Comics and comments

You may have heard about the recent dust-up over Marvel’s comments on diversity killing their sales. As someoene who’s been reading comics for most of my life, I have opinions on the matter. And so does my pal George Galuschak! We have shared them as an Unreliable Narrators podcast, so no need to rehash here. Suffice it to say that the industry suffers from a plethora of ongoing issues, and too much diversity ain’t one of them.

Check it out on the UN site–or here, I’ll make it easy for you.

Boskone breakdown

This past weekend I traded biblical rains and landslides for ice, snow and surprisingly moderate temperatures at Boskone. This is my favorite East Coast con for several reasons, not the least of which is an opportunity to hobnob with Chia and George–the other coastal elites of the Unreliable Narrators–as well as other friends and cohorts.

A few highlights:

– The hotel. Westin Boston Waterfront is one of the best convention sites around: clean and modern rooms, a spacious lobby and bar, several decent restaurants and plenty of conference space. Relieves the downside of sitting in a quiet and uneventful part of town.

– Several lively panels. Hearing Brandon Sanderson, Charles Stross and Walter Jon Williams discuss their toughest books was highly entertaining. And moderator extraordinaire Julia Rios even plugged our podcast and drama series during her panel on podcasting.

– The horror contingent. A small but closeknit group of horror authors provided lively discussions of horror in literature and on the silver screen. They even showed up for each other at the Kaffeeklatches. Other genres, take note.

– The flash fiction slam. Three of the Narrators–George,Chia and I–participated in the contest, and George took second place with his tale of disease warfare. Three minutes is… not a lot of time to read a piece.

– Dinner with Walter, Julia and my fellow Narrators. Deconstructed shellfish and onion strings atop every dish (even the fish and chips!) Now we know why it’s called a test kitchen.

So very not a highlight: the three-hour delay into Boston and the two-hour delay returning home. This follows a four-hour stretch of boredom in Chicago on my last trip. Yeah, I think I’m done with United. This is not the sort of thing I’m interested in becoming business as usual.

Thanks, Boston. I’m sure we’ll meet again before long. And damn, was it nice not hearing about our orange dystopia for a few days.

E’ville Tracks

Meant to include this with that last post, my E’ville post mortem, and clean forgot. Here’s a quick playlist of some of the invented tracks for background music: a silly version of the Unreliable Theme Song that sounds more ’50s rockabilly than Jazz Age, but whatever; Derin Kivaner performing an original torch song with the C Sharp Lounge house band; a cover of a traditional Irish tune that became better known as an American folk song–that I updated to Gold Rush California (It keeps moving farther west–“When I first came to Galway/Louisville/Placerville…”); and the Number One song of 1927, made to sound like it’s being broadcast over a crappy old radio.

Was fun to dabble in styles I know very little about. Who knows? Maybe I’ll return to one or all of them. In the meantime, enjoy.

Everything I know about audio drama I learned from E’ville

Today I published the final episode of my eight-part audio drama, E’ville, over on the Unreliable Narrators site. What began as a group project became my own mission to write, produce and edit a radio-style serial. Strictly amateur, and an answer to many what-if scenarios rattling around in my head. Could I piece together such an ambitious project using crowd-sourced voice acting from my friends and cohorts? Could I deliver a series of episodes on a self-imposed schedule, eight episodes in eight weeks? Would it be any good?

Happily, all answers are yes. Well, that last one I leave to you, dear listener. But I’m satisfied with the results, as grand experiments go.

I did learn a ton. Some observations, in case I feel the need to undertake something like this again:

Nothing like starting out big. Maybe I should have tried a nice, single-episode short for starters. But where would be the fun in that? I wanted a challenge that combined my many creative interests, and by god, that’s what I got. Every writer knows that nagging idea that takes hold of your brain and refuses to piss off while you finish that other shiny project on your desk. This wasn’t going anywhere until I delivered, so I did. Perhaps a few too many characters, perhaps a few too-busy scenes for audio only. The important thing is, it’s out of my mind and I can reclaim headspace for a few other deserving projects.

Crowd-sourcing voice performances via the internet has its own rewards. The talent involved represents old friends, new colleagues, people I don’t know (yet). And it was fun to stitch together those elements of my life in one place. The drawback, of course, is that you sacrifice a good deal of control over audio quality when most of the actors are miles away–not nestled in your own, soundproof studio and using the same microphones. Given the size and disparate schedules of the cast, table reads were right out as well. But hey, I lucked into a great group of people who were quite talented and quite game.

Ah, copyright law. U.S. copyright law, in particular. Such an ungainly beast. I learned more about copyright law than anyone ever wanted to, in the name of keeping this legit. Did you know that no works published after 1923 can be safely considered in the public domain? How about that even if copyright has expired on a song, the actual recording of the song is still protected? And that’s just the beginning of the headache. (Even worse, there’s a ton of misinformation out there, mainly because copyright law confuses everyone. I started out using a 20s jazz collection the Internet Archive itself marked as “public domain,” but the recordings themselves technically are not free to use. Oops.)

TL;DR on that last paragraph, for those whose eyes have glazed over: screw U.S. copyright law and its war on the public domain. Ahem. Moving on.

Crowd-sourced sound effects rock. I knew early on I didn’t want to spend hours recording my own foley work, whacking a side of beef with a baseball bat during every fight scene. That’s where freesound.org comes in, a lovely and CC-licensed collection of sounds recorded by people from all over the world. Of course, I still spent lots of time blending them into soundscapes. But it was enormous fun piecing together a street in 1920s Emeryville using sounds from a Japanese market, a Polish bar crowd, beaches in Venezuela. Technology is grand sometimes.

I used to play in bands and learned audio recording the old, multitrack magnetic-tape way. E’ville also served as an excuse to finally wade waist-deep into modern DAW technology. The covers and original compositions for the series are all 100% sampled and sequenced. Perhaps not entirely period-appropriate–they drift from 40s lounge to 50s rockabilly at times–but I never claimed to know shit about Jazz Age composition. And hey, I collaborated with a singer in Istanbul on one track. Again, technology rocks.

Would I do it again? Perhaps, someday. But there’s a book that’s been fighting for gray matter real estate with this sucker, and its time has come.

Sleeper agent activated

So, it’s 2017. I’d rejoice at the end of the shittiest year in recent memory if not for the expectation that this one will only suck more. I’d dearly love to be proven wrong, but all signs point to being hours and hours from dawn.

Those who know me well will tell you I’m an agreeable person. (Well, most of them!) I abhor conflict and go out of my way to get along with whomever I can. But I can’t deny this year has broken something fundamental inside me. My faith that people are by and large inherently good? Gone. Whoosh. I’ll continue to seek out the good-natured and sympathetic–and they are still legion–but I now realize that decorum and civility are wasted on a growing number, and I won’t bother if not met halfway. Or even a quarter of the way.

I’ve resisted blogging about the election while I gather my thoughts, but I think enough time has passed that I can avoid hammering out a rage-induced screed. Doesn’t mean the anger has subsided. My disappointment in the human race extends beyond the impending Trumpocalypse, which appears to be but one symptom of a rising fascist tide across the globe. Now that a couple of months have passed, I’ve begun to figure out how to keep from immolating in anger. I’ve been catalyzed into action, because it’s too dangerous to look the other way. Nothing is normal about the relentless tide of racism, misogyny and disrespect now days away from our highest office. And I won’t accept it as normal. I simply can’t.

My plans are in flight, but I can tell you what to expect from here on out. I won’t be looking away when something really fucked up happens, simply because that’s the comfortable route. So, let’s try and salvage what we can from the coming months, shall we? If, like me, you’re searching for productive ways to restore normalcy, here are a few links I’ve found helpful. See you in the trenches.

Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

How to Defeat an Autocrat: Flocking Behavior

Elizabeth Bear on the Long Con

Surveillance Self-Defense

TogetherList

Escape Pod and beyond!

What’s this? I narrated a very fun story for Escape Pod: Captain Drake Learns His Lines by Amy Sisson and Kate Suratt. Give it a listen. This is my first foray into narration, and why not? Thanks to EP for the opportunity.

Much has been happening, though you couldn’t tell from this site. I’ve been devoting a lion’s share of my time to Unreliable Narrators, and the results have been rewarding to say the least. Today is our one-year anniversary, in fact, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how that’s progressed. Oh, and did I mention that I wrote and am in the middle of producing an eight-episode audio drama for UN? E’ville episode one is up now, with a new episode each Monday through the end of January. A ton of work, but I can’t say it hasn’t been an absolute blast, combining my interests in writing, music and audio engineering. Methinks more of this will happen at some point.

And then there’s matter of the recent election. Perhaps you’ve heard about it? I thought about posting an epic screed and decided others have covered most of those bases. Suffice it to say, I’m disappointed in humanity right now. Still formulating my response, though if you’re interested in specifics they’re covered pretty well in my interview with Desiree Burch–which you should listen to regardless, as she’s highly entertaining.

So yeah, I’ve been heard more than seen–or read–lately. I’m fixing to change that, however, for it’s back to the grindstone on my work in progress. Stay tuned for details.

I’m on a boat! Well, I will be.

oasis-of-the-seas-royal-caribbean-international-cruise-ship-photos-2015-06-07-at-labadee-haitiAhoy, matey! Somehow, that trip to the Caribbean that had been lurking in the dim future has crept up on me and begins this weekend! No idea how that happened. I’ll be on board the Oasis of the Seas for the 2016 Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat, hobnobbing with writers and podcasters and other industry types. Should be fun. Our trip includes excursions to the Bahamas, St. Thomas and St. Maarten–and even an on-board Prohibition party. It’s a rough existence.

Meanwhile, the Unreliable Narrators have been hard at work on new releases, and you should certainly go and check out our last few shows. October promises to be bigger and better as plenty of crazy things are planned which may or may not relate to that most glorious of holidays, Halloween. But first, ocean. Islands. Cocktails. Seeing old friends, making new ones. And maybe, just maybe, commiting some words to screen and keyboard.

See you on the other side.

DraculaFest: The Wrap-Up

I am the vinner!

I am the vinner!

Finis! Three months and thirty-seven films later, DraculaFest draws to a close. Yes, if I really wanted to draw this out I could likely squeak out at least a dozen more films. (Ever seen Ringo Starr’s Dracula musical? No? With good reason!) But I’m convinced I’ve found the gems, and I’m not enough of a masochist to sit through a dozen terrible movies on purpose. Savaging awful monster movies gets old, and we already have MST3K for that.

Here they are, all the films of DraculaFest in order of my own personal preference. Note that this order is not a strict reflection of the ratings I handed out as I watched. As time wore on and I gained more context, I decided I’d been a bit strict or lenient with a few of these flicks. None of the scores were way off base, but a few got bumped accordingly in either direction. And I left the original posts as-is, because hey, this is not Star Wars.

A few random discoveries and surprises:

– That’s a shitload of Dracula! I knew going in the character was popular, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which this story had invaded pop culture for the past century. Every era boasts on-screen versions of the legend, from the 20’s into the 2010s. Residing in the public domain no doubt accounts for a lot of the activity. But the Count is also the quintessential Western villain: an exotic immigrant come to corrupt and destroy post-industrial culture, and a sensual creature preying upon one’s own desires and spreading his sickness through an unchaste exchange of bodily fluids. Tell me those fears are irrelevant to our times!

– Like disco, Dracula dominated the ’70s. 38% of the films in this list are from that decade. Over a third! Why? I have no idea. But the burnout was so severe that no one touched the Count again until Coppola’s ’90s revival, other than a low-budget misfire or two. Just as well. No one needs to see Dracula with a pink Izod or a skinny necktie.

– Avoid movies with increments of 1000 in the title. You have been warned.

– Congratulations to the Germans, who have proven they know their way around a monster movie. I suppose my preference for the Nosferatu films means I prefer a sinister count to the fanged Lothario of many other versions. Or maybe they’re just that damned good at filmmaking and have been since the silent era.

And now, a rest. Until I decide to start reviewing HK wuxia films or bildungsromans or something. (Is that how you pluralize bildungsroman?) Enjoy!

1 Nosferatu, the Vampyre
2 Nosferatu
3 Universal’s Dracula
4 Horror of Dracula
5 Dracula ’79
6 Drácula
7 Blacula
8 House of Frankenstein
9 Franco’s Count Dracula
10 Dracula, Prince of Darkness
11 Dan Curtis’ Dracula
12 Bram Stoker’s Dracula
13 NBC’s Dracula
14 BBC’s Dracula
15 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
16 Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
17 The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires
18 Dracula’s Daughter
19 Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
20 The Brides of Dracula
21 BBC’s Count Dracula
22 Dracula A.D. 1972
23 Love at First Bite
24 Taste the Blood of Dracula
25 House of Dracula
26 Young Dracula
27 Blood for Dracula
28 Dracula Untold
29 Dracula: Dead and Loving It
30 Scars of Dracula
31 Argento’s Dracula 3D
32 The Satanic Rites of Dracula
33 Son of Dracula
34 The Return of Dracula
35 Old Dracula
36 Dracula 2000
37 Dracula 3000

DraculaFest: Franco’s Count Dracula

This is the way DraculaFest ends. Not with a whimper or a bang, but with a middling, faithful rendition of Stoker’s book. Worse endings exist.

Saruman gets a haircut.

Saruman gets a haircut.

Count Dracula (1970) is Spanish director Jesús Franco‘s entry in the vampire sweepstakes. Given Franco’s predilection for more titillating fare like Vampyros Lesbos, the straightforward nature of this literary adaptation is a bit surprising. The film contains pretty much every classic beat from the familiar story: Jonathan Harker’s (Fred Williams) journey to Transylvania, the Count’s journey to England, his pursuit of first Lucy (Soledad Miranda) and then Mina (Maria Rohm), a final race against the rising sun. After three dozen Dracula films, the story contains few surprises.

The main attraction, and most interesting aspect, is the return of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. After the stripped-down gore of the Hammer films, it’s strange to see Lee issue an alternate take on his most famous role. He speaks more dialogue in this film than in all the Hammer films combined; this Count is aged and deliberate, a foil of sorts for the snarling assassin of those movies. I’m glad to have the opportunity to see Lee do more with the role than inexplicably show up, kill a bunch of people, and inexplicably die. Also memorable–and similarly déjà vu-inducing–is Klaus Kinski as Renfield. Nine years later, Kinski would become the vampire himself in Nosferatu, the Vampyre; he’s well-suited to both roles. His Renfield throws food at the wall and smears it into abstract designs, keeps flies in a jewelry box lowered into the sewage system. Too bad Lee and Kinski don’t share the screen. The others fail to make an impression, including Herbert Lom as an indecipherable Van Helsing. Despite several creepy and effective scenes, a grab bag of silly touches–like an overblown soundtrack and laugh-inducing eye-zoom reaction shots–mar the atmosphere. It’s a serviceable outing, but slavish devotion to the story drains any suspense. We know where this is going, and it doesn’t prove us wrong.

Might want to get that looked at.

Might want to get that looked at.

Actually, a few low-budget quirks provide some amusement. Dracula’s collection of bad taxidermy growls at intruders. The count’s bat form only appears in shadow and resembles a Halloween decoration traveling on a clothesline. After chasing Dracula back to his lair, Harker and Quincey (Jack Taylor) forego the hammer-and-stake routine and simply set Dracula on fire inside his coffin, then dump said coffin over a castle wall like so much garbage. The End. What is it with Dracula movies and abrupt endings? It’s almost like these films are afraid they’ll fry at sunrise along with the Count himself. Despite the silliness, Count Dracula serves as a perfectly decent adaptation made worthwhile by the performances of Lee and Kinski. Of the Hammer catalog, perhaps only Horror of Dracula outshines this one due to an emphasis on story, however familiar. If you see only one Dracula film… let it not be this one. But it’s worthwhile if you have room for another. Count Dracula earns 1.25 out of two fangs out.

And with that, I’m hanging up my cape and plastic teeth. It’s been an interesting ride, but I’m good on Dracula for several oceans of time.

Next: The final verdict!

DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 2

463827Scars of Dracula (1970): You may recall Dracula ended his last outing as a heap of ashes on a slab in his own hideout. Scars begins with a vampire bat flying in and dripping blood from its mouth onto Dracula’s remains, et voilà! He lives again! No, I didn’t leave anything out. As time wears on Hammer becomes less interested in the mechanics of storytelling and just wants to show Dracula killing people, dammit. Fair enough. This film also veers into Russ Myers-style T&A territory with brief nudity and sleazy innuendoes. For the third film in a row we have a young man named Paul (Christopher Matthews), a Lothario on the run from the local burgomaster after shagging his daughter. Some villagers try to burn Dracula’s castle, but his loyal bats invade the village church and kill their families while they are gone. Oh, snap! I guess religious iconography doesn’t bother the bats. Dracula kills Paul as he tries to leave the castle–for those keeping score, that’s Pauls 2-Dracula 1–and burns his servant Klove (Patrick Troughton) for attempting to save the lovely Sarah (Jenny Hanley). Several barely connected scenes later, Dracula pursues Sarah and Paul’s brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) outside during a thunderstorm, and is promptly struck by lightning and set on fire. The end. Random in, random out. A certified mess with a few decent scenes of carnage. .5 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972): After six films in the vaguely Victorian setting of the novel, Hammer brings Dracula into the Swinging Seventies! At least we get a new time and place, which infuses some energy back into the series. A.D. serves as a reboot, informing us that Dracula was killed by Van Helsing in London’s Hyde Park back in 1872. Yes, Van Helsing. Peter Cushing is back, and not a minute too soon! We’re off to a sloooow start with a groovy but interminable dance party in swinging London. The story kicks in once vampire wannabe Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) talks his hip young friends into performing a Satanic ritual in an abandoned church. (Yes, they overexplain the ALUCARD=DRACULA thing just as much as Universal did.) Turns out he holds the remains of Dracula, as scooped up in Hyde Park by one of his ancestors, and spills blood on the remains in order to restore the Count’s body. One of the partiers is Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), granddaughter of the grandson of the original vampire slayer (also played by Cushing). Her grandfather pursues the kidnapped Jessica, defeating Johnny Alucard with a bathtub full of running water (!). Dracula and the hand-me-down Van Helsing face off in the final act, and the Count is dispatched with a knife and shovel set to incongruous funk music. Silly, yes, but at least it’s not another romp in that faux-German, anachronistic village of yore. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

hammer3The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973): Christopher Lee’s last outing as Dracula finds him still stuck in the Seventies (sorry, Count) and hobnobbing with Satanists. Part horror flick, part conspiracy thriller, part exploitation vehicle, all ridiculous. Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing and gives one of his best performances in the role. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that legacy. Dracula remains absent for most of the running time, leaving Van Helsing to track down the cult enacting deadly rituals across London. Said rituals involve plenty of nudity, buckets of oversaturated blood and laughable overacting. Things pick up a bit once Dracula is unmasked as a mysterious businessman named Denham in a terrific and unusual office showdown with Van Helsing. Lee makes the most of his swan song with several great Evil Overlord monologues about his plan to spread an apocalyptic plague using the cult leaders as his unwitting Horsemen. Aha, so there is a tenuous connection between Dracula and all the silly Satanism. Unfortunately this film features what has to be the dumbest of the Count’s dumb Hammer deaths, stumbling into a hawthorn bush–which Van Helsing helpfully informs us is the bush used to fashion Christ’s crown of thorns. Van Helsing breaks off a nearby fence post and stakes the Count while he’s writhing around in a bush. The end. Despite a few great moments, Rites is an unsatisfying send-off for one of the most iconic Draculas in cinema. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974): I am happy to live in a world where Hammer Films collaborated with Shaw Brothers Studio, the legendary wuxia production house in Hong Kong. Legend is a crazy hybrid of English blood-and-guts horror and Hong Kong wirework martial arts. Neither house is known for engrossing plot work, but the action sure is visceral. Peter Cushing issues his last take on Van Helsing and turns the vampire hunter into a swashbuckling forebear of Indiana Jones. Alas, Christopher Lee is replaced here by John Forbes-Robinson. A Chinese shaman named Kah (Shen Chan) journeys to Transylvania to seek Dracula’s help in restoring the legendary golden vampires of his village. Dracula decides to take over Kah’s body and replace him as ruler of the Chinese village. Meanwhile, Van Helsing and his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) journey to China to hunt Eastern vampires. Nice coincidence! The doctor’s lecture attracts the attention of Hsi Ching (David Chiang), a descendent of the cursed village held in thrall by the golden vampires. After a perilous journey–with many king fu ambush scenes, natch–the entourage arrives at the legendary temple and defeats the vampires one by one. When only Kah remains, Van Helsing recognizes the voice of his old adversary and goads Dracula into revealing himself–so he can be chased and staked by the good doctor one last time. Strictly as a Dracula film this is pretty weak sauce. But it’s a fun romp with a unique blend of Eastern and Western tropes you won’t see elsewhere. Too bad Lee couldn’t have been persuaded to don the cape one last time, to complete the Hammer Dracula cycle. Watch it anyway. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: Hammer ruled the monster scene for over two decades, taking the crown from Universal and keeping it until the unprecedented resurgence of American horror in the late ’70s and ’80s. The influence of the Hammer catalog cannot be overstated. They envisioned a truly monstrous Dracula, not a charmer or romantic figure. Christopher Lee broke the dominant persona of Lugosi, transforming the Count into an embodiment of evil. That singular focus, however, limited the appeal of these films to pure mindless entertainment. Dracula’s increasingly preposterous deaths turned the vampire into an object of ridicule as more and more mundane household items were added to his list of weaknesses. Ignoring the silly storytelling, however, Hammer kept the Dracula myth alive during a fallow American period, and it’s likely the reason interest in the Count remains strong today.

Like Universal’s famous village, Hammer’s films exist in vague, anachronistic space and time. Ren Faire tavern wenches and King-George-era English nobles coexist in ersatz German towns. Continuity ebbs and flows, creating tenuous connections between films and then challenging them with inconsistencies. As pure escapism, however, the classic Hammer catalog provides many scares–and laughs. Just don’t think about it too much.

Next time: One last film! I thought I was done, but realized I neglected Christopher Lee’s sole non-Hammer role as Count Dracula. That won’t do! So it’s once more into the teeth.