Sunday, January 6, 2013

Video Night's big release, plus thoughts on TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D

Hey all. just checking in with the old website to point you over to the new one. My first full-length novel Video Night is now available for purchase. Please pick up a copy.

If you want to hear what I have to say about the new Texas Chainsaw, please check in with my new blog over at www.adamcesare.com.

See you there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Website! New Book!

Hello all,

I've moved everything over to a new website. Come check out www.adamcesare.com and be sure to change your bookmarks over.

Also, if you haven't heard yet: Bound By Jade has been released! It's two bucks.  Please check it out, post an honest review on amazon and tell me what you think. Thanks so much! See you at the new digs.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Moving and Shaking

Hello all! It's been awhile since the last update, nobody knows that better than me. I've been keeping busy though, rest assured. I couldn't let any more of October pass without dropping by and saying hello. Now that I've said it. There's nothing left to do but bombard you with links and images.

First up, NEW BOOK! That's right, Bound By Jade: The Fourth Sam Truman Mystery is coming out sometime this month. Below is the gorgeous cover. It's not 100% compulsory, but now's your chance to catch up on the rest of the series before digging into my 20,000 word novella. If you like noir, this one's gonna give you a supernatural sucker-punch in the kisser.


Also, the first advance review of my novel Video Night has hit the web and it's pretty high profile. You can check that out over at Publisher's Weekly, then you can go pre-order either the paperback or ebook from amazon. Every order gives me a tiny little OCD thrill because now that they've introduced the author ranking system  all I do is obsess.



Lastly, let me leave you with some actual not-too-self-promotional content. Blu Gilliand invited me over to his blog The October Country for a guest post. Its part of a series where he's asking authors to provide their "essential October read" and he's got some amazing (i.e. way better than me) contributors. My pick is decidedly non-traditional so I'd like to hear what you think. You can check that out right here.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Found footage goes looking for itself: V/H/S

With the posters Magnolia has been releasing for horror anthology V/H/S, you wouldn't be alone in thinking that the film is meant to be a nostalgia-fueled romp put together to capitalize on horror fans who pine for the glory days.

Turns out that it's not a throwback and that's a huge plus for me. If V/H/S is going to be accused of anything, it will be that it's too modern.

We've had enough trips down memory lane. It seems that every slasher that's come out in the last decade has been so busy billing itself as "back to basics" that it's forgotten to be good. Meanwhile there are enough entries in the faux-grindhouse sub-sub-genre alone to bore even the most forgiving and nostalgic horror fan.

What V/H/S brings to the table is forward-thinking, and even though I'm about to discuss some of the aspects I didn't love about the film, I want you to keep in mind that I would rather watch V/H/S than almost any recent "homage" to the genre's proud past.

We can call it the curse of the anthology film, but invariably there are going to be better and worse segments. One might even extend this axiom to say that are almost always segments that we wish didn't make the final cut, parts that hold back the movie as a whole.

The good news is that there's no one segment of V/H/S that I would jettison on a rewatch. They all bring enough ideas to the table to earn their spot in the roster.

The bad news is that there's no clear winner, no instant classic mini-movie couched inside V/H/S's serviceable wraparound story. What the film does offer is a collection of well-executed jumpscares underlined by enough intelligence to soften the blow provided by the film's greatest flaw: the overabundance of downtime.

Since the birth of today's found footage genre, these films have employed downtime. The Blair Witch Project set the standard, using this downtime to sell the "reality" of the situation. By holding too long on a mundane conversation or including extraneous hiking footage, the flimmakers give the impression that we're watching b-roll. This was footage that the characters were collecting, but not intending to use.

Flash forward to today, where the novelty is gone but the genre is more popular than ever. The best of this most recent crop of films have been successful at balancing this downtime with scares. Downtime is misused when it's not hypnotizing the audience into the reality of the situation, only boring them.

Most of the segments in V/H/S fail to keep this balance. At two hours, the film is too long. The way I put it last night on twitter was this: "I understand the need for quiet moments, especially in found footage, but when you have a Ti West portion: you all don't have to be Ti West."

West's the oft-cited master of modern "slow-burn" horror. I''m an enormous admirer of some of his work (House of the Devil) and can appreciate the ones that didn't work for me. His films contain long stretches of mood-setting and often end in explosions of horror. Four of these five short films miniaturize that  formula and the results vary.

The best of the bunch embrace their genre and its conceits. David Bruckner's piece wrings scares out of a nightmarish situation made even more personal through an extremely limited POV (a mini-camera in a pair of eyeglasses), while Joe Swanberg uses a Skype conversation to waste no time getting to creepy spookhouse jolts.

The worst try to overextend themselves and leave too much unexplained in their pursuit to leave viewers stranded at that perfect level of ambiguity. Although I thought Glenn McQuaid's segment had the most fully-formed and intriguing plot (I won't spoil it, but it's unique take on the slasher/final girl relationship), I found it to be the most lacking in execution. Ironically West's own segment has a quietly terrifying scene in the middle, but ends with a thud that's meant to feel like an EC-comics twist, but did nothing for me.

Despite its issues, V/H/S still got to me. There are some really great moments here, and those are the images that stuck with me when I'd turned off the lights and tried to get to sleep. It is very rare to find a film that leaves me with this feeling, so no matter its shortcomings, I appreciate V/H/S and look forward to staunchly defending it as it makes the rounds and polarizes the community (which I have no doubts that it will).

If you're in the market for some scares and are ready to bring some patience, V/H/S may work for you in the same way it worked for me. It's available for rental on-demand for $10 and will soon have a theatrical run*. But if you're disappointed to hear that this is an ultra-modern film that plays it straight and is not a video-era period piece, I can't help you. Until January.

*This is one film I'm glad I watched on the small screen. Although I'm usually a huge proponent of going to the movies, I almost feel like it would lose some of its charm if you weren't watching it in your own living room.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Dream for Today’s Monster Kid


Disclaimer: I know I make a few generalizations in this blog, don’t take it too personally. Also, please don’t let me be misunderstood. I’m not telling you how to live your life (or how to raise your kids). I’m just trying to work towards a better understanding of some things I’ve been thinking about for a long while. Peace, love and civilized discussion encouraged.



An introduction:

Horror fans are a diverse bunch, but every one that I’ve ever talked to has a single commonality: their obsession started when they were young.

We may keep our eyes glued to the news sites, downloading the newest trailers and demanding up-to-the minute word on our favorite creators, but our interests always loop back around to what hooked us as kids. In this way, we’re a nostalgic bunch and I hope you’ll indulge me I wax nostalgic for a minute in this post.

Notice that I didn’t say horror movie fans. I just said horror fans, which I feel is an important distinction. Well, actually I think it should be the most unimportant distinction of all, a non-existent distinction, but sadly it is one.

Confused yet? Sorry, let me try again.

It was the movies that hooked me. Browsing the video store, I was both attracted to and terrified of the horror section. I wanted so badly to enjoy these films that I begged and bartered with my parents. 

They were pretty permissive and let me have what I wanted. The thing was, when I was that young, I could only take about five minutes of Halloween, and the closest I got to Freddy was errant glances at his videotape covers. So I started slow, stuck with the classic monsters. Great as they are, the films of the 1930s,’40s and ’50s didn’t quite hit the same “instant terror” nerve for me as their color counterparts.

This was how I became a monster kid, which is a term that outdates me by a few decades, but still one that’s applicable to a select group of young people today. Some would claim that it’s only applicable to those who were around for the ’50s-’70s, but to hell with that. The few, the proud: the monster kids.

It was those gruesome videos that started the itch, those old timey monsters that first help me scratch it, but it was reading that taught me how in love I was with being scared.

The same way I feared/loved the slashers, I feared and loved the small bookshelf in my father’s study. My dad’s not a huge reader, and he’s certainly not the world’s biggest horror fan, but he had one book on this shelf that interested me. Tucked between a copy of Congo and Eye of the Needle, was a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s It.

I knew It from the video store. That was the one in the fat case with the scary clown on the cover (it was two tapes long, intimidating!). Something about this book cover was even creepier.

A few green lizard-like fingers reaching out from a storm drain, towards a paper boat. It’s an image that doesn’t give you a whole lot of idea what the story is about, but it lets you know that something bad is going to go down, and that it’s probably going to involve kids. Kids like me.

So even before I read a single word of his prose, I was a King fan. My father read me some of King’s short stories, they’re complex and mature for a kid, and I’m sure that 99% went over my head. It was just something I wanted to be a part of, like a child putting on a plastic helmet and pretending to be a fireman. Luckily I’m young enough that once I was starting to read by myself, there were books there to meet me. In the early 1990s I devoured R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, feeling myself getting stronger with every word, working towards the day when I was ready to tackle It by myself. I'm not ashamed of Stine's gateway drug series, nor should I be. Everything's a piece in the tapestry.

At the same time all this reading was going on, my interest in film kept growing. I’d watch everything I could. Tried to learn how movies were made, I forced myself to watch everything, even if it terrified me, got in trouble during grade school for bringing in copies of Fangoria and making girls look at the gory pictures during lunch.

Flash forward to today and I’m a horror writer with a film degree. There couldn’t be a more literal case of childhood interests manifesting themselves into an adult’s life.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I was lucky to run into that book cover. This same dual interest, this love of horror in all its forms, is my wish for every single one of today’s monster kids.

I’m not just an angry nerd ranting about how “nobody reads anymore!” Although, I’d be lying if said I didn’t think that for society as a whole, from time to time. The over-reliance can work in the other direction as well: there are horror fans that (either through snobbery or genuine disinterest in film) lean too heavy on fiction. They end up with a scant cinematic diet. That’s just sad.

I like to think of it like this:

Lucky Charms are a part of this complete breakfast, so on the commercial they show you a glass of orange juice and a slice of toast. If you’re just watching/thinking/talking about one aspect of the culture (either strictly horror movies or horror fiction), then you’re only eating the Lucky Charms. No milk, even.

Reading is Magic:



For as long as I’ve been living in Massachusetts, I’ve attended the Rock and Shock convention in Worcester, MA. R&S is a fun convention for me because I’m a horror omnivore. Not only do I get to see genre film veterans like George Romero, Linda Blair and Danny Trejo, but I get to meet up with authors and editors whose work I love. What depresses me about R&S is that I’m one of the few people to attend for that reason.

The convention is fragmented into two parts (three if you count the metal/horrorcore concerts that are part of the event). One group is there to line up for signatures and grab a bootleg copy of Freddy’s Nightmares (duped from VHS), and the other is there to meet some authors, maybe sell a few books of their own. That second group is a lot smaller. The real audience is there for the movie stuff.

These fans are die-hards, they know every entry in the Friday the 13th saga backwards and forwards, are hip to the latest trends in international horror (psssh France is so six years ago, it’s the South Koreans that are tops right now), have got a lock of Bruce Campbell’s hair stashed on their mantle, but I’m willing to bet that the only three living authors they can name are King, Barker and Koontz.

No, reading is not really our thing as horror movie fans, is it? Besides, aren’t books where all that Twilight nonsense came from?

I’m not saying that these folks are somehow ignorant, or are lesser fans than those that do read (and anyone who thinks I’m only picking on the film fans, I’ll get to the problems with a horror fiction-only diet in the next section), I’m just saying that film isn’t the only way to the heart of our beloved genre.

This is just my own assumptions/generalizations at work, but I think that one of the main reasons some fans don’t try reading within the genre is that they have a narrow definition of what the genre is and how it’s supposed to impact them.

Many horror film fans are thrill seekers. They want well-executed jump scares to ratchet their adrenaline up, photorealistic gore to test their gag reflex and they don’t think that the printed word can provide them with these thrills. They’re right and wrong.

Books don’t work in the same way that movies work: they are two completely different formats. I would argue that some of the worst books are the ones that read too much like pitches for a film, writers and filmmakers need to have a grasp on the intricacies of each medium if the work is to succeed. On top of that, when a book does “succeed” it’s almost never in that visceral “that cat came out of nowhere”-level that some films operate on.  

For me, books afforded scares that were more covert, but no less profound and addicting as the best horror cinema. The best set pieces in horror novels are not reliant on special effects, but instead on a reader’s understanding of character, context, mood and their compliancy in the act of storytelling. They don’t hit you all at once, but instead build and expand in the imagination, with you doing a lot of the mental legwork.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been as scared as when Larry Underwood is making his way through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand, and I’ve never had more potent nightmare fuel than the shouts of “Come out Neville!” in I Am Legend. And that’s just the entry-level stuff. This isn’t even to mention the gore, because as far as I’m concerned there are passages in some Jack Ketchum and Wrath James White books that make Lucio Fulci look like a wuss.


Movies don’t rot your brain:



The horror genre, even when it’s being looked down upon by academia, is clearly a wide spectrum of works. While staying within the confines of the genre, you could go highbrow or you could go the lowest of the lowbrow. The problem occurs when we start stratifying works in our own mind, avoiding content not because it doesn’t interest us, but because it belongs to a certain subgenre or medium.

This is the line of thinking that can lead to the blanket “books are better than movies” reasoning or the even more specific (and still false): “the book is always better than the movie.”

Possibly the most frustrating thing about talking to other passionate people is watching their passion take a cynical turn. The idea that because one is a fan—a connoisseur of the genre—that one automatically knows everything to the point of prejudging art that’s never given a proper chance. I’ve been guilty of this myself on more than a few occasions, but I’m not proud of it.

This happens occasionally when readers (not cinephiles) try to explain why they won’t like a certain film. Or worse: why they don’t like a certain sub-genre of film. The thing about assuming that you are an expert is that there’s always someone smarter and more well-read than you.

You may be able to recite large swaths of Poe, but that doesn’t give you the ammunition to discuss Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired pictures with someone who’s seen them.

So when someone overhears you talk dismissively about something that they’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about in a much more nuanced way than “it sucked” or “it rocked” or “it’s so bad it’s good” (my personal pet peeve), it tends to hurt their feelings. It also makes you look like a dingus.

What do I recommend readers do if they’re looking to brush up on horror movies? Read a book! There are a bunch of great nonfiction books about horror cinema, ranging from breezy and anecdotal to intimidating-ly academic: pick one that sounds interesting and read it. Make a note of the films that the author discusses the most: have you seen them? If not, it’s time to do your movie-watching homework.

What next? Healing the rift:



So do you know someone who fits into either of these categories? Does your buddy have a hockey mask tattoo, but has never cracked open Jack Ketchum’s The Lost? Does your hoighty toighty book-loving friend spend all their hours re-reading Lovecraft, but has never sat down to enjoy the simple pleasures of Re-Animator? Make them! If you’re a fan, it’s your duty to reach across the aisle and share what you love.

Don’t misunderstand this as an author’s plea to read his books. If you’re just getting going, don’t start with me. Start with the authors that are acclaimed, that undeniably matter. If you’re intimidated by the classics, start with something contemporary. Pick up a Sarah Langan or Laird Barron or Joe Lansdale. If novels scare you because you don’t want to dedicate that much time to someone you’re not convinced you’ll love: pick up a multi-author anthology. Editors like John Skipp, Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones do a great job distilling the best-of-the-best. Short fiction is low-investment but could turn you onto your all-time favorite author.

If you’ve got a budding monster kid in your life (son, daughter, niece, nephew), you should encourage their taste in a responsible manner. There’s plenty of horror that can play well with the younger set. I’m not just talking about YA fiction (although there’s plenty of quality there) or family films. You just have to use your discretion, be familiar with the material you’re handing them and know what they can take.

When the readers start watching and the watchers start reading, I think we’ll all realize that we’ve got something in common. Whether we were hiding behind the couch, brazenly sneaking movies on late night cable, or exercising our library cards: we are all monster kids.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rites of Spring: Kinda Corny



Stop me if you've heard this one before: a rural cult movie, a botched crime movie and a slasher movie walk into a bar...


I see what you're trying to do Rites of Spring. I want to love you for doing it, but it doesn't really work.


Let me back up. I was sold Rites of Spring by it's evocative poster, a few promotional stills I had seen, semi-familiar cast (two vets of The Signal, a movie I really like), and dumb luck. I was browsing the new on-demand titles and this one sounded up my alley.


$7.99 and 81 minutes later: here we are.


I've got to say upfront that Rites is not a movie I enjoyed. There's some qualities here, though. Some aspects that set it above many films of comparable budget and breadth of release, so it's worth discussing.


The best thing Rites of Spring has going for it is that it's gorgeous. The overabundance of handheld shots can grate, but otherwise the film is nicely composed and beautifully lit. 


The real star of Rites is its locations. Crumbling abandoned buildings, rundown motels, rural gas stations, rustic farmland: everything feels authentic and lived-in. So why do the characters have nothing interesting to say while they're in these locations? 


Writer/director Padraig Reynolds's greatest sin is giving proven actors (AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey) clunky, exposition-filled dialogue. Why are characters constantly referring to each other by their full names? Why does everyone feel the need to tell us what they're about to do ("I'm going to check it out", "I'm going to open this door", etc.)? 


Some of these failings can be attributed to the film's ambitious structure. We split the first forty minutes between two groups: young women about to become pagan sacrifices to ensure a bountiful harvest and a group of kidnappers. It turns out that the protagonists of both these stories are linked and establishing that link is what most of the early dialog is concerned with. 


Rachel (Ramsey, the protag of the sacrifice subplot) made an expensive mistake at work that cost Ben (Bowen, the sympathetic member of the kidnapping gang) his job. 


The problem is that this shared past is the least interesting part of the film. Sure we can call Ben's wrongful canning the inciting event, but who cares? Losing your job is a flimsy reason to throw in with a clearly duplicitous crook and violently abduct your boss's kid. 


It's not like I don't understand what's meant to be going on under the hood. The intent is to show that some actions can spiral out of control and that sometimes insane things happen for no good reason, but that's also the perfect theme to use when your script is reliant on coincidence instead of cogent character motivation/logic.


What's compelling here is the masked villain and the titular "rites of spring" needed to keep him satisfied. But that's not what Reynolds wants to make a movie about. The bulk of the information we're given about this ceremony is jammed into a few haphazard opening text blocks. We're left wishing the script found a way to deliver this information organically. 


At the halfway mark the two subplots run into each other and the film becomes a full-blooded slasher movie, with the remaining characters served up to an intimidating dude with an poleaxe and a skin problem. 


By the time the film reaches this second half, we know nothing about this chop-happy guy. The glimpses we get of his makeup are cool, but he doesn't even get a name. It's implied but unclear whether or not if he's of supernatural origin but I want to know what his deal is! I get the feeling that Reynolds wanted to keep the villain's origins purposefully oblique, perhaps trying to limit our knowledge to ratchet up tension.


It's clear that Reynolds wanted to make "more than just a slasher flick" but these genres embrace archetypes and tropes for a reason. If you're missing too many of the essential ingredients: it just doesn't work. A part-crime, part-folk horror, part-slasher film sounds awesome, but those parts have to function independently for the movie to have a chance. 


What should be a rousing climax filled with narrow escapes from our heroes and despicable characters getting their comeuppance is rendered inert by the fact that we don't care about any of these characters, slasher included. There's plenty of blood, but even gorehounds will be disappointed in how vanilla the kills are (all variations on the classic "I hit you with a poleaxe" maneuver). In fact, the one minor character I found myself rooting for has their fate left to a cutaway, the story never coming back around to let us know what happened to them.


What's frustrating about Rites of Spring is not what it does wrong, but what it does right. There's so much to like here, it just never congeals. It's rare that a mediocre film is made better when there's more of it, but Rites (which is on the short end of feature length) would have benefited by either giving us more of the villain or a few scenes in which we're shown why we should care for the heroes.


Reynolds has a good eye, I look forward to what he can do when he's making a movie without an identity crisis. Maybe even a sequel where the slasher is given his proper due?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Join Sam Truman's Junior Detective League


I may be a huge horror fan, but I've also got a special fondness for the crime/mystery genre. Especially P.I. stories.

So what if the dark streets that Marlowe and his ilk walked down had more lurking in them than common hoods? That's the conceit of the Sam Truman mysteries, a series of novellas from Abattoir Press. The series takes a hard-boiled, down-on-his-luck private investigator, and throws him cases with a decidedly horrific/supernatural bend.

Although I've read Sam's first few adventures, this isn't a review. Why not? Well, because I've got a horse in this race, and a straight-up review extolling the virtues of these books could be construed as unseemly.

Series creator Ed Kurtz approached me about writing an installment and the result was Bound By Jade: The Fifth Sam Truman Mystery a 20,000 word novella that brings Sam to Chinatown.


It was a joy to write and quite a departure from anything I've done before. Not just because it's a crime story set in 1961, but because I was working in an established world, with characters that other writers had left their fingerprints on. The pressure was high not to mess it up.


If that's a situation that sounds like it'd be limiting, it wasn't. Ed sent me the series "bible" which gave me a rundown of the major characters, locations and the story-so-far, but outside of that I was just told to create the P.I. story of my dreams, just as long as it had a horror element.


And really, would the P.I. story of my dreams not have a horror element?


There's a simple genius to the way the series is set up that allows the authors to be as self-contained as they want, while not feeling like their installment doesn't fit into Sam's metanarrative.


Which leads me to my next point: you should read the four stories before mine to maximize your enjoyment. It's in no way required to understand the plot of Bound By Jade (which is fairly stand-alone, the entire case taking place in only a little over 24 hours), but they'll give you a better feel for the world and the route that Sam's life is taking. 


They're super quick reads, but they're also super cheap (two bucks each for the ebooks). For you insistent paper-only people, there will be print editions of the stories collected in multi-novella omnibus editions. The first print book will be out late 2012/early 2013, but I wouldn't wait if I were you. Grab first three (Catch My Killer by Ed Kurtz, The Last Invasion by Brandon Zuern, and Soft Kiss, Hard Death by Tobin Elliot), get the fourth when it's available, then I'll be in touch about hassling you to buy mine.


One last thing: just because I can't review these books doesn't mean that you shouldn't. If you like Sam, please tell others about him (amazon, goodreads, your blog, the walls of rest-stop bathrooms, all the usual suspects).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Book Recommendations and Cotton Fires: Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones



For me, recommending books is a tricky business. Especially if the person is not into genre fiction or, at least, I don't know if they're part of the club or not.

Don't know what I mean? Picture this:

You’re at some kind of social function, talking to someone you barely know, and the conversation turns to books. “Oh, you’re a big reader?”

Nodding is what puts you on the spot.

“What do you read?”

“All kinds of stuff.”

You don’t want to get into it right now, have to explain yourself. You rattle off a few of the biggies, a few names they’ll probably know/respect. Names that carry a certain cultural cache. Chabon, McCarthy, maybe even Neil Gaiman if they look like the type of person that shopped at Hot Topic back in high school. That oughta wow them. Make you look respectable.

But wait, the social function’s at your place, so the same person who just asked you what you read is now looking at your bookshelf and seeing what you actually read.

Seems like you may have neglected to mention a few things.

You didn’t lie. Per se. All those names you mentioned are there. Well, good old Neil isn’t, he’s on your kindle, unable to back you up in the real world. Those names are just surrounded by other names.

But it’s not even the names that stick out, this person who’s looking doesn’t recognize names like Ketchum, Barker and Langan, doesn’t know the weight they carry in your circles. Instead the looky-loo is focusing on titles.

Now you are too, feeling a flush behind your ears as you notice that Carlton Mellick’s Apeshit is right next to your Library of Americas. The cover art(a busty blonde with a plus-sized machete) is not doing you any favors, nor is the fact that the book next to it is a treatise on Swedish exploitation cinema, Christina Lindberg’s patched-up eye as big as life.

This ever happened to you? Happens to me all the time (don’t look so surprised that people talk to me).

How do you recover? By making a recommendation. Because maybe by offering them the best you’ve got, you can prove yourself, validate a whole swath of genres that this person is either ignorant of or avoids like they were syphilitic.

So what do I usually offer here? Well, the book I feel like is the ultimate get out of jail-free card, the one I recommend when I'm put on the spot by a "normal" person, is The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Diaz’s book is literate and it’s got an epigraph by Galactus, so it covers multiple bases.

With Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones, I think I’ve got a new go-to book to recommend. Not only is it excellent, but if the recommendee decides they want to read more from the author, there's a good chance they'll end up in my neck of the woods, genre-wise. It's an inadvertent gateway drug.

Growing Up Dead in Texas, the latest from Stephen Graham Jones, is the best of his work that I’ve read. Even though it seems like just yesterday we were talking about the latest from SGJ, there will be no mistaking Growing Up Dead for Zombie Bake-Off. There’s no zombies in Growing Up Dead, no bunny-headed coyotes, there’s not even any mutant ticks, that’s because GDTx(the author’s abbreviation, not mine) is kinda-sorta nonfiction.  

Though it’s labeled a novel, the narrator is Jones himself traveling back to Greenwood Texas to investigate a cotton fire that happened in 1985 when Jones was only a child. I have no idea how much of the plot is invented and how much is the stone-cold truth, this information isn’t exactly googleable, but that constant tension between “wait is this the ‘novel’ or is it the nonfiction?” is part of what makes the book endlessly fascinating. Ultimately the line between fact and fiction doesn’t really matter, because it all feels real enough that we stop questioning it.

We follow the narrative threads that shoot out of that 1985 fire in a million different directions, so much so that the book becomes a kind of mystery. If it is a procedural, though, it’s one where procedure is skirted, taking some unrelated digressions into Jones’s life that tell us more about our trusty “detective.” The cast of characters is robust, and even Jones has trouble coming up with enough pseudonyms, confesses to not remembering the ones that he laid down at the beginning.

This is one of those books that is so good, has so much going for it, that it’s difficult to elaborate beyond: read it, you’ll like it.

I could tell you about the bulleted interview with one of the slimiest sounding mofos ever, I could tell you about how I had the paperback but bought the ebook once I realized how much I wanted to highlight passages, or about the sequence with the dogs (oh, the dogs), or the descriptions of small town high school sports culture that had this pasty suburbanite ready to hit the basketball court, or about the passages that made me feel like I was out in the West Texas cotton fields, even though the only farms I’ve ever seen are located on the east end of Long Island and have a farmstand attached.

I could tell you those things or you can take my recommendation and just read the book for yourself. Maybe you’ll like it enough to ignore all that other weird crap on my shelves, maybe even give some of it a try yourself.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

This is Australia—Everything Here is Poisonous: House of Sighs by Aaron Dries



"Australia is a cruel, dangerous place filled with murderous psychopaths and deadly animals."

This is everything I know to be true about Australia, taught to me by their film industry.

Movies like Greg Mclean's Wolf Creak, Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, and Brian Trenchard Smith's Dead End Drive-In (and to a lesser-extent BMX Bandits) have taught me that the island nation is a harsh, unforgiving place that would eat me alive if I ever thought of stepping foot on it.

Australian author Aaron Dries' debut novel, House of Sighs, does absolutely nothing to sway that belief.

I haven't read any other reviews of Sighs, but I'm guessing that the names Ketchum and Laymon are going to be dropped as descriptors of Dries' hardhitting, normal-day-descending-into-chaos setup. They're not wrong, these hypothetical reviewers that I've just tried to pigeonhole, but they're not wholly right either.

What's horrifying about Jack Ketchum's most widely-read stories is their universality, the idea that they could happen anywhere (I can't even remember where The Girl Next Door is set, that's how nondescript its suburbia is). Dries story can only be told in a small town in New South Whales. That's a virtue, not a drawback.

And this could just be an East coast American with a very limited view of the world finding novelty in places the author didn't intend it, but I don't think it is. House of Sighs is meant to be an Australian tragedy.

House of Sighs begins with an ill-fated bus ride helmed by a conductor who's got a dangerously tenuous grip on reality, and devolves into a situation that can only be described as chaos. The human evils of abuse, drugs, and mental anguish collide with Australia's hostile climate and wildlife to disastrous effect.

The cover and title could lead you to think that you are getting a haunted house story, but what we have here is firmly in the genre of "real-world" horror. We have a group of flawed protagonists and antagonists (in some cases the categories are interchangeable) thrust into a situation that gets worse with each chapter. Coincidence, misunderstanding, the natural world, and human cruelty mix together until finally ending in a crescendo of violence that's almost absurd in its senselessness.

In the final chapters, we are left with an aftermath that would be impossible to parse without knowledge of the inciting events and the players involved, and that's the appeal. The tragedies that Dries constructs would be unbelievable if he didn't make us believe them, if he didn't show us how they happen (in some cases diving back to character's childhoods to show us their dark origins). Luckily he does, with several narrative gutpunches successfully delivered throughout.

If your definition of horror is limited to imaginary ghosts and ghouls, than you should probably stay away. But for those of you who want to be sobered by your scares, I heartily recommend House of Sighs.