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I Found That Essence Rare December 6, 2010

Posted by monty in authors, books.
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I’ve told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again because it’s important to what comes after.  I wouldn’t be the reader I am today without Stephen King.  I don’t know what led me to pick up Cujo when I was in 7th grade – the lurid cover, maybe? – but it stands out as the single most important reading decision in my life.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.  I loved Cujo so much that I spent the next couple years devouring anything and everything King wrote.  This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who remains one of my favorites to this day.

Genre fiction (e.g., horror, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, etc.) is what got me into reading.  Along with King (horror) and Ellison (science-fiction), Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (fantasy) was a huge touchstone in my reading autobiography.  Before I could get to T.C. Boyle and Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, I had to have genre fiction show me just how much fun reading could be.  Just as importantly, though, my early (and continued) immersion in genre fiction made realize something important: the best genre fiction is every bit as good as the best “literature” (e.g., the highbrow stuff that is often automatically considered to be superior to its genre-based siblings).  In a McSweeney’s collection from 2002, Michael Chabon (no stranger to highbrow awards himself) laments how we’ve left behind the genre-based, plot-driven stories that were so popular in the early part of the 20th Century (think Chandler or Hammett or Lovecraft, and Poe before them), or rather, we’ve left behind the idea that these stories can be any good.  That’s largely due to the popular names in genre-based fiction, whose work currently sells scads of copies (now think Sparks or Patterson or Koontz) despite being about as sophisticated and gracefully-written as a 10th grader’s essay arguing in favor of pot legalization.

Starting tonight, I’m going to periodically offer up brief descriptions of some of my favorite genre-based authors – the ones whose work apparently isn’t supposed to be good for you, but which I believe no serious reading diet should be without.

Harlan Ellison

If discovering Cujo is the high-water mark of my reading autobiography, then picking up The Essential Ellison runs a close second.  I’d never encountered anything like Ellison’s stories. They were immensely rich in their imagination, but the biggest impact they had on me was in hearing Ellison’s voice.  He was sarcastic, he was bemused, he was inspiring, he was self-righteous, he was mischievous, he was angry – and there was no mistaking the passion that ran through each and every one of his stories, whether it took place on an alien planet or in Hollywood.  I was drawn to that voice, and as a developing writer myself, his was the first voice I tried to emulate.

Ellison is like Vonnegut in that he was unfairly pegged from the very beginning as solely a science-fiction writer.  Yes, he wrote stories that were cast from that particular mold (“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”) but he also wrote stories in the here and now, stories that incorporated trenchant social criticism (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”) or that were as much about the relationships between the characters as they were about the plots that consumed them (“Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine.”).  He’s written slam-bang action stories (“Along the Scenic Route”), but he’s also responsible for one of the most heartbreaking tales about aging that I’ve ever encountered (“Jeffty Is Five”).  And he can also do just plain funny (“The Voice in the Garden”; “Gnomebody”).  He’s published two of the best books of television criticism I’ve ever read (The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat), written episodes of Star Trek and Babylon Five, edited a groundbreaking anthology of science-fiction, and sued James Cameron for stealing two of his stories (read Ellison’s “Soldier” and “The Demon With the Glass Hand,” and then watch The Terminator. And people said Avatar was derivative).

Depending on what day you ask me, I’ll name Harlan Ellison my all-time favorite author – and I wish he’d publish a new collection of stories so I didn’t feel so guilty writing about him in the past tense.

George R.R. Martin

I’m late to this particular party, but I haven’t been this excited about an author since I discovered Cormac McCarthy in the late 90’s.  See, I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was growing up.  Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit were my introduction to the genre, and, as I mentioned above, when I was in junior high I feasted on Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, as well as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance books.  But I figured I grew out of the genre when I hung up my pouch of Dungeons & Dragons dice.

But then, through the recommendation of some trusted folks, I picked up Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire. My expectations weren’t very high, assuming, as I did, that I was about to start reading something sort of silly and juvenile – the literary equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Martin’s series (and, full disclosure, I’m currently only halfway through the third book) is staggeringly rich, densely plotted, and peopled with characters that are as complex and multi-dimensional as anything I’ve ever read.  Yes, there’s swords and armor and battles and magic and castles and all of that, but here’s the thing: this is a series about the people in it, not about the fantasy trappings that serve as their backdrop.  It’s a fantasy series that can be enjoyed by people who don’t like fantasy, that’s how good it is.  And even though the series is undeniably fantasy in nature, the accoutrements of the genre don’t distract from Martin’s real business: telling a ripping yarn about real people in perilous times.  It’s a stunner.

And – bonus! – HBO is producing a ten-part series based on the first book that looks to be remarkably faithful to the author’s vision.

Next time I return to this topic, look for something from the mystery genre.  John Sanford’s lengthy Prey series is shaping up to be one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern fiction.


Current listening:

Psychic TV  – Force the Hand of Chance (1982)

The World Is Made of Fire November 14, 2009

Posted by monty in books, movies.
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Last night I began my foray into the (mostly) complete cinematic works of Stephen King.  Before I get to the actual review, I want to establish one relatively important ground rule: I’m not reviewing King’s books.  In many cases (including the one I’m writing about today), I haven’t read the actual work in at least 20 years.  So I won’t be talking about how the movie is faithful to the original text.  If it matters to you, I don’t really think faithfulness to the source material is particularly important anyway.  Books and movies are completely different mediums, and what works in one won’t always work in the other.  I know there are differences between book and film.  I don’t care.  Okay?  Then away we go.


It’s fitting that Brian de Palma is the director responsible for the first King adaptation.  Like all the movies based on King’s works, de Palma’s own films veer wildly from great (Scarface, Carlito’s Way) to trashy but entertaining (Dress to Kill, Body Double) to virtually unwatchable (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia).  De Palma’s filmography is all over the map, but it lacks the cohesion of quality possessed by Martin Scorsese, one of de Palma’s contemporaries in the group of great American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970’s.  Watching De Palma’s movies, I always feel like I’m watching someone who simply doesn’t have control of his technique. When one of his movies crashes and burns, it’s like watching the Hindenburg of cinematic flame-outs.  But he does, as I mentioned earlier, have his moments of brilliance, and Carrie (1976) is certainly one of them.

The fact that Carrie is able to overcome its opening is a minor miracle in and of itself.  The movie begins with a group of high school girls frolicking in the locker room in various states of undress, shot in gauzy slow motion, accompanied by a treacly musical score, and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a late-night Cinemax feature.  I completely understand what de Palma was going for here – establishing sort of a fanciful, bucolic atmosphere that would ultimately serve as a stark contrast to what was about to happen – but looking at it now is ridiculous and uncomfortably voyeuristic.  Maybe it worked in ’76 and didn’t seem like the mother of all feminine hygiene ads.

De Palma’s restless camera (de Palma’s camera, if you’ve never seen one of his movies, is always restless) moves through the locker room and slowly settles on Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek), showering by herself apart from the other girls.  She lathers up and gives herself a good scrubbing, and as she rinses off, we’re treated – still in slow motion – to the sight of blood streaming down her legs.  This is, we learn, her first period, and she panics, rushing into the locker room.  The other girls ridicule her and force her back into the shower, pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins until the kindly Miss Collins (a very good Betty Buckley) furiously breaks things up.  Oh, and did I mention that in the middle of all this a lightbulb mysteriously shatters?

The savagery of this scene, as I mentioned above, is the antidote to the sickly sweetness of the opening moments, and it effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  If you don’t know the story, we learn that Carrie White has burgeoning telekinetic powers.  They first manifest themselves when she’s angry or frightened – hence the shattering lightbulb in this scene, and an overturned ashtray in a later confrontation in the principal’s office.  Carrie lives at home with her religious fundamentalist mother (played by a deliciously over-the-top Piper Laurie), who treats everything sexual as evidence of sin, and who frequently locks Carrie in a closet filled with religious icons, including a statue of Jesus that looks uncomfortably like comedian Russell Brand.

The plot accelerates when Miss Collins punishes all the girls who took part in Carrie’s hazing.  in this group is Sue (Amy Irving), who realizes what she did was wrong and feels immense guilt for it, and Chris (Nancy Allen), one of those imperious teenage bitches who metes out punishment to anyone she feels is inferior to her, without recourse to compassion or morality.  Sue wants to help Carrie acclimate to high school life, and talks her jock boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt, in a terrific performance), into asking Carrie to the prom.  Chris, on the other hand, only wants revenge for being punished by the gym teacher, and decides to enact it on prom night.

One of the first things to say about this movie is that the acting is all note-perfect.  Spacek inhabits the title role so well that it becomes inconceivable to imagine anyone else in it, and as I mentioned before, Piper Laurie is excellent as the mother who sees sin in every action her daughter takes.  Importantly, though, the key roles of Sue, Chris, and Tommy are all played sensitively and without affectation.  We clearly see Sue’s disgust at being caught up in the mob mentality of the locker room, and feel her acute need to atone for it.  Tommy is schnookered into asking Carrie to the prom by his girlfriend, and while he’s reluctant at first, it’s one of the movie’s small joys to watch him gradually grow fond of the shy, naive Carrie.  And Nancy Allen, as Chris, attacks the least sympathetic role in the movie with glee.  Without these actors in these specific roles, De Palma’s visual tics might have taken over.

And, as is the case with all of de Palma’s films, the visual tics are in abundant display.  Steadicam, smash cuts between scenes, quick edits within a scene, split screen work, and, in a nauseating sequence at the prom, a dizzying 360-degree camera move around Tommy and Carrie that starts slowly, picks up speed, and seems to last forever, even though it adds nothing to their conversation.  This is what I meant earlier when I talked about de Palma often seeming not to have control of his technique.  He frequently uses flashy stylistic devices that draw attention to themselves, even though they aren’t essential to the story being told.  It’s a show-offy move that seems designed more often to highlight the man behind the camera than the action in front of it.

For all of that, the movie gets by on the strength of the acting, and the parallel drawn by King’s story between Carrie’s developing sexuality and her growing telekinetic powers.  When prom explodes in an orgy of fire and destruction, the image of a vacant-eyed Carrie standing stock-still in the middle of it all is one of the most indelible in cinema history.  And then there’s the final shock that comes at the end of the movie – an audacious, laugh out loud trick that’s been copied by numerous films since.  Carrie is not just a high-water mark for adaptations of Stephen King’s work; it’s one of the great movies of the 1970’s.


Current listening:

Gravenhurst fires

Gravenhurst – Fires in Distant Buildings

And Now for My Next Trick … November 11, 2009

Posted by monty in authors, books.
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Stephen King, as I’ve documented on here before, is the first writer I was ever fanatical about.  It started with Cujo in 7th grade (roughly 1985), and it didn’t take long for me to devour everything by him I could find, which wasn’t as difficult in the mid 80’s as it would be now.  I’ve followed him faithfully ever since, and even when his books haven’t scaled the heights of something like, say, The Shining or The Stand, he’s never anything less than a solid storyteller, and I refuse to toe the popular English teacher line that says his works aren’t “real literature.”

That said, King’s books have been responsible for some of the shittiest movies in cinema history, as well as some of the best (or at least some of the most watchable).  It’s a really perplexing grab bag, where David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Rob Reiner’s Misery and Stand by Me rub shoulders with Paul Michael Glaser’s (who?) The Running Man, Mark L. Lester’s (what?) Firestarter, and Fritz Kiersch’s (huh?) Children of the  Corn.  Even when good directors tackle King’s material, the results aren’t guaranteed.  Witness George Romero’s The Dark Half or Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler. And then you get little-known directors who just knock it right the fuck out of the park, like Frank Darabont did with The Shawshank Redemption.

But I haven’t seen all of the movies based on King’s work, so I’m going to embark on something that will either prove to be fabulously entertaining or stupidly foolhardy.  Starting this week I’m going to watch at least one movie a week that is either based on a Stephen King text or written specifically by him for film or television, until I’ve exhausted everything Netflix (and my own personal video library) has to offer.  I’ll watch them chronologically, from 1976’s Carrie through 2007’s The Mist, and I’ll watch all of them available, including the ones I’ve already seen.  It’ll be an interesting experiment, if nothing else, and I’ll post the results of each film here.

Here’s the complete list of movies I’ll be watching, based on Netflix’ inventory and what I personally have on my shelves:

  • Carrie (1976)
  • The Shining (1980)
  • Creepshow (1982)
  • Cujo (1983)
  • The Dead Zone (1983)
  • Christine (1983)
  • Children of the Corn (1984)
  • Firestarter (1984)
  • Cat’s Eye (1985)
  • Silver Bullet (1985)
  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • Creepshow 2 (1987)
  • The Running Man (1987)
  • Pet Sematary (1989)
  • Graveyard Shift (1990)
  • It (1990)
  • Misery (1990)
  • Sleepwalkers (1992)
  • The Dark Half (1993)
  • The Tommyknockers (1993)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  • The Mangler (1995)
  • Dolores Claiborne (1995)
  • Thinner (1996)
  • The Shining (1997)
  • Apt Pupil (1998)
  • The Green Mile (1999)
  • Storm of the Century (1999)
  • Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
  • Rose Red (2002)
  • Dreamcatcher (2003)
  • The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003)
  • Secret Window (2004)
  • Kingdom Hospital (2004)
  • Salem’s Lot (2004)
  • Riding the Bullet (2004)
  • Desperation (2006)
  • 1408 (2007)
  • The Mist (2007)

There are a few that I don’t own and Netflix doesn’t have.  If anyone has a line on where I can find these, I’d be most appreciative.

  • Salem’s Lot (1979)
  • Maximum Overdrive (1986)
  • Golden Years (1991)
  • Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  • Needful Things (1993)
  • The Stand (1994)
  • The Langoliers (1995)

I don’t know why I do these things.


Current listening:

24-7 Gumbo

24-7 Spyz – Gumbo Millennium (1990)

The Old Forever New Things October 6, 2009

Posted by monty in authors, books.
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My parents tell me I read Tolkein’s The Hobbit when I was five.  I’m thinking they’re mistaken, but it’s a good story to tell.  In my first actual memories of reading, I’m in 1st grade, reading to my classmates.  I was a show-off even then.  I vividly recall sitting in the school library reading a book to a girl (and thirty years later, not much has changed).  The book had pictures, and I remember that I pronounced the word acres like this: “a-CRESS.”  This, and the approving smile of the librarian, is all that sticks.

In my second first-grade memory, my teacher, Mrs. Culbertson, has asked me to read a book about explorer Kit Carson to the class while she ran briefly to the office on an errand.  I got to sit in my little plastic chair with the rest of the class arrayed before me, cross-legged on the carpet.  I felt powerful.  I read the book, and when there was a reference to someone (Kit, maybe) singing bluegrass music, I remember making a joke about how funny it would be to see “blue grass, you know, the kind on the ground, singing.”  Like many would-be comedians, I was a nerd and an attention whore, all rolled into one.

The point, I think, is that reading has always been hugely important in my life, yet I’ve never really written about it.  I’ve written frequently (some would say obsessively) about my love for music and movies, but rarely, if ever, about books.  I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly what it was I first loved about them, except maybe to use the old trope about seeing a movie in my head whenever I turned the page.  We didn’t go to movies much when I was little, so this might be why I devoured books voraciously.

How voraciously?  If you fast-forward a couple years, you’ll see me participating in a reading contest at school.  The premise was that of a journey through space.  You started at the sun, and after reading a couple books, you’d advance to Mercury.  A couple more would take you to Venus, and so on.  The person to make it through the galaxy fastest won something. I don’t remember what, but part of the prize was being interviewed on the local radio station.  That was me, and I remember bragging in my snotty 3rd grade way that I’d made it “to Pluto, and twelve books more.”  Perhaps not coincidentally, listening to the tape afterward was my first realization that I hated the sound of my voice.

readingIt was about this time that I discovered my love of fantasy.  That’s me on the right, reading the novelization of the movie Clash of the Titans. That was one of the movies my parents let me watch in the theater (also of note: Clash marked my first exposure to cinematic female nudity), and it was the first movie I became enthralled with.  I spent the rest of the summer reading the 304-page-long novelization, reveling in the opportunity to see the movie again, in a different form.  Maybe a year later I stumbled across Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and I truly graduated to the world of adult books a year or so later – in 6th grade now – when I discovered Terry Brooks and his Shannara series (although at the time it was just a trilogy).  I was never a huge fan of science fiction the way I think a lot of boys that age tend to be, but fantasy really tripped my trigger.  Swords, spells, dragons, tunics, buckskin boots – give me a story about an elf and I was in heaven.

stephenking-cujo All that changed in 7th grade.  I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly, why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old ass.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  I was reading about elves when I could have been reading about this all along?  Ho-lee shit.  Fortunately, this was in the late 80’s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order.  This led me to other horror authors, but none of them really passed the test.  The one that lasted the longest was Dean Koontz.  His early, trashy novels were pretty great, but then he got all pious and moralizing and sucky and I lost interest.  I dabbled in some of the other horror novels that littered the racks at Hook’s Drugs and Bonfiglio Pharmacy, but none of them really packed the same punch.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first appearance of my love of author over genre.  I didn’t love horror; I loved what Stephen King did with it.  There’s a difference, but I didn’t know it yet.

EllisonAs much as I loved King’s books, it turns out the most important thing to come out of my exposure to his writing – the thing that ultimately influenced the person I became – was his discussion of Harlan Ellison in his memoir, Danse Macabre. Harlan Ellison is one of literature’s great overlooked writers.  A contemporary of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Ellison is at least their equal, and like them, he’s known primarily as a science fiction writer, even though his science fiction stories make up only a small fraction of his total output.  He’s won a slew of awards, collaborated with Isaac Asimov, written one of the best-loved episodes of Star Trek (“The City on the Edge of Forever”), had one of his stories (“A Boy and His Dog”) turned into a movie starring Don Johnson, and sued James Cameron for ripping off his idea for the Terminator series.  I immediately fell in love with his short stories, but I also fell in love with his temperament.  He was an irascible rabble-rouser, by all accounts difficult to deal with.  An outspoken proponent of civil rights, he marched with MLK from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  He wrote in favor of civil disobedience and against repressive governments.  All of this spoke to the bleeding-heart liberal that was just starting to develop in my personality, and it added another layer of admiration to what I already felt for his writing.  As for how Ellison influenced my reading habits, he was, in short, the first author I read who wasn’t popular.  This “outlaw reading” appealed to me.  It not just marked me out as different (which, being an angsty little jerk, I liked), but it gave me license to seek out other authors no one else in the rural shithole where I lived had ever heard of.  Harlan Ellison was the gateway to everything I read today.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t have discovered these authors without him, but it certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly.

And what do I read today?  As I discovered with Stephen King, it’s authors, not genres.  I love the hard-boiled modern noir of James Ellroy, the offbeat social satire of T.C. Boyle, and the existential loneliness inherent in everything written by Cormac McCarthy.  Who else?  Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, Russell Banks, Richard Price, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, David Sedaris, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Tom Robbins, Irvine Welsh, Tom Perrotta, Michael Chabon, Will Self … I could just keep typing.  But I won’t.

The important overlap between my love of books and movies and music is that I’m just looking for something that resonates.  I don’t much care what’s cool or hip – I just want something good. I still read Stephen King.  As soon as I finish Dave Eggers’ What Is the What (soon; it’s a challenging read), I’m moving on to David Cross’ I Drink for a Reason. The next book I buy will be James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover, and I’ve got Dan Simmons’ Drood and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places arriving in the mail any day now.  I just love reading.  Give me something to kickstart the movie in my head, and I’m hooked.


Current listening:

Velvet Underground white light

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat