Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It's Here

It's always an exciting day when the contributor copies arrive. I've had the pleasure of opening those boxes and few times now, and I don't think it will ever get old.

Here's something else that happens: I start looking through the book, and am always excited and humbled at the same time that one of my stories is appearing alongside all those other great tales.

In this case, it's a short that got its start back in 2009 called "The Night Crier." In it, a recent widower is awakened in the middle of the night by a bird's cry. When he's finally had enough of the constant screeching he goes out to hunt the thing down and finds... something quite different from what he expected. Reviewer Irene Cole called it "simply brilliant," for which I'm grateful.

When I was a kid, this was the kind of book I'd save my allowance for the next time we drove to the mall in Des Moines. And once I had it in my hands, I'd start reading it the minute we got in the car to go back home.

I tore through those things, and though I enjoyed all the stories--why else would I be doing this now if that weren't the case?--there were always a few that stuck with me like a bad dream. But in a good way.

Though I haven't yet finished them all, it's not too soon to give a shout-out to those that have already made an impression. Among them are Thomas P. Balazs's "Waiting for Mrs. Hemley" and Josh Rountree's "Snowfather." Oh, and editor Eric J. Guignard's intros are pure Twilight Zone goodness.

The Horror Library, Volume 6 is available at Amazon.comBarnes & Noble and wherever fine nightmares are sold.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Went Wrong with Flight 3411, by the Numbers


1. Federal law allows United Airlines -- and other air carriers -- to routinely overbook flights. This practice ensures that flights are full, or nearly so, maximizing airline profits.

2. If more passengers show up than there are available seats, the airline can ask for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight.

3. Bumping can also occur when an airline needs to transport employees needed on flights elsewhere.

4. Correction: Flight 3411 was not overbooked, as many outlets have reported. United simply needed the seats for four of its employees who were scheduled to work on flights originating from Louisville the next day.

5. United first offered the passengers $400, then $800. By law, United could have increased its offer by another $550, but did not.

6. In exchange for being bumped, passengers may receive a flight voucher worth up to $1350 and a hotel room, if they'll be delayed more than four hours.

7. Flight vouchers often carry numerous restrictions and blackout dates, making them difficult to use later and therefore, worth less.

8. Bumps typically happen before passengers are allowed to board the plane.

9. If not enough passengers volunteer to be bumped, United -- like other air carriers -- will select passengers for a later flight.

10. Passengers are not selected at random, but by a system that takes into account a passenger's age and any disability, the ticket price paid, their check-in time, frequent flier status and flight class.

11. This practice is buried in the small print of the carrier contract, which each passenger agrees to -- but rarely reads -- upon purchase of their tickets.

12. On Sunday night, April 9, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, United required four seats on a sold-out flight to Louisville.

13. Passengers had already been seated when the request for volunteers was made.

14. The seats were required for United employees needed on flights leaving from Louisville.

15. United should have known those four seats were needed before -- not after -- passengers had boarded.

16. None of the seated passengers volunteered, so United selected four passengers using its age/disability/price/check-in/status/class formula.

17. Two of the selected passengers left without complaint. One left under duress. The fourth refused to give up his seat.

18. The fourth passenger was a 69-year-old doctor from Louisville, who said he needed to be at the hospital the next morning in order to see patients.

19. Update: The fourth passenger has been identified as Dr. David Dao, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

20. Update: Dr. Dao's medical license was suspended in 2005 following multiple convictions in a sex-for-prescription-drugs case involving one of his patients; it was provisionally reinstated in 2015.

21. United called for assistance from the Chicago Police Department and airport security.

22. Two Chicago police and an airport security officer in street clothes boarded the plane. The security officer forcibly removed the fourth passenger.

23. Update: The non-uniformed officer has been placed on probationary leave.

24. At least two other passengers recorded the incident on their phones, and later posted the videos to social media.

25. The videos show the passenger screaming, being removed from his seat, and dragged up the aisle, his mouth bloodied.

26. Several passengers can be heard protesting the passenger's treatment, though none moved to stop the passenger from being removed or volunteered to give up their seat for him.

27. Other passengers are shown doing their best to ignore the situation.

28. A later video shows the man re-entering the plane and running back toward his seat. He appears visibly disoriented, repeating, "I have to go home."

29. Yet another video shows the man at the cabin entrance, blood now streaked across the lower half of his face. In this one he repeats, "I have to go home. Kill me now."

30. A number of news outlets reported the incident on Monday morning, and the videos began going viral on social media.

31. Also on Monday morning, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, released a statement apologizing for the need to "re-accommodate" these passengers, and stating that the airline was "reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."

32. Update: Ironically, Munoz was named PR Week's "Communicator of the Year" this past March, 17.

33. Update: After his first statement was criticized and an internal memo released in which Munoz stated that he stood behind United's employees, he made a second, more sincere apology to Dao and the flight's other passengers. In it, he promises an examination of United's policies with a report to come on April 30.

34. UpdateA second story has emerged of a United flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. The first-class, full-fare passenger was told to give up seat in favor of a higher-priority passenger, and threatened with handcuffs if he didn't agree to move.

35. Since 2010, United, American, Delta and Southwest have earned more than $20 billion in profits annually, and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights.

36. Passengers who find themselves in a similar situation have little recourse. According to The Atlantic, "In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal."

37. Neil Gorsuch, formerly a justice for the United States Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, has a record of siding with corporate interests over consumer rights in similar cases. He was confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court today, Monday, April 10, 2017.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Alien "Life"

2017; written by Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa

Due to a happy confluence of a good friend's career worries and a free Friday afternoon, I found myself among Chicago's first regular Joes and Janes to see Life.

We came to the film with competing agendas. I was hoping for something that would recreate those sick feelings of dread unleashed by the original Alien. My buddy was simply hoping the storyline wouldn't step all over certain elements in his own upcoming project.

Based on the trailers and early reviews, we had plenty of reason to anticipate both. In Life, a group of astronauts aboard the International Space Station capture a probe returning with the first soil samples from Mars. The discovery of a single-celled organism first intrigues and then excites them, along with their eight billion fellow humans below. But the crew's enthusiasm soon turns to alarm when the organism begins to grow, attacks a fellow researcher, and escapes the confines of the lab. Making matters worse, the creature is basically a fast-moving bundle of extraterrestrial stem cells, making it all muscle, all nerve, all brain -- "a tough little son of a bitch," to quote Alien's science officer Ash.

But for all its homages to Alien (and there are plenty of them) Life doesn't quite hit all the hot buttons that its predecessor thumbed so well. Where each of the Nostromo's crew members is unique, with plenty of psychological and physical quirks to distinguish one from the other, the crew in Life is basically a good-looking bunch of polite space professionals whose biggest disagreements play out in exchanges of good-natured bickering. Even Jake Gyllenhall's character, a haunted-looking misanthrope who's been aboard the space station longer than anyone and is in no hurry to leave, decides to do the right thing for the sake of humankind.

When it comes to the monster, Life's semi-transparent starfish fails to stir the same Freudian anxieties that made H.R. Giger's penis-headed xenomorph famous -- even though it seeks to penetrate the human body just as much. (In addition to the trailer's shot of it slipping into Ryan Reynold's mouth, it's suggested in the film that the slimy little bugger will take any opening it can find.) The gore it unleashes is all courtesy of CGI, and lacks the visceral punch of Ridley Scott's practical effects.

I will give Life credit for not dishing up a happy ending. Not only does it end with a twist, but it's a dark and nasty one that only the most aware viewer will see coming -- and then only a few minutes before it arrives.

As we discussed things afterward over a beer, we were both happy we'd seen it. This film is fast-paced science-fiction fun. The visuals are stunning, with a which-way-is-up style that increases the claustrophobia; the music and sound design never let up, keeping the tension high. Though it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, it wasn't as bad as my friend had feared, either.

Monday, February 27, 2017

These Things Happen

Maybe you saw it last night, or maybe you saw it today when your social media feeds blew up with the news.

La La Land won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2017. Until it didn't and Moonlight was named the actual winner.


History was made, once again, right before our disbelieving eyes. It's one more improbable event in a century that's already seen more than its share. Bush v. Gore. 9/11. Steve Harvey's mistaken crowning of Miss Universe. The Cubs' World Series win. Trump's presidential election. The Patriots' Super Bowl upset.

This article from the New York Times does good job of explaining what happened, and this one from Vox.com does an equally fine job describing how. If you watch the full video, keep your eye on the background action -- it's where all the interesting stuff happens as the truth slowly dawns on everyone involved. You can see the La La Land producers look around with increasing urgency; at one point Emma Stone mouths the words "Oh my god." There are howls of disbelief and celebrities pulling out their phones to take pictures, just like those tourists host Jimmie Kimmel invited to visit the show. Despite a great deal of awkwardness, everybody involved handled the situation with tremendous honor and grace.

What I have yet to see is anyone discussing the increasing frequency of events like these. I don't know what it means. It might not mean anything. All I can say for sure is that it feels like history is getting really good at hitting holes-in-one, and now it can't stop itself from showing off.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Unhappy Endings

A Cure for Wellness, 2017; directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Justin Haythe

Get Out, 2017; written and directed by Jordan Peele



Spoiler alert: In each of these films good triumphs over evil.

And that, in a nutshell, is my major complaint about A Cure for Wellness and Get Out. Both are good (and in the case of Get Out, great) films. But both would have benefited from darker endings.

More and more, it seems otherwise fine, dark-tinged films are abruptly switching gears in the third act for the sole purpose of delivering an upbeat ending with no lingering questions. No matter how dire the circumstances, in the end the main character(s) will breathe a happy sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

I call this phenomenon the Tyranny of the Happy Ending, and it's led to the downfall of several otherwise satisfying thrillers and horror films over the years.

Here's a short list off the top of my head: The young girl in The Monster defeats the titular terror with her mom's Zippo and an aerosol can of antiseptic spray. In It Follows, the teens dispatch the creeping menace using a combination of small electric appliances and a public pool. Mia Wasikowska walks away from all the horrors of Crimson Peak. The heroine of Hush corkscrews her assailant. The Visit concludes with a freestyle rap. The aliens in Signs are undone by a glass of water, on a planet that's 75% covered with the stuff.

Notice the trend? No matter how powerful the antagonist seems or how desperate things have become, good must prevail. I understand the reason: audiences, supposedly, prefer happy endings. But a happy ending is not always a satisfying one, especially when it requires the storyline to tie itself in knots or blow holes in the plot.

I'm not saying this always happens, but the exceptions are rare. Yes, Anya Taylor-Joy survived every vexation of The Witch and gave herself to Satan. The couple who decided to attend The Invitation survived only to see red lamps illuminating the California hillside. Elle Fanning was literally consumed in The Neon Demon. And Thomas Jane drove himself to the bitterest of ends at the conclusion of The Mist. 

I think A Cure for Wellness and Get Out would have done themselves -- and audiences -- a favor if they'd opted to join the latter group. Instead, each one pulls its punches. Rather than striking a mortal wound that would have stuck with their protagonists -- and audiences -- they allowed us to walk away relatively unscathed, breathing a sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

There's a moment in A Cure for Wellness, 15-20 minutes before the final frame, that would have made for an ideal ending. I can almost imagine an earlier version of the script concluding then and there, before a Hollywood overseer demanded both more spectacle and absolute neatness. Dean DeHaan is sitting on a bench, gazing emptily at the sun as it sets on the valley below and the mountains beyond. He's been through eighteen different kinds of hell at this point and the experience has changed him forever. "Why would anyone want to leave?" he asks his companion, something horribly absent in his voice. It's a chilling moment, and such a fitting end I was literally gathering my empties, sure the credits were about to roll.

Instead the film served up a fourth, superfluous act in which DeHaan's character somehow pulls himself together, conquers the villain and escapes with the film's heroine practically on his arm. Get Out, despite all its intelligence and nerve, finishes in much the same way.

And in my book, that's a mistake.

Here's why: I once had a playwriting teacher who told us never to end something with the old It Was Only a Dream! ploy. "You might as well tell your audience they've wasted their time," he said.

The Tyranny of the Happy Ending is the 21st century version of It Was Only a Dream! It doesn't matter how bad things get, how grim everything becomes, how impossible the situation seems. The hero will prevail in the end. He or she always does. Fear not. It was all a dream. Everything will work out just fine. You've wasted your time.

One of the great things about stories, one of the reasons they exist and endure at all, is that they teach us how to deal with life's challenges. And a story that so easily defangs its villain does us a disservice. Because life's challenges aren't always so easily defanged. Real life doesn't work that way, and and neither do some of the best stories, the ones we remember long after they're done.

The couple at the end of Cloverfield don't beat the monster that's laid waste to Manhattan; they die in a last-ditch effort to stop it. Mia Farrow doesn't turn her knife on all the devil worshippers in Rosemary's Baby; we watch as some dark maternal instinct takes control of her. Katherine Ross doesn't burn down the men's club at the center of The Stepford Wives; she stares at us blankly from a supermarket aisle. Duane Jones doesn't kill the zombies and save the girl in Night of the Living Dead; a Pennsylvania militia shoots him in the head. Joan Crawford doesn't concoct a plan to kill Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; she bakes in the hot sun while her mad sister dances for a camera that's no longer there.

As a result, we remember these films, long after they left the theaters. They stick with us -- you might even they haunt us -- not because everything worked out fine at the end, but precisely because it didn't.

There's a saying that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Maybe that's why I prefer one type of ending over the other. Both teach us lessons. But the ones from unhappy endings stick around far longer than the others.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Your Winter Horror, as Ranked by the Geniuses at Thrillist

This is the kind of post that will have doubters claiming I'm secretly on the Thrillist payroll.

In truth, it came from clicking on a random Facebook post, compulsively reading the whole thing, admiring its accuracy and level of detail, then deciding to stop my work on an important project just so I could tell you about it here.


Before you click that link, know that this is not one of those articles you scan for your own state and then ditch. It's worth reading word for word, because the authors have put so much love and humor and well-observed detail into each entry. You'd swear both of them (and a few guest editors from specific locales) had endured a winter in every state.

So take a look. Read through the list. Feel superior to those beneath you (unless you're in Hawaii) and tremble in fear at those above (unless you're in Minnesota). 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

You've Already Seen This Movie

I should have jumped on this Wednesday, when it turned up in my slice of the Internet. That would have been super timely. But life, as they say, got in the way. So here it is now -- 2016, transformed into a horror film trailer. So apt.


For this year that's on its way out and can't leave fast enough, there are just a few things I'd like to say:
Hey, 2016. It is OVER between us. I've met a new, younger year and am ready for a fresh start.
You had your (limited) charms -- thanks for that Cubs win -- but on the whole you've just been way too much of a downer. Plus, I really, really hate your politics.
All your clothes and stuff are sitting out on the street. Pick them up before tomorrow or I'll set them on fire, dance around the flames and piss on the ashes.
Don't write, don't call, don't talk about me to your friends, and if we ever see each other on the street, just keep walking.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Ghost Story for Christmas

Image result for whistle and i'll come to you
Christmas is the most haunted holiday.

Yes, we have Halloween. But the ghosts and spirits we celebrate then are abstract and harmless.

Christmas is different. There's something about the season that reminds us of loved ones who are no longer with us. We think about the Christmases past spent with them. We feel their loss all over again, sometimes deeply. We wish them back, so they could be here now. We imagine them with us, at the dinner table, the holiday get-together, when a certain Christmas carol begins to play, or we gather around the tree to open presents.

If that's not haunted, I don't know what is.

The British must have known this, too. This may be why, back in 1971, BBC commissioned a television special under the name of "A Ghost Story for Christmas." It ran for eight consecutive Christmases, then disappeared. It came back In 2005, and has appeared sporadically since.

Mostly it presented classic ghost stories by M.R. James, but has also included a short story by Charles Dickens and two original screenplays.

I watched one last night. The first. "Whistle and I'll Come to You." In it, a shy and awkward academic in his middle age vacations at a strange seaside inn. During one of his walks he finds an old whistle and blows on it, waking up something that follows him along the shore, and back to the inn, and all the way into his room.

The show was in black and white. Sometimes the camera shook a little or the picture appeared to warp or stretch. Some of the dialog and pacing was a little odd. It all started to work on me, so that when the ghost first appeared -- a dark wraith that seemed to twist and turn just beyond the reach of the waves -- I actually felt chills.

So if you have a little time this Christmas, here's a link to "Whistle and I'll Come to You." And here's a link to all the others if you have a little more.

Merry Christmas. May you be surrounded by your loved ones. The living and the rest.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

You Are Listening To

Back in the mid-nineties a band by the name of Soul Coughing made us put down our beers, sit up straight and take a listen. Especially when "Screenwriter's Blues" came on. (There's no official video, but some good soul by the name of Toby Arguello has posted the song on YouTube so you can listen to it today. Do this: 1.) click that link above, 2.) play it, then, 3.) come back here.)

And today, some twenty-odd years later, there's an amazing site called YouAreListening.To that you should, well, listen to. Today, tomorrow, and all the days that follow.

The site takes its name from a refrain in "Screenwriter's Blues." (Are you listening to it now? You should be.) In it, the singer, or narrator, or whatever he is describes a nightmare drive through a Southern California landscape of models and movie screens and on-fire red-eyed sunrises that exist outside of time and space and the bounds of whatever petty sense of morality you might have begun this hellish journey with. And as he does he intones, over and over again, "It is five AM, and you are listening to, Los Angeles. It is five AM, and you are listening to, Los Angeles."

Aside from all that, what makes the site interesting and worth mentioning here is that it allows you to combine ambient music with police and fire department radio feeds from 25+ cities, as well as airports, the New York Times, NASA, and those conspiracy-worthy numbers-only stations most of us first heard about on Lost. Go ahead. Choose your own adventure.

If you need to work, or write, or run errands with a strange sense of purpose, or just put some goddamned distance between you and whoever's on your very last nerve, YouAreListening.To is a strange, yet strangely calming, place to go.

Go there. Now. Then come back and tell me I'm wrong.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Into the Forest"

2016; directed by Patricia Rozema; written by Patricia Rozema and Jean Hegland

In any kind of survival situation, life gets stripped down to its essentials: food, water, shelter, safety from the people, animals and/or things that are determined to rob, rape, kill and/or eat you.

You could say the same for some film adaptions of novels.

Jean Hegland's Into the Forest blew my mind so much when I read it in 1998 that I recommended it to Oprah Winfrey for her wildly popular book club. I was working for Harpo Productions at the time, so I personally handed it to the producer responsible for her monthly book club series, as opposed to just driving by and tossing a dog-eared copy at the Carpenter Street entrance while shouting, "This would make a kick-ass Oprah's Book Club selection!"

I didn't see how it could lose. Into the Forest had everything Oprah was preaching at the time. Two sisters (female protagonists!) face a post-apocalyptic world in which life's little luxuries disappear one by one, followed by its necessities. As they navigate challenges of death, rape, pregnancy and birth, the two sisters grow increasingly grateful (gratitude!) for the things they still have, while gaining newfound confidence in their ability to survive with what nature provides.

Maybe it was too on-the-nose. I don't know. No one ever got back to me.

It's taken almost twenty years for Into the Forest to become what paperback books used to trumpet as "a major motion picture." Who's to say why, except that the wheels of Hollywood grind exceedingly slow and sometimes things get into turnaround and don't come out for quite a while.

Here's what I can tell you: the film version of Into the Forest gets the essentials right. Ellen Paige and a pre-Westworld Evan Rachel Wood play sisters facing the apocalyptic scenario. What starts out as a power outage eventually leads to the end of civilization. Wood is the older sister, a dancer so intent on an important audition that never comes she practices to the tick-tocking of a metronome, and throws a fit when her younger sister, played by Paige, won't let her use some of their remaining gasoline to power a generator so she can once again dance to music.

Maybe Jean Hegland held out for the opportunity to adapt her own novel. If so, good for her, because she and co-writer Patricia Rozema managed to capture all the book's major movements. And Rozema does a fine job of envisioning its sense of gradual loss as the sisters first adapt to living in a world of ever-decreasing expectations, then choose to leave it behind entirely.

And yet. The parts of the book that stuck with me then (and stick with me still) are the parts I wish the movie had more of, like the sisters carefully rationing the contents of their last remaining tea bag. Some Hegland's language around the idea of lack and want was beautiful, and I almost wish there had been some voice-over narration in the film.

Still, these elements aren't totally missing. Toward the film's mid-point, after Wood's character has been brutally assaulted, she refuses the last aspirin in the house, insisting that it be saved for something more worthwhile. Which only made me wonder how much worse things would have to be for that aspirin finally to be worth taking, and at that point what possible good it could do?

However, while the power's still on, the Internet's up and you're able to stream Into the Forest from Amazon Prime (among other online services) the question remains: is it worth your time, one of your precious remaining evenings? Yes. There's plenty of suspense, sadness and unexpected joy here to reward all but the hungriest of viewers, which just happened to include me.