Sunday, October 30, 2016

Five Scary Reads for Halloween and Beyond

I’m not the best blogger lately (or even the 967th best), but I can’t resist foisting book recommendations on folks at this time of year—especially since I’ve read some excellent horror novels of late. They run the gamut from merely moody to good ‘n’ gory, but what they all have in common is excellent writing. Check out one or more of these titles to celebrate the season, or nab them all now to dole out the horror all year long.

"I don't like faces on people in town so I scribble over them. I don't actually recall what Feck looks like in the face. Just swirls and loops out of a ballpoint. Round and round and round. When he talks, two or three blue wires vibrate horribly. Doesn't make me want to answer."

From the author of Pontypool Changes Everything (source of the film Pontypool) comes this account of a small-town gas station attendant-turned-spree killer that is perhaps most unsettling because of its matter-of-fact style. Told from the point of view of the murderer, it's as compelling as it is disturbing.

"In that brief, searing moment – that shutterflash glimpse – she thought he looked stupid and surprised and ugly, all the essential Johnny swatted out of him, and knew he was already dead, trembling or not. It was how a kid looked after hitting the rocks instead of the water when he dived. How a woman who had been impaled by her steering wheel looked after her car slammed into a bridge abutment. It was how you looked when disfiguring death strutted toward you out of nowhere with its arms wide in welcome."

Chances are pretty good I don't need to tell you about this guy, but if, like me, you used to read him and got out of the habit, you need to know that he's been turning out some great stuff the last few years. This collection rivals his own best, and the introductions to each story (part biography, part examination of the writing process) make up sort of an On Writing II.

"He'd been decapitated, blown apart by a grenade, shot, incinerated, impaled, and several combinations thereof, only to return to his killing fields a week or two later, arisen as a phoenix from the ashes to pick up where he left off. He bounced back from decapitation and cremation in a week. The grenade put him away for twelve days. No rhyme or reason."

Reincarnage dispatches its victims with gory aplomb in a series of vivid, imaginative death sequences you'll not soon forget. Toss in some top-notch wisecracks, a diverse cast of characters, and a killer who won't stay dead, and you've got what's probably the best fiction version of an '80s slasher flick you'll ever read. (You can read my full review at Hellnotes.

 "I say, “My Marjorie—” And then I pause because I don’t know how to explain to her that my older sister hasn’t aged at all in fifteen-plus years and there never was a before everything happened."

Comparisons to Shirley Jackson abound in reviews of this thriller, and they're not undeserved. As spooky as it is psychological, the novel's strength is in its characterizations of family members growing more and more dysfunctional as one of the daughters descends into madness. Is she possessed by a demon, or is there a psychological disturbance in play? And which is more terrifying? 

 "As he walked, he came across a grubby little girl with pigtails and a red ball and she stared at Durango, eyes narrowed and mean. "Don't you look at me," she said, "or I'll tell my mama on you." An old woman pushing a baby carriage filled with apples asked him if he wanted to buy a bushel, but he thought of Snow White and shook his head, maybe another time. A man with tattoo tears, a woman with track marks, a dying cat. No wonder his father had chosen this place. Everybody and everything needed to be saved."

Read enough of master-of-psychonoir  Jon Bassoff's novels and you'll notice some consistent subjects: decaying towns, broken-down prostitutes, obsession, and a depravity that runs so deep it has no bottom. Despite the adherence to regular themes, there are surprises here, shocking ones, as a manic lobotomist, a delusional preacher, and a cast of deplorables hurtle toward their inevitable fate. 

Thirsty for more horror? Check out my recommendations from previous years:

Scary Books for Halloween

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How to Break Grammar Rules Without Looking Dumb (Hint: It’s a Lot Like Fashion)

I’ve seen a lot of articles, memes, and infographics passed around social media lately with titles like “5 Grammar Rules It’s Okay to Break.” They worry me. Not because I’m a member of the Grammar SS and/or inflexible about rules. (For proof, see the fact that the previous sentence is an incomplete one.) As a freelancer, I have to be ready to switch style guides at the drop of a fedora, so you won’t catch me popping a vein about whether or not one should use a serial comma—for me, it just depends on the client.

When bad grammar and fashion collide. (Photo: bfishadow/Creative Commons)
No, my worries about these lists that encourage rule-breaking have more to do with the fact that some people aren’t ready for creative interpretation of rules that they never learned in the first place. In other words, you need to have mastered the rule you’re breaking before you can effectively break it. Try it before you’re ready, and you won’t look clever. You’ll look like you don’t know any better. 
It occurred to me that grammar can be a lot like fashion. What you say or write—just like what you wear—can influence other people’s perception of you. Now, if you don’t give a fig what anyone thinks of your writing, just move along. But, if you do, here’s what you should know about breaking grammar rules without looking like an amateur.

Know the rules first.

Have you ever noticed how fashion mavens can get away with outfits that would seem like a joke if anyone else were wearing it? They can combine patterns, wear non-matching colors, or make a flower pot into a hat, and the critics go wild. It’s because they know that the model or designer is aware of basic fashion concepts, so when they turn them upside down, it becomes a commentary on something: the rigidity of rules, the absurdity of fashion itself, or what-have you. When a little kid picks out his own outfit and it doesn’t match, it might seem hilarious or adorable, but no one thinks of it as a statement. The kid doesn’t know how to match clothes in the first place, so he’s not staging a protest.

It’s the same with grammar. There’s a difference between writing incomplete sentences because you can’t keep up with subjects vs. verbs and writing incomplete sentences for effect. (Like this.) It’s a difference that shows. Believe me, you won’t look clever when yelling that splitting infinitives is perfectly fine these days if you’re still using apostrophes to make plurals.

Context matters.

There’s nothing at all wrong with rocking your sweatpants at the grocery store. Wear them to the banquet to receive your Nobel Prize, and you might get a few stares. (Which is okay, if that’s what you want. See #5.) Some style juxtapositions just won’t serve your purpose well, like wearing stiletto heels on a treacherous hike. You’ll not only look silly, but you risk breaking your ankle. Context matters in choosing a writing style, too. While some may tear their hair out when they see textspeak, there’s nothing wrong with using it when sending a text to a friend. There’s nothing wrong with using it in the context of a novel to indicate a text conversation between young adults. You could also get away with writing a poem laden with LOLs and <3s to create a certain vibe. Places you might not want to use textspeak: your master’s thesis, job applications, grandma’s epitaph.

Make Sure It Fits You

When it comes to clothes, even the trendiest look will fall flat if it’s the wrong size, or even worse, if it doesn’t suit your own personal style. It’s why we laugh when we see a nerd character on TV put on a leather jacket and try to act like a tough guy. It’s not the leather jacket itself that’s funny—it’s seeing a guy try to be something he’s not. Ever heard little kids swearing for the first time? They tend to use the words incorrectly, or as the wrong part of speech, and it’s laughable because it’s so obvious they have no idea what the words even mean. If you choose to bend grammar rules in your writing in an attempt to mimic some sort of style or trend, make sure it’s one that you understand, and that suits you. Otherwise, your sentences will look less like the cool, urban street talk you’re aiming for, and more like mangled nonsense. (This goes in the opposite direction, too. Verily I say unto you that trying to write flowery, ornate speech looks just as silly if it’s not your style.)

Stick to One Theme

There’s a brief moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments when a crowd extra’s wristwatch is visible as he waves his arm around. It’s barely one or two seconds of film time, yet people still laugh about it sixty years later. It stands out—in a bad way—because it doesn’t belong with the costume or the time period. When writing, you should take care not to drop ungrammatical or colloquial phrases where they don’t fit the theme. I read plenty of Southern food blogs, and many of them use a folksy, conversational style, peppered with aint’s and y’alls and even a don’t got no or two. It’s perfectly charming. If I encountered the same wording in the instructions for my bookcase, I’d be fairly surprised. (Not to mention, instructions are difficult enough to follow even when the language is kept straightforward and simple.)

If You’re Doing It to Make a Point, Make Sure the Point Is Clear

In 1996, after gossip mags had speculated endlessly about which famous fashion designer would dress Sharon Stone, she showed up wearing a turtleneck from the Gap and wowed everyone. Her point—not being part of the Hollywood machine—was crystal clear. When it comes right down to it, you can misspell or manipulate words any way you like. If you’re doing it to be funny, though, make sure you’re actually funny. If you’re bucking convention as Sharon Stone did, or making a statement, you’ll have a better reception if your audience is in on it.

As a final word of advice, if you choose to break the rules, be prepared to own your decision. Once you’ve made that choice, be prepared to defend it. Ultimately, you can do whatever you want. Wear black to a wedding or white after Labor Day. Mix patterns. Strut topless in New York City. Know, though, that everyone won’t love it. Just as some old ladies will be shocked at your choice of magenta hot pants for a funeral, some folks will have a conniption if you don’t use dialogue tags. If you don’t care, that’s cool. Know what you’re doing, and the choice you make can be an informed one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

31 Days of Silent Horror Films Begins Oct. 1 at Film Dirt

Since I'm writing a book on lost horror films, I might be able to get away with arguing that this is a book-related post.

I'm proud and excited to announce that starting this Thursday at Book Dirt's sister site Film Dirt, I'm challenging myself to watch and blog about 31 different silent horror films in the month of October. 

If your knowledge of silent horror begins and ends with Nosferatu, you might be surprised to learn what other terrors the world of silent film has to offer.

I'd love to have some of you visit me there.
31 Days of Silent Horror Films, just in time for Halloween month.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Strange by Charles Willeford

Reading The Woman Chaser made me a Charles Willeford fan on the spot. I even dug the film version, which a lot of people didn’t seem to get. (It was perfect for Patrick Warburton’s idiosyncratic style—the same one that made him the only person who could have possibly played The Tick.) I’ve been anxious to read more from the godfather of Miami noir, so I jumped when Strange showed up as an e-book deal.

Willeford is one of those authors whose own life is as interesting as the characters he created. He won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart in the Army in World War II, then enrolled in the graduate program to study art at the Universitarias de Belles Artes in Lima. He was kicked out when it came to the university’s attention that he not only didn’t have an undergraduate degree, but also had neglected to graduate from high school. No matter. Willeford later enlisted in the Air Force, worked as a boxer, a horse trainer, and a radio announcer, and —oh, yes—wrote a bunch of novels.

It should be no surprise that the folks who populate Willeford’s books are a bit quirky. Strange feels unconventional from the get-go, though the men hanging around an apartment swimming pool swilling martinis should be mundane enough. Maybe it’s the fact that the martinis are in plastic cups. Maybe it’s the creepy vibe of the singles-only building, or the increasingly crude talk of the bachelors. There’s a decidedly swank ‘50s feel to the scene, although it was written in the ‘70s—a fact I didn’t catch on to until one of the men appears in a magenta double-knit suit and is deemed well-dressed.

The men spend most of their conversation in talking about women and the procuring of them. A good-natured argument about the best place to pick up women soon turns into one about the worst place to pick them up. After various suggestions are discarded (even church is deemed a good place to get lucky, at least to one bachelor), it's agreed that the drive-in is the worst. Women don't tend to go to drive-ins alone, they concur, and if one did, she'd probably not take kindly to being mashed on.

A bet ensues, and while one man attempts to score, the others hang around to witness what they think will be his failure. This is noir, so of course they get more than they bargained for, and a sequence of events lands a dead, overdosed 14 year-old girl in their apartment. How the men choose to deal with this difficulty is what makes the tale even more noir.

Eddie said: “What do you think, Fuzz-O?”
“About what?”
“The whole thing, D’you think we’ll get away with it?”
“I’m worried about Don.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said. “Don’s all right.”
“If I don’t have to worry about Don,” I said, I don’t have to worry about anything.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said.
“Good. If you don’t scratch a sore, it don’t supparate.”
“Hey! That’s poetry, Larry.”

Part of what keeps the story cool is the matter-of-factness with which it's told. There's a good, natural rhythm to it, with a nasty streak that runs throughout. The grime isn't hidden down some alley, though; it's right out in the open. Willeford spools it out at a sneaky pace, and the men, who seem pretty innocuous at first, slowly become more and more slimy and grotesque. You can easily see how women might fall for their good looks and cool words at the bar, but just as easily see how lucky they are that these men won’t stick around. 

I didn't know when I started reading it that Strange  is actually the opening segment of The Shark-Infested Custard, a four-part book. It stands well on its own, but if you aim to read all things Willeford, skip this one, and go straight to Shark. (I’m a little peeved that Amazon doesn’t make it more clear that it’s part of a larger work.) If you’re not ready to invest in the whole thing, though, Strange is a good way to get your feet wet with Willeford and with Miami noir.

Other articles you might like:

Book Review: The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I know a bunch of fine folks who turn out all manner of books and short stories while still managing to blog on a regular schedule. You guys are heroes. Really. For me, though, making real progress on my book meant making it a priority, and I’ve intentionally neglected some things on the way. 

I'm as up to my neck in film research as Mary Pickford was in shirt collars.

The good news, though: there’s a good chance my book on lost films will be done by the end of this year. And here’s a bonus: I’m working on it pretty regularly without feeling like I’m being tortured to death, so I feel like I can now make room for some extra-curricular stuff (i.e. blogging) without everything falling apart.

I’m sure my four or five readers are thrilled.

To tide you over before I post some new reviews (I never stopped reading, or I probably would be dead), here are a couple of things you can check out:

  • A little piece of research I did for Today I Found Out on the origin and history of women popping out of cakes. It’s pretty much got everything: dwarves, strippers, murder, Tesla. I even managed to drop Lawrence Block into it. (Do you think he knows he’s part of cake-popping history?)

If you’re reading this, thanks for bearing with me. I’ve let my reading of blogs languish, too, and I’ll be playing catch-up like crazy. See you in the comments.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How to Get $184 Worth of Post-Apocalyptic Books for the Change Under Your Couch Cushions

There are a lot of deals around where one can buy multiple e-books for one price, but I don’t usually bite. That’s because the packages are often filled out with lackluster titles that don’t seem worth a buck to begin with, or the range of genres is a little too diverse (I might like the mystery titles available, but not the fantasy or the young adult stuff in the mix). Most of the time when I see a package on offer, I zip over to Amazon and just buy the one or two titles I’m interested in.

That said, this Humble Bundle biz is really worth checking out. Their current package is not only themed (it’s all post-apocalyptic), but there are several big titles that are distinctly worth owning. And the kicker? You get to name your own price. For a mere buck (if that’s all you can spare), you can have eight titles, including acclaimed novels like Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness, M. K. Wren’s A Gift Upon the Shore, and Hugh Howey’s recent insanely-popular Wool novellas. 

Pay more than the average of $9.56, and you unlock more novels, and man, they’re even more tempting: Mosley’s Futureland, for starters. Pay $15 or more, and unlock three more novels, one of which is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, one of the greatest post-apocalyptic books of all time, if you ask me. That title alone is worth the price.

A couple of more reasons I’m really impressed with Humble Bundle: the e-books are available for multiple devices (including Kindle and Nook), and part of the proceeds go to charity. How much of it goes to charity? You decide. Once you enter the amount you choose to pay, you can use the slider to allot percentages of your money to the publisher, to one (or more) of the charities, and/or to the folks at Humble Bundle. 

Check the counter at the top right of the site to see how much time is left on the offer (at the time of this writing, there are nine days left to bite).

It’s one of those sounds-too-good-to-be-true deals that, for once, really is true.

Have you purchased any of the Humble Bundle collections or any other e-book packages? Were they worth it?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

10 Worst Typos and Errors of the Year for 2014

As TV and print newsrooms cut staff down to the bare bones, egregious mistakes seem to be on the rise. Some of them seem so obvious that you’d think even a staff of one would notice, but, as these gaffes show, almost anything can slip by. Here are ten of the worst slip-ups, especially in terms of embarrassment, collected throughout the year as I’ve come across them—presented in reverse order so you can ease into the hilarity.

#10) Education, schmeducation.

via The Independent

Salesian College says they didn’t see this supplement’s cover before it went to press, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the local Star Courier. Whoever is to blame, the cringe factor is high.

# 9) They’re coming for our typefaces.

via Newscaststudio 

CNN viewers were probably perplexed after reading that rebels were targeting fonts, although most agreed that they hoped one of them was comic sans. 

#8) Team vasectomy.

via Sporting News

 It sounds like an extreme overreaction to a loss, but in this case, the Miami Heat actually won—though you wouldn’t know it from the headline. (The word in question was obviously meant to be Nets.)

#7) Rhymes with “literal.”

via USA Today 

zoom via Book Dirt—cuz I know what’s important.

It’s one thing to make a typographical error that accidentally refers to female anatomy. It’s quite another to make that error in an official government proclamation. The office of the Nevada governor has since apologized—does that mean they don’t care about these particular resources?

#6) What’s the butt chill factor?

The Kansas City TV station responsible for this graphic claims an extra ‘s’ was added, but we all know that thirty degrees in fact doesn’t qualify as ass cold—so it’s not really much of an error.

#5) Clappy New Year!

via The Drum

They still haven’t topped calling  for a moment’s violence during the Queen Mum’s funeral, but you can’t say the BBC isn’t trying. Their mangling of the Chinese year of the horse just might keep them on the map.

#4) Say it ain’t so, Bill!

via Jim Romenesko

This one, courtesy of a news station in Huntsville, AL, makes its own jokes. Have at it. (And don’t forget to make at least one about “alligations” as well.)

#3) Copy editor’s job may be pretty screwed, too.

via The Guardian

The explanation for this insane front page of the Australian Financial Review is that an early mock-up was accidentally published. “The world is fukt,” along with the other mangled headlines, is supposedly an error, then. Personally, I’m not so sure.

#2) Lucky fan.

via Sportress of Blogitude

While this isn’t technically a typo (“fan,” as I’ve come to learn, also means “to strike out”), the meaning of the sentence is so unclear as to suggest something much more lewd.

#1) Whatting the commentators?

via The Daily Edge 

I’ve been waiting all year to share this one, which appeared in The Guardian in January, much to their embarrassment. (They fixed it soon after.) The word they wanted is ranking.

Want more funny media typos and errors? Use the button on the right sidebar to like Book Dirt on Facebook, where I’ll be sharing some of the runner-ups, collected from a year’s worth of bookmarks.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Best Books Read in 2014: Another Year, Another Eclectic Round-Up

The books I read this year were an assortment of the good, the bad, and the ugly. If I have one reading regret, it’s that I perhaps spent more time reading review copies of less-than-stellar books than I did reading books I personally chose. Some of those review copies were worthwhile (Jon Bassoff’s Factory Town), while others … well, let’s not even name them. They’re best forgotten.

There were some diamonds in the rough, though, and if I have another reading regret, it’s that I didn’t write full reviews of them for Book Dirt. (Goals for the year, then: read more books from my own to-read list, and review them promptly as I do

Don’t think that because I read some clunkers in 2014 that my best-of picks only seem good by comparison. The following titles would be standouts in any year.  

I’m tempted to say very little about this unusual mystery novel, originally published in Latvian in 1972, and published in English by Peter Owen books in 1990, because I enjoyed discovering something about which I previously knew nothing, and everyone should do that sometimes. I bought The Cage in a used bookstore, intrigued by the packaging, and perplexed that I’d never heard of the author. The fact that it was translated and on a high-quality press seemed promising. It delivered. The Cage is different from other mystery novels in its almost-philosophical level of introspection, which might be a turn-off for some, but seemed refreshing to me. It concerns the investigation into the disappearance of Edmunds Berz, an architect. As we learn about what kind of man Berz was, we simultaneously learn about the detective, Valdis Struga, especially as he personally identifies with the missing man ("He had the feeling he was looking for himself"). As the book shifts gears halfway through to focus on what actually happened to Berz, it gets even deeper—and more compelling. It’s introspective and claustrophobic in a way that might be described as Highsmithian.

Some of you will be turned off as soon as I say “time-travelling serial killer,” but bear with me. What if I tell you that The Shining Girls is a book about a time-travelling serial killer that manages to be smart and literary? I’m serious. It’s best not to think too hard about why and how Harper Curtis can move through time—I’m not sure he understands it himself. But the fact is, he can, and he makes the most of it in a depraved way. The chapters from the killer’s point of view are as riveting as they are chilling. But, what sets this book apart, besides the unconventional plot, is Beukes’ treatment of Curtis’ victims. They’re all compelling women with interesting stories. They shine, which is why Curtis is drawn to them in the first place. Beukes has found a way, as impossible as it seems, to write a book about eviscerated women that manages to celebrate them at the same time. The historical details are also spot-on, whether she’s talking about fan dancers in secret prohibition-era bars or underground abortionists in the ‘60s. There’s a lot to like here. It’s several books in one, and they’re all good.

Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is high on my list of all-time favorite reads, so I could kick myself for waiting so long to try another of his books. Obsession is one of my favorite subjects, and The Collector plumbs its depths in some beautiful and provoking ways. Ferdinand Clegg is a clerk, a nobody, who wins a bit of money, and uses it to purchase a remote house. He then kidnaps the object of his secret obsession, the pretty and privileged art student, Miranda Grey, and keeps her there, much like he keeps the butterflies he collects. What’s brilliant is how, as Fowles reveals the thoughts and feelings of the two, their roles blur. It’s easier to sympathize with Clegg than with spoiled and catty Miranda, but as we learn her backstory, we see that she, too, strives to have someone understand her. Nothing here is black or white (maybe there’s a reason Fowles chose the name Grey?), and the nuances are disturbingly lovely. The Collector isn’t just one of my favorite reads of the year, but ever.

This may be the most unusual book I’ve read by Shirley Jackson, and it’s a difficult one to write about. For starters, I’m not completely certain what happened in it—and that’s a good thing. There’s a blurring of reality here that makes even the mundane mysterious. And on the surface, the story is a little mundane, as 17 year-old Natalie Waite leaves her family to attend an all-girl college. She takes walks, she writes letters to her father, she befriends a professor’s wife—all fairly ordinary. The brilliance of Hangsaman is in the telling. The writing is masterful and deeply psychological, to the point that many people, like I did, misremember the book as being in first person. Natalie’s a bit of a fantasist, and she’s maybe even a bit mad (there are shades of The Bell Jar here), so there’s a dream-like quality to ordinary events. Then there are some unusual events that are never quite explained: girls being slapped in the middle of the night, stolen items, a voice behind a wall. I didn’t find out until later that Hangsaman is based on a true event, and I’m not going to mention it here, as it makes the ending somewhat of a spoiler—though still just as mysterious. The first thing I did when finishing the book was turn to the net to see what other people had to say about it. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

I’m not the only person to include Revival on an end-of-the-year list, and goodness knows, Stephen King isn’t hurting for publicity, but I really did enjoy this. A small-town preacher, Charlie Jacobs, befriends a little boy named Jamie, who looks to him as a mentor. After Jacobs loses his family in an accident, he questions God in a bizarre public sermon that leads to his dismissal from the church—and the town. Years later, Jamie’s life converges with Jacobs again, but now Jamie is a heroin addict and otherwise down-on-his-luck musician, and Jacobs is entertaining carnival crowds with the electrical tricks that have always been his hobby. Things, as they are wont to do in a Stephen King book, become strange. What’s appealing here, though, is that if you remove the supernatural aspects, you’re still left with a well-crafted story about life, and change, and how you can’t go home again. You could also say the reverse: remove the character sketches, and there’s a neat supernatural tale here—one with debts to Lovecraft and Machen, but still fresh. If you’ve grown up with King, you’re getting as long in the tooth as he is, and you’ll find that he does ending-of-age as well as he does coming-of-age. It’s bittersweet, but never boring.

What were the best things you read in 2014? Any specific reading goals for the coming year? Comments are always welcome.