And the answer is none. None more black.


My Scrivener project sure is looking blank, isn’t it? Of course the text part should be blank, what with it being October 31 and all. But the right pane is usually full of notes and things. That’s not so bad; I can live without notes and things. Much more concerning is the second pane from the left. That one might look like it’s full of stuff. But what it’s actually full of is a whole lot of nothing, a black and bottomless pit of you’re-screwed.

That is my Questions That Need Answers document. It’s typically one of the first things I finish when I’m planning a project, if not the very first. Let’s say my story idea is about a ragtag group of nine charged with saving the word by destroying a supernatural weapon before the dark lord can get it. That immediately generates a lot of questions: What does this weapon actually do? How can it be destroyed? What powers, abilities, and resources does the dark lord have? How can these be resisted or neutralized? What vulnerabilities and limitations does the dark lord have? How can these be exploited? And if there’s a giant eagle who can just fly everyone everywhere any time Gandalf asks him to, why can’t he just bring the person holding the weapon over to the fiery mountain and be done with it? And so forth. The point is, these questions need answers.

So what I normally do is, I answer them, and then when I’m writing the first draft, I keep that document in that left pane, handy-like, to refer back to as I write. This year’s document has lots of questions.

Sadly, it has no answers. None. Zero. Not even one.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m posting this, then, instead of actually coming up with answers. That’s because it’s pre-NaNo cleaning day, which is an important day for practicing your procrastination techniques.


Post title ripped off from Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap

In which I quote Monty Python five (three, sir!) three times

What happened is, I spent a month or so developing a story idea for NaNo (although not very well, it must be said), then yesterday I tossed it out in favor of a new one. So the credits have been completed in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute. In this case the expense is mainly in form of sleep.

But that’s okay. NaNo is all about making room for the unexpected, right? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! And look how well that turned out.

To those doing NaNo, Happy Halloween and happy writing.

To those who hate NaNo, Happy Halloween, and by US Thanksgiving you can be thankful nobody’s posting about NaNo anymore. And there was much rejoicing.

How to win at caffeine

Just in time for NaNo, I tried brewing some Republic Chai the proper way this morning:

  1. Bring 1 cup of milk and 1 cup of water just to a boil, reduce heat
  2. Stir in a gob (sorry so technical) of honey until melted – their chai honey is a good choice, but any honey will do
  3. Add 2 but so heaping that it’s really 3 teaspoons of chai leaves
  4. Simmer 4 minutes
  5. Strain – if you haven’t got a tea strainer, any fine strainer will work, as this tea hasn’t got a ton of tiny particles

That makes 2 cups, which I strained into my 3 cup pot. Then I was sad that I didn’t make 3. If I can’t hit 80-100k with this on my desk… actually, it doesn’t matter, because I still get yummy chai so I WIN.

They ship in two days, so you have plenty of time to get some before Friday even if you can’t find it locally. Seriously. You can thank me later.

Shine on, Danny

Spoiler content: probably nothing you couldn’t get off the flap copy of both Doctor Sleep and The Shining

I finally got a chance to finish Doctor Sleep, the much-anticipated story of what happens after The Overlook, while I was on vacation. Here we find Danny Torrance all grown up and, surprise surprise, a drunk. We’re to blame this, it seems, partly on the shining and his need to dull it, although not so much that it’s a cop out. While dealing with his own inner demons, Danny also has to help some old people die (but only the ones the cat tells him to) and save the world’s shining children from a group of shining-sucking-vampire types led by one of the better villains Stephen King has written in a while. It’s a tall order, but luckily for him, he’s got some help besides the aforementioned cat.

King says in the author’s note that he was a bit hesitant to write a follow-up to The Shining, and I don’t blame him. Bad sequels always seem to tarnish the original, and when the original is as good as The Shining – the book, mind, not the Kubrick movie – it’s hard to justify messing with it.

For the first twenty pages I thought: maybe he should have listened to his instinct. After that I thought: wow, this might actually be better than The Shining.

It is and it isn’t. King has written dozens of books and won a National Book Award between that book and this one, and it shows. The writing is better. And it’s a more well-rounded story. Whereas the Overlook Hotel was Evil Just Because, the villains in Doctor Sleep are real, developed, honest-to-goodness characters. Mostly you hate them, sometimes you almost feel sorry for them, but all the while, you understand them.

But The Shining has a keen, unforgettable emotional resonance that this book can’t match. (In fact, the closest it comes is during the inevitable return to the site of The Overlook, and I won’t spoil that for you, but. Have tissues.) Jack Torrance – again, book-Jack, not here’s-Johnny-Kubrick-Jack – is a complicated, heartbreaking character, and his descent into madness is horrible to behold. His desperation not to let his family down, combined with the inevitability of his doing just that in gargantuan proportions, make him almost Greek in his tragic brilliance.

Dan Torrance, while also complicated, hasn’t got the same sort of struggle. No matter the mistakes he makes, no matter the occasional red-seeing, there’s never any doubt that he’s basically a nice guy. Toward the beginning of the book, he does the worst thing he’s ever done, the thing that will haunt him always (or at least for the duration of the story). Contrasting that thing with his father’s worst things makes Danny’s fear of the monster within almost laughable. He just hasn’t got the capacity for evil that Jack had, so the story hasn’t got the same heartstring-pulling, can-he-fight-it-or-can’t-he tension.

The comparisons dispensed with, Doctor Sleep is, on its own, just a straight-up good book. It’s got everything you’ve come to expect from King: compelling characters, memorable images, creepy moments, funny moments, and some really good scares. Danny’s struggles with his past (sometimes actual physical struggles) mix with the troubles of his present in ways that are satisfying and, with one possible exception, rarely feel contrived. The pacing is mostly spot-on.

I did miss the mastery of setting that you so often get from King. When you read a Derry or Castle Rock story, or ‘Salem’s Lot, or Bag of Bones, or several of his other books, where is inextricable from what and who: the story simply couldn’t happen anyplace else. Here, the setting feels like it could easily be swapped out for a dozen others without it affecting the story much. It’s the kind of thing I notice because immersion is so important to me, but overall, it’s a minor complaint. In the end, this is still just a really good yarn. Which is what you’re buying a King book for, no?

What would Illidan say to you?

As of this writing, the countdown timer in my sidebar says I have 7 days and 8 hours until NaNo begins, and, well… this is me.

I suspect this first draft will contain lots of passages about what everyone is eating and characters who don’t grow personalities until some time in January. But there’s not a lot I can do about that in 7 days and 8 hours. I need to choose my battles wisely. Whatever prep time I can carve out around Halloween and all the other goings-on over the next week needs to be dedicated to those things that are absolute critical path items.

Okay then. I already have tea, candy, and Tastykakes. So:

  1. Wine
  2. Plot

Well, that’s not so bad. It’s only two.

How about you, fellow writers and wrimos? Are you ready? What last minute preparations are you making?

Devil babies, frankenboys, and things that make you throw food

Spoiler content – minor for American Horror Story: Coven

I just caught up with episode two of American Horror Story and was pleased to find it so much better than the first. Mainly because of the performances, but the lack of magical killer girlbits was also welcome. Plus I was delighted right in the first three minutes, when they dressed Lily Rabe like Stevie Nicks while playing Stevie Nicks in the background. (Would’ve been better if she didn’t have a speech about Nicks later, but you know, you’re not coming to AHS for subtlety.) The life-death focus of each storyline made this episode feel more cohesive. But some of those storylines were stronger than others.

Frankentate, I don’t even know what to do with that.

Cordelia’s infertility thing just made me ask a lot of questions, especially about that husband who came out of nowhere. Because I thought she lived at the school? She must if she’s waking the girls up in the morning right? Surely they don’t just keep sleeping until she gets up, showers, has breakfast, then commutes? So does the husband live there with her, but he’s mostly invisible unless needed for a sex ritual? How does that work, an adult unaffiliated with the school, still getting to live there among the children? This is just like how I used to obsess about whether Hogwarts teachers could get married and have families or not. I mean, you can’t apparate onto the grounds, so the commute… Anyway. Assuming she got pregnant from that ritual, will this be a devil baby? Please if it is, can we pretty please have a guest visit from Sister Mary Satan, raised from the dead to be his nanny?

And then there’s the big thread, the one that delivers not only Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates, but also the overall premise. Which seems to be that the Salem witches were real, except not the ones who were actually convicted, except for Tituba, who is the one who taught them witchcraft in the first place, only to be betrayed by them and turned in, so the witch-types and the voodoo-types have hated each other ever since. Okay, whatever. Convoluted and bizarre and demonstrating a complete disregard for all sorts of facts, but high marks for creativity, with extra points for delivering the exposition in that truly marvelous salon scene. When Fiona paused mid-catfight to wave Marie off with a quick “no more spray,” I almost choked on my tea. So much win. And Kathy Bates, as hoped, is making Madame LaLaurie more engaging to watch than she has any right to be. The chemistry between Lange and both Bassett and Bates is as good as their individual performances. Honestly, I could watch these three all day.

In fact, I’d love to see more of them in exchange for less doe-eyed, open-mouthed Taissa Farmiga. Really Zoe, is it that much to ask for you to think faster than a cauliflower on occasion, and also breathe through your nose? You know that nasal breathing has major health benefits, right? I quite liked Farmiga in the first season so I have to assume this is bad direction and not her fault, or else that it’s intentional because they really want me to throw cookies at my TV out of frustration at my inability to punch her in the face.

Either way, I’ll keep watching this week. I’ll just maybe eat the cookies beforehand.


On the dark side

Spoiler content: American Horror Story: Coven (mild); The Silence of the Lambs

So without having seen another episode of American Horror Story: Coven, I’m reconsidering my position on Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie. My problem here was the complete lack of dimension. We found out everything we needed to know about Madame LaLaurie in the first ten minutes of the first episode, and considering the real-life person on whom she’s based, we can guess she’s not likely to change much. Which means we haven’t got much left to explore. There are no layers there. Nothing sympathetic or relatable. Nothing at all but pure one-note evil.

I’m not one of those people who thinks every single villain needs to be complicated; I’m cool with just plain monsters showing up in horror stories. But in this case, did we really need the woman who played Annie Wilkes to such amazing, terrifying effect to do it? It just seemed like a waste of talent.

But the thing is, one note can still be pretty interesting (and terrifying) when it’s played right. I got to thinking about characters of pure, unadulterated evil who are nonetheless elevated by good performances. Here are my top eleven picks for one-dimensional monsters who are still done well:

  1. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. This is the most obvious one, no? Lecter has more dimension in the books – there’s a human under there somewhere, or at least there was at some point – but as far as this film alone goes, he’s nothing but a purely black heart. Yet still, at the end, you’re at least half rooting for him to eat that warden. (No? Just me?)
  2. John Doe, as played by Kevin Spacey in Se7en. His actual screen time is short, and he’s only got one side to show us in those few minutes, but the performance is riveting and unforgettable.
  3. Jon Ryder, as played by Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher.
  4. Top Dollar, as played by Michael Wincott in The Crow.
  5. Freddy Krueger, as played by Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Completely uncomplicated, completely iconic.
  6. Max Cady, as played by both Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.
  7. Maleficent, as voiced by Eleanor Audley in Sleeping Beauty.
  8. The Wicked Witch of the West, as played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz.
  9. Count Rugan, as played by Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride. Is sadistic and wholly evil, hilarity ensues.
  10. Roose Bolton, as played by Michael McElhatton in Game of Thrones.
  11. Cancer Man, as played by William B. Davis in The X Files. I don’t care what you say, anyone who is that mean to the Buffalo Bills is pure evil and that’s all there is to it.

So I’m going to keep my eye on this Kathy Bates performance and see where it goes. I’m curious to see what she does with it. (But the rest of my AHS complaints still stand. And I still just can’t even with the magical-deadly-vagina-as-superpower.)

We found a witch, may we burn her?

Did you watch the premiere of American Horror Story? What did you think? Me, I didn’t love it. But I’m reserving judgment. For one thing, my expectations may have been too high. For another, sometimes that show takes me a little while to process.

But thus far it’s sorely lacking in the fresh and interesting department. There were an awful lot of tropes flying around that screen, almost too many to count. This show has always played with tropes but these weren’t being played with in any new or compelling ways. As far as I can see, they weren’t really being played with at all. They were just there. Which is fine if the showrunners are being intentionally campy, but are they? I’m not sure they are. I’m not sure some of those images they mixed in there can play campy.

And why are you hiring all this great talent if this is all you’re going to do with it? Because I don’t think it takes a cast full of award winners to play these roles. Jessica Lange is delightful as always, but oh look, it’s another messy aging bitch hiding her fragility beneath a veneer of cigarette smoke and destruction. Considering the past two seasons, this isn’t exactly new territory they’re taking her to, is it? I’m disappointed with the way they’re using (or not) Lily Rabe. And Kathy Bates is always excellent, but she seems to have been given a role, um, without a lot of dimension to it. All she’s missing is a mustache to twirl.

And the gore. Too much with the gore and the blood and the torture. I’m not objecting due to sensitivity, but on a storytelling level. AHS has never been your go-to for subtlety and nuance, but still. An insane butcher-doctor or a mullet-sporting serial killer torturing and mutilating people is one thing, but witchcraft should be more sophisticated than that, no? I mean, it’s got the word craft right in the name. Where’s the craft here?

On the plus side: The lighting and camera work were sufficiently creepy in the style we’ve come to expect. And I would like to congratulate the folks who do the title sequence on what is possibly their most disturbing and grossest one yet.

Why I love all the horrible things

I look forward to October every year, not just because of pumpkin bread and candy sales and NaNo prep, although those things are of course important. There will be horror movies on TV all the time between now and Halloween, and new ones released in the theater. American Horror Story starts next week. This year I’ve also got a new horror novel to read. It’s just a great month for horrible things.

As my website attests, I can be as kitschy about horror as anyone. I love ravens and haunted mansions and dark and stormy nights. My Jack Skellington bobblehead shares space on my desk with my Poe action figure and my Funko POP White Walker. There are those who find all this weird. They can’t understand how I find fun in all this darkness and death.

But I think characterizing horror as being about darkness and death is missing the point. When I watch or read or write about a monster, it’s not because I love the monster. It’s because I want to slay it. Especially when it comes to writing, horror allows me to face those monsters and win, over and over again, through my characters. And they are always braver than I am. (Or at least, the characters who don’t die screaming while being dismembered. But you know, everyone can’t win. That’s why they call it horror.)

Horror is a lot like a nightlight: it’s there so people can look directly at their fears and walk around them, rather than fumble along in the dark hoping not to trip over them. And also sometimes to help them pee.