Unreliable Alumni on the 2016 Locus Recommended Reading List

February 5, 2017 0

Unreliable Alumni were well-represented on the 2016 Locus Recommended Reading List (and you better believe that both our TBR stacks and our TBI (to-be-interviewed) lists have grown!)

Congratulations, everyone!

Walter Jon Williams (Novels—Science FictionImpersonations: A Story of the Praxis)

Paul Cornell (Novels—FantasyWho Killed Sherlock Holmes?NovellasThe Lost Child of Lychford)

Richard Kadrey (Novels—FantasyThe Perdition Score)

Ken Liu (Novels—Fantasy: The Wall of StormsCollectionsThe Paper Menagerie and Other Stories; Anthologies—Reprints/Bests: Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, editor/translator; Short Stories: “Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts” (in Drowned Worlds); “Seven Birthdays” (in Bridging Infinity))

Fran Wilde (Novels—FantasyCloudboundNovelettes: “The Jewel and Her Lapidary“; Short Stories—”Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left“)

Stephen Graham Jones (Novels—HorrorMongrelsNovelettes: “Birdfather“; “The Night Cyclist“)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Novels—HorrorCertain Dark Things)

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Novels—HorrorHEX)

Paul Tremblay (Novels—HorrorDisappearance at Devil’s Rock)

Yoon Ha Lee (coming soon) (First NovelsNinefox Gambit; Novelettes: “Foxfire, Foxfire“; Short Stories—”Shadow’s Weave”)

 

The Unreliable Narrators Watch… Chinese Ghost Story

October 31, 2016 0

We spent nearly as much time talking about Chinese Ghost Story as we did watching it. This movie has (very nearly) everything—a beautiful, tragic love interest; a flame-throwing monk; a hapless tax-collector hero; a breathtaking pavilion in the middle of a lake; stop-motion zombies; and a climactic battle in hell. What it doesn’t have is a consistent tone or a linear plot—but maybe those things are overrated?

As always, we’ll start with our conclusions, and hide the full transcript after the jump. Prepare for spoilers galore.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:
Chris
Cath
Chia
George

 

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM In part, even though these films have some “quality” issues, they are a lot of fun.

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM And the cheese is part of the feature.

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM And there are moments when they transcend and put us somewhere unique.

chris 11:02 PM cheese goes well with horror. Hello, Vincent Price

cathschaffstump 11:02 PM On the whole, I’m gonna say that I would recommend this to others if I know they would like it, or well, if they are well prepared.

chialynn 11:03 PM Yes, this is one I’d enjoy watching again with other people who would enjoy watching it.

chialynn 11:03 PM Or people I could count on to be entertainingly and/or charmingly baffled by it.

cathschaffstump 11:03 PM Yeah. It would be no fun if the people you were watching it with thought it was weird or stupid.

george_galuschak 11:03 PM this is as much screwball comedy as horror

george_galuschak 11:03 PM it’s really a very upbeat movie

george_galuschak 11:04 PM optimistic

chris 11:04 PM yeah that’s why earlier I said this may not even qualify as horror

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM But the tongue! That’s kind of scary.

chris 11:04 PM other than the tongues and claymation zombies

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM The zombies are pure camp.

george_galuschak 11:04 PM they were great

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM I will admit I am not too worried about having any bad dreams about this one.

 

(more…)

The Unreliable Narrators Watch… The Woman in Black

October 25, 2016 0

Or: Harry Potter and Chekhov’s Beloved Child

Okay, that’s not entirely fair.

The Woman in Black is an old-fashioned ghost movie with a sound design so effective that your humble Narrators are still talking about more than a week later. It’s not a perfect film—we’ll get to that—but what it does, it does well.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Chris
Cath
Chia
George
Special Guest: Morris the Cat

 

Here be spoilers…

 

Our takeaways, with the full transcript after the jump:

chialynn 11:19 PM Obvious in ways I didn’t mind.

chris 11:19 PM I would say very creepy but not scary

chris 11:19 PM it’s that formula that relies on period. Phones and such make it not work

cathschaffstump 11:19 PM I concur, Chris.

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM Lots of really good sets and lighting.

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM Some really good acting.

chialynn 11:20 PM Novy just named the 3d animation and modeling package they used for the end credits.

george_galuschak 11:20 PM i liked it

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM I thought it was fine.

george_galuschak 11:20 PM it was effective at what it set out to do

chialynn 11:20 PM Good acting, effective use of the tropes, even when they were very clearly tropes.

chialynn 11:20 PM Creeped me the hell out.

chris 11:21 PM and yet… the tropes kept it from being scary

chris 11:21 PM too many scares that wouldn’t work without a BAM on the score

chris 11:21 PM It was mostly creepy-old-house atmospherics. And they played every card in that hand! who isn’t creeped out by old dolls, taxidermy, music boxes

chialynn 11:21 PM And… Kind of a happy ending?

cathschaffstump 11:21 PM Kind of.

chris 11:21 PM but then why go through all the shit with the car and the mud?

cathschaffstump 11:21 PM Trying to placate the woman.

chialynn 11:22 PM He thought he could change things. He couldn’t.

chris 11:22 PM did that even do anything?

george_galuschak 11:22 PM maybe she figured she was repaying him

george_galuschak 11:22 PM he wanted to be with his wife, she saw to it

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM Maybe. That’s an interesting take.

chialynn 11:22 PM But she did say “Never forgive.”

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM You gave me back my kid.

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM I give you back to your wife.

george_galuschak 11:22 PM sure

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM I like that.

chris 11:22 PM Well, we spent the entire film waiting for the other shoe to drop on Chekov’s beloved child

chris 11:22 PM and it did

chris 11:24 PM the child showing up just in time for the ending…

george_galuschak 11:23 PM yes, good ending

chialynn 11:23 PM Yes.

cathschaffstump 11:24 PM I still liked it, but I could see why some people might not.

cathschaffstump 11:25 PM So, I’m gonna recommend this one, but with some hesitation for those who don’t like their horror slow.

george_galuschak 11:25 PM i liked it. i will probably watch it again. i turned the sound down so i wouldn’t get too freaked

george_galuschak 11:25 PM the sound is the scariest thing about this movie

cathschaffstump 11:30 PM Agreed, George.

chialynn 11:25 PM I’m going to watch it again.

chialynn 11:26 PM I want to see some of the background stuff I missed.

chialynn 11:27 PM I like slow-build atmospheric horror.

chris 11:28 PM I’d say it’s passable. Not really a standout for me

cathschaffstump 11:29 PM I wouldn’t call it a great horror film.

cathschaffstump 11:29 PM But believe me, I’ve seen plenty worse.

chris 11:29 PM There’s the jacket quote. “I’ve seen plenty worse.” – Cath Schaff-Stump

chris 11:29 PM “Damning with faint praise indeed.”–Cath Schaff-Stump

chris 11:30 PM it wasn’t a waste of time. that’s my jacket quote

(more…)

The Unreliable Narrators Watch… The Pit and the Pendulum

October 17, 2016 0

 

The Pit and the Pendulum movie poster

Or, to be more formal, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

But it isn’t, really.

It’s Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. It’s also Richard Matheson’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

And more than that, it’s Vincent Price’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Let’s get started, shall we?

As always, we’ll begin with our final impressions; you’ll find the full transcript after the jump.

Spoilers Ahoy!!!

 

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Chris
Cath
Chia
George
Special Guest: Bryon

 

Chris 9:27 PM That was like 5% Poe, 95% Richard Matheson

Cathschaffstump 9:27 PM For sure.

Chris 9:27 PM but Matheson is awesome

Cathschaffstump 9:27 PM Definitely a critter of 1961.

Chris 9:29 PM Okay, so I guess Richard Matheson had an idea for a screenplay, and Edgar Allen Poe is public domain so why not tack his name on?

Cathschaffstump 9:28 PM So, there were a boat load of films like this, focusing on Poe stories.

Cathschaffstump 9:28 PM Because Poe is you know, scary.

Cathschaffstump 9:29 PM But there isn’t much to most of his stories, so yeah.

Cathschaffstump 9:30 PM Having grown up with these somewhat, I appreciate them, but I think they would be hard for modern audiences.

Cathschaffstump 9:31 PM Films that belong to a very different time.

Chialynn 9:32 PM They do what they need to do very well.

Chialynn 9:33 PM Which is kind of a Corman hallmark.

Chris 9:34 PM They have sort of a theatrical appeal

george_galuschak 9:35 PM it’s a fine movie

chialynn 9:35 PM Low budget, made fast, some amazing performers, a lot of schlock.

Cathschaffstump 9:35 PM More like theater than a movie.

Chris 9:35 PM They feel very proscenium arch despite being full sets to me

Chialynn 9:35 PM Perfect for a night at the drive-in.

Cathschaffstump 9:35 PM but a different kind of thing than Hammer.

Cathschaffstump 9:36 PM Hammer is rawer, racier.

Cathschaffstump 9:36 PM Corman is well, as Chris just said, proscenium arch.

Chris 9:36 PM Hammer didn’t even pretend to have plots, really

george_galuschak 9:36 PM Vincent price makes that movie

cathschaffstump 9:36 PM Vincent Price makes pretty much any movie.

Chris 9:36 PM that’s true, remove him and not much is left

cathschaffstump 9:36 PM Even Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

Chris 9:37 PM The acting is very declamatory, which I think sort of saves it. Makes it like an intentional artifact rather than just dated.

Cathschaffstump 9:38 PM yes! I like to think of this film as an artifact.

Cathschaffstump 9:38 PM A perfect specimen.

Chris 9:38 PM so, final verdict?

george_galuschak 9:38 PM thumb’s up!

Chris 9:48 PM Not bad, even though it has almost nothing to do with Poe

Chialynn 9:48 PM Excellent, very much a product of its time.

Cathschaffstump 9:48 PM I recommended it, so you know I gotta like it.

Chialynn 9:48 PM A better movie for watching with others than for watching alone.

Cathschaffstump 9:49 PM It’s also a good date film at my house.

Chialynn 9:49 PM Not because of the scary bits, but because cheese is best when shared.

(more…)

And Introducing… The Iron Maiden

October 16, 2016 0

Iron Maiden of Nuremberg

On August 14, 1515, a coin forger was stuffed inside a cabinet shaped like a ghoulish nesting doll and lined with spikes that “penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

At least, that was the story Johann Philipp Siebenkees told in a 1793 pamphlet describing the history of the fearsome medieval torture implement known as the iron maiden. There’s just one small problem with Herr Siebenkees’ story; it isn’t true. The first known references to the Maiden appear in the late 18th century—besides Siebenkees’ pamphlet, a 1784 guide to Nuremberg thrilled tourists with lurid tales of “the Iron Maiden, that abominable work of horror that goes back to the times of Frederick Barbarossa” (by which it meant the 12th century). More likely, the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg dated all the way back to… the 18th century, and the fictions of Johann Philipp Siebenkees.

Wherever it came from, the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. Copies of it live on—in 1890, the Earl of Shrewsbury took one of them on a world tour. It eventually found its way back to Germany, where it’s now on display at the das Kriminalmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. More modern replicas can be seen at Ripley’s Believe or Not and a variety of wax museums.

Style:
You never want to be the filling in a torture sandwich.

According to Wolfgang Schild, a law professor at the University of Bielefeld, the 18th- and 19th-century maidens were constructed out of medieval and Renaissance scraps and stories like these—bits and pieces from genuine torture chambers, combined with ancient descriptions of, shall we say, mechanically aided interrogations and liberal helpings of imagination.

Fraud or not, the iron maiden and its kin do have historical precedents. In 256 BCE, the Carthaginians captured a Roman consul, Marcus Atilius Regulus, and pressed him to death between spiked boards. In the Middle Ages, minor lawbreakers might be sentenced to wear the Cloak of Shame—a weighted wooden garment that made it difficult to flee, even while your friends and neighbors pelted you with rotten fruit and offal and insults.

And there has been at least one person in the modern era thought to have used an iron maiden for its intended, horrible purpose—Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, who had a penchant for torturing athletes who failed to live up to his expectations. In April 2003, several months before Uday’s death at the hands of a Special Forces Task Force, a group of looters at the Iraqi Olympic headquarters in Baghdad found a replica of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg in a pile of leaves. They weren’t interested in it, but TIME was. It reported that the artifact was “clearly worn from use, the nails having lost some of their sharpness.”

ironmaiden0419
Uday Hussein’s iron maiden? Allegedly.

Note: This post originally appeared on the late, lamented, Popbunker.net. It has been cross-posted to Medium.

 

The Unreliable Narrators Watch… The Exorcist

October 10, 2016 0

The Exorcist (1973)

Editor’s Note: Possible spoilers ahead

Welcome to the inaugural issue of “The Unreliable Narrators Watch…” with your hosts, the Unreliable Narrators. This week, we’re settling in with William Friedkin’s gory, unsettling classic, The Exorcist.

To begin, as they say, at the end, we’ll start with our final impressions of the film. Those of you interested in our thoughts about the rest of the movie will find the (nearly complete) transcript of our Slack discussion after the jump.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Chris
Cath
Chia
George
and introducing: Morris

george_galuschak 10:14 PM i think it’s an effective movie

chris 10:15 PM full props, though, it still is disturbing. even if it doesn’t make much sense

george_galuschak 10:15 PM well, it depends on whether you want everything explained

cathschaffstump 10:15 PM I don’t think that’s it at all.

george_galuschak 10:16 PM for me, the plot holds together. this isn’t linear storytelling

((Editor’s Note: George is wrong. It is linear storytelling))

((Second Editor’s Note: George wrote the previous Editor’s Note. Chia isn’t convinced that George is wrong.))

chris 10:16 PM well, I think it was deliberately structured with all the red herrings

cathschaffstump 10:16 PM I think that it has a lot of characters that don’t need to be there, and a lot of connections that aren’t made because the author edited the original story, but perhaps not in an effective way.

cathschaffstump 10:16 PM I don’t want everything explained. I am down with ambiguity.

chris 10:16 PM yeah the inspector added nothing, other than make us wonder about his behavior

chialynn 10:17 PM I can’t be sure how many of those connections I would have made if I hadn’t read the book (even if I don’t remember much of it).

cathschaffstump 10:17 PM But I do like knowing where the arcs are.

george_galuschak 10:17 PM not sure if this is the theatrical cut

chris 10:17 PM yeah I wonder if the director’s cut clears things up, or is just grosser

chialynn 10:17 PM It’s about an extra 10 or 20 minutes?

chris 10:17 PM I remember the crab walking so I must have seen it at some point

cathschaffstump 10:17 PM That was missing, wasn’t it? I remember that too.

george_galuschak 10:17 PM they cut lots of stuff from the book

cathschaffstump 10:18 PM So, in many cases, the book is better than the movie. Kind of a conventional wisdom.

chris 10:18 PM I think maybe people who have read the book are happier with the movie because they can fill in the gaps?

george_galuschak 10:19 PM most of the movie’s shitty dialogue is from the book, so not really to the book being better, yes to filling in the gaps

chialynn 10:19 PM I like the cuts from what’s happening with Regan and her mom to what’s happening with the priest and his mom.

chris 10:19 PM I wonder why they cut that out

cathschaffstump 10:19 PM That is a nice parallelism.

chris 10:20 PM Exorcist is good, and holds up well after all this time. It could just make more sense, I think

chialynn 10:21 PM Excellent performances.

george_galuschak 10:21 PM effective at what it does

cathschaffstump 10:21 PM I’m gonna give it horror movie props. Good special effects, some good acting, Karras for the win.

(more…)

You can stop yanking your braid now

July 12, 2016 0

In the early ‘90s, I had two requirements for my fiction purchases.

They (nearly always) had to be fantasy, and they (always always) had to be heavy.

I was a fast reader without a lot of money, and I never seemed to be near an open library when I needed something new to read. (Besides which, I’d long-since learned that my tendency to keep library books well past their due dates sometimes resulted in them costing more than they would have if I’d just bought them in the first place. I’ve gotten better about that.) I bought used when I could, but for the most part, I gravitated toward fantasy epics available from the Waldenbooks in the Foothills Mall in Fort Collins, Colorado.

That was where I first met Robert Jordan.

This was not a case of love at first sight. How could it be, with Darryl K. Sweet’s notorious cover art? (I wasn’t the only one who hated “dwarf Moiraine on a pony”) But as the series grew, and I began to run out of really large books to read, I softened, and finally one day I agreed to take just one volume home.

I was hooked. I tore through Eye of the World and quickly moved on to The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn. The books were still coming out once a year at this point, so in between I’d re-read the previous novels and lurk on the various websites that were already springing up to discuss them.

To tell you how much the series meant to me, my very first tattoo (since covered by my very second tattoo) was an Avendesora leaf.

But then the publication schedule started slowing down. It was two years between Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords, and very little happened in A Crown of Swords. Another two years passed before The Path of Daggers, and by then there were seven books to be re-read before I started into the next one. When I heard from a friend that not much more happened in Path than had happened in Crown, I decided that I’d wait for the final book, then start over at the beginning.

I never expected it to take another 14 years.

When the news came out last year that Brandon Sanderson would finish the series in November 2011 (later pushed to March 2012), I got ready for the re-read. I started it in November, figuring I could read one book a month at that rate and be ready when A Memory of Light was released.

It was interesting to revisit books I’d read so long ago, not only because I’d forgotten so much, but also because I don’t read the same way I did then. In the interim, I started learning to read like a writer—and while I admire the way Jordan does some things, there are others I find almost painful. I also discovered that some fantasy tropes that didn’t faze me 20 years ago bug the shit out of me now.

Robert Jordan, like Stephen King, was very, very good at sketching out a character in a very few strokes.

“Easier to watch old Harriet Bennigan, who made Mrs. Perrine look like a spring chicken, bent over her walker in her bright red fall coat, out for her morning lurch,” King wrote in Insomnia. And, in the same book, he describes a neighborhood “where no house was complete without at least one Fisher-Price Big Wheel trike standing on the listless lawn, where girls were stepping dynamite at sixteen and all too often dull-eyed, fat-bottomed mothers of three at twenty-four.” (Because King’s places are characters, too.)

The comparison occurred me to when I reread The Fires of Heaven, which contains one of my favorite minor characters, a man named Pevin. (Whose fate I’m about to spoil, so quit reading if that bothers you.)

[Asmodean] no longer carried the crimson banner with its ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. That office fell to a Cairhienin refugee named Pevin, an expressionless fellow in a patched farmer’s coat of rough gray wool, on a brown mule that should have been put out to grass from pulling a cart some years back. A long scar, still red, ran up the side of his narrow face from jaw to thinning hair.

Pevin had lost his wife and sister to the famine, his brother and a son to the civil war… Fleeing toward Andor had cost him a second son at the hands of Andoran soldiers and a second brother to bandits, and returning had cost the last son, dead on a Shaido spear, and his daughter as well, carried off while Pevin was left for dead. The man rarely spoke, but as near as Rand could make out, his beliefs had winnowed down to a bare three. The Dragon had been reborn. The Last Battle was coming. And if he stayed close to Rand al’Thor, he would see his family avenged before the world was destroyed.

In a couple of paragraphs, Jordan tells you who Pevin is, what he looks like, where he came from, and where he’s going. He also tells you that the man’s expression never changes. But in case you missed that bit…

Pevin’s face never changed, though the bright banner whipping above him appeared a mockery in that place.

Whoever managed to put hand to anyone’s boot or stirrup, even Pevin’s, wore joy on their faces…

Pevin, with the crimson banner hanging limply from its staff, and no more expression surrounded by Aiel than at any other time.

You might also have noticed that Pevin carries a banner? I’m not sure, but it might be red.

Pevin came down past Bael to stand behind Rand’s shoulder with the banner, his narrow, scarred face absolutely blank. “Does the whole palace know about this, then?” Rand asked.

“I heard,” Pevin said. His jaw worked, chewing for more words. Rand had found him a replacement for his patched country coat, good red wool, and the man had had Dragons embroidered on it, one climbing either side of his chest. “That you were going. Somewhere.” That seemed to exhaust his store.

“Chewing for more words,” by the way, is a brilliant line.

Pevin looked no more perturbed by what he saw than the Aiel chief, which was to say, not at all.

Aiel, if you didn’t know, are always calm, too. Unless they’re veiled for battle. Then they might crack a smile, but you wouldn’t know, since you can’t see their faces behind the veils. They like to tell jokes, too.

Pevin would carry that banner wherever Rand went, even the Pit of Doom, and never blink.

Yes, we gathered.

[Rand] took in the plaza again, and his joy faded. Nothing could extinguish it, but the bodies lying in heaps where the Aiel had made their stand lessened it. Too many were not big enough to be men. There was Lamelle, veil gone and half her throat as well; she would never make him soup again. Pevin, both hands clutching the wrist-thick shaft of the Trolloc spear through his chest and the first expression on his face Rand had ever seen. Surprise.

“That’s perfect,” I thought when I read it again. And for a character like Pevin, who’s introduced on page 739 and dies on page 954, it is. The problem, as anyone who’s read even a couple of the books knows, is that this is Jordan’s approach to all of his characters. Rand is tall. The Aiel are fierce. Nynaeve yanks on her dark, waist-length braid when she’s angry, which is always. Elayne tips her chin up haughtily and puts her nose in the air. Lan is stoic. Moiraine is short. Oh, and Mat? Mat’s a gambler who likes pretty girls and whose bottom Nynaeve often paddled, not so many years ago. Sometimes, he hears dice rattling inside his head.

Jay Bushman might have read the books.

All of which brings me to Lawrence Block, and his advice on character building (from Telling Lies for Fun and Profit).

It’s not uncommon for writers to do a lot of labeling and mistake it for originality of characterization. “I’m starting a detective series,” a hopeful writer said to me not long ago, “and I think I’ve got something really original. My character never gets out of bed before noon, and he makes it a rule always to wear one piece of red clothing, and the only thing he ever drinks is white creme de menthe on the rocks. He has a pet rhesus monkey named Bitsy and a parrot named Sam. What do you think?”

What I think is that the speaker has not a character but a collection of character tags. It might work to have a character with any of all of these labels in his garments. Matter of fact, I wrote the above paragraph thinking of a detective character of the late David Alexander’s who lived upstairs of a 42nd Street flea circus, always wore a loud vest, drank only Irish whiskey and never took a drink before four o’clock or refused one after that hour. That character, however, was not the mere sum of these attributes. It is not the quirks that make an enduring character but the essential personality which the quirks highlight. How that character views the world, how acts and reacts, is of much greater importance than what he had for breakfast.

And that’s the problem with Jordan’s character building, throughout the books. Too often, his characters — even his main characters — are collections of labels, hanging from an empty frame. As a result, I find myself reading for story and plot, rather than for character. When the story slows down, or gets mired in details of hairstyles and politics and clothing, I get impatient — which is a terrible thing to be when you’re less than halfway through a series that runs to four million words or more.

Note: This post originally appeared, in two parts, on my now-defunct blog Art of the Odd, in April and July 2011. It has been cross-posted to Medium.