Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dream Theater: My Entry in The Next Big Thing Contest

Photo from
I've entered something called The Next Big Thing Contest. My entry is a story that, strangely enough, includes me, another man, and two women. 

We're traveling through the Middle East, in a country that's not-entirely friendly to Americans. One night we're forced to leave a party being held in an abandoned grocery store when the police arrive. They've come because someone has complained that men and women have been seen dancing together.

We hop in a cab, but I immediately get a bad feeling about our driver. Sure enough, it turns out that he's part of the opposition, and he has a plan to take us to a farm far outside the city where several of his cohorts are waiting. 

Before we can leave the city limits, though, our cab is attacked by a group of rioters in the street. Someone throws one of those old-fashioned fire extinguishers--the big silver kind--at us. It barely misses the other guy, and all four of us crouch down in the cab, trying to hide ourselves as much as possible.

We don't get out at our hotel--that would just tip everyone off as to where we're staying. So instead we get out several blocks away and sneak back to the hotel, dodging crowds, fires and gun fights. 

We hide in our room until morning, while violence continues erupting just outside our window. When morning comes, we'll begin what we all know will be a long journey to safety.

Then I'm in New York City, for the Next Big Thing Awards. The ceremony is taking place in a museum, which is having an exhibition of famous discotheques throughout history. Several of them have been recreated, right down to the restrooms, which we're encouraged to use. I find myself in one based on ancient Roman baths, and I urinate into an elaborate fountain.

I comment that Chicago should have one of these, so that people would know they'd had a good time when they visited. 

A fabulous drag queen nearby overhears my comment and finds it hysterical. "Good morning, bitch!" she says. I reply, "See you tomorrow!"

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dream Theater: A California Frank Lloyd Wright

Photo by Crosby Doe
One of California's last great Frank Lloyd Wright homes was being transferred from the family who'd owned it their entire lives into the hands of conservators who would take care of it going forward.

I'd become friends with the family: a father and mother, now old; a son and daughter, now grown. I was spending my days and nights with them at the house, going through all the furnishings and housewares, everything they'd accumulated over the course of their lives, right down to the decades-old cocktail dresses and suits and ties, helping them decide what would stay and what would go.

I'd never been inside a home so elegant or complex, so filled with small passages and hidden spaces. Every day it seemed that I discovered something new. It was easy to get lost in it. I could understand why it was so difficult for them to leave.

These were our final days in the house and I was free to take almost anything I wanted. Everything in it was original, though not all of it was in good shape.

On one of our last afternoons together we sat in a sun-filled room, laughing about the things they'd hung on to all those years. Who would want their children's old vinyl cribs? The wooden bench of no importance with its chipped paint? All those overgrown houseplants? There was still so much to do but no more time to think about it.

We grew quiet and somehow all came to the same wordless decision: We'd leave the house as-is, the windows open, the doors unlocked, and allow nature to take its course.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dream Theater: Front Row At the Big Meeting

I'm sitting in the front row at one of those big company meetings. The kind where they announce departmental reorganizations and promotions like they're the results of a months-long contest we've all been competing in.

Our new president stands directly in front of me. She has a short haircut, and wears a sweater vest and tie. This seems like an odd choice, but she makes it work. It looks good on her.

She addresses the crowd in that jokey, clubby tone of voice that's supposed to put us all at ease but also makes it clear exactly who's in and who's out and what's what.

I look up at her as she speaks, and I know I better keep the proper expression on my face at all times. An expression that says this is exciting news. That I'm completely on board with our new leadership team and eager to work with them. That I have no thoughts about what's happening other than complete and total agreement.

Some people have left their old positions, even though they still work for the company. They've been moved to another building, like old office furniture sent into storage.

In their place, a number of new executives have joined the company. Our new president announces their names. As they stand up from their seats and wave I see that they're all wearing sweater vests and ties, too.

That's when I look down and realize that I'm not wearing a sweater vest and tie.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dream Theater: The Strange City

Image copyright 2016 Marvel
I was walking in the downtown section of a strange city, lost in a maze of unfamiliar streets. They seemed to only be a block or two long, and most of them led to dead ends.

Night was falling, and as I tried to figure my way out I kept finding myself at the mouth of dark alleys. Each time I asked myself, Do I dare go down that way? Something dangerous is surely waiting for me.

Somehow I found my way to a platform that I could climb up, in order to get a better sense of my surroundings. Below me, on the other side, was a park, with many people in it. I tried shouting down to them, to let them know I was lost and needed help. But they were too far away and couldn't hear me. There was no way of getting to them unless I jumped, and the distance between where I was and the ground was enough that I knew it was likely to hurt me.

I kept shouting and waving, hoping someone down there would see me. But it was dark, and I was too far away.

Introducing "Dream Theater"

Friends, I'm going to try something new here.

I don't need to tell you that the past year or so has been rough for a lot of us. As a result, many of my posts--at least, the few posts I've made--have been politically oriented.

At the time, this seemed appropriate. Politics were (and still are) pretty scary. But human beings can get used to a lot of things. What was shocking in 2017 has become commonplace in 2018.

Plus, I'm tired of politics. On the news, all over my Facebook feed, and in practically every conversation I find myself. That's just too much.

That doesn't mean I don't want to see us marching in the streets to protest corruption, injustice and the sorry state of our world. Or not voting. I especially don't want to see anyone throwing their hands in the air and saying their vote doesn't matter. It does.

But I need something new and different. And maybe you do, too.

So here's my idea: I'm going to start posting my dreams.

Now I know a lot of people say there's nothing more boring than listening to someone else's dream. I get that. That's why I'm going to do everything I can to make sure mine are interesting and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. I've been writing them down for over two years now, and I think I've gotten pretty good at that.

I'm also doing this because I believe there are powerful creative forces lurking in our subconscious, and if a writer (like me, and maybe you) starts listening to them, a sort of virtuous circle begins to turn. The subconscious realizes you're paying attention, and rewards you with even more stuff dredged up from the brainy depths. (For more on this concept, see 8 Writing Tips from Jeff VanderMeer, specifically numbers 2 and 3.)

Dreams have provided me with potent images, interesting story ideas and helpful answers to writing problems. They've also given me opportunities to practice taking the little bits and pieces of what's inside my head and translating them into words that others might want to read. That's good experience for any writer in my book.

I hope they might do the same for you--or even inspire you to start paying more attention to your own personal midnight movies.

So that's the plan. I'll still do the occasional movie review or bit on an interesting/weird news story, and maybe even a politically oriented post or two.

But dreams. Yeah. A lot more of those. And a lot more often, too.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"IT" Knows What Scares You

2017; written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman ; directed by Andy Muschietti

When he set out to write IT, Stephen King says he considered the book his "final exam in horror."

By that point in his career King had already published twelve novels and numerous short stories, putting a contemporary spin on many well-established horrors (vampires, werewolves, psychic phenomena, haunted places) as well as creating many new ones (possessed cars, apocalyptic epidemics, rabid dogs) that would go on to terrify and influence two generations and counting of writers, comic book artists and filmmakers.

IT's 1138 pages are a compendium of horror tropes we've come to know and fear--a small town with dark secrets, an ancient evil that preys on children, a gang of bullies, a gallery of monsters, torrents of gushing blood, a weird old house, a giant spider, and a creepy clown named Pennywise who orchestrates the whole thing from his home deep in the sewers of Derry, Maine.

Capturing this sprawl on screen was first attempted in a two-part television mini-series that turned out to be more fondly remembered than it was received in 1990. Now, twenty-seven years later (coincidentally the same time between IT's fabled appearances) comes a new incarnation: the big-screen, big-budget adaptation.

Awareness for the remake has been intense, thanks to anticipation on the part of King's and the book's fans, and a clever marketing plan that's been doling out sneak peeks and advance notices since at least this spring. And it's worked. During IT's first four days in theaters the film has already scared up $117 million, making it the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, with the biggest single-day ticket sales. IT is now on track to become the highest-grossing Stephen King film of all time.

So, yeah. Big book + big movie = big money. But should you see it if you already haven't been shoveled in by all the hype and excitement?

IT's screenwriters wisely cut King's epic right down the middle, severing the first half--which covers the origins of the teenaged Loser's Club and their first showdown with Pennywise--from the second--when they return to face the horror again as adults. Had the film turned out to be a box office dud, it could have existed perfectly well without a sequel, though that's almost assured now, given the early success.

Director Andy Muschietti has updated King's 1950s setting to the late eighties, though the nostalgia reads as more timeless than period-specific. Interiors have an aged and dingy feel, and the props (especially the ever-present bicycles) look like holdovers from a much earlier time--appropriate for a film and town where more than a hundred years of dark history is ever-present.

Where IT feels completely up to date is in its technical details. The sound design places odd effects throughout the auditory space, creating the uneasy sense that something is coming without ever revealing where it's going to appear. The visual effects support the story without calling undue attention to themselves, and give Pennywise several awful, imaginative entrances and forms.

About Pennywise the dancing clown: the makeup and Janie Bryant's costume design conjure up a tattered Victorian-era Bozo that pays respect to Tim Curry's memorable TV portrayal. Bill Skarsgard ably handles a showy but precarious role that could have easily descended into ludicrousness, dragging down everything else with it.

The young cast (adults, when they appear, are oblivious, threatening and even monstrous) all turn in brave and sophisticated performances. Each member of the Loser's Club is a specific, identifiable type. But special praise goes to Sophia Lillis, who's luminous as Beverly, the group's sole female member, and Jeremy Ray Taylor, who emerges as its hopeful romantic.

Those familiar with King's canon--and who isn't?--will catch nods to it throughout the film. The Loser's Club and Derry's town bullies are reminiscent of Stand By Me's two warring groups of adolescent males; the geysers of blood that terrify Beverly call to mind both Carrie and Kubrick's gushing elevator in The Shining; the old house that sits atop the well to hell could moonlight as the Marsten mansion in 'Salem's Lot.

And that's where any complaints I might have about IT come in. King's work--on both the page and screen--is so well known, its mastery and popularity so universally acknowledged, that any elements of novelty and surprise go missing. IT feels familiar, in ways that are both wonderful and predictable. As King himself said, it's the final exam of horror, and as such, it necessarily represents material that he and a lot of us have already covered.