Joe Hill Kicks Ass in NYC

I was so excited to see Joe Hill read yesterday that it was hard to keep myself tethered to the ground. But then a series of mean, petty incidents at the place where I’ve worked in-house the last five months escalated to an unbearable level, and with mad tears, I quit just like that. I was so upset and called my sister after my walkout, wondering if I should just go home because I felt so miserable. She said, “No, no, go to the reading. It’ll make you feel better.”

Somehow I took the subway up to the Upper East Side and realized that I was on the wrong side of Manhattan. I needed to be at the Barnes & Noble on Eighty-Second Street and Broadway. Looking at the map in the Eighty-Sixth Street station, I thought it would probably be faster to walk through Central Park than to loop back to Grand Central and transferring and transferring. Also, stomping through the park helped me burn off some of my anger.

Smelling of armpit wrapped in a merino wool sweater—how I hate business casual—I sat near the back, where I could get a clear view of the stage. I had an aisle seat a few places down from an adorable girl who had outfitted herself with a pair of red horns à la Iggy Perrish from Joe Hill’s Horns. I read a few pages of the paranormal romance series project that I’m in the middle of editing, and then read the acknowledgments page of NOS4A2. There it was—another public thanking of his copyeditor. This pleased me so much as one of those working in the trenches of publishing—when an author takes time out to thank those who help them look their best with their words. Feeling a little bit better, I was ready to hear a story when Joe Hill came onstage to read.

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He was very courteous, making sure to read a different part of the book because there were some repeat attendees in the crowd and he didn’t want them to be bored. He was also a bit of a smart-ass—but a nice smart-ass—threatening to call on random members of the audience if they didn’t have any questions for him after the reading.

He was a good reader, and I settled in and was visualizing a bald Keith Richards with small, brown teeth—a horrifying image—when a couple, running late, tapped me on the shoulder. I think I must have jumped a foot. The guy apologized for scaring me and they slid into the available seats next to me, but I’m sure it was Mr. Hill who was responsible for that.

After the reading, Hill talked about his theories of horror, which I wholeheartedly endorse. He noted a part of his book that seemed to slow down and get too mechanical and said, “I…got thinking about Hannibal…When we met Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, he was the most terrifying thing anyone had ever seen. He’s only in that book for about two chapters. When we come across him in Silence of the Lambs, he’s onscreen with Jodie Foster for fourteen minutes. That’s it, fourteen minutes. And he’s the thing everybody remembers from that film, how terrifying Hannibal Lecter was.

“But then there was another movie and then another movie and book after book, and now there’s a TV series, and at a certain point, he becomes so familiar he’s like your toaster. You’re just not scared of him anymore…What’s really scary is that shark in the water, which we hardly ever see in Jaws. The shark is terrifying because you don’t know how to stop it and you don’t know where it is.”

I’m a sucker for hearing about other writers’ processes and routines and was happy when Hill shared his. “I’m very habit driven. I have a to-do list that I follow religiously,” he said. “I have a morning routine that consists of five items. The fifth item on the list is getting a thousand words. And nothing else in my day happens until I do that. And the other four things aren’t necessarily all that interesting but it’s read a poem, read one article in the New York Times, feed and walk the dog, take my Paxil.”

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Surprisingly, nobody brought up Hill’s famous mother and father, but when the Q and A sped into the lightning-fast round, an audience member asked who his favorite writers were. Hill said, “My parents both write; they’re my favorite writers. My brother would definitely be running a close third.”

I admire that kind of fierce family loyalty, but it’s even better when it’s true, and Stephen and Tabitha King, Owen King, and Joe Hill have become a kind of American literary dynasty.

After the Q and A, the line was long to get books signed by Hill, but truthfully I had expected it to be much longer. I was imagining a Gaiman-length line. I sat around sending texts to another pal in publishing until it shortened up, and then joined behind a family in matching heavy metal T-shirts—a mom, a dad, and a son who was about eight years old and carrying a Shakespeare puzzle. They had a bagful of books and insisted that I go before them. We chatted about books, the talk Hill had given, and the crazy guy who was on line about eight people ahead of us. It made me so happy and brought me out of my slump. Horror folks are good people.

My signed copy--in gold!

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Evil Dead Reboot: Only the Strong Need Apply

So far, 2013 is shaping up to be a great year for horror. Both a Stephen King and a Joe Hill book are coming out this year; the Stephen King miniseries Under the Dome comes out in June; and Donna Tartt, who I consider gothic horror, is putting out a new novel this fall. This last weekend I had choices about what to see out in the theaters—two! That almost never happens. Granted, one was a documentary on theories behind a very famous horror movie, but still, the diversity.

My horror-loving friends and I debated which movie to see, and we finally decided on Evil Dead at the Union Square movie theater, planning on drinks and food afterward to dissect the movie. I was excited because I saw Diablo Cody’s name attached to the screenplay on IMDb. A lot of people have bagged on her work after Juno, like Jennifer’s Body and United States of Tara, but I really like her. She writes strong, complex female and male characters, and the lady really likes her horror.

The Union Square movie theater’s gem is a man in a wheelchair who greets customers as they enter the theater. One of my friends was running late, so as two others saved seats, I waited downstairs for the straggler. Me and the greeter started talking about what movie I was going to see, and he said he’d seen it and that it was scary.

“How scary is it?”

He gave me a mischievous smile and said, “If I’m still working after you see it, come tell me what you thought.”

Another woman, a lover of the original Evil Dead trilogy, joined in the conversation, and we talked about our favorite Evil Dead movies and moments, and the greeter told us which were the best theaters in the complex and that I didn’t have to worry about being late for my 4:30 p.m. movie—it wouldn’t really start until 4:45 p.m.

I’d received e-mails telling me about how one woman, a movie critic, walked out of the theater because of a self-mutilation scene, and I started to get a little worried. I do not like torture movies—that’s why I had to quit the Saw franchise after the second movie. I draw the line at torture and animal cruelty, and guess what? This Evil Dead reboot hits on both.

 

I knew the filmmakers of the Evil Dead reboot would have to take a much different direction from the original, which is a classic. You can’t touch the zany mix of humor and over-the-top grotesqueness that are the original Evil Dead trilogy. The filmmakers decided to go with gore, and I knew I was in trouble, with the first scene establishing the story of the evil cabin in the woods, when I saw the torture instruments lying out on a wooden table in the basement, where all the bad juju happens.

It’s an interesting premise how the young group is gathered in the woods in the first place—to stage a drug intervention, where everybody promises to stay through to the end, no matter how crazy it gets, in order to help and support their friend/sister. When shit starts to go down, nobody’s able to really scream at the screen, Leave! Go! Get in the car and drive. Instead, it’s understandable when the character Mia (Jane Levy), going through withdrawal, is not believed after saying there’s something in the woods.

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Her friends bumble through the cabin, trying to clean up the place, and come across the Book of the Dead locked up in the basement. One ends up releasing the demon complete with my favorite, the Raimi effect. Who knew that a camera strapped to a two-by-four would become such a legacy? I’m sure the footage was shot more artfully in this Evil Dead reboot, but it looks the same to me, and it’s an important link to the original trilogy.

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The problem for me with this version of the Evil Dead is the too-realistic gore that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. I saw at least five people get up and leave the theater, not able to stomach any more, and at the end, reading credits and waiting for the legendary Bruce Campbell’s cameo, I didn’t see Diablo Cody’s name go by for screenplay. It made me wonder if her efforts were rubbed out.

I guess this is a great movie for some, but not me. The acting is good, the story makes sense, but I just don’t like torture films. I was counting down the bodies, knowing only one would be left standing and it was just a matter of time. Because the characters were all dying in such grisly ways, I didn’t grow attached to any of them. I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie again when it’s released on DVD, though the small screen might make the gore more tolerable. I prefer the goofy fun of the original Evil Dead.

The Possession: Don’t Open the Box!

I was so happy when I saw The Possession take the number one spot at the box office two weeks in a row. It was the little horror movie that could, yet people seemed completely shocked when that happened. They shouldn’t be. When a screenplay agent visited the last coworking studio I was at, Paragraph, he did not recommend doing a screenplay on spec unless it was a low-budget horror movie script because those were always sellable. He also said writers shouldn’t slum and try to do a horror script to break into the business. You really have to believe in your material and bring something new to the table to impress today’s jaded horror fans.

Though I was impressed with The Possession’s success, I ended up being tardy to see the movie. It’s on its way out of the theaters now, and I think part of my problem was finding someone to see it with. Everybody had already gone when I wanted to see it, and it’s no fun seeing a horror movie if you don’t have somebody to scream with. This ended up being the second feature in me and Valerie’s horror movie weekend. While watching, Valerie said she always learns something in horror movies, and within the very first few minutes of seeing this one, the number one lesson was apparent: Don’t open the box.

The Possession has an original premise that reminds me of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box (where the protagonist goes to great lengths to secure a haunted object advertised on the Internet). The movie opens with a scary scene where an older woman confronts an antique wooden box on her mantel. It emits spooky sounds like a Goblin song from a Dario Argento movie, and it’s pretty obvious who or what is going to win in this matchup.

Next, the audience is introduced to a fractured family—mom (Kyra Sedgwick) and dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have divorced and their two daughters, Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis), are shuffled between two separate residences. Dad has just moved into a new prefab house, and on the way there, the family car passes a yard sale. The girls convince their father to stop—after all, what can be more pleasurable on a fall day than a yard sale? The girls play dress up and frolic, but then the younger daughter, Em, finds the antique box containing the dybbuk and falls under its spell immediately. She convinces her father to buy it, and with that and a whole load of other items, the family makes out like bandits, paying only fifty dollars for everything.

Once the family gets everything home, Em asks for help opening the box, which seems to be impossible as it has no seams. Eventually she’s able to do it by herself in her room, and the box opens to show off all manner of ugly things, like desiccated moth bodies, a huge yellowed tooth, and an antique ring that Em immediately slams on her finger. It’s such an old-lady ring, and Valerie and I were both surprised that her parents didn’t see and comment on such a thing, especially when it starts discoloring her hand like a spreading bruise.

Em begins exhibiting unpleasant personality traits that are not very becoming to a little ten-year-old girl, such as stabbing her father with a fork between bites of pancake, tackling a kid who takes off with her box and beating him senseless, and presenting her mother’s boyfriend with a disgusting gift. Strangely enough, it’s her part-time father who is troubled by this behavior when it was his absenteeism that brought about the divorce in the first place. Her mother blames all the misbehaving on the divorce.

As the undesirable behavior escalates in Em, her father is denied access to her after what looks like an incident of child abuse. But he knows something is seriously wrong with his little girl and goes to find help first at his university, where he coaches basketball, and then with a group of Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (Another lesson we learned: Help is near our neighborhood. If a dybbuk ever threatens us, we now know where to go.) He’s turned down by the shul, but one rebel Jew, Tzadok (Matisyahu), agrees to help him. By this time, Em’s mother realizes something is up and has taken her daughter to the hospital, where there’s further confirmation that something’s not quite right. This ended up being one of several scenes that seemed liked paler versions of The Exorcist.

The only difference in the exorcism scene at the end was the religion used, but this wasn’t enough to make it new or scary. Also, I felt there was some cheating. The religious authority said the dybbuk was attracted to innocence so some of the possession choices the spirit made were quite puzzling if that’s the case. Because of this, the movie ended on a rather blah note for me, which was disappointing after it had been going along so well. Endings—they’re so hard to get right.

Horns by Joe Hill

I’m a big fan of Joe Hill’s work. I think my favorite is his collection of short stories 20th Century Ghosts, which is full of quirky twists on the horror genre. The story that sticks out the most deals with an editor going through his slush pile–a task that can be one of the circles of hell, I’ve heard–and finding that most elusive of things: a fresh short story by an unknown talent. Then the editor goes to court that talent and winds up in a scene similar to the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Bad move.

It’s hard to sustain that type of story for a full-length novel, but I found Hill’s novel Heart Shaped Box admirable, combining seemingly unreconcilable things from pop culture with a haunting and producing a delicious horror story.

I started Horns with a sense of anticipation, expecting that same kind of knockdown, and for most of the book, it was there. A scene involving the youthful protagonist Iggy Perrish, his older brother, a cherry bomb, and a turkey was brilliant, and Hill’s ability to draw characters, both male and female, is spot-on. In the end, though, I found Horns too similar to Heart Shaped Box and my interest flagged while finishing the book.

In Heart Shaped Box, the protagonist is an aging musician with an interest in all things that are evil since it’s good for his stage persona. In Horns, the protagonist is the son of a famous jazz musician and brother to another famous musician, a trumpet player with his own TV show. Both protagonists are dealing with the deaths of their recent romantic partners, licking their wounds while taking up with second-best girlfriends. In Horns, I did appreciate the more sympathetic portrayal of the second best, Glenna: “She looked good, a curvy girl in stonewashed gray jeans, a sleeveless black shirt, and a black studded belt. He could see the Playboy Bunny on her exposed hip, which was a trashy touch, but who hadn’t made mistakes, done things to themselves they wished they could take back.”

Horns starts with an interesting scenario. Iggy Perrish wakes up with a terrible hangover and discovers that overnight he’s sprouted horns on his head. The horns appear to act as radio antennae, and people give Iggy their unedited thoughts when he speaks with them. If Iggy touches somebody, he can see what they’ve done, reading their deepest, darkest secrets.

After setting up this scary situation, Hill goes back to when Iggy was fifteen and met his best friend Lee and the love of his life, Merrin, filling in the backstory. Here, Iggy is shown as a kid full of high jinks and spirit, but he is also kind and compassionate, almost saintlike. I wonder if it’s this section that makes the end of the novel not work for me. After seeing the heroic Iggy, I found it a stretch to jump back to Iggy as the devil, coming to avenge the murder of his girlfriend. The ending of Horns fell flat for me, and I really didn’t want it too after loving the first two-thirds of the book.