Category Archives: pop culture

News roundup

51DrIim07hL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Curiosity Killers was released on May 5, and broke Amazon’s top 100 in the Steampunk category. Many thanks to those who pre-ordered! If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, it’s now also available not only in paperback but in ebook format. You can find it from the publisher or at your favorite online book retailer. You can also purchase a copy at Blue Jacket Books on May 28th, when I’ll be signing copies and reading excerpts alongside my fellow Dog Star Books authors Matt Betts and J.L. Gribble.

indexSpeaking of other fellow DSB authors, Heidi Ruby Miller has some news about The Curiosity Killers on her blog, and she’ll be appearing at Copyleft Gallery in Pittsburgh tomorrow, along with six other fabulous authors and an editor from Parsec Ink Books. If you’re in that area, you should absolutely attend! Miller’s novel Starrie was released in March.

From now until May 26, you can enter to win a Goodreads Giveaway for The Curiosity Killers, and even if you’ve already secured your own copy, you should still enter! This book makes a great gift, after all! Just hit “Enter Giveaway” from the Goodreads page.

wraiths51Rj58GG+lL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Finally, some big news for Raw Dog Screaming Press: S. Craig Zahler’s Wraiths of the Broken Land will be adapted for film, helmed by Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard, the team behind The Martian. Zahler is also the co-author of the Dog Star title Corpus Chrome and several other titles. I feel very honored to have The Curiosity Killers in the same company as such shiny, successful works! Wraiths of the Broken Land has subsequently zoomed up to the top of the Kindle charts as a result! Way to go!


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We need space…

In the romantic comedy television shows, movies, and even the romance novels I admit to occasionally reading in my youth, one common thread united that now-cliché of institutions: the unspoken love. Also known as couples with “UST,” sometimes unrequited love, or (more wordily) “will they/won’t they” pairings, these include such hallmark couples as Sam and Diane from Cheers, Maddie and Dave from Moonlighting, and Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. On the page, couples were allowed to stare longingly at each other, the point-of-view character’s thoughts drifting over the object of desire and telling the reader what was so great about this person. On the screen, lips quivered, eyes locked, souls kissed. Actors got to bust out all their fun acting skills to convey longing, desire, words left unsaid with just a single glance.

In my overly romanticized memories of ‘80s and ‘90s TV, we had lots of these moments–the accidental declaration of love under anesthesia, the forced sharing of a sleeping bag on a stakeout, the soft play of careful lighting across Cybill Shepherd’s perfect face as she gazes at Bruce Willis. We got string sections. We got rainstorms and being trapped underground together and Angel turning evil from a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy. We got moments. And we got the pacing to pause and drink them in.

Now, though? We don’t.

Sure, you’re saying, we have romcoms and favorite OTPs and all that good stuff. We ship like nobody’s business. We ship people who don’t even appear in the same book together. We ship people from storylines that never intersect, we ship people who never appear in a scene together, we ship people based on a single funny look that passes between them. But the sad thing is, a single funny look is sometimes all that gets to pass between even the show’s golden couple, the canonical pairing, the pairing we’re meant to root for. I barely even remember Pam and Jim having more than one good romantic moment in nearly ten years of The Office.

Some folks still do it right. There was a kiss between Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation that was immediately .gif-worthy and amazing. Mostly, I think, because of its rarity. The scene was allowed to linger, to expand, to play itself out. We got time, as viewers, to let this big change in their relationship sink in and register it.

On Brooklyn Nine Nine, we’re meant to root for Jake and Amy, but while the actors are intensely appealing and banter well, there’s no “there” there. No moments of chemistry allowed space and breathing room and slightly-darkened sets and a pause from the rapid-fire comedic moments. We aren’t even allowed those things in films, which should be all about beautiful shots and Moments with a capital M but too often just aren’t anymore. The most romantic conversation I’ve seen in a recent film is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, not in an actually romantic comedy. In books, unless it’s a full-on romance novel rather than a novel-of-another-genre with romantic elements, we have to keep the A plot moving, moving, moving at such a breakneck pace that sometimes we lose those pages of silence and stares and longing for the brush of a knuckle on a cheek or someone smelling a letter, eyes closed, in memory and rapture. If romance isn’t the main thing your book is about, you’re too often asked to cut for pacing.

So, authors, showrunners, directors, listen up. Even if it’s an action movie, even if it’s a science fiction novel, in those romantic subplots?

Give me space.

Give me space to see and feel and soak up as many senses as the medium will allow. Just for a moment, let these two crazy kids calm down from the hectic pace of Modern Hurried Plot long enough to really see each other, and let us in long enough to recognize the moment their feelings awaken.

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Time Travel Media March: 10 Greatest Time Travel Movies


We’re now at the end of my blog series about time travel media (TV, film, and literature). For the past two years, I’ve been working steadily on a time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, as my thesis project for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As I inch closer and closer to graduation this June, I want to celebrate some things that inspired the writing of that book.

For today, I offer my favorite time travel movies. What are yours? What have I missed?

1. The Back to the Future trilogy: Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future Part II (1989), and Back to the Future Part III (1990)

The first Back to the Future film is basically flawless, especially for mid-‘80s cinema. You have comedy, you have Michael J. Fox, and you have 1950s nostalgia. Teenager Marty McFly is accidentally sent back in time to 1955 by his mad scientist mentor, Doc Brown (I kind of want to know the deeper backstory of how Marty and Doc met. Somebody get on that prequel!). In the ‘50s, he meets his parents when they were his age and inadvertently prevents their courtship. In order to ensure his own existence, Marty has to make them fall in love. This is a near-classic example of the grandfather paradox.

The second two films were less perfect but still fun. In Part II, Marty and his girlfriend travel forward to the year 2015 to see how their children’s lives have turned out. In the process, Doc’s time machine is stolen and an alternate—and terrifying—future is created.

In Part III, Marty goes back to rescue Doc in 1885. This final chapter is underrated. Viewed today in the post-steampunk explosion (at least in literature), so many tropes we now see in this genre were established, cemented by the fabulous closing image of a time travel locomotive.

2. Somewhere in Time (1980)

Schmaltzy, soft-focus weepie. Christopher Reeve is a playwright who gets approached by an elderly woman at one of his shows. She gives him a pocket watch and tells him to “Come back” to her. Reeve’s character later discovers she was an actress whose heyday was sixty years earlier. He finds a professor who teaches him how to time travel via self-hypnosis and sends himself back to meet the actress in her youth.

3. Looper (2012)

Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same character at different ages, with the younger version contracted to kill the older one. There are tons of illogical paradox issues here, but so many sequences are just plain cool or downright gruesome—a famous scene involves a man being destroyed, bit by bit, when he’s being tortured in the past. For this one, just go along for the ride and try not to reason it out too much.

4. Groundhog Day (1993)

A weatherman, played by Bill Murray, begins reliving the same day over and over again. Cute and fun, but there’s also a slightly better, more logical film with the same concept from the same year (12:01, starring Jonathan Silverman and Helen Slater) that gets overlooked during the deluge of repeating-day time travel media that began coming out around the same time. Both are worth a look for different takes on the phenomenon. I like 12:01’s attempt at a scientific explanation, but Groundhog Day’s mystical gotta-live-the-day-over-until-you-get-it-right concept works better as an allegory for living a better, more present life.

5. Happy Accidents (2000)

Marisa Tomei is unlucky in love until she meets Vincent D’Onofrio. The only problem is he tells her he’s from the future. The fun thing about this film is that it plays with genre: is it a quirky indie romantic comedy, a science fiction film, or a film about unreliable narrators and mental illness? We’re left wondering about reality and fantasy and whether, in the context of love, if the dichotomy between truth and delusion is essential to trusting and believing in one’s partner.

6. Primer (2004)

This film was shot for only $7,000, and yet it’s one of the most complex studies of a highly technical and speculative subject I have ever seen. A pair of engineers working on inventions in their garage inadvertently devise a means of time travel. They begin using it to their financial gain through the stock market, but the effects of travel begin to wear on them emotionally and physically. The intersecting timelines have generated a lot of online fan work to attempt to graph or document the travels logically, though these resulting diagrams and charts are themselves highly complex.

7. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

And herein we swing wildly from one pendulum of thoughtchewy intellectualism to its exact opposite. Bill and Ted are high school students who pay little attention in history class. When they find a phone booth time machine, they bring historical figures to the present to help them with their presentation assignment. This movie does not age well, but it’s still amusing and of course features a very young Keanu Reeves as Ted. The sequel—Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991—is less time travel and more nonsensical farce.

8. 13 Going on 30 (2004)

13-year-old Jenna makes a birthday wish in 1987 and is transported into her 30-year-old self in 2004. This is mostly pretty standard body swap/suddenly-an-adult comedy, but the fact that Jenna still perceives it as 1987 is where the time travel element comes in. Jennifer Garner, as the grown-up Jenna, is adorably innocent and lends the material a great deal of charm.

9. Donnie Darko (2001)

The time travel in Donnie Darko is only hinted at, explained almost solely through expanded media in its Director’s Cut DVD material. Viewers could interpret the film as a meditation on schizophrenia, with its onset typically occurring in one’s late teens and early twenties. The titular character begins experiencing odd shifts of time and perception, leading up to several neighborhood and familial catastrophes. Interpreted more literally, Donnie’s sudden abilities of perception and strength speak to the possibility of multiverses and time loops.

10. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

I’ll let you stumble upon the trailer for this gem yourself, as most are red band. Hot Tub Time Machine is an incredibly crass (yet, honestly, pretty darn funny) tale of a group of social outcasts who go back to the year 1986 via a, um, yes. Hot tub time machine.

Look, I’m not saying this is a great film (John Cusack is notably absent from the sequel, as if finally admitting his embarrassment at this project), but it sort of comes full circle from Back to the Future insofar as the heroes’ main goal in the past is the ensure that their present day will be better…since it can’t get much worse.

You can find my celebration of time travel television and literature earlier this month. For more time travel fun, check out the Facebook fan page Time Travel Book, TV, and Movie Club!

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Time Travel Media March: 10 Greatest Time Travel Novels


All this month, I’ll be blogging about time travel media (TV, film, and literature). For the past two years, I’ve been working steadily on a time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, as my thesis project for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As I inch closer and closer to graduation this June, I want to celebrate some things that inspired the writing of that book.

For today, I offer my favorite time travel books. What are yours? What have I missed?

1. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, 2003


I read this when I had the flu, and all I could do was cry and sneeze, becoming a snotty, snobby messy. Clare and Henry are like any other couple—except that Henry randomly time travels without control or warning. This results in twisted interconnected existences, with the two crossing paths from childhood to old age at different stages of each other’s lifetimes. There is also a broader metaphor at work here of genetic disorders—if you knew your child would suffer from something dangerous and heartbreaking, would you still try to become a parent? Clare and Henry have to decide all this and more in this twenty hanky tearjerker.

2. The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers, 1983


The Anubis Gates is sometimes cited as one of the first steampunk novels, though it contains no actual steam-powered technology; it is, however, steeped in Victorian atmosphere. Professor Brendan Doyle goes on a time travel trip with an eccentric millionaire and winds up stuck in 19th century London. Forced to assume a false identity and scratch together a living, he falls in with a group of pickpockets, is kidnapped by magicians, finds love, and causes a paradox. This novel is especially appealing for literature nerds, as Doyle has a very special connection with one of his favorite poets.

3. Kindred, Octavia E. Butler, 1979


I’ve been teaching Kindred in my college literature course for several years, and students tend to respond well to it. This is a study not just in paradox (although it’s a great tool for discussing this concept, as well as questions of logic in literature) but also historical fiction, African American literature, and feminist literature. Dana is a 20th century African American woman married to a white man. She begins time traveling abruptly to the pre-Civil War South, where she meets her ancestor, the son of a plantation owner, and cannot return to her own time until she saves him from some dangerous situation that threatens his life. If she’s physically connected to her husband, she can bring him back to the past with her as well, which leads to the couple having to pretend to be master and slave. Stark, upsetting questions about identity and privilege are raised, and Butler is unflinching in her portrayal of plantations as sites of unspeakable violence. This is a time travel novel about so much more than just the science fiction/fantasy elements; it’s about the human element and trauma reprocessing, both on a personal and cultural level.

4. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895


When we think of time travel fiction, we think of The Time Machine. H.G. Wells may not have invented the concept but he certainly popularized it in this story of an inventor who hits upon a way to travel through time. He goes far into the future and encounters post-human creatures engaged in class warfare and suffering grave societal ills. Much of the Time Traveler’s observations of the Eloi and Morlock factions of beings exemplify Wells’ own social and political leanings. This isn’t a mere surface novel of adventure but rather a castigation of the stratification of elite and working classes in the Victorian era.

5. 11/22/63, Stephen King, 2011


This book is 880 pages long—not the weightiest tome Stephen King has ever penned, but longer than I normally have time to devote to a single novel these days. However, I devoured this in less than a month, binging on it whenever I had a free second. I distinctly recall reading it while walking to meetings, even, reading the ebook version on my phone as if my life depended on it. High school English teacher Jake Epping discovers a portal connecting the back room of a diner in 2011 to September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. Jake eventually decides to use the portal to live in the past for five years and try to save John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. As Jake learns, preventing a tragedy on this magnitude is no easy task. The main reason I love this book so much is the clear attention to detail and research King took with it. He began work on it as far back as the early 1970s, and then later worked with a researcher to make every detail period appropriate and accurate, down the price of a pint of root beer. My own research for The Curiosity Killers took a long time, particularly for my Jack the Ripper, Black Dahlia, and Mothman storylines. Readers appreciate it when time travel stories exhibit as much painstaking historical accuracy as possible.

6. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, 1991


This series is making a big splash these days via its TV series adaptation on Starz. A World War II British Army nurse is pulled backward in time to mid-18th century Scotland. There, she falls in love with a highlander and marries him, despite being married in the 1940s. This is a tale of culture clashes as well as a love story with enough ambiguity to keep it from simply being a standard romance.

7. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 1969


A work of tremendous experimentation, Vonnegut’s novel is less a plot-driven story and more an examination of how fiction works. Books are referenced within the text. Events are told non-linearly, both through time travel devices, flashbacks, and a jigsaw puzzle order of scenes. The gist of the work is that it describes the aftermath of the WWII bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut himself witnessed. When taken as an allegory for war experiences, it can read as a study in PTSD (protagonist Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” as a result of what he went through in the war), decades prior to its formalization as a psychiatric diagnosis.

8. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 1962


To be clear, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time do not travel to different times. Thus, this isn’t often classified as a time travel novel per se. However, the method by which the Murry children travel to other planets and dimensions is through a concept called a “tesseract,” which the novel defines as folding the fabric of space and time (very Doctor Who’s TARDIS, in fact, which is a device that can travel in both space and time). If one folds this fabric, after a fashion, they’re able to use it to shorten great distances and reach places otherwise inaccessible to one another. Though “tesseract” is a real term in mathematics and geometry, the concept as described in this and L’Engle’s other Murry novels is akin to a wormhole, which is often put to great use in other SF works dealing with space and time travel.

9. Lightning, Dean Koontz, 1988


Lightning was probably one of the first contemporary novels about time travel I ever read. A mysterious stranger named Stefan rescues author Laura Shane at several pivotal points in her life, culminating in the reveal that he’s actually part of a World War II time travel experiment. Unlike some of the other books on this list, Koontz employs a mechanism whereby paradoxes are impossible, although I would argue that Stefan’s repeated rescuing of Laura by itself represents the creation of a paradox. But hey, paradoxes are fun to dissect and untangle, and I’m a big believer in readers cultivating a willing suspension of disbelief.

10. The Door into Summer, Robert A. Heinlein, 1957


This is the brand of time travel that doesn’t only involve machines and wormholes but also sustained sleep. Dan goes into suspended animation in the year 1970 and awakens in 2000. Through using time travel, he is able to witness alternate versions of himself and work out his best possible future. Here, paradox is used to its fullest effect to manufacture personal and professional change—a fantasy very relatable to audiences of the mid-1950s, struggling with the aftermath of WWII and the beginnings of the Cold War.

Watch this space for my top ten time travel movies, coming later this month! You can see my top ten time travel TV shows here.

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What’s up with needing characters to be likable?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about novelists—particularly female authors—feeling the need to make characters “likable,” and that perhaps one difference between literary and popular or genre fiction is that in the former, readers don’t necessarily expect to like/relate to/want to hang out with a character, whereas in the latter readers react badly if they don’t find a character (particularly a protagonist) likable. Furthermore, for a female author of a female main character, the pressure to create a likable protagonist seems greater.

So what’s wrong with women writing unlikable, complicated fictional people? And why as readers must we be so bent on this intangible, positive quality? I would point to a great many wonderful characters who aren’t so likable but who have achieved a hallowed status in fiction, both classic and contemporary: Holden Caulfield, Don Draper, Sherlock Holmes, Severus Snape, Walter White, every character in Gone Girl, every character in The Great Gatsby…and a great many figures of tragedy in Shakespeare are, at their heart, ridiculously unlikable. In fact, tragic flaws stem from personality failings, many of which are significant enough to make a reader or viewer seriously question the character’s worth. Furthermore, some characters we associate with “breakout” status—the Fonzies, the Michael Kelsos, et al—may elicit comic relief and fan adoration, but think about whether those characters would actually work front and center. Half the reason we love Daryl and Michonne on The Walking Dead is how sparingly and effectively they’re used. Would we really want to see them as the sole protagonist? Main character status for someone flawed, funny, and dangerous is bound to suddenly show their flaws more fully, which will then render them less likable. If Samantha were the lead in Sex and the City, she would be seen in a very negative light by viewers looking to castigate her freewheeling attitude. As one of an ensemble, however, she is funny and permitted her perceived flaws, so long as she doesn’t sully the slightly more sympathetic Carrie too much.

If we commit the literary sin of putting a complicated person front and center in a piece of genre fiction, we are asking audiences to read for character as well as plot, and this is where the discomfort happens. The supposition is that readers of genre fiction read for the story—the plot, the worldbuilding—but that only readers of literary fiction read for character, to explore the nuances of the human condition in all its real, raw agony. But why must it be all or nothing, one or the other? What’s wrong with writing about a social misfit but injecting that character into a piece of genre fiction? If readers are comfortable with a speculative fiction setting, for example, they’re already able to suspend enough disbelief to buy vampires, space exploration, or alternate histories. Why is it then a leap to also wade through an unreliable narrator, a series of extreme personal failings, or other forms of imperfection? Is this supposed preference for relatable characters a new phenomenon? Culturally, we’re eating up stories about zombie apocalypses, dystopian societies, wars between monster-beings, and worlds being brought to their ends by technology and invasion. We seem comfortable with exploring complete destruction of the very world we inhabit. And yet it is apparently too much to bear to explore that landscape alongside an alcoholic, a narcissist, a whiner, a jerk, a cheater, liar, bigot, criminal, or sociopath.


To me, characters who are perfect or only barely flawed are unrealistic. And because I write speculative fiction, where reality is absent in the elements that drive the story, I feel I must retain a shred of reality in those things unrelated to the fantastical components. Thus, in an urban fantasy novel where telekinesis and witchcraft exist, I create characters who have realistic day jobs, failed relationships, and quirks and failings that flesh them out and make them seem real. I might also add things that make them partially or wholly appealing, but I don’t expect audiences to focus on one or the other of those attributes but instead to take them as a whole. Just like with real life individuals, I suppose I assume some members of the audience will find that person appealing and some won’t, but it won’t necessarily hinder their collective ability to go along for the storytelling ride. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Jesse Pinkman, for example, but I rooted for him to stay alive at the end of Breaking Bad. I would loathe Sherlock Holmes as a real person, but I want him to solve every case. Wanting a fictional character to succeed in overcoming adversity does not mean we advocate their behavior, identity, or the approach they take in solving their problems. It means we are engaged in the storytelling give-and-take between author and reader and allowing ourselves an experience. To be unwilling to participate in that process if we don’t think we’d want to meet the character outside the pages of the book or the confines of the screen or stage is to limit our worldview to only the ideas that confirm our present state of mind. I would argue that fiction is better than that—it doesn’t always give us what we want, but sometimes it gives us what we need.

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Thought experiment

Recently while doing a rather repetitive task, my mind began to wander and I thought of how uninteresting the story of the hour spent doing this activity would be. My imagination began running away with itself, and I began to wonder the following.

What if you spent an entire year specifically eschewing anything boring? In fact, what if you took that a step further and were determined to only doing things that–when told later–would make for truly the most exciting stories? When you then look back on your life in that one year, how different from your present life would it be twelve months later?

I feel on one hand like this would be a very dangerous experiment, of course, but it would make for a truly fascinating short-term memoir. It also perhaps smacks of the “I want it now” mentality of the times we live in. We expect excitement or at least an alleviation from boredom every minute of every day, and that’s neither realistic nor practical. Still, I have to admit liking a culture where waiting in line is no longer interminable, so long as you have a fully-charged cell phone, and where many of the most time- and labor-consuming clerical tasks are automated or simpler.

More broadly, I’m usually quite fascinated with books about people taking on challenges like this, whether it be committing to optimism or walking across a continent or making all of Julia Child’s recipes or what have you. The common ground with all such writing and doing is twofold. First, it’s the actual act of wanting to do something strange and different, to shake up your life and use it as some sort of example for others of how you, too, can be crazy in a confined, usually safe, way. And two, it’s the further act of then memorializing the experience as a memoir. Not of your life, not an organic work looking back on a specific time, but a constructed one, wherein you seek to document that which you also create. As a memoir subgenre, it’s kind of fascinating, and if also used as an act of activism (as with something like Super Size Me, for example) it can also say larger and broader things about society and culture and be an agent of change.

Am I brave enough to ever take something like this on? I don’t know. Perhaps with a safe experiment like that pursued for a shorter amount of time, I could embark on my constructed memoir idea with essays covering weeks instead of months. A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step.

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Literary vs. Popular Fiction

A good friend of mine asked me this week to clarify the difference between literary and popular fiction. Ah, the eternal question! I decided to take a very informal Twitter poll and crowdsource the answer. Got some great replies from authors, editors, friends, and followers.

Some other choice responses included “popular fiction is Twitter, literary fiction is Livejournal,” “Literary is what they make you read in school. Popular is what you read instead and then have to fake the book report,” “Literary focuses on the internal and pop on the external,” “Pop fiction is rock music, and literary fiction is the opera.” I love all of these replies, partly because they seem to skew “yay popular fiction!” but also because it all goes to show that there is no consistent response (other than that I know a lot of really funny people).

Personally, I don’t make a ton of distinction other than that “realistic” or “non-genre” fiction is probably meant to be considered “literary,” or perhaps that popular fiction is the movies that win technical Academy Awards, whereas literary fiction is the movies that win for acting and directing. Literary is important, fancy, thinky, whatever any of that means. Popular or genre fiction is popcorn, fluff, unimportant, bubblegum, unintellectual and whatnot.

Except we can all think of examples of bad literary fiction and we can all think of examples of popular novels that are just as experimental and thought-chewy as literary fiction. Is the distinction the academy? Libraries? Things that are classics rather than just flashes in the pan? Is it akin to musicians with 50-year careers of selling out arenas versus one-hit wonders? Is it the distinction between PBS and Lifetime? Vincent Van Gogh versus Andy Warhol?

Even if I polled literature scholars, I would get different answers. Most people who are avid consumers of fiction would still be able to take ten books and sort them into the two piles, even if they hadn’t read them. As the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But is seeing it a matter of snobbery? Bestseller lists? Contemporary versus classic status?

What about The Catcher in the Rye? Literary, I suppose, but if we had this discussion in 1951, it would probably be considered popular, as it was controversial, profane, and a runaway bestseller. What about China Miéville? Popular, we might say, but he eschews genre pigeonholing and has a doctorate in International Relations and thus is hardly the generator of your average pulp sci fi.

I’ve heard people joke that to write literary fiction you should write a popular novel and cut the first and last chapter. I’ve also heard that literary fiction is about big themes, big truths, and everything inside is just used as hollow symbolism. Yet truly great speculative fiction is all about positing possibilities, proposing ideas and themes and truths. Is speculative fiction automatically non-literary?

Perhaps it’s the author’s intention of “art versus craft” or “write to tell a story versus write to produce art.” I would argue that you can do both. Is Downton Abbey high art or a soap opera? Should we ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into gothic horror because she also writes things with “themes”?

I guess my point here is that the distinction often boils down to the tastes of the reader or scholar. Telling a story with a good plot or telling a story with a compelling theme, purpose, or character study is still all about telling a story, and ultimately I want to be the sort of author who can grow, stretch, change, and experiment.

Write the story you want to read. Read the story that draws you in. Labels? In 2014? That’s so last century.


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Reflections on Horror Literature: Snow

The first snow of the season was falling as I began reading Ronald Malfi’s Snow. As local radio stations started transitioning to their holiday playlists, Todd Curry strove to get to his son in time for Christmas. Blizzards, zombies, explosions, and shootings followed, not to mention the novel’s most upsetting element:

Children with no faces.

Can we let that sink in for a moment? Malfi crafted a really action-packed and entertaining narrative, and the concept of semi-sentient zombies created by snow-bodied aliens invading human bodies is, by itself, pretty rad. But the added side element of faceless children really sent this into terror territory for me.

I’m a nervous winter driver. I hate snow-slick streets, black ice, blowing snow, all of it. I’ve had a few scary slide-offs over the years living in a midwestern city that gets just enough snow to be annoying but not enough that we’ve ever quite learned to cope with it properly. The scariest winter driving situation I ever had was getting a tire blow-out during a snowstorm that left me stranded on the side of a highway at night for several hours, freezing and stressed, waiting for the cavalry. I’ve written several stories of my own where characters die in winter-driving accidents. And so pretty much everything about Todd’s harrowing trip–particularly early on, as he and the strangers with whom he rents a car get into an accident and encounter the first of the quasi-zombies–made me flash back to sitting in the cold watching the snow fall around me. I was so terribly vulnerable, which is something interesting and terrifying about winter. Unlike the dangers associated with other seasons, winter conditions can turn a normal moment into a deadly one with just one tire skid, one foot put in the wrong place. Malfi has done wonderfully at expanding upon this idea and making the threat even more tangible.

It’s no mistake that the towns affected by the phenomenon are scattered throughout the midwest and are somewhat isolated. Blizzards–even ones without zombifying aliens swirling around amidst the normal snowflakes–cut people off. While I was barely too young to quite remember the epic blizzard of 1978, I’ve heard plenty of stories of its effects and seen the pictures of snow packed up to the tops of front doors and the tunnels people dug just to walk to the store. A blizzard combined with a zombie apocalypse is pretty much the craziest combination of fear and isolation that it absolutely worked for me on every page.

The monsters themselves–going through every stage of traditional and non-traditional zombieness–are pretty scary. But as I hinted earlier, the real horror for me were the kids. As many characters theorize throughout the book, the snow alien things can’t quite get a good hold on children when they attempt to take them over, and thus they come out “wrong,” with the tangible evidence of this wrongness erasing their facial features. Late in the book, Todd’s traveling companion Kate Jansen goes to the sheriff station garage to find Cody and Charlie, a young brother and sister hiding out with them. The kids turn to her, kids she has mere minutes and hours ago been tending to and playing board games with…and their faces are gone, turned into masks of smooth, featureless flesh. She tries to shoot them but can’t, instead deadbolting the garage up and leaving them to some other fate, which we never learn.

The idea of these children, faceless, wandering around without sight or breath in this dark and freezing garage made me both afraid and sad, and I think that’s Malfi’s strength as a writer. He makes us care about characters over and over again over the course of just a few pages, then breaks our hearts as circumstances unravel and they die–or at least suffer–horribly. Good monster fiction, as I’ve learned in the readings and films for this class, destabilize our expectations of normalcy and leave quivering, damaged people to make a new life out of ruins. A monster’s job in horror is to be the chaotic element that brings forth such emotion that we see what people are really made of in a crisis situation. I loved that in this book we saw the full range of reaction to crisis, from the relatively capable and strong (Todd, Kate, Shawna, and others) to the nobly sacrificial (Bruce), to the crazy and spiteful (Molly and others). But what also struck me is how much most people really tried to help each other rather than exploit the situation and how even strangers can come together to solve a problem when necessary.

But somebody please invent a flying car so I never have to drive in the snow again.

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Reflections on Horror Literature: The Wolfman

The Wolfman, by Jonathan Maberry, is not your typical horror novel. It’s actually a novelization of the 2010 remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man. Having seen neither film (yes, yes, I know), I was interested in taking this novelization on its own merits. However, the cinematic source material is fairly obvious in the novel’s focus on describing things very visually, as well as having occasionally-awkward scene and chapter breaks, which I believe is the result of needing to shift a point of view or do a dissolve between locations. Still, even with this small amount of clunkiness, the novel does work on its own as a decent example of the werewolf genre in horror fiction.

Werewolves have never been as iconic as vampires, perhaps because their “curse” seems fairly easy to circumvent—lock yourself in an impenetrable cell once a month and you should be able to avoid eating the villagers. However, the titular wolfman here—Lawrence Talbot, a prodigal son returning to his family’s English estate from a tenure as a traveling actor—is prevented from exercising this option. Unbeknownst to him until late in the story, Talbot’s own father is the werewolf who bestows the curse upon his son, after killing Talbot’s mother and brother while in his furry form. It is Sir John Talbot’s belief that the beast within is a benefit, not a curse, a kind of letting loose one’s id, in a way. Talbot the Elder thwarts Lawrence’s attempts to lock himself up, cure himself, or even kill himself to end the rampages he commits while wolfed out, which I suppose is the only way to make a werewolf story really compelling.

The werewolf-as-sexual-metaphor is fairly common, but The Wolfman really seems bent on hitting this point home, equating Lawrence’s lycanthropy with his burgeoning desire for his dead brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe. Even while still human, Lawrence’s senses are heightened due to the curse, and he begins to experience his desire for Gwen in terms of hunger and animalistic need:

He saw her pupils dilate, the blush on her cheeks fade; he could hear each of her breaths as if her mouth were an inch from his ear. He could hear and separate the rustle of every bit of cloth that covered her body. It came at him in a rush, maddening, overwhelming […] Her eyes met his and the moment slammed to a stop, frozen in an impossibility of sensory inrush. He looked into her eyes and for a moment he felt as if he was falling forward and she toward him. Colliding with her, engulfing her, devouring her… (333-334)

This desire, described as hunger and a prevailing set of “appetites” (334) is a motif Maberry returns to again and again, and Lawrence is shown to be as equally repulsed by his murderous hungers (and his more overt sexual hungers) as John is fulfilled by them. The conflict, then, is not only between man-versus-himself but arguably man-versus-man or man-versus-nature, if we take John as fully animal.

And yet there are more psychological symbols at work here, too. The moon, which causes the change to wolf, is constantly referred to as feminine, specifically as “the Goddess of the Hunt” (15 and throughout), and that it is this Goddess who manifests the lupine desires:

[S]he comes again, bright, shining and newly hungry, to hunt among [the stars].

Eternally hungry.

Eternally hunting. (15)

In mythology, the goddess of hunting was alternately Diana or Artemis (Roman and Greek respectively), and this equating of the moon and therefore feminine desire thus eliciting lust, passion, and bestial nature in men continues the theme of sexuality. In the psychology of Carl Jung, the inner desires of men are described as the “anima,” or the inner feminine-oriented or desiring self, whereas the inner desires of women are described as the “animus,” or the inner masculine-oriented or desiring self. Linguistically, the terms originate from the classical Latin term for “soul” (OED), but the word’s root came to also generate the word “animal” (OED). That the soul, desire, and animals are conflated here is more evidence for the werewolf-as-expression-of-sexuality concept, and I contend that Maberry runs with this metaphor further in his prose than was likely explicit in either film. In the text, we get much of Lawrence’s feelings of guilt and shame over his desire for Gwen, which would be difficult to specifically translate to a purely visual medium. I believe this is a careful choice on the novelist’s part, and it helps entrench the notion of human feelings as being monstrous as the novel’s ultimate theme.

Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: TOR, 2010.

anima, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

animal, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.


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Reflections on Horror Literature: Alien

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Alien before this week.

Yes, I know, I know. I’m a member of Gen X, a Sigourney Weaver fan, and an afficianado of both science fiction and horror (not to mention the artwork of H.R. Giger) and I’ve never seen this movie until now.

Take a deep breath and let’s get over this travesty together, shall we?

This is not the time or place to discuss how much this film was built up to me and what I ultimately thought of its effectiveness when I finally watched it. What I want to discuss instead is a reading of the work that even one of its screenwriters acknowledges was one of his purposes.

The monster in Alien is the anxiety of threatened sexual assault.

In a documentary on the film, Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that his goal with writing Alien was to write sexual horror, but with a twist:

I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number. (Dietle)

There’s a lot to support this, of course, in the story of what happens to Officer Kane (John Hurt). He’s the first to awake from his sleep pod, he’s the first to encounter the alien’s first victim, first to try to assess and make contact with the living creature inside the alien egg, and the first to then be killed by the alien. However, he’s also the only victim to die from the reproductive process, and his death is the most horrific of any of Alien’s many death scenes (arguably the second most brutal is that of Science Officer Ash, but as he’s revealed to be a liquid-filled android instead of a human, it’s not really “death” and it’s not at the hand of the alien).

But it’s important to mark Kane as the first to encounter the species because he’s then the one to, essentially, get raped. Kane is an explorer, then, a kind of curious visionary who seeks more knowledge than is advisable to have. Like his (differently spelled) Biblical namesake, he is among the first humans. But the Biblical Cain, having been born after his parents’ expulsion from Eden for the acquisition of verboten knowledge, also commits the first murder. Various mythologies have sprung up about Cain over the centuries, from his literary use as the first vampire to the source of boogeyman folklore. Officer Kane doesn’t appear to have been a bad guy before his attack, but if he’s to be taken as a symbol more than a flesh-and-blood character, we have him being raped, impregnated, and murdered—perhaps as symbolic retaliation for both Adam and Eve’s over-curious nature as well as Cain’s murder of his own brother.

Because it isn’t just rape. It’s rape in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge that man (or human) is better off not having. It is Officer Ripley (Weaver) who first advises the returning crew from the planet’s surface to stay in quarantine. If the film is about men’s sexual anxiety, it’s important that the only correct directives continue to come from the female characters, particularly Ripley. Though she is overridden by Ash (male), Ash is also inhuman, so the problem isn’t merely men-versus-women but women-versus-inhuman. The only other female character (Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright) is the only other human character to live nearly as long as Ripley. The only other survivor of the carnage is the ship’s cat, Jones, and though Jones’ sex is not revealed, cats are often taken as feminine symbols due to their temperament and physiological traits.

Ripley avoids being consumed by the alien due to her sheer determination and intelligence. When female characters in the film pursue knowledge, they are rewarded by getting to live longer or ultimately triumphing. When male characters pursue knowledge (Kane, Dallas, Brett, and Parker), each one of them is systematically killed by the creature. Lambert’s death only comes becomes she was following Parker’s orders, and Dallas’ death comes when he fails to heed Lambert’s warnings to him about the creature’s location.

What makes the alien ultimately so terrifying, however, is its ability to deal death in multiple ways. Its embryo killed through rape and impregnation. Its infant form killed through a sort of “childbirth,” and its adult form killed presumably through hunting and consumption of its prey, yet each victim is found (or not found) in a slightly different state. This unpredictability makes it particularly difficult for the humans to locate and kill, and yet again it’s Ripley’s role as a woman masterful in human-based science and technology usage who is ultimately able to outwit and destroy it. The film’s argument here could be that women are the ones who typically must be more mindful of danger than men, due to the threat of violence from more sectors than merely the inhuman. This vigilance, when inherent in someone with Ripley’s intelligence, makes her the most able to adapt to the creature’s unpredictability without (much) panic.

Dietle, Dan. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. 02 Jan 2011: n. page. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.


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