Archive for December 10, 2012

666 Park Avenue Is Unjustly Condemned

So I was planning to write about why Mass Effect 3 supports my current feelings of optimism about young adults’ future of political engagement. That will have to wait, though, because I’m currently distraught by the news that the best horror TV show to hit the airwaves in a long time, 666 Park Avenue, is being cancelled.

I’m a sucker for artful stairs.


Of course, when my partner and I were hooked after a couple of episodes, we knew that, according to the curse that hounds so many of us, it would be cancelled on account of being good. I’m still bitter about Wonderfalls. But I will not expand upon this curse here; no, my task here is something different. It is to explain why I, generally a champion of all horrors extreme, am infatuated with a show that blatantly prefers the simmer to the splatter.

I think in lists, people:

6. It’s a horror show for grown-ups. Granted, the boys on Supernatural are all grown up now that they’ve been on the air for many years, but for the most part, television’s supernatural offerings seem mainly geared toward the fantasies of teenagers, particularly teenagers who feel like outsiders and therefore imagine that being an immortal bloodsucker would give them an eternal inside. Hey, I had my Anne Rice phase, and I get it. 666 Park Avenue has a little bit of youthful angst, but its master metaphor isn’t “growing up and fitting in” like every horror show since Buffy. This show’s central conceit is that the powers in charge of a city like New York reach so high that they can’t help shaking the heavens and sink so low that they can’t stop borrowing from hell. And for anyone living in a globalized, postindustrial, capitalist world, that’s as tough as the grown up stuff gets without having bombs go off every few seconds, something I have trouble taking seriously.

5. Murmurations. This word is the title of the show’s second episode. It was familiar–my tentative definition was in the ballpark of right–but it still sent me to an online dictionary. A show on ABC reinforcing an English PhD’s vocabulary? Looooooooovely. More important, the images of the murmurations themselves were visual poetry, an even rarer find on network TV.

4. Vanessa Williams. Still beautiful, now bold, nay, badass, sculpting a character whose love of shopping no more trivializes her than her commanding strength masculinizes her. She exudes grace; she’s problematically dependent on her husband, yes, but he seems to be close friends with very dark forces (he owns the building in the show’s title), so her subservience isn’t necessarily the result of a traditional gender balance. And she still rebels, oh yes–his will is hers only when it suits her.

3. Cute young people whose names I might know later. Seems like they can act, too.

2. Terry O’ Quinn has more charisma that ten regular leading men combined.

Swallowing your soul in style

He has a modest reputation for his by-all-rights-legendary performance in the original The Stepfather (1987), but of course he is best known for playing John Locke in Lost, my favorite character on that show. He’s better here, though, because with Lost I always felt weird for finding his philosophical angst so sexy… here, he gets to be engaged with the Beyond while actively making his screen partners… at least those drawn to powerful men… drool.

1. I don’t know where it’s going. I had Lost figured out in a couple of episodes, and though the creators tried to frame the ending as something else, they still basically gave me what I was expecting. Given my acquaintance with centuries of the horror genre, I know a premise involving a Mephistophelian billionaire in New York running a spiderweb/soultrap of a highrise–the Gothicly-named Drake–could be following and/or remixing any number of well-established narrative patterns. And yes, the simultaneous existence of multiple timelines within the building’s walls recalls high points of the genre, especially Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which has lush, saturated interiors akin to what we see in the Drake. And the show’s critique of class excesses would fit in any New York soap opera, not to mention the aesthetic from Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) that clearly inspired Kubrick. But while I recognize all these facets, finding them individually as predictable as most things on television, I am still mystified by the show’s particular melange, axe murders and shut-ins who morph into birds and homicidal lunatics named after famous painters and bad guys who may have once been compromised in the ways they now seek to compromise others… did I mention severed heads in boxes? That was a brisk moment, but for the most part, all these elements circle around one another like ladies at an Austenian ball–the spectacle is not sensational, like most of the horror I like, but subtle, layered, and so full of ambiguity that the mystery could productively sprawl for several more seasons.

But it won’t, because it’s being cancelled. Unless someone with power happens to read this praise, this plea, this encomium for television horror as art. Let the Drake stay open. Let the evil simmer awhile longer. Eventually, enough fans would learn to feast.

Dec. 8 and Dec. 15: Book Signing Insanity!

December 8 (tomorrow if you’re reading in close-to-real time), Andrew Toy will be signing Man in the Box, and I’ll be signing Burning the Middle Ground, at That Book Place in Madison, Indiana from 11am to 2pm.

December 15 there’s a BlackWyrm Publishing signing extravaganza at A Reader’s Corner in Louisville, Kentucky from 11am to 12:30pm. Andrew Toy and I will again be signing, along with Ian Harac, Christopher Kokoski, Jason Walters, and Michael Williams. Feel the overwhelming star power!

And because people pay attention to cute kitties, here’s Samara:

She will not attend the signings, but she tells me she still expects a cut of the royalties.


I’m a real boy! Er, writer. Last night I officially launched my novel Burning the Middle Ground, and the official release date for my new academic work Dario Argento is Dec. 10. Of course, both of these books are now available (click the pic)…

Burning the Middle Ground cover  Dario Arrgento book cover

In the week that Burning the Middle Ground has been available, more than 400 people have gotten e-copies. I don’t have data for print copies or for Dario Argento, but what this one data point means is that people I don’t know are actually reading my work. I know that happened with Gothic Realities and Monsters, too, but it’s still trippy….

400+ in a week is way cool by academic book standards, but I need your help if the numbers are going to mean anything by novel standards. And to be clear, you don’t need to spend any money to help. I need reviews! I need likes (look on the right side of the page)! I need you to forward the news to your friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and all the other resources that take only a few seconds’ worth of clicking! Many thanks.

Thanks also to the awesome people who came to my launch last night. The audience included admirable authors Michael Williams and Andrew Toy. Y’all rock.

Free E-Books from BlackWyrm… including mine!

December 3 through December 5, BlackWyrm Publishing is giving away free e-books, including the e-book version of my novel Burning the Middle Ground. Even if you’ve already bought a print copy, why not get one for when you’re on the go? The idea is that a couple days of free books are worthwhile if we can drive up numbers and rankings… and hey, there’s lots of good stuff to read, too!

The Collection Does Not Include Money or Esteem

When I exited my typical Saturday matinee, I knew the movie I’d seen, The Collection, would receive unfavorable comparisons to its predecessor, The Collector, which on top of giving the Saw franchise a run for its gore money, involves an unusually well-developed set of major characters and a surprisingly intense build to a satisfying conclusion. Although I’d hoped The Collection would do better than it has, I was not surprised to learn that it finished a dismal tenth at this weekend’s box office, earning a disappointing $3.4 million.

And now that the bad stuff is out of the way, let me tell you why I’m very happy that this film exists and that it has had at least one weekend to elicit the mainstream’s condemnation.

The film isn’t as intense as its predecessor, and the characterization isn’t as thorough, but visually and intellectually, it dwells on a higher plane. Anyone familiar with the horror genre will not be surprised that a movie called “The Collection” is a collection of many things beyond the main psycho-killer’s freakshow of traps and body parts: it’s a collection of set-pieces so grisly each one of them should have drawn an NC-17 (Unrated Cut, here I come!), and, of course, it’s a collection of other films. People who call it a Saw rip-off are choosing to ignore that it’s the same creative team behind the later entries in that franchise. Marcus Dunstan and the gang are merely continuing their work, acknowledging the earlier series passingly as they take its themes into new territory. Other references run the gamut from Clive Barker’s underappreciated Nightbreed to too-surreal-for-its-own-good Alien Resurrection (now more often cited as the mental offspring of Joss Whedon than of subversive French cineaste Jean-Pierre Jeunet).

The most compelling reference is, for me, to zombie films. As a horde of crazed people rush gun-wielding mercs who have raided The Collector’s lair in search of the young woman he has most recently acquired, the mercs indiscriminately open fire, saying the hordes are “like zombies.” The gunmen are unfazed by the leading man’s shouted explanations that these hordes are not zombies but are victims so drugged and tortured by their captor that they cannot control their own actions. Particularly since this sequence appears early in the film, it is able to frame The Collection in contrast to other charnel-house fare: here, the victims are adamantly human, so they suffer and die and pile up guilt for anyone tempted to say “Boo-YEAH!” like someone who has confused military weaponry with video game controllers.

As I argue in Gothic Realities, the Saw franchise subverts America’s self-contradictory rhetoric of moralizing violence in our many wars. The Collection puts this self-contradictory rhetoric on display in our own back yard, offering images of a drug-soaked youth underground, a woman whose dollish, objectifying make-up is more Real Housewives than Baby Jane, and a mad pseudo-scientist motivated not by Nazi ambitiousness like in The Human Centipede but by simple, mundane curiosity, a sense that he needs pits full of severed-limb salad just to escape his ennui. Zombies have become metaphorically exhausted because despite their versatile capacity as mirror-monsters showing us everything ugly in ourselves, they are still comfortingly unhuman, safely outside most conventional definitions of human life no matter how many times they pause to appreciate fireworks. The Collector’s motivation for mass murder lies uncomfortably in the human core that drives us to spectacles like this film or, more pressingly, to spectacles like the nightly news. Zombies’ inhumanity allows “us” to cling to our humanity. When The Collector adds us to his menagerie, he operates according to the inhumanity of everyone jaded enough by consumer culture to find entertainment in real suffering. If anything, the gore of the film’s spectacles is comforting because it’s so clearly offered as fictional  play–it differentiates the proceedings from the false sobriety and sanitation of bleeds-it-leads journalism. But the comfort to be found in buckets of blood is, alas, of a limited, sticky sort, and if you’re not a little bit disturbed by the film’s spectacles, you’re missing something (on the inside).

More important than the reference to the “What is human” discourse evoked by zombies, however, are the references to art that precedes film history. In The Collector’s lair we find not only bits and pieces of films and bodies but also an awful lot of art on walls, art very much in the styles of Hieronymous  Bosch, Francisco Goya, and Francis Bacon (the 20th-century one).

Inclusion of this type of art in the many-tiered Collection suggests that the leather-masked collector has been chasing his existential voidiness back through the centuries, not just to the Grand Guignol theater that his elaborate killings directly reinstate but through centuries of grotesque artistic attempts to cope with human ickiness. I mean, why is “gore,” the spectacle of bodies being torn apart and turned inside out, gross? Pain and suffering are gross, sure-the experience of being torn apart explodes subjectivity. But outside of subjective experience, the human body is supposed to be intrinsically beautiful and noble, transcending the mere animality of flesh. Seeing it rent and scattered reminds us that no, actually, there’s nothing transcendent about these mortal coils: they’re beastly when we wear them, and they’re beastly when we don’t. We are, in a word, meat, and The Collection is a meat parade that confronts us with our choppable chunkiness while enveloping a history of like-minded confrontations.

Naturally I would not be as inclined to read The Collection as a succession of image-rich set-pieces that evoke longstanding problems of art, politics, and philosophy were the film’s grand allusion not so very apt: The Collection resides in The Hotel Argento. What name but the maestro‘s would rightly label a structure (structure within the film, structure of the film) that stands as a kind of compendium for the problems of sublime and abject aesthetics?

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about but are interested in such stuff, my book Dario Argento will fill in many blanks for you. Check it out on my Amazon author page:

Bottom line: The Collection gives us horrors we can use to think productively about being human, being animal, and being in the world. That’s art, folks. No coincidence that we eventually learn that The Collector’s daddy used to own a museum.This particular installation is well worth seeing before it gets banished to box office oblivion.