Monday, October 19, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, isn't someone I've ever associated with Halloween. But Hawthorne's story, Young Goodman Brown, is a darkly ambiguous, allegorical slice of dread that's a perfect compliment to the season if you enjoy mixing things up a bit and aren't one of those boring people who dismisses old literature as boring.
Young Goodman Brown illustrates one fateful night in the life of its titular character, in which Brown confronts the hypocrisy of his fellow townspeople and the inescapable pervasiveness of Evil. Hawthorne's tale isn't gruesome, isn't filled with monsters (is it?), and isn't, on its surface, something that'll keep you up at night. But lurking under the surface of the story is a vast darkness, waiting to swallow the reader. It's the darkness of doubt, the darkness that descends whenever we realize that other people are essentially unknowable, and that all of our assumptions about the motivations of our fellow man rest precariously on the very little we can truly know about their hearts.
Young Goodman Brown is available to read online FOR FREE. It'll take you all of 10 minutes. Go forth hence and attend to it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Locke & Key (Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, Jay Fotos, Robbie Robbins)

Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, but I didn't know that when I started reading Locke & Key way back in 2008 based solely on my admiration for the book's artist, Gabriel Rodriguez. All I knew was that Hill's story - about a family attempting to recover from horrific tragedy by moving into their ancestral home, only to find themselves in the middle of an intricate, sinister, multigenerational struggle - was utterly captivating.

I've since read Hill's novels, and while I've enjoyed them all Locke & Key is far and away his finest hour as a storyteller thus far. Hill's carefully plotted, deeply felt scripts were brought to gorgeous, haunting life via the pencils and inks of the tremendously talented Gabriel Rodriguez, the superb coloring of Jay Fotos, and the solid lettering of Robbie Robbins. This team of gifted collaborators all brought their A-game with each and every issue, and the quality of this series never once lags.

Locke & Key isn't simply a great comic - it's great fiction, period. Its characters are multidimensional, relatable, compelling. Its structure is airtight and the story moves like lightning, while leaving plenty of room for quiet moments and lovely grace notes. Its mysteries are such that, on first reading, they unfold in delightfully shocking, unexpected ways and on second reading reveal themselves to have been carefully planned and thought through from the very beginning. Most impressively to me, the series grapples with weighty, heady topics without ever once feeling weighed down by them. Grief, loss, memory, identity, longing, emotion, regret, adulthood, childhood, responsibility, addiction...they're all examined and handled with exquisite care.

That last bit might make the story seem like something of a slog. Somehow it isn't. Somehow Hill, Rodriguez, Fotos and Robbins manage to include all of those things within a propulsive, page-turning read that's equal parts horrific and, yes, hilarious. You'll laugh a lot, and you'll shiver too - often within a page or two of each other. It's sprawling and scary, aching and autumnal, intelligent and imaginative, magical and melancholy. If Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and LOST had a baby it wouldn't be Locke & Key, exactly, but it also wouldn't not be Locke & Key.

Locke & Key consists of one finite story that has been collected in six individual volumes, which you can and should find at your local library, your local bookshop, your local comics shop, on Amazon, and on Comixology. Seek it out. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Out Of Skin (Emily Carroll)


Emily Carroll's OUT OF SKIN is both an unsettling short story and a unique reading experience, consisting of descending vertical comics panels that alternately bleed together and strike the eye in staccato bursts. Carroll's strong voice as a storyteller and her distinctive art style work together to create an unnerving tale set somewhere rural and nameless and haunted. Am I certain what's happened by the time the story ends? Not at all. Am I left seriously creeped out nonetheless? Oh yes. OUT OF SKIN is a perfectly spooky, bite-sized story for the season.
Read it FOR FREE right here. If you enjoy it you can explore Carroll's other online offerings, all of which are similarly mysterious, haunting, and magical.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

#HalloweenRead: IT (Stephen King)

I tried to read IT when I was 11 years old. I got as far as the first appearance of Pennywise the clown, leering up at poor Georgie Denbrough from the sewer, and promptly snapped the book shut - shoving it under an entire stack of paperbacks as though it were somehow radioactive. As if trying to make the other books act as lead shielding. Didn't work. I could still feel it/IT** there, malignant and present beneath The Chronicles of Prydain and The Stainless Steel Rat and God knows what else; that green claw on the cover curling out of the drain and into my brain.

(**IT is very hard to write about as an object without feeling self conscious every time you refer to "it" as an object/book, not "IT" as a title.)

I re-tackled King's horror epic pretty soon after I started high school, and this time the book wouldn't let me go. I fell in (disturbing, twisted) love. IT had everything I wanted from a horror novel at that age: the scariest motherf*cking clown in existence and a swarming menagerie of other terrifying monsters, all unified on a grand scale in a way that also drew on Lovecraftian cosmic horror and metaphysics, telling a story that spanned decades in the lives of its lovingly rendered characters.

I loved it enough so that, as a senior in college, when a friend asked me what Stephen King book he should read, I immediately named IT. I came back to my room after classes a few days later to find a balloon tied to my doorknob. "We all float down here" had been scrawled on the piece of paper that was taped to it.

I read IT again then, right along with him, and what stuck out to me and floored me wasn't the scariest clown in human history (though true), nor the near-Lovecraftian sense of age and scope and cosmic terror (though it's even more impressive to me, as an adult, that King managed to take his tale that far out without breaking it or rendering it impotently ludicrous). No, what really got me was the vicious, knowing vivisection of the town that IT is set in - Derry, Maine. King cuts Derry open like a surgeon to display its blackened, rotting innards. He knows the town down to its bones, as though he had lived his life there. That's because King wrote about a place he knew and knew well - Bangor, Maine (the real Bangor isn't a hub of Ultimate Evil, obviously). The story of IT is the story of Derry; a place that was born bad, soaked from its beginnings in otherworldly evil. There's a Dickensian sense of place to the book, creating a fully-realized and hyper-detailed world across generations. It's amazing.

So, an epic on two fronts: in the scope of its horror cosmology/timeline/characters, and in its intimate, sprawling chronicle of Derry. IT is rich in character, history, and terror, and suffused with an aching nostalgia for childhood that's heavily leavened by a realistic eye toward all the uncertainty, fear, humiliation, and chaos that childhood harbors. If IT isn't King's single best novel it's certainly in the top three.

...Now let's talk about The Scene.

You can't talk about IT without discussing that scene. If you've read it then you know the scene I'm talking about. It's infamous, and has only become moreso since the advent of the internet. Some people think that The Scene derails/ruins the book entirely. I don't agree. I don't think the scene in question is necessary. I think the scene is deeply weird. I think I'd much prefer a version where the scene is edited out. You lose nothing by excising it, I think.

But I'm not Stephen King. As deeply weird and as arguably unnecessary as the scene is, I do understand why King wanted it/wants it in there. Thematically, that is. And I don't think it ruins the book, though it may in some sense diminish it, depending on your reaction to it.

If you don't know what I'm talking about now you will, if you read IT.
My advice, if you choose to read the book and arrive at that scene? Look for the thematic reasons King put it there, and then move on. There's so much muchness to IT - so much that is genuinely terrifying, affecting, amusing, intelligent, sad, hopeful, awful, wonderful - that to get hung up on one (divisive, weird) scene at the expense of all IT offers is to lose out on one of King's very best books. In any event, if you decide to read IT, why not come on back here afterward and tell me what you thought?
Honorable King mention: 'Salem's Lot, suggested by @kylepinion

Kyle Pinion suggested 'Salem's Lot as a great Halloween read, and I can't disagree with him. It's a spooky book, perfect for this time of year, and I came close to selecting it or Pet Semetary as my King-penned suggestion in this series. Both are damn fine scary novels, but neither of them have stuck to my ribs, figuratively speaking, over multiple decades. They scared me, but they didn't terrify me, nor did they inspire in me the profound admiration for King as a writer that IT inspired (and inspires) in me. If you're looking to tackle something a little less enormous than IT this season 'Salem's Lot would do nicely.

Friday, October 9, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Alvin Schwartz)

This one's for all the parents, aunts, and uncles out there.
Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has had the honor of inhabiting the American Library Association's top ten list of most frequently challenged books over two separate, consecutive decades. There's a reason for that. Namely, it and its two sequels have scared the bejeezus out of generations of young children.
I think that's delightful.

The collective cultural push to swaddle our children in bubble wrap, while somewhat understandable on some levels (we love them, obviously), is also deeply damaging to the very children we're trying to protect. Children want, and need, to be scared. They want to challenge themselves and face their fears. You and I wanted the same thing at their age, and it's our responsibility to help them do that safely. I can't think of a better way to do so than by spending time together reading a spooky book that's appropriate for elementary school-age kids.

Scary Stories contains tales that will genuinely frighten your children, but not in any way that should concern you. These tales are firmly of the "ghost stories 'round the campfire" type. School teachers and librarians have safely and successfully read them aloud to young kids for over thirty years, and their continued popularity is a testament to their ability to give children the jolts they want and need without harming them.
Recent editions of Scary Stories have replaced Stephen Gammell's original and genuinely terrifying illustrations with the work of Brett Helquist. Gammell's drawings are what people mean when they talk about "nightmare fuel." Helquist's work is charming and creepy, and much "safer." Judge for yourself. I certainly know which version I would have preferred as a kid, given the choice:

If you think your kids can handle Gammell's illustrations (and as a third grader I had no problem handling them, even if they did make my skin crawl) I'd recommend getting a copy that features them, but I suspect you'll have to pay more on the secondary market for that privilege.

Deciding for yourself which version your child can and should handle is responsible parenting. Demanding that libraries remove these books altogether "for the children," something that's occurred regularly over two decades, is despicable demagoguery. Over three decades after they were initially published, the Scary Stories series continues to give children a safe means of scaring themselves silly. This Halloween season why not unplug all your lamps, light a few candles, and read them stories from this book?

You can pick up the Scary Stories series at your local library or local book shop, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc. Many of the stories are also apparently online, free of charge. Buy the books, though.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

#HalloweenRead: A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i (Alaya Dawn Johnson)

Post-Twilight, post-The Strain, post- a thousand books and TV shows and movies, you'd think that vampire fiction as a subgenre would be bled dry (Thank you! Good night, folks! Tip your waiter!).

But then you read a story like Alaya Dawn Johnson's award-winning A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i, and you remember that vampires are eternally vibrant monsters in the hands of assured storytellers.

Johnson's short story takes familiar tropes and transplants them to a setting that renders them freshly intriguing in this tale of a conquered people. A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i is sharply focused and surefooted, Johnson's narrative voice imbuing the story with an ambiguous, fiercely melancholy resonance. This is a story about literal monsters, yes, but it's also a story about colonization and the parasitical aspects of tourism. That aspect never becomes stridently preachy or distracting - it's simply there, present and potent and sad. Johnson's protagonist, Key, is vividly drawn, her deeply conflicted inner life opened to us like halves of the cherimoya fruit she cherishes, both sweet and poisonous.

Why is a tropical vampire story on a list of suggested Halloween reads? Well, for one, it's just a damn good story. For another, places like Hawai'i celebrate fall and winter holidays too. They may not have fall foliage and chilly nights, but they still have a need for unsettling tales. Alaya Dawn Johnson's story is unsettling, and more.

 Read A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i FOR FREE on Alaya Dawn Johnson's site.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

#HalloweenRead: The Halloween Tree... Maybe? (Ray Bradbury)

A group of boys in an unnamed small town, intoxicated by the pleasures of Halloween night but ignorant of the holiday's history, encounter the mysterious and monstrous Mr. Moundshroud, who takes them on a millennia-spanning journey to help explain why we celebrate Halloween. That's the basic spine of The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury's adaptation of his screenplay for a planned but unconsummated collaboration with legendary animator Chuck Jones (and oh! how I wish that movie existed!). It's a boys' adventure story and a history of the holiday, spun with Bradbury's oft-imitated, never duplicated prose.

I read it for the first time last night, sitting outside on a park bench surrounded by fallen leaves, pages lit by a lone lamppost, the smell of autumn in the air - which is sort of a platonic ideal, location wise, for this particular author. The Halloween Tree is vintage Bradbury that's also an interesting tour of history to explain the reasons for the spooky season. Both @geekdame and @millerunc recommended it to me and I'm glad that they did. If you've got kids reading the book out loud to them should make for a crackerjack holiday experience. It's a book that's actually about Halloween, so it makes perfect sense to recommend it.

...But. Reading the book as an adult, knowing that it was an adaptation of Bradbury's own screenplay, there's a curiously jumbled quality to the story - a real sense that one is reading a hybrid screenplay/novel, lovingly assembled but still having the feel of something assembled. And so, if I'm completely honest...
If I had to pick just one Bradbury novel to read this month it'd be Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury lived an October life in his books. Autumn isn't just a constant season in his books it's a state of existence, and I never feel that as keenly as I do reading Bradbury's achingly bittersweet tale of aging, mortality, boyhood, manhood, and a fast friendship tested by the darkest of forces. The book breathes fall and hums with wonder and menace. I can't imagine that there are many people out there who haven't read this particular tale, but if you're out there this would be the perfect month to finally check it out of your library or pick up a copy to keep.

So. Got kids old enough to appreciate Bradbury's potently purple prose? Read The Halloween Tree to them. They'll love it and you'll love reading it to them. But if you're looking for a book for yourself and you haven't gotten around to Bradbury's most haunted and haunting novel? In that case, read Something Wicked This Way Comes. Either way, Bradbury's a perfect, eerie, wistful companion each and every October.

You can pick up either book (both, even!) at your local library or local book shop, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

#HalloweenRead: House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski)

House of Leaves is: (1) a novel; (2) a cult object with the attendant acolytes, agnostics, and atheists that cult objects always inspire; (3) an experiment in form and narrative that divides audiences as though it were a cleaver; (4) a book within a book within a book that, for this reader, was a deeply unnerving, unforgettable read.
Put as simply (and reductively) as possible, the book concerns Johnny Truant, who discovers a hyper-detailed academic manuscript on something called The Navidson Record - an apparently non-existent documentary film about a family living in a non-existent and impossible house. Things quickly get, and stay, weird.

House of Leaves is a wholly unconventional horror story and love story that's concerned on multiple levels with narrative and meaning, and is explicitly constructed to simulate the sort of existential dread and fear of emptiness that it explores. Its baroque, labyrinthine pages echo and magnify the literal and figurative mazes within those pages, and basically if you're a certain sort of person the experience of reading it may really mess with you. 
House of Leaves is most assuredly not for everyone. It is dense, literally difficult to read in places, and its central gambit/gimmick is one that either works for you or doesn't work for you. Personally, I greatly admire that the book so clearly doesn't give a damn about aggravating or losing its audience.

If any of this intrigues you, and you're the type of person who seeks out unconventional reads and who can keep an open mind, I highly encourage you to give this one a shot. If, on the other hand, you're anything like this guy then you'll want to stay away (from Danielewski's book and from me).
You can pick up House of Leaves at your local book shop, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc.

Monday, October 5, 2015

#HalloweenRead: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an American Halloween ur-myth, in the same way that 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is an American Christmas ur-myth. Both are stories that have lasted far beyond their initial publication, influencing and embodying American holiday seasons in certain indelible ways.

Irving’s Sleepy Hollow isn’t scary to the modern reader (unless you’re very young, or prone to distress over the notion of being hit by a pumpkin), but it is formative, foundational, a classic worthy of respect. It is rooted in the new soil of America, published less than 50 years after America achieved its Independence from Great Britain. Since its initial publication Sleepy Hollow has shown surprisingly robust endurance in American popular culture. It lasts – and its lasting power is tied inextricably to Halloween.

Irving’s writing style is archaic to the modern eye, but it's also very easy to read if you're willing to accept Irving's formal voice. There's dry wit there, and a terrific way of depicting people and events in short, sharp, evocative strokes. I have no idea whether the following is sincere, but it's wonderful:

"She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived in her dress. She wore ornaments of pure yellow gold to set off her charms, and a provokingly short petticoat to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round."

“Oh, it’s high ribaldry at its best!
” To whence have you gone, rampant ankle fetishism?

Sleepy Hollow is a step back in time to a period in American history where forests teemed and loomed and haunted; where the memory of Hessian soldiers was a fresh memory; where old world superstitions still lurked in the shadowed vales of a thousand isolated hamlets. It won’t scare you, but it should enrich you, and it’ll likely inspire you to watch one of its terrific adaptations.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow endures, and continues to be told in other media, as American Myth. Something about Irving's tale resonates with us on a lasting level and has helped to define the season. A century from now it is very likely that Irving’s tale will continue to be told on chilly October nights. That’s reason enough to read it this Halloween – which you can do, for free, right here 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

Review: The Friends of English Magic (Episode One of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)

I do not believe that it would be possible to do absolute justice to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell when adapting it for television. Clarke's 2004 novel is a genuine marvel; an intimate yet sprawling epic dressed in wry wit and casual elegance, all moneyed mahogany and sinister stone. It is by turns very funny, very frightening, very warm and very cold. It is a novel that transports in every sense of the word, and which lingers long after the final page is turned.

Clark's novel concerns a Victorian era England where, several hundred years before the opening of her tale, magic - real magic - was practiced by human magicians, fairies, and the mysterious child of both races, the ruler of Northern England, The Raven King.

...And then something happened. Magic began to ebb out of the world, eventually seeming to withdraw completely. When Clarke's tale begins it has become the province of ineffectual historians, hucksters and pretenders. England is engaged in the Napoleonic Wars and is in danger of losing. Into the upper echelons of London high society enters Gibert Norrell, the first true practical magician in centuries. A timid, bookish, fearful man, he is nonetheless a true magician, emerging with the aim of assisting the British government in fighting Napoleon and bringing respectability to magic once more.

Somewhere else in England entirely Jonathan Strange - rakish and impulsive where Norrell is withdrawn and considered - inherits his father's estate, is visited by a strange, shambling, prophetic figure, and decides on a wisp of a whim to become a magician. He's surprised to discover he has a natural talent for it.

These two men's interactions change the course of England's history, bring magic back to their Isle, and destroy each other's lives in the process. A single fateful decision made by Norrell in this opening chapter will resonate down the years with both of them in ways they cannot imagine.

Absolute justice to Clarke's novel may be an impossibility, but judging by the first episode in its new miniseries, the BBC has come startlingly, beguilingly close to perfectly capturing the essence of a marvelous book. That episode, The Friends of English Magic, is a worthy first installment, hewing wonderfully close to the source material in its dialogue, casting, atmosphere and tone while finding ways to free itself from the knotty difficulties in adapting a doorstop of a book. The viewer can see the respect with which writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes have approached the material in every scene.

There are regrets, of course. Fans of the novel will feel each cut and compression, each rearrangement and change, but these regrets are shockingly few in number. Largest, perhaps, is the initial portrayal of The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. The miniseries has chosen to make him a figure of unquestionable menace from the very start, and that choice, while perfectly understandable on the one hand, seriously limits the character's actual menace. In Clarke's novel The Gentleman is somewhat foppish, child-like in his pendulum swings from delight to petulance and back again, and totally insane. In this first hour The Gentleman is instead disappointingly grave and sinister, with actor Marc Warren playing one long note of undisguised malice.

That one interpretive misstep aside, every other piece of casting and performance in The Friends of English Magic is, well, magical. As Norrell, Eddie Marsan captures with mole-ish perfection the timidity and arrogance of his character. As Jonathan Strange, Bertie Carvel finds a quirky specificity that did not entirely exist on the page, and which makes Strange seem less remote and more human. The rest of the cast is similarly superb, with Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, Norrell's inscrutable manservant, and Vincent Franklin as Christopher Drawlight – who looks nothing like I'd pictured him, yet conveys Drawlight’s unctuousness wonderfully - easily being the standout supporting players (John Heffernan as Drawlight’s companion, Lascelles, plays a background role in this first hour, but his interplay with Franklin is terrific). 

The pleasures of this tale are many, chief among them the sheer depth of history and incident that Clarke brings to her alternate-England. Can the show approximate that depth without the aid of voluminous footnotes and the luxury of peering into its characters' thoughts? The Friends of English Magic suggests that, to a startling degree,  it can. It also suggests that the miniseries will retain the compelling ambiguities of its protagonists. Norrell is a pinched and paranoid figure who regards magic as a set of practical tools, and who, despite his erudition, holds a severe distaste for its innate irrationality. Strange is ostensibly the more traditional romantic hero figure, but he's driven by an impatience that, coupled with a lack of awareness, puts him in both literal and figurative shadow.  It remains to be seen whether the BBC will commit fully to their fallibility but given this first episode and its welcome fidelity we have every reason to believe that they will.

And what of the magic? Clarke's novel accomplishes something ineffable in its portrayal of magic. Her words create the impression of real power and mystery, of silent wheels and dancing inhuman figures behind the scrim of the world. The team behind Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell understand the poetry of Clarke's magic and, at least in this first hour, doesn’t attempt much in the way of lily-gilding. Effects are used sparingly, atmosphere is emphasized, and in the process the practice of English magic is rendered believably magical.

I am genuinely amazed at how faithful and skillful this adaptation appears to be. It is worth the time of fans and novices alike and it is with sincere admiration that I say: In turning the novel into a miniseries for television, the BBC has shown itself to be quite the tolerable practical magician.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Serial Fiction and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

(This is something I’d started working on in 2013 and then abandoned, for whatever reason. It’s still incomplete and disjointed but in discussing the relative merits of Iron Man 3 today I remembered this piece. I’m posting it now because I think some of the points raised are valid enough to maybe spark conversation. This is parenthood, ladies and gentlemen: posting think pieces on movies that are two years old.)  
One of the major complaints I’ve read about Star Trek Into Darkness has to do with the way in which Kirk sacrifices himself, dies, and is then revived with a compound created from Khan's genetically enhanced/magical blood. That complaint, along with a subsequent viewing of Iron Man 3, got me thinking about serialized fiction and the lies that we willingly tell ourselves in order to experience that fiction. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little about the eerie similarities between Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness – specifically the ways in which both films use what is essentially the same trope/shortcut/narrative trick yet managed to generate wildly different audience reactions.  

…Because the thing of it is, the ending of Iron Man 3 does EXACTLY what the ending of Into Darkness does: it "kills" a main character (though not the main character) only to revive her minutes later courtesy of "magic" juice, with the film telegraphing the fact that it’s going to do this in advance. There’s absolutely no other reason to kidnap Potts and give her the Extremis formula other than to place her character in seeming jeopardy while also giving the film a way out of the jeopardy it’s created (twice over, actually – see below).

The similarities don’t stop there. At the end of Into Darkness Starfleet arguably has the means to eradicate death (under certain, limited circumstances), but the film doesn’t address the massive ramifications of that fact at all. This ticked some folks off, but what’s again interesting is this: At the end of Iron Man 3 technology exists which will also enable near-immortality/invulnerability, but the film doesn't address this development in the slightest. Many of the same people irritated by Into Darkness’ conclusion seem not to have even noticed this, let alone found it contrived/unsatisfying/a pus-stuffed boil on the face of cinema. Nor did they seem to be bothered by the fact that capable, lovable Pepper Potts is transformed into a potentially unstable super soldier/veritable killing machine using experimental and dangerous bio-technology and is then “fixed” by Stark. …somehow. We don’t actually know how, because we’re not shown or even told how she’s fixed. We’re just told, via voiceover, that she was. End of story. Yay?
Where was the outcry over this maneuver from the folks who thought Star Trek’s use of the same thing was, like, totally heinous?[1] Where are the demands that Marvel should have held off on reviving Potts until the next movie, so that at least the death has some shred of actual impact before being reversed? There wasn’t one, as far as I can tell. And to my addled brain, that says something interesting about the lies that we tell ourselves when we watch serial fiction and the ways in which our own past fandom can defeat present experience.
When you or I sit down to enjoy any serialized fiction we implicitly agree to certain unspoken rules. Chief among them is this: We agree to pretend that the characters are in real, mortal danger. We agree to this despite knowing logically that at no point in time are those characters in true mortal peril – they can’t be. So long as the Star Trek and Iron Man franchises remain profitable, neither Kirk nor Spock nor Tony nor Pepper is ever likely to die in the final, no-backsies sense of the word. You know it and I know it. We may not want to admit it, but it's largely true. There have been some exceptions to this rule over the years[2], but they are exceptions that prove the rule. In popular serialized fiction the lie that we consistently, constantly tell ourselves is that these characters will ultimately fail and die. They don’t. And even when they do, their deaths are inevitably triumphs and their resurrections almost always preordained.
Sure, some of these films may feint toward irrevocable death, or prolong the uncertainty longer than expected (as when the makers of the original Trek films waited until Star Trek 3: the Search for Spock, to resurrect everyone’s favorite Vulcan) and sometimes the lie is reverse-engineered (as when Abrams and Co. revived Kirk as a younger, alternate-universe version of himself, effectively bringing the character back from the dead). But unless and until someone fictional comes along who far outstrips the profitability and likability of an existing serialized fictional character, that character will essentially be immortal – and every instance of danger that such a character has ever experienced and will ever experience is a lie that we are knowingly and willingly complicit in.
We do this all the time as consumers of serialized fiction, and we’ve been doing it for an awfully long time. Heck, even Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes plunge from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, only to have him cheat death and live to sleuth another day. Superman “died” fighting Doomsday, and was then turned into four different lesser versions of himself before resurrecting shortly thereafter via I don’t even pretend to know what.
Immortality is the default state for characters in popular serial fiction and at some point every fan comes to realize this on some level or another. We can talk about how this is a problem, but that doesn't change the popularity of the characters or the demand to see more of them. Complaining about serial fiction’s issues will not make serial fiction go away. So it seems to me that we have two choices, once we've realized that fact: (1) we can get annoyed with this to the point where the form of serialized fiction itself becomes unbearable (a fine choice if that’s your bag – it’s why some folks are so regularly irritated by the “Big Shocking Deaths” promoted by major comic book companies), or (2) we can accept the contrivance the way we accept, say, the similarly convenient lie that the hero in a given action movie isn't going to save the day/get the girl/whathaveyou in favor of what matters more when it comes to storytelling (see below). Tony Stark spends most of Iron Man 3 seriously outnumbered and dangerously outgunned, but all of that melts away by the film’s climax, which sees Tony leaping and cavorting about in mid-air from flying suit of armor to flying suit of armor in open defiance of any sort of mortal danger or previously crippling psychic trauma because it’s time for him to win the day, basically.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, either consciously or sub-. It’s an obvious fact, but the obviousness of that fact doesn’t make it any less compelling to think about. Have you ever really thought about this, and about what it means?
I’d like to suggest that, in part, it means when someone complains about Kirk’s “death” being meaningless they likely aren’t actually complaining about that at all. That complaint is more likely symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction with a film, expressed by selecting an example that, were it part of another film that the viewer liked more on the whole, would apparently not bother them one lil’ iota. 
Part of what’s interesting about both Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and Abrams’ Into Darkness is that both filmmakers seem quite aware of the narrative “magic” they’re deploying. And while Shane Black might be more overt in nodding to that awareness, Abrams’ own awareness is there as well, coded into the ways in which the movie plays with pre-existing expectations. It’s as if, knowing that they’re riffing on events from Wrath of Khan, and knowing that a portion of the audience knows they’re playing those riffs, Abrams and Co. want the audience to momentarily believe that their Star Trek 3 will focus around the quest to revive Kirk. For a few enjoyable minutes as I watched the film my mind wandered into exactly that space. But instead of ending Into Darkness with an open question, Abrams and Co. shake their figurative heads and playfully say “Nahhhh. We were only fooling you.” The same goes for Black’s approach which, if anything, is even more dismissive of any potential emotional impact. And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that they both made the right decision. 

Do we really want the next Star Trek flick to spend its time on searching for a way to bring Kirk back to life, or for Iron Man 4 to be subtitled "The Search For Potts"? Not I. I don't need Stark to travel the world on behalf of Pepper Potts, and I don't need Abrams and co. to spend half of a movie inventing a way to bring Kirk back to life. I'd much rather they just got on with doing cool stuff in with superheroes/in space. That's reductive, obviously, but true.

What matters when these sorts of characters are "killed," or so I’d argue, is that the character is in some way changed in an interesting way for having flown this mortal coil and/or that other characters are changed in interesting ways as a result - that there's meaning to the death other than the actual death itself, which is why (I think) so many "deaths" come across as lazy or hackneyed. Not because the character revives, but because their "death" didn't mean anything else to the larger story being told. Take, for instance, Kirk and Pepper.

Kirk dies in a moment of self-sacrifice, and by dying and then being revived both he and his crew learn something. Kirk learns the value of humility, and the truth of that whole "the needs of the many" rigamarole. The crew learns the lengths to which their captain will go for them. Kirk's death arguably serves a narrative function larger than momentary shock. What do Pepper and the Iron Man 3 audience learn? What purpose does her momentary death serve in terms of the larger story being told? I’d argue that the answer is “nothing, actually.” Neither Pepper nor Tony nor the rest of the cast are changed by that death, and our understanding of those characters as an audience isn't really changed either. You could argue that Tony comes to truly appreciate her as a result of seeing her die, but I’d argue that he’s come to appreciate her before that moment – when he goes to rescue her. You could argue that we learn just how kick-ass Pepper is, and while I’d agree that she is indeed kick-ass, I’d also argue that we knew that already. We’ve seen her deal with Tony, with Obadiah, with Killian, and we’ve seen that she’s a capable, strong woman. Does making her a Power Ranger for a few minutes, and then immediately stripping her of those abilities, add to our knowledge of who she is? Does it enhance or deepen the story in any real way?

It’s possible (though unlikely - maybe I'll find out tomorrow when I finally get to watch Age of Ultron) that the answer to those questions is “yes.” After all, we have no idea how Stark “fixed” her. For all we know, he merely regulated Extremis so that she’s not in danger of exploding, but still retains her new T-1000 superpowers. That’s a big change to the status quo if so, and would indicate that Pepper can now join in on all the derring-do if Iron Man 4 ever rolls around. But the implication, as it stands, is that Stark “fixed” her by removing Extremis/rendering it inert/otherwise de-powering Pepper. Off-screen. Without explanation. 
...All of which is said to spark, perhaps, some thought and dialogue on serialized fiction and the lies that we tell ourselves. I want to know what you think about this, and why. Have you seen both films? Did either or both of the “deaths” I’ve talked about here bother you? If so, why? If not, why? How do you deal with the inevitable near-immortality of serialized fictional heroes? I’m genuinely curious to hear your answers, and so leave the floor to you.  

[1] Don’t even get me started on the “Abrams included a gratuitous shot of a woman in a bra and is therefore regressive” thing that circulated for awhile. Did you notice that Iron Man 3’s entire plot depends on Maya Hansen feeling so jilted over a one-night stand that she becomes complicit in both a terrorist campaign and knowing experimentation on human subjects to often deadly and disastrous effect? Or that Pepper Potts spends the last portion of the film in a bra because, like, her shirt got burned off, man? 

[2] A few years ago it could have been labeled “The Bucky Exception,” after the one comic book character who was considered un-revivable for decades and decades, except that he’s not dead anymore either. So.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Preview The Introduction to "Speaking Backward: Exploring the Themes & Mythology of Twin Peaks"

Later this year I'll be publishing a book on Twin Peaks. Entitled "Speaking Backward," the book examines the themes and mythology of the show, episode by episode. It is, I hope, an entertaining read for fans of the show as well as a handy guide for those who are just discovering the world of Twin Peaks for the first time.

Today, in honor of the show's 25th anniversary, I'm posting a sneak preview of the draft introduction to Speaking Backward. I hope it's enjoyed, and I hope that you'll consider plunking down a few nickels for a copy when it's finally unveiled. I encourage you to leave comments, constructive criticism, and recipes for pie in the comments below. 

Welcome to Twin Peaks: An Introduction

When Twin Peaks first appeared on the ABC television network back in the Ancient Year Of 1990 it became an instantaneous cultural phenomenon. If you were alive, sentient, and within range of a water cooler/school locker the question “Who killed Laura Palmer” was, for a brief moment in time, largely inescapable. Co-creator David Lynch graced the cover of Time magazine; Actor Kyle MacLachlan hosted Saturday Night Live for the first and last time in his career; T-shirts bearing Laura Palmer’s face, the phrase “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and/or the visage of lead character Special Agent Dale Cooper sold like hotcakes; There were several spin-off books, including The Autobiography of Agent Dale Cooper: My Life and Tapes, and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.

None of this was business as usual.

Twin Peaks entered a prime time network television landscape that had carefully and rigorously defined audience expectation over decades, and swiftly proceeded to gleefully subvert and destroy those expectations. Long-standing television conventions were twisted and changed, made unfamiliar and strange. No one at that time had ever seen anything quite like it and no one’s seen anything like it since, although it’s served to inspire a host of subsequent creative types in all areas of the arts from television to film to music and on and on anon. Oddball/cult/genre shows sprouted in its wake with programs like The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Carnivale, and Lost (to name just a very few) all owing obvious debts to Co-creators David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s weirdo-epic about a small town struggling against and/or succumbing to the primal, animalistic call of capital-E Evil.

The first season of Twin Peaks – just nine gorgeously strange hours in all – is unassailable “Great Television.” Some of that Greatness is historic in terms of the show’s place in time and culture, and in the ways in which the show has continued to reverberate with cult audiences around the world decades after its cancellation. Some of that Greatness is artistic, in terms of what co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were able to achieve on a major American television network, and in the ways it has subsequently influenced other artists and creators.

The second season of Twin Peaks is…well….problematic. It begins well, builds to a genuinely shocking revelation, and then just sort of slowly lies down in the middle of the figurative road and stays there for awhile muttering to itself before rousing once more over the course of a couple hours for what remains perhaps the most unconventional, bewildering, artistically inspired and just-plain-gonzo finale ever to grace a television screen. 

Twin Peaks as a whole wields a potent combination of wry irony and bone-deep sincerity that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely successful. Its strange mixture of eccentricity and normalcy, of artificial-seeming behavior and raw, real emotion, of parody and melodrama, of quirky character piece and horror show, defines Twin Peaks from the start and marks it out as a singular creation. This is a place where florid clich├ęs and uncomfortably organic passions, sincerity and irony, kindness and violence abide so closely together that it becomes difficult to identify where one ends and the other begins. Which is, I think, very much a point (though not the point).

For this particular viewer much of Twin Peaks’ cumulative power lies in its unblinking fascination with Evil. In its best moments the show offers a startlingly-clear view through grimy, warping glass at what feels and sounds and seems to be pretty much Evil Incarnate. It doesn’t have this effect on everyone (it’s far too idiosyncratic for that), but for some of you Twin Peaks is going to burrow under your skin and slither there. It’s going to creep you out, man. Lynch doesn't screw with everyone's head the way that he screws so very, very effortlessly with mine. Some folks find his films to be empty exercises in surrealism and juxtaposed banality that don't land their punches. If you're among that crowd then you're probably going to hate this book.

Much as I recognize and will write about the potential for, and existence of, overinflated, underwhelming melodrama and of style without substance in Twin Peaks, overall (with frankly frightening regularity) Lynch's vision works the psyche over thoroughly. His way of portraying the emergence of Evil into a mundane world has the power to genuinely disturb. Lynch conjures the shivers that precede the urge to flee like few others. That he can manage this feat, not through elaborate special effects or through copious gore, but through the careful deployment of sound, extreme lighting and ordinary objects, is nothing short of astonishing. Lynch and his Peaks compatriots touch, somehow, on the best/worst sort of fear there is: the uneasy prickle, the chill at the back of your neck you get walking a hallway in your home late at night; that sense that someone or something is THERE with you, present in some awful, inexplicable, invisible sense.

Why is it that Lynch’s films in general (and Twin Peaks in particular) are capable of doing this to us? Setting aside the technical aspects involved – the ways in which sound, light and performance are deployed – what is it about the subject matter involved here that manages to so thoroughly disarm and distress? David Foster Wallace, writing on Lynch and his films for Premiere Magazine, articulated an answer to this question that cuts straight to the heart of the matter:

Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed….they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person….Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are – at least potentially – everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”[1]

Wallace submits in his (terrific) essay that all of Lynch’s films focus on Evil, and that this focus comes without the comforting narrative fiction of clear “moral victory.” As in Lynch’s films overall, so also in Twin Peaks. When people do terrible things on this show there are sometimes consequences but there are sometimes no consequences at all. Lynch and Frost don’t introduce Evil into Twin Peaks so that “Good” can vanquish it. They introduce Evil as fact, as uncaring force of nature; a storm to (maybe) survive but not to vanquish – not really, not ever.

Don’t get me wrong, Twin Peaks has plenty of quirky comedy and purple melodrama. It’s loaded with wry, oddball touches that you might find similar to dry-as-sand comedies like Waiting For Guffman. It is by no means a non-stop horror show, but the horrors it offers are profoundly disquieting and may linger with you long after you’ve turned off the television.

Part of what makes Lynch’s overall body of work so compelling/frustrating lies in the way in which it resists concrete interpretation. As an artist, Lynch consciously chooses not to explain himself[2], inviting the audience to explain for itself, which brings me, finally, to the subject of the book you’re currently holding in your grubby little hands.

This book and all of its contents represent one man’s interpretation of, and analysis of, Twin Peaks. It is not nor does it purport to be a definitive text. However, for all of Twin Peaks’ inarguable, wonderful strangeness the show is doggedly dedicated to exploring certain themes that appear near and dear to its dark, deranged heart. There are a number of genuinely interesting ideas being batted about throughout the running time of this show, and they are ideas that are worth discussing and exploring and chewing over with the sort of relish that Benjamin Horne reserves for Brie and Butter sandwiches. This book exists in order to provoke fodder for said-discussions/explorations/displays of rampant, figurative mastication. Within these pages you will find ruminations on David Lynch’s obsession with twins and the subconscious, on seeking truth and on the unknowable mysteries, on ideas of “Goodness” and “Evil,” on voyeurism and secrets, on faith and purpose and the possible futility of Love in a world that seems designed to crush the decency within and seed corruption in its stead.

Twin Peaks also contains one of the most intriguing and completely-singular “mythologies” that I’ve ever encountered. If you’re unfamiliar with that term as it’s used here allow me a brief moment of explanation. The “mythology” of a fictional narrative may refer to the hidden architecture of its mysteries which a fiction parcels out to its viewers over time. Frost, Lynch and their writing cohorts concocted an overarching mythology for Twin Peaks that is deeply, deeply weird and somehow deeply compelling. That mythology is more interpretable and more cohesive than the show’s willful obscurity might suggest. In these pages you will find plausible explanations for some of the show’s more esoteric ideas, suggestions on how the disparate mythological elements of Twin Peaks “add up” to a cohesive whole, and explorations into the real-world myths, legends and ideas which may have inspired the show’s ambitious/crazy hodge-podge of backwoods mysticism, science fiction, Eastern philosophy, and legend.

Each chapter of Speaking Backward focuses on one episode in the series and attempts to dissect the themes and mythology present in each hour of the show. In addition to the main body of each chapter, you’ll also find sections devoted to “Pieces of Peaks” (commentary or observation on episode happenings that don’t really directly relate to the themes or mythology, but which are worth noting and/or celebrating and/or relentlessly mocking), as well as “Trivial Trivia” (bits and bobs of interesting/enlightening/stupefying information about the actors, the production, and the impact of Twin Peaks). I highly recommend that you watch each episode of the show prior to reading the corresponding chapter in this book. Without the context that the show itself provides, much of the writing that follows will likely read in a manner similar to the half-crazed scrawls of a monkey on acid[3]. This might sound appealing to you, but the monkey in question will assure you that it is not[4]. Care has been taken to make this book friendly to those of you who have not watched Twin Peaks before. You can safely read along as you watch, one episode to one chapter at a time, without fearing any real “spoilers” regarding future events. Those of you who have seen the show before will hopefully find that this same care has been taken to nonetheless illuminate aspects of the show’s themes and mythology.

…You’ll also discover a fair amount of irreverence in these pages. While it is my intent to honor the creative effort and artistic skill that went into the crafting of Twin Peaks, it is undeniable that the show as a whole has some serious rough patches. There are elements/sections of Twin Peaks that simply do not work. At all[5]. Rather than ignore this I’ve embraced it. While this book is primarily concerned with teasing out the thematic and mythological strands of the narrative, it’s also concerned with enjoying and honestly critiquing a show that is seriously weird, and seriously all-over-the-place.

If this is your first time among the wind-tossed Douglas Firs: welcome. If you’re returning to this town for another trip on Lynch’s Scary-Go-‘Round: welcome to you as well. We’re going to have a lot of fun exploring this weird world together.

Now, how should you watch Twin Peaks? Whether you’re entering these woods for the first time or making a return trip allow me to offer some unsolicited advice: Turn all the lights off (leaving one on is acceptable – it is also appropriately “Lynchian”). Make sure your television’s volume is up. If you have a fancy speaker system use it. David Lynch deploys sound like few Directors, and to my experience that sound – sometimes haunting, sometimes sensual, sometimes baffling – is a large part of what makes much of Twin Peaks so timelessly arresting.

To say that Twin Peaks is a weird show is to make something of a massive, laughable understatement. Characters often voice stilted, bizarre thoughts, or behave crazily and melodramatically, in ways that are both soap opera-esque and a grotesque reflection of that genre. Things happen without rational explanation. There is a Log Lady.

Don’t fight the weird; roll with it if you’re able. I think you’ll find that it becomes kind of intoxicating in ways that are both lovely and disturbing. You’re entering David Lynch’s head here, with only co-creator Mark Frost and a shaken-looking Standards and Practices lawyer as your tour guides. While that’s some cause for alarm it’s also cause for celebration. Twin Peaks is one strange town, but its woods are lovely, dark and deep.

Give yourself permission to lose yourself in them.

[1] Excerpted solely for critical purposes from “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace, available in the essay collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” You should purchase it immediately. The entire article on Lynch is fascinating. 
[2] As Martha Nochimson notes in The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart In Hollywood, “…Lynch explained that, when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn’t know, intellectually, what he is doing.”
[3] It may read that way regardless.
[4] Right after he mutters “Judy.”
[5] If the name “Evelyn Marsh” doesn’t already strike fear and loathing into your heart, rest assured that it soon will.