Halloween Horror Edition

October seemed to creep up on me somehow this year. Before I turned around the month was already almost half over and Halloween was in danger of passing me by. I rarely squander the chance to celebrate the season, so I decided to binge on some horror movies and thrillers on Netflix over the past few days to get myself in the spirit. I watched a pretty decent psychological thriller (The Guest), a fresh take on vampires (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I didn’t finish yet, but looks promising), and a really creative spin on zombies (Pontypool). While none of those were bad by any stretch, it was a different one altogether that compelled me to write up a piece about it.

The Taking of Deborah Logan

I’d never heard of The Taking of Deborah Logan before I tapped the thumbnail of the image above on Netflix. It had higher than average ratings for a horror movie, and I liked the general premise so I decided to give it a shot.

Deborah Logan is a found footage film (wait, come back…really) put together–in its first third especially–to come across as a legitimate documentary. A college student and her two person crew have gotten the titular Deborah to agree to be the subject of a film the students are making about Alzheimer’s disease. The students capture Deborah’s demise from forgetful to bizarre to self-harming to harming others and begin to wonder if something more sinister than the disease is at the root of it all.

At its core The Taking of Deborah Logan is fairly standard horror movie fare not far removed from the king of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project, but it stands out for a few reasons, chief among them is the acting–the two main characters, Deborah and her daughter Sara,  are especially believable right off the bat, so as the trajectory of the film veers from realistic and creepy to out and out batshit crazy you find yourself too invested in the characters and story to turn back.

Add to that the clever angle of Alzheimer’s blurring the line between naturally occurring mental issues and more devious forces at work, and the movie manages to suck you in. This is found footage at its best, in my opinion. If you didn’t know going in it was a work of fiction, it would take a good 20-30 minutes to figure it out.

The majority of the jump scares are relatively well placed, but what I really appreciate is that the director resists the temptation to lace them all throughout the movie. There are a good number of scenes where you begin to anticipate a jump scare that never happens. That’s one of my favorite things, that building of tension without a payoff. Then once it finally does pay off, it does so in a major way.

Finally, there is one shot from across the room of Deborah mindlessly playing a tune on the piano with one hand while staring vacantly into the camera that is without a doubt one of the creepiest 15 seconds of film I’ve seen in a long time.

I was going to include a link to the trailer, but I think the trailer gives too much away. Look it up if you want, but I’d recommend just watching it knowing as little as possible.

While I’m at it I’ll throw in a couple other good scary movies I’ve seen in the past couple months. You’re Next is an insanely fun, twisted movie about a group of people trapped in a house surrounded by bloodthirsty killers, and Creep is an unsettling film about a filmmaker hired to document a few days in the life of a terminally ill man expecting his first child. While it doesn’t pull off the found footage angle quite as well as The Taking of Deborah Logan it’s still quite believable, thanks in part to the strong performance by Mark Duplass as a truly twisted man.

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If you’re looking for something off the beaten path of typical horror, give one of these three a shot and I bet you’re not disappointed. And if I don’t get my lazy ass to the computer to post anything else before the end of the month, Happy Halloween!

Sleep, who needs it?

Subway is a nefarious band of lowly olive hoarders. This really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but I have to get it off my chest. With all the meats and cheeses they have that you would think cost them so much more, how has the simple black olive come to be the most valuable ingredient under their roof?

Black gold.

Subway’s black gold.

They put, like, six little rings on a footlong, and only a few more if you ask for extra. Maybe they’re regulated by the fearsome Black Olive Mafia (BOM, for short), and are only allowed one olive ring per two inches of sandwich, or risk severe fines and penalties. And you don’t want to piss off the BOM.

Anyway, moving on…

I did have one piece of writing-related news I forgot to mention in my last post: my short story Of the Beholder is being published in the horror anthology Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II, which is out in e-book format TODAY! (and coming soon in paperback) RoSV2 features 19 authors and is edited by Troy Blackford. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and I really like the story included for a couple of reasons:

1) It was the product of a writing prompt, which I had never thought of as a way to produce a good, viable story. I saw prompts just as a way for people to get over writer’s block and nothing more. I know now I was wrong.

2) I rewrote, edited, revised, and ultimately finished the story while I had a lot going on in my life, both personally and professionally. I had become incredibly unhappy at my job and was deliberating the pros and cons of looking for work elsewhere, and this was around the time my wife spent 3 nights in the ICU. Working on the story provided me with both a distraction from my problems and a release of frustration.

During the writing of this story I realized that writing was more than just something I did in my spare time. It had become a part of me and who I was—I realized I need to be writing to be happy (although for a few years writing was replaced by making music, so maybe I just need a creative outlet), and that’s around the time I really tried to kick myself into high gear in regard to my productivity, with mostly positive results.

I say all that so to say this: check out my story, Of the Beholder, in Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II. It’s an awesome assortment of scary stories told by some really talented writers. Besides, sleep is highly overrated anyway, don’t you think?

Just in time for Halloween!

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Just a quickie to let y’all know issue #2 of Jitter Magazine hit newsstands today (do any of you have newsstands where you live? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one in person, other than at an airport—inquiring minds want to know!), and features my short story Randy’s Bad Day, as well as 18 other stories and poems from the world of horror.

Perfect timing, really. Get yourself in the Halloween spirit—read yourself some scary stuff and get your spook on here:Jitter Magazine #2.

(Did I really just write ‘get your spook on’?)

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007) : A Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost Story

Ghost stories tend to be hit or miss with me. A lot of times I don’t get into them, but if one manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll usually love it. Joe Hill managed to do the impossible and create one that’s smack dab in the middle of the road.

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Judas Coyne—not his real name—is a semi-retired, world famous rock star, along the lines of Ozzy, with a taste for the macabre. He has a vast collection of items related to the occult, voodoo, and witchcraft, so when Jude, as he’s mostly called, is alerted to an online auction claiming to sell a haunted suit, he buys in instantly, no questions asked. When the suit arrives (in a heart-shaped box, as suits do), it doesn’t take long before Jude starts seeing the ghost of a creepy old man dressed in the suit and swinging a pendulum-shaped razor blade hanging on a chain. From there so begins the journey to find who the old man is, why he’s haunting Jude, and, as things escalate, how to stop him.

The book starts like gangbusters. Sometimes ghost stories—and haunted house stories, for that matter—go for the slow burn, building anticipation until there’s a grand reveal. With HSB, Joe Hill gives us the ghost in the first few pages and we’re off to the races, which I really appreciate. I like books that just kick right off without any mucking around.

The ghost is/was a hypnotist, and has a strong power of suggestion, putting thoughts in people heads in an attempt to influence their actions. There’s some excellent creepy imagery tied to this, in the first half especially, including a scene involving Jude’s girlfriend watching a snuff film with a gun in her mouth that made my skin crawl. Once we hit the midway point, however, the book falters a little.

Jude and his girlfriend, Georgia/Marybeth, head out on a road trip (with his two dogs, who play an important role) from Jude’s home in upstate New York down to Georgia, Florida, and ultimately Louisiana, in an attempt to stop the ghost. There are some pretty decent moments throughout the second half, but nothing that matches the scare and creep factors in the first half.

It was interesting to read a book with fairly contemporary rock ‘n’ roll references—Rancid, Anthrax, and Trent Reznor are all mentioned in the book, among others—but it seemed to me he was trying to hard to work the whole ‘heart-shaped box’ in there. It felt almost like he’d thought of a good title, one that referenced a popular song (by Nirvana, if anyone didn’t know) and fit the rock aspect of the book, then tried to force it into the story whether it worked or not.

Part of me is glad I read this after reading Hill’s superior last novel, NOS4A2. If I’d read HSB when it first came out, knowing—despite the name change—that it was the debut novel from Stephen King’s son, I’m sure I would’ve been a lot harder on it. But reading it now, knowing what the author is capable of, it’s easier to accept HSB for what it is: a really good—but not great—way to spend a few hours creeping yourself out.

The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006): Making Vines with Pretty Red Flowers Absolutely Terrifying

I’m scrapping my previous book review formula, The Quarterly Book Report. It made for posts that were too long (I felt), and forced me to condense my thoughts on a book down too far. From here on out, I’ll just drop a review randomly as I finish a book, capiche? I finished this book a month or so ago, but since I just decided to scrap the old format I’m reviewing it now.

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I watched the movie version of The Ruins a few years ago on cable, and liked it well enough. I remember it being a little cheesy, but in a cool , B-movie kind of way. Ultimately I thought it was ‘just okay.’ Then a couple of years ago when I started really getting into reading again, I wanted to see what had been going on with books in the horror genre, and I found list after list of Best Horror Novels of X amount of years, and The Ruins kept popping up on the lists with the same comment: “The book is so much better than the movie.” Everybody says that about books made into movies, so I didn’t think a whole lot about it until one day, about two months ago, I found The Ruins along with Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn at my local used bookstore—quite the score indeed.

 The Ruins tells the story of six tourists on a Mexican vacation—four Americans, a German, and a Greek—who embark on an adventure to find the German’s brother, who’s run off with a woman he met and gone to the site of a supposed archeological dig. Following a crude, hand-drawn map, the group takes a bus ride, hitches a ride in the back of a truck (with a vicious dog in tow), and hikes extensively into and back out of a small village before finding a hidden trail.

The trail leads them to an massive hill overgrown with vines with little red flowers. Villagers show up and try to scare the tourists away, but language barriers inevitably lead to mass confusion, and when one of the tourists makes contact with the vines the villagers then force the tourists (at gun and arrow point) to hike the narrow trail leading up the hill. At the top the tourists find a couple of abandoned tents battered by the elements and a few supplies left by whoever was there last.

The first half of the  novel reminded me of a straight-forward survival story. This group of people, stranded with practically no supplies except what they happened to grab before leaving their luxurious hotel—water, a couple of protein bars, some fruit, and a bottle of tequila—and the empty tents and supplies, struggle to survive and find a way off the hill, which remains patrolled by the villagers.

Confident help will arrive in the form of the Greek’s friends (for whom he left a copy of the map), the group tries to make do. At the bottom of a mineshaft the group hears what appears to be a cell phone ringing, and rig up a contraption to lower the Greek down to look for it. The rope they’re using to lower him snaps (due in no small part to the acidic sap of the vines, which has eaten away some of the rope) and the Greek plummets down the shaft, severely injuring himself. The others manage to get him out, and now must contend with caring for a critically wounded person on top of their already surreal dilemma.

To say any more would spoil the book, except to say that the vines turn out to be much more than just acidic. The initial denial the characters feel—how things like this just don’t happen, and their certainty that they will be rescued—is gradually replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread, as they begin to wonder if they will, in fact, die on the vine-covered hill.

Scott Smith’s writing style struck me as sort of minimalistic—almost businesslike. There’s no excessive descriptions or long tangents about things that don’t matter. At over 500 pages I was expecting to skim some passages, but it’s actually a lean, no BS story.

Between Smith’s style and the fact that there are no chapters to separate parts of the book, I initially thought the book was oddly written, but was quickly consumed by the story. In the two years or so since I started reading regularly again, this is easily the best book I’ve read, and although it is classified as horror, I think people who don’t normally enjoy the genre could still get into this book. At one point about halfway through, I was so caught up in the group’s struggles just to survive that I forgot about the vines altogether.

Scott Smith has only written one other novel, his debut, 1993’s A Simple Plan, which Smith himself adapted for the big screen in 1998, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Bridget Fonda. I’ve neither read the book or seen the movie, but both are now on my short list of things to read and watch.

There you have it, as high a recommendation as I can give to The Ruins—2 Jobes Up, if you will. Give it a shot and see if you don’t allow a little extra room the next time you walk past your spider plant.

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Finally, a Routine

We’ve all heard that change is good; we should embrace change. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at that the last couple of months, to be honest. New job, schedule all over the place. Not that I’m complaining—far from it, I love my new job—but finally I’m back into a routine and I’m so relieved, because now I might be able to get seriously back into writing again.

It hasn’t been absolutely zero productivity these last couple months, though. I managed to write a few stories, two of which I really like and the other I think will end up being cannibalized and put into a different idea I’m chewing on in the back of my mind. But the Big Work In Progress, the novel, has set idly by since around Memorial Day. I just haven’t had the time or energy to think about it. Well, that and I had some ideas that would require going back and either adding scenes in or rewriting altogether. At this point I don’t know which I’ll do; the fact that I finally have the time to do either is what matters.

All this means I’ll probably have more time for the blog again as well, so set you blocking preferences accordingly. 🙂

Oh! I can’t believe I got this far without mentioning it: I got another story published!

That's me, and the belt is my acceptance letter from the publisher.

That’s me, and the belt is my acceptance letter from the publisher.

 My short story Randy’s Bad Day is being published by Jitter Press, a division of Prolific Press specializing in horror and dark fiction. Details are still to come, of course, but you know I’ll be passing them along as I get them. It’s the story of an angry man in a cabin, his hangover, and a whole mess of mutant frogs. They say you should write the kind of stuff you’d like to read, and I definitely did that with this story, because it’s gross, scary, and, dare I say, funny. It makes me laugh, anyway. I hope you guys like it.

I also got a pair of very encouraging rejection letters a couple of weeks ago, which, as weird as it sounds, it really cool. One told me they liked my story but it wasn’t right for the issue they’re getting ready to put out, and asked me to send more work in the future. The other said my story was “a hell of a lot of fun” but needed just a bit of tweaking, in their opinion, and it could find a home easily. We’ll see about that, but it was a nice way of being told ‘no, we don’t want your story.’

I’m going to cut this short, because as happy as I am to have a routine again, I’m still getting used to it. I work much later in the day now and my days off are in the middle of the week, so there are some adjustments to be made before I’m totally used to it. So I’m gonna go and read for a while (if I still remember how—my reading time has been cut drastically short lately, too) and relax a little before heading to work. But there will be more to come, so stay tuned.

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The Reddit ‘No Sleep’ Experiment

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So do you guys reddit? With all the mandates on writers to use all forms of social media (including my reluctant creation of an account with Google+, which I’m still trying to get a feel for), I assumed that most everyone would have at least dabbled with the internet behemoth. After reading a post from fellow writer/blogger Katie Cross, however, I realized that may not be the case.

What is reddit? Man, is that a loaded question. In a lot of ways, reddit is a microcosm of the internet itself. It has everything you could possibly imagine—cat videos, pranks, world news, politics, technology, fitness, pop culture news, plus a plethora of content that is both NSFW and NSFL (and if you don’t know what those abbreviations mean, you’re probably not going to want to click on anything with those tags on them—not safe for work and not safe for life, respectively).

There are literally thousands of groups, all categorized into areas called subreddits, that you can subscribe to and decide what you do and don’t want to see; the music subreddit, for example, is listed as /r/music. There are links to content, such as photos, videos, and articles, as well as (usually quite lengthy) discussions about said content.

And just like the internet as a whole, there are several useful resources for writers: workshops where you can submit work for critique, articles to help you strengthen your skills, discussion groups about various aspects of writing…all, of course, helpful in its own way.

Then there’s /r/nosleep.

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The design for the brand new nosleep t-shirt.

No Sleep is a subreddit dedicated to trying to frighten and disturb you; it’s kind of like gathering around a virtual campfire and swapping ghost stories. All stories are told in the first person as true experiences. The people who read the stories and leave comments treat them as if they’re real, because one of the guidelines is “Everything is true in /r/nosleep.”

One of the keys to reddit is its unique upvote/downvote process for determining what’s popular. It’s a bit like Facebook with added negativity. Anything submitted to reddit is subject to its users’ approval or disapproval. This goes for No Sleep as well.

After reading stories there for the last few months, I decided to give it a whirl. I had been tossing around an idea for a flash fiction story that I thought would meet the criteria of the group, so I submitted it last week. Surprisingly, it was upvoted by the majority of people who read it, and there were quite a few encouraging comments. Encouraging in that they all requested more—updates to the situation I detailed in my story. I then decided to write a second chapter with the intention of it being a bit of a bridge to the third and final installment, bringing the story to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.

So, first story: 152 upvotes, 37 downvotes. Not bad. Reddit’s nice enough to let me know that means 81% like it. Second story: 68 upvotes 19 downvotes. 78%. Still not too shabby, but the real story is in the comments. The first story had 33 comments, ranging from ‘keep us updated’ to ‘please update soon, the suspense is killing me.’ The second had 10, mostly just saying ‘uh-huh, keep us posted,’ and one sarcastic butthead. Obviously the first story resonated with people more than the second one. It’s not exactly a line by line critique of your work, but what I like is that it’s instantaneous feedback from some of the most honest people on the planet—anonymous strangers on the internet. If they don’t like your story you’ll know, because they simply downvote and don’t comment on it.

If you like to read creepy stories, or want to see how people like the stories you make up, jump on over to /r/nosleep and give it a shot. They have monthly contests for the most popular story, and a sort of a ‘behind the scenes’ subreddit for discussions about the group. I’ll be writing the conclusion to my epic saga in the next day or two, so you may be reading my story there soon. I may end up posting the whole thing here on the blog at a later date as well, time will tell. So, who are my fellow redditors out there?