Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lessons I've Learned From The Walking Dead

After The Walking Dead returned in 2018, I watched only one episode live–I had to see his death, a death I dreamed of since season two. The last couple of seasons, I watched TWD and hated myself for it. I wasn't enjoying the show and felt I wasted an hour every Sunday night. I found out Eryk Pruitt was a fan of TWD and disappointed as well, I wanted to give him a chance to write about why TWD failed so many fans.  He agreed to give it a shot. Pruitt is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He is the author of What We Reckon, Hashtag, and Dirtbags. His true crime podcast, The Long Dance, will be out shortly and I wrote about it here at Do Some Damage. Can crime fiction writers and readers learn anything from the mistakes of The Walking Dead? – David Nemeth

By Eryk Pruitt

1. Always aim for the head.
2. To achieve peace, war is necessary.
3. The zombie disease is inside us and it has been the entire time.
4. Do not jack with your audience's trust in the narrative.

That fourth lesson is the stinger, man. It's the one that has left the mark.

The Walking Dead has been one of my favorite TV shows and it's based on one of my favorite comic books and has based an entire universe around one of my favorite topics: the zombie apocalypse. I was excited from the moment the show was first announced and, after a choppy first season, I can remember hoping against all hope that the show wouldn't suck. After the first half of the second season started slowly (at Hershel's farm) I reckoned the show certain for cancelation due to bad pacing, but by the midseason finale, I was hooked, man. Hooked.

When Sophie walked out of that barn, it was the payoff that we didn't know we were due. That little surprise was more than a narrative gimmick, it was proof that the writers in that room knew what they were doing, and we could trust them with our attention for one hour per week. Since that moment, I watched each episode, each narrative arc, each season knowing that the grown-ups were flying the plane. There was no reason to doubt them; they knew what they were doing.

This had paid off in spades. That trip to Terminus which lasted nearly an entire season culminated in FOUR OF THE MOST INTENSE MOMENTS IN TV HISTORY. They made bold choices (Carol kills a child, dude) and stood by them. They experimented with pacing, structure, and introduced or killed off characters with abandon. However, their audience—although tested at times—knew we were in good hands.

We trusted the writers.

And then Glenn fell off that dumpster…

Somewhere along the way, the showrunner at TWD started cashing checks. Maybe the inflated cast meant less money for the writers. Maybe folks thought their audience would follow them through anything. Maybe Scott M. Gimple found compromising photographs of TWD creator Robert Kirkman or Greg Nicotero and leveraged this blackmail so that he could singlehandedly ruin an innovative franchise. I'll never know the ins and outs of the wanton destruction of this superb example of prestige television, so instead of giving you the cause, I shall instead focus on the effect:

They jacked with our trust in the narrative.

Seriously, if offered the opportunity to go back in time and stop either Donald Trump or Scott Gimple, I would need a minute to think things over.

Instead of the TWD's narrative being led by characters (actual characters), it became led by plot points. Instead of dialogue, the show relied more on special effects. Their approach to storytelling became cheapened and they stopped being the kind of show that took risks.

For example, the war with Negan basically pits two large groups of extras against each other. Remember the days when we became invested in characters and felt the pain when those characters were killed? Now, we don't know any of the casualties of this war, so who cares? And even if we did care about the character, IT COULD BE ANOTHER GLENN BENEATH THE DUMPSTER!!!
I can't help but think that the TWD writing staff of Seasons 2-5 would have given us a half-season from the Savior's POV which would A) allow us to care about these "extras" who are just cannon fodder and B)  allow us to question the morality of our protagonists (Rick's group), instead of endless conversations about should we kill them/let them go. But instead, we have the death of Coral to drive home that point.

Whether you like TWD or not, you can learn from their mistakes. I am lucky to have earned whatever audience I have, and would never willingly do anything to jack with their trust.

I only wish The Walking Dead would have done the same.

LITTLE DISCLAIMER: This last half-season has actually been getting better. Does this coincide in any way with the "firing" of Scott M. Gimple? I have no idea, but it's a start.  You know where to find me on Sunday nights.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Montclair Literary Festival

I grew up next door to Montclair, the cool bohemian town with the bookstores and antique shops, and now I live there. Recently we've had an influx of New Yorkers fleeing the rents of Park Slope for our comparatively inexpensive housing, and I've poked fun, but let's face it, one good thing about an influx of affluent residents is that they sometimes fund the arts, as patrons always have. Montclair has a Film Festival (made famous by resident Stephen Colbert's support) and now we have a Literary Festival supported by Succeed2gether, a charity that offers free tutoring and education to children in need. Co-directors Jacqueline Mroz and Catherine Platt have put together a great festival, much of it free to attend, that has drawn authors from all over the world.

This year I volunteered as a venue manager and general go-fer. As a project manager I know that having a "floater" who can spot problems and offer an extra set of hands can head off problems. Yesterday, the last day of the festival, was the biggest event. Rocker and author Patti Smith filled the First Congregational Church, with 960 tickets sold. Each ticket came with a copy of her book in the Why I Write series, entitled Devotion. The church has three entrances but they funneled everyone through the accessible ramp, and this made a bottleneck as people traded tickets for books, so I grabbed a stack and handed them out in a second mini-line.

There's something therapeutic about handing out books. I think the booksellers and librarians are onto something.

The event itself was wonderful and casual. I'd never heard Smith speak or sing live before, and she knows how to work an audience. She alternated between reading poems and prose from her books, from Just Kids to her newest, and singing songs and playing guitar with Lenny Kaye. Hearing her recite poetry in a church, the stained glass backlit by the setting sun, and then lead us in hymns like "Because the Night," "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You", and the finale, "People Have the Power," which she dedicated to the teenagers marching to end gun violence in the March For Our Lives events all over the nation this Saturday, March 24th. 

The other big event this year was Tom Perrotta in conversation with actors Patrick Wilson and Dagmara Dominczyk, who are also part owners of Word Bookstores in Jersey City and Brooklyn, so in other words, saints. Perrotta is best known as the author of The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election. His latest book is Mrs. Fletcher, and I can't wait to dig in. The panel title was Sex, Schools, and Suburbia. Most of his books deal with sexual transgression of some sort, but his sense of humor and excellent explorations of character make his books quite compelling. His genre would be literary fiction or commercial, depending on how you like to categorize, but he's story-driven enough for me. 

Perrotta talked about his beginnings. He had written three novels and none had hit big, he was in trouble of being dropped, and his publisher rejected a manuscript. Then he went to a literary festival and read from the beginning of his novel The Wishbones (which is funny as hell) and caught the ear of two producers. He wasn't done with Wishbones, so he passed them the manuscript of Election and they wanted to make a movie of it. Then all of a sudden his publisher wanted to publish it. It was not a big hit either, but the movie got some buzz which saved his career, and eventually Little Children (which he was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) and The Leftovers would hit big. So, don't think that literary conferences can't make a difference. You never know who's in the audience. Always read something striking.

Patrick Wilson, Tom Perrotta, Dagmara Dominczyk

Speaking of, Megan Abbott was on a panel with Samantha Hunt (Mr Splitfoot) moderated by Alice Elliott Dark, entitled "The Dark Side of the Short Story". Get it? Three women who know their way around a short story, dark or not. Abbott read from her Anthony winner, "Oxford Girl" and Hunt's reading from her collection The Dark Dark was so good that I bought all her books (I already have all of Megan's, the PhD of Noir's books are a mainstay on my shelves). I was the venue manager for the room, keeping people quiet, arranging the chairs between panels. I'm a Montclair author, but I'm relatively new, and now I know all the people involved with the festival. If they don't put me on a panel next year, I'll still volunteer. It gives me access to the authors and other publishing professionals, and I like to help. 

Megan Abbott, Samantha Hunt, Alice Elliott Dark, and co-director Catherine Platt

What a lot of people see as cliqueishness and "pay to play" is also known as "making your bones" or "paying your dues" in my opinion. A lot of people show up after not being part of a community and want the support of its structure and institutions that took a lot of work to build (especially politicians) without contributing anything themselves. Sometimes a star rises alone and gets the adulation of the community without having worked from the ground, but it's less common than you think. It's not a pyramid scheme where we all support each other. It's increasingly difficult to get work noticed as more and more people write, and working as part of a community is one way to meet people whose work you may enjoy, and who may enjoy yours.

Bouchercon is always looking for volunteers, and you get to meet everybody! If you don't know many attendees, this is a great way to do it. You get out what you put in, as they say...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Afrofuturism, in African Films

I hate it when the New York Times beats me to an article.  In the wake of Black Panther coming out, and considering its position as the first high budget Hollywood film that is also a work of Sci-fi Afrofuturism, I wanted to look at some other films you might describe as Afrofuturistic.  I was excited to do this, but then last week, the Times had a piece, by critic Glenn Kenny, called "Exploring Afrofuturism in Film, Where Sci-Fi and Mythology Blur." It's a good piece and I enjoyed reading it, but I was annoyed that the paper talked about some of the films I wanted to discuss.

The Times mentioned Sun Ra's 1974 Space is the Place (available on You Tube), which has some similarities with Black Panther.  In Space is the Place, Sun Ra along with his band use a spaceship to come down to earth from their new home planet. And where do they happen to land? Oakland, where they set about opening an Outer Space Employment Agency. Sun Ra wants African Americans to settle on his planet, and the agency’s purpose is to get people to move there. It”s a world with no white inhabitants, so the idea is to see what would happen without white people around. The movie is not exactly up to Black Panther levels of technical expertise, but it's worth seeing both as a curio and for presenting in cinematic form a number of Sun Ra's ideas.

But the films I really wanted to talk about, before I read this New York Times piece, were African films that in their way could be described as belonging to the world of Afrofuturism.  African Afrofuturism, if you will. What have those films been like?  I had in mind three such movies I've seen, and wouldn't you know that the paper of record beat me to the punch by discussing two of them.  Depressed, I considered writing another piece, on an entirely different subject, for this particular post.  Not that I had any solid idea what this impromptu post would be. But then I thought screw it, I'll write my little piece as intended, why should I let the Times intimidate me?  For one thing, I doubt everyone I know actually read the Times piece on Afrofuturism in film.  And two: even if they did read it, what's wrong with reinforcing what the Times critic wrote? It's unlikely a lot of people have seen these films, so if you did read the Times piece, here's someone else recommending these films. Can't do any harm.

Touki Bouki, directed by Djibril Diop Mambety (1973):

This Senegalese film was made for $30,000 by a twenty-eight year old who had no formal film training.  It's a road movie of sorts, about a young cowherd named Mory and a woman named Anta who are fed up with their lives in Dakar and plot to get to France, which they've never visited.  Together they ride around a lot on his motorcycle, which has a horned animal skull mounted on it, and indulge in schemes, including robbery, to raise the money for the ocean voyage.  It's not so much that the film has any science fiction in it that makes this film feel futuristic, or otherworldly, so much as the way Mambety plays around with conventional  narrative. A low budget is no hindrance to this filmmaker, who clearly has studied everyone from the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene to Sergei Eisenstein to the filmmakers of the French New Wave.  He often mismatches sound and image, and he edits in such a way that sometimes it's hard to pin down exactly where, or in what order, certain events are taking place.  From scene to scene, the whole movie has an energetic, free-associative vibe.   It alternates between manic and meditative, absurd and serious, socially realist and quite dreamlike.  There's no question the film is taking place in then contemporary Senegal, but the way Mambety mixes up the urban and the rural, the modern and ancient, African and Western, makes it seem like the characters' odyssey is happening in a place out of time, a Senegal of the mind as well as of the actual world.

The movie's available to buy from Criterion as part of a set, Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, or you can stream it on the Criterion Channel of Film Struck.

Yeelen (English: Brightness), directed by Souleymane Cisse (1987):

I've seen this remarkable film twice. It's a Bambara myth film, set sometime around the 13th Century in Mali, and the plot involves a young man and his father.  Both practice magic, but the father uses it for selfish purposes.  After the father has a vision that indicates his son will be the cause of his death, he decides he must kill his son, and a long journey for the son results, a journey involving pursuit and dangers and a final, extended confrontation.  

It's hard to describe how completely absorbing I found this movie.  The director takes you on a trip that feels familiar only because it's mythical in nature and myths the world over have common features.  And yet, it's completely non-Western in how it approaches storytelling conventions. This is an African world before the advent of any Western influence, and the director handles it as if he's filming a poetic documentary.  The fantastic and the magical, intimations of the cosmic, are everywhere, but they're presented in the most matter of fact way.  Cisse, unlike Mambety, was a cinema fan since childhood, and his mastery shows.  Yeelen has a stately pace that gives it an epic feel, and the only way I can describe the final duel between father and son, both using magical instruments, is to say it feels foreign and familiar at the same time.  It's something taken from Bambara legend (which I know nothing of), but it could also be a scene from a western if you exchanged the magical instruments for pistols. Again, it's an African terrain that seems both ancient and timeless, where rituals may be repeated over and over for eternity.

In my view, this film is a masterpiece.

It's available to stream, from what I've read, on Kanopy.

Les Saignantes (English: Those Who Bleed), directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (2005):

This film from Cameroon is set in an African country in the year 2025 and combines science fiction and horror with political satire.  The plot follows a pair of seductive women who use their sexual power to infiltrate the sanctum of their country's political elite.  Their goal, as it appears: to get rid of the utterly corrupt men who have ruled and robbed the country for decades.  They are bleeding the men who have bled the country dry.  Complications ensue, of course, and disposing of all their victims, eliminating all that male governmental rot, is not as easy as they first thought.

The movie has a very stylized, colorful look but it also has a roughness to it.  The editing is jagged, downright choppy, and the whole thing makes for a strange experience. Different genres mix, including aspects of erotica and even musicals, and the plot itself seems to dissipate as the film moves along.  But its message about corruption doesn't, and the strong female characters in Black Panther have nothing on the pair in Les Saignantes, who give the men around them precisely what they deserve.

This one is hard to find, so you'll probably have to search.  But it's worth finding if you want an odd and thought-provoking Afrofuturistic experience. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Monday Meet: S. A. Cosby

I met S.A., Shawn to pals,at the very first Noir at the Bar in Richmond. He quickly became a regular and a favorite among Richmond readers. Shawn further committed to the community by organizing and hosting for Richmond's N@B.

Shawn's known for his brutal short fiction, having published tales with respected magazines such as Thuglit, Yellowmama, Hardboiled Wonderland, and The Phoenix Quill. His work can also be found in several anthologies; Steam and Steel: Thirteen Riveting Tales: A Steampunk Anthology, Fast Women and Neon Lights, and Sound and The Fury: Shakespeare Goes Punk.

One of my favorite S.A. Cosby shorts is Slit the Belly, a tale of heartbreak and revenge. If you like crime-fiction with a noir twist you will love this piece, originally published with Crime Syndicate Magazine, Issue 3. For your enjoyment, scroll down to the bottom of this post, and read Slit the Belly.

The gritty urban-fantasy Brotherhood of the Blade, released in 2012 by Hatton Cross Publishing, was Shawn's first novel. His newest release, My Darkest Prayer, will be released in December of this year by Intrigue Publishing.

My Darkest Prayer tells the story of Nathan Waymaker, the hard-drinking, former deputy currently shuttling stiffs around for his cousin's funeral home. When a local minister is found dead, the man's congregation suspects foul play and asks Nathan to help with the investigation. What starts out as an easy payday for Nathan soon morphs into a maelstrom of sex, lies, and murder. He finds himself in the depths of small-town corruption, struggling to stay alive and all the while trying to keep his own dark secret hidden.

Always working, Shawn will be reading at the inaugural Wilmington, Delaware Noir at the Bar on May 7. This date is part of the second annual Noir at the Bar Crawl, where local and nationally published writers read at different locations up and down the east coast. Wilmington's date is hosted and organized by editor, reviewer, and blogger David Nemeth (Do Some Damage dude) and this event is shaping up to be very exciting. Scott Adlerberg (fellow Do Some Damager), Richard Goffman, Tony Knighton, and Eryk Pruitt will also be reading that night.

As Shawn gets closer to his publishing date and as he schedules new events we will keep you up to date. Hope you enjoyed this introduction to a very talented writer.

Keep up with Shawn and all of his writing news at his Facebook page S.A. Cosby author.

Slit the Belly
by S.A. Cosby

Tron banged on the old screen door so hard the whole house seemed to shake. Day-Day heard shuffling footsteps approach the door. He reflexively touched the butt of the Glock in his waistband rubbing against the small of his back. A robin whistled from a nearby magnolia tree. What sounded like a pretty good-sized dog barked in the distance.

An old man with skin as black as midnight in a mineshaft opened the door. “Can I help you boys?” he said.

“We looking for Trucky,” Tron said in a deep voice. It reminded Day-Day of Darth Vader.

“He ain't here. He went to the store but should be back presently. You fellas wanna come in and wait for him?” the old man asked.

“Yeah. We can do that,” Tron said. The old man smiled and walked back into his kitchen. Tron and Day-Day followed him. The old man sat down at circular metal table. Day-Day and Tron sat across from him. A steaming cup of coffee sat in front of the old man.

“I'm Alvin Lee, Trucky's grandfather,” the old man said, holding out his hand. “What they call you boys?”

Tron looked at the hand then back at the old man's face.

“I’m Tyrone and this is Duane,” Tron said. Legally that was true. Those were their given names. No one in the street would even flinch at those names. But tell them Tron and Day-Day were coming and homeboys suddenly found religion. Alvin pulled his hand back and took a sip of his coffee.

“Trucky got so many friends it's hard to keep track. They coming by all times of the day and night. He’s always had a lot of friends. I think it’s his way of dealing with his parents dying. My daughter and son-in-law was killed in a car accident. We took Trucky in after. Then his grandmother passed. Lost my little girl and my wife in the same year,“ Alvin said.

“Damn,” Day-Day said. He’d killed four people in his life but never wiped out a whole family.

Alvin nodded as if he understood. Tron looked over the old man's shoulder at the rooster clock on the wall.

“How long Trucky been gone?” Tron said. Alvin answered his question with a question.

“How you boys know Trucky?”

Tron smirked. It looked like a snarl to Day-Day. “We just know him,” he said.

Alvin smiled. “I know how that is. I ain't so old I don't remember what it’s like to have running partners. Believe it or not I used to roll with some rough boys back in the day. Some real Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas type of brothers.“

“For real?” Day-Day said. Tron shot him a look. Alvin nodded his head.

“Yes sir. And before me my daddy was a rum runner for a fella out of Franklin County. Carried moonshine up the Potomac to the juke joints. Trucky, though, he ain't about that kind of life. He always been nice, you know? He not cut out to slit no bellies,” Alvin said.

“Huh?” Day-Day said.

Alvin laughed. He laughed long and hard. The skin on Day-Day's neck pimpled with gooseflesh.

“My daddy told me if things got out of hand on the boat or one of them northerners come up short sometimes you had to dump them overboard. But you slit they belly first and poke holes in they lungs so they don't float back to the surface.” Alvin smiled again.

“Damn, man. That’s messed up,” Day-Day said.

Alvin laughed again, softly this time. “Yeah, I guess it is. But you do messed up things and messed up things might happen to you, too,” he said.

“What Truckey go to the store for?” Tron said.

Alvin’s hard, brown eyes studied Tron.

“He said he had to get some things,” Alvin said after a moment.

“Like what?” Tron asked.

“I don't know. Things,” Alvin said.

“What store he go to? We passed a 7-11 on our way here and ain't seen him,“ Tron said.

Day-Day sighed. It was about to go down. He was actually sort of enjoying the old man's stories.

Alvin sipped his coffee and set it down, then put his hands flat on the table.

“Ya know when he told me you boys was coming I thought ya'll would be some real hard rocks. But ya'll just some wanna be gangsters. Baby shit soft,” Alvin said.

Tron cocked his head to the side and stared at the old man.

No one said anything for a few moments. Day-Day could hear the clock on the wall ticking in the silence. He decided fuck it, reached for his Glock.

Alvin's hand went under the table.

A muzzle flash lit up the underside of the table like a fireworks display. Day-Day felt something hot punch him in the guts. He slid out of his chair and onto the floor, blood pouring down his thighs and soaking into his jeans. Tron shoved himself backwards from the table as Alvin stood up holding a sawed-off shotgun, pumped the action and fired a second round into Tron’s face, which evaporated as his body collapsed to the floor. A thin ribbon of smoke unfurled from the shortened barrel as Alvin walked around the table and casually aimed it at Day-Day's head.

“Me? I ain't got no heart,” Alvin continued. “I did twelve years in Mecklenburg. My heart is gone. And now my grandson gone, too. He was so scared of you boys he hung himself this morning in the shed out back.“

Alvin pumped the action on the shotgun and expelled a still smoking shell. It clattered to the floor by Day-Day’s head with a dry, hollow sound. Day-Day heard someone gurgling and realized it was him.

Alvin smiled once more. “Lucky for me there's an old outhouse in the woods, so ain't gonna have to slit either of you open, just throw you down the shit hole where you belong.” He pulled the trigger. Just before the pellets entered his brain Day Day tried to speak. He tried to say he was sorry. But the only thing that came out of his mouth was blood.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Let's Go to Reno

A real one-armed bandit, where you have to pull a handle.
Not like those horrible new ones where you just push a button.
I have this in my living room. Why, you might ask? Because it reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in Reno, Nevada. And I’ll be heading back this week for Left Coast Crime. It’s a convention for fans of crime fiction. It’s a great time – full of panel discussions, laughter and murder plots.
It will be good to go back to my hometown. I do it fairly often, but I rarely go into the “Reno” parts. Reno is two cities: the normal one with schools and houses and doctors’ offices and road construction. And the Nevada one, with casinos and $2.99 steak & egg breakfasts 24-hours a day and a walk-up window in the county clerk’s office for instant wedding licenses.
The Great Reno Balloon Race in 1984. Balloons come down everywhere –
the sides of roads, parks, anyplace the wind blows. One landed on my high school football field one year.
There are ways that the gambling industry infiltrates the normal Reno, however. Many, many people are in the business – working everything from blackjack tables to restaurants to accounting departments.
There are slot machines in the grocery stores.
Teenagers cruise the strip on Saturday night. An actual strip.
The business that adopted my high school was a major casino. It provided rewards for student achievements, and sponsored things like assemblies. Once, it brought comedian Rich Little to perform for the students. I later realized this kind of thing was not a normal occurrence at most people’s high schools.
So my childhood was a mix of the ordinary and the ordinary-to-me. Now I get to see my mystery community experience my hometown. And I can’t wait to see what they think – and what they write about it. 
Me in my driveway sometime in the ’80s. Note the lack of trees in the background. This is the terrain you’ll see when you fly into Reno. High desert.