An Interview with Robert Devereaux

I met Robert Devereaux in 1994 or 1995, not long after the publication of his breakthrough novel Deadweight, one of the more visceral, standout efforts in the Dell Abyss line of horror novels, and before the publication of his follow-up, Walking Wounded, a gentler tale, this one set in our shared, adopted home town of Fort Collins, Colorado. I was a bookseller at B. Dalton Bookseller, and he was an up-and-coming novelist, but a friendship grew from there—and eventually a professional partnership. Together, in 1998, we would produce a limited-edition hardcover of his wonderful (and controversial) novel Santa Steps Out, which does things to holiday characters and archetypes that are best read to be believed. It’s a hell of a yarn.

Those Dark Highway Press days proved career-changing for both of us. Robert found his way to a larger audience, and I published one more book—Skull Full of Spurs: A Roundup of Weird Westerns—before starting a family and eventually starting my own writing career. My friendship with Robert is one that I treasure, and I’m always happy to catch up with what he’s been up to. This time, I wanted to dig deeper, get at some history that I’d never asked him about before. So without further ado, here’s my interview with the great Robert Devereaux!

Jason: When did you “become” a writer? Talk about your early scribblings.

Robert: Roughly 1957, my fourth-grade teacher Thomas Haley read two horror stories to the class: one, a ghost story, the other, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Probably in response to them, I wrote “The Monstery, Monstery, Monster Story” and read it aloud to the class. It was a one shot, though at home about that time I did write a few short prose pieces, making up words like twirtsbum, goopy, and klopglog in a tale about Bloop the Bloggy. It took a good long while after that to get serious about writing fiction for possible publication.

Jason: What was it like selling that first piece?

Robert: For no pay, I had a story published in a Canadian magazine while living in Montreal (1971-73), something about a gun shop, bullets that spoke to the insane protagonist, and a death or two. Dave Hinchberger, again for no pay, published my werewolf story “Running with a New Pack” in his newsprint catalogue for The Overlook Connection Books in 1989. That story brought me for the first time before a dedicated horror readership.

The first piece I sold was “Fructus in Eden” to Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith at Pulphouse for issue 9 of their hardcover magazine. That was quite thrilling. It was my first inkling that I might be able to drum up some sort of audience for my dreams. When I drove to Seattle from California for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, summer of 1990, I even took the opportunity on the way back to stop in at the Pulphouse headquarters in Eugene, Oregon for a quick visit.

Jason: Ah, Clarion West. I know you have many formative moments there. Care to share an anecdote or two?

Robert: It was the practice of each Clarion West instructor to read over the stories workshopped prior to his or her arrival. My main reason for wanting to attend the 1990 workshop was to meet David Hartwell, who had considered and rejected Santa Steps Out.

I have two anecdotes about David: After his arrival on Sunday and his late afternoon meeting with the group, I waited my turn to talk to him individually. He started to praise Santa Steps Out and suggested we have dinner at a nearby restaurant. This pleasantly floored me. Turned out we had much to talk about. Jump ahead a week. My story for that week had been “Ridi Bobo.” David had also read “Bucky Goes to Church,” my first-week story for Karen Joy Fowler. Near the end of his stay, he took me aside and said, “Now that I’ve seen your range, I want to see Santa Steps Out again.” So I sent it to him, he did his best to get Tor Books onboard, and had the green light until the head of the Marketing Department told the CEO that there was no way agents visiting bookstores could possibly sell this book to them.

Jason: When did you first try your hand at novel-length fiction? Was it Santa? Thoughts about early influences for that?

Robert: My first completed novel, as yet unpublished, was Oedipus Aroused: Homer’s Long-Lost Erotic Epic. It attracted my first agent, Max Gartenberg, who was unable to place it. I came up with the idea for the novel at the University of Iowa around 1980 while working on my doctoral dissertation.

I suppose that John Barth’s fiction was one inspiration for Oedipus Aroused, particularly The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera. Strangely enough, the other influence was a comic book in which Batman and Robin give Superman a computer that predicts how his life would have been different if Krypton hadn’t exploded.

In my novel, Oedipus meets a cynic about oracles who talks him out of not returning home, indeed comes with him, and there ensues all manner of sexual hijinks and every variety of accidental heterosexual incest. By the end, the Oedipus story is back on its traditional track, just as Superman’s life on Krypton would have been uncannily parallel to his life on Earth.

Santa Steps Out, my second novel, was in part a reaction to all the historical research I had had to do for the Oedipus novel.  And Greek mythology figures in both books. What appealed about Santa was the minimal research I needed into the characters, a chance to tap into Greek mythology again, and the extremely wide and intriguing character arc that went from the pure and generous Saint Nicholas to the lecherous, grasping king of the satyrs.

Jason: We’ll get into the details of finally publishing Santa Steps Out a bit more later, but now I have the fun task of asking about Deadweight and its inspirations. What appealed to you about splatterpunk?

Robert: I had had no success with Oedipus Aroused and Santa Steps Out. Or rather, agents had nibbled at both books, but publishers were still wary of this unknown, untested writer. So for novel three, I asked myself the oft-recommended question, “What are you reading and enjoying most, and why don’t you write that?”

Two answers came back: I was deeply into Stephen King’s work, and I had just discovered Barker, Garton, Skipp, Spector, Schow, and Rex Miller, especially in that astonishing zombie anthology, Book of the Dead. Also, Santa Steps Out had intrigued Jeanne Cavelos at Dell Abyss, and I felt it would be good to give her something she could not resist. There was such energy, such creative juice in splatterpunk that it reminded me of the best of Jacobean tragedy, out of England in the early years of the seventeenth century. Hamlet is the best known of these, but The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and The White Devil are some of the worthiest of these savage plays. I had played the part of Lodovico, a tool villain in the last-named play, early 1969 in Finney Chapel at Oberlin College, and English Renaissance tragedy would become the focus of my doctorate at the University of Iowa a decade later.

The specifics for Deadweight came as a result of Gene Wolfe’s assignment to the class at Clarion West 1990: “Bring in a synopsis, no more than two pages long, of a novel you will write whose theme is resurrection.” From that hint came the plot and subplot of Deadweight. The King part was the green thumb the main character had inherited from her grandmother, that special power that brings back her dead husband and eventually defeats him. The splatter part was everything else, the revived devil dog, the penile implants, the rape with a cactus, and so much more.

Later, Jeanne Cavelos confided that she had considered asking me to dial back the mayhem, the repeated murder and revival of one victim, the throat fucking of the headless corpse, the threeway with the German shepherd, the blinding with thumbs, the unrelenting delivery of so much pain. But she said it all worked in context, and she had free rein at Dell to do as she pleased.

Jeanne also accepted Walking Wounded, my second and last Dell offering. In the midst of that book’s preparation, she left Dell to teach in New England, and without her, the horror line she had birthed and carefully nurtured withered on the vine.

Jason: Talk a bit about writing Walking Wounded. You set it in Fort Collins, having recently arrived here, right? What was the thinking behind this gentler book in the wake of the extremes of Deadweight?

Robert: Deadweight had been my nod to splatterpunk and I had no desire to continue in that vein, lest folks pigeonhole my writing. In Walking Wounded, my primary interest was in telling the story of a woman who acts badly, knows she’s doing so, yet also knows that the way she is acting is right and just. How can a good person do bad things? Perhaps they can’t. But I was going through a period of time in which I acted less than nobly toward a loved one, and felt the urgency of so acting. Best to keep that vague. I set the book in my new home of Fort Collins to anchor it in a place I knew, as I had done with Rocklin, California in Deadweight.

Jason: Around the time of Walking Wounded, I really got to know you well and become a fan of your work, from the perspective of a bookseller and then a publisher. I’m proud to say I became the first publisher of Santa Steps Out! For me, it was an introduction to the publishing world. What did Santa’s publication (finally!) mean for you as a writer?

Robert: Perhaps all of us have those conjunctive moments where things fall into place in astonishing ways. Meeting you in B. Dalton and striking up a friendship, based initially upon a mutual love of dark fiction, was one of those moments in my life. This was before the days of easy self-publication, so without your desire to launch Dark Highway Press and your delight in my first venture into Santaland, Santa Steps Out might have had to wait an additional ten years to break into print.

And, oh my, the incarnation it received! Your careful editing; Darin Sanders’ talent in layout, book design, font choice; and Alan Clark’s cover and six interior illustrations made it a true gem of a book. Its appearance in 1998, besides being a signal event in and of itself, led to my entrance into Leisure Books and working with Don D’Auria there, giving it a far larger audience and leading also eventually to my being invited into Eraserhead Press and yet one more incarnation of Santa Steps Out.

Jason: An equally important event in my own life, for sure! So, Santa’s publication led to the creation of two sequels, making the Santa saga perhaps your magnum opus. What is it about that world that captivates you?

Robert: Initially what attracted me to the North Pole and its fantastical denizens was a chance to reconnect with my childhood—the rich aroma of the Christmas evergreen, gleaming ornaments, and gifts hidden in wrappings.

Less but still magical were the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, each of them giving our homes a special charge, freely bestowing gifts as we slept.

I can’t recall when I began to wonder about the perversions which might lie hidden beneath all that generosity toward children, the dangers perhaps posed by allowing these three creatures into our homes when all of us lay unconscious. But wonder I did. Suppose the Tooth Fairy, under duress in her generosity, actually loathed children. Suppose the Easter Bunny was a lonely voyeur, off-the-charts envious of Santa Claus and his far more satisfying holiday and lot in life. And suppose Santa had long ago been Pan, king of the satyrs, goatish fucker of wood nymphs, and the ultimate embodiment of Dionysian excess? When I realized that the Tooth Fairy eats teeth and shits coins, Santa Steps Out began to speed along its first-draft track.

Santa having at least partially brought his Pan side under control, I then wondered what might occur if he looked at what had happened to his beloved children on their way into adulthood. Hence, his using his powers, old and new, to patch up a flawed human race in Santa Claus Conquers the Homophobes and Santa Claus Saves the World. By the end of the latter novel, he has been elevated into a competitive position of sonship with the Christ figure. At some point, there will be a fourth novel in which God the Father pits them against each other with dueling Second Comings. The working title of that book is Santa and the Angels of Death.

Jason: The mid-2000s saw the publication of some other works—namely, A Flight of Storks and Angels and Slaughterhouse High, the former through Five Star and the latter through Deadite. I’d like to hear a bit about this period (which also includes the Santa sequels) that led to a new publisher and perhaps a sort of renaissance for you.

Robert: Five Star happened first, under the editorship of John Helfers. John was interested in novels from previously published authors, novels which had somehow fallen through the cracks at traditional publishing houses. I may have tried Ice Ghoul Daze (the original title of Slaughterhouse High) on him, but the one he took was A Flight of Storks and Angels, my small-town fantasy novel inspired by Chet Williamson’s Ash Wednesday. Five Star did hardcover books only, slated for library sale and not bookstores.

Much later, John Helfers said in an interview that “A Flight of Storks and Angels . . . [was] one of the first fantasy novels I acquired during my time overseeing the Five Star SF/Fantasy line, and the one acquisition I am the most proud of in that line. Devereaux writes rural fantasy unlike anyone else, with incisive character portraits of both adults and children, keen insight into human nature, and a plot that gradually unfolds until the reader is swept away by it. A work worthy of being reprinted by a major publisher.”

I had had two novels published at Dell Abyss (Deadweight and Walking Wounded) and two at Leisure (Santa Steps Out and Caliban and Other Tales). Leisure then wanted a more traditional horror novel from me, which interested me not in the least. With no publisher biting on my second Santa Claus novel, I went through booklocker.com and self-published it. I also brought out a kindle edition of A Flight of Storks and Angels.

At this point, Carlton Mellick III emailed me. He’d noticed that I was self- publishing and he wondered if I might have something for Eraserhead Press. He had enjoyed Santa Steps Out immensely and when he heard that it was out of print and available, he persuaded Rose O’Keefe to bring it out under the Deadite Press imprint, with Jeff Burk as editor. This led to a meeting with the crew at their favorite beer pub and their accepting Slaughterhouse High and making plans to bring out the first two Santa Claus novels, reusing Alan M. Clark’s artwork from the Dark Highway Press edition and commissioning a cover from Alan for the second novel.

Since then, they have brought back into print nearly all of my out-of-print work and they’ve issued new work as well, Santa Claus Saves the World and Baby’s First Book of Seriously Fucked-Up Shit. It has indeed given new and exciting life to my writing career, with the likelihood of more to come.

Jason: Speaking of “likelihood of more to come,” what’s on the immediate horizon for Robert Devereaux fans? You mentioned the fourth Santa novel, but are their other books/stories in the pipeline?

Robert: Other than the eventual fourth Santa novel, I am in consultation with publishers about projects, most likely to come to fruition in 2016 and beyond. Details about these new works are best kept until the time of their appearance. I’ll also be self-publishing, via CreateSpace and Kindle, a number of works including Caliban which saw print from Leisure Books and my first completed novel Oedipus Aroused, which pretends to be Homer’s long-lost third epic in an easy-to-read and engaging prose translation. Baby swaps and bed tricks galore.

Jason: You’re about to appear in a local production of The Rainmaker. I know you have a deep love of the stage. What appeals to you about that world?

Robert: Although I had a few very early roles, in first grade as a raindrop and fourth grade as Zeus with two wives (mentioned in my afterword to Santa Steps Out), I became serious about acting in my undergraduate years at Oberlin. I have found acting invaluable in the creation of character in my fiction. It is also, in and of itself, sheer joy.

For a once-shy Robert, acting served as a mask that allowed me to bring out disallowed portions of my psyche. In my senior year, when I played the tool villain Lodovico in Webster’s The White Devil, the young woman who had stolen my virginity (I most willingly acquiescing to that theft) took in my performance and promptly said she never wanted to see me again, knowing now what vileness lurked beneath that deceptively kindhearted surface. Those were not her words. I can’t recall her words. I confine my recall of this lovely lady to matters of the bedroom. These days, we are not surprisingly Facebook friends.

Ten years ago, I had a one-day acting class from Lindsay Crouse. I adopted her outlook on acting, that day and ever since. While you are indeed engaged in presenting a shaped pack of lies, it’s your obligation to bring forth truth and authenticity in the emotions you display, to allow your vulnerability to serve as a mirror for those in attendance. Most recently, this same message came home to me in the death of my wife from ovarian cancer, the subsequent discovery of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability, and the most fortunate appearance in my life of a practice known as Orgasmic Meditation.

Jason: What else is bringing you joy these days? Favorite films? Books? Travels?

Robert: I am nearly two years into a delightful new relationship, which brings me great joy and wonder. Since retiring from software engineering, travel has presented itself and has included a long-desired trip to France, where I find to my surprise that the French I took in junior high and high school has rusted hardly at all.  I am a consumer of books (both fiction and non-fiction), CDs, and DVDs. After revisiting the film The Grifters, I’m finally dipping into Jim Thompson’s fiction, starting with The Killer Inside Me. I am also reveling in a biography of Peter Lorre, The Lost One, by Stephen D. Youngkin (2005), as I catch up with Lorre’s films, seeing many of them for the first time.

Jason: Thanks for taking the time to chat! I’ll definitely look forward to the fourth Santa novel and other future work!

Writing Like Mad

When I arrived for my very first Barnes & Noble booksigning back in early October, I was stunned to actually find a line of people waiting for me. Granted, it was a modest line. There were 5 or 6 people. But it was a heart-warming line nonetheless. A small-time, first-time author at his first signing, and there are people waiting to meet him? That’s extraordinary. And for that, I have to thank the local National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) chapter, which somehow got wind of my event and showed up to support me.

One of the leaders of the group asked if I might be interested in providing one of this year’s motivational letters for the writers undergoing the daily grind of writing many hundreds of words toward their annual goal of finishing a 50,000-word project. I said yes immediately. And this is what I came up with. It appeared today, November 15, 2014, in a broadcast email, halfway through the month. Enjoy!

Dear fellow survivalist—I mean, novelist,

Sorry, I get the two terms mixed up, particularly in the genre I’ve been exploring lately. See, for the past couple NaNoWriMo jaunts, I’ve gone into survivalist mode to write a crazy-ass apocalyptic-survival-horror series set in Fort Collins. Truthfully, the experience of writing them was pretty crazy-ass, too.

I mention the books not so much to self-indulgently plug them (the first one is called Blood Red, check it out!) but more as a metaphor for the NaNoWriMo writing process itself. You all know how frenetic November can be: It’s a mad dash toward a word count. It’s a time of clawing your way to a surface, everything else in your life be damned. Your existence is tunnel-visioned; nothing matters but success and survival in your pursuit of that word-count goal. But that’s what I love about NaNoWriMo: It’s a pure motivational kick in the teeth.

And in surprising ways, because of that survivalist fervor, the narratives of my novels have trajectories that are urgent, panicked, and fueled by adrenaline.

Form follows function.

Now, I’m not saying that’s necessarily the specific route for you. It’s simply how I’ve chosen to make NaNoWriMo work: Write like mad on a story that moves like mad … and is full of blood and torment … just like the writing process.

Chances are, you’re NOT working on a piece of splatter terror that takes place in real-time and moves from one horrific event to the next. But the notion of “writing like mad” can apply to all sorts of fiction. One fabulous thing that NaNoWriMo enables me to do—regardless of what I’m writing—is to turn off that constant-editor part of my brain and just go for broke. Spew words onto the page. And keep going. Page after page. Into the night. There’s both beauty and horror in that.

And that’s the whole crux of NaNoWriMo, isn’t it? I get more words churned out during November than any other month. You do too. It’s sorta magical that way. There’s something about the shared experience that gives us the determination and drive to be real writers. To hunch over that keyboard, eyes bloodshot, brain fevered, mouth dry, fingers skittering over the keys, plot spraying onto the screen like your own arterial blood—yes, perhaps scattershot, perhaps rough-edged and sloppy, but it doesn’t matter. You’re getting words down. No distractions, just you and your brainchildren—your characters, your plot machinations, your emotions, there on the page.

This is your moment to get pure writing done.

Don’t waste it! Don’t let the days start receding in your rearview without feeling that trembling sense of accomplishment, that bloodlust for MORE.

So here’s my advice to you, as you’re starting to really feel the heat of this grueling month. Hunker down, raise your defenses, stock up on Mountain Dew before the other survivors empty the shelves, and load your weapons. Don’t be idle. The monsters of self-doubt and loss-of-focus are outside your barricade, just waiting to invade. They’re looking for a chink in your armor. You can’t sit still and wait things out. You can’t even lean back in that chair. If you’re going to survive, you’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to take matters into your own hands.

You have the weapons. Use them.

And you’ll come out bloodied but alive and victorious in the end.

—Jason Bovberg

 

10 Netflix Horror Gems

This October, I waded through scads of streamable Netflix horror flicks—sometimes watching two or three per day—in an effort to weed out some true gems. Most of these are indie films I’d never seen before, and some were re-appreciations of recent gems I’d already weeded out. This blog post is the result of these efforts: my top 10 horror gems streaming on Netflix.

1. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is one of those movies you start watching, thinking it might be a mild diversion on a popcorn-fueled Friday night, but then it slowly dawns on you that you’re beholding the work of a genius. The movie follows a group of preppy college students on the usual trip to a cabin in the woods. They encounter a couple of dangerous-looking backwoods types in an ominous gas-station encounter—except wait! It’s actually these two country bumpkins who find themselves under attack. Prepare to have the rug pulled out from under you, because Tucker and Dale defies genre archetypes and ends up being a horror-comedy classic.

2. Grabbers

Grabbers is a terrific little Irish horror sleeper from John Wright. This one is not only weird and gory and mildly scary but also downright hilarious. It’s the story of a police officer, Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley), who travels to Erin Island, Ireland, just as blood-thirsty, sea-dwelling aliens start attacking the town. The key to defending themselves? Get drunk! (The aliens can’t abide high blood-alcohol levels.) Only an open bar can thwart this particular alien invasion. Smart, snappy dialog and quirky characters, along with kick-ass low-budget effects work, make Grabbers a film that will likely grow in cult status over time. I admit I have a little crush on Ruth Bradley now. She has a drunken scene in the middle of this film that absolutely slayed me. Grabbers rocks!

3. The Pact

Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact is a surprisingly effective scare-fest, very unnerving at spots, featuring a tough, likable female lead. It’s the story of a young woman, Annie (Caity Lotz), forced to come to grips with a disturbing, seemingly ghostly presence that has taken root in her childhood home. Is this a truly supernatural force, or is something else at play here? This is the kind of movie that’s not afraid to do long, dreadful Lynchian zooms on blackened, open doorways—and with great payoffs. Shiver time! The Pact even leaves you thinking, wondering if the horrors were even worse than you thought. I particularly like the way this movie finds horror in modern technology such as GPS street views!

4. The Returned

My next gem is the French supernatural series The Returned (Les Revenants). Dead people are returning to life in this quiet, eerie horror tale, but they’re not your typical zombies. No, there’s great mystery surrounding these resurrections: Some of them died a year ago, some of them died decades ago, but they look just as healthy as they did in life. And they don’t know why they’ve come back. There are elements of Lost and Twin Peaks to this 8-episode production, and although I’m a little wary that the show will commit the Lost sin of heaping mysteries upon wacky questions with no answers in sight, this is an enthralling show that’s not afraid to find horror in quiet scenes and character moments. It’s also not shy about nudity! I can’t wait for season 2, which is filming now.

5. Funny Games

Funny Games comes in two varieties: the 1997 Austrian original and the 2007 American remake. Both are by Michael Haneke, and the remake is essentially a shot-for-shot retooling. You might think it’s a pointless effort, but I find them both effective, the latter thanks to a terrific performance by Naomi Watts. But it’s the original that packs raw power. About a coldly irrational home invasion, Funny Games is a brutal, stark commentary on violence that’s tough to look away from. There’s a single, masterful 10-minute shot near the middle that’s just you empathizing with ruined characters—and then it gets worse. This movie also breaks the fourth wall in brilliant ways.

6. The Caller

Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller is an unsettling little thriller involving an unexplained wormhole in time that allows a woman, Mary Kee (Rachel Lefevre), to start receiving sinister phone calls from the past. And when things start getting dark, we find that the caller has the uniquely horrifying power to change Mary’s history. The horror has a nice, tense buildup, and the ways the past starts intruding on the present are increasingly terrifying. And it’s got a great lead performance by the fetching Lefevre. It’s not flawless—the ending is a bit over-the-top and requires some strong suspension of disbelief—but it’s pretty strong.

7. Monsters

Gareth Edwards, who directed the recent Godzilla remake, started out with a small 2010 indie flick called Monsters. Six years after Earth is invaded by aliens, a cynical journalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through an infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border. Edwards manages to make the most of a very small budget and create a film with a fascinating concept and some very strong effects work. Get a load of those giant, Lovecraftian, tentacled monsters! Incidentally, Edwards also served as cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects artist for Monsters—quite a first-time feat. This strange monster flick has good atmosphere, portraying a unique apocalyptic landscape. It’s a thing of awe and dark beauty, and it never fails to take its eye off the human relationship at its center.

8. V/H/S and V/H/S/2

I’m combining the two V/H/S films in order to include them on this list. Between them, they contain some walloping horror. I’ve been a fan of anthology horror since Creepshow, and although these two collections have some clunker chapters, if you take the best installments from both, you have some excellent, freaky found-footage horror. So, in this case, my “gems” are 4 of the 8 chapters that make up the two V/H/S films. Stream the first film, skip the terrible framing device, and go straight to “Amateur Night” (a drunken night on the town leads to an eerily erotic confrontation with a she-beast named Lily), then skip to the final chapter, “10/31/98″ (a Halloween party turns deadly inside a very weird haunted house, where a human sacrifice is taking place). Next, stream the second film, skip the framing device again, and go straight to “A Ride in the Park” (a wonderfully gory Go-Pro filmed first-person zombie adventure, directed by Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch fame), then to “Safe Haven” (a terrific Gareth Edwards-directed tale of an Indonesian devil cult). The final chapter of V/H/S/2, called “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” is worth sticking around for, too.

9. Troll Hunter

Troll Hunter is a movie I avoided just because of its inane-sounding title. I mean, come on—Troll Hunter? But this movie is inventive and fun as hell! Taking the “found footage” format into a kind of mockumentary dark-fantasy land, Troll Hunter follows a group of fearless students investigating a series of mysterious bear killings happening out in the countryside. They soon learn that a much stranger force is behind the mayhem, and they’re suddenly in league with a man who actually hunts giant trolls. The movie is full of cool Norwegian cultural/mythological detail and surprisingly effective creature work. And it’s hilarious. Troll Hunter is a nice, exotic departure from the usual fare.

10. Kidnapped

Miguel Angel Vivas’s Kidnapped is a brutal, sadistic tale of a home invasion that turns murderous. What makes Kidnapped rather incredible is its technical feats. Filmed in 12 single takes, the film expertly uses split-screen and long hand-held shots to capture the brutality in real-time. If you can get past some unquestionably sick, shocking scenes, this is a fascinating film, and it provides further evidence that Spanish and Mexican filmmakers are making some of the most technically amazing films these days (see also Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro). Recommended, but not for the squeamish! (And PLEASE make sure to watch the subtitled disc version, not the horribly dubbed version on Netflix streaming. ALL DUBS SUCK. This has been a public service announcement.)

RUNNERS UP

That’s the full list of top-recommended titles. Now I want to provide some runners-up that came close—in one case, oh so close—to making the list. These were pretty good horror films with a lot to boast about, but in each case there was a frustrating element (an annoying character, a ridiculous plot point, amateurish acting or directing, and so on) that broke the deal.

Proxy

Zack Parker’s Proxy skirts greatness but ultimately fails—and it’s so frustrating! Because it could have been exquisite. Proxy tells the story of a pregnant woman who is brutally attacked and loses her baby. But it’s not really about that at all. It becomes an intriguing psychological mindf**k with touches of Fight Club and Hitchcock. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together in the end, and it’s just amateurish enough to make you grit your teeth. But oh man this could have been great. As it is, it’s just fascinating enough to be worth a watch.

House of the Devil
The Innkeepers

I can’t say either of the Ti West movies will stay with me, although I appreciate the efforts. West is not bad at building mood and tension, but he’s right at the edge of merely making boring films. Both of these movies take a looooong while to get things going. In the case of the ’80s style Devil, the payoff is gonzo insane (goes too far for me), and in the case of Innkeepers, I never felt immersed in the narrative; it just felt like actors and makeup and a bad script.

Sightseers

Here’s a pretty good serial-killing roadtrip comedy with a very strange central romantic relationship. It reminds me of Natural Born Killers, in a way, but without the strong focus.

The Shrine

This is a not-bad entry in the deviltry genre, but the details don’t add up. And the protracted ending is an exercise in yelling at the screen, begging the surviving character to not be so damn stupid.

Stitches

I quite enjoyed long stretches of this obscenely dark and fun clown-horror movie. It’s pretty twisted. But it actually didn’t go far enough for me, or felt just too amateurish to take seriously.

THE REST

Now, in the interest of keeping me honest and seeing which titles straight-out didn’t merit inclusion on my list, I offer this run-down of horror failures (in my opinion)…

  • Absentia didn’t involve me at all (although the premise is interesting)
  • Contracted boasts some creepy Cronenbergian body horror until it all dissolves into silliness
  • Dead Snow is a pretty good but very derivative take on the teenagers-dying-in-a-cabin subgenre
  • Devil is a not-bad confined-space thriller that becomes increasingly absurd
  • Resolution is … yawn
  • Pontypool starts of as an interesting, low-budget variation on the zombie genre but turns idiotic
  • The Possession is a blah Exorcist wannabe for the Jewish faith that never escapes cliché
  • Insidious 2 … why did I bother with this one? Oh yeah, Rose Byrne
  • Citadel is an original concept that spirals out of control
  • Kill List is an Irish mumblefest with a despicable male lead, and a story that intrigues but goes insane
  • Wake Wood is a preposterous resurrection tale with a too-long ending
  • Haunter is loud and shrill and overacted
  • The ABCs of Death is an anthology flick with a few good entries but too much drivel
  • Grave Encounters is a silly found-footage experiment
  • House Hunting is just eye-rollingly bad
  • Plus One is an ADD-edited Triangle-inspired teen-horror flick
  • Sinister, the Ethan Hawke frightfest, is another movie featuring an annoying number of CG-enhanced jump shocks
  • Dead End is a weird Twilight Zone-ish flick that has fun humor but is too flimsy
  • The Woman in Black has good atmosphere and performances, but too many jump scares, and a questionable ending
  • The Awakening offers a good buildup to a completely ridiculous ending
  • Jug Face lost me about a half hour in

Books vs. eBooks

My wife and I have our preferred ways of reading books, and we’re both pretty passionate about that chosen methodology. Me? Well, if you read this column (particularly my cranky “The End of Everything” installment”), you can certainly guess that I’m more of an old-school reader, preferring the good old physical book to the still-surging-in-popularity digital ebook. I mean, I have a rather large library of modern first editions that I consider to be works of art. I often declare my love for the tactile heft of a real book while my wife curls up with her ultra-convenient and featherweight Kindle, which is loaded with her own large library of novels just waiting for her to click on and enjoy.

Frequently, we tease each other about the drawbacks of our chosen formats. My wife shakes her head at the bulkiness of my real books—their heaviness, the vast amounts of shelf space that my personal library requires, their analog and “uncool” antiquity. And I mock the e-reader’s ephemeral deconstruction of the act of reading—the fact that an age-old art, with deep involvement of the senses, has been reduced dispassionately to a bunch of bits and bytes. But just as often, we each try to sell the other on the perceived benefits of our own format. I point to the sheer historical vitality of the physical book, and she insists that digital reading is obviously the way of the future.

Fortunately for my point of view, the benefits and drawbacks of the physical book have been well-known for ages. There’s nothing new we’re going to learn about them and the ways we interact with them, except to compare and contrast them with this new upstart medium. But the ebook is a relatively new phenomenon. Sure, they’re exciting and new and convenient, but we’re still finding our way with them. The devices with which we consume digital books are changing all the time—becoming faster and sleeker and smaller and more capable—and their pricing structures and storage possibilities remain hot questions.

And now there’s a question of how our brains digest them. It seems I might have some more ammunition to use against my wife’s precious e-reader!

(Read the rest at Residential AV Presents: Connected Home.)

Is 3D Movie Exhibition Dying, Both at Home and in Theaters?

Every two years, I like to check in on the realm of 3D filmmaking and exhibition, particularly as it relates to the home theater. In 2010, I wrote a column called “Why 3D Home Theater Will (and Should) Fail”, in which I talked about 3D in the age of James Cameron’s Avatar, and how that movie almost single-handedly caused a mass exodus to electronics stores in order to gear up with home theater equipment capable of approximating the 3D experience in the home. Two years later, in 2012, I wrote “Enjoying 3D at Home Is Still a Maddening Prospect”, in which I checked in on the format to see how those consumers were faring with their home equipment.

Not so well, it turned out. Expensive equipment, bulky glasses, and a dearth of captivating 3D content added up to a technology that perhaps wasn’t ready for prime time. So, the question is, have we reached prime time for 3D yet?

Today, another two years have passed, and the 3D industry hasn’t exactly thrived but rather has seemed to settle into a kind of stasis. If my widespread group of tech friends (and the members of forums I frequent) are any indication, the 3D equipment and peripherals in their homes are more likely sitting untouched in bins or gathering dust on shelves than enjoying frequent use. And this seems to also be a reflection of how new 3D films are being received by audiences in theaters.

After all, over the past four years, the number of 3D movies in theaters has steadily fallen—in half, actually. In 2014, of the hundreds of films hitting theaters, only 28 movies will be available in 3D. All expectations are that this trend will continue—at least until, say, the next Avatar film comes out, and the renaissance begins anew. But I have a feeling consumers won’t be so quick to start shelling out hundreds of dollars for the home experience next time.

(Read the rest at Residential AV Presents: Connected Home.)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Movies, Rated and Ranked!

After watching nearly all of Alfred’s Hitchcock’s films (save for a few obscure early offerings), I decided to rank them—42 of them!—in order of preference. See if your opinions jibe with mine! Here we go, starting from the top …

  1. Psycho (1960)—Hitch’s tiny little horror flick, shot on a shoestring, turns out to be a legitimate masterpiece, a groundbreaker of the genre as well as his most shocking film ever. This film showcases Hitch’s flair for audience manipulation, killing off the star halfway through and leaving us in helpless shock for the rest of the movie. (A+)
  2. Vertigo (1958)—This film has a smothering, obsessive depth, and it’s probably the Hitch film I most want to view again, immediately. This is, through and through, a story of obsession, and the way it spirals in on itself is reflected in the way its audience reacts to it. It has a strong grasp of psychological tragedy and devastation. (A+)
  3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—This tale of two Charlies is a perfectly structured psychological thriller and Hitch’s first real examination of America and its morals and values. This is the kind of film that provides endless rewards on rewatching, revealing layer after layer of symbolic underpinnings and pitch-perfect character facets. (A+)
  4. Notorious (1946)—Spectacular, mesmerizing Hitchcock. Not one scene is wasted. The escalating sense of tragedy between its two main characters is compelling, elevating a political romantic thriller to Shakespearean heights. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman provide peerless chemistry. This is a dark fairytale masterpiece. And it’s got a definitive use of Hitch’s MacGuffin. (A+)
  5. Rear Window (1954)—Hitch’s ode to marriage and love is an intricate web of voyeurism and symbolism. James Stewart and Grace Kelly (mmmm, Grace Kelly) resonate as a playfully troubled couple whose potential futures are mirrored in the various New York apartment windows that Stewart’s telephoto lens peers into. The film is also a cracking good thriller. (A)
  6. Strangers on a Train (1951)—This tale of a psychopath’s notion of criss-crossing murders is as psychologically compelling as it is thrilling. The main characters achieve a strangely symbiotic link, and this yin-yang notion flows throughout the rest of the film, which is brimming with potent symbolism. (A)
  7. The 39 Steps (1935)—This is a very rewarding early film, much more mature than anything preceding it. Hitch is completely into his groove with this “wrong man” story, twisting and turning the story for maximum entertainment. It’s got the primitive nature of an early film, but it boasts great characters and performances married to a terrific story. (A)
  8. Foreign Correspondent (1940)—Amazing set pieces and action sequences catapult this “lesser” Hitch flick (which could be considered an unofficial remake of The 39 Steps) triumphantly to the level of the classics. This is a real ripsnorter, with dynamic leads and creepy villains. This is Hitch’s first great, truly American film, complete with fun war propaganda. (A)
  9. Rebecca (1940)—Hitch’s first film made in American under stifling producer David O. Selznick, Rebecca seems compromised of any real Hitch influence, but it’s a terrific story nonetheless. Full of lush style and potent symbolism, the film really intrigues with its gothic mix of doomed romance and madness. Joan Fontaine is a wonder to behold. (A-)
  10. I Confess (1953)—Perhaps Hitch’s most personal film, I Confess is mature and haunting, full of shadows and the machinations of faith. Method actor Montgomery Clift powerfully elevates the level of Hitch’s usual performances, adding to the realization that I Confess is one of the director’s most important but forgotten films. (A-)
  11. The Wrong Man (1956)—Based on a true story, The Wrong Man nevertheless is quintessential Hitch storytelling, digging deeply into his all-time favorite theme (the innocent man wrongly accused). Henry Fonda and Vera Miles deliver searing performances that we rarely hear about. The only drawback? A hugely disappointing final moment. (A-)
  12. The Trouble with Harry (1955)—The first pure taste of Hitch’s black sense of humor, The Trouble with Harry benefits from the director’s TV experience with Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This tale of a corpse that just won’t go away is a trifle, but it’s also a marvelously underplayed look at the dark crevices of small-town America. (A-)
  13. North by Northwest (1959)—Hitch’s final, big-budget take on his enduring “man on the run” plot is a lot of crazy fun, but it’s a bit hollow at the center. Cary Grant is perfectly cast against a sly James Mason (perfectly embodying the high-class, silk-voiced villain). With this one, you just have to sit back, bring on the popcorn, and have a blast. (B+)
  14. The Lady Vanishes (1938)—Interesting variation on the “closed room” mystery, in which the mystery takes place entirely aboard a train. This film introduces many key Hitch themes that he’ll explore throughout his career. Terrific sly humor and a couple of charismatic leads—not to mention a quintessential MacGuffin—make The Lady Vanishes one of the greatest early Hitch efforts. (B+)
  15. Stage Fright (1950)—A surprising delight, Stage Fright marks a big return to form for Hitch, who had been foundering after his departure from the clutches of David O. Selznick. This interesting, deceptive take on the “wrong man” theme is a riotous joy, combining fun characters with clever situations. Its lack of noteworthy stars and careful characterization is a minus. (B+)
  16. Suspicion (1941)—RKO’s refusal to let Cary Grant portray a villain leads to an interesting story: Rather than a story of the dawning realization of one man’s villainy, Suspicion is about one woman’s psychological breakdown in the face of mounting circumstantial evidence. Hitch provides a good mix of humor and paranoia, and the leads are magnificent. (B+)
  17. Frenzy (1972)—Here’s a surprisingly assured film from Hitch’s later years, an amalgam of favorite themes and images woven with the blackest of humor. A lack of real character development (and a preponderance of ’70s clothing and hairstyles) keeps this one from being a classic, but there’s lots to admire, including Hitch’s first (and only) uses of nudity. (B+)
  18. The Birds (1963)—A sprawling, episodic treatment of another favorite Hitch symbol, The Birds is not so much a narrative as a study of chaos. Once you get a handle on how the seemingly random bird attacks coincide with the interaction among a young woman, the man she loves, and his mother, the film opens up in unexpected ways. (B+)
  19. Young and Innocent (1937)—Here’s a fun little movie in the vein of The 39 Steps that’s filled to brimming with all of Hitch’s favorite themes: infidelity, “the wrong man,” the escape across the countryside. This is a surprisingly bright and cheerful film, with young leads and a true sense of innocence. (B+)
  20. Saboteur (1942)—Saboteur is a big, somewhat slow, sprawling piece of war propaganda, but it’s also a hell of an adventure yarn. Hitch himself laments that it “lacks discipline.” Second-tier leads mean that the film doesn’t boast the charisma of other efforts, and this plot—an innocent man fleeing from the law while trying to clear his name—is already starting to seem overdone. (B)
  21. Dial M for Murder (1954)—Hitch returns to a single setting (as in Rope and Lifeboat) in this adaptation of a stage play, and the results are mixed. It’s surprisingly talky for Hitch, and it never really rivets its audience as it should. However, some terrific moments, as well as the debut of Grace Kelly, add up to an entertaining crime flick. (B)
  22. To Catch a Thief (1955)—I was a bit put off by the smirky celebrity of this effort, which sacrifices good characterization and plot for upper-class frivolity on the French Riviera. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly give off a nice, suntanned sheen, and the humor is engaging, but this film is ultimately just cotton candy. (B)
  23. Family Plot (1976)—Hitch’s final film is a surprisingly youthful, buoyant comedy that touches on many of his favorite themes. The humor proves funnier on further viewings, and although you might wish that Hitch had gone out on a more classic note, this fresh laughfest—complete with a wink from a blonde in the final shot—ends up being a fine, if lightweight, send-off. (B)
  24. Rope (1948)—Built around its single-take gimmick, Rope takes you in with its sleight-of-hand but ends up telling a disappointingly mediocre story. The lack of a real point of view means that this film, Hitch’s first shot in color, is more of an experimental, single-setting lark than a serious crime film. (B)
  25. Marnie (1964)—This tale of a blond kleptomaniac and the disturbed gentleman who loves her, only to find out that she’s pathologically frigid, is just short of being great. Some important characterizations at its center, however, are under-developed. However, Tippi Hedren turns in a surprisingly fine performance, despite personal anguish under the controlling hand of her director. (B)
  26. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)—Hitch’s only official remake of one of his own films is intriguing in certain ways, mostly due to its larger budget, but some elements of the plot and characterizations are lacking. James Stewart, maddeningly, seems to be playing himself. (B)
  27. Spellbound (1945)—Psychologically naïve and overly serious, Spellbound nevertheless compels with its casting, particularly in the case of Ingrid Bergman, who gives her character a convincing sexual awakening in the midst of a crime that could threaten her. The dream sequences are groundbreaking but strangely out of place. (B)
  28. Lifeboat (1944)—More an allegory about World War II than a true narrative, Lifeboat requires understanding of the world events surrounding it to really appreciate it. Nevertheless, this confined-setting film offers some great pleasures, as well as Hitch’s most clever cameo. (B)
  29. Sabotage (1936)—Surprisingly effective symbolically, this film doesn’t quite nail its top story, but it offers endless rewards underneath. Hitch continues to experiment technically, getting some things wrong but others very right. And he kills off a kid. (B)
  30. Torn Curtain (1966)—The troubled production of Torn Curtain resulted in a film that just isn’t entirely sure of itself. Two expensive stars—Paul Newman and Julie Andrews—hobbled Hitch, removing his focus from story elements that needed more attention. The entire third act is a study in disappointment. (B-)
  31. Blackmail (1929)—A jump in maturity for Hitchcock, Blackmail is his first talkie, although its sound effects often seem gimmicky. Surprisingly well-drawn characters and continuing technical innovation make this one special, despite its age. And it has one of the funniest Hitch cameos. (B-)
  32. The Paradine Case (1947)—Too long and slow, this film could have been far better had it been more precisely edited. The central relationship, between a defense lawyer and his beautiful client, never catches fire, despite what Hitch wants us to feel. Too many boring court scenes bring the otherwise interesting Paradine Case to its knees. (B-)
  33. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)—Boasting the first true use of the MacGuffin, this film is deceptively simple, offering a modest kidnapping story beneath all its intrigue. Hitch continues to develop his obsessions, and we get an appropriately grand finale. Peter Lorre is exceptional. But this film is showing its age. (B-)
  34. The Lodger (1927)—Shades of Nosferatu. Very good silent Hitchcock with excellent technical innovation for the time. The twist at the end really works! But the acting and filmmaking are primitive. (B-)
  35. The Ring (1927)—In this silent film, Hitchcock delivers his first screenplay, and it’s a romantic comedy! Endless symbolism and sly humor carry the day, but in the end, it’s pretty rough and experimental. (B-)
  36. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)—This movie feels like a work-for-hire. The smirky Carole Lombard, doomed to die the next year in a plane crash, makes this one bearable, but the film has very little Hitch flavor. It’s a screwball comedy, and it feels banal. (B-)
  37. Topaz (1969)—Overtly political and overlong, Topaz bears no real Hitch signature and feels like another work-for-hire. Coming late in his career, this film breeds the fear that Hitch is in decline. But it will turn out that the old chap has some surprises up his sleeve. (C+)
  38. Rich and Strange (1931)—Living up to at least the second adjective in its title, this film is a surreal stab at black comedy and has a trippy final act that kept me thinking. However, the characters aren’t very well drawn, and some of the humor feels forced. (C+)
  39. Secret Agent (1936)—One of Hitch’s more overtly political thrillers, this film isn’t very involving. The film should’ve focused more on its characters rather than a weak spy plot that doesn’t seem especially well written and ends too abruptly and easily. (C+)
  40. Under Capricorn (1949)—Here’s a huge misstep in the middle of Hitch’s career, occurring when he had perhaps become a bit too happy with his American success. This reteaming with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten is turgid throughout, overly talky, and pretentious. A few good moments can’t rescue it from obscurity. (C)
  41. Jamaica Inn (1939)—For his final British film, Hitch adapted a Daphne du Maurier pirate story pretty lazily. Hitch’s only real motivation for making it was to work with Charles Laughton, so it feels more like a Laughton vehicle than a Hitchcock film. Forgettable. (C)
  42. Murder! (1930)—This “stagy” whodunit is a fragmented mess, not seeming to know where to begin until halfway through. Its psychology is disturbingly primitive, and the resolution is lazy. (C-)

Amazon vs. the World

Amazon.com sure has been taking a lot of heat lately. I’ve dumped my share of complaints on the company, too. In my April 2014 article, “How Amazon Has Changed Your Connected Home,” I asked: Did you know that Amazon pressures its suppliers to provide certain discount levels, and when they don’t, Amazon makes it harder for you to buy items from those suppliers? That question is now at the heart of a raging industry war between Amazon and publishing conglomerate Hachette, one of the largest publishing interests on the face of the earth.

You know the debate. For ages, publishers and booksellers have negotiated the prices at which retailers (bookstores, Wal-Mart, Target, and others) will sell books and have brokered deals for actually carrying and displaying titles in stores. These deals have evolved with the industry to apply to the way both physical books and ebooks are sold and made visible online. Negotiations can be brutal and can equate to millions of dollars on either side. The recent brouhaha reached a fever pitch not too long ago when Hachette (one of the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates, which includes Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Shuster) threw up its hands, refusing to agree to Amazon’s rather cutthroat terms.

As a result, many Hachette releases—including the J.K. Rowling pseudonymous mystery The Silkworm, to mention a high-profile example—were listed as unavailable on Amazon, with just a button to click so that you could be notified when the book became available. In other words, the books had pages devoted to them on Amazon, but traditional Amazon services such as Add to Cart and Amazon Prime were absent on the page. Translation: You either couldn’t buy them, or the service had slowed down significantly. The net effect was an extremely deep and negative impact on sales. Naturally, people (and most significantly, authors and readers) were upset—at Amazon.

Given some of the tactics that I outlined in my previous article, it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for Amazon, which is just as much a multinational, some-might-say-soulless, corporate conglomerate as Hachette. But it’s also difficult to side solidly with Hachette, which has done its hungry share of gobbling up smaller imprints on its way to behemoth status. Both corporations are in the game in the name of the bottom line. Step back and you’ll see that Amazon is simply a marketplace with its own rules: It doesn’t have to sell Hachette’s books. I end up seeing two Goliaths at each other’s throat. So I don’t fall automatically to one side in this raging debate.

Yet, as a writer and published novelist myself, I edge toward defending Amazon.

(Read the rest at Residential AV Presents: Connected Home.)

Strong Young Women at the End of the World

A few years ago, I picked up Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels, and it changed the way I read post-apocalyptic horror. The book’s world-weary protagonist, Temple, had a distinctive voice and a strong presence. She was a jaded survivalist, and yet she was beautiful in her humanity. She was young, and whip-smart, and captivating.

That was the book that I call the major influence on my book Blood Red. I wanted to explore a brutal, weird, end-of-the-world scenario from the perspective of a kid, too. In the case of my book, I wanted to test the mettle of a spoiled teenager, Rachel. I wanted to see how she could handle an unprecedented and utterly horrifying new reality, thrown like acid in her face. I wanted to see her grow up in a hurry.

I knew she would make some rash decisions, from simple lack of experience in the world. I knew she would fail in some ways. (Some BIG ways, it turns out.) But I also wanted her to have a basic level of intelligence that might help her achieve a leadership role in her new world. Where everyone else is succumbing to panic and horror, I wanted Rachel to keep her head—against all odds—and be the smartest person in the room.

In Blood Red, 96 percent of humanity has fallen to the ground, unresponsive, and these bodies are becoming something altogether new and terrifying—and it’s this mystery that Rachel needs to address, even as she desperately searches for her missing father. Is she up to the task? Perhaps, but she’ll have to let go of a lot of old baggage, as well as her persona as a “child,” to become the heroine she’s meant to be.

For me, there’s something elemental about casting a young woman as the protagonist in an extreme horror story. Perhaps I’m also influenced by such horror films as Halloween (in which Jamie Curtis is the iconic teenaged babysitter stalked by a supreme evil) and Nightmare on Elm Street (in which Heather Langenkamp is the girl facing an unspeakable dream monster) and Hellraiser (in which Ashley Laurence faces the demons of Hell). Yes, young women like these encapsulate the notion of innocence lost, but they’re also excellent everywomen, letting the audience easily identify with their childlike fear of the unknown or supernatural or monstrous.

I asked several of my fellow Permuted Press authors to add their voices to this article. All of these authors have also chosen to use young women or girls as their main characters, and they all have interesting thoughts about doing so.

Tom Calen (author of The Tilian Virus)

Lieutenant Ellen Louise Ripley. For me, the heroine of the Alien franchise (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver) was the first female action hero. Over the years, I have come across credible arguments asserting that other fictional women—such as Lila Crane of Psycho and Laurie Strode of Halloween—predate Ripley’s first appearance and therefore have better claim to the title of first female action hero. No disrespect to Lila and Laurie, but neither character influenced future female action heroes as strongly as Lt. Ripley did. From Sarah Connor to Katniss Everdeen, The Bride to Trinity, and Lara Croft to Selene, each was formed in the mold of Lt. Ellen Ripley.

When I started writing The Tilian Virus, I had no idea that I had a blossoming Ripley on my hands. Michelle Lafkin, the petit junior in my intended protagonist’s (Mike Allard) fifth period history class, was originally planned as—dare I say it?—a damsel in distress. There, I admit it. I even gave her blonde hair to reinforce the role. But, three books later, and with a fourth in progress, Michelle has proven to be no Rapunzel.

Michelle’s evolution from frightened girl to steel-spined hero is slow, possibly due to the fact that I didn’t realize it was occurring. In the flashback chapters of The Tilian Virus, she is beginning to adapt to the changes in her world. At the start of the pandemic, Michelle is still reliant on men to ensure her safety. However, in the flash-forward chapters, we see a young woman with some grit. In a conversation about the future, she says to Allard, “Everyone else seems to think it will be just picking up where we left off.” But he senses that grit, replying, “We know better, don’t we?” And Michelle does know better. In the series’ eight-year span, she has seen loved ones die, she has been touched by loss, and those challenges have informed her worldview. Yet, she has not soured on hope. Whether male or female, isn’t that the definition of “hero”? Isn’t that why Ripley went back for Newt, the hope that the child was still alive?

Through the second and third book of the series (The Tilian Effect and The Tilian Cure, respectively) Michelle comes to the fore of the story. Though never intended to be a character of strength, much less one critical to the story’s resolution, Michelle’s struggling-family background and her intelligence made her ideally suited to assume the mantel of the series’ true protagonist.  Like Lt. Ellen Ripley before her, Michelle Lafkin became a hero because she needed to become the hero.

Paul Mannering (author of Tankbread)

Women will tell you that being a girl isn’t easy. They are bombarded from infancy with a range of conflicting messages and standards and guidelines on how to dress, behave, think and conform. In apocalyptic scenarios, the veneer of civilization begins to crumble, or indeed may vanish in an instant with the flash of a nuclear blast, or the sneeze of patient zero in a global pandemic. This puts women in a more difficult situation than ever, as in apocalyptic fiction they are easy targets for scenes of rape, abuse, and male fantasies of dominance and control. Or, as authors of post-apocalyptic scenarios, we can treat women as human beings—with the same strengths, weaknesses, attributes, and flaws as our male characters.

This means more than turning women into men with breasts (the so called Strong Female Character). This is about giving your female characters their own voice. Let them tell their story and be an active part of the shaping of your apocalypse narrative.

Tankbread tells the story of Else. She’s a clone—with the body of an adult and the mind of a newborn.  Else’s journey is the same journey of development we have all gone through. She learns quickly and develops into a character who experiences much of what we go through over a lifetime within a few short weeks. She is strong, physically—and why not? She learns things by doing them. She also learns by reading, talking, and observing.  By the end of the story, she learns the harshest lesson of all.

In the first Tankbread, Else is The Maiden. In Tankbread 2: Immortal, Else has a different focus. She is an unwilling savior of the world. She has no desire to be a hero. She just wants to protect what is hers.  Her protective instincts, actions, and nurturing personality place her in the role of The Mother. In Tankbread 3: Deadland, Else’s role takes on the third part of the mythological triptych: Maiden, Mother, and now Crone.

Again Else makes hard decisions. She puts others at risk for her own agenda and has no regrets about making others sacrifice for what she believes is right. She gives others autonomy, but she guides their decisions with her wisdom and understanding of what must be done for the greater good.

The third book in the Tankbread series focuses on the life of Gin, a 16-year-old girl who has grown up in a world unlike our own. She deals with the walking dead on a daily basis and has all the hopes, dreams, and insecurities of any young woman.  By taking her on her own journey of self-discovery and terror, I hope to provide a story that readers can enjoy.

Gin is ultimately relatable for all of us (at least those who remember being a teenager). She deals with jealousy, self-doubt, self-esteem issues, body issues, and ultimately her decisions affect others. She is drawn into a scenario where her actions go beyond self and into the survival of others and the possibility of a future for all.

Both Else and Gin could have been written as male characters, but they would have bored me. I wrote both as living people, building them up in layers as their stories progressed until I could hear, see, and understand them. This is the point where they told me their stories of growing up and finding their way in the world—and I was simply the narrator. These are characters that make mistakes, have flaws, and setbacks, but they also never give up. With some genetic advantages and a lot of luck, they survive in a world where many have not.

Russell Proctor (author of The Jabberwocky Book)

In my forthcoming Permuted Press horror/fantasy series The Jabberwocky Book, I take two iconic girl characters from children’s fiction and re-write them for adults. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland becomes a middle-aged, married society woman, for whom the magical Wonderland is just a memory. Dorothy Gale from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, is thirteen and fresh from her adventures in the Land of Oz.

I put them in Edwardian London to face a supernatural serial killer from Alice’s past, which is told in the first book of the series, The Red King. It was fun—and a little daunting—developing the characters beyond their original conceptions, while trying to stay true to their creators’ ideas.

Dorothy is by no means a stranger to adventure when the series starts. She has been to the Land of Oz twice and will experience further adventures there as the series goes on. However, at the start of The Red King she is a little in awe of Alice as the older, supposedly wiser, woman and finds the sudden plunge into murderous danger a little scary to say the least. However, by the end of the first book she has become far more resilient and able to deal with things by herself. In Oz, she had friends to protect her; in the real world, she learns that protection largely falls on oneself.

Writing about young women is an odd occupation for a middle-aged man. Thinking like a thirteen-year-old female is harder than might be imagined when you don’t happen to be one!

I’m very drawn to strong female leads. In my book Plato’s Cave, I have a 20-something woman trying to find out the meaning of existence before existence itself is destroyed. In my novel Days of Iron, the 34-year-old female protagonist becomes a terrorist (though a complex set of circumstances).

I don’t like my female characters to be butt-kicking male fantasy figures. I try to present them as realistic women facing real dangers and reacting appropriately. To me, that is what makes female characters credible.

Stevie Kopas (author of The Breadwinner Trilogy)

One of my main characters in The Breadwinner Trilogy (soon to be a Permuted Press title) is Veronica Williams, a 16-year-old straight-A student and high school track star.  We first meet Veronica post-outbreak.  She is a tough and no-nonsense survivor.  But during a flashback/rewind later in the book, I take the reader back to the beginning and tell Veronica’s earlier story, when the Internet was still working.  We see a different Veronica, one who chats online with friends and fights with her big brother.  A teenage girl who adores her father and loves to run.  She likes school and hates soft drinks.

The reason I chose to focus on a teenage girl is because I wanted someone who was the complete opposite of the other main character.  Samson Eckhart is a criminal defense attorney, a man who has a way with words and understands manipulation.  I needed someone to both complement and be the opposite of this man.  I also wanted to create a father/daughter apocalypse dynamic between the two characters.

I’m now writing the third and final book in the trilogy, and we see chapter by chapter that Veronica is coming into her own.  At first she was alone in the apocalypse, but now she has found ways to rebuild the tiny family that she’s lost.  As the story progresses and she loses more and more of those around her, we see that she is not losing bits of herself, she’s simply replacing what is lost with the stuff that will make her stronger.

I feel like that’s what important to see: how a young woman defines herself without a media-crazed society to infiltrate her consciousness.  Yes, Veronica lives in a world ravaged by the dead, but she becomes who she needs to be, not what others want her to be.

Debra Robinson (author of Shadows and Light series)

My upcoming first release with Permuted Press is titled Sarah’s Shadows. Sarah Brandon is an 18-year-old girl who starts out terrified of everything. That wasn’t always the case though. She was a normal—if a bit feisty—teenager, before her brother Jesse was killed. And when her despondent father commits suicide shortly thereafter, the new timid Sarah is born. Her formerly feisty personality is just another casualty of death. She is afraid to go out, to drive over bridges, but mostly, afraid everyone around her will die.

I dug into my own life to mine the feelings Sarah goes through. I wanted to touch that icky place we all have buried somewhere deep inside; the fear of our own mortality, of losing those closest to us, and the awareness of our own impermanence. For most of us, this doesn’t happen at such a young age. But when it does, like it does for Sarah, there are only two choices: hide or fight. Sarah fights.

The premise involves Sarah waking up near the ceiling of the ER after an epic headache. She figures out she must be dead because no one can see or hear her, at least until her dead brother Jesse shows up. He explains the strange in-between world they now have to traverse to save their father, who is stuck there.

Best described as a twisted Wizard of Oz style quest meets a sinister afterlife, Sarah’s Shadows is a creepy peek into another realm. Nothing is what it seems, and Darkness disguises itself as Light. Sarah evolves from fearful to ferocious, and the twist ending leaves readers wanting more. The sequel, Sarah’s Sight, will soon follow to provide it. Find out more about this upcoming series at the Debra Robinson website.

How About You?

Who are your favorite post-apocalyptic or horror heroines? What characteristics are essential in young women who are suddenly facing the end of the world? What draws you to these types of characters?

And what about a young female protagonist who is a monster herself–and yet strangely childlike and vulnerable? Check out The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. It’s a compelling take on the concept.

10 Great Summer Reads

On the occasion of a local event called the Old Town Book Fair, my local newspaper The Fort Collins Coloradoan asked me for my advice on some great summer reads (and to identify the book currently sitting at my bedside). I chose to focus on some favorites by excellent authors as well as some brand-new books in stores now. See below for my response!

  • The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell — Here’s an exquisitely written post-apocalyptic horror novel, narrated by the precocious and world-weary Temple, a young girl just trying to survive after civilization has long ended. Temple is an unforgettable heroine who sees poetry even in a devastated world populated by zombies and human monsters. This book was a key inspiration for my book Blood Red.
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer — I’ve read only the first two books in this trilogy so far (the third is due shortly), but what a read! An expedition of four women (a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist) is sent by the government to a weird region called Area X, beyond the borders of humanity, to collect data. These are strange, supernatural, thrilling books that dare you to imagine what happens next.
  • The Brilliance Saga by Marcus Sakey — This series about children born as “abnorms” might recall X-Men for you, but these books are going for something deeper. Nick Cooper is one of the more interesting protagonists in recent genre fiction, and he’s at the center of a brutally suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase as he hunts abnorm terrorists. Edge-of-your-seat writing and fascinating characters make this series a sci-fi/action must-read.
  • Borderline by Lawrence Block — The Hard Case Crime series of books is providing an endless stream of classic and original crime fiction, and the 1950s/60s Lawrence Block resurrections are some of the best. This once-pseudonymous novel is a heady mix of crime and steamy noir, and it involves a gambler, a hitchhiker, a stripper and a psycho killer. And it’s very funny.
  • Fiend by Peter Stenson — A blistering debut from a local writer, Fiend plays like a drug-addled Chuck Palahniuk fever dream. The protagonist, Chase Daniels, is an addict facing a waking nightmare. It’s a zombie tale with a meth edge. Violent, hilarious, exhilarating, told in staccato bursts, it’s just a blast of a debut.
  • Currently on my nightstand is The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, another post-apocalyptic tale (are you sensing a theme?), but as with all my favorite end-of-the-world stories, this one has a unique spin and a fascinating perspective. It’s the story of young Melanie (I like young female points of view during the End Times), and her voice so far is gentle, heartfelt and beautiful. I can’t wait to see how this one ends. Also, Blood Red, that’s right, my own book is sitting on my nightstand. It’s my first novel, and I just like to see it there. It’s set here in Fort Collins, bringing monsters to Old Town and our familiar streets. It’s the first of a trilogy that will also include Draw Blood (April 2015) and Blood Dawn (April 2016).

To read the original article and get some suggestions from other Fort Collins writers, go to the Coloradoan website and read “Local authors tell what they’re reading this summer.”

BLOOD RED On Sale Everywhere! Well, Okay, Not Everywhere.

For all intents and purposes, my novel Blood Red debuted in early April as an ebook on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble. It was a soft launch, building toward the official publication date of April 29, at which point the paperback would also be available through Amazon. As a small press, Permuted Press is seeing a lot of success with ebooks, and print publication is a secondary facet of its business. Its paperback distribution occurs almost solely through Amazon, but there are also a few specialty stores that carry its books as well, stores like the famed Dark Delicacies store in Burbank, California. (Go there immediately, if you have the time and the means.)

But as far as paperback distribution goes, that’s about it. No Barnes & Noble, no large independents like Denver’s Tattered Cover, no local independents in Fort Collins. This has turned out to be the one bummer of small press publication, particularly as Blood Red has a strong local angle (it’s set in Fort Collins) and local availability makes obvious sense. Local events are also a no-brainer. Indeed, one of my primary reasons for setting the book in town was that I looked forward to introducing the book to the community: an apocalyptic horror novel set in this very town! But I was suddenly facing some serious roadblocks. For a while there, it looked like I’d be SOL!

But I’m not one to quit easily.

Yes, it has required a lot of strategic back-and-forth conversations and, in some cases, consignment deals that I’ve set up myself, but I can now claim that Blood Red is available in all the local stores that I believe should be carrying it. I’ve arranged for the three Tattered Cover locations to carry it (big score!); I’ve successfully gotten the book into two independent stores in Old Town, Fort Collins (where a lot of the trilogy takes place); and I’ve managed to convince our two local Barnes & Noble stores to carry the book for upcoming events. This latter piece was frustratingly the most difficult to put in place. But now, watch for announcements about events or at least stock notifications at all these stores. Lots coming up on the calendar!

I hear from many people (including my publisher) that print is dying and that it accounts for only a small percentage of book sales. The profits just aren’t there anymore. And, yes, especially in the case of the consignment scenarios that I’ve set up, my own profit margin for paperback sales is pretty slim. But selling hard copies of my book is about much more than eking out a profit. It’s about connecting with readers and my community. It’s about building relationships with booksellers and local media. It’s about that ideal which is so vital to me: the survival of the physical book, the autographed artifact, in the age of ephemeral media and ereaders. I want to be involved in the world of real books.

It took some work, but I’ve made it there, at least to a certain extent. My book is in stores. So get on out there and grab a copy. Support your local independent bookstores, your Fort Collins and Loveland Barnes & Noble locations (we gotta keep them in business too!), and above all, support your local apocalyptic horror writer! Find Blood Red at these stores, and watch for upcoming events!

Old Firehouse Books
Wolverine Farm
Tattered Cover
Barnes & Noble