Monday, October 20, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies

When I was a teenager, I read my fill of H.P. Lovecraft, the man responsible for the Cthulhu Mythos and the current dust-up about the World Fantasy Award statue. Widely considered unfilmable for literally decades, we’ve only recently begun to see his weird and uniquely bleak visions translated into cinematic fever dreams.

To be completely fair, Lovecraftian cinema has been in effect since the 1960’s; it’s just not been done very well. Compromises were made in nearly every movie bearing Lovecraft’s name, some of them so egregious that it makes one wonder why they even bothered in the first place.

I think the best movies that encapsulate Lovcraft’s themes, tropes, and ideas tend to be the original movies made with a Lovecraftian sensibility; this notion that the more you know about the things just outside our consciousness, the more insane it makes you. This is an effective horror motif, and done correctly, like many of the movies below, it’s some of the most effective scares in book or movie form.

I would be remiss if I didn’t name-check True Detective here as something you should check out if you’re interested in seeing the idea of unspeakable and unutterable horror translated straight across into a police procedural. The book of blasphemous lore becomes a VHS cassette, rendered no less horrifying, and forever changing those who watch it. If you like the non-tentacled portions of Lovecraft’s work best of all, then you need to watch the series.

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
What starts out as a kind of Fortean occurrence in the woods turns into an epistolary correspondence between a scientist and a folklorist and ends with a fateful meeting, face-to-face—and much more—in this lovingly created adaptation of the Lovecraft story of the same name by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Filmed in an intentional 1940’s style, this will delight film fans as well as Lovecraftophiles for its earnest treatment of the source material.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way, I need to tell you this just barely squeaked into the Top Five list. It’s very well done, overall...until it leaves the rails. The ending was created because as strong as the story is, it would make a terrible final scene for a film. This was very smart on the part of the HPLSH, who put a lot of love and care into this film, but in doing so, they drifted away from the source material in a way that dilutes the effect Lovecraft was shooting for. Better movie, weaker adaptation. A classic catch-22. To be fair, Lovecraft’s ending IS in the movie; it’s just not the movie’s ending.

The hardest thing to work around in movies dealing with this stuff is that urge to see the monster at the end of the movie. Their solution was novel, and very much in the period style, but the ending itself is more Robert E. Howard than H.P. Lovecraft. Still, right up until then, this is a great example of how you can, in fact, get Lovecraft on the big screen effectively, and without changing too much of the source material.

Yellowbrickroad (2010)
In the 1940s, a whole town in New Hampshire got up, walked into the wilderness, and was never heard from again. Now, it’s the modern age, and a group of people are in the deserted town, trying to find out what happened to the town’s population. What starts out as an investigation into the cover-up of the town turns into a story of survival, and ultimately, chilling horror.

I have to admit, I didn’t like this movie the first time I saw it. But it stuck with me, and I watched it again some months later and was blown away. Yellowbrickroad gives a new definition to the meaning “slow burn,” as you are surely and intentionally numbed by the sameness of what the people are doing for long stretches of time. When all hell breaks loose, however, you won’t see it coming, and worse, you’ll be glad it’s happening because at least SOMEthing is happening, and that’s when you become complicit in the horror movie and yeah, by then, I’d creeped myownself out. If you have a short attention span, give this one a pass. But if you’re in the mood to think about your horror and you’re okay with never quite knowing the what and the wherefor behind it all, then Yellowbrickroad has your number.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
An investigator tracking down a popular author who goes missing finds more than he bargains for. The author’s fictional town suddenly seems all too real, and clues lead the investigator into a shocking realization about fiction and reality and I really wish I could tell you more than that, but if you haven’t seen it, you won’t want me to give anything else away. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of meat on the bones here to give you lots to think about.

Tom Baker once called Sam Neill one of the most boring actors alive, but I’m pretty sure he hadn’t seen In the Mouth of Madness at the time he said it. The movie is rife with asides, references, and horror Easter eggs, but Neill ignores all of that in the pursuit of the truth, which, as an insurance investigator, must always make sense. The more it doesn’t make sense, the worse off he gets. It’s a good performance from Neill, who was coming off of Jurassic Park at the time. Maybe he hit his stride. Carpenter certainly did, as director of the film. This is the last good horror movie he made.

From Beyond (1986)
Poor Crawford Tillinghast. He’s accused of killing his mentor, Edward Pretorious, in a gruesome fashion. Only, it wasn’t him, you see? It was these creatures that they summoned up from the ether with their resonator, see? Only, you can’t see them because they exist outside of our consciousness...hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s send the hot psychologist over to investigate these claims and put her in the house with the machine. What could possibly go wrong? Heh. Everything.

The second outing from Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon (the follow-up to their cult classic, Re-Animator), again we find a young Jeffrey Combs in the movie along with Barbara Crampton battling grossness and goo with terribly un-subtle sexual overtones. As much as this film flies in the face of a lot of Lovecraftian ideas (particularly the sex stuff), I think it’s a much more successful film than Re-Animator and also I think it’s a scarier movie. The idea that there are things living all around you, outside of your vibrational range, is pretty unnerving, and this movie gets it across well. Crampton herself provides the final freak-out image that elevates this above the usual fare.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
The last member of a forgotten order of monks known as The Brotherhood of Sleep has died, and his death opens up a church investigation that brings local theoretical physicists into a lonely and forgotten church to study...something. Soon thereafter, the dreams start, and reality begins to distort, and oh yes, the creepy homeless people led by Alice Cooper (no, really) gather around the church entrance. After that, it gets very, very strange.

I’ll never forget the movie review I read for this movie back in 1987 that described the plot line as “a group of scientists all stand around and try to disprove the existence of Satan-in-a-Can.” Satan in a can? Talk about a guy who missed the point completely. I never read another of that schmuck’s reviews, after that.

What John Carpenter did extremely well in this movie was delineate the alien vastness of evil. Granted, it’s trading heavily on Biblical history for its scares, rather than tentacled monsters from the abyss, but one of the scariest, most troublesome things is the “dreams” which are actually transmissions back through time. It’s a concept that the people in the movie don’t seem to grasp, not until the very end, of course. But boy, it’s disturbing in the extreme. A layered and complex movie that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.

Bonus! Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Five college kids all pile into a van for a weekend getaway at a Cabin in the Woods and end up driving into a night full of terror and madness and...oh, you know how this goes. It’s been done to death, right? I mean, even the previews made this seem like another cookie-cutter movie about the same old, same old...right? Right.

I’m not sure if this is even scary to a dyed-in-the-wool horror movie fan, but it is absolutely required viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of the genre. If you haven’t seen it yet, then stop right here, because SPOILERS ABOUND (and what’s the statute of limitations on that, anyway? One year? Two? It’s not short enough, I’ll tell you that for sure).

The very idea that Cabin in the Woods is both a post-modern meta-movie that not only explains the reason for every extant slasher film cliché, but that also posits a world wherein we are just barely keeping insanely huge cosmic forces at bay through the efforts of government employees doing what amounts to a sanitation job, is one of the darkest, most brilliantly conceived and executed ideas in modern horror films. If you can find a more dark, more cynical movie than this, I would welcome the discussion. That we have, in the film, moved well past the point of soul-sucking horror for the situation to the “it’s just a job, ma’am,” is all the more telling, and intentionally so, at that.

For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Saturday, October 18, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House movies

Is there anything more cliché’? More hoary and hackneyed? More played out? The Haunted House “trope” has been beaten to death, thanks to Scooby Doo, ABC After School Specials, and a ton of pop cultural appropriations. Along with the ghosts who frequently accompany them, no other supernatural occurrence has been so abused and ridiculed as the Haunted House.

And yet, some of the best horror movies ever made are haunted house movies. Some of the most terrifying films of all are about something being left behind, or being “not quite right” about the cornerstone of our notions of safety and security. Houses—our homes—are our defense against the forces of darkness that stop at our threshold. When our own walls revolt and offer us no protection, what hope do we have? That’s where the best haunted house movies get us: right where we live.

I’ve only got one criteria for haunted house movies: am I scared? Okay, I have two criteria: is the story around which the haunt revolves believable? That drift into incredulity has sunk many a promising horror movie, and all the jump scares in the world won’t save a movie where we get to the end and I yell out, “THAT was the reason?” or “They were WHAT?” or just “How STUPID!” Good stories and tight scripts make better horror movies than big budget messes.

5. The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott takes center stage as an author (it’s always authors, isn’t it?) who buys a house, only to discover some freakiness inside. He starts to investigate and as he gets more and more of the story, he gets drawn further and further into the mystery. And what’s with the banging sound on the pipes, anyway?

A quietly effective horror movie, The Changeling leans heavily on Scott to react to not very much and thankfully, he carries it off. The mystery is a good one, and the reveal is not only creepy, but sad as well. In many ways, it’s the classic ghost story, made bigger and more scary.

4. Paranormal Activity (2009)
A new couple, a guy who can’t stop filming his life (and his wife) because we are in the age of selfie-narcissists, and a couple of questionable artifacts found in their modern home; what could possibly go wrong?  Another “found footage” movie that enjoyed a brief renaissance for about eighteen months, this little quickie horror film has spun off into a legitimate franchise with three movies released and a fourth on the way.

Taking a couple of pages from the video vérité movement of the 1990s that started with The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity manages to do a lot with very little.  The rumored budget for this minor epic was a mere $15,000. I mean, it’s web cams and surveillance video, how expensive can it be? This is one of the few times when the lack of professional equipment actually helps the production, as we can’t always get a clear picture of what’s going on and that adds to the Bump-in-the-Night factor. You may not like the other movies in the series, but the first one is certainly worth a look.

3. The Haunting (1963)
Hill House, having claimed the lives of several women, is now playing host to a parapsychologist and his charges as they investigate these claims of supernatural activity. One of the women, Elenor, is freaking out almost from the get-go. She’s obviously disturbed by the death of her mother, and less-obviously unsettled by the paranormal activity no one else can confirm. Is it all in her head, or is she being targeted by the spirits in Hill House?

If you are one of those people who think black and white movies aren’t scary, then I challenge you to watch this one and then go right to sleep. Based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the film sort of finds its own way with a fearless cast, unafraid to embrace the material and milk it for all it’s worth. The movie teeters on the edge of melodrama, but skillful editing and some great camera work manage to allay some of the soap opera hysterics and allow the viewer to decide for themselves what’s really going on. Genius.

2. Poltergeist (1982)
Children today don’t know what it was like when television officially ended until the next day. That sudden burst of static, along with the weird digital “snow,” was a strange kind of phenomenon. It was usually your cue to go to bed, but how could you possibly be expected to sleep after watching the midnight movie? Certainly not little Carol Anne, who hears something inside of that particular frequency that the other members of her family can’t hear, what with the family dog going nuts and barking at mid-air. The family descends upon the ruckus to find their little girl sitting in front of the television. “They’re HEEeere,” she announces. Everything after that is a delicious mix of slice-of-life suburbia meets sheer terror.

Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced, co-written (and, depending on who you talk to, co-directed) by Steven Spielberg, this film continues to be disturbing and horrifying. There’s certainly an air of prognostication to the plot (corporate greed is the root of all evil) that makes the movie more contemporary than other horror movies made around the same time. The shots of the neighborhood, the kids and certainly the tone of the early parts of the movie feel exactly like the neighborhoods in E.T. and The Goonies and other fixtures of the Spielberg landscape. That’s partially what makes the horror so effective. When the supernatural shenanigans start stacking up and Carol Anne goes missing, the rest is all chaos and madness and I’m quite certain that the takeaway from the movie is that nothing matters in the end, least of all the things that own us.

1. The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson needs his peace and quiet so he can write; we’re told this at the beginning of The Shining, and we don’t think much about it after that. Mostly because there’s too much going on with the rest of the family as they adjust to Jack’s new job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Between the hedge maze, the boy’s talking finger, Shelly Duvall’s constant look of google-eyed fear, and oh yeah, those creepy twin girls, it’s no wonder Jack has to take up the axe and run through the hotel bellowing.

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, made all the more creepy by the casting choices and now the conspiracy theory that surrounds Kubrick and the movie. The Shining bears only a glancing resemblance to the excellent book by Stephen King, but this is one of the few times when people don’t complain about it. The horror and tension is a slow burn until the final thirty minutes when all hell breaks loose. There are creeps and jumps for just about every phobia and even a couple of new ones. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing one of Kubrick’s best movies and a milestone of 80’s horror.

For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find last October's offerings here.

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Journey into Boyhood

I thought I'd covered this already in my various social media channels, but the question keeps coming up, and so I thought I'd drop a few lines here to answer some of the incredulous and excited queries flying my way.

Yes, that's me in Boyhood. Eleven seconds of a major-indy-Hollywood-Third Coast-Richard Linklater movie, and I've even got a speaking part. I won't give it away if you haven't seen it, because you'll be profoundly disappointed if I tell you about it beforehand. Instead, I'll tell you a little of what I remember of that night, some eight years ago.

The year was 2005 and I was one of the floor managers at BookPeople, in Austin, Texas (the largest independent book store in Texas). The store is very well thought of, and at the time, we were positioned right in the heart of the Keep Austin Weird movement. We were known for throwing very large, very hard-to-beat Harry Potter parties. This was the sixth book coming out. The last party was huge, and so the pressure was on to top ourselves. Six months of planning. We were making ourselves cheerfully crazy.

With maybe two weeks to spare, the marketing people popped into one of the strategy meetings and told us that Richard Linklater was filming some sort of documentary film wherein he is following four kids around for twelve years, chronicling their growth. Well, those kids wanted to come to OUR Midnight Book Release party, and so, can they come film our shenanigans? Like any good retailer, we said "Yes" first, and then thought, "Lord, what have we signed ourselves up for?"

My job in the midst of all this chaos was Ringmaster, which was a very polite term for "crowd control." My job was to keep the masses happy; make sure they were up-to-date on the lastest information, introduce each new act on our "main stage," remind others about the booths and carnival refreshments to be had at our home-made "Diagon Alley," and whenever necessary, fill the dead time with banter and snappy patter. In other words, my usual gig.

A small picture to give you a hint of the size
of this particular endeavor. Yeah, that's the
maze there in the lower left hand corner.
Harry Potter's birthday dawned (when the books were released each year), and we were all amped up beyond belief. Imagine five thousand people in a parking lot, many of whom will have been there since 8 a.m. waiting for the Midnight release. We had carnival booths, fire dancers, a magician, and the Alamo Draft House's Rolling Road Show set up showing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There was even a maze made out of haybales. Sorting hats. Coloring stations. My God, it was an enormous undertaking. Most of the staff was in costume. The books were in the building, but we couldn't open the boxes. Oh, and did I mention this was in the middle of July? That might be lovely weather in Merry Olde England, but in Texas, during the Summer, it's profoundly miserable.

There's one other pertinent fact I left out: a week prior, I had dislocated the middle tendon in my right hand. It required minor surgery to repair, and while it was technically no big deal--a very simple operation--I had never been under before. Never had a broken bone, or anything like that. Oh, I had my tonsils out when I was four or five, but I really don't remember any of it. So it was a little nerve-wracking, and it left me with a throbbing hand, wrapped up just like a lobster claw, and a prescription for Vicodin for the pain.

Have you ever had Vicodin? Man, that's good stuff! I wake up in the morning, my hand is throbbing and aching. I eat breakfast, take a pill, and then suddenly, I don't care about my hand anymore. It's like the volume got turned down on the whole world. Lovely drug, simply lovely. However, it turned my brain into chunky pea soup. I knew I couldn't take the pill during the party, or I'd screw it up. I had to read cue cards, answer questions, think on my feet--no, it wouldn't do. So I took a vicodin at lunch and decided to go long.

Linklater at the BookPeople Harry Potter Party.
Now, it's hours later, and the party is in full swing, and it's crowded and hot and miserable. There's a steady stream of people going to the bathroom like carpenter ants. The kids and parents are gathered around the main stage, watching the goings-on, and the whole staff is jumping through hoops. I'm making my announcements, and I'm even getting some laughs with the bit. "Attention, everyone, would whoever parked their hippogriff in the parking garage please tend to your animal. It's broken loose, and guarding an SUV right now." I had another joke about a mix-up at the broom closet. You get the idea.

Suddenly, there's cameras. And people with clipboards. And Richard Linklater. And I'm being flagged down by one of the production assistants. Now, I'm acting as a liaison to the film crew--the P.A. to the P.A. I don't remember much of what I had to do for them because they were there when things were in full-swing, and by this time, the Vicodin had long worn off and my lobster claw was throbbing like a doghouse bass.

At one point, I was making announcements and remembered distinctly that a camera was being pointed at me, so I did my best to be clever and articulate. Of course, I assumed it a camera from one of the news trucks that was covering our party. The P.A. was back, now, and they had a question for me: would it be all right if the four kids got their books first? You know, at Midnight?

My first thought was to protect the integrity of the line that had been waiting for eighteen hours, but I knew better than to try it. There was a quick conference, and sure enough, they got the clearance. By this time, I'd seen Linklater a couple of times. He and his people were running around, guerrilla-style, shooting whatever they could. It looked like fun, save for the God-awful heat.

At last, Midnight came, and I counted the crowd down and we all cheered. The band resumed, and the movie kept playing, but make no mistake, the star of the evening was that big-ass hardcover book. Well, that and the four kids being filmed. They got a shot of the kids walking up and getting their book, and then, amazingly, Linklater asked, "Can we get another one?"

Patricia Arquette reads to the kids from Harry Potter in the
movie Boyhood. Not pictured: me, off-camera, rubbing her
feet, because that never happened, no matter how many
notes you send, and singing telegrams...
"Some documentary film," I thought to myself, but sure, what the heck. The people in line were amazingly understanding that they had to wait two whole extra minutes to get their books, but they did it. The line started moving, and within ten minutes, we'd gone through all of the event books, and the crowd magically bled off. It was surreal; there were kids on the ground, twelve-fifteen at night, reading the book by flashlight. The staff was completely spent. We were all numb and kinda shell-shocked. But of course, the whole thing was a complete success. There's a ton of pictures on Flickr if you want to go check them out.

I walked up to Linklater, who was wrapping things up, and asked him if he got what he needed. We chatted very briefly, and I wished him luck with the rest of the shoot. Then I went inside and popped a Vicodin and drank a liter of water.

And that was it. I didn't give it another thought until late last year, when I got a call from someone in Richard Linklater's office, telling me that the 12 year project was finished and I'd made the cut of the movie.

I did what, now?

My mind raced back to the party, and I gave them my information, as well as how I'd like to be listed in the credits, and they sent me a check, and a S.A.G. membership application, and the next thing you know, I'm in the movie. It was really that easy. And it wasn't a documentary, after all. Whoops!

If you live in Austin, it's not THAT hard to end up in a movie. I'm surprised more of my friends aren't in them. At BookPeople, we were regularly inundated with actors and rock stars coming in to buy books. No, seriously. I helped Ted Dansen pick out mysteries for his plane ride, gave Kevin Spacey directions to the bathroom, told Carla Gugino that there were no American editions of Elmore Leonard's book Out of Sight, and had several conversations with Luke Perry. Sandra Bullock. Matthew McConaughey. That shouldn't surprise anyone, really. Austin has always been a town for Starfu--well, let's just say, if you want to cozy up to someone famous, you can do it.

They don't even have to be famous; just notorious. I spent my first Thanksgiving in Austin with a friend of mine who's father happens to be local character actor David Blackwell. All through dinner and afterward, he called me "young lad." Fun stuff. One of my co-workers actually ended up in the movie Grindhouse. She even had a speaking part. It was crazy. It's all "right place, right time" kind of stuff; it's just that, in Austin, there's a lot more right places and a lot more right times than most other cities.

I did get to attend the premiere in Austin earlier this year and I really liked the movie. I like the vast majority of Linklater's films anyway, and so this was no exception. I also met my co-star Ethan Hawke years ago at a BookPeople signing. See? Easy peasy. Starfu--I mean, ripe with opportunities.

Boyhood is still playing in art houses across the country. It's a good movie, very interesting to watch, and if you're diligent, you can spot me (oh, who am I kidding? You can't MISS me) in the movie. Please, no autographs. For all other requests, see my agent.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Beginner's Guide for Reading Mark Finn

The Author, trying hard to look spooky and mysterious.
You may have noticed this year that I've had a few books re-issued, published, and reprinted. So far, there's five new books out there and three more on the way. You may be thinking to yourself, "But Mark, you've written so many books, I can't keep up! I might as well just go outside and play with my dog."

Don't pick up that leash yet, Sparky. Sure, modern living forces you into doing these you don't want to do, like Jury Duty, or math. I get it. So, for those of you who want to support your old buddy/school chum/lover/cellmate/personal trainer Mark Finn, but you don't have time to read brief descriptions to gauge your interest levels, here's a quick and easy guide to help you select the book that's right for you. Just click on the links below and you will be whisked to where you can make a fast, painless transaction. And if you still can't decide, you can always buy two books. I promise, I won't tell.

"I don't like all that sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Except for True Blood. And Game of Thrones. Oh! And Twilight. And of course, the Harry Potter books. And American Horror Story. But other than that, I'm not really into that weird stuff."

Newsflash: Yes, you are. And you'll love Year of the Hare. Sam Bowen is one of my most popular characters and he's a normal guy who learned magic to try and reverse a family curse that's been placed upon him. This is the first of two books that will collect all of his stories together from the Clockwork Storybook shared world of San Cibola. Click here for a preview!

"I like fantasy and sci-fi, but I'm not real familiar with it. I'm new to all of this. Also, I like romance and love stories."

If this is you, then you want to pick up Empty Hearts, my collection of short stories that all deal with love, loss, and desire in a modern-day city where magic is an everyday occurrence. These stories take place in San Cibola, as well, and are a kinder, gentler introduction to that world. Well, mostly... Expect some ghosts and some monsters mixed in with the romance and intrigue. Click here for a sample!

"I love modern fantasy, and I also think Quentin Tarantino is a hoot! And if you've got something with Elvis in it, well, that would be a personal hat trick aimed right at me!"

Say no more, Bwana! Road Trip is just what you need. Brash, violent, over the top, and best of all, it's chock-full of profanity and adult situations, just like an R-rated movie! Elvis and Cupid are on a Road Trip to South Padre Island to find Cupid's mother, Venus, who is hiding out amongst the mortals. Really, that's all you need to know. Anything else will spoil the story. Click here for a sample!

"I'm really into this geek-stuff. I love it. I have strong opinions about all sorts of things that are, in fact, completely outside of my control, like every casting decision made in Hollywood. Got anything for me, Smarty Pants?"

You betcha! The Transformation of Lawrence Croft is tailor-made for you. Follow four super geeks as they make their way to MagicCon, a three-day comic and sci-fi convention in San Cibola. What could possibly go wrong, right? Plenty, is what. It's a romp through geek culture at the intersection of magic and make-believe. And it's also the first part of a trilogy of stories starring the four Con-Dorks. Click here for an excerpt!

"Well, I don't know about any of that. But I am curious about this mysterious story you just sold to Vertigo. What's that all about? Can we get a hint?"

I can't really give you a hint, since the book hasn't been announced or solicited yet. However, if you want to read something that's 100% in the wheelhouse of what I wrote, let me show you The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey. This is a collection of historical weird humorous boxing stories written about real-life Golden Age boxer Tom Sharkey. These stories are very much in the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Sailor Steve Costigan stories, so if you like those, you'll probably like these, as well. Click here for a sneak peek!

"Robert E. Howard? Now you're talking. Aren't you supposed to be some kind of Robert E. Howard expert or something like that?"

Yeah, something like that. Here's the biography of Robert E. Howard that I wrote. It's called Blood & Thunder: the Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. If you like biographies of literary people mixed with Texas history, then you'll enjoy this book. It's probably what I'm best known for, and a number of people have read it who were not fans of Howard or his writings who said they enjoyed it a great deal. It moves fast, and has a lot of information packed into it. The book was nominated for several awards when it came out. This is the updated and expanded second edition. Click here for a sample!

"Yeah, so, none of that's really working for me. Anything else you want to show me, Mister Writer Guy? Or can I go play with my dog, now?"

Boy, you're a tough nut to crack. Why don't you just head on over to my Amazon Author Page and browse the other things I've got listed there? I've got stories and essays and introductions in several books, and there's even a couple of comics for you to purchase if you want to go that route. For example, in The Apes of Wrath, I wrote an essay about the guys who play gorillas in the movies. It's a fun romp through that specialized world. And the rest of the book is really good, too! Fun Fact: Many of my books are also available as ebooks.

Granted, this isn't everything. I've got some projects in development, some stories which are scheduled to appear in books coming out later, and some novels in various stages of completion. If you'd like to keep up with me and you're not bored with Facebook, I've got an Author's Page you can follow. Optionally, you can find me over at Good Reads, where I am trying to be more active.  I'll keep on writing, if you keep on reading.

Monday, August 11, 2014

O Captain, My Captain: Robin Williams (1951-2014)

I watched this show religiously for Mork's antics.
Bonus: I had a thing for Pam Dawber, too.
If you were in grade school in the late seventies/early eighties and your name was Mark, and if you happened to be the class clown, then you were "Mork" until middle school.

Robin Williams was my first comedian. "Mine" in the sense that I took ownership of him. Sure, I listened to my mother's comedy albums (Kids: Google "album"): Lily Tomlin, Flip Wilson, and especially Bill Cosby. Great stuff, all, and very funny. But Robin Williams was the comedian that I discovered myself, first on Happy Days and then in Mork & Mindy. My god, he was funny. I don't know if the act holds up, but at the time, there was nothing like him to be found anywhere else.

Because of Williams' performance as Mork (and mostly any other comedy role he ever took) I learned about improvisation, the art of the ad-lib, and best of all, he re-introduced the world to Jonathan Winters.

I was fascinated by him. That stream of consciousness babble of ideas, each one spilling out on top of one another... Of course, later, I found out that was the cocaine talking, but even when he quit doing blow, he was whip smart, and his observations were sharp and funny.

Over the years, his vast movie career has been a series of ups and downs. Lord knows, I haven't liked everything he ever did (Kids: Google "Hook"), but it's only because when he was on, he was brilliant. It made the lame projects stand out in sharp relief.

Some of the movie is very good. Loved the boxing scene.
I kind of want to talk about Popeye right now. I know not everyone liked it, and it lacks, well, a lot in terms of what people were expecting to see. But as far as recreating Thimble Theater (E.C. Segar's strip in which Popeye appeared) goes, it was pretty good. For recreating the Famous Studios cartoons where Bluto is always grabbing Olive and saying, "Hey Doll, Howzabout a Kiss?" the movie was a flop. However, when I'm in the right mood, I love the movie. The art direction is brilliant, the characterizations are fantastic, and to my chagrin, I even like the songs. Mind you, if you ever ask me my favorite comic book movies, it will never be on the list. When I watch it, it's because I'm feeling nostalgic for the early 1980s.

So much of how I approached being funny was tied up in trying to figure out what made Robin Williams tick. Dropping instantly in and out of character and being able to sell a bit onstage are about as far as I got. No one put stuff together like him. His timing, along with his ability to economically cut out everything that didn't look like the joke, was his singular gift.

I was there for all of it. His HBO specials, his early critical acclaim, his later critical acclaim, his transition to elder statesman, all of it. I hated it when I didn't like a movie he was in, or the film was bad, or whatever. I wanted to like everything he did. And looking over his incredible resume, I liked way more than I didn't like, and you can't ever say that a .500 batting average is a bad thing.

Mime Jerry, from the Cult Classic Shakes the Clown.
These smaller, art house movies he did with Bobcat
Goldthwait and others are among my favorite things he
ever did. You must watch World's Greatest Dad.
In the back of our minds, I think we all knew there was something wrong; he was laughing to keep from crying. We could certainly see it in his sobering film roles, or the occasional interview where he's not climbing over the furniture. That razor sharp observational humor cut both ways, and sometimes, you'd see it nick a wrist. I've seen a lot of references to the old joke with the punchline, "But Doctor, I AM Pagliacci," and I think that's apt, and sadly, very prescient for a lot of performers, writers, and actors. Some people need the energy to thrive, and some need the energy to just keep their heads up.

I don't know about all of that, really; it's pure conjecture, and I don't know that we'll ever really know the whole story. I don't know if I want to. In the last few years, I had noticed when he had a heart attack, got divorced, and then very recently, went back to rehab. Those things were happening a little too close together, and I was actually saddened and concerned. Then this. It feels like someone just slammed the door on my childhood. I never met the man, but he's a part of my humorous DNA.

I hate that he felt he was out of options. I don't know if anyone knew how much pain he was in. All the laughter--the belly-aching, side-splitting, howling and crying laughter, and all of the cathartic tears and genuine anger, rage, and sadness, he brought out in everyone over the years, and it still wasn't enough.


Go listen to Marc Maron's very poignant eulogy and rebroadcast of his interview with Robin Williams on his WTF podcast. He really nailed down a lot of things for me, and if you're struggling to cope with this, his words may help you, too.