Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

The strange case of Hemlock Grove

A few weeks ago, I started watching the Netflix supernatural series Hemlock Grove on a whim. Somehow I managed to get through all 13 episodes of the first season. Still, I’m not sure if the show is a brilliant mess or a well-meaning failure.

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Hemlock Grove, based on a book by Peter McGreevy (who also created the show), is a riff on the vampire and werewolf takes we all know by heart. It’s set in a fictional Pennsylvania town that is typically mid-America in all ways (with a touch of Twin Peaks), except for the monsters that roam its streets and woods.

The action begins, harshly, as a girl is brutally attacked and disembowled on her way to rendezvous with her high-school teacher. From there we meet the locals. There’s the powerful Godfrey family, headed by matriarch Olivia (played by X-Men’s Famke Janssen), and her teenage children: brooding, spoiled Roman (Bill Skarsgard), and the awkwardly disfigured Shelley. And we also meet the Rumanceks: Lynda (Lili Taylor) and her teenage son Peter (Landon Liboiron). And then there’s Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), his teenage daughter Leetha and his wife (no name; she doesn’t matter). Norman is Olivia’s brother in law, and Roman and Shelley’s uncle.

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So that’s the basic setup of Hemlock Grove. Simple enough, except that none of it really makes sense. Everything about the show — from the acting to the writing to the basic plotting — seems off. I could write several blog posts about the strangeness of this show, but here are just a few examples.

–The locals quickly tag Peter as a werewolf because of his “excessive body hair.” The actor who plays Peter, however, has not that much body hair at all. But he really is a werewolf after all (!)

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–The wildly over-the-top Olivia Godfrey is supposed to be English, but her accent slips and slides all over the place. And Roman’s accent as well is bizarre (it turns out the actor is Swedish)

–Dougray Scott must be pissed off at having to play on this show. He mopes through every scene, as if all he’s thinking of is cashing the next paycheck. At least Famke Janssen gets the joke; she camps it up in every scene she’s in

–There’s some seriously strong gay subtext in the friendship between Peter and Roman. It is not at all subtle, though it doesn’t do much in terms of developing their characters. It’s basically pointless

Peter Roman

–The high schoolers are written way more adult. Roman, for example, zips around in his classic sportscar as he hires hookers, chain smokes, and drinks in bars. And school seems optional

It took me a while to figure out what the hell was up with Hemlock Grove. It’s weird and surreal. It’s badly written and unevenly acted. But I couldn’t stop watching. Then it clicked. It’s produced by Eli Roth, the man behind Hostel. I remember watching Cabin Fever, directed by Roth, years ago. Cabin Fever was a grade B horror flick, nothing groundbreaking about it. But it was so damned weird. And Hostel likewise was just plain bizarre. Apparently Eli Roth has developed his own freaky genre.

Hemlock Grove did manage to wrap up its main story lines by episode 13 in a mostly satisfying way. And it was definitely entertaining as I felt whiplashed between the weirdness and the awfulness.

So would I recommend watching Hemlock Grove? My advice would be to proceed with caution.

Read this book: Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis’s alt history/sci-fi mashup scores big on imagination, even if many of his characters are flat.

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Aside from the supernatural/horror/sci-fi, another thing I’m a fan of in pop culture is alternative histories. The “what if” has always fascinated me, mainly because it lets the imagination run away.

In his book Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis combines not only sci-fi, but also horror, with alternative history. Add nazis, arguably one of the best villain groups of all time, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.

bitter seeds 3The plot: in Germany, a mad scientist is creating his own band of supermen, soldiers capable of such things as turning invisible, starting fire, and predicting the future. As war looms between Germany and the rest of Europe, the British government forms a group called Milkweed to investigate these reports. Soon a covert battle ensues as the British group use warlocks to summon dark forces to battle the nazis.

It’s actually a complicated plot to explain in a few tight sentences. Our hero is Raybould Marsh, a pugnacious British secret agent who is sent to investigate the reports of these supermen. Soon he summons his college friend Will, a warlock initiated in a blood rite that allows him to communicate with beings called Eidolons. When you think of Eidolons, think Lovecraft. These mysterious beings are not kindly or benevolent. They see humans as no better than ants. They would gladly destroy us but they exist in a different plane, and can never pin us down. Blood helps them get closer. Tregillis doesn’t fully explain what the Eidolons are, but he doesn’t need to. My imagination filled the gaps just fine.

Meanwhile, the German team of superheroes is on the verge of falling apart. They were Bitter-Seeds 2created when they were just children, bought by a scientist who experimented on them (horribly, one would assume, judging from the body count) until he had his team in place. They wear batteries that are hooked to wires embedded in their skulls, which allows them to access their superpowers. This is one of Tregillis’s strengths — he employs, simple, believable technology suited for the era. Think steampunk circa 1930s.

The German story centers on two characters: Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through walls, and his sister Gretel, an enigmatic sociopath who knows the future (though she rarely reveals it). Gretel is perhaps the most compelling character. Why? She is always a mystery, always unpredictable, and always uncontrolled. She’s fascinating to watch.

The breakdown. What was good about Bitter Seeds?

–The concept was fun. Who doesn’t love watching nazis get beat?

–As mentioned above. Gretel was by far my favorite character, though Will, the aristocratic warlock, was a close second. Tregillis convincingly drew a man who grew more and more tortured, especially as the Eidolons demanded higher blood prices as the battle continued.

–The Eidolons themselves were a fantastic creation. Thoroughly dangerous, extremely powerful, callously indifferent. I want more.

–Tregillis is a skilled writer. As a writer myself, I’m always appreciative of someone who takes great care in the writing of a story.

And the not so good:

Bitter Seeds suffers from something I see a lot in fiction. I call it the running in circles plot. Maybe the writer isn’t sure what to do next. Maybe the writer needs to up his page count. But sometimes a story starts running in circles, where the characters are going back and forth (sometimes literally) and not really getting anywhere. Not much plot movement, maybe a little character development. There were several times when I could feel the story lapsing into this.

–Aside from Gretel and Will, I cared little about any of the other characters. Our hero, Marsh, was fine, but he never made the leap off the page for me. Similarly, Klaus was very one note. His whole role was to protect his sister Gretel, and that’s all he did. The Germans, especially, were largely forgettable.

Nevertheless, Bitter Seeds (which is book one in a trilogy) is inventive, imaginative and thrilling. I’m looking forward to discovering where Tregillis will take us next.

Secrets of the Ouija board

Are Ouija boards dangerous? A comprehensive article traces its history, and the answers aren’t quite conclusive.

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A Ouija board is a game that allows users to attempt to contact the spirit world. The board consists of letters and numbers. The player asks a question, and using a pointer, the spirit world will supposedly guide the pointer to letters that spell out an answer. Simple enough, right? Not really.

AlwaysMine_finalOuija boards have a bad reputation. Many consider them a gateway to evil. If this latest news report is to be believed, three young Americans in Mexico fell into convulsions after using a Ouija board (the local priest refused to perform an exorcism because none were parishioners). I used a Ouija board as an element in my horror story Always Mine, and from reader response, it struck a nerve.

But what’s the truth behind this game?

This long Smithsonian article breaks down the history of the Ouija board. It turns out that Ouija boards are a uniquely American creation. In the mid 1800s, a wave of spiritualism swept the US. People believed they could contact the spirit world, which would deliver messages. This belief dovetailed neatly with organized religion, which more or less sanctioned this practice.

Then, in the late 1800s, a canny investor caught wind of a “talking board” and formed a company to manufacture these boards.

Among the interesting facts about the Ouija board:

–The name Ouija supposedly came from the board itself.

–The US patent office approved its patent after the board revealed the patent official’s first name (proof that it worked).

–It quickly became a best-seller, marketed as both a way to contact spirits, predict the future, and as wholesome family fun. Even Norman Rockwell got into the act.

ouija

But there was a dark side to it as well:

–One company head died after falling from a factory building, which he built based on advice from the Ouija board.

–In 1930, two women killed another based on the advice from a Ouija board.

And a quirky side:

–Writers have claimed that their works were written via Ouija board. One poet, James Merrill, won a major award for a poem that was “magnified” by his Ouija board.

So why have Ouija board become linked to evil?

Blame The Exorcist. Since that 1973 groundbreaking horror movie (which was supposedly inspired by actual events), Ouija boards lost any wholesome status they enjoyed. Following the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, Ouija boards have been denounced by religious groups and have become a staple for horror writers (guilty as charged). Interestingly, the board is still a hot seller.

The Smithsonian article delves in to the “why” of the Ouija board. In the simplest of terms, scientists believe Ouija boards tap into our unconscious mind. We may think we are talking to spirits, and in a sense, we are: our own.

But is this all there is to it? Maybe not. Check out these supposedly true scary stories of Ouija board freakiness.

To be honest, I’m not as concerned with how Ouija boards work. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. But when it comes to something like Ouija boards, I’d prefer to keep that element of scary suspense alive.

Meet my main character(s) blog tour

This is new for me. Friend and fellow writer Madhuri Blaylock (author of YA urban fantasy series The Sanctum) tagged me to join in on the Meet My Main Character blog tour.

My first question was, what the hell is this? Then I read Madhuri’s blog entry, and it clicked. Basically, this is a great way to share with readers and other bloggers some key and interesting facts about the characters who make up our literary worlds.

So now it’s my turn. The book: my supernatural suspense novel The Last Conquistador. Here goes.

1. What is the name of your main character? Is he or she fictional or a historical person?

The Last Conquistador tells two parallel stories, one set in the present day and one set in the past, so there are two main characters. Randy Velasquez is a young American soldier stationed in Germany. He’s totally fictional, though I drew on my experiences as a soldier in Germany to create much of the setting and even some situations.

Rodrigo is the main character of the second part, which is set in the past. He is a 17-year-old Spaniard who sets off for the New World in search of riches. He is fictional, though I based many of his exploits and misadventures on the true and wild tale of Cabeza de Vaca.

2. When and where is the story set?

Randy’s story is set in the present in Germany. I chose this setting for two reasons. After living there as a soldier, I realized that, with a couple of exceptions, I’d never seen this setting in fiction before. Also, one of the themes of this story is being lost in a strange world. For Randy, Germany is a weird place that he’s never able to conquer.

Rodrigo’s story, which begins in the year 1530, spans Spain, Cuba, what is now the southwest US, and Mexico. Similar to Randy, though more extreme, he’s a stranger in a hostile land.

3. What should we know about him?

For both characters, their character traits drive the story.

Randy is brash, tenacious, and is stubborn. He’s a bit of a smartass, a little cocky and sometimes he goes too far, which gets him into trouble. But he never gives up.

Rodrigo is hungry and determined. He grew up the second son of a tanner in a small Spanish village, but he always lusted for adventure. This will get him into more trouble than he ever imagined. But his determination and hunger are what will carry him through some tough times.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

For Randy, the trouble starts because of his German girlfriend Lise. The day after she tells him she’s pregnant, she leaves him. Randy is determined to find her and win her back. But everyone around him throws roadblocks in his path, and he learns that Lise is not who she appeared to be. Not only that, but there’s a demon chasing him.

Rodrigo is in love with Elena. When her father turns down his marriage proposal, he vows to become a rich conquistador to prove his worth. But luck isn’t on his side. He becomes shipwrecked among hostile Indian tribes and spends the next several years trying to find his way back home.

5. What is his personal goal?

Randy’s goal is to find Lise and win her back. He wants her, he wants their baby, he wants this fantasy life he’s built up in his head, and he refuses to let that go, demon or no demon.

Rodrigo’s goal at first was to amass wealth and prestige. but once he’s marooned, his goal is simply to survive.

For both characters their goals are shaped by who they are. Rodrigo’s hunger drives him. He wants so much from life. this helps him survive against long odds, but it also leads to disappointment. Randy is stubborn in his hope, which sees him through some dark times. It’s the key to his ability to battle the demon which he can never seem to shake.

And now, for the next stops on the blog tour, check out these writers as they discuss their main characters:

Christa Wojo talks about David from her novella The Wrong David.

Check them all out. And if you’re a blogging writer, climb on board.

The Girl and The Boy: local paranormal thrills

I’m a fan of supporting my local community, and that doesn’t just mean going to the local bars. I’ve become involved in my writing community here in Jersey City, and one of the girlwriters I’ve met is Madhuri Blaylock, a woman with a penchant for fantastical stories of page-turning urban paranormal fiction.

Her first book, The Sanctum: The Girl, follows our teenage hero Dev, a demon-angel hybrid. She’s targeted for death by a shadowy organization called the Sanctum, a worldwide group of families that monitors all the paranormal activity in our world. Dev, however, proves difficult to kill. Not only that, but she falls for one of he Sanctum’s best killers, Wyatt.

This was a fun book, full of relatable characters that ranged from stalwart best friends to seductive vampires, as well as The_boy_finalmustache-twirling villains I loved to hate.

Now Madhuri has released the second book in the trilogy, aptly titled The Sanctum: The Boy. Check it out, help me support my local community, and have some fun in the process.

Playing the Game of Thrones

I love this TV show, and I’ve read book 3 (mainly because I’m a sucker for spoilers) but I game-of-thrones-iron-throne-1024x576hesitated writing about Game of Thrones for two big reasons.

1) It’s more in the realm of fantasy (though with strong supernatural elements). I’ve never been big into fantasy — I struggled with the Lord of the Rings series.

2) Game of Thrones, both the print and TV versions, are deep and intricate. I don’t think my analysis, on an episode-by-episode basis, could do it justice.

Nevertheless I’m a big fan of all things Game of Thrones. I think it’s brilliant storytelling. ned starkThe show hooked me late in the first season, when Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean (the biggest name in the cast), met his fate. I knew then I was in for a wild and unpredictable ride.

On TV, the production values are excellent, the pacing is consistently solid, and the actors are all pros. My favorite, and I’m not alone in this, is Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion as played by Dinklage is the complicated heart of a complicated show. Catelyn Stark, played by Michelle Fairley, a woman who is smart and tough and willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family, is/was a close second.

TyrionIn the books, writer George RR Martin alternates character viewpoints as he bounces around the fictional world of Westeros and beyond — Daenerys, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Jaime Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister. Each of these viewpoints is utterly unique and fully formed.

But neither book nor TV show is perfect. The books are rambling. No, I don’t need listings of every Ser who fought in a certain battle twenty years earlier. And the TV show revels in gore and violence to the point of overkill. One blogger commented that the show uses rape as a set piece. Okay, I get it — this world is brutal.

These are minor points. Game of Thrones is great entertainment. Very few moments in recent TV history can top when Daenerys ordered her dragon to burn the evil Kraznys.

Game_Of_Thrones Daenerys

And then there’s the infamous Red Wedding episode, where Catelyn, Robb and his pregnant wife weren’t treated very well by their hosts (huge understatement). Check out this link for some great reaction videos.

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Watch/read Game of Thrones if you’re up for some excitement. And for great postgame reading, the best I’ve found on the Internet comes from the A.V. Club. Their website has intelligent commentary, with articles geared toward those who haven’t read the books and those who have.

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Read this book: Dark Matter

This moody haunted tale takes its time, but delivers a solid scare.

Dark-Matter-jacket-200x315While writing my latest supernatural work I wanted a good ghost story to read. A google search brought me to a Guardian review of Michelle Paver’s novel Dark Matter. After a few false starts I got to reading it. The woman knows how create a chilling world.

The plot: In 1937 pre-war London, bored clerk Jack Miller signs up to a months-long Arctic expedition run by rich guys Gus, Algie and Hugo. But the isolated expedition site turns out to be haunted. Jack must battle loneliness and isolation as he struggles to survive both the elements and the supernatural force.

First, the positives.

Setting: The setting of Dark Matter is great. She describes the landscape beautifully, and the particulars of the mission confidently, transporting me to the Arctic. It’s obvious that Paver has done her research.

Foreshadowing: Several of the earlier scenes involve Eriksson, a grizzled Norwegian ship captain. His demeanor alone lets us know that nothing good will come from this expedition. And, as in many great horror tales, the neophytes don’t listen to the veteran’s advice.

Mood: Paver is a wordsmith, and she uses her words to spin a claustrophobic, isolated mood. Her writing is deceptively simple. Her language and descriptions are straightforward and powerful.

Jack Miller: he’s the main character of Dark Matter, and the story is told from his point of view. While he’s not the most forthcoming narrator, he is likeable. We root for him, early on, even as he remains hidden from us.

Isaak: Jack befriends one of the huskies, a playful pup named Isaak. I’m not an animal person (I once had a hermit crab that disappeared), but the dog gives the story some much-needed humanity. Animals are powerful in fiction; I learned that in my story Always Mine. My hero Danny has one loyal companion, his dog Rocky, who plays a key role in keeping Danny sane and safe. Their relationship led to some of the strongest feedback from readers. I can see why now. At some points I was more worried for Isaak than Jack.

And the negatives.

The story doesn’t kick in until well over 100 pages. Dark Matter is only a 250 page book. Much of the first 100 pages is setting up the story. I was tempted to put it down for good several times. But once it gets going it’s on fire.

Jack Miller, the hero, is underwritten. The most glaring omission: there’s no mention of any kind of sexual/romantic aspect to his character, inner or outer. Jack is in his mid 20s. There would be some small reference to that aspect of himself, or lack of. Paver previously wrote children’s books. She seemed hesitant to write a fully formed adult.

Perspective: A major flaw is how Dark Matter is told. It’s first person — Jack’s journal entries. But he’s an unreliable narrator, not just about the events but also his own self. I would have loved to see the wider story. We do get a glimpse of it when Jack reads the journal of one of his companions, and what we see is a starkly different version of Jack. I wonder what this story would have been like if written in the 3rd person.

Dark Matter is a flawed book, and I was torn for a while as to whether it warranted a recommendation. In the end, despite these flaws, Paver succeeded in crafting a haunting, disturbed world. Hopefully she will embrace adult fiction more fully.