hat and those three will get copies of Dark Moon Digest Presents Ghosts!, which coincidentally has a story by me in it. Happy Halloween and Happy Hopping to you Coffin Hoppers!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Welcome to Coffin Hop!!! or Ode to the Danse Macabre

Well, well, well. I have returned, pickles, to rescue this blog from the doldrums. I've let it languish, I know, but summer laziness has finally left me. Now that old autumnal drive has returned, fueled no doubt by a latent beginning-of-the-school-year spirit. And just in time for Halloween... the most wonderful time of the year.

But this Halloween isn't just any Halloween. This Halloween I am participating, along with many wonderful authors, in Coffin Hop!

(insert thunder clap)

Coffin Hop is an opportunity for you, the lovely reader, to meet nearly 100 horror writers via their blogs and websites. There will be contests! Even I will be having one. And where there are contests, there are prizes. Check back here for details through out the week. Peruse the list (here at and check out as many as you can. Like the forbidden room in Bluebeard's never know what you might find.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, which is strange because I was one of those kids who was scared of everything. Between my overactive imagination and the paranoia instilled in every child of the 80's (stranger danger! drugs! playing with matches!) it seemed there was plenty to be afraid of. Yet Halloween always acted as a surprising refuge from the fear. On Halloween, I was allowed to take part in that dark and shadowy world that so often held me in terror. I could dress myself up as a ghost or a witch or Wednesday Addams (one of my favorite costumes) and be someone--or something--that didn't have to be scared. On Halloween, the whole world plays make believe. We all revel in the nightmares that on every other day of the year have to be repressed.

A lot of people ask me why I write horror (especially the people who knew me as that nervous, easily frightened little girl). Why, they ask, do I keep writing stories about things I hope never to encounter in real life? Wouldn't it be much better for my mental health (and the mental health of my readers) to just write "happy things"? The reason why my stories so often favor the dark side is very similar to the reason why I love Halloween. When I play with the shadows, it makes me stronger.

There's a memory from my childhood that sums this idea up in a nutshell. When I was six years old, my elementary school music teacher decided to celebrate Halloween by showing the first grade a filmstrip of the Danse Macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns's classic piece about spirits who rise up from their graves to dance the night away as Death himself leads on the violin. Few movie viewing experiences in childhood frightened me as much as this. Keep in mind. This was a filmstrip. These were still images I was watching, not state-of-the-art animation, but it still scared me so much I couldn't move. Trapped in that dark auditorium, forced to watch skeletons and ghosts hang suspended in the painted night air as a wild violin soared in the background, I was sure all my nightmares had finally come to life in front of my eyes. Even after the music faded, after the lights came back on and the big white screen disappeared, it stayed with me. I knew it was just biding its time until that awful limbo between getting in bed and falling asleep when we would be alone together. It haunted me that night and for several nights after, until my next music class later that week.

Our teacher was out sick so a substitute came to our classroom...and when she came she brought a slide projector with her. No, I thought, staring at it, feeling the dread creep back in, it's impossible. How could this be happening again? Why did it keep following me? The substitute clearly didn't know what else to do with us, that's why. She did, however, add a pinch of novelty by asking for a volunteer to run the slide projector, a popular honor in the time of elementary school filmstrips. I don't think I meant to do it. Pure primal instinct took over. My hand shot in the air, and I was chosen. So now not only was I watching this still-frame nightmare again, but I had by own will, ruined any chance of closing my eyes. Now I had to pay attention. I had to watch. I was controlling the damn thing. And there's your answer to why I write horror.

There are a lot of real-world things to be scared of, like strangers invading your home or disturbed children doing horrible things for no reason, but I find if I write a fear down, I can control it. I enjoy being scared when I can control the situation, (and I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy scaring people in turn). Like dressing up for Halloween, horror forces us to confront the inexplicable, rather than deny it and repress it. If we're lucky, this can lead to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And either way, it's often good scary fun.

The Danse Macabre has become one of my favorite pieces of music. In an exercise that seemed made for me, when I was 10, the same music teacher played it for us AGAIN without the filmstrip and told us all to write a story based on it what we saw in our heads. I lost that story, but I may be moved to rewrite it someday. This being the glorious age of the Internet, I've looked long and hard for that filmstrip, but I haven't had any luck yet. I distinctly remember Death as a skeleton in a pink vest. Apparently, the Danse Macabre is its own genre of filmstrip because there are a bunch on YouTube. This is NOT the one I watched (though there is funnily enough a skeleton wearing pink), but it will do for now. If you have any similar memories of being scarred by this or any other Danse Macabre filmstrip, be sure to leave it in the comments. Maybe one of you remembers the one I saw.

That's all for now, pickles. Welcome to Coffin Hop. Check out other authors and Happy Almost Halloween!

Monday, June 6, 2011

In Which the Blogger Indulges In Even More Shameless Plugging

Good news, pickles. I've been published again by the lovely people at Dark Moon Digest! My story "To Talk of Many Things" was selected to appear in their fourth issue which you can now buy on Amazon or Barnes and

How cool is that cover?

I found out back in March, but wanted to wait until it was absolutely definite before I let off the fireworks. "To Talk of Many Things" takes its title from Lewis Carroll's famous poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Observe.

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said, 'to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbage and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.'"

Carroll's poem may seem frought with Victorian whimsy and it is pretty darn whimsical, but make no mistake, the story that unfolds within it is pretty chilling. At least to me. If you don't agree, don't let that dissaude you from reading this next issue of Dark Moon Digest. I'm very tempted to write that it's sure to be a scream, but I can't without giggling.

While you're ordering Issue 4, you should also order any previous issues you don't have yet. Dark Moon Digest is amazing and I want them to thrive and keep on going for years. It's a hard world out there for the short story. It needs all the love it can get.

P.S. Dark Moon Digest interviewed me for their website back in March. It's very exciting, my very first author interview. Not to mention utterly surreal. Here it is if you feel like a looksie.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Put Your Shovel in the Ground, Matthew..." : A Look at The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

"Worth couldn't get over the looks people gave him." --The Cleanup, Sean Doolittle

Alright. Listen up, pickles because I'm only going to say this once and I know you were all waiting with baited breath. I no longer live in New Jersey. I live in the big city now. Hence things have been very chaotic for me lately. I've had to learn to live at a faster pace. Consequently, I fell into a reading rut. A reading rut refers to an uncomfortably long period of time when every book I read fails to do anything for me--often to the point where I can't even finish them. Happily, every reading rut eventually comes to an end with a book that grips me from the first page, burrows into my mind and heart and more often than not becomes a favorite. For this latest reading rut, that book was Sean Doolittle's The Cleanup.

The Cleanup introduces us to Matthew Worth, an Omaha police officer who's having a terrible year. The latest in a long line of cops, he has the best intentions, but he's not happy and therefore not that good at the job. His wife has left him for a homicide detective and as a result of punching said detective (a superior officer), he's been put on probation: assigned to the graveyard shift of a local convenience store. The only bright spot in all this is his friendship with the checkout girl, nursing school student Gwen Mullen, whom he's slowly falling for. Gwen Mullen has her share of problems too, namely a troubled past and an abusive boyfriend. When her boyfriend goes too far one night, Gwen fights back and kills him. With no one else to turn to, she asks Matthew for help. Hence...The Cleanup.

The Cleanup proves the maxim that the power of a good book lies more in how the story is told than the story itself. This isn't a story that's never been seen before. Of course, Matthew risks his career (and eventually his life) to help Gwen. Of course, the boyfriend turns out to be involved in shady dealings. Of course, the shady powers-that-be go looking for answers when the boyfriend goes missing. Yes, I guessed all this would happen and yes, it all does, but this just made the book more enjoyable for me. It was fun to see Doolittle take what could have been a formulaic premise and truly make it his own with wonderful characters and great writing. All this leads to a truly unpredictable (and very poignant) ending that's all the more rewarding for everything that comes before it.

As someone who struggles with juggling a large cast of characters, I was very impressed with how Doolittle navigated through his universe and its inhabitants. The pacing is just right, giving you enough time with each set of characters and each setting, and then moving along before too much is revealed. I couldn't put this book down. One highlight for me was the dialogue. You want realistic dialogue in a book, but truth be told, realistic dialogue can be pretty boring, filled with superfluous "ums" and "likes" that die on the page. Luckily, there are authors who know how to create dialogue that feels realistic but without any of the dull stuff. Doolittle is one of these authors. His dialogue is so sharp and vivid, I could hear the characters' voices (I'd like to think that was Doolittle's doing and not the result of some latent insanity). Short, brisk sentences blast us with emotion and wit, shifting between laugh out loud humor and heartwrenching honesty.

I won't spoil much about the characters because it's best to meet them on your own, but I will say this. I'm trying really hard to break my habit of developing crushes on fictional men, but I couldn't help it here. I love Matt Worth. I prefer my heroes flawed, and he's so beautifully flawed. He's like a broken down knight-in-shining-armor, more of a Balin than a Lancelot: a painfully good guy, beaten down by bad luck and human error, but still desperate to do the right thing. I was on his side from the get go, which just made the ride that followed even more thrilling.

Well, I think I've gone on long enough about this great book. Go out and get yourself a copy. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

P.S. The title of this entry comes from Melissa McClelland's song "Go Down Matthew" off her album "Thumbelina's One Night Stand" (possibly my favorite album title ever). I've come to associate the song with The Cleanup (even if the stories don't exactly match up) so I threw it in. Here's a video of the song in case you're interested.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sweetest Tongue Has Sharpest Tooth: A Look at The Company of Wolves

"Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet." -(Granny) The Company of Wolves

March 11 will see the release of a new Little Red Riding Hood movie. Oh excuse me. A new Red Riding Hood movie. Apparently, the Little wasn't edgy enough for this edgy new retelling. I would be lying if I said I'm not ridiculously excited about Hollywood's current love affair with fairy tales (Red Riding Hood being just one of many fairy tale movies coming out this and next year). But I would also be lying if I said this particular fairy tale movie didn't make me a LITTLE (ahem) nervous.

I don't mean to come down on a movie I haven't seen. To its credit, Red Riding Hood has a lot going for it. First of all, Amanda Seyfried plays Little Red (or just Red, I guess). Amanda Seyfried is one of my favorite young actresses out there today. I've been a fan since Season One of Big Love. She has such a natural quality to her. All her performances seem so effortless. And she's got one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood. As if Amanda Seyfried weren't enough, we have Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas and Gary Oldman. One of those people would make any movie worth a second look, and all together, they form a pretty stellar cast. Plus the movie looks GORGEOUS. Here's the trailer.

So we have a fairy tale movie! And not just any fairy tale movie. A Little Red Riding Hood movie! If you have read more than one entry of this blog or had more than one conversation with me, you know I really dig fairy tales, and I dig Little Red Riding Hood especially. So why am I nervous? Well, as hinted earlier, this version has promised to be "edgy." Too edgy for the word Little (I promise I'll stop now). Too edgy even to be a fairy tale. Now it's a "700 year old legend" come to life. Now it's a horror movie. We've got murders and Gary Oldman making speeches and those ever reliable Wicker Man-ish animal masks (though nowhere near as scary as the masks worn in The Wicker Man). And there's sex. Oooh. Courtesy of a love interest with really anachronistic hair (why did it have to be spikes?) reminiscent of somebody we all know. Somebody whose name rhymes with Bedward Sullen. I really hope he isn't the Wolf. It's too obvious (and he's way too young; the "Wolf" needs to be a considerably older man in my opinion). But he probably is. After all, she seems to have the hots for him, and the best kept secret in folklore is that Red Riding Hood (with or without the Little) is really about sex. A lot of fairy tales are really about sex, but now is not the time.

I've written about this before, so knock yourselves out if you're interested, but Little Red Riding Hood has frequently been interpreted as a metaphor for a young girl's sexual coming of age. A red cloak and a wolf in bed aren't exactly subtle as far as symbols go. Now as "edgy" as it seems, Red Riding Hood doesn't claim to be breaking new ground by acknowledging the existence of sex in a movie based on a "kiddie story," but it will surprise some people. It may even cause them to look at this famous story in a way they never thought of before. And that's where my anger kicks in, because when I was twelve, I experienced just such a revelation thanks to another movie called The Company of Wolves.

Based on stories from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a book that broke new ground in the genre of the twisted fairy tale, and directed by a pre-Crying Game, pre-Interview With the Vampire Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves came out in 1984. I first saw it one long ago winter's night when I was about twelve. TNT used to show horror movies late every Saturday night and sometimes I stayed up to watch them to the sly. (Oh nostalgia!) I watched like a thing possessed, repulsed but also strangely riveted. I remember yelling at the screen, "You can't do that to a fairy tale!" I love how when I was eight and first read Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, I had no problem with Red shooting the Wolf in the head. In fact, it made me giggle like the sadist I was, but sex? A hint of sex was more than welcome, but not at the expense of my favorite fairy tale. Fairy tales belonged in the world of childhood, and sex sat squarely in the world of adults. Knowing I was the same age as the heroine freaked me out quite a bit too. I thought I hated it, but I couldn't get it out of my head. As the years passed, it never left, nagging at my psyche whenever I reread the story. Then when I was 15, I succumbed and rented it. And watched it over and over and over. It changed Little Red Riding Hood for me forever, and set me on the path to discovering the true heart of the fairy tale.

The Company of Wolves is about a twelve-year-old girl named Rosaleen who dreams herself into the story of Little Red Riding Hood after she gets her first period. You could say the whole movie is a metaphor for menstruation, but we'll ignore that for now. In Rosaleen's dreams, anything can happen: toys come to life, bird eggs hatch to reveal tiny babies that weep real tears, and wolves run rampant. After one of these wolves eats her older sister Alice, Rosaleen goes to stay with her grandmother while her parents grieve. Granny tells Rosaleen stories about werewolves and the threat they pose to innocent young girls. She also starts making her a red shawl with a hood. The shawl serves as a ticking clock, counting down to when Rosaleen will be tested with a wolf of her own.

As Granny and later Rosaleen tell stories about men and wolves, they come to life for us, creating stories within stories and dreams within dreams. We see a full moon ruin the wedding night of a young bride and groom, while a witch takes revenge on her former lover, and a priest cares for a wounded wolf-girl. The movie, and these sequences especially, thrive on ambiguity. Not only does The Company of Wolves require you to think, it requires you to use your imagination. There's a lot of weird stuff going on, but it all looks so beautiful you can't understand why you're so creeped out. For instance, there is a scene where the Devil shows up in this fairy tale forest in a Rolls Royce, and gives a bottle of liquid puberty to an unfortunate boy. It's probably the strangest moment in a strange movie, but the gorgeous image of modern day headlights flashing through an ancient, untouched forest keeps you spellbound. The actual story of Little Red Riding Hood doesn't kick in until the last half hour, but when it does, you're eager to see what happens to Rosaleen, who despite having been warned about unibrowed strangers for the past hour will still follow the first one she meets off the path.

The Company of Wolves has a unique perspective about werewolves and sexuality. I've never seen another movie that examines lyncanthropy as a singularly sexual thing. Appropriately, the only character who says the word "werewolf" is the Wolf himself. Granny and Rosaleen refer to them as wolves that are "hairy on the inside." The movie seems to argue that boys naturally become wolves when they become men, and their lust is what makes them so. In the beginning, judging from Granny's propaganda and the overall attitude of the characters, you expect the movie's message to be: men=animals, women=victims, sex=bad. That's what I took from it when I was a kid--what I could make heads or tails of, that is. But even then, I knew there had to be more to it than that. I knew I didn't get it. By 15, I got it. I think (and this is just my interpretation) the movie's real message is that a wolf (i.e. sex)--like getting your first period--is scary, because growing up is scary. Sometimes good scary, sometimes bad scary, but scary. And strange. Over the course of the movie, Rosaleen must confront the change that comes with growing up in several ways. It's not always bad, but it is always strange. It's important to remember that most of the movie is supposed to be a dream. With that in mind, it makes a lot more sense.

I've heard some critics argue that the movie works better without the dream setting, but I think it's vital to the story. Many fairy tales feel like dreams. They have that same strange, spellbinding quality. They're vague but fascinating, and they represent our greatest desires and fears. I've had dreams that have stayed with me for years. Fairy tales have stayed with their collective dreamers for centuries. After all, where else but in a nightmare could a girl mistake a wolf for her grandmother?

The Company of Wolves doesn't have the cult following it deserves because it's a hard movie to classify. It's not scary enough to be a horror movie, but it's too scary for the horror hating crowd. It's an intellectual psychological thriller that also happens to be very gory. It's a coming of age movie with no reassuring conclusions. It has moments of fun cheesiness and surprising sophistication. There's nothing about it I don't like. The production design and art design create a storybook otherworld that's both enchanting and sinister. Certain shots would be right at home alongside Arthur Rackham's classic illustrations. The score by George Fenton (who also did the score for Ever After, another of my beloved fairy tale films) is one of my all-time favorites.

Sarah Patterson (who was only twelve when this came out) delivers a remarkable performance as Rosaleen. She has such presence and an eerie maturity, but you never forget she's just a kid. I know I could never have pulled this movie off when I was that age. I couldn't even handle watching it at that age. Then we have the always spectacular Angela Lansbury in a really fun performance as Granny, with Tusse Silberg and my secret husband David Warner, both fantastic as Rosaleen's parents. Micha Bergese is scarily good as the Wolf/Hunstman, gradually devolving from a proper gentleman with alterior motives to a feral predator. The werewolf transformations may look a little funny to our CG infected eyes, but they were state of the art for their time and they remain some of the most creative special effects I've ever seen. Take another look at the poster. A WOLF IS CLIMBING OUT OF THAT MAN'S MOUTH. Just in case you didn't notice.

I also highly recommend reading "The Company of Wolves" (though I think you should read ALL the stories in The Bloody Chamber). I first read it when I was 15, and it remains one of my favorite short stories. Angela Carter's writing is an acquired taste, but I love it. Curiously, this movie is for the most part an incredibly faithful adaptation (not at all surprising considering Carter wrote the screenplay), but she changed the ending. It's fun to compare them.

I will go and see Red Riding Hood because I'm biologically obligated to and because I'm genuinely curious to see this classic story get yet another twist. I can't begrudge anything that gets people thinking about fairy tales. It may even lead a few to The Company of Wolves, and wouldn't that be wonderful?

P.S. When I showed this to a few friends in college, they agreed that if I were a movie it would be this one. I'm still not sure what this means or how to feel about it, but I hope it wasn't their way of telling me I needed to pluck my eyebrows.

P.P.S. It would also be wonderful if Gary Oldman turns out to be the Wolf. I think I would die (figuratively, of course). Or even Lukas Haas. Anybody but Spiky McAngst, but I get the feeling he's our contender.

I am reluctantly posting the trailer to The Company of Wolves (even though I am loving that screencap). It's one of those annoying trailers that distills the WHOLE MOVIE into three minutes. Do not watch it if you don't like spoilers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Today Of All Days I Wish I Lived In Camelot

Of course, most days I wish I lived in Camelot, but today especially.

Why? Because in Camelot "the winter is forbidden till December, and exits March the 2nd on the dot."

Alas, I don't live Camelot. I live in New Jersey, and in New Jersey it's still cold, cold winter. Not as cold as it has been. Most of the monstrous snow has melted, but the wind has picked up with a vengence. In like a lion as they say. Boff.

Anyway, I can't be too disappointed because it gives me an excuse to watch this. I love the movie version of Camelot, and this is one of my favorite scenes. Everything about it is so beautiful, especially the ethereal Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and Richard Harris, the Once and Future King Arthur. True, it's a little odd that they chose to set the scene in winter considering the song lyrics, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It looks so magical. And you can't throw snowballs at the meddlesome guards without snow, so there you go.

Happy March!

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Want This Book Out Of My Head: A Look at The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

"It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." --The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

But obviously that's not going to happen because I'm writing a review of it.

I've been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out how to begin writing about this complicated, depressing, horrific, thrilling novel and all I can think about is the movie Annie. Annie as in Little Orphan Annie, or rather the movie based on the musical based on the comic "Little Orphan Annie." Annie was one of my favorite movies growing up. It takes place In New York during the Great Depression and follows the adventures of an optimistic orphan girl after a blustery Wall Street tycoon takes her in. What does this have to do with The Day of the Locust? Well, there's this one scene where Annie goes to the movies for the first time in her life. At Radio City Music Hall, no less. It's a lot of fun, complete with countless ushers, giant moving set pieces and the Rockettes (who can sing without moving their mouths!). I always loved this scene and I think it says a lot about what going to the movies meant for people during the Great Depression. A chance to get away from the harshness of reality and escape into magical worlds, manufactured by Hollywood, where everybody lived in beautiful homes, burst into song, always had enough to eat and always lived happily ever after. It's easy to understand why people spent money on movie tickets even when they didn't know where their next meal was coming from. Movies made them feel good, and more than anything else, they needed to feel good. As the song goes in Annie, "Headlines holler 'Big Depression!' What do we care? Movies are there. Only happy endings. That's our recipe." A little ironic since they're about to watch Greta Garbo's Camille, but you get the idea.

The Day of the Locusts is a book about the movies. It came out in 1939, the last year of the Great Depression, and the year World War Two started. It's also the year considered by many to be Hollywood's finest, but in The Day of the Locust, Hollywood seems like a world unto itself, rotting in the wake of a coming apocalypse. Author Nathanael West focuses not on the stars, but on the lost souls who come to the coast filled with dreams, only to be met with disappointment and heartache. In the middle of this mess is Faye Greener, a beautiful but untalented would be-starlet, whose hunger for success has no hope of being fulfilled. West paints her as a symbol for Hollywood itself: a pretty shell with nothing of substance to offer. Faye uses the many men who desire her for what they can provide, but they too are riddled with delusions. Her neighbor, Tod Hackett, an artist fresh out of Yale, endures Faye's chatter in hopes of sleeping with her--to no avail. Another suitor, Homer Simpson, loves Faye, but is so self-deprecating and sexually repressed, he makes an easy target for abuse. There's no plot to speak of. The book unfolds as a series of encounters between these and other characters as they try to get along in Hollywood. Make no mistake though. This is a horror story. One I haven't been able to get out of my head for days.

Is it surprising that these characters are all miserable human beings? Faye is a petulant little girl, grotesque in spite of her beauty. Her dreams of stardom would be endearing if they weren't so thoughtless. Tod (whose name is spelled the same way as the German word for death AHEM) is convinced he's in love with Faye, but he also repeatedly wishes he had the "courage" to rape her. Homer is particularly frightening: a tightly wound time bomb, whose loneliness is as relentless as it is incurable. West's account of the emptiness of his life is deeply unsettling. There's also a vicious child actor, his inevitable stage mother who makes him perform sexually suggestive songs for Tod and Homer, two men who stage cockfights in Homer's garage, and Faye's alcoholic father, whose dreams of performing Shakespeare ended in a doomed vaudeville career. And then there are those who crowd the city streets and flood movie premiers, the locusts of the title, who "come to California to die," and ultimately discover what terrible things can happen when large groups of people are possessed by a single idea.

What especially fascinated me about The Day of the Locust, and made me want to follow these unlikable characters on their journey, was West's use of what can only be called realistic surrealism. There's that old saying that fiction has to make sense; real life doesn't. Nothing fantastic happens in this book, but everything is imbued with a kind of strangeness, made all the more eerie by the fact that it can actually happen. Homer's nervous tics and Tod's Goya-inspired drawings. The too-mature words of a kid too young to understand what he's saying (who hasn't seen that before?). A wealthy movie man who builds a model of a dead horse in his swimming pool because he is just that wealthy. A realistic (read: gory) depiction of a cockfight. The canyons and hills and constant sunshine of California. It all contributes to a sense of uncomfortable unreality, but it all can (and does) really happen. Many scenes were inspired by West's own experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter. The Day of the Locust doesn't even feel like a story half the time. It feels like real life, and this just makes it scarier. And what better setting than Hollywood where reality and fantasy exist side by side until you can't tell where one ends and the other begins? The Day of the Locust explores the uncanny, decadent world of the movies and the effect they have on us. When we go to the movies, we know it's all fake and we accept it, but we still expect reality to measure up. And we get mad when it doesn't.

This is a great book. Nathanael West's writing is simple and beautiful even as it describes the most horrific behavior. It's also very (darkly) funny, and incredibly disturbing. Now remembered as one of the most important writers of the 1930's, West didn't achieve commercial success in his own time, constantly overshadowed by his good friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Day of the Locust is now considered the best book ever written about Hollywood. It also makes a fitting metaphor for the rise of the Third Reich (remember what I said about Tod's name?) and is definitely worth the read. The last line (which I don't dare spoil) is one of the creepiest I've ever read.

Unfortunately, West never lived to see his book achieve the status it has. He died, along with his wife, Eileen McKenney, in a car accident on December 22, 1940--the day after F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was 37.

Inevitably (and perhaps ironically), The Day of the Locust was made into a movie in 1975. Like its spiritual cousin, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They, it was too depressing (and truthful) to be filmed in its own decade, so they had to wait until America was ready to be more honest with itself. I haven't seen the movie yet so I can't vouch for it, but the trailer makes it look really good (and faithful to the book). Let it double here as a book trailer if you're interested.

One question remains, however: did it have a fancy premier?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Defending Sisters Red

As you may have heard, On January 28, Bitch Magazine posted a list called 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red, which I devoted a long entry to back in June, was initially on the list, but it has since been removed. You will also find no trace of Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels and Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl either, even though both were included in the original list. And that's where the fun begins. The day after the list went up, a complaint surfaced in the comments about Sisters Red. User Pandora wrote, "I am surprised that you included Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red on the list, mainly because of the rape culture debate it brought about..." This refers to a review that appeared in the blog, The Book Smugglers shortly after the book's publication last summer. In this review, two readers complained of the book's supposed victim-blaming attitude towards survivors of rape.

Just in case, you're at sea about all this, Sisters Red is a refreshing take on the classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. It's about two sisters, Scarlett and Rosie, who survived a brutal werewolf attack when they were little girls. Now as young women, they hunt and kill "Fenris" (werewolf-type creatures who have a lot in common with sexual predators). Scarlett kept Rosie safe during the attack. She lost an eye and gained disfiguring scars as a result. Consequently, she lives for the hunt, even though Rosie wants a more normal life, especially after she falls for their childhood friend and fellow hunter, Silas. About halfway through the book, while out hunting, Scarlett stops outside of a club and sees a bunch of girls she refers to as "Dragonflies." Here's the passage:

"They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiralling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights – amber, ebony, cream – like shined metal, flawless and smooth. I press harder against the crumbly brick wall behind me, tugging my crimson cloak closer to my body. The scars on my shoulders show through fabric when I pull the cloak tight. Bumpy red hills in perfectly spaced lines.
The Dragonflies laugh, sweet, and bubbly, and I groan in exasperation. They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off. Look at me, see how I dance, did you notice my hair, look again, desire me, I am perfect. Stupid, stupid Dragonflies. Here I am, saving your lives, bitten and scarred and wounded for you, and you don’t even know it. I should let the Fenris have one of you.
No, I didn’t mean that. I sigh and walk to the other side of the brick wall, letting my fingers tangle in the thick ivy. It’s dark on this side, shadowed from the neon lights of the street. I breathe slowly, watching the tree limbs sway, back lit by the lights of skyscrapers. Of course I didn’t mean it. Ignorance is no reason to die. They can’t help what they are, still happily unaware inside a cave of fake shadows. They exist in a world that’s beautiful normal, where people have jobs and dreams that don’t involve a hatchet. My world is parallel universe to their's – the same sights, same people, same city, yet the Fenris lurk, the evil creeps, the knowledge undeniably exists. If I hadn’t been thrown into this world, I could just as easily have been a Dragonfly." --Sisters Red, Jackson Pearce page 208

Shortly after this, Silas joins her and they have the following dialogue:

"His eyes narrow in something between disgust and intrigue, as though he’s not certain if he likes looking at them or not. I want to comment, but I stay quiet. Somehow it feels important to wait for his reaction. Silas finally turns to look at me in the shadows.
'It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it?' he asks pointedly. 'Can I tell you how glad I am that you and Rosie aren’t like them?'
'No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.'
'Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them

Okay. I have to admit, this exchange bothered me too when I first read the book, because it does sound like victim-blaming. There's the classic argument that when a woman is raped, it's because she somehow "asked for it" (through her clothing, behavior, the look in her eye, that unattended drink that was just begging for a Roofie). Never mind the fact that she said no. This argument always infuriates me because it suggests that if women are stupid enough to behave like anything other demure, tight-lipped little girls who have no idea what sex is, they deserve what they get. There seems to be this attitude in society that a silent contract exists between men and women. Men have a constant, violent sexual appetite that can only be kept in check by the virginal behavior of the women around them. As soon as a woman violates her end of the contract with her dress etc., the man is free to break his and rape her if necessary. Therefore, it's the woman's fault, not the man's. After all, men can't help themselves and women know the rules, dammit. Not only does this attitude ignore that men can be raped and women can be rapists, it's insulting to just about everyone and doesn't do anything to prevent rape or help rape victims. And women are just as guilty of it as men. I've heard one girl call another a slut because of her outfit so. many. times. It doesn't make sense. When a person is raped, it is the fault of the rapist and only the rapist. It is NEVER the victim's fault. Rape is not a fact of life that we have to deal with like Mondays or too much snow. It's a crime, and to blame the victim is to ignore its severity.

So does this mean I agree with The Book Smugglers? Was my unabashed enjoyment of Sisters Red based solely on its connection to one of my favorite fairy tales? No. I really liked Sisters Red and I stand by my original opinion of it. We'll get to that in a minute. Those at Bitch Magazine, however, did not stand by their opinion. On February 1, after Pandora's complaint and others like it, they posted this:

"A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We've decided to remove these books from the list -- Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don't feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list....We've replaced these books with Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden."

I do not think Pearce meant to "blame the victim." True, it bothered me at first, but I think it's supposed to bother the reader. We're not dealing with happy feelings here. The first passage is entirely from Scarlett's perspective, and it shows her mindset. Scarlett has one mission in life: to take down as many Fenris as possible. Unlike Rosie, she has no desire to fall in love or find a new interest, because only hunting matters to her. That doesn't stop her from observing the outside world. The Dragonfly scene, in my opinion, gives us access to Scarlett's vulnerability. When she looks at the Dragonflies, she can't help but think how different she is. She doesn't feel beautiful or desirable, and it bothers her. Not enough to make her give up hunting, but it does bother her. So when she sees pretty, flighty-seeming girls, made up for a night on the town and having fun, she projects her anger and regret onto them. It doesn't help that these are the girls she's fighting to protect and they get to live in oblivion while she has to live a life of constant responsibility. She understands her resentment is misplaced, but she can't help it, especially since she sees Rosie's Dragonfly potential. The only thing Scarlett cares about besides hunting is her relationship with Rosie, and to lose Rosie to the world of normality, represented by the Dragonflies, would be the worst kind of abandonment.

Which brings us to Silas and the second passage. At this point in the book, we know that Rosie and Silas are falling for each other and he's encouraging her to pursue interests that don't involve hunting. We know, but Scarlett doesn't (the sisters take turns narrating present-tense chapters). Scarlett isn't in love with Silas, (Pearce mercifully avoids the "sisters in love with the same guy" trope), but he is the person she's closest to besides Rosie. Silas has dialogue here, but the scene is still from Scarlett's perspective. She needs to see how he reacts to them. If he ever gets the urge for a normal life (again represented by the Dragonflies), she will lose him, because she will never be normal. When he dismisses the Dragonflies and talks about how glad he is Scarlett and Rosie aren't like "them," Scarlett is reassured. I interpreted Silas to have alternative motives here. He's going behind Scarlett's back, not being entirely honest and potentially threatening her relationship with Rosie, so he's appeasing her by telling her what she wants to hear. Which is essentially, who would want to be normal, when normality amounts to ignorance? He reinforces Scarlett's confidence, and keeps it all about hunting, letting her hold a higher ground. I don't see Silas as a devious character. He just wants to protect Scarlett from pain.

In other words, these passages, in my opinion, aren't about the Dragonflies or what makes the Fenris attack. It's about Scarlett and her feelings of isolation. The Book Smugglers criticized Sisters Red for suggesting that warrior women like Scarlett should be celebrated, while women who care about their appearance and like attention are lesser than. This ignores the fact that...



Rosie chooses a more normal life at the end of the book, even though Scarlett continues to hunt. They understand that they will always love each other no matter what, and they don’t need to want the same things out of life. They are both strong, capable young women, and their choices don’t change that. In other words, Rosie is not portrayed as weak for being pretty and wanting love. She chooses the world represented by the Dragonflies, and Scarlett accepts this. I really loved this about Sisters Red. I appreciated that Rosie got what she wanted, and Scarlett didn’t need to be “fixed.” I’m so glad there was no makeover scene, but I’m equally glad Rosie didn’t sacrifice her desires to make Scarlett happy.


There’s also the fact that nobody gets raped in Sisters Red. Even though I haven’t read them, I know Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl both deal explicitly with rape. Sisters Red does not. The Fenris kill their victims, but they don’t rape them. That said, it’s naïve to expect a reader not to be reminded of rape when reading Sisters Red. Little Red Riding Hood has long been associated with sexuality, and the Fenris come across as metaphorical sexual predators. Their transformation from men to monsters is rooted in lust and they target young girls. However, this controversy seems to have marked Sisters Red as a novel specifically about rape, and it isn’t. This misinformation has seeped into the dialogue surrounding its removal. One anonymous Bitch Magazine commenter acknowledged that she hadn’t read the book, but had “heard” it glorified the pretty sister who hadn’t been raped, and negatively portrayed the sister who had been. True, she admitted she hadn’t read it but that’s not Sisters Red.

I’m not Jackson Pearce, so I can’t say for sure what she intended. Of course, everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. All I’m saying is that a character’s opinion is not necessarily the opinion of the author or the message that author is trying to put forth in her book. Authors trust their readers to think for themselves. If Pandora, the Book Smugglers and other readers were offended by the Dragonfly scene, that's their prerogative. Likewise, Bitch Magazine can do whatever it wants, but I don't agree with their decision to remove these books from their list. Neither did a mess of YA authors, including Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier, who wrote in, requesting their books be removed as well. It feels like a very cowardly move on Bitch Magazine’s part. It's also confusing because these three books are not the only ones that deal with difficult issues. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which had to fight against being banned last September because of its frankness about date rape, has the number 4 spot. Wintergirls also by Anderson, has been cited as potentially triggering for people suffering from eating disorders, and it's still on the list. So why these three? Because they started the loudest fireworks? It’s kowtowing, plain and simple. In their eagerness to please and not offend, the staffers at Bitch Magazine made themselves look foolish. Obviously, the list has no impact on the availability of these books, but it does stuff them in a closet, potentially hiding them from readers who might have found comfort and understanding in them, and that’s a shame.

I feel bad for Bitch Magazine because they were trying to do a good thing here. It’s impossible to please everyone with a list like this, because as this controversy proves, whether or not a book has value from a feminist standpoint often depends on the reader. I’ve heard the much-maligned Twilight saga championed as a feminist narrative because even though Bella Swan chooses immortality with her boyfriend over a human life, that’s her choice and it’s perfectly valid. And even though Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is a hardened survivor who risks her life to save her sister, she still spends much of the series trying to decide between two guys. So is there such a thing as the perfect feminist narrative or heroine? I don’t think so. Does loving Disney princesses and fairy tales make me a bad feminist? I can give you plenty of reasons why it doesn’t, but I’m sure some of you could give me just as many reasons why it does. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. In the meantime, I’m on Jackson’s side.

UPDATE: On February 5, Bitch Magazine posted this. It's not a retraction or an apology, but you can tell they're feeling antsy.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"They Were Both Very Unpleasant Characters!" : A Look at "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll

Happy Birthday, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson...also known as Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice Books!

In honor of Mr. Carroll's 179th birthday, I have taken the liberty of posting two versions of "The Walrus and the Carpenter," one of Carroll's most beloved poems. The first clip is from the Disney animated version. The poem is heavily abridged, but I love the music and it features some awesome voice acting. J. Pat O'Malley, Disney voice veteran, plays EVERY ROLE: The Tweedles, the Walrus, the Carpenter AND all the Oysters. Crazy. The second clip is a proper unabridged recitation. I wanted to post the scene from the 1998 BBC version that starred Kate Beckinsale as Alice. It is tied with the Disney animated version as my favorite Alice adaptation. Alas, the embedding is unavailable, but seek it out yourselves!

People love analyzing "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Some people interpet it to be about religion or imperialism. Some just see it as a poem about a walrus and a carpenter who deceive and eat a bunch of oysters. Personally, I like reading the poem as an examination of "Action vs. Intention." Who is the worse character? The Walrus who eats more oysters but feels sorry, or the Carpenter who doesn't eat as many, but is very callous about it all? Alice's conclusion? "They were both very unpleasant characters!" Whatever the interpretation, it's definitely one of the most whimsical poems about deception and murder I've ever read.

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Ten Favorite Books of 2010

December was a dark abyss, my friends. A dark abyss of Christmas carols, room cleaning and general laziness. Hence my harsh abandonment. But I have returned and what better way to resurrect this self-indulgent soundboard than with...a LIST!!!Yes. A List of my ten favorite books of 2010. Books I loved and gushed about to friends and strangers alike. Everybody neat and pretty? Then on with the show!

10. Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

A classic fairy tale. A hero who knits. And the loveliest description of black sand I have ever read. All around wonderful. Also rescued me from one hell of a reading rut. THREE months of so-so books and then this. Magic.

9. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain

Twain presents the parents of mankind as a pair of (seemingly) mismatched kids who have no choice but to face the fledgling world together. One of those books that wins your heart with humor and then tears it shreds. Funniest part: Adam trying to explain to Eve why they can’t domesticate a dinosaur.

8. Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Take Little Red Riding Hood. Now craft her into TWO teenage heroines who know how to fight. Now take the Big Bad Wolf and turn him into a species of scary, sex criminalish man-wolves. See who makes it out alive.

7. The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

The Parent Trap in Northumberland. Only with murder, ballads and a hot Irish sociopath. Am I over-simplifying? Hells yes. But don’t tell me you aren’t intrigued.

6. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (I’m counting them as one!)

Kids fighting to the death on live TV. Is it any mystery why this series is so popular? These books are brutal, bleak and unbelievably addictive. And of course, there's an impossibly perfect love interest.

5. The Collector by John Fowles

A butterfly collector kidnaps the young woman he’s stalked for years and keeps her locked in his basement as his “guest.” He wants her to fall in love with him. She keeps a diary. They talk about The Catcher in the Rye. What starts as a provocative character study subtly evolves into a meditation on life, God and humanity.

4. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

A love letter to stream-of-consciousness and the scent of honeysuckle. Three brothers, each with his own issues (mental disability; sexual neurosis; all-around awfulness), narrate the story of their sister Caddy's “moral downfall.” I had to read a good amount aloud just to figure out what was going on, but I had the time of my life. It's all a metaphor for the post-Civil War South, but the unsung tragedy is that Caddy Compson never gets to speak for herself. Her brothers have to tell her story for her, and as fascinating as they are, it speaks to how women have been and continue to be silenced for their transgressions. Intellectually and emotionally satisfying, this is one classic that deserves the title.

3. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Powerful. A book that reduced me to tears not only because it’s sad, but because it’s so beautifully written. The Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche retold by Orual, the archetypal “ugly stepsister.” One of the best and most meaningful books I’ve ever read.

2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Is it wrong that I want to have dinner with a family decimated by poison? Maybe, but Jackson is just that good at what she does here. Our narrator, Merricat has an ucannily eerie voice that somehow manages to be familiar and oddly welcoming. Provided you’re not her cousin Charles, that is. Post scriptum? Best title ever.

1. The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

I love this book for many reasons.

A. It's a wonderful book. A great adventure yarn about storytelling (and grave robbery!) that evokes Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens, but does it in 19th century America. Great characters, excellent writing, and a story that is both fun and very moving. (Whaling gets a shout out too!) In short, just an all around pleasurable reading experience.

B. I read it in Disneyland, my favorite place on Earth (and the Happiest, as you may have heard).

C. It is the luckiest book in the world. After I finished it, I looked up the author and discovered she co-founded a magazine called One Story that just happened to be sponsoring a summer Writing Workshop. I applied and got in and it was a great experience. It also led to a writing fever that got me to finally finish my story, "Slut." The story that eventually got published. So yeah. The Good Thief is the luckiest book in the world. And a great, great read.