Monday, September 26, 2011

"I promised you I wasn't going to buy a Ouija board...

 ...I didn't buy a Ouija board. I borrowed a Ouija board." ~Micah (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

When I told my 18-year-old daughter this film was on the "must see" list for my Readings in the Genre course she rolled her eyes. "It's sooo booring," she said.  We're usually in synch when it comes to movies, and so I approached viewing this film with a good degree of skepticism.  Perhaps, because of that, my mind was already biased. I huddled into my covers with a diet Sprite, and prepared to be bored...pen and paper in hand to ready to take brief notes.

The movie started out with that 'home-movie' feel which reminded me a little of the way "The Blair Witch Project" was done. Despite my skepticism, I thought it had an original feel to it, the way it started out with a live-in boyfriend who'd bought a video camera in order to try to capture some of the strange phenomena in the house which I can only guess must have occurred before the story begins.

I didn't feel drawn into the story however, and it was painful for me to suffer through the couple's constant banter in the film.  Katie, the female, ever sullen and critical, and her boyfriend Micah, consistently enthusiastic and simultaneously skeptical about the phenomena, were both a nuisance to me in the film.  Probably the best part of the film for me was when Micah obtains a Ouija Board against Katie's wishes in order to communicate with the 'spirit' or whatever is haunting/possessing the house. The video-recorded actions of the 'spirit' were a little entertaining to watch while the couple was gone,  but other than that there was not much in it for me.

There were inconsistencies and odd things that bothered me throughout the film.

First there was a scene where Micah sprinkles baby-powder in front of the threshold to the bedroom, and sprinkles more in the hallway, which made me wonder why in the world he would think a 'spirit' would have enough mass and/or weight to leave foot prints.

Secondly, the couple always kept the bedroom door open. If I lived there and thought the 'spirit' could remain outside, I would have put the camera in the living room, and locked the damned door.  Why did the stupid couple continue to leave the freaking bedroom door open?

Thirdly, at one point after they'd called in a psychic (Dr Fredrichs) and the psychic leaves (rather shaken) touting that he cannot help them, they contemplate contacting someone who deals with demons (because Micah thinks they're experiencing something demon related instead) but they never contact a demonologist or other related professional.  Instead, they continue to suffer the abuse of the entity and it's various antics. At one point Katie states she feels that the 'spirit' is something that keeps "following her" because of a childhood picture Micah finds of her in the attic of the house. It's a picture she hasn't seen in many years.

This picture is a loose thread in the film and hangs out there waiting to connect to something, but it never really does.  I still don't understand what the picture had to do with anything.  The movie version I watched ended with Katie screaming her butt off while she's downstairs, Micah wakes and runs out of the room, there's a great deal of screaming and stomping  and then Miach is brought upstairs and thrown across the room.  A bloody Katie is standing at the door, and her demonic looking face ends the film.  I've since discovered there's alternate endings to the film, none of which sound much more impressive.

Overall, this film seemed to work hard in order to lend that "real" or "live" approach to the viewer with its home-made action style that helps the viewer feel almost like a voyeur watching a couple experiencing the paranormal.  But it either worked too hard or not hard enough, since it was a film that failed to entertain me.  I wasn't surprised at anything that happened, nothing made me feel a sense of suspense and by the end of the film I felt like I'd basically wasted a couple hours of my life when I could have read something much more enjoyable.

The film did make me wonder what happened to my own Ouija Board, and I even contemplated searching for it in the depths of my overcrowded garage.  But it's dark in there, even with the lights on, and sometimes I hear noises I really don't want to investigate. That being said, I think I'll leave it there.

 The Se'ance, by TheGhostBoy

"Sometimes I bleed."

~Charles (from: The Others)

As a film, and what I felt was a different take on a ghost story, "The Others" was a mentally challenging and interesting tale. It takes place in the Channel Islands, England, in 1945.

I profess must be a little thick sometimes, because the story was confusing to me the first time I saw it. Unlike some of my friends who smugly nod and state they knew what was going on all along, I have to confess that I was intrigued throughout most of the film.  I hadn't read anything about the movie, nor watched any trailers and so each scene was new for me as I tried to figure out what was happening in the 'haunted' house.

It was strangely entertaining for me to try to figure out why the lead character, Grace (played by Nicole Kidman), went throughout the house locking each door behind her, and having to open the next one with her jangling set of keys.

When Ms Bertha Mills, Mr Tuttle and the mute girl Lydia arrived on scene, I struggled to understand why they were really there, why they worked to cover the grave-stones, and how Ms Mills knew/understood the strange book Grace found in the house with pictures of the dead. When the noises from "the intruders" began, and the children Anne and Nicholas have to deal with a spectral "Victor" who lives in their room, I thought their home was haunted, and I was right...but not in the way I thought.

There were nuances throughout the film of how Grace had gone "mad" at one point around the children, and there are hints that something awful happened "that day" but I didn't put it together until the scene with the se'ance.  At that moment it was clear to me, but even when Grace saw the her daughter Anne as an old woman in her communion dress, I didn't understand.

Perhaps I'm lazy, as most of the time I just enjoyed letting myself go into the story, and preferred not to try to figure everything as I watched. I let go of the 'figuring it out' when I viewed film and the result was that I enjoyed it.  It wasn't my most favorite film to date, but the unique approach appealed to me, although once it was over it reminded me a little of the film, "The Sixth Sense."  Still, I felt it was creative, and found the tale pleasurable.  It's not a movie I would seek to watch over again, but it played on my imagination and through it, I saw the potential for the existence of ghosts in the eyes of the author, and how ghosts might experience the world, in a different light.  A light which doesn't blister or burn, but instead, takes time to shed a bit of understanding into a room I've always taken for granted.


"Haunted House" by 'scuroluce'
Deviant Art:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

“I’ve just seen your husband. He looks…

…like he’d be a good enemy.” ~Ann-Veronica Moore
(From Ghost Story, by Peter Straub, 1979)

            This is the 3rd novel in a long list still yet to be read and commented on in my “Readings in the Genre” course.   

            While Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” was disappointing, and Richard Matheson’s “Hell House” was much better than the previously mentioned novel, Peter Straub’s "Ghost Story"  is a piece difficult to compare to the other two.  It’s not that it was a “better” novel, it’s just that it was written on a totally different level.  It was a different kind of story that didn't involve a haunting as much as it involved a macabre creature existence (a manitou/ shape shifter) and the evil havoc it can wreck on The Chowder Society as well as various persons who live in Milburn, New York.
             As I read this book, I found myself entranced with Straub's language and choice of words.  I enjoyed the varying characters and different points of view he wove into the tale and I liked how he left things for the reader to wonder and read about in the story such as the little girl (Annie Maule) in the prologue, and a woman named Eva Galli who is intermittently mentioned in the pages but never fully explained until later.  The way Straub put the story together in a complex puzzle was thoroughly enjoyable. It was fun to try to figure things out along the way, and to try to sort out why certain things were happening.

             Straub's imagery was lovely in the novel.  As an example, on page 31 he wrote about the leaves falling from trees, describing them with, " skeletal arms and fingers, the bones of the trees,..." and his ability to paint a scene with words, I felt, was phenomenal. He didn't do the usual things to annoy me such as overuse adverbs or plod on with a ton of nonessential backstory.  Straub kept me engaged throughout the entire tale, and I enjoyed 'wondering' about parts of the story that weren't fully explained until later. This approach also made me feel a little better about things I wait in my own stories to explain.  In critique groups, people will often say, "This needs to be explained more..." only because they want to know right away. But if I feel it serves the story to wait to make an explanation, then it IS okay to do so providing it's done the right way.  I think it's fine to let the reader have some niggles of wonder in the story.

             I wrote Peter Straub and asked him how much research he did on the novel, and he told me that the only thing he researched for the book was the type of beer the locals drank.  Despite that, I feel he must have had some sort of experience in Milburn, New York.  I've traveled through New York state, and it is nothing like the city. Its backwoods, backward countryside is unnerving and can creep out the hardiest of souls in some places.

             Having just finished reading the novel, I may have some more thoughts on it later but for now I'm mulling it around in my gray matter and looking over some of the passages I enjoyed most. In particular, the initial descriptions in Sears's story of Gregory during his supposed 'Ghost Story' were wonderful and left me with odd dreams in the middle of the night. I think I shall sleep, and perhaps dream a little more, and maybe I'll hear a bump in the night...

 Artwork by ~spec:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thoughts on MGOC: Blurring the Line:

How Reality Helps Build Better Fiction
by Scott A. Johnson

Scott's chapter on weaving elements of truth into fiction is an essential element for fiction writers to embrace, and all writers (whether seasoned or novice) should pay heed. If I had the opportunity to dovetail onto his chapter, I'd probably follow it up with a section called "Finding the Entrails: Taking the Journey to Build Anatomical Parts in Prose."

Okay, many of you may know my first novel uses a host of body parts as main characters in "Dr Stench", but it's the elements of reality and the laborious research that help to bring the story to life. As Scott pointed out using examples from The Silence of the Lambs and the Harry Potter series, the real components of research and/or a true experience lend a believable voice to the writer's story.  I think it's the writer who eschews incorporating real experiences, or factual information into their writing that ultimately has their story fall flat.  A fiction writer has so much to build on when s/he uses basic truths, or researches information to weave into a tale. In addition, there are a variety of readers who are 'fact finders' and will only enjoy fiction if it incorporates brain stimulating science, or myth or history. Take the DaVinci Code for instance, which used a myriad of these things to create a hit novel. Including intelligent information for this type of audience is going to ensure your novel appeals to a wider range of readers, guaranteed.

Scott aptly claims the importance of digging deep for information to enhance each section of a story and he describes the significance of developing 'setting' which includes actually investigating the story's backdrop.  And I wholeheartedly agree with him.  It may be difficult to go even further and  negotiate a tour of the sewer/underground, or find a way to get into the exclusive strip club meant only for pretty people, or obtain that rare glimpse of the real Oval Office...but the 'trying is worth it and often pays off (take pictures when you go).  In my Dr Stench novel (work in progress) I literally went to the head of Waste Management in DC and requested a tour of the Capital's sewers, and along the way I interviewed people (ask if recording is okay, and bring your Olympus).  Each place where my story had an urban scene, I traveled there and laid eyes on the museum's crystal skull, walked the secret back halls of the Smithsonian, and adventured into every odd setting my story might take place. What happened when I took time to go on those journeys, was I discovered my story transformed into a richer piece.  Of note, a pleasing side effect was that much of my novel wrote itself.

The danger of doing research presents when the writer is so intent on sharing the expanse of their new knowledge and experience, that s/he tries to cram every bit of information they've discovered onto the waiting page. The result of this is what I call "Wiki-Effect", because the writer ends up with an encyclopedia of information that s/he feels deserves to be there because they took the time to research it all.  Many new writers will attempt to do this, but the truth is that only a smidount (small indefinable amount) of the research toil will end up inside the lines.  What writers need to understand is that the believability of the story doesn't necessarily come from a multitude of facts, but instead exudes from the writer himself (or herself), because s/he now possess the knowledge  and experience to write with power.

There are challenges in finding information too, or in obtaining an experience.  Perhaps you'd like to write realistically about what it's like to be on the Space Shuttle while it's in space.  Odds are you won't get the opportunity to be there. BUT, what if you could interview someone who has? A live interview with a person (what we call a 'key informant') is best, but perhaps you can find an interview online or in the archives of Library of Congress (been there, and got the library card to prove it).  Scott uses the example of understanding experiences of real ghost hunters when writing a ghost story. Many people shy away from doing interviews or venturing out to find out the living person's experience, but the interview is something you can't get from a book or Wikipedia. Sometimes all you get when you research is hearsay and conjecture.

As an example, I have a scene in "Dr Stench" where I describe an autopsy of a dead child pornographer.  The descriptions are vivid, and most readers tell me they are hooked into the lines because of the details. What throws them is that it's the autopsy 'technician' who performs the removal of the internal organs. Most folks will tell me, "I always thought it was the doctor, or the pathologist who did that," and they will vocalize those words because television and modern literature dramatize the medical examiner's role.  Most people have never heard of an autopsy technician. How do I know about them? How can I write with such authority? Because I actually volunteered as an autopsy tech at the Richmond morgue.  Yes, the same place Patricia Cornwell described her main character "Kay Scarpetta" (medical examiner) performing autopsies. But you never saw Patricia once mention the autopsy techs in her novel (a point that causes heartburn among the hardworking folks there).

I loved this chapter of Scott's because it validated what I instinctively knew was the right thing to do with my fiction...research the facts and blur the lines between reality and the insanity of the creative mind. I've come to realize a writer is much more than just a writer. He or she is an investigator, a researcher and a busybody.  The collection of clues, experiences, setting descriptions and interviews will lead the writer on a journey that inextricably ends with a tantalizing story the reader just can't put down. And that, my friends, is what we're all about.