On Writing Dialogue

Posted: December 17, 2014 in Novels, Short Fiction
Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

“Shit. That’s not a job. That’s a hustle!”

I love writing dialogue. It is, arguably, one of the the more finely honed skills in my writer’s tool box. Being able to bring characters to life with natural, unforced conversations, just makes me happy.

The trick is to listen.

It’s that simple.

It’s that difficult.

We’re social creatures by nature. Even the most introverted of us deals with people occasionally. And in doing so, oftentimes certain aspects of our dialog degrades into shorthand and common phrases. I never used the word “totes” until I made a good friend who used it all the time. Until about a year ago, I never used the word “legit” the way I do now, but I picked that up from another friend. We influence each other, whether we like it or not.

If we rarely venture outside of that communication circle, it can be easy to forget that not everyone sounds like us. And different groups will have different cadence and even different words. It’s an entirely different song, and it helps inform who they are, and how they sound around their peers.

For that reason, you need the occasional field trip.

I suggest bringing a small, unobtrusive notebook and pen (Field Notes are my personal favorite–great size, so they can slid into just about any pocket, and a good grade of paper that takes ink well). Alternatively, if you have a good recorder on your phone, you can use it instead–I find mine particularly useful for capturing the rants of people talking to themselves on the bus. But whatever tools you take with you into the field are kind of secondary.

The key is to go somewhere people are talking and listen. Really listen. Be conscious of where you’re staking out, and who is clustered around the watering hole. A food court in the business core will score you all kinds of office drone conversations. The bar in a fancy hotel gets you different conversation than a dive bar down the street. The McDonald’s with the PlayPlace™ in the suburbs will likely get you a different kind of conversation than the McDonald’s at 3rd and Pine that a lot of locals point to as “everything that’s wrong with downtown Seattle,” because it feels unsafe.

For the record, I’ve never felt unsafe at that particular establishment. It’s one of my favorite places to get a quick meal and listen to people.

If you’re a commuter like I am, take the headphones out. There is almost always a conversation happening on the bus or train. Listen to the cadence. Listen to the sentence structure. Listen to word choice. Listen for repeated words, because you’ll hear them. People don’t speak in complete sentences all the time. Contractions abound. Don’t listen for specific content so much as the nature of the content. The details of their lives aren’t important, really. But sometimes context is. A person generally talks differently with a friend than they would with a stranger or authority figure.

You might have some reservations about this. Might think of it as eavesdropping. And it is, sort of. But to help cut through the sense of guilt, remember–your not listening for gossip or tidbits of what they’re talking about. You’re not writing about them. You’re listening to how they’re talking about what they’re talking about. Also, as long as you’re doing this in a public place and not being overly intrusive, the odds of them talking about anything really personal are next to zero.

Also, just like any good note taking from school, don’t write down everything. If you try and do that, you’ll be paying more attention to writing and trying to keep up. Instead, just pay attention. If something catches your ear, a sentence or two, jot it down as accurately as possible. Capture the pauses and inflections with punctuation and underlining. Heck. While you’re at it, take notes about the people–quirks or characteristics that help make people unique, whether they’re a one or two phrase visual hook or some kind of mannerism.

Eventually, you’ll get a better feel for how a wider range of people talk just by listening and paying attention. But be prepared to take notes (a general writing tip I follow whenever I can). That will help translate into more natural, and more diverse dialog. And that will make your writing better.

Chanson coverThe origin of Cobalt City as a literary entity is a strange one. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all mythical places start small, a seed unaware of the tree that sleeps, coiled inside.

The first Cobalt City tale was a short story, maybe 8,000 words or so. On a challenge, i wrote the first novel–Cobalt City Blues. It had been intended for friends, but spread out of that circle to other readers unfamiliar with the characters at the heart of the novel. They suggested a prequel, and I obliged, writing Chanson Noir (which was recently re-released as an e-book after having been out of print for a few years).

At that point, I had it in my mind to turn the Protectorate story into a three-book arc. A trilogy, as was the style at the time. So when I commissioned covers for Cobalt City Blues and Chanson Noir, I commissioned a cover for the third book as well (Requiem of Ash), and listed them as a trilogy.

I don’t have many regrets in life, but that is a big one.

See, Requiem was meant to be the final book, the closing chapter on the Protectorate Era of Cobalt City. And there are far too many stories left to tell in Cobalt City. Between the three anthologies (Cobalt City Christmas, Timeslip, and Dark Carnival), the books that take place during the Protectorate Era (Los Muertos and the recently completed Thicker than Water), the post-Protectorate de la Vega novels (Greetings from Buena Rosa and Ride Like the Devil), and the post-Protectorate books written by others (Jeremy Zimmerman’s Kensei, Rosemary Jones’ Wrecker of Engines, Nikki Burns’ Tatterdemalion, Erik Scott de Bie’s Eye for an Eye, and Minerva Zimmerman’s The Place Between), I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. Hell…and that’s even with the award winning audio dramas.

And that’s not a bad thing.

See, the three Protectorate books (ok, two and projected third book), aren’t really a trilogy in any real sense. Yes, they take place in order. But they are not one big story. They’re more like a triptych: three separate novels that tell big stories of the team of superheroes known as the Protectorate at the beginning, middle, and end of that era. And there are a lot of smaller stories that take place in between those novels. The Protectorate has, at its peak, eight active members and two reservists. The Protectorate novels are full-team stories. More epic in scope. The other novels are smaller and include fringe characters who are not part of the Protectorate. For example, Los Muertos features three heroes, of which only one, Mister Grey, is a member of the Protectorate, while Gato Loco is a solo vigilante and the Tatterdemalion is even less of a team player. The all-women cast of Thicker than Water, which I will be publishing next fall, features only Velvet from the Protectorate, while Roberta “Bantam” Pak and Xia Lo enter the story from other directions.

I still intend to write Requiem of Ash. I have the story sketched out, and I’ve dropped some hints as to what happens in Greetings from Buena Rosa. But I’ll be honest with you: that book is a long time away. And that’s intentional. If you’re waiting for the third book to come out to start reading the others, it really isn’t necessary. I admire your dedication, but each novel is meant to be read as a stand-alone.

If you want big-adventure, start with Chanson Noir, which brings flavors of cosmic-style horror to the superhero mix. Cobalt City Blues isn’t a sequel, but it does touch on concepts introduced in the earlier book and brings in several more characters and is more straight up adventure.

Likewise, each of the individual novels is a stand-alone. They might mention superheroes that don’t appear in the book, but no prior knowledge is required to jump in and enjoy from the ground floor, as it were. The smaller books also let me explore different kinds of stories and different ways of telling them. Los Muertos was a lightly spooky homage to the Weird Hero phase of 70’s comic books that brought us Swamp Thing, Doctor Strange, and the brilliantly strange Dracula comic from Marvel. Thicker than Water gave me the chance to write about human trafficking, modern slavery, and organized crime. On deck, I have books about time-travel and legacy heroes as well as rock ‘n roll refugees from space outlined and ready to go.

Eventually, all of the individual heroes from Cobalt City Blues will get their time to shine. The current plan is to write a Cobalt City novella-novel length work or two every year. I’ve got two done now, and two more fully outlined. I have rough ideas for three more.

Then, and only then, will I consider writing Requiem of Ash. Until that happens, there are a lot of adventures waiting to be shared.

Fresh for NaNoWriMo 2014

Fresh for NaNoWriMo 2014

It’s a multi-billion dollar industry in a country that would rather look away–an insidious crime so horrible that authorities are powerless, or unwilling, to stop it.
Not even Cobalt City, the bright, cosmopolitan center of the superhero world, is safe from human trafficking and sexual slavery. For heroes used to dealing with madmen and megalomaniacs, the decentralized nature of the blight is difficult to comprehend, much less impact. How do you combat not just criminals but the very nature of a crime itself?

Velvet–dillitente by day, hard-hitting heroine by night.
Bantam–a cop on the take, trying to redeem her father’s legacy.
Xia Lo–enforcer for Cobalt City’s vast criminal underworld.

Three extraordinary women against impossible odds and a twisted, thriving culture that survives in the shadows.

Due to be written this November, part of my process involves dream-casting.

So without further ado, the three heroes of Thicker than Water.

Victoria SmurfitFor Velvet I wanted someone who projected sophistication and confidence. Who better than the actress who gave Dracula a run for his money in the NBC series from last year as Lady Jane–Victoria Smurfit.







Hettienne_parkFor Bantam, I really just wanted the amazing Hettienne Park who I loved in the first two seasons of Hannibal. Great actress with solid range, and I really relish the idea of her as a cop with a secret legacy as an ass-kicker.






Zhao WeiZhao Wei is a bit of a wild card, but then again, so is Xia Lo. Zhao was amazing in Shaolin Soccer, and I understand she played an excellent Mulan for Chinese TV. Far as I’m concerned, that’s high recommendation.

Ramping up for my 10th NaNoWriMo

Posted: October 18, 2014 in Novels
Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

It came to my attention earlier this week that this marks my 10th year doing the annual madness that is National Novel Writing Month. I suppose that it’s only natural that I’ve kind of come full circle in a way.

My first NaNo novel turned into Greetings from Buena Rosa. The impulse to write that particular novel was two-fold: I wanted to write a pulpy Gato Loco novel, and I had heard a news report on NPR about a number of unsolved murders of women in the Jalisco/Chihuahua area of northern Mexico. The police were under so much pressure that they were arresting random women and torturing them until they confessed to crimes they knew nothing about. It was outrageous. And it made me wish there was some sort of justice there.

I visited justice upon the border region in the form of Gato Loco. Considering what’s going on there in our world, I suppose I was naïve to think a vigilante and his panda sidekick could change things.

So here I am gearing up to write again. The tenth anniversary of that weird baptism. I had my outlines ready to go. Everything was set.

Then a good friend and fellow author, Jeremy Zimmerman forwarded a piece about sex slavery here in this country. And after a particularly long week where the toxic vitriol of the anti-feminist movement kept trying to out-do itself, it was kind of the last straw.

I wanted justice.

So I scrapped the other story and put together something different. Something darker. Something far more compelling. Something featuring a trio of morally complex and compelling women in the lead. Something that I felt I had to write.

We’ll see how it goes. But I’m excited to see where November takes me.


Posted: October 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,
Guardian Sculpture

Guardian Sculpture

I suppose if I had an agent or publicist or manager of some sort, they would advise me against this post. It is, as an office-drone friend of mine calls it, something of a “career limiting maneuver.” It’s one thing to be political, but to be openly, passionately political, is to risk alienating readers.

But if I have to chose between losing the sale of a book or keeping my outrage under wraps, I’ll take the loss of a book every time. Because my outrage is righteous. It is justified. And being able to express it is a privilege not everyone has.

And I don’t depend on book sales to pay my bills, so there’s another privilege exposed.

I’m goddamned exhausted of how the deck is stacked. Even though it’s stacked in my favor, it makes me weary to the soul. I can’t even begin to imagine how exhausting it must be for people it’s stacked against!

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on.

Women are rising up and exposing an institutionalized sexism across a wide swath of fields: from science to writing and gaming. And a small but truly horrible vocal minority is reacting to this spotlight of shame like petulant toddlers.

An inherently racist police force is waging war to protect their right to kill black and brown folk without consequences. To make matters worse, way too many white folk either agree with them, or are complicit in their silence.

In short, while there are a number of brave and dedicated people standing up to make this world a better place, there remains this entrenched, scared, shitty streak of people who will fight to the death to remain just truly horrible people. And lumped in with that vanguard of horribleness is a far-too-large group of people who figure that none of this is their business.

Fuck. For all I know you’re one of those people. You know, the ones who think, “Well, I think equality is fine in theory, but I’d never say I’m a feminist because that sounds to aggressive.” Or maybe “You know, the police have a really hard job. We should calm down and wait until all the evidence is in before we jump to conclusions.” Or “My friend is 1/4 Cherokee and he’s not offended by the mascot so it shouldn’t be a problem.” Or simply, “It doesn’t affect me, so it’s not my problem.”

Damn but I hate that “not my problem.” Because there are a lot of things in this world that really aren’t our problem. Like how much a former TV star weighs. Or if some pop musician is back in rehab. Entire industries have been built around keeping you informed of shit that doesn’t matter.

But the big stuff? If you have an ounce of compassion? That should absolutely be your problem.

Two months ago, an unarmed 18yr old boy was executed by a person whose whole job is to protect and serve that community. At the absolute worst, Mike Brown was jaywalking. All other charges that were conjured against him as some form of justification have proven to be utter fabrications. And even so, none of them justify shooting someone to death in the street then leaving him there under the sun for over four hours. None. If you think there can possibly be any just reason for that level of response, I politely invite you to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut because you’re a bad person. Since then, the police there (and elsewhere) have continued a reign of terror, virtually unrestrained by any respect for laws or due process. The police involved in the situation in Ferguson, Missouri have boldly instituted a police state where they can lock people up with no charges, where they use people they’ve arrested as bargaining chips to get peaceful demonstrations to disperse, where they have indiscriminately used methods and armament that is banned by the Geneva convention. All to protect a murderer who is still being paid, and is being kept under guard. And who may never be charged for his crime.

You’re goddamned right I’m outraged. Because we shouldn’t tolerate this kind of bullshit in our country, against our own citizens. If it was happening somewhere else, folk would be mad as hell. It shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. But somehow when it happens here, it’s not news. Because the deck is stacked, and to point that out undermines the system.

I’m so outraged that when there was another shooting in St. Louis last night, my immediate reaction was to distrust the police version of events.

Because if I’ve learned anything in the past two months, it’s that the police are not to be trusted.

And that’s dangerous. That’s why this is everyone’s problem. A police force that can’t be trusted, that has no moral authority, is a recipe for chaos.

It doesn’t even matter that my instincts were right on the most recent shooting: multiple witnesses contradict the police version, and the police not only didn’t bother to take any witness statements, they were heard joking about the shooting immediately after the fact.

Meanwhile, we have a systemic culture of violence towards women that is so ingrained that many of us don’t even see it. We just accept the narrative as “That’s the way it is.” Case in point, and a geeky one at that, the new CW series The Flash premiered this week to very positive reviews. As a long-time comic geek, I really enjoyed it. It took someone to point out that the hero’s whole motivation stems from his mother being murdered when he was eleven.

They “fridged” the mom. And I was so familiar with that element of his background I didn’t even question it. Would I have enjoyed the story just as much if his mother had been written out otherwise, if Barry’s motivation stemmed from something other than his mom’s death? Sure. Would it have been “cannon?” Nope, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, these same producers are responsible for Arrow which I also enjoy, but which is no less problematic. They have a long record of treating female characters poorly on their show. I’m hoping both series can do better this season.

I’m challenging all of you to do better.

Don’t sit by and let the bullshit slide. Show some genuine compassion and don’t punch down. Keep your eyes open. Question things that feel off, from language (bitch or pussy used as pejoratives, ghetto or thug used casually without recognizing the baggage those words have) to inherent injustices like disproportionate application of the law or threats of violence. Step up and call that shit out. Help lift people up. And help them lift others up.

Let’s say enough with the bullshit and the whiners trying to prop up their rightfully crumbling privilege.

And maybe, just maybe, we can help make this a better place.

Return to Cobalt City

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Novels
The cat. The dead man. The tattered woman.  Will they be enough to save Cobalt City from an evil centuries in the making?  Because Trepanning Mary has returned to the city. And hell is coming with her.

Trepanning Mary has returned to the city. And hell is coming with her.

Some cities just get under my skin. After a while, it’s a compulsion that drives me to want to go back, be it Portland or Santa Fe or New Orleans.

Or Cobalt City.

Cobalt City made it’s debut ten years ago in the novel Cobalt City Blues. It was my first novel, written for myself and friends–and to prove to myself I could finish a long project. It wasn’t even part of a series at that point. Just one book jam packed with superheroes and a city that won’t let me leave it behind.

I’ve written several more novels set in that world, including the prequel to Cobalt City Blues, and two follow-up books with Gato Loco set a few years in the future. I’ve written a little short fiction, published three anthologies and five novella length works from other people set in Cobalt. I’ve even written radio dramas which were wonderfully produced and serialized, allowing me to expand out the world a little bit more. (For the curious, the full timeline of what stories happen when is available here.)

But it’s been years since I’ve taken a long walk in Cobalt City. Other books had taken me away. I missed the view of the orange cranes towering above the docks in Quayside, with the neon glare of Casino Row beyond. I missed the historic streets of the Cannonade, with narrow, cobblestone streets and ivy-enshrouded brick buildings and the golden glow of quirky bistros and late night book stores. I missed the quiet of Lafayette Park while the towering condos of Parkside loomed along the eastern edge of the park. I missed the idea of a cup of coffee at Schrodinger’s Cup up near the University, or watching the Cobalt Blue Blazes whip some ass on the basketball court. I missed the little ethnic neighborhoods secreted away in the twisting streets of Karlsburg. Even missed the suburban sprawl of Moriston to the north, and the crumbling buildings and danger of The Hollows.

But mostly I missed the heroes.

I love the idea that you could look up some day and see the golden contrail of Stardust slicing through the blue sky. That your evening commute might be disrupted by Wild Kat and Velvet tumbling out into the road, wrestling with a dragon. That you might see a mugging interrupted by the appearance of Gato Loco. That a bank of fog might materialize into Mister Grey somewhere ahead of you and a dangerous night suddenly feels safer.

I love the fact that other writers have fallen in love with the city and helped it grow: from Jeremy Zimmerman’s Kensei and Rosemary Jones’ Wrecker of Engines in Cobalt City Rookies to Erik Scott de Bie’s Lady Vengeance and Stardust and Minerva Zimmerman’s Tempest in Cobalt City Double Feature. Jeremy has another Kensei book coming out soon and I promise you all, I’ll be one of the first people in line to read it.

It was time for me to revisit Cobalt City. I’ve been away too long.

Los Muertos marks my return–a love letter to Cobalt City and to the weird heroes of the comics of the 1970’s. Inspired by an era that saw horror cross over into superheroes with titles like Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, Doctor Strange, the Demon, Swamp Thing, I wanted to tell a story about Halloween in Cobalt City. Because horror eventually creeps into most things I write, I suppose. And I already have a Cthulhu element in the city with Louis Malenfant and the King in Yellow. The antagonist, Trepanning Mary, was inspired by a wall of nineteen trepanned skulls from Peru I saw on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, so I suppose I really have to thank my friends Krista and Brendon for taking me there a few years back.

I’ll be setting up shop in Cobalt City for a while. There are just too many stories to tell.

Because the world needs heroes. Even the weird ones.

Especially the weird ones.

Thinking I should wear a tux all the damn time...

Thinking I should wear a tux all the damn time…

Looking back, it’s been a while since my last post. A lot has changed. Some has even changed and changed back. Some of that will be addressed in a separate post as I’d rather not dilute it.

My daughter got married a month ago. The wedding took me to St. Louis for the first time in my life. It was hot and humid, but I survived. If nothing else, it gave me new respect for how nice the weather is Seattle.

St. Louis was also surreal because I was there for a week starting about two weeks after the unarmed teen Michael Brown was executed in the streets of Ferguson where his body was left for over four hours. They were even talking about it on the news in the airport newsstand while I was waiting to fly out. But other than talking with one or two family members it might as well have been happening in another country. I was surprised at how segregated, how insulated, communities can be. It was unsettling. But that’s for another post.

I was out there for over a week, and got no writing done while I was there. No editing. No notes. Nothing.

When I got back to Seattle, I realized the time away gave me a bit of perspective on my writing. Back in town for only a few days, I had an epiphany.

See…I’d been working on big projects pretty much all year. With the exception of one short story I turned out for an anthology request, I’d done pretty much nothing but work on novels or novellas, either writing or editing. Burnout was coming around the bend and it was coming hard. Everything I was doing was high labor with no visible progress. There was no end in sight. The novel I was rewriting wouldn’t be done until next year, at the rate I was going. And after that, two sequels loomed.

And for what?


No one was waiting for these novels. No agent. No editor. Quite possibly, no readers. I already have one urban fantasy novel that I’m shopping plus a novella in this strange limbo state with an editor as of this writing. Did I really need one more big project gathering dust?

Add to this that I’ve been reading some truly outstanding novels this summer that highlight for me how much better i want to be. I know that’s crazy and arbitrary and other bullshit. But every author does it–holds themselves up to an icon of some sort and finds themselves lacking. Cue the crippling self-doubts, etc.

As excited as I was (and still am) about the Ravensgate Cycle, I was writing entirely on spec. Ultimately, I was writing these books for me.

They were killing me.

So I stopped. I set Of Rooks and Ravens set aside for later and got other things cleared off my plate instead. And in doing so, several smaller projects popped up.

I started collecting small projects, and then went to a 5 day writing retreat out in Port Townsend run by some truly outstanding writers and human beings. In the evenings, we played games and drank wine, and by day I wrote, and edited. Nothing I touched was longer than 5,000 words. Nothing.

I ended up editing and polishing five mic0-stories, wrote and rewrote three one-page treatments for a possible future collaborative projects, edited and submitted my sun princess story, finished a parade story that a friend dared me to write and gave it two hard edits, and wrote and rewrote two fresh stories that I never would have tried before. It was a productive several days.

Now it’s just the question of where do I go next?

Here’s a glance at some of the signposts.

I’ve made a commitment to do at least one Cobalt City book a year, be it a novel or novella. The first of those is coming out in a few weeks. I’ll also be making Chanson Noir, the early Protectorate novel available as e-book for the first time. Then in November I’ll be writing two new Cobalt City novellas. One stars Gallows and is part Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard and one part Ziggy Stardust with a heap of alien invasion thrown in. The other is sort of Back to the Future from a villain’s point of view and features Libertine. Both are roughly outlined and  I’ll be tightening that down next month.

After that, I’m following advice from the writing retreat. Don’t write a series. Write a novel.

Yeah, the Ravensgate Cycle is kind of daunting. But the first novel? Heck! That’s already done. I just need to rewrite and edit. So unless some other project comes out and demands my attention, I’m going back to Of Rooks and Ravens in December. Hopefully I’ll have a good, finished draft by sometime in January.

I can’t decide to NOT be a writer. I never could.

That’s the real epiphany.

Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

For the curious, a chapter of the fantasy novel I’m going through edits on now, Of Rooks and Ravens, the first part of the Ravensgate Chronicles.

Chapter Two – Preston

I was dragged into an aching wakefulness by the creak of floorboards. It was a particular soreness, attributable to falling down stairs in pursuit of an elusive Lunar Warbler the night before, a pain echoed by the bone-deep dread of what I was hearing.

I opened my eyes to the morning dimness of the cold apartment, turned them towards the wooden partition which divided the large top floor into separate living & studying spaces. It was happening. Odgred was moving out.

“Are you sure about this?” I croaked, voice thick with lack of sleep. To my relief, my roommate of the past semester and a half paused near the top of the stairs rather than kept walking. “I’m sure if you stayed…”

Odgred swept a stray lock of her unkempt black hair out of her face. She looked like a frightened bird which made her leaving that much more poignant. The third year necromancy student bit her lip as if trying to hold back a curse that she had been caught sneaking out. “What. If I stay you’ll somehow not be his daughter? Like when he finds out I’m living with you he won’t somehow take it out on me? He’s the head of my department, Pres. Or I guess it’s actually Anna, right? You should have told me.”

I flinched at the use of my birth name. I stopped using “Anna” over six years ago. “No. It’s Preston. And my dad doesn’t need to find out,” I winced as I tried to prop myself up on one elbow. Sweet Aleph, I hurt. I might be bruised from shoulder to knees along my left side. If I was lucky, nothing was broken. It was little relief that the fall could have been worse.

Odgred scrunched up her brow, defiant but at least not still in flight. “No. He doesn’t need to find out. But if he does, what then? It could make a difference between a career track at the college or stirring the beetles at Bonepicker Hall.”

My mouth opened to protest but snapped closed just as quickly. Odgred was right. My father, Toumel Preston, known by most of Ravensgate as Toumel the Black, didn’t need to know. But that was no guarantee he wouldn’t find out. “See you around Little Crow Row, I guess.”

And at least rent’s paid up through the end of the month.

I watched Odgred haul away her oversized tapestry bag packed with clothes, surgical tools, and tins of smoky teas. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but Odgred could have grown to become one. I couldn’t blame her for leaving. My father poisoned everything he touched, even abstractly. This was no exception.

I waited until the footsteps faded into the echoes of echoes on the wood stairs of the four-story walk up. When I was certain she wasn’t coming back, I turned my gaze towards the crude table of wooden crates and planks, overladen with books and abstracts that had seemed a reasonable expense when I had irregular consulting income and a roommate to split rent. I forced myself into a sitting position on the edge of my bed, despite the aching protest of my injuries. Last night, when the fall was still so fresh that the bruising had not yet set in, the pain had been too much to bear. I resorted to several vile swallows of a potent herbal liqueur to facilitate sleep. Before slumber pulled me into its embrace and under the playful interrogation of Odgred, I let slip the truth about my birth name, the truth about father. And now, a quiet apartment I could not quite afford.

I scowled at the neck of the green glass bottle from last night, poking up behind a pile of cheap text books. I should know better now to avoid that poison Mac introduced me to. Nothing good ever comes of it. Read the rest of this entry »

If you managed to miss the first half of this list, or even why this list exists in the first place, here is where you’ll find it.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. The other half of the list.

Masque of the Red Death (1964) — Roger Corman

masque There were a slew of movies based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe in the 60’s, some more faithful than others. For instance The Raven (1963) which was also directed by Corman from a Richard Matheson script had little, if anything, to do with the poem. But Masque of the Red Death was a beast of a different color.

With a script by the brilliant Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, in addition to one of Vincent Price’s finest performances as the Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero, the real star of this movie is cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Roeg would go on to be a director in his own right, making the classics Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Masque of the Red Death managed to fold the great Poe short story “Hop-Frog” into the script and it’s a natural fit.

Not only is it an opulent-looking example of period piece horror, it’s a heck of a good movie. With over 400 production credits to his name, Roger Corman still considers this one of the two favorite movies he ever made. It’s easy to see why.

Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) — Mario Bava

POSTER-TWITCH-OF-THE-DEATH-NERVE-BAY-OF-BLOOD As a general rule, I dislike gore films. So seeing this film on the list might surprise people who know my taste.

Made in Italy by genre master Mario Bava, it is also known as Blood Bath or A Bay of Blood. It was originally released in the states as Carnage then re-released as Twitch of the Death Nerve where it delighted drive-in and grindhouse audiences across the country. It is considered the grandfather of the slasher film genre, featuring thirteen incredibly gruesome murders. As for plot, don’t over-think it. Twitch of the Death Nerve makes Friday the 13th read like Thomas Pynchon.

Speaking of Friday the 13th, fans of that series should be especially interested in this movie, as the second Friday the 13th movie featured two murders that were virtual shot-by-shot remakes of ones found here.

When people look back at the high-body count horror movies that overtook American horror cinema starting with Halloween in 1978, they ultimately need to look back at this movie. Of all the directors on this list Bava may be the most important, so it’s a shame he’s not well known outside of die-hard horror junkies. He directed some of the first giallo films, helping define the thriller genre in Italy in the sixties. He pioneered a kind of sci-fi horror with Planet of the Vampires (1965) that bears a striking thematic similarity to Alien which followed fourteen years later. And many elements of his masterpiece Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) were hugely influential in the wave of Asian horror that followed decades later.

That said, I draw a distinction between influential and enjoyable. While I respect his amazing contributions to the genre, his movies, particularly the blood bath that is Twitch of the Death Nerve, are not easy watching.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — Brian de Palma

phantom-of-the-paradise-movie-poster Ok, bear with me here. Yes, Phantom of the Paradise is a massive cheese-fest.

Combining the stories of Faust, Dorian Gray, and Phantom of the Opera into a musical epic with musician Paul Williams as the antagonist is, at best, a gamble. In fact, despite the Academy Award nomination for the music, it was an abysmal box-office failure everywhere except Winnipeg, Canada where it was an inexplicable hit.

So, why is it on this list?

For one, it’s incredibly fun. Paul Williams sells the hell out of the devilishly evil record producer, Swan. For two, the music is great, with this fascinating fusion of glam rock and classical/opera. In fact, Winslow Leach who goes on to become the Phantom is obsessed with his cantata which is not exactly a music form that was burning up the radio in the early seventies.

And it is from box office failures that cult movies are born. Clad in black leather with a face obscuring helmet, the look of the Phantom (as well as his recording studio) was a huge visual influence on Darth Vader, as well as Daft Punk, the pair having bonded over the movie as kids, seeing it together over twenty times. When he was gearing up to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright hosted screenings of the movie for his cast because he was such a huge fan. But perhaps best of all, Paul Williams tells a story of being approached at a concert in Mexico City to sign a copy of the soundtrack for a kid in the audience. At the time, he considered the film a flop, so the incident stood out for him. Years later, he would come to find out that the fan in Mexico City was Guillermo del Toro, which led to him working on a musical version of Pan’s Labyrinth.

You never know where someone is going to find their inspiration, it seems.

Alien (1979) — Ridley Scott

Alien-1979 You probably know this movie. Heck, if you’re a horror geek and you haven’t seen this movie, I’ll be surprised.

Unlike the films which followed this in the franchise, the original Alien was straight up horror. When it came out in 1979, people weren’t prepared for what they were going to get. I was a kid at the time, but still remember stories of people getting ill and having to flee the theater. The chest-burster scene in particular has burned itself upon our collective psyche, and is one of the most recognizable moments in American cinema of the past 50 years.

My favorite part about the chest-burster scene is that the cast had no idea what they were in for on the day of the shoot. Their reactions were pretty damn authentic. It’s not the first time horror directors got authentic terror by keeping the cast in the dark. There was a memorable scene in The Birds (1963) where real, live birds were used, much to the surprise and dismay of a terrified Tippi Hedren.

At it’s heart, Alien is a gothic haunted house story, just substitute a massive, dark spaceship for the haunted castle. A group of people meet their fates one by one as they seek some way to escape the death that lurks all about them in the shadows. Sci-fi horror had been done before, but never this well. And there were many imitators that followed, from Galaxy of Terror (1981) to Event Horizon (1997). And the xenomorph that H.R. Geiger designed for the movie went on to be one of the most iconic monsters in cinema.

Videodrome (1983) — David Cronenberg

M4DVIDE EC001 “Long live the new flesh.”

No one does body horror quite like Cronenberg.

A disturbing and surreal critique on a media culture of sex and violence, Videodrome is, itself, a masterpiece of weird sex and violence. It gets difficult to distinguish what is real and what is hallucination, and ultimately questions if there’s really a distinction to be made between the two.

Like many of the films on this list, Videodrome did not fare well commercially but remains an important work. Andy Warhol considered it “A Clockwork Orange of the ’80’s.” Many critics hated it, either turned off by the weirdness, the violence, or the bleakness of the ending. Even so, it endures, finding its way onto multiple lists, including Total Film’s Weirdest Films of All Time and the Toronto International Film Festival named it as one of most essential films ever made.

But perhaps the best thing that can be said about Videodrom, comes from R. Barton Palmer in his book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. “A groundbreaking film of the commercial/independent movement of the 1980s Hollywood, David Cronenberg’s story about the horrible transformations wrought by exposure to televised violence wittily thematizes the very problems that the director’s exploration of violent sexual imagery in his previous productions had caused with censors, Hollywood distributors and feminist groups… Videodrome remains one of Hollywood’s most unusual films, too shocking and idiosyncratic to be anything but a commercial failure.”

Courtesy of Post Secret It’s no mystery to anyone who really knows me that I’m a horror movie geek.

It’s not just that I enjoy horror movies. I know a lot of people who like horror movies whose eyes glaze over when I start talking about favorite films and why they’re favorite films. And that’s fine. Everyone is free to enjoy art at the level of their choosing. If you like the scares and that’s it, great. If you like the technical aspects of the special effects, that’s excellent. To each their own. For me, I enjoy their history, their influences, the whole meta aspect of the medium.

To that end, I’ve been interested in running a salon series for a while: a viewing of a film followed by discussion. Heck, make it a class in the history of horror cinema. Impractical, I know. But it’s the dream.

So in lieu of that, here’s the first half of a list of what I consider to be Ten Essential Horror Movies (and why). The second part of the list will follow tomorrow as I felt it a good idea to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Feel free to watch on your own time. Most of these movies are fairly old and should be available easily. And if you ever want to discuss them, or your own list of essentials, I’m game.

Freaks (1932) – Tod Browning

freaks There’s a good chance you’ve heard about this movie. There’s a reason for that. Some people may know director Tod Browning for Dracula which he directed a few years earlier. It made Universal a lot of money and launched Bela Lugosi into stardom. It also gave Browning some freedom as a director/producer. He used that freedom to make Freaks, in some ways inspired by his experiences with a travelling circus.

Yeah. He ran away to join a traveling circus when he was 16.

Apparently people did that.

Anyway, Browning’s star had been on the rise, but this film pretty much killed his career. The studio cut it from the original 90 minute run time (removing much of the film’s climax), and tacking on prologue and epilogue for a total run time of 64 minutes. The movie was a financial failure, and even recut by the studio it was banned in the UK for three decades. Sadly, most of that cut footage was lost forever. The movie was finally re-released in the sixties where it got the counter-culture adoration it deserved, influencing Frank Zappa, the Ramones, and whole generations of outcasts who were drawn to the story of the most unlikely of protagonists–and what they’re capable of when pushed.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) — Jacques Tourneur

Iwalkedwithazombie When people think of zombie films, they generally think of the post-Romero zombies: literal shambling corpses hungry for human flesh.

However the zombie has deeper cultural roots that are even more terrifying. The old-school voodun zombie of the Caribbean represents the double-edged fear of plantations who could work people to death and even beyond and of a unstoppable workforce and group of people that greatly outnumbered the “masters.” Old-school zombies were a narrative in class and race, the horrors of slavery and it’s echoes translated through a lens of the supernatural.

I Walked with a Zombie was the second film produced by Val Lewton, master of the B-movie horror. It’s not without violence, but it’s primarily a thinking person’s zombie film. Stylus Magazine named it the 5th best zombie movie of all time in 2007, but I’d rank it higher, personally. Like much of Lewton’s work, this movie is deliberately ambiguous on the supernatural, which lets it work on more levels than a straight-up horror film. What’s worse, really: the threat of magic or the idea that you can naturally become so worn down that you become less than human?

As a meditation on the conflict between cultures/classes/religions in the Caribbean, it’s excellent. As an example of smart horror from before zombies were gore-dripping things looking for their next meal, it’s a must see.

Peeping Tom (1960) — Michael Powell

Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (1960)

Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (1960)

No conversation on the subject of tragic career-ending films would be complete without a nod to the 1960 classic Peeping Tom. Released in the UK two months before Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the US, both movies have a somewhat familiar footprint with one jarring difference. The film’s POV, which jarred audiences and critics so badly that Peeping Tom was doomed right out of the gate.

The movie follows a voyeur and young film-maker who devises a special camera with a spike on the tripod for the sole purpose of filming people at their moment of death. But because the movie put the audience in the head of the killer, it made them voyeurs as well, and gave them a sense of culpability. It was an unforgivable sin at the time, a violation of the compact between film-makers and audience.

It’s also a brilliant film. Martin Scorsese had been hearing about it since film school and finally saw it in 1970 and became a ardent fan, saying, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about film-making…”

Reviled upon release, it is now considered a masterpiece of British horror. Total Film ranked it as the 24th British film of all time (2004) and 18th greatest horror film of all time (2005). And a British Film Institute poll ranked it as one of the best British films of all time. Honored with a Criterion Collection re-release it’s now easy to find, 55 years after Len Mosley of the Daily Express called it “…more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta.”

The Haunting (1963) — Robert Wise

HAUNTING When I think of haunted house movies, this invariably ends up on the top of the list.

Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, this is the grandmother of “group of occultists/psychics go investigate haunted house” films. It might not have been the first (honestly, I have to assume someone did this kind of trope prior to 1960), but like Jimi Hendrix covering Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” this trope belonged to The Haunting as of 1963. Over 50 years later and I don’t feel it’s been equaled.

Now, that’s not saying they haven’t tried. This kind of formula is rote for horror movies these days. And why not? It’s a story everyone recognizes now. It’s cinematic shorthand: put a group of people in a spooky location and hijinks ensue, usually chock full of gore and spooky visuals. Whether it’s an old brownstone in the ghetto (Bones – 2001) or a run down mental hospital (Session 9 – 2001), we know this set up. Of course in any movie made with this model since the 80’s, most of the cast will be dead at the end, because scary.

I call bullshit. I mean, I sincerely enjoyed Bones and absolutely love Session 9.

But you know what’s scary? The Haunting from 1963. And that’s because it doesn’t show anything! That’s a lesson that the shit-tornado of a remake from 1999 could have stood to learn. Nothing is as scary as the human imagination when it’s all wound up and ready to go.

Kwaidan (1964) — Masaki Kobyashi

kwaidanLet’s take a trip across the sea to explore some horror cinema in Japan decades before the J-horror explosion of recent decades.

In the sixties, anthology horror was all the rage. Some were amazing. Most were less so. But none of them came close to reaching the art house style horror of Kwaidan. Case in point, none of them were nominated for Academy Awards like this one (Best Foreign Language Film). Based on folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn around the turn of the century and directed by Masaki Kobyashi, this is a collection of slow-burn and atmospheric ghost stories.

One of the things that sets Kwaidan apart is the visual language of the film. Owing a debt to stage and German expressionist film from decades earlier, much of Kwaidan features large, colorful backdrops or are filmed on obviously artificial sets to lend an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

If any of the four stories feel familiar, it could be due to the influence they’ve had on Japanese horror cinema that followed. The visual style even influenced some of Akira Kurosawa’s later works, like Dreams, and . Or maybe you saw the Tales from the Darkside movie in which “The Woman of the Snow” segment was remade as “Lover’s Vow.” And that scene in Conan the Barbarian where his body his painted over with words to protect him from spirits? Kwaidan did it first. And better.

Come back tomorrow for the second half of the list where I take you the rest of the way to 1983 with films from David Cronenberg, Brian de Palma, Ridley Scott, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman.