The Continuing Adventures of the Midnight Witch

If you’re reading this, you may already know that I wrote a story called “The Midnight Witch Goes West,” which found its home in the pages of the Norwegian American in March of this year.

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This is not horror or fantasy, but straight-up hard-boiled historical crime fiction. Not my first foray into the genre (for that, see my Prohibition-era gangland piece, “Massacre,” in the archives of Crimson Streets) but I think my best…until now!

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That’s right, the Witch is back, but this time she’s not the one telling the story. The title is “A Gator We Should Turn to Be.” It’s a bit weirder than the previous story, a bit more abstract, and, I’ll cop, a fair bit creepier, to the point that some may consider it borderline horror. But horror and crime go together like cookies and cream, so I hope you dig it. If you’re already a reader of my stuff, you probably will, especially if you liked my more modern horror/crime story “From the Dusty Mesa.”* As you can see, it is once again beautifully illustrated by the incredible artist known as InkShark. I couldn’t ask for better. The NA doesn’t mess around (the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Emily C. Skaftun, also happens to be one of the most pleasant and enthusiastic editors with whom I’ve ever had the chance to work; if you’re reading this, Emily, I hope to send more your way soon!).

So check ’em out already! I’ve got a lot more Midnight Witch stories in the works, and I hope to keep the momentum going and sell at least one more by the end of the year. Not crossing my fingers, though…I need those for typing!

 

*Itself a loose companion to Nightbird.

YOB/Ladies of the Fright

Last night I went to see doom metal legends YOB at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago. I had heard of YOB but was not very familiar with their music until repeated recommendations from Nathan Carson (of Witch Mountain and Starr Creek fame) drove me to seek out some of their stuff. I liked what I heard, and, when I saw that the band would be playing in Chicago for only $20, I decided to check them out live.

This was not my first time at Reggie’s. Last year I had the immense pleasure of seeing The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, supported by the ever-great Electric Citizen and another, lesser-known trio whose name escapes me. Brown, at 74, was a manic sorcerer on stage with multiple elaborate costume changes, an infectiously energetic stage presence, and a passionate vocal performance to rival Rob Halford. I stood in the front of the crowd, at the lip of the stage, the entire time. At one point Mr. Brown reached out and grasped my hand, and I felt the magic in the room. It was possibly the best rock show I’ve ever attended.

YOB’s openers were Seattle doomers Bell Witch and another band I’d never heard of called Indian. Indian had been touted as a “super special mystery guest,” kept secret right up until the doors opened at the club. People in line were hopefully speculating that the special guest might be Sleep, while I entertained fantasies of seeing Electric Citizen again or, possibly, even Nathan’s own Witch Mountain (turns out they’re playing at Reggie’s in August, so I was only a month off; hope to make that one, Nate!). Maybe even, I dared to dream, The Sword. But it was Indian, and most people seemed okay with that. They got their share of applause, and I can’t say they weren’t good at what they did, but they just weren’t my thing. I hate to say it was too loud, but for the first time ever at a rock show I abandoned my enviable position near the stage almost immediately, retreating back through the pressing masses, and procured a pair of earplugs from the bartender. Maybe I’m getting old already. I’m more of a Judas Priest/Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin kind of guy. I also love Rammstein. And Alice Cooper.

But I digress.

Bell Witch was better, a little closer to my style, with some creepy black-and-white imagery projected behind them from various old public-domain horror films like Carnival of Souls. For those unfamiliar with the band, it’s just two guys: one on bass, one on drums, each doing vocals. No guitar. It’s actually pretty neat to hear what they can do with such a minimal setup. But, eventually, their low-energy gloom started to overstay its welcome a bit, at least for me. Thankfully, they were done within a minute or so of my first pangs of boredom.

And then, YOB.

YOB was everything I’d been missing in the first two acts. Singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt delivered the goods with fun stage presence, skillful playing, and powerful, impressively-ranged vocals. After either tuning out or just sort of nodding along to the first two bands, I found myself pushing back toward the stage, ripping out my earplugs, throwing up the horns, and headbanging with the rest of them…

…until, after a particularly high-flying song, technical difficulties imposed an intermission that, I swear, lasted at least twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of relative silence right at the peak of a killer set. Talk about blue balls.

They did get it going again, and Scheidt was entertainingly good-humored about it all, but they never quite regained the momentum they’d lost. I left near the end (I think) of the last song, after buying a couple of CDs from YOB’s merch girl (whaddya want from me? It was midnight and I was tired!).

All in all, not a bad night. YOB alone was worth the price of admission, even with the technical snag, and Bell Witch was pretty cool for a while. Indian I could’ve done without, but to each their own.

On an unrelated note, while I’ve still got your attention, allow me to point you to the Ladies of the Fright podcast. They did an episode on vampires, and spend a good twenty minutes or so discussing my novella, Nightbird, in some detail (minimal spoilers, if you haven’t read it yet). There are some flattering comparisons, perceptive observations, and interesting contextualizations. Check it out!

Harlan Ellison: The Beast that Shouted Love

Harlan Ellison has died.

I read the news online, just over two hours ago, before his Wikipedia page even updated. I sat in stunned, disbelieving silence for a moment, and then burst into loud, sobbing tears in the middle of my day-job office. Thankfully, my boss is out for the day.

I’ve admired Harlan for a long time, but I don’t mean to claim some sort of personal relationship with him, and I don’t intend to write an obituary here. Those who actually knew him will have much more to say. I just need to get my feelings down, and I wanted to briefly summarize my experience with the man and his work as I mourn his passing.

As is unfortunately the case with many of my favorite writers, I can’t quite remember when I first discovered Harlan Ellison. I can’t remember when I first heard/read his name, or what story of his was the first I read (it might’ve been “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” but I’m really not sure; I know I saw his episodes of The Outer Limits before I read any of his prose). I just remember that somewhere along the way I fell in love with the guy’s voice, his style, his ideas, his obvious passion, his attitude.

Because it was always difficult to find more than one or two of his books at my local stores, I asked for Ellison books for Christmas and upped my online shopping game. I hunted out Ellison stories (either by or about him, sometimes both) wherever I could find them, and was always excited to dig up an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or a similar digest with his name on the cover. Which is not to say that I’m even particularly well-read in Ellison’s bibliography; I’m fairly certain I’ve barely scratched the surface, even now, and I must admit that I own more of Ellison’s books than I’ve actually read (though I intend to correct that very shortly).

In any case, as brilliant and cool as I thought he was, I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet him. He stopped going to conventions not long after I started, so I resigned myself to admiring him from afar as I’ve been content to do with most of my heroes.

And then, in the summer of 2015, I just happened to be searching for more nearby conventions and found Archon. It was one that I’d barely heard of, but it was only a day’s drive away and (HOLY SHIT) Harlan Ellison was listed as a special guest of honor!

I told my dad (my frequent partner-in-cons) that we were going to Archon that year, and immediately dove into Ellison Wonderland. I binged every interview I could find, watched every clip on his YouTube channel, listened to several audio performances (both of his own work and others read by him, including a spoken-word appearance in a heavy metal song), and that October, lumbering toward Archon in Dad’s road-hazard of a van, I sat in the passenger’s seat and read aloud from Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled for most of the trip. I was so excited to meet Harlan but also terrified of coming across as the sort of mindless, worshipful fanboy he so obviously detested.

At the con, he was scheduled to participate in two panels: one on the future of science fiction, the other on anthologies. Both panels were being held in the same room, and were virtually back-to-back. Dad and I slipped in early and got front-row seats; a moment later the room was packed.

Finally, Harlan entered in a wheelchair to a smattering of applause, coming down the aisle like Moses through the Red Sea, pushed along and followed by his friends and fellow panelists.

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This was almost a year after his stroke, of course, and he looked frail, but when he spoke his voice was clear and loud. I don’t remember everything he said. Somebody was recording both panels for his Kilimanjaro Corporation, but to my knowledge the recordings haven’t yet surfaced anywhere online.

Between the panels, he had a book signing. Anyone who knows much about Ellison knows that signing books was one of his least-favorite parts of the writing profession, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must’ve been for him to sit at a long table for two hours signing book after book and shaking hand after hand. He had a limit of I think two books per person, and one of those had to be purchased directly at the table for him to sign anything. Having brought two books, I gave one to my dad, and we each bought one. While we were waiting in line, a guy (clearly part of Harlan’s group and with his permission) was running up and down selling more signed paperbacks, and I think we bought a couple from him as well.

When it was my turn, I presented Harlan with the books and nervously introduced myself.

“It’s a real honor, Mr. Ellison,” I think I said. Something like that. “My name’s David Busboom.”

“Pleased to meet you, David.”

“Your work means a lot to me. I’m a writer.”

“Published anything?”

“Just a couple of short stories.”

“Good.”

We shook hands, he gave me my signed books, and I thanked him before making way for the next person in line.

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Afterwards, Harlan and his wife Susan were browsing the convention’s art show (located in a broad hallway) at the same time as my dad and I. They stopped a few times to admire a particular piece or to complement an artist, and at one point they got separated in the sea of people moving from one panel to another. Harlan didn’t seem to mind much at first, as he’d stopped to chat with somebody, but after a moment my attention was seized by a howl of “SUSAN! SUSAAAAAAN!!

The crowd was thinning now, and Susan had somehow gotten rather far from Harlan, who’s wheelchair was caught on something. None of his usual entourage was anywhere to be seen, so Dad and I wheeled Harlan over to Susan, and he thanked us.

Then came the second panel, immediately after which Harlan and Susan retreated to their hotel room and from there to the airport.

All told it was a rather brief encounter, but one that I’ll never forget.

Harlan’s passing is especially painful given the current state of the world we live in; there’s one fewer voice of reason in the madness, one fewer light in the dark. Except that’s not really true, because Harlan’s voice, like every writer’s, lives on in his work. He, more than most, has earned the posterity for which all writers strive.

When Leonard Cohen died, I drowned my tears in alcohol and sat in the dark with his music. I won’t do that for Harlan. Instead, I’m going to honor him the best way I know how: I’m going to write.

I’m part of a writing group that meets every Thursday at a local cafe. We say hello, and then sit in silence working for two or three hours before saying goodbye and going home. Though I try to write most evenings anyway, these Thursday nights always give me a little boost. They often help me get over whatever writing-related hump I’m currently facing. I haven’t gone for about a month due to life getting in the way (moving sucks), but tonight I’m going to go and I’m going to write my ass off.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Harlan would do.

Fallen Kingdom, Indeed

 

My bio states that I love dinosaur movies. This is true. In fact, in this era of nostalgic franchise loyalty, I have repeatedly told family and friends that only two film series hold enough personal sway to keep me coming back for every single entry, regardless of mediocre trailers or bad reviews from trusted critics.

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“The park is gone.” Truer words were never spoken.

Jurassic Park and Godzilla.

Jurassic Park was my first exposure to dinosaurs, and remains my all-time favorite film. In the summer of 1993, some six months before my second birthday, my mom took me to see it in the theater. She claims she hadn’t seen the trailer and had originally intended to take me to another, more age-appropriate movie that had sold out. Neither of us is sure what that other movie might have been, but I’ll always be grateful we didn’t see it.

From then on, I was The Dinosaur Kid. Last year I even maintained a short-lived blog under that name (from which, I’ll admit, I’m cannibalizing a bit for this post). I only stopped updating it because I realized, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, that I was standing on the shoulders of those who’d come before and not really saying anything new. I’d read what others had written about dinosaur films and was basically just regurgitating it online with some personal anecdotes and opinions thrown in here and there. It was largely a waste of time and energy, interesting only to a small niche audience who were quick to correct any factual errors (for which I was grateful, don’t get me wrong, but it only made the whole endeavor seem more pointless; even if the world does need a new encyclopedia of dinosaur-related films, literature, video games, etc., I don’t currently have the credentials, the resources, or the patience to write it).

But, even though the blog is defunct, I still want to talk/write about dinosaurs and dinosaur pop culture. And since, I guess, my Hereditary post set a bit of a precedent for talking/writing about movies here, I’ll address the Triceratops in the room.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just hit theaters. And, for the first time in my life, I’m not all that excited to return to the world of InGen and Isla Nublar.

I think it’s pretty much accepted by most that Jurassic Park is loads better than the franchise it hatched. It’s one of those rare action-heavy science fiction films in which the writing, the performances, and the special effects are all near-perfect. Watching it as an adult for the 65 millionth time, I can still feel remnants of the true awe and terror it inspired in my childhood. I have similar fond memories of The Lost World, and though I revisit it far less often I do think it’s a pretty good sequel. But, let’s face it, it’s not great. As a kid I ate up Jurassic Park III like a pack of Procompsognathus on an injured John Hammond, and even today I can’t bring myself to hate it, but there’s a reason it’s the black sheep of the trilogy.

Jurassic World came amid a meteor shower of remakes, reboots, and sequels acting like reboots, so I should’ve recognized it earlier as the cynical nostalgia-fueled cash-grab it turned out to be. But the kid in me was just so damn excited to see dinosaurs on the big screen again; and not just any dinosaurs, but specifically the ones I’d grown up loving. See how they got me?

Don’t get me wrong, Jurassic World is…fine. It’s a competently-made adventure/monster movie with mostly likable (albeit rather bland) characters, fun (and in one or two cases surprisingly violent) dino-action set-pieces, and an interesting idea or two. And it is sort of neat to see the park actually open, however briefly. But the parts that got to me the most upon that first watch were the deliberate, pointed callbacks to the first film. I teared up upon hearing the old theme music again, upon seeing the ruins of the original park, upon seeing the original T. rex back in action (even though in most shots she looked less real in 2015 than she did in 1993). Thanks to all this nostalgia-pandering, I left the theater on a high, proclaiming that it was the second-best film in the series. Only later did I realize how bland the characters actually were, how run-of-the-mill and ubiquitous the CGI was (only one animatronic dinosaur? Really?!), and how bloodless the film really was (in more than one sense).

The film’s saving grace, the one aspect that almost-but-not-quite elevates it above an enjoyably passable popcorn flick, is the kinda-sorta meta nature of the story. But even if that self-reflection is intentional it lacks the necessary bite (!) to make it really effective, so in the end it still plays neatly into the very pattern it seems to be criticizing.

So, in short, I like Jurassic World fine, I guess. The major set-pieces are a lot of fun, and the ending is pretty much everything four-year-old me would’ve wanted in a movie despite being incredibly cheesy. The bad doesn’t quite outweigh the good, but the blatant nostalgia-baiting puts a bad taste in my mouth. I’d put it more-or-less on-par with Jurassic Park III.

Which brings us to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. For the first time in this franchise’s history, I almost decided to skip its theatrical run altogether. Which is kind of a big deal, for me.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to dinosaur movies. You’re reading the words of a guy who kept watching Barney & Friends a good six months or so after realizing he was too old for it, just because it starred a theropod. I appreciate some level of scientific rigor but it’s not absolutely necessary, and a unique premise and great story can often overcome bad acting and effects. It is much more difficult for great acting and effects to overcome the weight of a poorly-written story; not impossible, but very rare.

The trailers for Fallen Kingdom seemed to suggest that it had neither great performances nor great effects, and what I could glean of the story seemed underwhelming, to say the least. It looked like a by-the-numbers rehash of the last movie, with a couple of minor new gimmicks. So I didn’t rush out to see it opening night. Or the night after that. It felt like a betrayal of my childhood self, but the notion of just waiting for a cheap rental or free stream became easier and easier to accept.

Yesterday, I was invited to see Fallen Kingdom after a stressful afternoon of unsuccessful curtain-shopping. I decided to go, with low expectations and an open mind, hoping that at least the dinosaurs themselves would entertain me enough to lift my spirits.

For a few brief moments, they almost did. There was at least one halfway decent (albeit short) dinosaur fight early in the film, between a Carnotaurus and a Sinoceratops, and an (admittedly manipulative and not totally earned) emotional moment that stirred my inner child involving a stranded Brachiosaurus. Otherwise, the dinosaur action was just so-so at best. And, unfortunately, the rest of the film is pretty much what the trailers led me to expect.

Part of the buzz for Fallen Kingdom has been that it’s correcting at least one of the mistakes of the previous film: more practical-effect dinosaurs than any prior Jurassic sequel! The most since Jurassic Park! I spotted three, maybe four, and none were used as creatively or effectively as in Jurassic Park or The Lost World. They looked pretty good, though; certainly more believable than the middling CGI, which (I wish I was joking) included the film’s latest mutant monstrosity, the uncreatively-conceived and less-creatively-named Indoraptor, LITERALLY WINKING AND GRINNING AT THE AUDIENCE LIKE A GODDAMNED LOONEY TUNES CHARACTER!

The Indoraptor itself has a mildly interesting design, but its deployment as the film’s Big Bad is weak. Director J. A. Bayona (a Spanish director known for horror and fantasy, whose film The Orphanage is deep, unnerving, and so much better than this) treats it like a good-ole’-fashioned movie monster, complete with a full moon and a big spooky mansion for it to creep around. This is actually kind of neat in a fun-horror sort of way, but isn’t nearly as awesome or frightening as the movie’s overblown score tries to convince you, and feels oddly out-of-place in this movie. The Indoraptor‘s ultimate defeat, in particular, feels downright lame compared to Jurassic World‘s silly-but-spectacular climax (let alone the genuine thrills of the original film’s ending). Don’t even get me started on Blue.

The famous old T. rex, marketed as the mascot of the series and pushed as a major star of this film in particular, makes only a couple of brief appearances that don’t really belong in the story except as ham-fisted callbacks to the original Jurassic Park (ditto for the much-touted return of Jeff Goldblum, by the way). And, speaking of which, I actually lost count of such callbacks; there are so, so many little moments lifted straight out of that first great film, reproduced at lower quality and peppered throughout Fallen Kingdom‘s 128 minutes as if to say, “Hey, remember when Jurassic Park did this? Remember how effective and original it was? Don’t you wish you were watching that movie instead, sucker?” The film doubles-down on the nostalgia handicap rather than moving forward, though I’d bet the studio and producers are more deserving of blame for that than Bayona.

I could go on about the insultingly idiotic and lazy script (it selectively ignores not only the continuity of the first three films, but even that of its immediate predecessor! And the director of that film co-wrote and co-produced the damn thing!) and the nobody-giving-a-shit performances (even veteran actor James Cromwell couldn’t be bothered maintain a consistent English accent; but maybe it’s unfair to blame the actors when the characters themselves are so wooden and unchanging they could’ve been swiped from Geppetto’s mistake bin), but I don’t have the energy or the inclination to devote more time to picking this apart. I can’t say I regret seeing it, but neither did I enjoy myself.

There’s plenty of setup for the next film, in which dinosaurs will presumably be widespread across America. Seeing a Dinotopia-esque integration of dinosaurs and humans come to pass in the Jurassic universe actually does pique my interest, but if the first two installments of this soft-reboot trilogy are any indication, it won’t live up to the promise of the premise.

Unless, of course, we can bring Michael Crichton back from extinction and get him to write it?

Hereditary

On Monday night I saw Hereditary at the Goodrich Savoy 16 theater, alone except for the smattering of fellow twenty-somethings behind me and the lone elderly pair two rows ahead.

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Having loved A24’s previous horror films The Witch and It Comes at Night (no, I haven’t yet seen Green Room, The MonsterThe Blackcoat’s Daughter, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but all four are high on my watch list), I’d been looking forward to Hereditary since seeing the trailer in late January/early February. As the release date neared and the buzz intensified, my excitement grew and I talked more and more about it to my girlfriend, who generally doesn’t enjoy horror films.

Having been unceasingly busy with moving and other obligations for over a week, we decided to go to the movies on Monday to give ourselves a bit of a break. I wanted to see Hereditary. She wanted to see Ocean’s 8. We both sort of wanted to see the new drama Disobedience. Ultimately we decided to embrace our inner septuagenarian married couple, as my girlfriend might say, and go together to see separate movies. We ran a few quick after-work errands, got dinner at the nearby Dairy Queen, and bought our respective tickets. Hereditary is almost twenty minutes longer than Ocean’s 8, so I went to a 7:20 show and she went to a 7:30 show, hoping we would emerge within a few minutes of each other.

I settled into my seat with a small root beer (no ice) and a box of Cookie Dough Bites, and rolled my eyes through the trailer for the god-awful-looking Unfriended: Dark Web before the familiar A24 logo appeared onscreen and the film began.

Before tonight I’d watched the initial Hereditary trailer a couple of times, and read a small handful of brief, spoiler-free reviews, but otherwise I’d made it a point to go in with as little information as possible. All I knew was that the film seemed to revolve around a deceased reclusive grandmother and her creepy granddaughter, with Toni Collette suffering some sort of emotional breakdown in the middle of it all.

I expected a very good but more-or-less standard haunted house/haunted family movie. I expected Grandma’s Ghost and/or Creepy Kid to serve as the primary horror element(s), but with those stock characters enriched by the upsetting imagery and powerful performances glimpsed in the trailer. I expected to be mildly disturbed and highly entertained. No more, no less.

I got more.

I got genuine (jump-scare-free) shocks, harrowing emotional moments, squirming-in-my-seat unease, and wide-eyed, hand-over-my-mouth horror.

Sometimes I almost kind of hate seeing new movies in the theater, especially horror movies, because I’m hyper-sensitive to the whispering and texting and giggling of other moviegoers. There’s always somebody who laughs or groans or overreacts at just the wrong time, or even worse carries on conversation throughout entire scenes. I’d braced myself for this going into Hereditary, hoping it would be minimal and determined to ignore all but the worst infractions. A few people behind me did chuckle at several points in the film, but rather than annoyance I felt relief to remember where I was and that, to paraphrase the tagline of The Last House on the Left, it was only a movie.

Afterwards, I sat through about half of the credits before I remembered that my girlfriend was probably waiting for me in the lobby and went out. I emerged with my heart still pounding, and proceeded to babble about the movie to her for the rest of the night. At home I found myself peeking warily at dark corners and shadowed rooms until I was able to fall asleep. Even last night, more than twenty-four hours later, I found myself eyeing the half-closed closet door with unreasoning dread.

The most effective horror films make you afraid of the dark like you were as a child. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist did that for me when I saw it in 2011, and The Witch did it again in 2016 (much to my girlfriend’s chagrin). Now there’s Hereditary, fairly aptly being called the Rosemary’s Baby of 2018. Like Alex Garland’s Annihilation adaptation, it’s not perfect, but the more I think about it, the more I love it. As was the case with Robert Eggers, Ari Aster’s first feature is a real masterpiece, and I look forward to his next project.

So go see Hereditary, but don’t expect “fun” scares or a cathartic ending like in the recent It or A Quiet Place. This is not a feel-good film. But then, at least in horror, the best ones rarely are.