Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On the death of Richard Matheson

For those of you who don't know, Richard Matheson recently passed away. That makes two of the most profound literary influences in my life in one year. And this was, by far, the most affecting to me.

Matheson's work dealt with the changing roles of both white America and the American male in modern society as well as the fears associated with those changes. He did so with a sly wit and a giant heart. He wrote a very modern, completely gothic ghost story that shined a light on our obsession with the past and how it works so hard to destroy our future. He tried to show us hope in death. One of his later novels, Hunted Past Reason, placed a couple well past the realms of the normal suburban life into a place of human savagery that would have justified a slip into similar savagery themselves. But, where so many authors would have had them tap into their inner animal as a survival technique, Matheson showed them desperately hold onto their humanity and the experience was beautiful. He dealt with hard subjects in a difficult manner while keeping the story fundamentally entertaining and never coming across as preachy. That's a damn hard thing to do.

When I heard of his death, I picked up my copy of I Am Legend and I'm not ashamed to admit that more than a few tears have leaked in the reading. The story is so often simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking, especially once you know the key kick at the end. It's structured brilliantly and it packs a hell of a punch.

I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that this man has had a huge effect on me as a reader and writer and most importantly as a human being and I am incredibly sad that he is no longer with us.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Above the Game, John Cheese and Deconstruction Done Right

Back at the beginning of the month, I espoused a plan for dealing with offensive art. Not so much the “ewww, I shouldn't have to see that”, pictures of people crapping on the sidewalk type of offensive, but the kind of morally repugnant bullshit that can end up with people being hurt. The kind of art that continues a cultural tradition of subjugation. My response was simple, make new, better art that reflects the direction our culture should go. Now, a recent development has proven a marvelous example of what I'm talking about and where I hope things like this will go in the future.

If you've been online lately, you're probably aware of the Above The Game kickstarter debacle. If you aren't, here's the skinny: the kickstarter is to fund a how-to guide for men that espouses the “women want a man who takes charge” attitude, to the extent of coming across more than a bit rapey. It's the kind of thing I could've pictured Maddox doing back in the day, only with no tongue and no cheek. Beyond appearing to be childish, amateurish and rather stupid, most of the complaints center on the idea that this supports and continues a culture in which women are treated as things for men to place their desires upon. Calls have been made for Kickstarter to take it down and revoke the funding for it.

This response has made me a tad uncomfortable for previously stated reasons (I refer you back to Tycho: If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over. That’s not the side you want to be on.). Yep, the guy's a douche who should be smacked numerous times. He definitely should be told that what he is saying is appalling and moronic. I kinda hope he never gets to feel the gentle caress of femininity again. However, this is merely an expression of the culture we exist  in and I don't think that censorship is the way to change that culture. If nothing else, it allows the asshole to play the victim.

Instead, look at what John Cheese does with this cracked article (“5 WaysRegular Guys Ruin Their First Impression With Women”). He comes across simply, witty, entertaining and stands very firmly against the kind of thing Ken Hoinsky espouses. Whether intentionally or not, he is engaging that culture on the same field. Creating a reasoned dialog instead of angry invective. It isn't about just tearing down the old, bad ways, but showing another way and showing why that way is better. That is how you fucking do it.

I sincerely hope to see more like it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jason Vorhees: Superhero for the Socially Inept

This is an old piece I wrote five or so years ago (before I came to the conclusion that Jason Vorhees was a New England Swamp Thing), but it amuses me. I thought I'd share.

           The existence of hero worship aimed at some of the monsters of horror films is something that is often looked at with dismay if not complete and total disgust by many people outside of the horror community. Hell, it's looked at that way by many of the people WITHIN the horror community. Why would someone venerate a serial killer, a brutal slayer of innocents? Surely these people must be antisocial, psychotic or simply outright homicidal... Right?
No. Being one of those people, I disagree with that sentiment. As far as I am concerned, it is perfectly understandable and even healthy but first you need to understand some things about us.
            In Danse Macabre, Stephen King said that horror is essentially about pointing out the anomaly, (referred to as the other in haughty, self-righteous Literary Circles), the thing-that-should-not-be, and purging ourselves of it. Certainly most horror follows this formula (and much of the stuff that doesn't seems to be a painfully obvious and cheap form of rebellion that only reinforces the norm): the monster has to be acknowledged, identified and then destroyed. But that doesn’t explain why we laud the monster still, instead of its slayer?
            The truth is that many of us are other ourselves. Occasionally by intention but largely by those silly cruel accidents of fate, we are not a part of the larger society that surrounds us; the shunted ones, exiles, dorks, dweebs, whatever name you will upon us. We are monsters. At least we’re told we are and we come to believe it in the deepest recesses of our minds. You can talk about the Power of Positive Thinking until you’re blue in the face and rant about the Will To Power until the sun burns out but, in the end, if you are told something often enough, then you begin to believe it. Consequently, when you are told that you do not belong, you effectively do not. Period.
            Because of that, we see these creatures of the empty realms as spiritual brothers. Take the quintessential other of horror: Frankenstein's creature. Sure, he's ugly as sin and twice as mean but it isn't his fault. He didn't ask to be made into what he was and his creator left him alone and screaming for hope in a world that was set against him. Abomination could just as easily have been his name had anyone bothered to name him. I've always felt the same way about poor Mr. Hyde, who could help what he was no more than any other wild beast. That pinnacle of normalcy, the social ideal that was Dr. Frankenstein was the one who abandoned his child in hate and disgust; Dr. Jekyll may have despised Mr. Hyde, but he loved to use him as a scapegoat for that deep down primal urge of his to HATE, FUCK, FIGHT and KILL. This is part of why we cry when we are shown over and over again that the monster MUST be vanquished.
            At the same time, they are more than we. Whatever atrocities they may enact, at least they are able to do something about their situation. Admittedly, the fact that they are committing atrocities is attractive. The Creature himself said that if he cannot inspire love, then he shall instead inspire fear. As ugly as it is, is there anything more human than wishing vengeance on those who have wronged us?
            With that in mind, let's look at one of the most popular monster-heroes, Jason Vorhees. Not only is he another unwilling social miscreant (being physically and mentally deformed as well as dead) but boy does he ever help us to feel vicariously powerful. You can say that the victims were attacked because of the sex and drugs and immorality but WE know more about them. They are the same type of people that pantsed us in gym, pelted us with old food and vile names and I could just as easily see them throwing rocks at him as he drowned. Also, to be honest, they are living the life that many of us wish that we could and we all know how bitter of a pill envy can be.
            Before you toss that first stone, please be absolutely sure that you have never, in those dark and cobwebby corners of your heart, desired to destroy what you couldn't have. And while we have to cower in our rooms or hide in public, he is going after the fuckers with everything that he can find. The world wants him dead and he is attacking it back goddammit! How the hell can you not get behind that?
            Please keep in mind that this is not accusatory, lest I put myself on the rack as well. The phenomenon that I have been discussing comes as a perfectly natural reaction to a particular situation by people who have no control over it, or, to paraphrase Happy Harry Hard-on, a normal reaction to a fucked up situation. More importantly, this specific method of coping is by far one of the healthiest both for the individual and the society they are a part of. It provides an outlet for these emotions before they become so overwhelming that the person involved feels desperate enough to leap at any option that presents itself.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Mundanity of Dead Dreams

The Last Whisper in the Dark (his followup to The Last Kind Words), I thought it might be nice to take a look aback at one of my favorite books from the man. Then tear the flesh off its bones so I can watch its heart beat while all joy flutters away. I tend to do those this. Of course, since I’m analyzing the work, there will be massive spoilers. Please buy the book and read it, if you haven’t already, before continuing.
Like all of Tom Piccirilli books, The Dead Letters is a hell of a read. The suspense is intense, the writing style evocative and positively devastating at times and the characters are mythic yet grounded. Unfortunately, far too many years spent working on a lit degree will not allow me to simply leave it at that. Why is it good? Why did I need coming back to this story of all of his works? Certainly, it doesn’t work as a mystery, since there is no way to be able to figure out the identity of the killer independently of being told near the end. NO, there has to be something more to it that just being entertaining, something deeper, or that damn piece of paper is even more worthless than my bank account tells me every day.

Maybe it’s in the way that he treats the roles of “hero” and “villain”. It’s obvious that we‘re expected side with Whitt from the get-go, as the poor father of a murdered child, while Killjoy is the murderer of said mini person. The roles seem pretty clear until Pic begins to fuck around with us. Killjoy’s letters have a grand, airy feel to them, as if they were written by someone who exists beyond the petty, restrictive mores and  understanding of us mere mortals. Plus, he stopped killing and has begun taking children from abusive families, giving them to the parents of his former victims. Meanwhile, Whitt is shown to be an obsessive ass, dwelling on the ruin of his life and refusing to move on. His quest for vengeance is like a hurricane, oblivious to the destruction it leaves in its wake. We seem to be looking at a Moby Dickish tale of the destructiveness of obsession and vengeance, a kind of Nietzschean fable warning of the dangers of fighting monsters.

But really, who gives a rat’s ass, right? It’s a tired and empty, clich├ęd approach to morality that’s been run into the ground too damn often, even assuming we are nice enough to ignore the White Whale taking a dump in the living room. Besides, this falls apart the second we begin to follow Killjoy’s own existentialist dictum that “words are deficient, even impractical, when attempting to convey the substance of true (modest) self. Deed is definition.”

With this in mind, it’s impossible to escape the image of killjoy as pure human evil. It’s important to remember that, despite his flowery prose and recent good deeds, this is a man who has murdered children, suffocating them in their own beds. He’s an obsessive, pathological serial killer who not only took the lives of those children but also destroyed the lives of everyone who cared about them. Just in case we wish to say that he has put aside his murderous ways and is redeeming himself through saving other children, Mike reminds us of an important aspect of the psychology of serial killers: they “by definition, are compulsive. They do not stop killing. They’re incapable of diverting or diminishing their obsessions.” His unwillingness to actually change is later reinforced in one of his letters to Whitt wherein he discusses the dangers of the “lures of normalcy.”

Even his attempts at redemption prove empty and meaningless. His mention of seeing “the hands of God in all things” speaks of a determination to not take responsibility for his own actions, instead attributing them to God, fate or anything that isn’t him. Further, he quite clearly has no interest in truly atoning for his crimes, he simply wants them to be forgiven and forgotten. Hence his offers of changeling children instead of turning himself in. His fear of being made to pay for his sins is palpable in his threat to Whitt: “Don’t cross me, Whitt. Bring the child home. Watch her grow. Find your wife. Resolve your world. Revert.” Revert… just pretend nothing happened. Whatever you do, please stop chasing me because I’m pretty sure I know what you want to do to me if you catch me.

Not only is Killjoy evil, but he is evil in a small, petty way. Just look at the behavior addressed in the last paragraph, like a child trying to lie or cajole his way out of his punishment. Worse still is his motivation for killing these kids: jealousy. The real targets were the parents, people Killjoy had seen living the joyful, contented lives he felt himself entitled to. He explains it to Whitt after being found out :“I spotted you in the park that day, six years ago. You looked happy. I hated that more than you’ll ever know, Eddie. I despised and envied your elation, your mirth… With a beautiful wife and a gorgeous baby daughter… I wanted to steal your happiness.” He murdered these people’s children and destroyed their lives because they had something he wanted. He may be evil, but he is also that most pathetic form of life: a hater.

Of course, Whitt did hang onto his vendetta with his own brand of compulsive obsession but we can also see why. His reasoning comes across strongest in his altercation with Mary over her anticipation of a new child. His forcing her to remember what was taken from her, what was done to her and her child, brought back her own resolve, her determination to see Killjoy punished. However, he’s a bit more direct about it when talking to his friend and godfather of his dead daughter: “You looked like you were going to jump down into the grave with her, but I did it. You understand? I’m there. I have to be there with my girl or I can never catch her killer.”

Maybe that’s the point here, that we can’t let ourselves get muddled in our own attempts to complicate what is often a simple issue. Maybe sometimes an asshole is just an asshole no matter what their reasons are and they need to be treated accordingly. I can’t help thinking that Killjoy only gave up his own child so that he would be freed from his own joy, allowing him to revert himself. Thus, in the reality of this story, Whitt’s obsessiveness is not only what allowed him to stay focused but is also that factor that led to the end of Killjoy’s actions. So maybe Tom is telling us that we need to be less willing to let the past stay there and stick to our stubborn-ass guns a bit more.

That’s what makes The Dead Letters an act of genius instead of simply being a damn good book. Pic used the backdrop of a gorgeous noir/crime/mystery novel to draw us into what he seems to see as a problematic world-view wrapped in the cozy shell of a trite literary conceit. Then he has managed to use this conceit against us to point out exactly where he sees problems with it while inserting a far more bleak, but no less reasonable, alternative.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Make New, Better Art, Dammit!

I awoke this morning to a grand murmuring that rumbled through the ether. I knew, immediately, that something must be amiss in the gentle realms of Genre. A disturbance in MA, if you will. Abruptly, I pounced from the soft cocoon of my bed, bursting with purpose, and took my dog out to go to the bathroom. Then opened up a can of wet food for her, which prompted the cats to come begging for their share. Once that was taken care of, I pulled up facebook because, frankly, I didn’t want to think about the fact that I should be getting ready for work.

That’s when the hubbub over the Resnick and Malzberg Dialogues in the SFWA Bulletin hit me in the face. I’m not a member and do not receive this publication, so I cannot speak to the articles themselves and only have experience of them from the viewpoint of those offended. The gist, however, seems to be that the two gentlemen were attempting cheeky nostalgia about the good ol’ days when you could talk about fellow professionals as if they were pieces of meat, so long as those fellow professionals had vaginas. Since, again, I have only experienced a single side of the issue, I cannot speak to the complaints and I’ll keep my damn mouth shut on that for the moment. 

I can, however, speak to the responses to both this and any expression in the artistic world that centers around demeaning or devaluing the art or the artist (or the impression that such an act has occurred) based on superficial details unrelated to the art itself. 

There is always the gut response to complain. Or to “get the bastards”. Maybe, as has been suggested, we should not allow people who say or do such things in our clubhouses anymore. I, however, tend to defer to Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe on this one:
The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art.  If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over.  That’s not the side you want to be on.  The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work.  The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring.  That even with a computer in your pocket connected to an instantaneous global network, no-one can hear you.  When you believe that, really believe it, the devil dances in hell.

I’ve been through this fight before. In Hardcore, when people misread Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” and the term skinhead became considered synonymous with Neo-Nazi instead of broke ass homeless kids who shaved their head to keep from getting lice. In Black Metal, when National Socialist Black Metal raised its ugly head. It’s still ongoing in the world of sludge metal, where some still assume that racism and antiquated nationalism are a necessary part of southern pride. And horror. Don’t get me started on horror. Hell, there was awhile that I lived the straight-edge lifestyle, but did not want to be associated with the misogyny, egotism and violence I saw associated with that scene.

In every one of those situations, there were both verbal and physical fights as well as the attempt to kick the bastards out. None of those worked, and usually emboldened them to take on the mantle of the victim. But then, something beautiful began to happen in every one of those situations: people in the scene that did not agree with how a minority was allowing them all to be portrayed made a point to create more art that portrayed the scene the way they felt it should be portrayed. Hippy Black Metal bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and organizations like S.H.A.R.P. and the Conscientious Straight Edge movement and films like American Psycho (while the book was written by a man, Mary Harron’s  stamp gives the story an level of depth and breadth the book lacked) that dissect the sexism in slasher films in an erudite and literate as well as joyous fashion.

This did not get rid of the “bad guys”, but it does show that they are a minority or at least that their ideas are not monolithic through the scene. More importantly, it created some really fucking cool ass art. I can’t think of a better way to stick it to people you disagree with.

I’m wondering why, while all these people are complaining, dropping out of the SFWA or telling the patriarchs to keep their antiquated ideas to themselves, I haven’t heard of anything being submitted to run counter to this. How about a similar dialogue between two women who lived on the receiving end of this behavior? Even better, why not flip the tables and write something up talking about them in the same manner?  That last one would be awesome.

We’ve already recognized that, if we want to deal with the prevalence of white male characters in the genre, we have to create more stories with vital, honest characters of other types and stripes. The same applies here. Let's get to making some culture!