Speaking of the 80’s. . .

I just finished the 1987 apocalyptic doorstopper of a novel, Swan Song by Robert McCammon.

My first thought:

As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.
As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.

If any one piece of literature embodied the pop-culture zeitgeist of a particular decade, it is this novel. This book could not be more eighties if it was sporting a mullet and fronting for Van Halen. It’s eighties like a block of government cheese, leg warmers, and slasher movies on VHS. Don’t believe me? Let me list some of the elements we’re introduced to:

  • The homeless bag lady.
  • The pro wrestler.
  • The crazy ‘Nam veteran.
  • The computer nerd who’s into gaming so much he has trouble distinguishing the game from reality.
  • A fleet of homemade armor-plated cars straight out of the Road Warrior.
  • The Cold War, natch.
  • At least one Rubik’s cube.

My second thought:
The book is enjoyable, but I suspect those with a more sfnal bent may have some substantial problems with it. It works as an apocalyptic fever-dream, or an extended allegory, but if you try to bring any real-world logic to the proceedings after the bombs drop, your brain will hurt. (Example: If you know anything about dressing game, the wolf-hunting scene makes about as much sense as the turkey dinner scene in Eraserhead, and has a similar effect on the audience. ) One of the points to the book seems to be the nuclear war creates a literal hell-on-earth, and everything from physics to biology seems to be twisted to this purpose. In this sense, it may almost qualify as a proto work of bizarro fiction.

Speaking of the 1980’s. . .

How many of you remember the Tobe Hooper film, Lifeforce, from 1985? It’s probably the only piece of genre pop-culture from the 80’s that Stranger Things didn’t pay homage to— possibly due to the combination of full-frontal nudity and zombies. Lifeforce hasn’t gotten the same love from posterity as Tobe Hooper’s other efforts (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Poltergeist) which is unfortunate. It’s worth checking out for reasons beyond Mathilda May walking around a government facility completely nude, killing guards right and left (shades of Elfin Lied). The whacked-out story is also worth the price of admission, as are the impressive effects for a Golan-Globus film. (You will not believe this came from the same people responsible for Superman IV.)

One of the more impressive bits of the film is the apocalyptic destruction laying waste to London as the space vampires’ contagion turns the population of the city into undead monsters rampaging through the streets. Then, in order the save the world, the protagonists need to make their way through the dark nightmare streets of the destroyed city, toward the evil light blowing up into the sky from the heart of St. Peters. Our hero has to survive to reach the source of the light and our evil female villain in order to stab her through the heart and stop the apocalypse. . .

Lifeforce (1985)

Wait a minute now. Where have I seen this recently?

Yeah, Suicide Squad— intentionally or unintentionally— made its climax an extended homage to an obscure 80’s Golan-Globus B-movie.

suicide squad
Suicide Squad (2016)

(PS: I know, the evil sky beam is it’s own trope lately, but Lifeforce needs some love for pioneering the form.)

…And I’m Back

I’ve returned from RadCon after a slightly longer than intended return trip.  First me and John Dalmas were stuck in Minneapolis for 7 hours while our original flight crew went awol in the snow somewhere in Detroit, and the replacements showed up just in time to be just over their regulation flight time, bumping us onto another flight.  We got John home to Columbus on Monday, but I was stuck at that point (about 11pm) because of the massive ice storms wrecking highway traffic between there and Cleveland.

Anyway, home now.

Things that appeared while I was gone: DAW’s LiveJournal has a discussion about Messiah.  And I’m appearing in the March issue of The Horror Zine, with a reprint of my short story “Fealty.”

Moving the Goalposts

Blogging is taking a back seat to the new novel (30K+ yea me!) And yes, I bumped up the total wordage of Valentine’s Night, the spec novel I’m working on while waiting to hear back from Anne. Two reasons.

  1. I have trouble writing short, and I don’t feel I’m that close to the halfway point.
  2. I can.

We just keep rolling along

Well my latest spec project is still rolling along quickly, quickly enough that if Anne continues being overworked at Bantam, I might get the whole thing done before I have to do any editorial revisions on Wolfbreed #1 (titles, I need titles). I started it a week and a half ago, and I have 23K words. The good news is, unlike Wolfbreed I do not anticipate going back and completely revising everything halfway in. (Of course, I just jinxed myself, as I didn’t have any plans like that for Wolfbreed at this point.)

For those curious, I have returned to vampires. However this is going to be unrelated to the pair of Blood & Rust novels. I’m trying my hand at an intentional paranormal romance. One that kicks most of the late 20th Century’s contribution to the vampire mythos to the curb. No blood-drinking cabals conspiring in the darkness, no angsty goth heroes, and no supernatural vampire hunters of whatever dynasty.

Attack of the muse: redux

So I finished and turned in the Prophets draft. My next project is Wolfbreed #2 (Still need titles for those) but I can’t really start until Anne at Bantam gets back to me, approving the outline for the next book. Since I didn’t want to jump into the next Apotheosis book and have to interrupt it, I was just taking a short break. . .

My Muse didn’t like that. Like the attack that resulted in Wolfbreed #1, I was sitting, minding my own business, and my muse bitch-slapped me with an idea I just had to start on. As of right now, after about four days, I have nearly 10K words. It’s deja vu all over again.

I even went and added a counter for it.

Plot vs Character: aka The Emotional Zombie

I finally got around to seeing 28 Weeks Later on DVD, and it’s a great zombie flick and one of those rarities; a sequel that is a considerable improvement on the original. Not that 28 Days Later was a bad film, it was just sort of typical for the genre; “You’re in the midst of the Zombie Apocalypse, you have to survive. Go!” And, while 28 Weeks starts out in the same place, it goes in a way different direction.

When people talk of fiction, there’s often much made of the distinction between plot and character, or “plot vs. character,” as if the two were somehow in opposition. The fact is, a story needs both to survive. If either is missing it becomes hard for a reader to care. Without character there’s no reason to care about what’s happening. Without plot there’s nothing happening to care about.

Now the connection between the two is not always very strong. There are literary character studies where the protagonist is caught up in events beyond their control and the object is to watch how this person’s character changes, and there are genre stories where interesting sympathetic characters are caught up in some grand adventure that doesn’t do much other than threaten their safety and give them something to do.

But, in the best stories, the plot is a direct result of character and vice-versa. It is a feedback loop that, in a tale like 28 Weeks, sets up a resonant vibration that shakes the whole universe of the story apart. (Before you go on, warning: Here Be Spoilers.)

In 28 Weeks we start with the typical post apocalyptic holdouts, a bunch of people including a man and wife whose children are safely on a school trip out of the country. The movie begins much as Night of the Living Dead ends, with the zombies storming the house, and one lone man (the husband) escaping. This is the point where we enter new territory. Not only do we jump to the post-apocalypse reconstruction effort, we get to see Dad— wracked with survivor’s guilt that’s painful to watch— reunited with his kids. When he breaks down explaining what happened to Mom, we care about this guy and his kids more than any ten characters in a dozen other action/horror films.

This is also key to the series of events that pushes the rest of the movie into motion. The kids slip out of the safe zone, not because they’re kids and kids do stupid shit, but because the son’s grief-stricken and his big sister wants to go back to their house and get some pictures for him. When Mom’s at the house, apparently uninfected, the first thought isn’t “What? How’d she survive?” it’s more “Mom’s alive!”

Of course when the army brings Mom and the kids back and put them in isolation, Dad’s reaction is even more intense. Up to now he believed he had left her to die. Of course he’s going to go see her. . .

The most powerful moment of the whole film is when he’s facing his wife, apologizing for leaving her in the farmhouse to die, and she forgives him! You’ve agonized with this guy since the opening of the movie, and you can see the weight lift off his shoulders. He walks to her side, and even though you’re screaming at him not to, he kisses her.

And unlike so many “too stupid to live” characters in dozens of other movies, you’re not screaming at him because it’s an idiotic thing to do. You’re screaming at him because you know, given what he knows (the plague has burned itself out, the military said so), and what he’s been through (this his his wife) there was precious little else you’d expect him to do. Even though we see it coming, because we see it coming, we’re as horrified as his wife when we see the infection grip him, and when he kills her it’s as close to classic tragedy as I’ve seen a genre film get.

28 Weeks is made of this stuff. Human beings bring about the end of the world, not through malice or stupidity, but because they’re human.

Laughing with you/Laughing at you

Well, I have again returned from the CWRU Film Society’s SF Movie Marathon, which makes this about #20 for me. (I’ve been there enough times I’ve seen Zardoz twice there.) As last time, I’ve been left thinking about SF movies— in this case “SF/horror” movies since there was a zombie/undead theme going on. In particular, I’ve been left thinking about the differences between parody and homage.

If you look to the left here, we see four films I saw during the marathon. (Shaun of the Dead was one of the three “surprise” flicks, for the commenter who asked; the other two were Ice Pirates and The Day the Earth Stood Still.) The four share a common thread in that they are rather loving reworkings of earlier genre material done with tongue firmly in (through?) cheek.

I probably won’t hear much of an argument if I say Young Frankenstein is the best of this lot. (And IMO the best film Mel Brooks ever did.) I may hear more of a complaint if I say that Planet Terror, is the least of the four. Yes, I rank it below Black Sheep. Why? It comes down between the difference between parody and homage.

The dictionary definition of the two mostly take the tack that parody is imitation with ridicule, whereas homage is imitation with respect. Which, when we talk about films, is close but not really exact. Parody can be done with great affection for the source material. In this case, parody is making fun of structural elements or genre tropes, taking them further than they normally go for the sake of highlighting them. This can be done with ridicule or, as in Planet Terror, with great affection. In Planet Terror the attempt is give an extra postmodern level by inserting splices, scratches, film burns, trailers, and missing reels to mimic the experience of cheap urban 70’s filmgoing. Only Young Frankenstein can match it for authentically reproducing the feeling of its source material.

So why do I think it the lesser work?

To explain, let me define “homage” in this context. A film, IMO, counts as a homage when it imitates the source material faithfully enough to actually become an example of the genre. It may be self-aware, but it isn’t (when well done) self-conscious. Most important, the humor is self contained. A proper homage stands alone as a film and will work for a viewer who has no prior experience in the genre being paid tribute to.

In contrast, a “parody” relies a great deal on the viewer’s prior experience.

A good part of Planet Terror, especially the missing reel gag, requires the viewer to understand the source to get the gag. For someone unversed in 70’s schlock, the self-conscious reproduction of all the form’s flaws will, at best, come across as slipshod screenwriting.

However, while a diet of zombie apocalypse cinema makes Shaun of the Dead a richer experience, anyone can enjoy the film, even if you think George Romero is the host of an Italian cooking show (and today… brains!).

Young Frankenstein is hilarious even for people who’ve never seen the Universal original that it gives tribute to so faithfully. Even Black Sheep, a gory New Zealand effort that owes a lot to early Peter Jackson, while it has the DNA of a 1970 wildlife-gone-amok film, has smartly decided not to rely on the viewer’s knowledge of that particular micro-genre.

Planet Terror is redeemed by the “cool shit” factor, and is loved by many for that alone. But it unfortunately so in love with its subject and in such a self-conscious and self-referential manner that as the movie proceeds, the less accessible it becomes, until it largely falls apart as a film and devolves into a sort of uber-sketch; a bloated version of the fake trailers that preceded it.