Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

The Dickens, I Say

Posted on by Alex in authors, eBook sale, family, fantasy literature, Memphis, movies, novel, originality, tv, writers, writing | Leave a comment

The most famous Christmas story, besides the Biblical one, is without a doubt A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens distilled the holiday spirit down to its essence with his tale of the miserly Scrooge who reforms his ways just in time for Christmas dinner. I love reading the actual story at Christmas, and watching my favorite* film version:

Yet take a step back from the many versions of this story, as well as the gargantuan list of other media (TV, radio, movies) that use it as a template and look at it from a fresh perspective, and Dickens’ accomplishment becomes that much more amazing.

The first edition of Dickens’ masterpiece

I mean, think about it: it’s a horror story, with genuinely scary ghosts (I defy anyone to not get a shudder from the Ghost of Christmas Future), a protagonist who advocates imprisoning children for debt, and its most sympathetic character (Tiny Tim) dies for lack of health insurance (okay, maybe not exactly that, but I stand by the analogy). Who puts all this in a Christmas tale?

A genius, that’s who.

Whatever his inspiration (and I’ve never researched it to find out), Dickens understood something basic about storytelling: the importance of balance. If his ultimate aim was to tell a heartwarming story for the holidays, he knew he had to even that out by adding dark, sometimes twisted elements that would balance the sweetness.

(You know who else understands this? David Lynch. In his best work–Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, even Twin Peaks–he balances the genuine affection the characters feel for one another with horrific violence and bleakness. But if there was only one element without the other, his films would be just like everyone else’s.)

How important is balance in a holiday story? Watch any Lifetime or Hallmark Christmas movie and see how insipid it is when it’s all sweetness and warmth. Without the darkness, there’s nothing to make the light stand out.

Nothing says Christmas like…AHHHHHHH!

When I set out to write “A Ghost and a Chance,” one of the stories in my holiday collection Time of the Season, I had a simple conceit: I wanted to drop my own Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist character, Sir Francis Colby, into Dickens’ tale. Since I wrote about Colby in a faux Victorian voice, I thought it would be fun to use actual text from Dickens, and see if I could hide the seams between that and my own stuff. And it was fun. But it also made me recognize just what a gigantic accomplishment Dickens had managed. He gave us both a classic Christmas tale, and a legitimate horror story. He combined two genres that shouldn’t work together at all, and made them both complement and enlarge each other.

And it takes a genius to do something like that.

Want to see if you can spot the Dickens in my story? You can find it, along with two other holiday tales, here for only $2.99!

*Not saying it’s the best, just that it’s my favorite. I grew up watching it on WREG-TV out of Memphis.

Witchcraft Through the Ages (of TV and Movies, that is)

Posted on by Alex in Alice Hoffman, Catholic Church, filmmaking, Firefly Witch, movies, Pagan, pop culture, Seventies, short stories, tv, witchcraft | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”

Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.

One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.

In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.

Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”

These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.

In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.

Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.

The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.

The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.

My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family.  I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).

Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”

Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.

If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.

*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.

First post

Posted on by Alex in introduction, movies, tv, writing | 4 Comments

Never had a blog before. Never thought anything I’d have to say would be that interesting. Still not sure it will be. But it’s the wave everybody else is already riding, so I’m belatedly climbing on the surfboard. I’m the guy with his beach sandals over his black socks.

I’ll post mainly about writing (mine and other people’s), movies and occasionally TV. Probably won’t say much about politics, religion, or the weather; you have to come visit to hear about those things. I won’t post for the sake of posting, or when I feel I have nothing to say. No promises that what I do have to say will always be fascinating.

This blog’s title is a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song “Lucky Town,” off the album of the same name. It’s where I feel I’ve finally ended up, even though I secretly don’t deserve it. Those responsible know who they are, and know how much I treasure them.

And so here I am, from down in Lucky Town. Thanks for stopping by.