To life

A famous actor died last month. He committed suicide after reportedly suffering from bipolar disorder. Like a lot of people, it hit me hard. Unlike a lot of other people, it was difficult not just because he was a much-loved actor, but also for more personal reasons.

First, there’s a myth that creative people are more prone to mental conditions such as depression. But research doesn’t support that. If anything, those who are creative (and productive) show higher levels than the general population of psychosis and hypomania. Keep in mind, everyone has these traits, it’s just a matter of the degree expressed.

But in our popular culture, depression, melancholy, etc, are more commonly associated with writers, artists, actors, and other creatives. As someone who’s gone through a deep depression, I can attest that it does NOT enhance creativity. When you’re going through it, the last thing you want to do (or can do) is use your imagination to create something positive. Depression is the enemy of creation. If there is an upside, I’d say that having gone through depression makes you more empathetic to the human experience. It’s a tough trade-off.

Now back to the famous actor. While none of us can know what was going on in his head, I have great sympathy for what he went through. It’s not a cliche to say his death was tragic.

What really offended me, though, was the reaction. Many commented that he was finally at peace. One tweet specifically used the words “you’re free.” And anyone who dared to question this line of thought or point out the negative repercussions of suicide was attacked as heartless until they retracted their position.

I am not here to attack the actor for his suicide. What I am here to do is attack the idea that suicide is a viable “freeing” option for those who are in deep depression. Depression and bipolar are not a choice as much as a brain chemistry problem, but the act of suicide is a choice. And a final one. My heart breaks when I hear of someone committing suicide because I know the pain that led them to that point, and I know that the finality of their decision cuts off any hope of recovery. I’ve had friends who committed suicide. The tragedy rested in their pain and in their choice.

And it was a choice.

Suicide is seductive. When I heard of the actor’s death it awakened long dormant feelings that I thought I’d left behind forever. I hadn’t. What counters that voice—then and now—is the realization that life is pretty damn unique. Whether you believe it’s God-given or whether you believe it’s a random act of the universe, the fact that we exist, the fact of our awareness, is nothing short of a miracle.

Suicide should not be romanticized or glorified as a freeing act. It should be portrayed for what it is: a choice, a final action that is a rebuke to existence.

 

The Leftovers rehashed

A strong premise plus great performances does not equal a successful show.

Leftovers promo

I was looking forward to HBO’s new show The Leftovers for two reasons. The first was that it was created by Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost, one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The second reason was the premise: two percent of Earth’s population has suddenly, inexplicably vanished. This biblical premise has been presented before, and I was interested to see how it would be handled without an overtly religious point of view.

Once you leave behind the religious element, which The Leftovers did, there were two directions in which to take the show: 1) as a jumping point for a wider sci-fi/mystical/horror story, or 2) as a navel-gazing meditation on loss and grief. Unfortunately, the writers chose #2.

Leftovers KevinI wanted to like The Leftovers. And it seemed promising, even once I realized that the “why” of the disappearance would never be addressed.

I liked the cast, and several of the characters, at least in the beginning. Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, the police chief, was intense and intriguing. He hadn’t lost anyone close to him in the vanishing, but his family fell apart soon after. He seemed to be losing his mind, and struggled to fulfill his duty as police chief while keeping what was left of his family intact.

Leftovers Patti LaurieAmy Brenneman as his estranged wife Laurie was great at portraying a range of emotions while rarely uttering a word as a member of the Grieving Remnant, a cult that wore white, refused to talk, chain smoked, and harassed whoever they could find, all in the name of reminding people of their losses.

Ann Dowd was brutal as Patti, the local leader of the Grieving Remnant. But part of the problem with this show was not only Patti, but the whole Grieving Remnant. I never liked any of them, and I never understood their motivation, which kept me distant from them.

The ten episode long series seemed to spin in its wheels the whole time. We watched characters struggle to move past an event that occurred three years earlier, yet they never progressed. I wasn’t sure where the story was heading, and halfway through the series, once I realized we would never learn the why, I didn’t care.

However, The Leftovers contained two of the best hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. Usually each episode jumped between different characters, but for two episodes, they chose to focus on a single character.

The first episode followed Matt Jamison (played by Doctor Who‘s Christopher Eccleston). I’ve been a big fan of Eccleston since Shallow Grave. He has a manic intensity, and this episode followed Matt Jamison as he fought to save his bankrupt church. It was a heartbreaking hour of television.

Leftovers Matt

The second episode, which was the best of the season, followed Nora Durst (the sister of Matt Jamison). I’d never heard of Carrie Coon, the actor who played Nora, but she’s high on my radar now. Nora lost her husband and both children in the vanishing. She was left alone. We were given one hour tracking Nora, and it was brilliant, both in the storytelling and in Coon’s portrayal. If only all the episodes were like this, I’d be a fan of The Leftovers, regardless.

Leftovers Nora

I think the fatal flaw of this season was that it followed the Garvey clan, and we were never given any motivation for their surly, strange behavior. There was a flashback episode that showed the Garvey family just before the event, and it did sweeten the bitter Garveys just a bit, but it was too late to change my feelings toward them. If Nora Durst and Matt Jamison were the main characters, I’d be looking forward to season two.

Doctor Who: regenerated again

What do you do when you create an accidental hit TV show, and your lead actor leaves? If the show is the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, you give your time-traveling alien-in-human-form lead the power to regenerate.

Doctor Who

And now, with a change of actors on Doctor Who, we have yet another regeneration.

The era of Peter Capaldi as the latest Doctor begins with an episode titled Deep Breath, and what we saw was a Doctor thoroughly unsettled.

Age brings natural gravitas. Capaldi is older than the actors who’ve played the CapaldiDoctor in the modern era — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. So, naturally, Capaldi’s Doctor seems so much older than the others.

How to maneuver around that? Capaldi’s Doctor, at least in the early days of his regeneration, is unhinged, nearly to the point of being child-like. In this way, Capaldi’s Doctor seems much younger than any of the modern Doctors.

This Doctor is a rambling, rummaging mess. He’s aggressively disoriented.

It’s not just the writing and acting that make it all so unsettled. The music is thumping and discordant, an angry rock soundtrack out of tune (in a good way). And the camera work is quick and jumpy without being shaky. It all combines in a way that let’s us know that this iteration of the Doctor may be far different than what we’ve been used to.

Regeneration is the theme of this episode. We’re along for the ride as his current human traveling companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) Clarastruggles to make sense of the whole concept of the Doctor regenerating. Not to mention the Doctor himself. Regeneration is never easy for the Doctor, and this one is especially difficult.

The writers use the theme of regeneration to hint at the insidious nature of the Doctor. Does this centuries-old alien wear a human face merely to be accepted by humans? Does he use this human face to keep from revealing who or what he truly is?

Philosophical questions aside, this first episode of the Capaldi era is classic Doctor Who, throwing a dinosaur into steampunk-infused Victorian-era London. But it also revels in the darkness that infuses many of Doctor Who‘s best episodes.

Based on this episode, I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re headed. Capaldi’s Doctor is clearly different from the rest, and Clara, as companion, is proving to be more Donna Noble than Martha Jones.

Finally, there was some great dialogue from this episode:

“You mustn’t worry my dear boy. By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.”

“Nothing is more important than my egomania.”

“It’s times like this I miss Amy.”

Read this story: Wolverton Station

If you’re a fan of horror fiction and haven’t heard of Joe Hill, get yourself to the nearest bookstore now. For starters, check out his short story Wolverton Station. What you’ll get from Hill—and this story—is solid (if not a little workman-like) heart-thudding chills.

wolverton stationThe plot: Saunders is a corporate hatchet man traveling the rails in England. He’s off to scout out new sites for a Starbucks-like chain called Jimi Coffee. He’s greeted not only by protests, but wolves as well. Soon enough he finds himself trapped among the wolves.

I read this story cold. All I knew was that it was horror, and I enjoyed Hill’s book Heart-Shaped Box, so I gave this one a try.

First, the good:

–Hill manages to create a complex, if not entirely likable, character in Saunders in a brief amount of time. I could not say that I liked him, but definitely felt for him.

–There’s some deft sleight of hand that Hill manages to pull off. At first it seems as if the story is classic horror, then it veers away from that, only to return with a vengeance. One of the hallmarks of good horror is to keep the reader always off-balance. I could never find my footing in this story, so well done.

–As the story rolls along, the tension reaches 10 out of 10. One of the most intense scenes took place on a train with no exits.

And the not as good:

–My main criticism is that Hill’s writing is, as mentioned earlier, workman-like. There’s nothing particularly new or innovative in his work. He is not forging new pathways in horror fiction, but he’s staying on the well-worn trails. But this is just a minor criticism.

So for some good horror thrills, check out Wolverton Station, and the rest of Joe Hill’s works.

 

Fiction and fear

What are you most afraid of? Spiders? Dogs? Death? Loneliness?

Chances are, whatever your fear is, it’s been dramatized. Horror stories are about laying bare our fears. Think of some of the most notable horror stories and at their root you can find a fear.

jaws_dts_hires–Bram Stoker’s Dracula is about the fear of sex and sexuality, a direct reflection of the repressed Victorian era

–Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise have both been interpreted as a fear of becoming a parent

Jaws is not only about a fear of sharks, but it touches on a primal fear of our vulnerability to deadly creatures that lurk in the deep

One thing that always frightened me is mental illness, especially the kind that leads to delusions. I know this type of mental illness has a physiological underpinning, but it still disturbs me on a core level. I incorporated my own fear into my new novella, House of Flies.

House of Flies

The plot: 19-year-old Alec Pearson, recently orphaned, lives in a huge house and has all the money he could need. Then he starts seeing flies. These aren’t ordinary flies; they carry with them dark visions. He tries to fight the flies but he fears he’s losing his mind. Finally he takes a drastic step to rid himself of the madness around him.

I used a common horror trope—insects, specifically flies—as a way to dramatize Alec’s plight. Insects creep most people out, so it’s a built in special effect. The whole point of the story, though, was to discover how suppressing emotions—grief in this instance—can push you to the brink of madness.

Writers are lucky. We have a vehicle to explore our fears, examine them, and work through them in a way that not only benefits us, but hopefully entertain others. If you have the chance, check out House of Flies.

Read this story: Don’t Eat Cat

Not too long ago, short stories were relegated to specialty magazines or book-length collections. Want to read a single story? You had to buy the book or subscribe to the magazine.

Now, thanks to e-books, stories of any length now have a home, and this has led to a rebirth of the short story as a form of art and entertainment. I’m happy as a writer — I’ve been on a novella-writing kick lately. And I’m glad as a reader too — sometimes you don’t want to invest too much time in a story. Sometimes you want to dive in, read to the end, and walk away, satisfied.

Satisfied is what I felt after finishing Jess Walter’s zombie-themed story Don’t Eat Cat.

Don't Eat CatFirst, a warning to zombie aficionados. Don’t Eat Cat is a zombie tale in the loosest sense. His zombies aren’t the mindless, swarming re-animated dead. They’re self-aware — victims of a party drug that carries zombie-like side effects, such as white-to-translucent skin, mental numbness, and a taste for living flesh, especially small animals (hence Don’t Eat Cat).

Second, for the animal lovers out there, no animals are actually eaten in the course of this story. So don’t let the title dissuade you.

The plot: following a confrontation with a zombie barista in a Starbucks, Owen decides to seek out his ex-girlfriend, Marci, who willingly consumed the drug and left two years earlier before the zombie effects set in. That’s it. Not too much happens in this story.

This is not a criticism. Walter packs his pages with humor and tragedy. In a limited word count, Walter deftly creates a world of the near-future that is overloaded, cynical, and nearly broken. Walter’s prose is clean, lean and fluid.

His protagonist is a good traveling companion. From the opening scene in the zombie-staffed Starbucks to the sudden end, Owen is impatient, moody, and thoroughly relatable. We know just enough about him to willingly go along for the ride.

But Don’t Eat Cat is not perfect (I have yet to find a story or book that is). These imperfections can be simply summed up: the story is too short. I wanted more. I wanted more of Owen and Marci. I wanted more of the hilariously nightmarish world. I wanted more of the negative effects of the zombie/humans. And when the story ended abruptly, I was left wishing there was more to come.

 

Reinventing Lovecraft at Tor

A fresh spin brings new life to a controversial horror legend.

full_litanyofearth

Arguably, HP Lovecraft is one of the fathers of modern horror (the grandfather would probably be Edgar Allen Poe). Rhode Island native Lovecraft, who lived from 1890-1937 created a bleak, horrific mythology that was both seamless and Howard_Phillips_Lovecraftexpansive. His creatures included the now iconic Cthulhu. His monsters were both alien in origin and Earth-evolved races that rose and fell long before Homo sapiens wandered off the savannnas.

What made Lovecraft a master of horror wasn’t necessarily his prose — it was his outlook. The monsters in his world were not remotely like us. In fact, they considered us no better than we would consider a nest of ants. It’s the theme that we don’t matter one bit to the universe that makes Lovecraft so horrific.

But Lovecraft is not without controversy. Today he’s widely derided as sexist and racist. His works are criticized for their fear and revulsion of the other. His critics have a point; I’ve always been hesitant to proscribe modern mores to past characters, though I wouldn’t let them off the hook.

This controversial aspect of Lovecraft has kept him at arms length from contemporary writers, which is a shame, because once you extract his personal views, there’s much gold to be mined from his works.

Leave it to Tor.com, one of my favorite (and free) sites for the latest in modern speculative fiction. They recently published a (long) short story, The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys. The writer brilliantly uses Lovecraft’s mythos to create a new world that, while it relies heavily on Lovecraft, removes all of his detestable aspects. Instead of reviling the other, Emrys’s world is about the other.

My point? Just because a writer/artist/actor/politician is a jerk in real life doesn’t necessarily mean we have to disregard all their efforts. Emrys’s short story is proof of this.

Here’s an intro to the story:

The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse. 

Read the whole story here at Tor.com.

And, for an interesting take on Lovecraft’s controversial elements, read this blog post from the editor at Tor.com who decided to buy Emrys’s story. It’s fascinating to watch him grapple with his own mixed feelings.

(Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams)

Lukewarm Leftovers

Will The Leftovers become a TV classic? Too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look good.

leftovers

HBO’s new sci-fi-ish series The Leftovers has an intriguing, if unoriginal premise, is based on a high-profile novel, and is produced by the man behind Lost. Yet the first episode left me underwhelmed.

The set-up: two percent of the world’s population has vanished with no explanation. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton (aka Anytown, USA) struggle to move on despite the uncertainty and lingering grief.

the-leftovers-hbo-damon-lindelof

The story follows police chief Kevin Garvey (played excellently by Justin Theroux), who is not quite with it. He struggles to relate to his rebellious teenage daughter Jill, and his son Tom, who has fled to a mysterious commune. He butts heads with the town’s mayor, Kevin and LucyLucy Warburton, and tries to keep the peace between the townspeople and a strange cult that wears white, chain smokes, doesn’t talk, and taunts the grieving. And he may or may not be crazy.

So far, so good. Plus, The Leftovers based on a book by bestselling writer Tom Perrotta. I like it when TV shows and movies have a literary legacy (then again, as a writer, I’m biased). And, it was brought to TV by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Say what you will about Lost; that show is a classic in my eyes, with spectacular storytelling and gripping characterization. The Lost connection, more than anything else, had me excited for the show.

But based on the first episode I’m not confident that The Leftovers is headed for greatness. I see two main problems:

1) I fear we will never get any kind of explanation for the disappearance, and this show will become an endless grief-fest.

2) There were so many characters who we zoomed past that it was difficult to get sucked into any of their stories. Theroux’s Kevin Garvey worked well, but aside from him, I felt no real connection with the faces who passed by.

Some of the subplots were interesting. Nihilism has gripped the youth of Mapleton, as we see with Kevin’s daughter Jill. There’s a party scene that perfectly captures the sense that if anyone can suddenly vanish, what’s the point of trying?

The story following Kevin’s prodigal son Tom, who is part of some survivalist-type cult is also intriguing (though the actor is miscast. He is 29 in real life, while his “father” is 42. It shows).

And then there’s Christopher Eccleston of Doctor Who fame who plays a preacher. I’ll tune in to anything with a Doctor Who alum in it.

I’m nowhere near ready to give up on The Leftovers, though I’m somewhat pessimistic. It’s hard to NOT compare The Leftovers to Lost, but as with Lost, I fear that the writers will lose their way when it comes to the sci-fi elements.

I hope I’m wrong.