Respecting a Legend; A Tribute to Richard Matheson (1926-2013)

Well, I couldn’t have said it any better. Richard Matheson is one of the enduring influences on my writing (and reading). My introduction was watching ‘The Last Man on Earth’ in the late 60’s / early 70’s with Vincent Price. It was the best of the I Am Legend movie efforts, but no film has really captured that novel yet.
Anyway, thanks Richard, you will be sorely missed.

Horror Novel Reviews

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Written by: Matt Molgaard

Brilliant minds seem few and far between. There are a lot of powerful thinkers out there in the world, but few with the drive, determination and consistent showings of talent to earn the term legendary. Richard Matheson was one of the really rare individuals who not only deserved, but totally and completely earned that title. The man was absolutely brilliant, one of the strongest minds to ever dip his hands in the pot.

If you haven’t followed Matheson’s work over the years, you’ve been missing something truly special. Then again, if you’ve never read or seen any of Matheson’s material, maybe you’re anti-entertainment, in which case, you probably wouldn’t be reading this to begin with. Richard ruled the world of printed fiction for years, and he took that talent right to the screen.  Big and small alike, Matheson wrote some amazing tales. His work on…

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The Hero’s Journey: An Atrocity?

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Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig recently asked his readers (many of whom are also writers) some interesting questions.  One of them was “What gets you to read a book?” The answers he received (nearly 200!) ran the gamut from ‘great covers’ to ‘word of mouth’ and on through to ‘authorial voice’.  While it could be argued that a slew of writers giving their opinion on this topic might not actually represent the tastes of the reading (but non-writing) public, the answers do give a writer some interesting food for thought.

A follow up question posed by Chuck was, “What makes you put a book down?”  This question garnered an even larger comment tsunami from his readership. One of those comments struck me as particularly interesting.

A respondent opined:

I would sooner read Mein Kompff (sic) again than another novel, or any piece of media, that is infected with the Hero’s Journey plot structure. The rantings of one of the most evil men in the history of the world is a far more enjoyable than seeing the schlub everyman hero be coerced into an ‘amazing new world,’ murder his bizarro-father, and bring the macguffin back to the mundane reality to resume a more cushy status quo.

I like to think of Joseph Campbell as the Albert Einstein of the creative world: a well meaning guy who made an amazing discovery that’s being used to commit atrocities.

Hitler’s self-serving (but ultimately boring) pseudo-autobiography notwithstanding, I at first reacted with anger. But I sort of get the commenter’s point: when the “hero’s journey” is mechanically pushed into your face, it can be a turn-off. Seems contrived. Done before. Boring.

It is a waxwork of art.

It looks real. Like a story we should be into, but  we already know what’s going to happen. Sure, we can read on to see how skillfully the author puts his characters through their paces, or we can just toss the book in disgust.

I think it’s a valid criticism. I especially admire the comparison of Campbell to Einstein and the unintended, ‘atrocious’ consequences of their respective accomplishments.

 

“Fetched by the world.”

Recently, I was reading an author interview in GlimmerTrain (I can’t remember who it was). But this author  stated she wrote her characters to be ‘fetched by the world’, and it just stopped me. Yes, that’s it.  What an excellent phrase: fetched by the world. So preferable to the more tiresome “hero’s journey.”

Great stories are peopled with characters ‘fetched by the world’. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins spring immediately to mind (Thank you, Hollywood), but it needn’t be all fantasy and quests.

Who else was fetched?

Jonathan Harker, Emma Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Kunta Kinte, Grendel, Atticus Finch, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jean Brodie, Gregor Samsa, Scarlett O’Hara, Dorothy, Clarice Starling, Siddhartha, Okonkwo, Ahab, Ishmael, and Titus Groan.

Each and every one of them – fetched by the world. In a big way.

And we continue to read those stories through generations because, sooner or later, the world comes to fetch us all. Not a white whale, maybe, but a shadow on the chest x-ray. Or finding love with the wrong person. Or losing your job and having to drink it away or reinvent yourself. The world fetches us. That’s what it does.

We can ignore the call, or we can jump on the train, follow the yellow brick road, go to Alderan, or Mordor, or walk endlessly across Dublin, or swallow the red pill, or go down the rabbit hole.

We can undergo chemoradiation, or get divorced, or secretly love a 14 year-old or, or live through the day of our child’s funeral, or win the lottery, or ,God forbid,  have sex with road kill.

Or we can do nothing. No blood, no foul.

The world isn’t the explainable stage of rationality we want it to be. All bets are off. And we can heed the call and bring back our macguffin. Just as Hitler envisioned himself the ‘hero’ of his epic ‘struggle’ and brought back to our ‘mundane reality’ the spectre of National Socialism.

Campbell, I believe, knew it. He wasn’t worried about artistic overkill, the tired boredom of the reader in the marketplace. He was onto the very root of storytelling itself. Something buried deep inside us. Fear and aspiration.

He was writing of characters being fetched by the world.

Failing. Succeeding. Dealing with life, death, love, anger, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, alienation. Joyous rapture and murderous intention.

It’s what stories contribute to our common understanding, unchanged, across all these generations.

The ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t a formula.

It’s a way to understand life.

Your very life.

_______________

Image by Lost in Scotland


Midnight Cruisers

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Anna lay next to her husband, watching with satisfaction the effect the nightmare was having on him. His face contorted, he thrust his legs out straight, kicking at something. Occasional whimpers slipped from his lips which pulled back from his teeth like leeches recoiling from a flame.

Anna could understand why he was so terrified. She knew that in his dream Kevin was staked out in a starlit desert with an enormous black snake taking meaty bites from his thighs, making its bloody, painful way to his crotch.

It was not a recurring nightmare that Anna’s husband was experiencing, something he had confided to her through their speedy courtship and single year of marriage. No, this was a completely new nightmare, and it was going to kill him. His heart rate was going to escalate. It was going to stop in his chest as the snake finally opened its jaws and ripped his dick out at its root.

Anna knew all this because she had sent the Cruisers to her husband’s sleepworld to do her bidding.

The next morning Anna took great pleasure in calling Kevin’s assistant, Casey (the slut), to report his death. Nothing but silence on the other end of line. Perfect.

And then Anna began making her plans for Casey’s bad dreams that evening.

The first time they had come as spiders, their hard, black legs pushing through the plasterboard in her closet. Twelve year old Anna heard them scratching and clawing at her clothes. The hangers rattled and fell to the floor. The door bulged and she saw the spiders tumble out onto her white carpet, hissing, the size of dinner plates, hundreds of them. And she had sent them down to her father’s sleepworld. She had often wondered how she had been able to call them (and what were they, really?). But since that time she had grown more adept at controlling them, and they had served her many times. Always hurting the hurters.

Anna got the impression they came from far away. She didn’t know how she knew that, but deep inside she felt that was right. She called them The Midnight Cruisers, because of her impression that they traveled far and wide and she was only one of many beings in the universe they visited. And they only came at night. Mostly, she simply thought the name was cool.

Through the years, the Cruisers had come as shiny slugs with vicious human faces (for the gym teacher) a lion with a dirty mane and bloody teeth (for her mother), a twisted bare tree that whispered terrible truths (to the Greek fucker at the dry cleaners who always leered at her).

When she had discovered that Kevin was screwing his secretary, she debated whether to do him first, or start with the slut. Anna felt the cruisers were keener for Kevin, so she sent them down to his sleepworld last night where they knew exactly what form to take to stop his heart. They were spectacular and, as the years had proven, reliable and loyal.

By the time the morticians had carted off Kevin’s carcass the sun was already sinking, sending shadow fingers up her lawn, reaching for her doorstep.

Anna downed a nice glass of merlot and savored the thought of Casey in the grip of the  nightmare the cruisers would manufacture, just for her. She thought of that first night, the night of the spiders, when she’d sent them down to her father’s sleep world. Never again would she have to lie awake, dreading the squeak of her bedroom door.

From that night on, whenever there was justice to be done, a hurter to be hurt, Anna could stare into the darkness and call the Midnight Cruisers to turn her enemy’s sleepworld to hell.

Easy on the merlot, girl, she told herself: lots to do tonight.

She went to the couch and laid down. A few minutes of rest before calling them. It had been a fulfilling but long day.

When she rose from the couch, she went to her room and put on dark clothes. It was easy enough to get the slut’s address from Kevin’s computer. She felt it was now late enough. Casey would be sleeping and Anna didn’t want to miss the show. She could call the Cruisers from here, but then she would be deprived of watching Casey writhe in terror as they scared her slowly to death. What would they choose for the bitch? Anna could never know beforehand. Only when the nightmare was underway did the Cruisers allow her to dip into the sleepworld to see them at their work.

Parking under a linden tree, Anna sauntered to Casey’s house, a pale, yellow ranch set back behind a six foot hedge. The wind was cool on her back as it blew dead leaves across the street. She circled the small house, judging few people would pass by at this hour. Casey’s bedroom window lay at the back of the house. Moans came from the bed.

Anna walked quickly to the window to see what was happening, too excited now to be careful.

Casey writhed under the duvet, saying something Anna couldn’t quite make out, but she was sure  they were words of entreaty to whatever hideous aspect the Cruisers had presented to her.

A twig snapped directly behind her.

She spun around and screamed. Her father, worms and spiders spilling from his eye sockets, grasped her and pushed his green tongue into her ear.

And then Casey was speaking to her through the bedroom window screen. “I knew you were acquainted with the night things. After you called about Kevin, I was sure of it. I call them darklings, but I’m sure you have your own name for them. We all do. Of course, you realize you’re sleeping on your couch back at home right now?  Your dear father is simply the demon the darklings felt you should be sharing your sleepworld with tonight.”

Anna was getting sick from the stench of her dead father. “How?” she asked.

“The darklings feel you’ve been abusing your power. You’re the hurter now. They are not allowed to kill those they serve, so I was called in. I’m what you could call a cleaner. Enjoy your death.”

And then Anna was no longer in Casey’s back yard. She was back in her childhood bedroom, in the nightmare.

The hinges squeaked lightly.

A silhouette appeared in the doorway.

“It’s just the Cruisers, only the Cruisers,” she said to herself and closed her eyes.

Her heart was a dying slab in her chest. Pain shot down her arms.

Knowing what she’d see, she slowly opened her eyes anyway, and she screamed until her heart stopped.

And then the Cruisers were on her.

_________________________

I was browsing Flickr and found this arresting photo of a young girl lying in bed, thinking some deep thoughts. She got me wondering what in hell she was thinking and what type of adult she would become. I had Steely Dan’s “Midnight Cruiser” blaring into my headphones. The title of the song and the photo gave rise to this strange little story. Written on a gloriously sunny, post-blizzard Sunday morning with a cuppa good joe at my favorite market. The idea of cruisers to do one’s bidding is appealing, but who could ever control that level of righteousness?

Image by Alyssa L. Miller


That Halloween – 1965

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She feels as vaporous as a ghost, padding from room to room as the gloom slowly fills the house.

“Move it!” she yells up the stairs, and they scream back “Almost done!” in perfect unison.

She savors the memory of how their faces had lit up that morning, when she had put on her hat and coat and commanded them to get ready to walk into town for the costumes. They deserved it. A few crumpled bills stuffed into a pocket of her faded, blue raincoat held that kind of power. She had been trying to save for some time, to cushion them against the unknown. But now what was the use?

They pile down the stairs, costumes crinkling and hissing. All that plastic and silk.

“Watch out, Ma, or I’ll curse you!” Ruby’s witch cackles, waving her fingers.

Zach is some sort of hobo-clown. He loves Red Skelton and maybe that’s why he chose that one, she doesn’t know. Of course, the Montgomery Ward only had about the three costumes left by the time she had decided to bring them on down there, so it’s not like they had a lot to choose from.

“It’s getting dark, they’ll be starting down at the grange hall soon. You’d better get a move on,” she tells them.

“You’re coming, right Ma?” She sees Zach’s pale blue eyes widen behind the hobo mask.

“I’ll be along presently. Just hold your sister’s hand and everything will be fine.” She fixes her daughter with a serious but tender gaze. “Ruby, you’ll watch out for your brother, won’t you, hon?”

“Yes’m,” Ruby says and it’s hard to take her seriously wearing that clean mop she’s laid on her head for witch-hair. She’s just a kid, after all.

She bustles them out the door and notices the strap on Ruby’s right shoe is loose. “Hold on.” She bends down and snaps the buckle. “There. Wait! What good is a witch without a broom?”

She runs back into the house and grabs the straw-stick from the kitchen closet. “That’s better,” she says, placing the broom into her daughter’s hand.

“Come here, my hobo.” She holds her arms out to Zach and she sees his eyes roll, but he rushes forward into her embrace. “Be mindful of your sister, now. I’ll see you both soon.”

And then she releases him.

She walks back into the house, letting the screen door bang shut.

The kitchen is getting darker, but she doesn’t feel like turning on a lamp. The darkness whispers to her, like a lover, as she watches the kids, hand in hand, skip across the yard toward County Road 22.

“Hey, wait!” she calls out, and then scampers over to the counter. She has just remembered she bought a roll of film when they got the costumes. To get a picture of this Halloween. For a keepsake, like people do.

The wind is picking up outside. “A picture!” she yells, holding the camera over her head. “Just get closer together.” She moves her arms like she is directing traffic in town.

The sky above the children boils black, gray, and white.

And she snaps the picture.

“Okay,” she yells again, nodding her head. “I’ve got it. I’ve got you!  Now, go on.”

Back in the kitchen, she pulls the photo out of the side of the enormous, gray plastic camera and places it on the table. From here she can see into the living room as well as out through the screen door to the yard and the road. She looks at her wedding photo above the couch, and, on the mantle, the folded flag that came home from Vietnam on her husband’s coffin. Unpaid bills lie in a mound on the coffee table.

She looks down. Miraculously, the image of her kids on this Halloween slowly emerges as she loads the pistol.

She sits quietly  in the darkness.

Through the screen door she watches Zach and Ruby running, their squeals of glee swallowed by the rising wind.

“Go on, now,” she whispers again. “Go on.”

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___________________

Photo: delilas


2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.


Dummies – Nuclear Test Site, Nevada 1953

Good jobs,

Government man say.

Even children paid.

Keep house.

Keep new furniture.

Love children.

Love life.

_____________

Momma go out?

No.

Momma go out?

No.

M –

_____________________________________

For a flash challenge at terribleminds

Image by Mark Holloway


Seasons

As anyone who frequents this blog can attest, Sitting in Darkness is decidedly NOT a confessional or a journal blog, or even a how-to-write-and-get-published blog. It’s mostly a compendium of weird, little stories, with some editorial content I throw in occasionally to illuminate the seed of the story. Or perhaps I’ll include an interesting anecdote about stuff that happened while I was writing the story.

I spend a good deal of time reading confessionals, journals, and how-to’s, so I’m not saying the way I am blogging is all that…it is, in fact, inferior to the many blogs that actually offer visitors useful information about writing, good reads, and, well, let’s say, “the state of the publishing industry”. I just don’t feel I have much to offer there.

But, I do have a group of regulars; people who visit the blog often, leave supportive comments, and are generally excellent individuals, as far as I can tell from their avatars and their comments. I can only hope their opinions of me are half as high.

So, I thought it might be fun (or not) to post some seasonal shots of where Sitting in Darkness gets done. In a future post, I might even post a pic or two of my office, where the writing happens (or not), but the utter disarray of said office right now might constitute a violation of web etiquette.

Robert Frost once so eloquently wrote, ‘spring is the mischief in me’. So here is a shot of the homestead in spring. I haven’t been able to discern any difference in the tone of my stories from spring to fall to winter. We plant and dig and sweep. The bumble bees chase us away from the peach, pear, and apple blossoms. Writing takes a back seat to outdoor pursuits. The summer builds and send us to the pond to cool off.

But I must admit, I loathe the summer heat and wait expectantly for the fall, my favorite season, when I am not above telling my kids that we live in werewolf central. It just seems that way to me. Driving home from a jaunt in the city, I develop a delicious sensation of dread as we weave through the autumn fog in the hills, the roads a jumble of color from the wind-swept leaves. The fall invites me outside to ramble in the fields but it also tugs me to my office to write. A more interior approach to life comes home to roost in my chest.

I will take an autumn shot this year, and post it.

With the leaves turning to brown mud, the first snows start to drop – languid, fat, and wet. But this is New England and the storms pick up. The snows begin to pile and lay heavy on the land. Sooner or later, the storm comes. The electricity fails, and fire is the only heat and light to prevent us from sitting in total, freezing darkness.

When we’re really in it, and the writing is furious:

The winter evenings in such a place are made for sitting in darkness: the wind howls, and the trees grow so thick and close, they creak and scream as they bend back and forth on dark, frigid nights. After the rest of the family has started to snore under a mound of quilts, what writer could resist the urge to bask in the glow of the orange face of the wood stove and scribble a dark little story? Monsters roam the upstairs hallways; lonesome spirits moan in the wet, fieldstone basement; and nameless horrors whisk past my little window, outside in the snowy bluster. The best writing comes when I can convince myself our deliverance from the storm and its denizens is far from certain. What will morning find in this house?

I wake to giggling children, the smell of coffee and waffles, and powder blue skies. The stove is toasty. I don’t even look to see what I wrote last night. That can wait. We huddle around the iron stove and feed in logs to warm ourselves before going out to breathe in that scrumptious, clean air.

After breakfast, out to blow the snow, shovel the property, change out the chickens’ water which would have frozen overnight. The dogs disappear in the drifts.

Back in the house after a good snootful of fresh air and some vigorous shoveling, I find I have the gumption to read what I wrote the night before – maybe there’s something worth keeping. The truly abysmal sentences, so clear now in this growing sunshine,  are summarily deleted. This evening, I’ll be at it again, I hope.

The fall and winter just bring on my muse.

My muse is an old man who wanders the fields aimlessly, kicking at the dead cornstalks, and talking to geese on the wing.

And he’s approaching now.


Deep Ones

The Deep Ones took her on a beautiful summer day.

She’d been lolling in the gentle surf, eyes half-closed against the sun and its glittering reflections. On the cusp of womanhood, her scent drew them in, just as the elders said it had happened in the time of horrors.

The Deep Ones dragged her to the bottom and drowned her, leaving a seed deep in her dead womb. It burst forth, fully tentacled, a storm of blood and bubbles.

Decades later, his stolen daughter a local legend, the fisherman spied a tentacled horror on the bottom – and wept in recognition.

_________________________________

Thanks to Emma Audsley who posted this excellent image (drawn by Victor Hugo, no less!) as a prompt for a 100-word story on her active and excellent blog, The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog. I responded to Emma’s prompt with the story you read above and I’m re-posting it here because I like this tiny tale.

Interestingly, I found the following text from Victor Hugo accompanying the image when I downloaded it from 50 Watts via Flickr.  Strange and fun, I think, how it meshes with the story I wrote having only seen the picture. More a testament to Hugo’s drawing than my writing, I suspect.

At night, however, and particularly in the hot season, she becomes phosphorescent. This horrible creature has her passions, she awaits her submarine nuptials. She adorns herself, setting herself alight and illuminating herself; and from the height of some rock she may be seen in the deep obscurity of the waves below, expanding with a pale aureole — a spectral sun.


Thinking About Horror…How Does it Feel?

Decided to write a horror story? Don’t think about it.

 

Use your feelings and fears instead.

Someone once said, “I write in order to discover what I think.”  Could’ve been Blaise Pascal, or Joan Didion. Maybe Susan Sontag. I can’t remember.

The quote is accurate enough, I guess. A bit intellectual for me, though. Because I am naturally suspicious of what I think. Too many filters and prejudices attach to thinking, like those suckerfish on sharks.

I’m more comfortable with the statement, “I write in order to understand what I feel.” That’s seems a little closer to the mark.

I could dial in the focus even further and say, “I write in order to know what frightens me.” Now that seems true. And maybe that’s why most of what I write (and read) is identified as “horror”. After all, horror fiction is most concerned with the evocation of dread, right?

I think, therefore I ape….

That sub-head above caused me no end of anxiety. I mean, who the hell am I to tell any writer how – or how not– to approach a story? It’s ludicrous. But, as a READER, I know in my guts if a writer was just plowing the same old horror field, or if that writer was really down there in that basement with some un-named…thing. Or trapped in ‘The Penal Colony’ with Kafka’s protagonist.

As a writer, thinking too much tends to make me wily. I’m looking for an audience, or a cheap reaction. And the stories that spring from that soil usually never make it off my hard drive. But when I’m fueling the action of a story with my own revulsion and fear? Well, then I think I’m onto something true and good and worthwhile.

So, as I write a story, I’m always asking myself, “Does this frighten you, Bob?”

Since you’re reading this, I assume you are, to some extent, a horror fan (or a much-appreciated supportive friend who checks in on this blog every now and then) and, like me, completely unfazed by werewolves and vampires. Those old world tropes just don’t cut it anymore. Oh, they can be written as sexy and angst-ridden to appeal to a YA audience. But scary? Pazuzu-scary? No way.

And that New World, post-industrial trope – the Zombie – has been so done to death in fiction and movies, it’s become a parody of itself: undying, yet devoid of life.

I’m not saying a story written to these tropes cannot be effective. I’m saying any contemporary story using these tropes, will find success only insofar as it touches on more timeless, even phobic, fears.

Like claustrophobia, for example. One of my…problems.

If a writer wants to crank up the tension in a story, the easiest way to do it is by progressively limiting the mobility and the choices of the characters. Melville did it in Moby Dick. The moment the Pequod left the dock, those sailors were doomed, with no escape but a watery death. Where, in the trackless wastes of the Pacific, could they run to escape Ahab’s obsession?

Stephen King made immobility and the lack of options famously explicit in Misery. The protagonist is successively and progressively immobilized by accidental injury, involuntary drugging at the hands of a crazed fan. He is even hobbled, for Chrissakes (just to drive the immobility point home, in a spectacularly gruesome scene). And not only that, this all takes place in a remote cabin where no one will come to help. Talk about dwindling choices! And King’s own anxiety in relation to this situation is apparent in the writing.

Exorcising demons

 

I believe all writers – not just horror writers – use their fears to create their greatest stories: fear of intimacy, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of people not just like them. It’s almost as if the act of writing itself were nothing but the exorcising of these fears.

And maybe that’s just what it is.

My strongest stories are those composed of scenes that make me flinch. The ones that make me feel I am, myself, this character undergoing this horrifying experience. I may even turn my head away from the page as I type – but my fingers know the words, and won’t stop until the story is told.

To write a story and not be moved by it is a cheat – to both the writer and the reader.

I think I’d like to write a story now.

And I feel it is dark enough to get it done.

____________________

Image by Pink Sherbert Photography


Interregnum

The world no longer tolerated human sounds.

We again had only the wind and birds and streams, not the constant thrum of industry.

Cars and trucks and even trains lay askew,  smoking and silent under gunmetal skies.

Whatever happened had passed us by – it was elsewhere, an abstraction.

So we made love, and ate, and said beautiful drunken things.

We ran naked through the house, delirious in the aftermath of history.

We lived as the Creator had intended.

And it was only after the first of the dead scratched lightly at our bedroom window

That we realized the world would have its horror – our dreams be damned.

______________________________________

Image by Burtoo


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