Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New cover for The Sword-Edged Blonde paperback!

Here's the all-new cover for the paperback edition of The Sword-Edged Blonde, due out in June 2009 from Tor prior to the hardcover release of the second Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly. (Click on the image for a bigger view.)

The artist is JS Rossbach.

So what do you all think?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reunions, part 2

This is a very personal post, one I never thought I'd get to write.

Many years ago, nearly two decades by now, I met two young ladies and fell in love.

Holly was three when I first saw her; Brandi was a newborn. The lack of biological connection was never a factor. When you open your heart to a child, it never fades or changes. You always love them. And for six years, they were the most important thing in my life.

Alas, to paraphrase the song "Memphis, Tennessee," "We were torn apart because [their] Mom did not agree." And for twelve years I had no idea what had become of them. I could only hope they remembered me, and that one day I would have the chance to tell them I loved them.

And at last, I had that chance.

Thank you, Brandi, for finding me on the Internet. And thank you both for remembering that I love you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Guest blogging on vampires at Lori Devoti's "Life on the Bubble"

Today I'm guest blogger at Lori Devoti's Life on the Bubble, in honor of the release of her latest, Holiday with a Vampire II. Learn a bit about my take on the natures of vampires in my novel Blood Groove.

Monday, December 1, 2008

And another good cause...

Press release from the Kinkaid Foundation, San Francisco:

"On November 14th, beloved member of the Bay Area music community Michelle McFee underwent radical cancer surgery in San Francisco. From her early days as a Pegasus poet through her years working with the New Riders of the Purple Sage and into today, Michelle has been a constant in Bay Area music for over forty years.

"To help defray her expenses, Blacklight Productions, in conjunction with the Kinkaid Foundation, has organized Words & Music: The Michelle McFee Benefit Concert. There is also a silent auction of unique items from the worlds of music, literature, and beyond. Both concert and auction are completely non-profit events; proceeds will go to defray Michelle's expenses."

(INSERT FROM ALEX: You can bid on a hardcover first edition of The Sword-Edged Blonde and an advance reader copy of Blood Groove, both signed by me. There are also signed books by other writers you may have heard of, like Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman.)

"Possibly no one else could have inspired the extraordinary lineup of talent who will take the stage on December 19th, at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Boulevard, Santa Rosa. Doors open at 7:00. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Acts include:

"David Nelson and Special Guests, with David Nelson, Mark Karan, Pete Sears, Jimmy Sanchez, Peter Albin and Dave Getz;

"Rubber Souldiers, with Chris Rowan, Lorin Rowan (contingent on his availability), David Gans, Jimmy Sanchez and Robin Sylvester;

"and Bill Cutler & Friends, with Bill Cutler, Patrick Campbell, Dave Perper, Steve Shufton and Peter Harris."

Details about the show, auction, donations, and tickets can be found at:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For a good cause...

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, is doing a fundraiser for the Heifer Project, an effort to provide people in third-world countries with both livestock and the training to care for them as a renewable resource. Lots of authors have contributed various things for auction, including me:

I donated this premiere issue of Spectra Pulse magazine signed by authors George R.R. Martin, Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente. As a bonus, it includes an except from George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, the next book of the Song of Ice and Fire series.

Visit Pat's blog for more information on the many cool things up for auction and to help out this eminently worthy cause.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reunions, part 1

This past weekend I took the Mater Familias and the C-in-C back to Tennessee to visit his grandmother, and a bunch of my old friends. We tried a visit when the baby was six weeks old, but in the time (10 hours) it took us to drive there, Mom got sick with something contagious, so we essentially had time to run in, take one picture and then head back.

This time we flew, landing in the home of rock and roll, barbeque and hotel ducks:

A short drive through one of the most boring parts of the country (western Tennessee) landed us at my home town, Gibson, where this time Charlie got to spend a whole lot more time with his grandmother, who was suitably tickled.

On Saturday we journeyed to far more scenic middle Tennessee for a terrific lunch with a bunch of friends I haven't seen in six years. It was great to visit with everyone, and really touching to know they'd all made time for me.

(From left: Magda, Kell, Becca, Ben, Beth, David, Tully, Lucy, Sarah, The C-in-C, me, Thomas)

There was one other reunion that weekend, one I never really expected to happen. Watch for an account of that, with photos, in an upcoming entry.

Thanks again to my family and friends for making this weekend so special.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ark-ing up the wrong tree?

I saw this at Kohl's tonight. It's a figure of Rene Belloq, suave villain of Raiders of the Lost Ark, packaged with a tiny replica of the Ark of the Covenant itself. And what sits atop the Ark? A blue plastic spectre, like the ones that emerge at the end of the film.

The Ark contains the remains of the actual Ten Commandments, and opening it invokes the wrath of God.

So...the blue figure must be...the Holy Ghost.

It's a Holy Ghost action figure.

Perfect to go on the shelf next to this:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Five favorite sword fights

As the author of a novel called The Sword-Edged Blonde, about a character derisively called a "sword jockey," I've spent some time thinking about, reading about and watching lots of swordplay. For such an outdated mode of fighting, it permeates our popular culture. From Star Wars to Highlander, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Kill Bill, we love to see people square off with sharp metal in their hands. Below, I've listed five I consider the best.

First up is my favorite swordfight, from Richard Lester's 1973 all-star version of The Three Musketeers. Actually, I love all the fights in this movie and its sequel The Four Musketeers, because they don't seem choreographed or staged: there's a clumsy violence that's exactly right for tough men fighting for their lives, using both swords and anything else handy.

The swordplay in this scene from The Princess Bride tells us as much about the characters as any stretch of dialogue. The viewer likes both combatants and wants neither to lose, even though it's clear one of them must. The fight itself mixes dazzling choreography with the wit of screenwriter William Goldman and the actors' perfect deadpan delivery. If only something could be done about that cheesy synthesizer score....

In Knights of the Round Table, noble Sir Lancelot (Robert Taylor) seeks to join King Arthur's (Mel Ferrer) cause. But when they finally cross paths, neither knows or recognizes the other. So after jointly defeating a band of outlaw knights, they battle each other for hours, to a draw. Only then do their true identities come out.

(Alas, I could find no clip of this.)

At the climax of Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro, the nameless samurai (yes, the original version of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name) faces off against Hanbei Muroto, his opposite number and a man he's come to like and respect. Their final confrontation probably contains the least number of blows of any classic swordfight, but you can practically see the fight in their eyes as they stare each other down before an ending so outlandishly over-the-top it's still a shocker.

And finally, the classic. This is probably the best swordfight in movie history, because of its narrative purpose in resolving the story, its presence in a definitive motion picture version of a universally-known tale, the glorious Korngold score accompanying it, the skill of the actors in pulling it off (Basil Rathbone was, in fact, a champion fencer), and the simple fact that no one, ever, will be as cool as Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood:

Any suggestions for scenes I may have missed?

Friday, November 7, 2008

New review of The Sword-Edged Blonde

Tia over at Fantasy Debut gives The Sword-Edged Blonde a perceptive evaluation. In part she says:

"Eddie runs into his old friend, whose wife is in considerable trouble. The reunion scene between the two friends was great, and reminded me why I enjoy reading novels by authors who have at least reached the age 35 or so. No way a twentysomething author would have thought of that."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Steampunk bloodsuckers: Perfect Creature

As we near the April 2009 release date of my vampire novel Blood Groove, I'll periodically discuss favorite vampire-themed books and movies, looking at what makes them special.

One of the strengths of the vampire concept is that it can symbolically represent almost anything else. It's been used to represent disease, nihilistic freedom and even the dignity of past eras. In Stoker's Dracula it stood for unbridled sexuality, which the stolid Victorian heroes eventually re-bridled. But Glenn Standring's 2006 film Perfect Creature may set some sort of record for audaciousness: it uses vampires to comment on the Catholic Church's abuse scandal.

In the alternate, vaguely steam-punkish world of the film, vampires are in fact another species of human, born at random to human mothers (the newborn babies with tiny fangs are one of the coolest/most disturbing visuals).

These exclusively male blooddrinkers are dedicated to benevolence and play the same societal role as the Church: they become black-clad "brothers," there are special vampiric rosaries, and the church rituals include a literal blood sharing that requires no supernatural transubstantiation. The main vampire character Silas is played by Dougray Scott in a carefully controlled performance that stresses his status as an outsider: he repeatedly observes human beings with a cock of the head and a slightly perplexed squint, and never raises his voice.

In this other reality, the science of genetics has been outlawed, but the Church practices it in secret in an attempt to increase the number of brothers born. One of these experiments goes awry, creating a form of insanity that turns Edgar (Leo Gregory) into a traditional neck-biting, leave-'em-dead vampiric killer. The Church, with the complicity of the police, attempts to contain Edgar, the disease he carries and any potential scandal. As in the real life Catholic attempt to silence the victims of pedophile priests, it doesn't quite work out.

The film rips along (it's a brisk 88 minutes), but never feels rushed or truncated. My only real complaint is that the final confrontation between Silas and Edward is choreographed like any other modern fight scene: characters who are never shown training or even engaged in physical conflicts suddenly become leaping, flying martial-arts masters. A super-powered vampire version of this fight would have been more appropriate, and certainly more entertaining.

Still, that's a minor caveat in the face of so much originality. Twentieth-Century Fox dumped this New Zealand film on the DVD market with a terrible generic cover and no publicity, but it's well worth seeking out (I found a used copy for $4.99). It stands as more proof that the vampire can be basically anything we want it to be.

Here's the trailer:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Future Comes to Gibson, TN

Thanks to my brother-in-law Jim, who was able to find a stray wireless connection somewhere in my tiny (or as they say there, "tee-niny") home town, my elderly computer-averse mom was finally able to see my website. Props to my sister Jo Carol for forwarding me the picture!

Monday, October 27, 2008

5 cool things about Dracula

As someone whose vampire novel will be published in the spring (Blood Groove, from Tor Books, will be released March 31, 2009), I'm fully aware that the gold standard, the top of the heap, the absolute pinnacle of vampire literature remains Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Without it, the vampire as a popular figure would have a very different image, or might not exist at all, remaining a marginilized, personality-lacking boogeyman like the ghoul or the zombie.

Stoker's novel has never been accurately translated to the screen (although the 1977 BBC production with Louis Jourdan comes closest), so to this day actually reading the novel reveals a far different story than one might expect. Here are five of my favorite little-known trivia facts about Dracula, the novel:

1) Lucy Westenra's three suitors -- Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood -- are friends when the book begins, and remain friends even after Lucy has chosen one of them (Arthur). There is literally no tension in the trio; the two losers are genuinely happy for their friend who won her hand. This kind of subtlety is so unusual it's been almost completely ignored in film versions (the exception being the ghastly Coppola film).

2) Dracula first appears as an old man and then grows younger as he acquires new blood. The Coppola film makes an attempt at this (Gary Oldman's bizarre blowdried-ass hairdo is at least snowy white)...

...and Jess Franco's typically crude 1970 film greys Christopher Lee's hair at the beginning.

But for the most part Dracula is depicted as unchanging, an idea that has become ingrained in the current eternally-young vampires of Twilight. Yet Stoker meant to show that Dracula had exhausted not just the blood, but the very will to live of the peasant community around his castle, and that's why he relocates to London.

3) Dracula has three "wives" at his castle, but he does not bring them to London. No reason is given for this. When the vampire hunters chase Dracula back to his castle, the wives are still there, and Van Helsing dispatches them.

The best explanation I've seen for this was in a play version produced in Nashville, TN six or seven years ago. Using only staging and vocal inflection, the production made it clear that one big reason Dracula was leaving was to get away from these nagging, needy, unpleasant women he'd unwisely granted eternal life. It was an unexpectedly funny display, and the highlight of an otherwise weak production.

4) The word nosferatu is not genuine. Stoker cribbed it from another book, an under-researched travelogue called The Land Beyond the Forest by Emily Gerard. Before that, it appears in no known language, let alone Romanian.

5) Dracula is killed, not by the scientist/physician/vampire slayer Van Helsing, but by an American cowboy (Quincey Morris) and an English law clerk (Jonathan Harker).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Big Box of Blood-Groovy Goodness

I got my box of advance reader copies of my vampire novel Blood Groove. Whoo-hoo!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Mounds

Recently the Squirrel Boy and I have been re-reading the Great Illustrated Classics version of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth. We read one or two chapters a night before bedtime, and so far it's the only one of this series he's wanted to read twice (we've done Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist). Something about this tale of original extreme spelunking apparently struck a chord for him.

Perhaps it was our adventures at the Cave of the Mounds. When we were halfway through our first reading, I mentioned that if he wanted, we could visit an actual cave just like the ones in the book. Apparently taking account of the nature of our heroes' adventure, he looked at me very seriously and said, "You do know we could die, don't you?"

Nevertheless, we did visit the cave and had a wonderful time.

And now we're re-reading the novel, which I don't mind at all.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Interview: Fred Schepartz, author of Vampire Cabbie

I’ll be joining author Fred Schepartz at the Barnes and Noble store in Madison, Wisconsin's East Towne Mall on October 27, where we’ll each read from our vampire novels. Mine, Blood Groove, doesn't come out until next spring, so it's a sneak preview; Fred's Vampire Cabbie is available now. The reading starts at 7 p.m.

Schepartz drives a taxi for Union Cab, a worker owned-and-operated cooperative in Madison. He is also publisher and editor of the magazine Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.

Alex: The "cabbie" part is obvious, given your career, but why vampires for your first novel?

Fred: I've always been fascinated by vampires. Originally, it was because they scared the crap out of me. When I was a kid, I couldn't watch a vampire movie. I'd have horrible nightmares. But as they say, one has to learn to embrace what one fears. As a younger adult, I started to really dig vampire movies and vampire books. I love the Hammer vampire films. Christopher Lee is maybe my favorite Dracula. I read Ann Rice, though I stopped reading her after Queen of the Damned. I was so excited about the book coming out, but when I read it, I was majorly disappointed. On the other hand, I started reading Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I have to say that Saint Germain totally rocks. I love all of those books. Having an interest in history, I certainly enjoy reading good historical fiction, but more to the point, I just love Saint Germain. I absolutely love the idea of the gentleman vampire, the heroic vampire. Saint Germain simply has so many admirable qualities, and there's always this tension, no matter the time and place, he always has to guard against having his true nature discovered. He's not a threat to anyone (unless they have it coming to them), but he's always threatened. Truth be told, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has more influence of my work than any other vampire writer.

As to how I came up with the idea of the vampire cabbie, it just simply came to me. I think it was about fifteen years ago. I was in my cab, driving around the west side of Madison when it suddenly hit me that I should write about a vampire cab driver. I wrote a few short stories then decided to write a novel. Actually, what happened with the novel was that I stitched together three of those short stories and wrapped a larger plot around the plots in those stories. If the book has a bit of an episodic feel to it, that's why.

Your vampire Al Farkus hides in plain sight, essentially. Did you consider making him work harder to hide his accent, attitude, etc.?

Al always hides in plain sight and has for hundreds of years. It's only referred to in the book, but he spends most of his time blending in with humans. He basically exists in the human world. He travels. He has lived in various places. Depending on time and place, he lives in a house or he lives in an apartment, just like anybody else. Eternity is a long time, and Al gets lonely. He needs companionship, but isn't always able to confide in humans he knows about his true nature.

I remember during the time when I was writing Vampire Cabbie, I watched the Coneheads movie. It's really a sweet little film. There's this one scene I found touching. It's meant to be comic, but I took it differently. Dan Ackroyd had just finished a round of golf at his country club. He's in the locker room walking to or from the shower. He's buck naked. There's this shot of him walking away from the camera, and there's all these weird horn-like things protruding from his flesh. And no one seems to notice! It's because he's accepted. He lives with his fellow humans. He has a job. He plays golf. He has a house. He has a wife. It's not that people are naive. People accept Beldar because they don't have any reason not to. They take for granted everything that's strange about him because beyond this superficial stuff, he's just like them. Again, I found that a remarkable touching metaphor of acceptance.

The same thing applies with Al at his workplace. Yeah, he's strange. No doubt about that. And the situation is a bit dangerous for Al because he has to show up for work day after day after day or rather night after night after night. This is potentially closer scrutiny than he would prefer. But you know what? He comes to work. He does his job. He's just like anybody else, so they accept him. Of course, the running joke in the book is that his nickname is "The Count" because, well, he's Hungarian and has an accent just like you know who. And during his job interview, when asked what actor should play him if they made a movie of his life, he gets rattled and says Frank Langella. But because he is accepted as one of the guys, all those fellow drivers and dispatchers who call him The Count, well, they would never suspect, not in a million years, that Al actually is a vampire. I mean, think about it. Vampires don't exist! That's totally ridiculous. Right?

An underlying theme here is the notion of "passing." This is prevalent in African American culture where skin tone is a huge issue, along with for some the ability to pass for white. I'm Jewish, and this is an issue in my culture as well, the ability to blend in without losing one's self. For Jews, historically, the notion of assimilation has always been a big bone of contention. For some, assimilation of any kind is not compromise, it capitulation. For others, it's desirable and something to try to achieve. Who want to be the "other"? That's not to say you forget or deny who you are. You just want to be able to blend in. And for Jews, there is the issue of physical appearance. I'm blond (well, used to be, but now my hair is more light brown with some grey) and have blue eyes. My skin is fairly pale, and I have my mom's nose, not my dad's nose. I'm able to pass, but then again, that means I have had to hear the classic line, "Oh, you don't look Jewish."

Anyway, it's not that I really care that much whether I can pass or not, but still I am well aware of the significance of this as an issue for my people. I don't think I was consciously thinking about this when I wrote Vampire Cabbie, but afterward, I can't help but think, we'll, there it is. Now, on the other hand, my new novel, Guitar God, features many Jewish characters. This theme is much more pronounced and self-consciously written about.

Baseball confuses Farkus; what made you choose to have him confront this particular bit of Americana?

The chapter of Vampire Cabbie where Al goes to a baseball game with a few of his co-workers by far is my favorite in the whole book. I love reading it when I do readings, though it is a bit long, so I have to pick my spots. A funny thing about this chapter is that when it went through the critique of my writer's group, one person commented at the end of the chapter, "The plot has stopped dead." I always disagreed with that, though on the surface not much happens. It's just a baseball game, not exactly the kind of thing you would find in a Poppy Z. Brite novel. However, as Al discovers, baseball is a very complex game despite the apparent simplicity of it. In this chapter there's a lot going on, so to a certain extent the baseball game is maybe a bit of a device.

As to why I would put Al in such a setting of hardcore Americana, well, it wasn't part of a big plan. I prefer to write organically. If an idea comes to me, I like to go with it. I can't remember how or why the scene at the baseball game came about. It probably just came to me, and I sat down and wrote it. The chapter is certainly a nice portrait of something very Madison (where the novel takes place) at that time. Back in the 1980s, we had a minor league baseball game called the Madison Muskies. For several years, they really were the toast of the town, though eventually people lost interest and the team moved away. The book has lots of settings and characters that are unique and distinctive to Madison, so that's probably more to the point of why Al goes to a baseball game.

Of course, Al has some great observations about baseball and about Americans at this game. Here's one short thing I'll share with a wonderful observation about Wisconsinites:

It was oddly gratifying to discover that these good Christians were indeed pagans. They worship fish! And why not? Lakes cover this glacier-scoured state of Wisconsin. Fish, the bounty of these sparkling bodies of water, provides sustenance for these good Christians, who, in tribute, make a Friday night tradition of attending fish-eating orgies and make their pilgrimage to Warner Park to pay homage to their Madison Muskies.

Again, I didn't write this scene to be a vehicle for observations and critiques of American culture. However, when you write from the point of view of an alien, well, you're going to get an interesting perspective on things. And in Al's case, there is a great deal of perspective for him to draw from considering that he's 1000 years old and he's lived and travelled all over the world.

A reminder: Fred and I will be at the Barnes and Noble in Madison's East Towne Mall on October 27th, beginning at 7 p.m.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Link to one of my short stories

The nice folks at the Urban Fantasy Land blog have linked to my Eddie LaCrosse short story, "Things That Flit," as part of their Free Reading Fridays. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview: Tim Hall, author of Half Empty

Tim Hall’s novel Half Empty (which I reviewed here) is a real rarity: a self-published book that avoids all the pitfalls of that particular enterprise. I spoke with Tim about both writing the book and publishing it himself, through his own Undie Press.

Alex: A musician can record a CD in their parents' basement, master it on a laptop and burn handfuls of copies, distribute these from their car trunk, and still retain their professional dignity and the respect of their peers. Often they are even praised for their "indie" spirit. Why do you think this doesn't apply to self-published writing?

Tim: I wish I knew. Probably because the whole business of writing and publishing is so much older and more established; it's actually that snobbery that has been proven to be vanity. But that's an attitude that I completely reject without malice--it's just an archaic and untenable position in today's multimedia world. It also makes this a really exciting time to be a self-publisher--I have no doubt we're going to make a much bigger, more positive mark on literary consciousness than anybody is yet willing to give us credit for.

Did you attempt to get Half Empty picked up by a major publisher? If so, what reactions did you get?

I was shopping around a couple of manuscripts in the late 90s/early 00s and got increasingly positive feedback from agents and publishers. Finally an editor at Other Press expressed some interest in Half Empty. I was incredibly excited, since Other Press is one of my favorite publishers and I use a lot of their titles to get psychological insight into my characters, and at that point I stopped shopping it around. Well, after more than a year of back and forth there were some changes at the press, the editor left, and that was that. I was crushed for a few days, then I realized I just couldn't go through that heartbreak again, so I started Undie Press as a way to turn my disappointment into action.

Undie Press states it wants to "remove the stigma of self-publishing once and for all." How has that stigma impacted the release, critical reception and sales of Half Empty?

The only overt resistance I've felt has been from distributors and media, and given the flood of self-published titles coming onto the market that resistance is certainly understandable. Media attention and distribution are of course hugely important, so I've focused on events, readings, book fairs and the like. It's been great training and I love meeting potential readers personally. Things have actually changed considerably in the four years since I published Half Empty; some of the big review journals that wouldn't consider self-published books back then have since changed their policies, and fewer distributors have hard rules against self-published titles, and I'm incredibly happy and grateful about that.

But in general, as far as readers are concerned, they couldn't care less and I've gotten nothing but positive feedback and encouragement. The publishing and promoting sides of the business are indistinguishable from the creative end for me. The whole publishing process is the art form that I'm working in now.

You've said elsewhere that the story isn't autobiography. What attracted you to this character and these situations?

Well, like much of my stuff it was written using something of an autobiographical framework--for example, like Dennis I had to give up drinking in my late 20s, and I thought chronicling the emotionalism of early sobriety was a great topic to explore--but what I found as I was writing it was that the character just kept talking back to me. I'd have fights with him, plead with him, negotiate. Finally he got away from me and became his own person. In that way my characters absolutely taught me more about myself, which is kind of the magic of fiction.

From an artistic standpoint, I was influenced by Des Esseintes, the character in [Joris-Karl] Huysmans' Against Nature, one of my very favorite books. I tried transplanting that ruined, sensitive, lonely archetype into a Brooklyn hipster, except with internal monologues built on emotionalism and neuroses, instead of the philosophical and historical musings in Huysmans.

But getting back to the question, what I liked about the character was that, like me, what he was really looking for was a sense of agency in his own life. People feel so trapped and bullied at every socio-economic level. Dennis was a way for me to examine how romantic failure, family, money, competition, jobs, bosses, substances and the like conspire to keep us limited and afraid. That's why I was billing it as "the horror of sobriety," because he only begins to see all this once he's quit medicating himself. One guy actually wrote to me and said, "I was expecting bugs to be crawling up his arms from withdrawal," and I was like, "Then you don't what's really terrifying about getting sober!"

The entire story is seen, and evaluated, through Dennis' perspective, yet you chose to write in a third-person voice; why?

That's a great question. My little private joke when I was first writing it was that it was a "third-person memoir," since I was mapping my emotional states from that time through the character. Early sobriety is so alienating and dissociative; your body and thoughts really turn against you in such frightening ways, that my initial intent was really to write a memoir. But like I said, these damn characters are hard to keep in their boxes, and Dennis grew into his own person by the end.

Thanks to Tim for taking the time to talk to me about Half Empty. He has re-released the novel with extra chapters and an extended ending; you can purchase it here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I'm interviewed by the author of Vampire Cabbie

Fred Schepartz, author of Vampire Cabbie, interviewed me at his blog. I'll return the favor and post an interview with Fred next week.

And don't forget, Fred and I will be reading from our vampire books at Barnes and Noble East in Madison, WI on October 27th at 7 p.m. I'll be giving away an advance copy of my novel Blood Groove then, so join us for some early Halloween fun.

The white crow: Tim Hall's Half Empty

The rules say that a "self-published" book equals...well, crap. These are the books that, for whatever reason, couldn't make it past the "gatekeepers" of publishing (agents, editors, etc.). Sure, there are books that began as self-published works and went on to be best-sellers (The Celestine Prophecy, for example, or Eragon), but the conventional wisdom is that if you have to pay to publish it yourself, it must be...well, crap.

Before you jump to the defense of the downtrodden self-published author, peruse the catalogs of iUniverse and XLibris. You'll find that in this case, the maxim is mostly true. Gatekeepers weed out the books that come with recommendations like, "My mother thinks it's great," "My children used to love it when I'd tell them stories," or the dreaded, "Everyone tells me my life would make a great book." Without these gatekeepers, readers would be buried under egregiously bad grammar, Wagnerian spelling errors, derivative characters and recycled plots.

But wait.

They say that in order to disprove the statement, "All crows are black," you need only produce one white crow. And I believe I have found that white crow of self-publishing: a genuinely good, well-written, powerful and original self-published novel.

Half Empty by Tim Hall tells the story of Dennis, a New York slacker who, thirty days into new sobriety, tries to sort through his past and find direction; his choices are represented by the two women in his life.

Well-traveled territory, to be sure, but author Hall doesn't make this a trite or even predicatable story. Dennis is a rich character, well-defined and contradictory, whose emotions (whether noble or base) are clear and understandable. He lives in a particular, detailed environment and has the troubled minutiae of life common to us all. The two women are certainly not virgin/whore caricatures, but individuals with unique strengths and believable flaws. More importantly, Hall doesn't take any of the easy narrative turns: we never learn exactly why Dennis sobered up, nor is his sobriety under constant, melodramatic threat. In other words, this is a well-written, gripping contemporary novel that could easily be from a major publishing house, certainly the equal of something like Bright Lights, Big City (a dated reference, I know, but hopefully a clear one).

So why isn't it from a major publisher?

I've asked Tim Hall that question, and a few more. Watch for that interview coming soon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Awards for Guys Lit Wire

I'm a regular contributor to Guys Lit Wire, a blog that reviews books for teenage boys, and we've just received two "I (heart) Your Blog" awards, one from Sara Crowe's Crowe's Nest and the other from Charlesbridge Publishing's Unabridged. Although I'm just one of the many writers involved with GLW, I'm really tickled by this. Thanks to Sara and the folks at Charlesbridge!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reading Saturday, October 11 in Oregon, WI

I'll be appearing on Saturday, October 11 at the Lemery House in Oregon, WI, as part of the Oregon Arts Festival. My reading is at 1 p.m., and I'll be doing selections from The Sword-Edged Blonde as well as previewing my vampire novel Blood Groove in honor of Halloween. It's a homecoming for me as well, since I did my very first reading almost exactly a year ago at the Lemery House. You can contact them through the link above if you need directions. Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Interview: Albert Pyun, director of Road to Hell

Albert Pyun has been working steadily as a director since his 1982 debut, The Sword and the Sorcerer. He’s got over forty credits under his belt, and has worked with actors such as Dennis Hopper, Charlie Sheen, Burt Reynolds, Natasha Henstridge and Teri Hatcher. Now he’s putting the finishing touches to Road to Hell, a homage to one of my favorite films, Streets of Fire (see my reminiscence about Streets here). He was kind enough to speak to me about the project, and his memories of the original film.

Alex: We're both ginormous fans of Streets of Fire. Can you tell me about the first time you saw it? What's your favorite moment?

Albert: I first saw Streets of Fire at a Universal private screening before its release in 1984. I thought it was landmark cinema; it changed the language of film. I loved it from first frame, first note. My favorite moment was the telegraph scene and Cody arriving on an empty E train.

What was the reaction of the rest of this invited audience?

The screening reception was muted. I also saw the film when it opened and the theater was like a ghost town. Of course, I also went to the opening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and there were six people in the audience. Both films found their audience eventually.

You've made a lot of films; what was the biggest challenge of Road to Hell?

Catastrophic loss of picture due to a defective hi-def camera. The flagship camera created a ghost that corrupted virtually every frame of the film. It continues to be challenging to correct every single shot.

This is your first time working with Michael Pare'. He was quite a bit younger the first time he took on a role like this in Streets of Fire; how did you approach getting the same sort of iconic performance from him now?

Michael and I have known each other since the mid-90’s. We talked over the years about making a film together. In the back of my mind I wanted to put something together for characters like Cody and Eddie [Wilson, from Eddie and the Cruisers]. I picked Michael’s brains about who they were for him and what it was like back then. Our plans began to solidify when our paths crossed in Estepona, Spain where Michael received awards for Lifetime Achievement and Best Actor. In a series of meetings prior to shooting Road to Hell, discussions centering around who and what he was back then enabled Michael to feel the emotions and relive the thoughts from the 80’s. His performance in Road to Hell, you see him reflecting back on the past, not just his past characters but who he was at that time. His performance reflects a richness and depth because of all he has lived since then.

When I talked to screenwriter Cynthia Curnen (see interview here) she said you and she took the climax of Streets of Fire entirely differently: she saw it as tragic, while you found it romantic. She said that might simply be a difference in male and female outlooks. Do you agree? Have you changed your opinion on that since working with her on the screenplay?

Characters don’t need to get together for a romantic film; that’s basically the different between our two perspectives. The moments where he had flashbacks of her singing and when he took out her worn out picture from his wallet indicate that she was always with him. A guy like Cody would not have told her he would always be there for her if he didn’t mean it.

But I don’t believe he would always be with her, except as the ‘one who got away’. If he had stayed with her she would have wanted to go back to rock and roll. He had to let her go because he held an idealized version of her in his head that she could never live up to. The real Ellen was too shallow and sour; she couldn’t be bothered with the feelings of other people. She never thanked McCoy for saving her; she exploited Fish when she kissed him to hurt Cody. Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen. He let her go so she could fulfill herself. Even when she said she’d leave it all for him, it was to get what she wanted then but she would eventually have thrown or driven him away. For someone like Ellen, the unavailable is more attractive than the available. Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s character wanted him to hook up with Ellen in so she could stabilize him. His sister chose Ellen for Cody to keep him off the Road to Hell.

No, I have not changed my opinion but Cynthia may have changed hers.

(Note from Cynthia Curnan: I agree with Albert’s take on the characters and their motives. I would call it a romantic tragedy, but it’s still tragic through and through. I see that Cody’s idea of Ellen kept him believing in the possibility for redemption. From Carl Jung’s perspective Cody needed to keep Ellen in his psyche in an attempt to be a whole person. She provided the ‘anima’ in his unconscious necessary to maintain a measure of self-control.)

Thanks again to Albert Pyun and Cynthia Curnan for talking to me about Road to Hell. The film is in post-production and the release date is still pending.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Interview: author Deborah Blake

I was lucky enough to read “Dead and (Mostly) Gone” before its publication in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction. Deborah Blake, author of two non-fiction Pagan themed titles (Everyday Witch A-Z and Circle, Coven and Grove), created a compelling heroine and told a brilliant story in her first published fiction, which also won second prize in the Llewellyn/PanGaia Pagan fiction contest. I was honored to both read her story and have mine included along with it in the collection.

I asked Deborah some questions about "Dead and (Mostly) Gone":

Alex: How does it feel to have the lead-off story in the anthology?

Deborah: Actually, it was a wonderful surprise. I had no idea until the book landed on my doorstep that my story was first. To be honest, I did a little "dance of joy" around the living room. I know it shouldn't matter, but who am I kidding: I love it! Of course, this entire project has been a joy to work on--this is just the icing on the cake.

Your story takes place in the future, and verges on science fiction. What made you choose that setting?

I didn't choose it, exactly. In fact, the entire story came to me in a dream. I woke up one morning a couple of years ago with Donata's story in my head, threw food at the cats and sat down at the computer. Five hours later, I hadn't eaten or gotten dressed, but the story was written. (Interestingly enough, while I have dreamed parts or beginnings of story ideas before, this was the one and only time the whole thing ever came to me in such a way. I guess it was just meant to be.)

Beyond Donata's powers and career, what pagan precepts and ideals did you deliberately seek to portray?

That having gifts and abilities beyond the norm can be cool, but also a burden that carries with it the responsibility to use them wisely and for the greater good. That these abilities, whatever they might be, can be strengthened by using them in a ritual setting and by asking the gods (however you view them) for assistance. And maybe the need for wider understanding and acceptance from the public at large.

Donata isn't respected or trusted by her peers, but is treated as mostly a necessary evil. Do you think that's the best pagans can ever hope for?

Not at all. In fact, in my own life I have been reasonably well accepted despite being quite obviously out of the broom closet. This story was much darker than my usual writing. If I were ever going to write a follow-up, my guess is that Donata would finally have an office upstairs, out of the basement:)

You can read both Deborah Blake's story ("Dead and [Mostly] Gone") and mine ("Draw Down") in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, available now at all major outlets.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book release: The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction

My short story "Draw Down" is one of 13 included in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, available now from Llewellyn Books. The introduction is by noted author Diana L. Paxson.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In defense of Superman Returns

Over at the science fiction blog io9, hardly a week passes that doesn't involve a dig at Bryan Singer's 2006 film Superman Returns. For example:

Warner Brothers Takes the Time to Make a Superman That Won't Suck.

Next Superman Movie Will Have Actual Superheroics.

How to Make You Believe a Man Could Fly Again.

While some criticisms are valid (a too-slavish devotion to Richard Donner's interpretation, an emphasis on "rescue-action" instead of a superheroic throwdown), I think the good folks at io9 do the film a disservice. And I have a different idea about why the film might not work for the average audience thrilled with Iron Man and The Dark Night. I think it's because Superman Returns is the first superhero film to really deal with adult issues.

Consider the plot stripped of its super-ness. A well-intentioned but somewhat naive hero has a one-night stand with the girl of his dreams, then gets some news from home. He leaves without saying goodbye, and is gone for five years. When he returns, his dream girl has moved on to a long-standing relationship with another man with whom she now has a son. This new man is decent, loves her and the boy, and more importantly has stayed around when our hero skipped out. In a crisis, this new man proves every bit as courageous as our hero, so that when the boy's true paternity is revealed (to only the mother and our hero), our hero faces his toughest choice yet. Should he reveal the truth and risk ruining everyone's lives? Or should he suck it up, accept that the situation is entirely his own fault and keep his mouth shut to spare good people more pain?

That's the core plot of Superman Returns, and it's a very specific dilemma for our hero. It's also a very specific dilemma faced by blended families throughout the world. As both a father and a step-father, it speaks to me with more emotional clarity than any of the so-called moral dilemmas in a film like The Dark Knight. In that film, Batman and the other characters have to choose between right and wrong; in Superman Returns, Superman has no "right" choice. That's much more like the real world than any other recent comic-book film.

And I don't think this sort of dilemma connects with the average vocal, blog-commenting super-hero fan, the ones who made The Dark Knight the second-biggest film in history. At the risk of being smacked for generalizing, most are young, most are probably not yet parents, and the majority of their toughest life choices are ahead of them.

I love Superman Returns, and I'm not ashamed to say so. Even if Bryan Singer, Brandon Routh and company are kicked off the next film and the entire series is rebooted to be more in line with the "dark" trend current among these movies, I'll still think it's awesome. And when little Jason runs back to give injured Superman a kiss, I'll still choke up every time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Imbibing The Stornoway Way

It's rare to find a novel with passages you want to underline as you read that's also heart-wrenchingly sad, let alone one that has such a specific sense of time and place that it reveals some painful universals. But Kevin MacNeil's 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way, does all these things.

It's a first-person narrative, ostensibly told to MacNeil by "R. Stornoway" (i.e., "arse torn away"), a would-be artist and musician who has returned to the small town of Stornoway on the island of Lewis off Scotland's west coast. He piddles with art and music and dallies with girls, but what he does mostly is drink. A lot. And he makes pithy observations about himself and the people around him. My favorite bit regards the Gaelic mafia: "The Gaelic mafia is a touchy subject in Lewis. Outwith the Highlands it is said, 'The Gaelic mafia made me an offer I couldn't . . . understand.'" He also includes various Gaelic terms as footnotes, some historical and some newly-minted, as in Griais: when your finger automatically presses 9 before dialling [sic] a telephone number from home.

But while the first two-thirds is as eminently underlinable as early Douglas Adams, MacNeil is not being funny for its own sake. He's setting us up for a sudden turn to seriousness that jars the reader as much as it does R. Stornoway. And when Stornoway discovers unsuspected depths in himself, he also realizes the size of the emptiness inside him. Here MacNeil's poetic bent (he's also published the poetry collections Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides and Be Wise, Be Otherwise) provides imagery of absolutely aching beauty (I won't quote anything since it would be a bit of a spoiler, but pp. 223-224 would break the stoniest heart). The final pages are painful, both to the character and the reader, and leave one feeling as numb and battered as "R. Stornoway" himself.

At the core of The Stornoway Way is alcohol: drinking is what the narrator and his friends do. And it's what the natives of Lewis have done for generations. (I'm from a town of 300 deep in the swamps of west Tennessee, and we have a similar culture; he gets all the motivations exactly right). McNeil does a good job drawing the reader into this lifestyle without being didactic about its dangers. And what finally undoes R. Stornoway is not alcohol, but the realization of what the alcohol is hiding.

In his review, The Independent critic Brian Dillon calls The Stornoway Way "an entropic tale of energies sparked to life and quenched by landscape, language and culture." Okay, if you feel the need to phrase it that way, I guess I agree. I'd call it an extended meditation on what the island culture of Lewis does to its people, especially its young. By dealing with these specifics, MacNeil connects with some universals about the loss of a sense of purpose, the hurt we inflict without really meaning to, and the hopelessness that can seem, in its depths (depths found symbolically at the bottom of a bottle), to be masquerading as hope.

Here's a recent interview with author Kevin MacNeil.

Thursday, September 11, 2008 the Road to Hell: Interview with Cynthia Curnan

A couple of days ago, I blogged about my affection for the 1984 film Streets of Fire, and my excitement at learning a follow-up, Road to Hell, was in the works. While Road isn’t an official sequel (the makers term it a “dark tribute”), it does have Michael Pare' back in that duster, and promises a unique riff on the original.

Screenwriter Cynthia Curnan was kind enough to speak to me about the project, and patiently endured my endless fanboy speculation.

Alex: The film Streets of Fire took its title from a Bruce Springsteen song. Does Road to Hell reference the Chris Rea tune?

Cynthia: I had not heard Chris Rea's song until reading your question. I told Albert [Pyun, director]; he knew of the song but hadn't heard it either. We just looked it up on YouTube and we both love it.

You brought back the characters of McCoy, Tom's sister and Ellen. Why not Raven as well?

The Road to Hell characters are their own people; they are not resurrected from Streets of Fire. Viewers expecting this will be disappointed. That said, when you see the movie you might notice a small indication of a family tie.

You mention on the official website that "Albert thinks it (Streets of Fire) is the most romantic film ending ever. I thought the ending was tragic and wanted them to get together." I confess I share Albert's view, especially in context: to me the climactic song, "Tonight is What It Means to be Young," comments ironically on Cody, who seems doomed to be stuck in perpetual adolescence. After all, Ellen was willing to give up her career and run off with him, but he "ain't the kind of guy to be carrying your guitars around." How do you read the original film's climax, and how did that give you a jumping-off point for Road to Hell?

This difference of opinion about the ending to Streets of Fire might just be a guy/girl thing. It was a tragedy for me because star-crossed love causes me pain. But I did understand why they could never get together. That said, I saw both of their futures, without each other, as ultimately tragic.

In the song "Tonight is What it Means to be Young," Ellen heads straight for the next best thing. If she can't get an angel she can still get a boy and a boy is the next best thing. I see Cody as an angel, not from Ellen's world. My Cody is not a 'Peter Pan' boy; he's larger than life. Cody came arrived on an empty subway because he came from another dimension to which he must return.

As much as he might want to stay with her he knows he can't. She was willing to give up her career because she didn't yet know what that would mean to her or to them. He knows Ellen's situation better than she does. She has stardom in her future and if he tried to fit in, carrying her guitars is all he'd be doing. He knows it's too soon for her to know what she wants; he can't let her make a deal neither of them could live with. But if she ever needs him, he'll be there.

I think you underestimate Tom Cody; at least my Cody. Back to the guy/girl thing: Maybe I fell in love with Cody and you fell in love with Ellen?

You've got two new characters described as "spree killers." Can you describe them and how they fit into this world?

Road to Hell takes place in its own world. The spree killers fit in that world.

Finally, I'm a huge fan of Michael Pare', and according to the website this film sprang from a conversation you and Albert had with him. Was he involved in the writing process at all? How did he feel about the way you saw the character a quarter-century on?

Michael Pare' was not involved in the writing process but he was involved in the character development. He understood that Albert wanted to see him return to his iconic roots with characters like Eddie [from Eddie and The Cruisers] and Tom Cody in a story reminiscent of early noir thrillers.

Michael Pare's performance is astonishing - much darker, more nuanced and mature than Tom Cody's character from Streets of Fire. He's less pretty, more handsome and sexier because he's more dangerous.


Thanks to Cynthia Curnan for taking the time to talk to me. Road to Hell is currently in post-production with the release date to be determined.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Interviewed with other reviewers from Guys Lit Wire

Over at Innovative: A Word for the WriTeen, I'm interviewed along with some of the other ace reviewers from Guys Lit Wire.

Stop by and leave Gabrielle a comment!

Monday, September 8, 2008

From Streets of Fire....

In 1984, director Walter Hill was riding high on four successes in a row: The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort and the mega-hit 48 Hours. Having earned carte blanche, he used it to create a strange, one-of-a-kind pet project that blended genres, eras, and musical styles in what he termed a "rock and roll fable," Streets of Fire. His high concept description: "The Leader of the Pack kidnaps the Queen of the Hop, until Soldier Boy comes to the rescue."

And how did it do?

It tanked. Man, did it tank. Produced on a then-hefty budget of $14 million, it took in a paltry $5 million at the box office. It confused critics and audiences alike. I saw it during its theatrical run, and could feel the audience around me having a collective WTF moment.

I loved it. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I mean, hell:

it's a musical....

...with a sledgehammer duel.

Here's the trailer:

And time has been kind to it. Whereas in 1984 the contemporary influences (clothes, hairstyles and music) jarred against the Fifties retro elements, they now blend seamlessly; after all, twenty-five years and sixty years both qualify as "old." The main musical numbers by Jim Steinman, of Meat Loaf and "Total Eclipse of the Heart" fame, now sound bombastically timeless instead of crassly contemporary. Ry Cooder's buzzing guitar score, sadly unreleased to this day with the exception of one track on a compilation, rocks harder than any comparable soundtrack. And the film has acquired an all-star cast: subsequent Oscar nominees Diane Lane, Amy Madigan and Willem Dafoe, as well as Rick (Ghostbusters) Moranis and Bill (Titanic) Paxton.

More crucially, even nearly a quarter of a century later, the film remains unique. Nothing else has come close to this combination of music, action and filmmaking style, which doesn't so much embrace MTV cliches as sidestep them and approach the same sort of material as if from a parellel universe. In fact, to my knowledge no one has even tried.

Until now.

Director Albert Pyun and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan are putting the finishing touches on Road to Hell, what they term a "dark tribute" to Streets of Fire. Only Michael Pare and Debra Van Valkenburgh return from the original cast, but the other main characters (sidekick McCoy and rocker Ellen) are back, played by new actors. Jim Steinman songs will again be featured. And while it's not an "official" sequel, it's as close as we're likely to get, and more than enough reason for Streets of Fire fans to get excited.

Click on the links to read exclusive interviews with Road to Hell screenwriter Cynthia Curnan and director Albert Pyun.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"I see you marrying a in a grave...!"

As we near the April 2009 release date of my vampire novel Blood Groove, I'll periodically discuss favorite vampire-themed books and movies, looking at what makes them special.

It's not every movie that can overcome the total miscasting of its titular character, let alone a title that is completely misleading. Yet 1943's Son of Dracula, starring Lon Chaney, Jr., does exactly that. Not only does the beefy roughneck Chaney attempt the role of the sophisticated Eastern European count, but there is no "son": the story features Dracula himself. But if you can look past these shortcomings, a surprisingly easy thing to do, there are some real treats in this second-tier Universal film.

Dracula arrives at Dark Oaks, a plantation somewhere in American's Deep South where no one has an actual Southern accent. Since he's apparently a well-known fiend, he calls himself Count Alucard (the first use, I believe, of this popular hiding-in-plain-sight anagram). He has been brought back as a souvenir by Kay (Louise Albritton), an American tourist and proto-Goth just returned from Hungary.

Kay's nefarious but ingenious plan: have Dracula turn her into a vampire so that she can then vampirize her childhood sweetheart Frank (Robert Paige); together they can kill Dracula and live forever. But she neglects to let Frank in on her plot, which leads to misunderstandings and apparent murder.

It's hard to imagine an actor less suited to Dracula than Chaney. Thick-necked and with the diction of a factory worker, he looks out of place and uncomfortable in Dracula's dinner suit. Luckily the film keeps him mostly off-screen and builds its story around the gradual freak-out of hero Frank Stanley. Frank begins the film as a standard dishwater-dull young male lead, but as things go to hell, he goes to pieces. Albritton makes a deliciously strange heroine, and as her chilling plan emerges she becomes far scarier than Dracula. Still, I defy anyone to really watch the film and not get a twinge of heartbreak at the abrupt but poetic ending.

What makes this film exceptional, and different from all the other Universal Dracula films, is that ultimately Dracula is as much a victim as anyone else. In effect he's outsmarted by one of his own brides, and part of me wishes the film had him join forces with the other mortals against Kay. But that wasn't the story the Siodmak brothers (director Robert and screenwriter Curt) chose to tell; instead they remained in the realm of fairy tales, telling an Orpheus-istic story about love that transcends, for a while, the grave.

The trailer:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Soon I'll Be Stuffed in Your Mailbox

This postcard will be going out from the cool-as-heck folks at the Lemery House to promote an upcoming reading. I've never been the subject of a direct-mail campaign before.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gateway Characters (in Hell or Alaska)

Lately the mater familias and I have been watching Northern Exposure, a show I caught only haphazardly during its network run in the early 90s. At the time I much preferred the grittier fantasmagoria of Twin Peaks to the bucolic magical realism of Northern Exposure; as I've mellowed (i.e., gotten older), though, I find that Northern Exposure (hereafter referred to as NX) has a charm and depth I completely missed before. But it developed a fatal flaw, one I also recently encountered in the otherwise-brilliant Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

NX shows us the quirky citizens of Cicely, Alaska through the eyes of Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), a newly-minted Jewish doctor from New York. He is completely at odds with everything Cicely represents, and isn't afraid to say so. The show's effect comes from the clash between Fleischman's Woody Allen-ish nebbish and the unflappable folks around him, especially tomboy pilot Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner), who verbally gives as good as she gets.

In the final episode of Season 3 ("Cicely"), we learn about the founding of the town itself from a century-old eyewitness (the great Roberts Blossom). It's a brilliant episode on a number of levels, and ends with Joel alone in the local bar, hearing these voices of the past and taking his first big step toward assimilation. It promised great things for future episodes.

Unfortunately, by the start of Season 4 Rob Morrow ran into difficulties with the show and his role in it. As a result, Joel's importance was significantly minimized, and the momentum built up during Season 3 was completely lost. Worse, the show itself floundered because without Joel as the pivot, the other characters became a group of people who were merely quirky for the sake of being quirky. Some fans insist the show changed organically from being about Joel's situation to being about the town itself, but what made the show compelling was the tension between Joel and the residents of Cicely. Without it, the show lost its rudder and the viewer lost his or her guide.

Now we jump to Hellboy. In the original 2004 film, Rupert Evans played Myers, a normal, straight-arrow FBI agent assigned to be the liason between Hellboy and the rest of the world. Myers' responses to the characters and situations gave the viewer something normal to hang onto amidst the weirdness, in the tradition of many other SF and Fantasy stories (one reason Luke Skywalker was made a simple farmboy). As Myers warmed to Hellboy we did, too, and as he kept faith in Hellboy's essential goodness, we did as well.

In Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, we have no Myers (he's been transferred to Antarctica) or, more crucially, no Myers-type figure. Everyone in the story is a monster or creature of some sort (Jeffery Tambor's Manning is human, but so clearly comic that he can't take on the gateway role). As before Ron Perlman makes Hellboy into a likable blue-collar schmo, and the other performers bring emotion and heart to their creature-feature characters. But it's all a little disorienting without a Myers to guide our responses. We're not immediately sure which monsters should be considered outlandish and which ones commonplace.

There are still many great things in Hellboy 2 and the later seasons of NX. But with the loss or minimizing of these gateway characters, we've lost our way into these worlds. I miss Joel, even though he's technically still around for Seasons 4 and 5, and I hope Myers gets back from Antarctica in time for Hellboy 3.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Possibly the best review I'll ever get

A special belated shout-out to gladiolii, whose blog post discussing my novel The Sword-Edged Blonde contains what may be the best review I'll ever get:

"The main character is cooler than I'd have expected, for an old guy."

Thanks, Kit, and I hope you like the next one as much.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Heroes: the Dragon Hunter

I don't have a lot of real-world heroes as an adult. There are people whose work I admire, and whose accomplishments I find impressive, but for me a hero is about being as much as doing. The late Steve Irwin and Charlton Heston were heroes; among the living, Bruce Springsteen and George A. Romero currently qualify.

But no one is a hero the way they are when you're a kid. I grew up before the new wave of historical revisionism that provided much needed context for the allegedly "heroic" deeds of our forefathers. Back then, Columbus was a great explorer and Andrew Jackson was a brilliant leader; their genocidal crimes against native populations were considered the cost of doing business and never mentioned. But one of my childhood heroes survived this sea change in how explorers and leaders were judged, and remains one of my heroes both for his accomplishments, and for the kind of man he was: Roy Chapman Andrews. And a recent (2001) book does a great job explaining why.

In Dragon Hunter : Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Charles Gallenkamp tells of Andrews' trips into the Gobi Desert of China in 1922-1930, leading expeditions in search of fossils and other scientific information. Among the many significant discoveries were the first confirmed fossilized dinosaur eggs. At the time, it was the equivalent of the moon landing in popular culture, and everyone knew of Andrews and his work:

Half a century later, his desert-traipsing bravado, encyclopedic knowledge and snappy headwear helped inspire one of the great movie heroes, Indiana Jones.

What Dragon Hunter explains, though, is how much real courage and resourcefulness Andrews demonstrated behind the scenes, negotiating with the Chinese government both before and after the encrouchment of Communism. Andrews, a native of Beloit, WI, adored Asia, learned its languages and customs, and had nothing but contempt for both the desert warlords and the later Communist bureaucrats. He saw both as exploiters of China's people and resources. He also compiled one of the first comprehensive studies of the world's whales, functioned as a spy for the U.S. during World War I, was president of the famous Explorers' Club, and found time to write books both for adults and children.

I owned All About Dinosaurs, written in 1953, when I was a child in the early Seventies. Chapman described his Mongolian expeditions in simple, exciting terms, concentrating on the battles with the elements and the discovery of huge numbers of fossils. There were no politics, only the hands-on wonders of exploration. It crystallized my love of dinosaurs, even though at the time its science was already fifteen years out of date. Under its spell, I wrote to Andrews at the Museum of Natural History, and experienced the kind of disappointment only a child can feel when the letter was returned marked DECEASED (Andrews died in 1960).

Andrews was not without flaws; he was, after all, a real person. But he stayed true to his principals until the end of his life, by all accounts tried to always do the right thing, and enjoyed both the respect and envy that only true pioneers can inspire. More importantly, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Now that I'm facing middle age in a world where heroes are in shockingly short supply, it's nice to be reminded of someone like Andrews. He did his job, remained a decent human being and, in his own way, changed the world.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Less Than Meets the Eye

Recently a friend mentioned that she loved the Transformers movie, and I said I disagreed. When she pressed me for an explanation I demurred, for a couple of reasons: I wanted to marshal my thoughts with more clarity, and I didn't want to sully an otherwise delightful group lunch with what could easily become a semi-coherent rant.

But yes, I hated the Transformers movie. It goes beyond my dislike for director Michael Bay, who is only Uwe Boll with a megabudget. It's more than my dislike for the charmless, gormless Shia LeBeouf. As pretentious and snotty as this may sound, I hate the Transformers on moral grounds.

Here's why. The original Transformers were Japanese toys first.

Then the animated U.S. show was created around them. That made the program essentially a commercial aimed at the members of our society most vulnerable to advertising, children. And, since it debuted in the ultra-materialistic Eighties, it was a huge success, paving the way for many Japanese shows designed strictly to sell tie-in products (Pokemon, Digimon, Cardcaptors, etc.).

Consider why this is wrong. There has always been tie-in merchandise connected to popular art, going back, I believe, to Dickens, who called it the "Whoosh." But the merchandise always came after. Something hit the public consciousness and then was exploited, often far beyond the line of tacky. Just look at the things Lucas has licensed for Star Wars over the last thirty years. Yet Star Wars came first, then the toys and bedsheets. Transformers cynically reversed that, and then took aim at kids far too young to know their chains were being yanked. In the process, it altered the whole concept of childrens' programming, which up until then at least had to pay lip service to the concept of educating its viewers.

Creating what is essentially a half-hour toy commercial, then disguising it as a "tv show" aimed at the least discriminating audience demographic, is a form of societal child abuse. Parents aren't blameless in this--after all, they paid for the toys. But it inculcated a whole generation with the idea that nothing of value exists if it isn't accompanied by a parade of merchandise. The experience of enjoying something on its own has been subsumed in the desire, culturally across the board, to acquire things inspired by it.

So now we have Transformers, the live action movie, which actually starts with the credit "Paramount Pictures and Hasbro present..." It stars this week's Sexiest Woman Alive (Megan Fox), features state-of-the-art effects and, as most movies aimed at children do nowadays, pushes the sex and violence as far as its PG-13 rating allows. It cost $151 million to make, and grossed over $700 so far.

Think about those numbers, and think about the state of the world today. Think what the initial investment could've done for, say, victims of Hurricane Katrina. Think what a difference the box-office returns would make if they were given to, say, famine relief. Now think about that money poured instead into a toy commercial.

Yes, movies are made to turn a profit. Yes, the same complaints could be made for all big-budget fantasy epics, from Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Dark Knight. But goddamn, people: it's not a cultural icon like Superman or a beloved franchise like Indiana Jones, it's the goddamned Transformers, created for no other reason than to sell toys. Yes, there's more than meets the eye here, and it's the utter blank core of the typical American satisfied to become part of this obscene, in the truest sense of the word, revenue stream.

And that is why I hate the Transformers.

And it appears I'm not alone.