Autumn Fragment: CROSSROADS

Posted in Halloween, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Autumn comes upon us tomorrow – here is a piece of a story called CROSSROADS, about a group of bored kids who occupy themselves with a dangerous, demonic game. It’s the time of year when we hear whispers in the air, bone-dry leaves tapping out code that something waits for us beyond the sky.

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Andy didn’t tell us all the rules at once – probably came up with them on the fly. He never wrote them down, and we never forgot them. “It only comes at dusk,” he said. “It needs those shadows to make itself real. Where it comes from, everything is shadow, beyond shadow. In the daytime or the moonlight, it’s just air. It can watch but it can’t do anything. So we have to bring it things right at sunset – so it can grab them up.” But also, “We can’t look right at it. In its real body – it’s too gnarly. Our brains would – BAM!” Fishface jumped at that one, and Andy cackled at him. Jenny hit his arm to make him stop – that laugh was ugly.

This went on for a few weeks, until the rules started to sound the same, and we were wondering what kind of game this was after all. We didn’t do anything different – still snuck into the movies, stole cigarettes, kicked trash around the newly-filled river – except we stopped going to the barn. No one brought it up, either, so we didn’t miss it. But we were still bored. Jenny started demanding answers. What was the point of the game? How did we play? Andy told us in pieces, but after a while we got the basics: we had to steal an offering, and take it out to the barn at sunset, and leave it there. If the offering was good, we’d get to live. But if it was bad, the thing in the dark would take us to its crypt and keep us there forever. Andy repeated this last part all the time. He never smiled when he said it. “Okay, sure, offerings – but when do we take them? Whenever we feel like it?” Jenny snapped one day. Andy glowered at her when she said it. “Don’t joke,” he said. “It’ll tell us when. We’ll know.”

When he said this, the game got interesting again. We all waited. Sometimes we didn’t talk at all, in case we missed the call. The wind – turning cold, brittle – might carry a slithery voice any day. Our teachers stopped yelling at us to pay attention, because we were listening, just not to them. Nighttime became something holy for us. In our bedrooms we stayed awake and tilted our ears at the empty windows. Of course, nothing happened, nothing came to us; though Jenny and Fishface sometimes talked about funny dreams, where they walked into the barn and fell down into a hole, but the hole was really a mouth that was about to clamp shut. Sometimes they woke up and their sheets were pulled off their bodies, they said. Andy chuckled, “That’s part of the game.”

It was toward the middle of September, when the leaves just started changing, that Andy told us the game had started. We were a little jealous – how come he got to hear the call and we didn’t? “Because it’s my game, turd faces,” he said.

Last time we’d seen the barn, it had been all lightning and rain, big blasts of thunder like drum beats. It set the right mood. This time it was a nice evening, a little cool, no stormclouds waiting on the skyline. A school night, too, to make it worse. The weather didn’t matter, Andy assured us – when it called, it meant business, gloom or sunshine. The problem was the offering, of course. Jenny suggested jewels from her mother’s vanity drawer. Fishface thought of hamburgers – “It’s hungry, anyway, you said.”

“None of that,” Andy snapped. “It told me what it wants.”

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Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Ghosts in the Dark

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2017 by smuckyproductions

The air is turning cold in the forests and mountains; autumn is staking its claim. In honor of the darker weather, here is another fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT – this one relating to the character’s search for answers in a nebulous, eerie world. 

The mountain looks down on this room every night, just an outline against the stars. I stare at it from the window, listen to the wind slipping through the pines and the shaky hoot of an owl; but the mountain is all I can see. I intend to initiate a staring contest between us. It hasn’t accepted the challenge.

When it’s this late at night, with the bloodstream clogged and the air cold, inky – no need for ghouls or winged beasts or God up there. The town has its own ghosts roaming the dark. The ghosts of the miners, for example, trekking through the trees from that final place of rest that no one has bothered to uncover yet. The ghost of that suicidal woman, Janet, a rather new shade. Ghosts who lost their jobs, rich families who abandoned their legacy and patronage; fathers trying to start a fire with wet matches in the dark. And the missing girl, Stephanie. Her ghost is the most intangible. I still don’t know where she’s been or where she’s gone. I can feel all of them at the window if I try hard enough – maybe the regulars can, too, and that’s why they drink, to convince themselves it’s just the wind. And it is just that, just a lonely breath in the other room, gone cold by the time you hear it. That’s one thing about the city. Nights are just brown or grey gloom, depending on pollution, and you know someone, somewhere is still awake; the night and silence are never complete. Here, they’re sovereign. Anyone who wanders out there at this time of night might as well be a ghost, because no one will be there to see them, and with just the moonlight cast upon their doomed steps – there! There he is, at the window. Going to tell me one more story. This time the beast’s already breathing down my neck. My own breath, and it hardly stirs a hair.

Mom hated that I got drunk. But she never understood the medicinal effects. It’s fair, isn’t it, to get drunk? Breath no longer cold; vision unreliable enough to blame these shapes on the poison, a side effect. Graham and Roselyn and Stan get it. They’ve learned the secret of living with this empty air. But not with the ghosts. No, I suspect there’s no secret to that; the shadows will continue to creep, creep closer to the window and tap – polite until they lose patience.

But even ghosts need to sleep, and dream. My vigil on the mountain ends. It’s already against the window. I won’t invite it in.

Sterile Fairy Tales: the Atmosphere of Beaver Creek

Posted in Dark Musings, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2017 by smuckyproductions

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For a few years now, due to my mother’s rather unique event-planning job, I’ve been able to make brief visits to the Colorado village of Beaver Creek. This mountain resort does not qualify as a town in the traditional sense. Just west of Vail, its activities and infrastructure are limited to hiking, skiing when there’s snow, and indulging in decadent sustenance. Its main feature is the quiet, a well-protected amenity. Wealthy families make up the bulk of the population here, and they come to seek privacy, peace. They build or purchase massive houses in the woods, most designed to mirror Swiss chalets or copper-plated Viking halls, but without real texture or age to cause functional problems. On average, these houses are occupied two or three months out of the year – some, a bus driver noted while discussing the issue, for all but a week or two. The houses spend most of their time in silence.

The village, with its European kitsch architecture and Romantic mountain backdrop hovering just beyond, projects the personality of a luxurious fairy tale. Such majestic forests and complete nights, the royal houses, can’t avoid the comparison. But all fairy tales succumb to dangers that disrupt their pristine little worlds and call for an adventure to prevent utter destruction. Here, danger has been scrubbed from the walls, plowed from the earth – it’s a resort, after all, and there’s no room for such things. Up here, even the scenery seems curated; the trees are lush and plentiful, the namesake creek a central, controlled factor in the village’s layout; a spectrum of flowers and eternal fields and quaint ponds dot the landscape beyond each twist of road. At the edge of autumn, where we teeter now, the leaves have begun fading to gold almost on cue. Amidst the concealing trees, the windows and metallic siding of houses reflect the sun, hinting at their hiding places.

But if this is true, why does one feel an omen arising from the trees at dusk? Why do the empty houses wink with sinister enigmas from between the branches? Surrounded by careful sterility and curated sublimity of the village, an overactive imagination will naturally conjure phantoms in the shadows; and the shadows lay thick here in the decadent, abandoned rooms. The windows rarely illuminate from within, and the rooms hardly ever flicker with moving shapes. They aren’t humble houses – some tower three, four stories, occupy an entire acre, brooding in hushed glares as loudly as their owners will fill them when they return, if they ever do. It seems that the air would eventually have to compensate for those prolonged silences. What would the echoes form as they bounce off the walls when there’s nothing to absorb them? What emerges when the people no longer fill their rooms with molecules and breath; what do their private escapes leave behind?

Likely nothing. But in such an alien, sensorily absorbing environment, one imagines things. The controlled paradise is, in the end, rather empty; and I enjoy it more when I fill it with strange muses. It’s my greatest pleasure up here, pretending that the spirits have risen to haunt the hollow spaces, fill the gaps – though it always leaves a hole in my own mind, because it seems that darkness must come to these places, and I hate to think that it is so well-hidden behind those reflective windows. Passing by, one would never know.

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Last Chance

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by smuckyproductions

I’ve always struggled, as a writer, with finding specific instances that develop a character’s goal while giving the reader a reason to sympathize. With the current novel revision, that’s something I am trying to overcome. Here is an early introduction to the protagonist and narrator – hopefully it inspires a twinge of empathy. 

July 19th:

A slow and average afternoon at the bookstore, no A.C., sun oozing in yellow strands through the dusty windows. The old paper and shelves gave the air awful, sedating mustiness. Nothing to do but stare and fan oneself, think desperately of something far away. The first customer in an hour relieved me of my boredom and asked if I could recommend a book on writing. She smiled, a little nervous, embarrassed. “You’re a writer?” I said. “I want to be,” she replied, wringing her hands. So I smiled, too, and laughed a little, quoted a favorite teacher who put my doubts to rest a while ago – “Anyone who writes is a writer.” She laughed, too, and asked, “What are you working on?” Like she really wanted to know.

And as I tried to think of a response, the boss strut over, stretched to her full imposing height. She exuded enough ice to cut the heat through her presence alone. The customer glanced warily at the boss – she must have felt the air cool – then hastily made her purchase, and went off to learn what I’m supposed to already know. When the door jangled shut, the boss tapped on the register and glared at me with her teeth slightly bared for a moment until she was certain she had my attention. Then she intoned, “You’re selling books. You’re not writing. Not on my time.” She returned to her full height and the edge of her lip twitched, expressing her triumph, before slinking away. I could have argued the contrary, but she walked away before I could think of anything to back up my case. Still haven’t found evidence in my favor. Any supporting statement would be a lie. But it doesn’t have to be. This is the last chance, buddy. Before I melt to this register forever.

I keep thinking of what Dad would say when he started his stories. “There are some things, Luke, that we were never supposed to mess with.” Or, “that we were never meant to find.” I had no idea what he meant back then, just that he was going to give me all his attention and tell a story. Now I want to know why he chose that phrase. Some things. What things?

Poem: DISENGAGE

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2017 by smuckyproductions

A poem from college, trying to make sense of the alienation that arises in unusual social situations. 

DISENGAGE

They speak a different language.
Try to catch patterns, but
the syllables grind
and the inflections clash –
bad lip fashion?

This happens
when I disengage
click a switch in my spine
let my brain escape while
my body does its best to sit still

It won’t intrude on them –
atoms extracted, not split
a minute hollow
no rupture for me, no blast
to get their attention

I could announce my ruin
whisper or scream the news
and they wouldn’t understand
even our intention
floats in polar spheres

So I melt into the couch
with an off-pitch sigh
and days later the smell
will alert them

The Barrier of Nostalgia: Thoughts on IT

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by smuckyproductions

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[light spoilers ahead]

This weekend ushered in the latest horror sensation: a fairly large-budgeted adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. The new version is flashy, stylish, pretty well-acted, and scary in moments. It’s remarkable that a studio film was able to follow Stephen King’s brutal, surreal and melodramatic book so closely. The changes made were, mostly, for the better. But through the entire viewing experience, I felt distanced. This was a coming-of-age narrative that I could only care about from afar, because it’s very far from mine – mainly because it’s about a group of straight white boys who never acknowledge that their struggles are far lighter than those of Bev and Mike, the only kids who don’t fit that mold.

I’m simply tired of hearing the story of these heteronormative characters rising above their bullies and fears, as if those things are actual oppressors rather than just obstacles. Pennywise represents human fear, but all of its incarnations are loud, digitized monsters. The film favors these shiny set pieces and neglects to develop what make King’s book so intoxicating – the actual monsters in town. Bev’s dad goes from a terrifying but human abuser to a one-note creep with as much nuance as Eddie’s leper; and Bill’s grieving parents, so heartbreakingly neglectful in the book, are reduced to a single yelling stereotype. While Bill Skarsgard is suitably frightening, the CGI always takes precedence over his performance; it’s hard to tell what’s him and what isn’t.

Those criticisms are petty and easily dismissed by taste, but my issues with the film go deeper. When people talk about the heart, it’s always in context of the Loser’s Club. And most of the screen time is granted to Bill, Richie and Eddie. The roles are performed well, but their stories simply don’t feel as honest or emotional to me as Mike and Bev’s. The former must fight for his life, not just his dignity, against the town bullies; while Bev, a 13-year-old girl who has survived apparent sexual abuse from her dad, is constantly ogled by her male counterparts (and the camera). There’s something off about that, right? Bev is performed with intensity and commitment by Sophia Lillis, and given a fair number of scenes to herself, but she is still defined by her sexuality and gender. Meanwhile, Mike – played by Chosen Jacobs – is simply a side character whose terror of white supremacy is never mentioned by his friends.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the film on a superficial level. IT is a blast. It’s never dull, the atmosphere is intoxicating, some (but far from all) of the scares are supremely effective. And therein lies another one of my issues. With stories like this and Stranger Things, which is basically IT-lite with a splat of Firestarter, it appears that issues like racism and sexism are “too serious” to be discussed outright. As if oppressed people can’t also tell stories that are fun as well as scary. Watching these films and television shows, it’s hard not to be entertained. I love a good, clever, suspenseful story. But when the characters are always cut from this same cloth – societally accepted, even if they aren’t popular – I (and other people like me, I’ve confirmed) begin to feel left out, even from these stories that claim to be about people who don’t fit in.

I guess it must be nostalgia, in part, that makes these stories so endearing. Nostalgia for “simpler times,” decades in the past; when these stories were told without a second thought. And what were those times like for people of color, queer people, women? That is the barrier of nostalgia: it looks back fondly on times that were outright dangerous for many people in our society. Telling stories that appear to celebrate this period become alienating for anyone besides those who thrived in them. And for those of us who can’t connect, saying so feels a little ostracizing. IT and Stranger Things are defended like white silk – one dirty mark and the whole thing is ruined. Why is that? Why can’t horror fans voice their dissenting opinions without being told they’re wrong, that they aren’t a part of this insider’s club?

Thing is, I’ve seen many horror films that eschew this pattern. Raw, The Witch, It Follows, Trash Fire, Get Out, Dearest Sister, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, XX, The Wailing, and The Invitation – just to name a few – all focus on narratives that don’t revolve around straight white boys. And some of them are extremely fun. What if these filmmakers had been granted the resources that IT received? What exciting, entertaining and nostalgic stories could they tell, that don’t focus on a heteronormative white man’s experience?

It’s not to say that these stories aren’t valid, but we’re heard them endless times, and they still seem to dominate the field. They’re the fan favorites because they’re easy, wrapped up neat and tidy; they don’t need to recognize that people still live in actual fear because their characters have overcome their villains. I guess ease is nice. And for the most part, I do fit into that demographic – white kid who was bullied in the suburbs. I’m not trying to claim that I don’t benefit from that privilige. But I had to come to terms with a part of my life that these characters will never have to worry about – my sexuality, which was hell to accept for myself, even worse to have to explain to people – and I don’t see that story being told very often. My friends and colleagues, women and people of color, likewise see their narratives dismissed. When will we get to tell our fun, exciting and honest stories?

I don’t like to think about the true answer to this question. These nostalgic voices still appear to the valued above all others in our culture. Speaking out against these voices seems to be taboo – the defenders of IT have come out in full force this weekend, quite angrily in some cases, against even the smallest criticism. I feel like I’m wrong in voicing my opinion. It saddens me to like an outsider even in a community of outsiders – horror fans. But the fact remains: I couldn’t just enjoy IT because I am tired of the narrative it perpetuates. I am tired of genre cinema valuing those voices over equally valid, but perhaps less tidy ones. It’s time to let someone else make the next big horror film, with a budget and cultural significance equal to IT. And yet, it still feels like that time is far, far away.

Story Fragment: LAPPING WATER (2)

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Another piece of this story, about a teenage boy’s phantasmal, frightening first sexual experience in a small town. To read the first segment, click here. 

Lor crouched on the beach and blinked into the water. The moon rippled over the surface, turning it into a broken mirror. That was all, cold light and emptiness beyond. Lor’s lungs filled and he sputtered – Avery couldn’t be gone. His shirt and belt were still on the beach. Lor crawled closer to the water’s edge, gripping the rocks to keep himself steady, and tried to see beneath the ripples. There, it might have been a face – grey, bloated features – but was it Avery’s? Was it Lor’s? The lake lapped, slow again, in mocking, nonsensical reply. That was the only sound; no soft breath, no wailing. Lor felt that empty noise rattling his core again. Maybe that cry had come from him.

He couldn’t know how long he stared into the lake, waiting for a response – he hadn’t checked the time when they arrived. The air had embedded in his skin, a complete chilling of his blood, but he couldn’t leave Avery down there. Every few moments the moon shook on the water in the shape of a face, a reaching hand, and then smoothed out again into the hateful mirror. He clutched the rocks and waited anyway, lungs rattling with moisture just as Avery’s must have done. Lor watched until his fingers burned with cold and he saw the lake rising toward them. Jerking back, he escaped it, and left Avery’s clothes on the rocks. Like a coward he ran.

The town still showed a few signs of life when Lor stumbled onto Main St. The asphalt glistened with moisture, soaked by some accident or aberration, because it couldn’t have rained. Droplets of water gleamed on the windows, going dark as the store owners closed up for the night. The streetlights wavered overhead, murky and partial. Lor tried to see through the light, but caught only glimpses of faces – all slack, greyish, staring back at him with drooping mouths. He made sure to avoid their soggy eyes. If he touched them, he understood, he would sink into them. Their skin looked so soft. His limbs were frigid and clumsy, but he managed to dodge them. As he swept past he heard their breath – wet sucking, tongues sliding, searching. Near the mini golf course, he thought he could hear their wet feet slapped on the concrete in pursuit. Or maybe it was only one set of feet. Avery, with his big hair plastered into his eyes, and lips parting to let water dribble out; gurgling as he said, The water’s sweet. The water’s warm.

Lor ran. Even though it hadn’t touched him, hadn’t dragged him under, he could feel it on his skin. Slick, clinging moisture. His hair hanging down, clothes sticking to him. He wiped his forehead and his palm came away with a greenish slime. It had covered him, made him dirty all over. Avery’s mouth trickled into his ear to confirm it. Sweet… warm.