Friday, October 29, 2010

Oh the Horror

It’s 3AM.

It’s also almost Halloween, which is the perfect time for me to inform you, if you didn’t already know, that I’m a horror writer. That’s right, horror. Considering that many literary agents, per my handy copy of “Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents,” lump horror into the classification of things they DON’T want to represent, along with sci-fi, fantasy, westerns and porn--I think this is a brave thing to come forward with.

In the recent “book in a month” class I took at the Loft, I was the first writer to volunteer to read a chapter in class. Afterwards, there was a stunned silence. The teacher was the first to break the ice saying:

1) “Looking at you, Mark, I wasn’t expecting that type of story.” And

2) “That was genuinely creepy.”

Some writers when told that their work is creepy might be discouraged, but well, that’s where us horror writers differ: guy-next-door types who blend in pretty well until you see what we put on the page. The rest of the comments in class generally concurred. Chillling, scary stuff. I made a note: Keep doing more of this.

Recently I was amused by a fellow writer who shared that while writing a climactic and scary scene for his mystery novel in progress that his imagination got the best of him and he imagined a raccoon, yes, a raccoon, entering his basement and was unable to finish any writing that night. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in my last writing session (plenty late at night) the body count had added up to six dead in that session alone, or six billion, depending on who you want to consider dead--or undead. Raccoon? Us horror writers aren’t afraid of no stinking raccoons.

So why do I write horror?

There are probably lots of reasons, but for starters, blame my parents, or more particularly, my father. I have some strong childhood recollections of sitting in my father’s den playing while he smoked Carter Hall tobacco and read the latest Ray Bradbury book or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine.

When I finally started doing my own reading I was hopelessly lost, drawn to books by Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and short story collections with titles like, “Book of the Dead” and “Horror Times Ten.” (The latter contains a really good August Derleth story called “The Lonesome Place” that still gives me chills when I think of it).

My parents taste in literature didn’t fall far from their taste in TV and movies, either. I have just as many memories sitting between my parents on a weekend with a bowl of popcorn watching black and white Twilight Zone episodes and Saturday afternoon Creature Features like “The Blob,” “The Island of Lost Souls” and “The Fearless Vampire Hunters.” My parents also managed to expose me to my first ever walking dead movie at the age of seven. I was supposed to be sleeping while they watched “Night of the Living Dead.” I managed to see most of it in its entirety—which ultimately kept me, and them, up most nights for the rest of the month with nightmares.

In a screenplay class (another Loft offering) I took within the last year another student asked the instructor: “So what is the point of all the really bad horror movies out there? Or for that matter, the point of horror at all?”

I wasn’t about to defend some of the crap movies that the class started to name, but I did feel compelled to mention box office hits like Jaws, Alien, Seven, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and so on, that were well written and directed and contain not just terrifying villains but equally strong main characters who must overcome horrifying creatures and circumstances to live, survive, grow and hopefully make it out of their stories alive. To me, good horror follows all the other rules of good story telling. Just because it’s scary doesn’t mean it can't be damned good writing.

Getting back to those agents who openly say they don’t want to agent horror—it is interesting to me just based on the sheer success of many horror books and movies. What publishing house wouldn’t want another book like “The Stand” or a series (even though I’m no fan) like “Twilight”? (If it’s got vampires in it, it’s got to have some horror elements, yes?) I can only guess that maybe it’s because of the sheer number of bad/unoriginal stories that are out there for every truly good one.

So there are probably many other reasons why I enjoy reading and writing horror, but I suppose ultimately it’s because that’s how I’m built. These are the sorts of stories that interest me and I want to tell. Supposedly when Stephen King was asked why he writes horror, he replied, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

Ditto for me.

Below are some links (sorry, I’m not taking the time to make them pretty), a couple of them to some of my favorite scary stories.

Happy Halloween. I’m going to bed.

One of my favorite Halloween stories, Ray Bradbury’s October Game:

GoodReads scariest book list:

(I’ve ready about half of this list)

Supernatural fiction database:

The Monster Club.Com sci-fi horror collection:

Per their own instructions, use the password Boo13 (I notice another of Bradbury’s stories in the mix: Zero Hour)

Note: The image accompanying this post is part of one of my paintings. Scary art is fun, too.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Philosophy of Art 1.0 with a Quiz and a Cliffhanger

I’ve been preparing to teach a philosophy of art course this coming winter, and there’ve been a couple of images from my readings that have stuck in my head.

One of them shows up in Plato’s Republic. But rather than just describe the image, I’m going to add a little drama by having you, dear reader of Scribblerati’s blog, work toward it yourself. And I’m going to do that by putting you into a Platonic dialogue, which basically means Plato is now going to quiz you.

If being quizzed by Plato scares the pants of you—as it rightly should—just think of the quiz as a writing exercise: describe in words the following mental images. Or draw them; drawing’s fun, right?

Ok. Quizzing starts now--

Plato: Imagine a craftsperson, say, a maker of couches.

[Have you got the image in your head? or got it written down? Good. Not so hard, right.]

Plato: Now imagine a carpenter, that is, someone who can make not only couches but chairs, and beds, and cabinets, and all those other nice wooden things carpenters can make.

[Again, the mind can comprehend, no?]

Now (Plato asks) imagine a craftsperson who can make all of the things that humans can make.

[Harder to imagine, but perhaps, just perhaps, there could be someone that talented.]

Last question, and I’m sorry but here I’m gonna have to quote coz it’s just so nicely worded in the original: Now, imagine that this super talented craftsperson who makes all humanly manufactured things also “makes everything that grows out of the ground, and creates all living things…and the gods and all the heavenly bodies and everything in Hades under the earth.” Can you imagine it?

"Oh, sure, easy," you say (if you’re religiously inclined), "you’re just talking about the divine being who created everything."

"No. No. And No," Plato would reply. “I am not talking about a Craftsgod." (Word of the day: Demiurge, The Divine Craftsperson.) "I’m talking about the Craftsperson. As in human person."

Can you picture him or her? Can you? Huh? Huh?

That's the quiz. Post your final answer. A philosophical star for figuring it out. Tune back soon for the big reveal (or, if you can’t wait, find yourself a copy of the Republic and snuggle up.) And no wikipedia-cheating, guys and gals.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Few Thoughts About Art

This is supposed to be an apolitical blog. That said, this post is going to tread dangerously close to that line.

Don't say I didn't warn you!

Two weeks ago two rather stunning events occurred in my life. The first was that I received one of those anti-gay marriage DVDs Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt has been sending out to Catholic households. The second, was that the church I belong to, the Basilica of St. Mary, fired their Artist in Residence, Lucinda Naylor. She had held that position for 15 years. I don't know Lucinda personally, but having been a member of the Basilica of St. Mary for well over a decade, I'm intimately familiar with much of her religious artwork.

Now, if this blog wasn't apolitical, the rest of what you would see on this post would be one frakking shit storm of a rant about how much I disapprove of this whole thing. But it isn't, so we'll leave it at that.

Among the many topics these events have prompted me to dwell on over the last couple weeks, has been the nature of art and what it means to be an artist.

Art, as we all know, can come in many forms. To name but a few: music, film, literature, sculpture, etc. Within all of these categories, art can range from simple fun, like an Iron Man movie or a good pop song, to something that is deep, long-lasting, and thought-provoking.

Good art, in my opinion, challenges our preconceived notions of what is right, or just, or appropriate. The best art, does that in ways that are nonthreatening; ways that make us think about a topic without being unduly provocative.

Maybe I'm biased, but I think that fiction writers are as well tuned into that notion as anyone. If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you can probably rattle off several stories (novels, novellas, TV scripts) that have surprised you with their content and stuck with you long after first reading or viewing them. If you're a writer, then you inherently know that a story cannot function without conflict and that your better stories are those that integrate that conflict into the social and/or societal issues that affect us every day.

Lucinda Naylor was fired because she wanted to take Archbishop John Nienstedt’s DVDs and form an artistic work protesting his actions. My understanding, is that her vision is to shape these DVDs into an image of the Holy Spirit moving through the church and effecting positive change.

That, my friends, is the very definition of the best art.

For more on Lucinda Naylor check out her Facebook page DVD to ART

Friday, October 8, 2010

Musical Musing

If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music. ~Gustav Mahler

Ah Mahler, he of the 90 minute symphonies, you certainly had a lot to say.

Herr Mahler’s bon mot really got me thinking about writing, and whether the opposite of his statement is true. Okay, not the opposite, say, the oblique - whether the oblique of his statement is true. Let me ‘splain.

I’ve worked in theater; I’ve studied film; I watch a lot of narrative TV. All of these mediums utilize music to enhance the other aspects of their scenes: the visual, the emotional, the passing of time, the suspense.

When a song, or a soundtrack, is perfectly melded with a scene in a movie or TV show, it often induces chills. There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf is stuck at the top of Saruman’s tower, and he whispers to a moth and then lets it go. The music starts as soft singing - lovely, ethereal voices in synch with the fluttering of the moth’s wings, and then it morphs into guttural chanting and tense drum rhythms as the moth flies over Saruman’s factory of war.

Directors such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarentino use pop songs to great effect in their films: Think of Nico’s These Days playing as Margot Tenenbaum gets off the bus in The Royal Tenenbaums. Or the gang from Reservoir Dogs walking in slow motion to Little Green Bag. I love these moments in film, because film is about the blending of mediums, and when done well – well, chills.

Books don’t use music, can’t use music, at least not in the sense that the reader can literally hear it. Of course one could argue that books don’t use music in the same way that books don’t use elaborate sets or talented actors. Everything in a book is filtered through the reader’s imagination, and music is no different than any other element: sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences.

Then why is it so difficult to convey?

Well, conventionally anyway, the music that appears in a book is going to be organic to the scene, and not permeating the action from the heavens, as happens in TV or film.

I say conventionally, because I can think of a couple of exceptions, and I’m sure there are more: Chynna Clugston, in her comic Blue Monday, does a fun thing, where at the beginning of a new chapter or scene, she tells us the name of a song that is meant to be playing in the background while the scene is taking place. The reader, if they wanted to, could actually listen to the soundtrack as they read.

Our very own Jon Hansen, in his terrific zombie novel, Gunslingers of the Apocalypse, does something much less literal, which is to put a quote from a song at the beginning of each section of his book. Not an uncommon practice, and a good one: it puts the reader in mind of a song with a particular tone (in Gunslinger’s case, hard rock or heavy metal) before they start reading. This works very well – if they know the song.

Which brings me back to the difficulty of conveying music in a book. There’s a lot of jazz music in my novel, Ursula Evermore. Since the book takes place in 1928 (well, most of it – it’s a time travel story after all), all of the music is from that year or earlier, and unless you’re a big early jazz fan, you most likely won’t know the songs that are mentioned. Huge obstacle. If I were to insert the Rolling Stone’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want, or Bing Crosby’s White Christmas into my story (although both would be anachronistic), most people would be able to hear the music in their heads, no problem. But, instead I have Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues playing a major role in a romantic scene, and how many of you can hum that?

Ultimately, I’m left describing it the way I’m left describing anything else in a book – from scratch. I describe Louis’s voice and the tone of his trumpet, two aural pleasures with which most people are familiar. I describe the tempo, the build of the song, the surprisingly soft way in which it ends. But mostly, I describe how the music makes my main character feel, and how it alters the mood of the people in the room, alters the emotional landscape of the scene.

At least I hope that’s what I achieve.

And now, for you trivia buffs out there… a quiz on music in TV and film.

Somewhat Difficult Music Quiz - Click Here!