Dale Lucas

author and screenwriter

Month: August, 2012

Remembering Your First…

They say you never forget your first: the long, pregnant silences; the fumbling fingers and clumsy hands; the open mouth; the half-closed eyes; the sweet and sensuous smell of wood pulp.

Yeah. I’m talking about the first book I ever loved. The first book that opened my eyes and changed me and still works its magic on me today, even though I’ve moved on and courted hundreds since (hell, thousands—I’m an inveterate book whore). What did you think I was talking about? Pervs…

A couple weeks back, I revisited 1982 and wallowed in some completely unfettered geek nostalgia. In the process of writing that piece, I was reminded of a favorite piece of childhood literature that I was introduced to in that same era, and found myself drawing said volumes off the shelf for a fresh perusal. The books are those that make up the Elric saga, and their creator is a Brit with an awesome beard named Michael Moorcock. If you’re a fantasy-loving geek like myself but like a little salt in your caramel, I suggest you lay hands on the Elric library ASAP. They may rock your world the same way they rocked mine in those wayback, hallowed yesterday.  It all started with a slim little paperback titled Elric of Melniboné.

It goes like this: once upon a time, on the far western edge of a fractious and barbaric world, there was an island called Imryrr, supporting a decadent race whose time of power and influence had passed; a race that spent the greater part of their time throwing fabulous parties full of sex and narcotics and boredom in their towered capitol city of Melniboné. Lording over these perfidious effetes was their prince—a brooding, cerebral albino and dabbler in magic named Elric. Though he wielded power over a rich kingdom, had the love of his smokin’ hot and always sympathetic cousin, Cymoril, and looked a lot like a LARPing David Bowie, Elric could see through the smoke and haze, and knew well enough that Imryrr was doomed, and he was probably doomed with it. Thus, when his evil cousin Yrkoon tries to kill him and steal the throne, kidnaps Elric’s main squeeze (and Yrkoon’s own sister) Cymoril and exercises his kinky incestuous attraction to her, then ultimately puts all of Imryrr in danger to feed his own narcissism, Elric is almost happy for the distraction from his broody, stagnating existence. Lickety-split, he starts calling in favors from the chaos gods he worships, tear-assing through multiple dimensions to serve up some whoop-ass on Yrkoon, and finally claims a sorcerous, soul-sucking sword called Stormbringer that will make him both an unstoppable badass knight errant and a terrible, tragic antihero whose source of power is also his source of damnation (not to mention inspiration for a bitchin’ Blue Oyster Cult song).

English: http://isra2007.deviantart.com/art/El...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More popular and well-known in England than here in the States (though by no means unknown on this side of the pond), Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is a touchstone work of fantasy that’s seldom praised simply because it’s become too familiar, too comfortable a houseguest in the hearts and minds of its many fans. It’s not that it isn’t a great work of fantasy fiction, or that it didn’t have an earth-shaking effect on the genre—it’s simply that those effects have been so long-hence encountered and absorbed that we’ve sort of forgotten the initial shock and wonder of them. Not only did it introduce the world to its mean, moody, and magnificent eponymous antihero, it’s also a well-realized piece of escapist fiction: as finely-tuned and smoothly crafted as its auspicious pulpy predecessors, and overflowing with adventuresome incident, unforgettable characters, malefic mysticism, and wonders galore. But my love for Elric goes deeper than mere enjoyment or admiration: it enters the realm of influence.

When I was first handed Elric of Melniboné (by my older brother’s best friend, when I was ten), fantasy, for me, consisted of a very simple trinity: The Hobbit (and by extension, The Lord of the Rings); Conan the Barbarian (who I was more familiar with through his Marvel comics than through his film incarnation, who I was still not allowed to watch); and Dungeons & Dragons. Fantasy was hobbits running from goblins bearing magic rings. Fantasy was a big, strapping hero cutting a bloody swathe through the world because no one—I mean no one—could stop him. Or, fantasy was my older brother and his friends (and sometimes, me, after much whining) sitting around our dining room table eating Cheetos, drinking grape soda, pretending to be on some rad adventure in a mythical land of dragons and wizards—when in fact all we were doing was sitting at a table, staring at a map, occasionally rolling some funny dice to see if we made our saving throws or not. In short, fantasy was safe; fantasy was escapist; and fantasy was, largely, still about good and evil, right and wrong, being small and morally upright like a hobbit, or big, brawny, bloody and lusty like Conan.

But, encountering Elric, I discovered something that my precocious-but-still-fairly-sheltered little mind could barely grasp: fantasy didn’t need good and evil. More importantly, fantasy could be about some deep, serious, frightening and philosophical stuff—while also being thoroughly entertaining and wildly imaginative. What a concept! You could talk about deep stuff (which, as a kid, I vaguely knew existed—like other planets—but really knew very little of in terms of direct experience), while also letting your sword whistle down on enemies helms, cleaving skulls as to dash out brains (as the Song of Roland poet might say).

Elric, though clearly the guy the reader was concerned with—for lack of a better word, the hero—was nothing like the other heroes I’d read about or seen in movies. He was skinny, scrawny, pale (as I was in my childhood); he was physically weak but incredibly smart, and liked to sit and think about things (another point of identification for little me); and even though he was the guy in charge—the prince, the leader!—he didn’t seem happy about it. Most of the heroes I’d encountered always started as nobody but became great leaders. Getting to be in charge was, in many ways, the prize they earned by being the heroes of stories (that, and getting the girl). But here was a guy who was already large and in charge, yet didn’t seem to care.

But chief among Elric’s attractions was his constant awareness of how shady everything and everyone around him was. He didn’t trust the decadence of his fellow Melnibonéans, or their entire, degenerate culture. He didn’t trust the chaos gods he regularly sought help from (though he still sought help from them, because chaos gods are more or less reliable when it comes to slaying your enemies and stuff). And when he finally acquires Stormbringer at the end of Elric of Melniboné—the black, red rune-covered, soul-sucking sword that will ultimately make him a fearsome legend in his own time (“Bound by hell-forged chains and fate-haunted circumstance”) —well, he doesn’t trust that damned sword, either. For a hero, Elric spent an awful lot of time questioning stuff, and that made an impression on me, even though it would be years before I could intellectually articulate why it made an impression.

There was also the worldview offered by Michael Moorcock—a cosmology in which there were no gods of good or evil—indeed, there was almost never even a consideration of good and evil. Rather, in Elric’s world (and, I would come to learn, all the worlds of the ‘Multiverse’ which Moorcock’s imagination played in), the primary conflict was between Law (capital L) and Chaos (capital C). These forces (man, this really wracked my brain at the time) were neither good nor evil in and of themselves; they were, rather, meant to be in balance. It was only the excess of one or the other that threatened life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And Elric, as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion (another of Moorcock’s tropes that really put the zap on my wee little imagination), was meant not to always champion one cause or the other, but simply to restore a balance. Too much law created stasis and decay; too much chaos made growth and progress impossible. The Eternal Champion (be he Elric, or Corum, or Hawkmoon, or Von Bek, or any of the other incarnations whom Moorcock would also write about and whom I would discover later) was sometimes an agent of Chaos, sometimes an agent of Law—but his mission was always the same: to upset the established order, and restore balance.

Damn. Cue screaming guitar solo by Cream to indicate the profundity of Moorcock’s fantasy carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of my mind. I honestly, truly believe that, even though I had wanted to be a writer—a teller of tales—ever since I could remember, encountering Michael Moorcock and Elric at that pivotal moment in my childhood really determined the sort of writer I would ultimately want to be: namely, the sort who could let his imagination run free; who could astound and awe and entertain with a vengeance; but also the sort who could think deeply about all sorts of strange, bizarre, and profound things, and weave those ruminations into the colors and textures of his thrilling little penny dreadfuls. I’ve revisited Elric over the years, and it still stirs the same, seemingly-disparate feelings in me: to think deeply on one hand; to be borne away on flights of fancy on the other; and to finally realize that you can do both at the same time. That profound influence upon my imagination and my vision of the tale-teller I wanted to be would only be matched by one other writer who I encountered in my childhood: Stephen King, who didn’t show up on the scene for me until Michael Moorcock was already well-entrenched.

So, even though throughout my adolescence people came to accuse me of being a creepy little King, the truth is, I was probably a brooding little Moorcock first. God bless you, Michael Moorcock, for showing me the way!

So that’s my little reminiscence about the first book I fell in love with. What say you, constant readers? What was the book that didn’t just delight you, but that actually left a mark on you that’s never been erased?

Dear Hollywood: 10 Ways to Make Better Movies (And More Money)

Apparently, box office receipts are down, and Hollywood is sweating (and when I say ‘Hollywood’, I really mean the people at the top of the studio power pyramids who decide what movies get made, make lots of money on them when they are successful, and get fired when they’re not—let’s just call them ‘suits’).  Everyone’s got a theory about why people are spending less money at the movies, from the rocky economy to increased media competition to the declining quality of the films being made to the expense of going to the movies at all.  I’ve got my own theory, and I’d like to offer some solutions.  With any luck, the Hollywood suits will listen to me, and we’ll all enjoy a glorious future, basking in the magical glow of one of America’s favorite pastimes and most notable exports.

My theory: we Americans love movies so much that we will continue to go see them in theaters even when most of them suck and make us feel that we’ve wasted our precious $14 on a ticket (not to mention the $40 we spent on a small soda and some Skittles).  The industry was born here; it’s been a pervasive part of our culture for over a century now; they’re in our blood.  Movies—and the movie-going experience—are as American as baseball, apple pie, and undignified, muckraking political campaigns between almost indistinguishable, equally useless candidates for public office.  Like the sports junkie who sits through Little League games with the same boundless enthusiasm lavished on his favorite Big League team, or the horror movie nut who will sift through a hundred crappy straight-to-video tard-fests in search of one better-than-average chiller, we will keep our movie love alive and keep going to the theater despite endless disappointment, a depressing lack of originality, even overt cinematic audience abuse (they didn’t mean it… it was my fault… if I hadn’t seen that one street dance movie, they never would have been forced to make another one…). 

Hollywood suits might think they understand us—how we think, what we want, what we enjoy—simply by counting the box office receipts, but I don’t think that they get the big picture.  Otherwise, they’d be giving us better product.  See—we want to go to the movies, to be thrilled, to fall in love.  Hollywood suits see big ticket sales for some movies—Transformers 3, for instance—and assume that it indicates people want more movies like Transformers 3, and therefore, they make Trans4mers (they might even greenlight a Go-Bots movie, because one giant, transforming robots movie franchise just isn’t enough).

But it’s not Transformers 3 we’re really in love with (according to my theory): we’re in love with the magic of the movies.  We want that magic—crave it—and Transformers 3 was the only thing opening that week.  Since we decided we would be less bored by Transformers 3 than by the other five movies playing at the 18-plex, we went.  Would we prefer something else?  Sure.  But we missed the smell of the popcorn, the thrill of the dimming lights, the foreplay of the trailer parade, and finally, the flickering, light-in-the-darkness romance of a story playing out on that, big, beautiful screen, carved of dancing light.  We may curb our movie-going overall after we’ve been burned one too many times or because our disposable income is shrinking, but for many Americans that genuinely love movies (and I’d say more of us do than don’t), we will never stay away indefinitely.  We will always, eventually, inevitably, come back.

So, since we’ll keep coming back, but we’re obviously not coming back often enough or in large enough numbers to make the suits happy, I have ten suggestions for how Hollywood can make better movies.  I offer this not as a snobbish detractor or hateful opponent, but as a loving, loyal fan who is desperate to feel proud of this, his favorite storytelling medium, once again.  So, listen up, suits!  This is how you earn the public trust again and start lining your pockets with mad green!  

  1. First, admit you have a problem.  Stop pretending you know what makes a good movie, or what will be a hit.  You don’t.  No one does.  Just look for compelling stories with evocative cinematic settings that can be told on whatever budget you think is appropriate.  Not sure how to identify compelling stories?  Here’s a thought: let people who actually love cinema and understand it green light movies, instead of bankers and suits who wouldn’t know the difference between a Citizen Kane and a Baby Ruth.  Hollywood’s produced plenty of shrewd businessmen who made lots of money while also understanding what made for a compelling story, from Irving Thalberg to Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Seek out suitable successors, will ya? 
  1. Original is good.  Knock it off with the sequels, remakes, and re-adaptations (or re-imaginings or whatever the hell you call them).  I love seeing my favorite comic book heroes on the screen as much as the next guy, but something is very wrong when original material written for the screen—without literary, comic book, television, or prior cinematic antecedents—becomes the exception and not the rule.  Consider Christopher Nolan’s Inception: an original concept written for the screen by its director—not based on a book, a comic book, or a television show; not a sequel or a remake—that made you $825 million.  If you insist on holding to the ‘pre-existing properties have larger built-in audiences’ model then at least start branching out and adapting material that we’ve never seen on the screen before, instead of endlessly re-adapting the same three dozen books and re-imagining the same two dozen superhero franchises.  (And no more boardgame movies.  Seriously.  Worst.  Idea.  Ever.)  There are thousands of awesome, movie-ready books, comics and television shows out there just begging to leap onto the silver screen.  Seek out a few.  Besides, if you don’t start churning out some quality original material, ASAP, you’ll have nothing to remake twenty years from now.
  1. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.  Stop using movies as a form of clumsy social engineering.  Your insistence that female empowerment stops and ends with the archetype of the hot, ass-kicking chick, or that you should go out of your way to tell us that Jonah Hex, a Confederate soldier ‘didn’t hold to all that slavery stuff’ is just ham-handed, insulting political correctness (Jonah Hex sucked, by the way, and one too many face-palm inducing moments like that are to blame).  If you want to make a movie about female empowerment or racial bigotry or social inequality, by all means, do it.  But stop trying to shoe-horn social commentary into big budget popcorn fare when it doesn’t fit there, or white wash honest (if unpleasant) character traits with artless, anachronistic pleasantries that just make the audience feel patronized while making you—the movie studio suits who probably wrote the notes that led to those ridiculous revisionisms—look like quailing, lily-livered, P.C. douchebags.     
  1. Too many cooks… I honestly think this is the crux of your problem, suits: you don’t trust the writers or directors you hire, and you think that input from everyone is a substitute for narrative vision and purpose.  Generally speaking, though, I think you will produce better films if said films are written by one writer (or a solid writing team), directed by one director, and overseen by one smart producer.  More writers, endless rewrites, and ‘developing’ a concept into oblivion doesn’t make the film better, it just makes it blunt, purposeless, and diffuse.  Likewise, allowing every Tom, Dick and Harry who is attached as a producer, executive producer or associate producer to offer ‘notes’ to improve the script and expecting those notes to be incorporated is nothing short of ludicrous.  Give the producer, the director and the writer(s) ultimate control—including the right to ignore anyone’s notes—or don’t make the movie at all.  If you want to prove me wrong, please give me one solid example of a movie that was in development for more than three years, employed more than three writers, and incorporated every note from everyone with a producer’s credit that ultimately ended up being a rousing critical and commercial success both at the box office and on video.  I’ll bet you can’t give me even one example.  Conversely, look at some of the top earning movies of the last decade: along with the aforementioned Inception—the original offspring of one, lone filmmaker’s imagination–consider the Harry Potter series.  HP raked in over $2.3 billion worldwide.  The films are adaptations of a series of novels, true, but the movies work because J. K. Rowling’s singular vision is translated to screen via a single writer (Steve Kloves in six cases out of seven) who worked closely with the director of each film.  Likewise, might I offer the example of a little movie called The Avengers, that’s pulled in $1.4 billion for you so far, that happened to be written and directed by nerd-supreme auteur Joss Whedon (who shares story credit with Zak Penn).  Look at that!  Movies that made lots of money that were only filtered through only two or three imaginations on the way to the screen!  Miracles abound!  
  1. Demographics, Part I.  There are many types of movies for many types of people, all with varying tastes.  Strive to make movies for all of them, and not simply for the highest paying demographic of the moment (cough—teenagers).  Yes, we know you make lots of money on teenagers, but guess what?  There are millions of other pockets for you to pick out here, if you would just pay us attention and make movies for us!  Note, however, that this is not an excuse to try and make every movie for every demographic.  Some things are fit for Four Quadrants—some only for one.  Respect your customers and give them good product, and they’ll respect you.  Remember the mid-budget adult drama that had its heyday in the 1970s?  Or low-to-mid-budget horror films that aren’t full of (and solely aimed at) teenagers?  Look at what a rousing comeback the reasonably-budgeted 80s style action film is having!  Give us more choices, we’ll give you more money.     
  1. Demographics, Part II.  Stop assuming that people don’t go to see movies just because they don’t contain a person who looks like them.  A decent movie with an all-male cast need not have a female shoehorned in—defying narrative logic—just to get a few more women in the theater.  There are plenty of women who may want to see the film and watch it, and who don’t really care if there’s a woman in there or not.  Same with black people, or white people, or little people, or gay people, or straight people.  The story, the premise, the vibe of the film is what draws people to the theater—not who is in it, or what they look like.  (And if you’re the sort of audience member who would avoid seeing a film just because nobody in it looks like you: shame on you!  You’re an ignorant, shallow, self-absorbed troll.  Branch out, will ya?)
  1. Avoid cliché.  We all understand that the broad strokes of story are timeless.  I’m not telling you to, for instance, stop letting the hero win, or stop letting the lovers get together at the end of the rom-com.  But all those little grace-notes that filmmakers readily employ when they just can’t think of something else to do, or need a quick uplift?  Lose them.  For example, don’t let anyone pull the dog trick again.  Ever.  What’s the dog trick, you ask?  Remember Independence Day?  Remember Dante’s Peak?  Millions of people, dying all around in a fiery holocaust, and we’re supposed to cheer because one goddamn dog escapes the inferno?  Likewise, there’s the ever-popular the-villain-seems-to-be-subdued-but-pulls-a-gun-forcing-the-hero-to-shoot-him trick.  Or the the-killer’s-dead-no-he’s-not! trick.  Seriously, such tricks (and all the others that smack of sentimentality and narrative laziness) totally suck.  Knock it off.
  1. Experiment.  We live in a wondrous new age where endless opportunities exist for marketing and delivering movies to an audience.  While the theater is an awesome venue for film appreciation, don’t discount streaming direct-release or On Demand as outlets for films that may be spectacular but require something that a theater doesn’t support (like, for instance, a longer running time).  You’re already doing this to some extent, and I commend you for it, but at present, your pre-theater On Demand offerings all seem to be cast offs and red headed stepchildren (some of these movies are quite good, by the way—but I can’t escape the sense that you relegated them to pre-theater On Demand availability because you were ashamed of them, not proud of them).  So, in the interests of tapping new markets: how about a new generation of film adventure serials, directed by talented directors and made with reasonable decent production values, available for 99 cent per episode download?  How about an adaptation of a classic epic novel (James Clavell’s Shogun or Gone with the Wind or something) given a big screen budget, with an expansive miniseries running time?  These are just off-the-cuff notions, but that’s the sort of stuff you need to be playing with: big ideas presented in new ways.  If you don’t find ways to diversify the film industry’s product portfolio, you will only kill it… and that would be a tragedy. 
  1. Easy with the CGI.  CGI is nice, but it’s not the only ‘special effect.’  Encourage alternatives.  Some of them might even save you money on the making of the film itself, but wow audiences sufficiently to boost your box office.  Crazy concept!!!
  1. No more shaky cam.  Force directors who over-utilize handheld cameras to pay a motion-sickness fine.  Seriously—there are dramatic situations which benefit from their use, but there is no excuse for shooting every action scene—or even an entire film, beginning to end—without a tripod, a dolly or a steadicam.  Paul Greengrass, I’m talking to you!!! 

So, there it is.  It’s possible I’m wrong, but probably not.  If you, constant readers, have suggestions of your own to offer, serve ‘em up! 

With any luck, the suits are listening… 

Where Were You in ’82?

Everyone loves nostalgia, despite the fact that it’s a dubious use of one’s time (at best). Whether it’s your parents grousing about how kids have it easy these days or that they grew up in a kinder, gentler world, or just you, sitting on the couch in your jammies, watching reruns of I Love the 80s or having geek-gasms as you read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all nestled into our inner Wayback Machines and enjoyed a leisurely excursion back to Yesterland.

Thus, in the interest of freely indulging in this very dubious pasttime, I’d like to jump back an even thirty years and examine what just might have been the coolest year ever to be a little geek: 19-freakin’-82.

In 1982, I was seven years old, finishing first grade, starting second. My brother was 12, and I liked hanging with him and his friends way more than I did kids my own age (Bryan didn’t really dig my lamprey-like close proximity, but he didn’t really have a choice, either; I stuck like glue). I was already well on my way to proud geekdom, having been conversant in Star Wars since I was old enough to walk and talk. In 1982, I—like every other kid I knew—was wondering just what the hell was going to happen when Revenge of the Jedi (the original title of Star Wars Episode VI) arrived in movie theaters in May of ’83, and I was still reeling from the awesomeness that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, released the previous summer.

But Star Wars and Raiders were just my foundations. Onto that imaginary bedrock, I piled a parade of comic book superheroes, fantasy and sci fi films and TV shows, obsessions with various monsters of the moment, and music to daydream by ranging from John Williams’ film scores to larger-than-life metal fare by Kiss, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden. Little did I know my fertile little imagination was about to hit a motherlode. 1982 would serve up a heaping helping of steaming geek-erocity that would leave a mark on me for life.

In March of ‘82, we were all torn to shreds by the arrival of Iron Maiden’s seminal metal masterpiece, Number of the Beast. Before summer was out, Ozzy Osborne would be assumed to be (so far as our parents were considered) the Devil Incarnate after biting the head off a bat during a concert in Des Moines, Iowa, then pissing on the Alamo while in San Antonio, Texas. Before the year was out, we’d all know the lyrics to “Eye of the Tiger” front to back (along with every line spoken by Mr. T in Rocky III), see the debut of some nutty Detroit dame named Madonna (a passing fad—we knew she’d never last), and get a little album by Michael Jackson called Thriller issued to us as standard household accoutrement, like a telephone or a vacuum cleaner. On the radio: seminal 80s singles like “I Love Rock n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey and “I Ran (So Far Away)” by Flock of Seagulls.

A lot of us (including my family) still didn’t have cable TV, and counted ourselves lucky if we had a friend who did. Barring that handy little switch-box, your televised entertainment choices usually consisted of three networks, one local PBS station, and one local ‘independent’ (which is where I found, and devoured, Saturday afternoon showings of Planet of the Apes, as well as endless reruns of The Lone Ranger and Daniel Boone). If you were really lucky, you might have a second independent that broadcast even weirder stuff than the first independent. In 1982, we lost The Incredible Hulk, In Search Of…, and Mork & Mindy, but we got T. J. Hooker, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Knight Rider in trade. Saturday morning cartoons—Thundarr the Barbarian, The Smurfs, Superfriends, Blackstar, The Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour—were still interspersed with School House Rock clips—and most tantalizingly, with commercials for a toy-and-comic resurgence of everybody’s favorite action figure: G. I. Joe.

That’s right, 1982 was the year of G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero. The high-octane, animated commercials were repeated ad infinitum during Saturday Morning cartoons and had roughly the same effect on little Reaganomic America boys that fresh crack flakes have on a coke fiend just out of the county clink. The comic (if you could lay hands on the damn thing—it flew off the spin-racks at the local 7-11) told manly-man tales of covert ops and counter terrorism, while the toys themselves not only provided you with bio cards for each of the characters, they also told you exactly what sort of weapon the action figure came with. Many a gun fetish in my generation was probably born of a big, bad collection of G. I. Joe figures and paraphernalia.

That was also the year that the Masters of the Universe toyline debuted. Before ever there was a vaguely-homoerotic animated incarnation of He-Man, his dopy sidekick Orko, and a very whiny, very accident-prone Skeletor, we had an action figure franchise full of otherworldly heroes and villains sporting more muscle definition than a Boris Vallejo painting and more straps, gauntlets, swords and axes than your average Ace Paperback cover by Frank Frazetta. Adding to He-Man’s mystique was the fact that—unlike G. I. Joe—the world that He-Man and company inhabited seemed far more mysterious, far less fleshed out (at least until that damn cartoon came along). Consequently, an imaginative kid left alone in his room with his Masters of the Universe figures could build just about any mythology he wanted around those muscular, mysterious mannequins.

Being a little geek-in-training, mythology was a major concern of mine at the time. Not just the toy-world mythologies of G. I. Joe comics or Masters of the Universe toys—but also historical mythologies like those of the ancient Greeks (inspired by Clash of the Titans) and Arthurian legend (inspired by Excalibur), and fictional mythologies such as those undergirding seminal fantasy like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. This childhood fascination with mythology—remote worlds populated by heroes, gods, demigods and monsters—was further enriched (and enabled) by a little tabletop game known as Dungeons & Dragons—which, in 1982, was at the height of its popularity (and infamy).

For those of you not in the know, Dungeons & Dragons was (and remains) a role-playing game wherein players act out the roles of fictional characters in the context of a quest or adventure (known as ‘campaigns’ in gamer-speak). It’s essentially make-believe, with rules; or, put another way, a kind of cooperative storytelling, where one person plays the role of narrator—the all-powerful, game-guiding Dungeon Master—while the other players adopt character roles and make important decisions at crucial moments in the narrative. If (for instance) your adventuring party comes across the gaping, ruined entrance to an underground crypt, do you delve in, or do you carry on through the forest above? If you go in, who goes first? And if the person who goes first springs a trap or finds themselves face to face with a monster, what do they do? Thus, a meandering tale unfolds, in which the Dungeon Master imparts the lay of the land, the players tell the Dungeon Master what their characters choose to do, and dice-rolls and percentile tables decide whether the actions taken are stunning successes or crushing (maybe even fatal) failures. Some people played out their adventures life-size, in real time, wearing costumes and cavorting about in various surroundings, from empty woods to unused school gymnasiums. This underground LARPing (live action role playing—a modern term but applicable here) and D&D’s alleged reality-shattering, Satan-worship-inspiring hold on America’s children and teens inspired a 1982 made-for-TV movie called Mazes & Monsters, starring the still-marginal Tom Hanks. Parental hysteria aside, most players kept things a little more grounded, eschewing the LARPing route in favor of reeling out their campaigns around kitchen or dining room tables, ingesting copious amounts of two-for-one pizza, Grape soda, and Chee-tos.

The dining room table in our house is where my big brother, Bryan, and his two best friends, Donald and Mike, did their campaigning (taking breaks between D&D for rounds of Risk, Stratego or Dark Tower). Usually, I circled the table like a buzzard in search of roadkill, annoying the shit out of them until they let me create a character and play with them. Remember that scene in E.T. where Elliot keeps bugging Mike and his friends as they play a game at the kitchen table? Yeah, that was me. That scene could’ve easily been shot in our dining room. If they relented and let me in the game, they would usually kill me quickly (I was, conveniently, often the first into strange chambers or dark crypts). With my character speared by a Bugbear or dissolved by a Black Dragon’s acid breath, I would proceed to cry like a little girl and accuse them of doing it on purpose. Sure, they probably did, and I should’ve learned to just leave them alone… but come on! What precocious, annoying little brother wouldn’t rather play D&D with big brother and his buddies instead of crashing Matchbox cars with the dopey kid down the street who smelled like beef vegetable soup? Despite my brother’s best attempts at chasing me away, though, I kept coming back, because D&D was magical. It opened the door on all the stuff I might be doing alone in my room—creating characters, sending them on adventures, telling myself stories—but the collaborative group dynamic coupled with the logic matrix provided by the percentile tables and the rolling dice seemed to elevate simple make believe to something far more concrete… for more realistic and believable. I probably learned one of the great lessons of my life as a writer (especially a writer of the fantastic) at that dining room table: for the fantastical to be believed, there must be rules, and those rules must be adhered to.

But running through my memories of 1982, binding all the other disparate elements together like cable round a furled sail, were the movies. I didn’t realize it at the time, but 1982 was an absolutely insane year for geek cinema, chock full of films that made an impact on me at the time, or later, when I was finally old enough for my mom to let me watch them (gimme a break—we didn’t have cable or a VCR).

Although released stateside in December 1981, The Road Warrior effectively kicked off 1982, a bugnuts post-apocalyptic western where tricked-out S&M hot rods replaced horses and Mel Gibson killed freakin’ everything, including crossbow-wielding dudes with mohawks and assless chaps. Along with The Road Warrior came 48 Hours (the first buddy cop movie and Eddie Murphy’s screen debut), Blade Runner (a flop upon release, now recognized as a classic), Cat People (Kinsky, Kink, and David Bowie!), Conan the Barbarian (still one of my all-time favorites, and the only grown up fantasy film until the Lord of the Rings trilogy came along), Conan’s agreeable but retarded cousins, The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer, Stephen King’s and George Romero’s awesome horror comic anthology Creepshow, Jim Henson’s decidely un-Muppety trip-fest The Dark Crystal, the seminal Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Firefox, First Blood (which introduced us to an ass-kicking PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet named John Rambo), Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D!), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (which had nothing to do with Halloween I and II but made up for it with exploding heads), Megaforce (flying freakin’ motorcycles!), Poltergeist (because even sunny suburbs can have haunted houses), Rocky III (Eye of the tiger, Rock!), The Secret of NIMH, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khaaaaaaan, Swamp Thing, Tron (if only we knew how much CGI we’d have to put up with just a couple decades hence…), John Carpenter’s completely awesome remake of The Thing, and a little movie that came and went not with a bang, but a whimper: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Yeah. Seriously. That was 1982 at the movies. I defy you to name another year when so many glorious, memorable, seminal, and just plain entertaining genre films graced multiplexes in this country. I loved every one of the movies listed above when I was a kid; I love at least a dozen of them still. Conan the Barbarian and The Thing remain two of my all-time favorites.

And this year, the movies listed above… the height of Dungeons & Dragons’ fame and infamy… the music… the toys… they’re all thirty goddamn years old. All these pieces of me, that I remember with such clarity and fondness, that seem like they were just yesterday… they’re nowhere near yesterday. They all came and went a really, really long time ago. And that just makes me feel old.

At least until I play Basil Poledouris’s brassy Conan score again. Then, I remember what is best in life… (which, if you didn’t know, is crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women. I can’t believe I had to tell you that…)

So, that’s where I was thirty years ago. That’s what 1982 meant to me. You’ve been gracious and frightfully indulgent as I took my gleeful wallow in memory’s slop trough, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now it’s your turn.

Where were you in ’82?

Short Fiction: Where’s the Love? (or, Not Even Time For A Quickie?)

Allegedly, we live in an era during which information and the platforms bearing it have metastasized. There is too much information (we are told by those who would eulogize the still-breathing written word) for traditional fiction to compete. The popularity of printed fiction is declining (we are told) and the hustle-bustle of our overcrowded lives bears the blame. One would assume, in such an age, that fiction well-suited to on-the-go consumption and quick digestion would be all the rage. After all, if we’re all in such a blasted hurry, shouldn’t people who want to read fiction be crazy about short stories, while loath to crack a 400-page novel?

The paradox is that nothing could be farther from the truth. Although writers still write short stories and dedicated readers still read them, the magazine markets for short fiction have done nothing but shrink in the last fifty years, and the likelihood of cracking the bestseller lists with a cover-to-cover collection of short fiction is similar to one’s likelihood of surviving a parachute malfunction. Grim odds, indeed. Nonetheless though minimized, marginalized, and ostracized, the short story muddles on, becoming an ever-more esoteric art practiced by an ever-more selective circle of writers.

So, in honor of the release of my absolutely free e-chapbook Right Behind You—a trio of horror and dark fantasy stories available here—as well as Beating Windward Press’s new released, A Floating World, a collection of fabulous short stories by the very talented Karen Best, I thought I’d pay tribute to the short story by offering a list of ten personal favorites. I don’t claim that these are the best stories ever written, but all of them have stuck with me through decades of reading and embody, for me, the great delight that short fiction can provide and the focused, economic artistry that the form demands.

In an effort to point you in new directions (hopefully), I’ve purposely avoided some old chestnuts. Do I really need to tell you that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ or Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ are worth your time? I didn’t think so. (And if you’ve never read any of the stories above—shame on you! Go grab them! You won’t be disappointed!) Likewise, my tastes are clearly reflected here: many of these are horror stories, or at least from the dark side of the literary street.

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to:

“The River” Flannery O’Connor (1955)

O’Connor’s short fiction is on par with Hemingway’s (Papa often being held up as one of the finest—if not the finest—American short story writer of the twentieth century). “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” are more widely known, but “The River”—concerning a neglected little boy’s tragic search for apotheosis in a watery baptism—has always held a special poignancy for me. I guess I’m just a sucker for the sins of grown-ups being played out by puzzled children with tragic results.

“The Small Assassin” Ray Bradbury (1946)

The eternal optimist who married bright nostalgia to cosmic wonder wrote this nasty little terror tale early in his career, and it hasn’t lost one iota of its power. Herein, a young mother is convinced that her newborn baby is trying to kill her. Of course, no one believes her. The kicker is: it’s absolutely true! The ambivalence of parenthood has never been more clearly expressed. (Well, maybe in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song”… but Bradbury’s story won’t drive you to brave the eternal night of your gas oven.)

“The Willows” Algernon Blackwood (1907)

Running over 20,000 words, “The Willows” is more novella than short story. Nonetheless, Blackwood—whom H. P. Lovecraft considered the finest writer of weird fiction—doesn’t waste a word, slowly, imperceptibly ramping up the tension and forboding until his tale reaches a howling crescendo of terror. More impressive still is that Blackwood makes nature itself a horrifying, unknowable menace, usually right out in the bright sunlight, surrounded by the great wide open of the Danube frontier..

“The Rats in the Walls” H. P. Lovecraft (1924)

It’s hard to pick just one Lovecraft story to love, because so many of his works are indelible, unsettling, and memorable. I chose ‘The Rats in the Walls’—the tale of a country squire moving into an old, ruined family manse under renovation and discovering a terrifying secret—because, for me, it encompasses all the halmarks of Lovecraft’s best work in a fairly small space. Modern readers might be put off by the fact that the main character has a pet cat named N****r Man, but it’s always important to remember that what’s reprehensible to us nowadays was, to a bookish, stiff-backed Anglophile of the 1920s, perfectly normal (that doesn’t make it right; it just adds perspective). That little bit of ugly and banal racism aside, ‘The Rats in the Walls’ remains one of Lovecraft’s most effective chillers.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” Ernest Hemingway (1936)

Almost as hard as choosing a single Lovecraft story to recommend is choosing a single Hemingway story. The man was a Titan of the short form, and this grim, ironic little gem may be one of his finest. ‘Francis Macomber’ has everything that makes Hemingway Hemingway: muscular prose; loaded guns and African wildlife; an untameable Great White Hunter; a cuckolded ‘civilized’ man in search of his long-lost masculinity; the manipulative, self-serving woman who moves between them; and a bitter, venomous downer of an ending. What’s not to love?

“Croatoan” Harlan Ellison (1975)

Part horror, part magical realism, this is probably one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever read. Ellison’s dank, cloacan fable concerns a woman who induces a miscarriage at home and disposes of the fetus down the toilet. She soon decides she’s made a terrible mistake and sends her lover—the father of the disposed-of child—into the sewers in search of it. Things only get weirder from there.

“The Moving Finger” Stephen King (1991)

I’m a diehard King fan. I won’t try and convince you that he’s never turned out some dreck, because he most assuredly has (The Tommyknockers, anyone?). Nonetheless, for a writer so prolific, he’s got a fairly remarkable, consistent track record. While I could list at least two dozen stories of his that I love, ‘The Moving Finger’ has always stuck with me for its weird balance of horror and banality. Herein, we don’t have a flesh-eating demon or a madness-inducing ghost or a surgeon slowly devouring himself, but a simple, elegantly icky premise that slowly but sure gets under your skin and stays there: what if you walked into your bathroom one night and saw a single finger sticking out of the sink drain? And what if it was moving…?

“Flyboys” Tobias Wolff (1997)

Tobias Wolff is a modern master of memoir and literary short fiction. While he has a number of fine stories to his name, this particular bittersweet tale (collected in The Night In Question) is a heartbreaking reminiscence by a grown-up of his early adolescence; a retroactive realization that the narrator and another friend ostracized a third companion after the death of his older brother portends doom for them all, as if misfortune ‘were catching.’ The way it captures the bland, everyday cruelties that young people are capable of is breathtaking.

“In the Hills, the Cities” Clive Barker (1984)

Imagine if two rival villages in the Balkans went to war every few generations by strapping themselves together to build five hundred foot tall human giants, where every man, woman and child is, essentially, a living, breathing, screaming cell in the warring giants’ tissues. Go ahead, just try to paint that picture. No. Never mind. Just read the story. It’s terrifying, awe-inspiring, and utterly original.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

This classic, often embraced by feminist theorists, is a study in madness and domestic gothicism worthy of Poe. It concerns a woman who has been locked away in her bedchamber by her husband to cure her alleged ‘hysteria.’ What slowly becomes evidence is that the poor woman wasn’t nuts until she was locked away like a filthy secret, and that someone else is now playing the part of missus to her condescending husband. This is one of those stories that proves, without breaking a sweat, that literature can be horrifying, and that the horrifying can be literary.

“The Beckoning Fair One” Oliver Onions (1911)

Another longish novella-length tale, and one of the finest ghost stories ever told. It concerns a depressed writer suffering a midlife crisis who thinks he’s found inspiration and in a dank old retnal house. But, no, it’s not inspiration… it’s a malevolent, disembodied consciousness that just wants to use him as a psychic battery, then drive him to an early grave. Aside from its subtle handling of paranormal manifestations and atmosphere, this is also a very well-realized character study of a middle-aged man staring down the bleak reality of his own marginal existence and unrealized dreams.

“The Last Feast of Harlequin” Thomas Ligotti (1990)

Thomas Ligotti is the modern heir to Poe and Lovecraft, a man whose bleak nihilism, cosmic vision, and Byzantine prose channel the entropy, anxieties, and gothic urban terror of modern life. In this longish piece, Ligotti channels Lovecraft, sending an anthropologist obsessed with clowns to a strange, small town in Ohio, hoping to bear witness to a whispered-of annual rite known as the Feast of Harlequin. And oh dear… don’t ya know, it’s just not gonna turn out well for the guy…

“Stones In My Passway, Hellhound On My Trail” T. Coraghassen Boyle (1985)

T. Coraghassen Boyle delights in shrugging off the fussy literary trappings of modern fiction by ranging his tales far and wide in space and time, having no compunctions whatsoever about giving his characters bizarre Dickensian names, and often, using real historical figures to explore universal themes of thwarted ambition, lost love, ill fate, and existential dread. In this tightly-modulated kaleidescopic short, he uses legendary blues singer Robert Johnson—the man who supposedly went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil—to examine all his halmark obsessions and illustrate just how useless other-worldy talent is against the murderous intentions of a jilted lover.

So, that’s it. A few tales that have stuck with me through thick and thin; that continue to embody, for me, what great short fiction can and should aspire to. Now, it’s your turn: I invite you, dear readers, to use the comments section below to share some of your favorite short stories or story collections, so we can spread the love and rediscover the value of a quality quickie.

And if you can’t think of any favorites—well, then, it’s time to dive back into the short story pool and paddle about a bit, isn’t it?