"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


The English words "rhythm" and "ritual" share the same common ancestor, which makes sense when you stop to think about it. They both go back to an Indo-European root that meant "to count," or "to number," which also shows up in "arithmetic" and suggests the idea of imposing order or pattern on the universe. Our rituals are a rhythm as sure as any heartbeat; they bring a sense of structure to our lives.

Which brings me to the teenage slasher movie.

If that segue just gave you whiplash, then you probably haven't seen The Cabin in the Woods yet, and you probably should stop reading now if you have any intention to see it, because there are spoilers ahead. I think I wanted to love this movie; it was written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (directed by Goddard as well), whose work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel constituted some of the best television ever. And on one level I did love it, but on another it all seems to crash and burn because like Icarus it just got too clever for itself.

The teenage slasher movie is just the modern incarnation of "The Tale of the Hook," its immediate ancestor. You know the one I am talking about. It goes something like this; a young couple drives out to lover's lane and parks the car, hears on the radio that an escaped psychopath with a hook for a hand is roaming about, but unwisely stays to make out anyway. They hear a noise, and in some versions he goes out to investigate and gets killed and in others they speed off just in time, only to find a hook hanging on the passenger side door. This Hook Man is horror's dead beat dad, having fathered Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers and Leatherface only to then abandon them to follow their own murderous careers.

The point is we all know the story the moment it begins. We've all experienced it at some point in our adolescence because the Teenage Slasher Film is a ritual just as sure and familiar as getting your driver's license, graduation, or losing your virginity. In ancient times societies would have called it an ordeal, a ritual you must undergo to test you before you pass into adulthood.

If you are a fan of the genre, or far worse a lunatic like me who happens to believe horror is important and worthy of study, then you know all the rules as surely as the characters in Scream. Rule One requires a group of teenagers...but not just any teenagers, they must conform to certain archetypes, like trumps in a Tarot Hand. You need the Jock, the Bad Girl, the Good Girl, the Nice Guy, and the Joker (or Nerd). Rule Two is that you must isolate them. Rule Three is that there must be some sort of Transgression...the kids must do something to bring it all on themselves. Rule Four is that the Hook shows up and starts killing them (the Bad Girl always goes first and usually right after having premarital sex, the naughty whore). Rule Five is that someone--probably the Good Girl--survives to tell the tale. Make no mistake, all of this is a ritual as surely as Mass on Sundays.

But a ritual to appease what gods?


Goddard and Whedon have that answer for you, in this film. Like any slasher film our five teens leave school behind to go off for the weekend to a cabin in the woods...but almost we are made aware that some massive government secret agency is tracking them and manipulating them. Beneath this cabin is a high tech spy complex from which they watch the teens' every move and play with them like chess pieces, forcing them to conform to the ritual of the teenage slasher film. They watch as teen after teen is horribly murdered on hidden camera and cheer them on. The punchline of course is that their are Lovecraftian dark gods sleeping in the Earth, and this annual ritual sacrifice of young people is required to keep them from waking and destroying the Earth.

It's clever. Very clever. And that's the problem.

See, the message is that the Teenage Slasher Film is a sacrifice performed for our benefit, the audience. We are the dark gods that must be appeased and there is the subtle implication that somehow things like horror films are releases valves that let off some of the pressure inside of us so we don't explode and start rampaging. There may be some truth to this...after all horror is a form of exorcism. But it all came off as too self-aware, too proud of itself, to really please me. I am one of those people who firmly believes that horror is this sort of ritual offering, but the suspension of disbelief is a key element of that working, and the film lost me in the final act.

As I said, I love Whedon and I like Goddard, but both have done this kind of post-modern deconstruction of the horror film far better before. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the textbook case, with most of the same archetypes but this time the teens killed the monsters. The Cabin in the Woods, despite moments of brilliance, doesn't live up to its own potential.

But don't let this get you down. Just as there will be Christmas next year or the Fourth of July, there will be fresh horror films where the ritual is repeated and the black gods appeased.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Sherlock Holmes belongs to a fairly exclusive club, one occupied by other august (and Victorian) personages like Tarzan and Count Dracula. He is, simply, one of the most played, most adapted, most revised, most re-invented figures in fiction. According to Guinness, he's been portrayed by 75 actors in 211 films. This doesn't take into account stage or television.

These days we have at least three major incarnations of Holmes in play; well, two-and-a-half at least. We have Guy Ritchie's absurd over-the-top action Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr. We have Hugh Laurie's House, who qualifies as the "half Holmes." This tale of a drug-addicted, interpersonal-relationship challenged mystery-solving genius was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle's detective, even in name ("Holmes" becomes "House," "Watson" becomes "Wilson"). But clearly the best of the bunch is the BBC's wunderkind, which despite consisting of only a handful of 90-minute episodes stretched over two seasons (or "series," to be British about it) is the best Holmes you've seen since Jeremy Brett.

Sherlock is a modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Think Holmes and Watson in the 21st century and you've got it. We've seen adaptations of this kind before--the whackiest by far being 1987's dreadful The Return of Sherlock Holmes, where the great detective is thawed out after a century in cryogenic sleep (an idea so stupid it was recycled again in 1994 in Sherlock Holmes Returns). Sherlock is different. It doesn't bring Holmes and Watson into the present, it portrays them as belonging here.

Watson, played to perfection by The Office alumnus and soon-to-be-Bilbo-Baggins Martin Freeman, is an Afghan war veteran suffering PTSD. Encouraged to blog about the war and his recovery by his therapist, he ends up encountering the eccentric Holmes and blogging all about him instead, turning him into a kind of pop culture icon. This is a smart update of the tradition John Watson, an Army doctor who turned Holmes into a celebrity by writing about him. Freeman's portrayal manages to remain very faithful to Conan Doyle while at the same time giving Watson modern context and issues. He has precisely the right blend of exasperation, hero-worship, and protectiveness of Holmes that made the character the original Samwise Gamgee (couldn't resist another hobbit reference).

But the show is called Sherlock, and what sinks or swims any adaptation is the actor who takes on Holmes. This time it is the improbably named Benedict Cumberbatch, whose take on this played-to-death character is so freaking good you can't take your eyes off of it.

Cumberbatch's Holmes is a faithful incarnation; he is a genius whose racing mind never slows down, and unless has an impossible puzzle to work on starts tearing itself apart. The more negative aspects of the character are accentuated. Always a bit aloof and arrogant, this Holmes is so inside his own head he barely acknowledges the existence of other people. Like Hugh Laurie's House he is so charm-free that he's charming. Somehow.

The stories themselves are loose adaptations of Conan Doyle, again, brilliantly done. Series creator and writer Steven Moffat--who knows all about brilliant reinventions of characters after his smashing version of Doctor Who--excellently keeps the mysteries fresh with enough winks and nods to the Holmes tradition to keep devoted fans tickled. Case in point, his handling of the famous deerstalker cap, a piece of headgear we all associate with Holmes that he never actually wore. In Moffat's hands Holmes grabs the cap to quickly disguise himself, but is photographed in it and made such a celebrity in Watson's blog that the public (to his fury) immediately identifies him with it. This is just one of many touches that make the series excellent.

It is this triple blow of two wonderful lead actors and superb writing that make Sherlock must-see television, whether you're a Conan Doyle fan or not. In a world where Holmes has been played to death by a long line of leading actors, turned into Japanese anime, and even been portrayed by Kermit the Frog, the BBC's current revision is shockingly fresh.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I don't think anyone thinks of George R.R. Martin as a "horror writer." With the immense success of his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series the marketing machine usually labels him something like "the Master of Modern Fantasy" or whatnot instead. But Martin is the kind of writer I very much admire, who catches the scent of a story like a bloodhound and chases it down no matter what genre the trail leads through. He's written some excellent fantasy, but he's also written damn fine superhero fiction and a few gripping horror stories. One of those was "The Skin Trade," a novella about werewolves. Another was 1982's "Fevre Dream."

"Fevre Dream" wears yet another label, that of the "vampire novel," a term I rather dislike. Given the immense diversity of books that get pegged with it, it's just about as meaningless a label as saying something is a "human novel." If you really want to classify a hardcore horror story like King's "Salem's Lot" with Meyer's multi-volume "good girls wait until marriage" sermon "Twilight," be my guest, but the two have practically nothing in common. You might as well put "Cujo" in the same category as Armstrong's "Sounder" under the heading of "dog tales."

I mention all of this because "Fevre Dream" is too rich to be filed under any one single label. Yes, it has vampires in it, but it is also a well-researched tale of mid-19th century steamboat life on the Mississippi (and yet curiously is not labelled "steamboat fiction"). It concerns captain Abner Marsh, whose fleet of boats is wiped out by a freakishly harsh winter. He is saved by entering a partnership with the enigmatic Joshua York, a pale and elegant gentleman with a fortune to spend. York finances construction of the Fevre Dream, one of the largest, fastest, and most elegant steamboats on the river. But this comes with a price. He wishes to be co-captain with Marsh, to live aboard the ship, to transport a strange menagerie of curious guests no questions asked, and demands frequent stops along the river without explanation. Marsh's suspicions build as they steam down from St Louis towards New Orleans. After all, York is never seen by day, drinks bottles of some strange elixir, and is obsessed with newspaper articles of unsolved murder. By the time Marsh confronts him, the reader is already certain what York is.

The reader is wrong, however.

Without giving too much away Martin does here for vampires what he (and his friends) did for superheroes in "Wild Cards," and in many ways what he did again in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. He takes a genre you think you know, dismantles it, and puts it back together again in a whole new way. Not that his approach to vampires is all that unique; Suzy McKee Charnas and Whitley Streiber both beat him to it (see "The Unicorn Tapestry" and "The Hunger"), but the way he handles this sort of...ahem..."vampire" is very well done indeed. I would also add that it is entirely secondary to the novel. The engine that moves "Fevre Dream" along is Martin's engaging characters and plot twists. Though not very scary, it is a gripping page-turner. It also is a book with something to say, nicely comparing the master-slave dynamic of the period with the vampire-prey one.