Monday, October 31, 2016

Reducing Genre to the Point of Offense or Betraying One's Ignorance

I had a very limited view of what 'horror' meant for a long time. To me, it was the slasher/scare-me-to-death films of the 80s. Jason. Freddy. The stuff we watched at sleepovers that was probably a subconscious ploy to ensure we would stay up all night, because we couldn't sleep, not just because we wanted to.

In truth, I have to credit my husband for expanding my understanding of some genres. I'd make some remark about horror or another genre and he'd round up a stack of anthologies related to the topic and tell me to start reading.

The result was that my understanding of horror as a genre expanded. The Cabin in the Woods isn't Nightmare on Elm Street, although I may or may not* have still jumped when the title sequence started.

Now, I recently noted some submission guidelines from a publisher, and I took offense to them. There's been a long-standing argument between literary and genre fiction that involves the perception that literary writers look down on genre writers as being beneath them, and that genre fiction isn't seen as having the same quality as literary fiction. (I'm sure J.K. Rowling is crying over how she doesn't sell like literary writers.)

One of the perceived differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is that genre fiction is driven by a plot, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Things build up to a climax with resolution. Things happen.

Literary fiction can be more introspective, with less focus on events and actions than on the impact events have on the main characters.

I was reading a set of submission guidelines, and the publisher was pretty detailed about what they wanted. That can be a very good thing for writers, because it can help them figure out if they're a good fit with that publisher. There's nothing worse than skipping to a set of submission guidelines and seeing a generic, "Only send us material that's similar to what we publish." That can be very ambiguous because over time a publication may evolve. What Spinetingler publishes today in terms of fiction is different than what it published initially. I always go back to the story, "Jessie's Toothbrush," which we published very early on. The mystery was why the guy was so enamored with that toothbrush, but it certainly wasn't crime fiction. It was memorable, though. However, if a comparable story was submitted today it would probably get rejected because the focus has narrowed over time, and also it can be determined by the preferences of the editor, and our editorial staff has changed over time.

Specific details can be good. When a publisher has identifiable genres or subgenres they publish, it's great to know this. However, when the publisher states that they are more interested in character growth than plot and then says that's why they aren't interested in any manuscripts about characters who are in law enforcement, they've demonstrated a prejudice.

Now, those aren't the exact words that I read. I've been reading a lot of submission guidelines lately, because when I do manuscript reviews I don't always stay within one genre. I've been working on an assessment of a non-fiction manuscript, and the one before that was some sort of horror/speculative fiction piece that didn't fit easily in one box. I'm rarely hired to review crime fiction manuscripts, which means I'm often researching different genres and publishing categories so that I can provide up-to-date examples to illustrate a point I'm making to the writer I'm working with.

As I read this set of submission guidelines, I felt my blood boil. I was offended and annoyed.

It's remarkably presumptive to assume that a character who happens to work in law enforcement doesn't have the capacity for self growth, or that their journey isn't worth reading about. It also suggests a certain level of ignorance. My mind automatically went to the brilliant works of James Sallis, and the John Turner and Lew Griffin books. Those books are the definition of a personal journey for the central character. The mystery in any Lew Griffin book isn't a case but is the man himself, and what prompts his limitations and relationships.

I clicked off of that site with cheeks burning and some inappropriate words mixed in with a vow to never read a dang thing by that publisher if they were so biased against a genre I love.  

I'm not sure if it's an entirely fair response. Perhaps in another week or two I'll forget about it and even forget who said it. I understand if an editorial team has had a hefty percentage of their books be police procedurals and they want to see something else. Just say you aren't accepting police procedurals at this time. There's no need to piss on the whole genre in the process and suggest that it's so fucking beneath you that it can't say anything significant about the human equation or contribute any depth to our understanding about humanity, a person's motivations, or how it can prompt character growth.

My husband may or may not have been tired of hearing me rant about the subject, so I may or may not have needed to work this out of my system here. I also know that when I approached my latest manuscript, I wanted it to push deeper than a formulaic procedural, while still having a solid story. I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive. I don't want to live in a publishing era that suggests that's the case. I have always felt that what's more compelling about a Rebus book is the man himself than the specific crimes being investigated, and while those crimes may open the door for an examination of politics and personal views, they work best when everything from the crime to the investigation to the characters mirror the central theme of the story and amplify what the protagonist is working through.

It may be that a high number of police procedurals fall short on this account, but to suggest they all do is wrong, and the publisher could have picked a more tactful way to talk about what they wanted to see from writers, rather than making such a sweeping judgment against a whole subgenre... and I have to be honest, while I've only addressed the law enforcement restriction, that was just one of a number of careers that were excluded from submissions.

* I'm a jumper, so nobody questions when I have a strong fear reaction. This is also why I prefer to lie on the couch rather than sit.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween - It's Like Crime Fiction, Only With Candy

Halloween is a lot like crime fiction. Funny, you say, you don’t recall many thrillers populated with pint-sized princesses or superheroes. True.
But both of them are the chance to be frightened in a safe environment. You’ll get a glimpse of a scarier world while secure in the knowledge that it will all turn out okay. A crime fiction author does this by providing a conclusion. The murder is solved, the conspiracy is foiled, the villain is caught. Halloween does this by ending with you back in a warm, well-lit house and pilfering from your kid’s candy bag. You know that when the evening – or the book – is over, you’ll be able to walk away, safe and sound.
So enjoy your night of fright tomorrow – whether it’s curling up with a mystery, roaming through a haunted house, or trekking door-to-door with a five-year-old hopped up on Sweet Tarts and Pixie Stix. Because everything will be all right in the morning.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

In Praise of Serial Consuming

Scott D. Parker

I know bingeing (Yes, it's spelled correctly) is all the rage nowadays, but I’m here to praise serial consumption.

Tomorrow, the penultimate episode of Washington Post’s Presidential podcast will be released. Hosted by Lillian Cunningham, this podcast spends an episode per week examining each of the 43 men—Cleveland is counted once in this podcast even though he gets two numbers in the official order of presidents—that have held the highest office here in the US. I discovered the podcast at James Monroe back in February so I binged all six episodes in one day and have consumed each new episode Monday morning. She brings in historians and journalists and archivists to discuss each president. She even included a question that seemed odd at first, but grew to be a great window in the presidents as young men. “What would it have been like to go on a blind date with ______?” Moreover, as the show picked up steam over the weeks, word of mouth spread. Folks liked it so much that it even spawned merchandise. That's what serial consuming can produce.

On the last few episodes, Cunningham has commented on the journey she and us have been on this past year. The first episode was 43 weeks ago. That’s January. Each week, no matter the current event, she focused on a president. No matter whether it was spring, the heat of summer, or now into fall, every Sunday, a new episode was released. And when she mentioned the journey, I find comfort in thinking back to January and where I was when I discovered this podcast. I think back to my summer vacation and making my family listen to the then latest episode—Calvin Coolidge—as we drove around Texas’s Big Bend region. It also was great to know that as the list of presidents slowly reached the present day, our own 2016 Election was ever closer.

Bingeing just doesn’t give that kind of emotional connection.

First off, absolutely nothing wrong with bingeing. For fiction-related items—television shows, novel series, etc.—bingeing can work well. You can consume all the episodes in a weekend and really get the “novel as TV show” vibe.

But sometimes, it’s nice to have the breathing space between episodes. Take “LOST” for example. I’ve talked with folks who have binged all seasons of “LOST” in a month. I imagine the concentrated viewing helped those viewers get consumed in the story, but they missed something. I watched it live, on a weekly basis, for the entire run (save the first fall). For seven days, everyone got to discuss what happened on the previous episode, what all the clues meant, and to get ready for the new week’s episode. Repeat. We got three months of pondering over the summer after a season’s cliffhanger. Sure, over those hot months we might’ve forgotten nuances of some episodes, but, for me, that’s part of why you wait for the DVD released of the previous season during the weeks leading up to the new season.

I know I’m probably old fashioned. I know that having all the episodes of a new show available for any type of viewing you’d want. As a side note, my wife and I ended up watching “STRANGER THINGS” over a week, but there were a few times when we looked at each other and said, “One more?” We did. But I still remember fondly sitting down in front of the TV Monday’s at 9 pm to watch “CASTLE” (or CSI: MIAMI before it), or Tuesday’s at 7:00 pm to watch “THE FLASH” or Sundays at 9:00 pm for “ELEMENTARY.” That’s just me.

What about y’all? Now that bingeing is available, do y’all prefer it? Or do you still like to consume your media peace meal, over a long period of time? Or do you like having all the shows at your fingertips, allowing yourself to consume at whatever pace you want?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Another writer leaves Twitter

UPDATE 11a.m. 10/27: Chelsea Cain respondsSubmitted by Chelsea on October 27, 2016 - 10:59am
Uh, hi.  So some of you may have noticed that I recently deactivated my Twitter account.  (Apparently that’s a news story?)  I wanted to clarify what happened.  >>


Good gracious, folks.



Chelsea Cain, the writer of Marvel’s recently concluded “Mockingbird” series, has deleted her Twitter account, citing multiple instances of online harassment. This comes in the wake of “Mockingbird” ending last week with the series’ eighth issue, and her subsequent call for more female-driven comics at Marvel in a series of Twitter posts, which are no longer online.  CBR


Twitter rallies behind Mockingbird writer after feminist comic cover backlash


Chelsea Cain FB page

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

This Little Light of Mine

by Holly West

Writers often talk about their rituals--those things they do to prep their minds for a writing session. For some, it's a writing playlist, for others it's a cup of good coffee, or a designated time of day for writing. For many, it's a combination of things, all set up to put one in the "right" frame of mind for getting the job done.

Some rituals seem stranger than others. For example, Victor Hugo reportedly wrote Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame while naked, reasoning he couldn't leave the house without clothes on. Gives a new meaning to the phrase "keep your butt in the chair," doesn't it? A lot of my writer friends like to joke about not wearing pants (and I personally believe that pajamas and/or yoga pants count as actual pants) but I think we can all agree this takes things to a whole different level. Still, the man achieved lasting fame with two of the most iconic pieces of literature ever written. Maybe he was on to something.

While I have a variety of writing rituals, most of which are better described as work avoidance, there's one that I've kept to for over a year and I find that it puts me in the mood for writing better than any other thing.

I light a candle.

Why is this ritual so effective for me? First, the act of lighting a candle is, to me at least, particularly ritualistic. I was raised Catholic and candle lighting is an act of prayer and reflection in this religion. While I've long since put aside adherence to religious doctrine of any kind, the scent of burning candles in a Catholic church is still a source of comfort to me. And oddly, I still light candles for friends and family when I travel. These days, visiting famous cathedrals is pretty much the only time I ever set foot in a church and lighting candles for those I love provides powerful moments of reflection.

Beyond the spiritual aspects of candle lighting, there are more tangible benefits. Scent is very evocative for me (I know I'm not alone in this) and the right scent immediately puts me in the writing frame of mind. Writing, like reading, is a cozy pursuit, the kind of thing I like to do when it's cold and dreary outside, while drinking hot buttered rum next to a roaring fire. Accordingly, I tend to choose cozy scents, like wood fire, cinnamon, patchouli, coffee and spice to write by. My choices are very much seasonal though, and Fall is the best season. At this very moment I've got a candle called "Bonfire Nights" burning. Bonus points because the wicks are made of wood, which provides a crackly fire sound as it burns.

Incidentally, fellow author Neliza Drew makes a wonderful line of soy candles called Neptune and Nutmeg. My go-to candle is Dirty Hippie, which mostly smells like Nag Champa incense. It's a great accompaniment to the novel I'm revising, which takes place in Venice Beach. The only scents that manage to edge out the smell of incense there are weed, burning sage and occasionally, urine. Other favorites from Nepune and Nutmeg include Very Noir, Big Bookstore and Fresh Coffee.

The flame itself is also helpful. One of the issues I have when writing is that I'm easily distracted when I end a train of thought. For me, writing is comprised of two parts--part one is when I'm merrily cruising along, writing my little heart out without having to think about it. Part two is when I have to stop and think about what or how I want to say something. This is danger territory for me, since the second I can't figure out what to write I'm tempted to check my email or facebook or pinterest or the blog that I already checked twice. This can easily lead to two hours of oblivion. Maybe it's the pyromaniac in me, but gazing at the flame helps me re-focus my energy so I'm less likely to start clicking through bullshit.

Speaking of bullshit, I'm gonna go on record and say that's not a scent I'd favor in a candle.

So there's my number one ritual. I shared mine, now you share yours. It's only fair.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cops Against Criminals, Cops Against Cops: Peter Hyams' Busting

In preparation for this coming weekend's NoirCon, where I'll be part of a panel discussing 1970's crime films, I've been revisiting some favorites from the era - Night Moves, The Seven Ups, Rolling Thunder - and watching films I never saw before. One I'd never seen is Peter Hyams' 1974 film Busting, starring Elliot Gould and Robert Blake.  It's not a film that gets as much attention as a lot of other 70's crime flicks, but it's a movie well-worth watching.

Gould and Blake play a couple of Los Angeles vice-squad detectives who handle various cases in the story. One or two of these cases they bring to moderately successful conclusions, but most of the time they find themselves butting up against a system so corrupt and inefficient that their efforts accomplish nothing. Busting has got to be  considered among the more cynical crime films ever made, showing not only the idiocy of bureaucracy, but clearly suggesting that the cops are kind of fools for having chosen, as tough but honest upholders of the law, a totally futile profession.

The film is rough, hectic, and funny, and what's a little startling is how Gould and Blake are at once shown as employees of the establishment (they are, after all, police) but also pretty cool cats who know the establishment is rotten. They're not semi-rogue figures in the Dirty Harry tradition but more in the way of being wise-ass, uncouth anti-authoritarians.  This is the only film I can remember seeing where one cop, Gould, actually calls another cop a "pig".

Only in the Seventies, man, only in the Seventies.

Peter Hyams went on to make Capricorn OneOutland, Timecop and a slew of other films, but nothing I've seen by him is as good as or packs the punch of Busting.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Selling Out

One of the realities that authors face is that they almost always have to do public appearances sooner or later. This comes more naturally to some, while others struggle to adapt to marketing themselves. As writers, we tend to live in our heads a fair bit, and that puts us in a place where we get wrapped up in our own fears and thoughts and often make things harder on ourselves than they need to be.

That was one of the key things I took away from a recent Skype conference with author and literary event manager, Sarah L. Johnson.

When she launched her own book, Johnson had been coordinating events for over a year, but “when you’re talking about your own work it’s very different and you get nervous.” Although the nerves are natural, she says that one of the most important things an author can do to prepare for a bookstore event is to relax. “It really isn’t a big deal. It’s a friendly room. There’s nothing to be worried about. These are people who want to support you.”

What's the secret to a successful author event? Sarah's insight and advice is running in full today. I think for me, the biggest thing I took away from this is that we are our own worst enemies.

I will say that it can be hard to fully embrace the self promotion aspect, though. If you're in your own hometown you should have a strong audience to pull into an event. For some of us who've moved around far too much as an adult, we have limited local social circles. It's left me wondering if there's a void that can be filled with online book launches. I know the odd person still does blog tours, but the heyday of blogs and the large author social circle online seems to be far behind us, and I do find myself wondering why that is. Are we only able to invest in immediate results, and because we can't always see the impact of a blog post to the overwhelming majority of the audience, who do not comment or interact with the writer, does that render the medium ineffective? When I post here and get no comments or only 1 is it a sign that it's time to pack it in? Yet the site stats tell a different story, and it does leave me wondering why the shift away from internet promotion, or the change in how that occurs.

Which is probably enough to get me wrapped up inside my own head for the rest of this Monday morning. So instead of falling down that rabbit hole, hop over to Spinetingler and check out Sarah's tips for successful bookstore events.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Honing Our Writing Skills with Workshops

Scott D. Parker

If you’re a carpenter, the tools you use to craft wooden products dulls over time. When the tools don’t perform as well as they need to, carpenters hone the tools, sharpen the edges, and make the tools as good as new.

The same is true for writing.

Now, I’m not saying my tools have dulled. I’m too new in the career of a fiction writer to have that happen. But I am cognizant to realize I can learn new skills or a new way of approaching the profession of fiction writing. Some of the best places are from the folks who have been doing it a long time.

One of those gentlemen is Dean Wesley Smith. His bibliography is multiple decades long. He has written traditionally starting in the 1980s, and he is a long-time writer who has seen the potential of independent publishing and has made the transition. Successfully, as it turns out. I can’t remember exactly when his blog showed up on my radar, but it’s been a few years now. I’m a regular reader, and an admirer of his stories and work ethic.

He’s also a teacher. So is his wife, writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. They have a series of online workshops. The Classic ones are videos only and you can sign up and take anytime. The main workshops are six weeks, and contain both a series of video lectures as well as writing assignments. The topics are wide and varied and all focused on the business of fiction writing.

I enrolled in the Speed workshop. I’m a writer with a day job, and I wanted to maximize the available time I have to write. I’m only halfway through the workshop, but I’ve already learned valuable lessons. Heck, I even learned something about my writing that doesn’t even pertain to speed.

But that’s what you get when you have a teacher who has walked the walk in the professional writing sphere. Dean has wisdom that only comes from decades in the business. I can already tell a difference in my daily writing.

If you want to hone your writing skills, I recommend taking a look at all the workshops Dean and Kristine offer. There’s bound to be one being offered that help the exact deficit you might have. And, like me, you might even find another one you never knew about, and can fix. I know I did.

Dean’s website
Kristine’s website
WMG Publishing (the list of workshops) website

Friday, October 21, 2016

Why is The Exorcist so damn scary 40+ years later?

Buckle up, this one's long. I wrote this three years ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, and the site I published it on has gone the way of the buffalo. Happy Halloween!

Forty years ago The Exorcist opened to the greatest hype of any R rated film before or since. Lines stretched around the block despite the cold weather, additional showings had to be added to cater to the masses desperate to see it, it earned a ten minute segment with Tom Brokaw on the national news program, and reviews of the film made the front page of newspapers around the world. Reports of audiences responding by jumping out of their seats, running up and down the aisles, fainting, and leaving the film early in horrified tears came in from all over. By the time The Exorcist hit the UK, the theaters had ambulances standing by during showings. Something else happened at these showings, too. Something more interesting than reports of a man in San Francisco charging the screen in an attempt to kill the demon possessing Regan MacNeil. When people left the theaters, whether they left early or made it all the way through, they didn’t go home. They loitered around the theaters eager to connect with their fellow viewers over what they had just witnessed. People couldn’t stop talking about The Exorcist, and it appears we still can’t. The obvious question is: why?

The Rev. Billy Graham had harsh criticisms for the film, insisting that it had “a power of evil”, and believing the mass viewings would damage the souls of the nation. Other religious leaders condemned the film, too, but interestingly, many applauded it. Father Robert J. Henle of Georgetown was so supportive of the film that he not only allowed director William Friedkin full access to film anywhere on campus, including his own office, but also gave him the diaries of the two priests that performed the last sanctioned exorcism in America. William Peter Blatty, author of the book and screenplay, believed that by confronting evil, he was doing something positive for the Catholic Church. Many Catholics agreed.

Hype and controversy aside, one element of the film stands out in a way that may explain the public’s reaction to it. Realism. Blatty said he believed that the real reason audience members suffered nausea, panic, and fainting was not the horror elements of the film, but the realism of the medical procedures. In the scene Blatty cites as the one he can’t stomach seeing, the doctors perform a procedure on young Regan known as an Arteriogram. This scene was shot at the NYU Medical Center, using the actual lighting of the room, and rather than using actors, a radiologist and neurosurgeon from the university performed the fake procedure for the cameras.

It’s important to remember than in 1973, filmmakers did not have CGI, green screens, or even equipment modern filmmakers take for granted, like steady cams. What we see while watching the film is what actually happened on set. Friedkin was intent on making this film feel like a documentary, to make the symptoms of Regan’s possession as real as possible, sometimes going to dubious lengths to achieve that realism. Perhaps the most famous example is how cold the working conditions were on set. He wanted the actors’ breath to be visible. In today’s filmmaking, breath would be added in postproduction, but Friedkin did not have this kind of technology. So in addition to having the room on pneumatic wheels to simulate earthquake, he refrigerated the room to at least 30 below zero, leaving the cast and crew in ski suits, and Linda Blair restrained to the bed in nothing but a nightgown and long underwear. The lights and body heat warmed the room so quickly that they could only film for an hour or so before it became too “warm” and they had to stop filming and turn everything off so the temperature would drop again, and the breath would again be visible when the actors spoke. Crewmembers recall coming to the set one morning to find “snow” that had been created as a result of the overnight cooling mixing with the natural condensation inside the room.

Friedkin was not above endangering the actors to get a perfect scene. In one instance, Ellen Burstyn approached him to ask that her harness not be pulled so hard in the scene where she is thrown from Regan’s bedside, because she was afraid she would be injured. He agreed with her but instead had the man working the rope pull as hard as he could, yanking her back and slamming her into the floor, resulting in intense back pain for the actress. Friedkin’s response to her screams of pain was to motion for the cameraman to get in for a close up. That is the cut that made the film. When the real Jesuit priest playing Father Dyer couldn’t affect the emotion required of him as he performed last rites on the character Father Karras, Friedkin slapped him across the face as hard as he could, causing the young priest to cry and shake through the final take of the scene. Friedkin was rumored to have fired a gun off at random times during filming to shake the actors. Chris Newman, a sound engineer, said that Friedkin “would do anything to motivate an actor.” Burstyn had a different opinion, she said in the BBC documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist that Friedkin went “beyond what anyone needed to do to make a movie.” It is rumored that her back injury affected her throughout her life, while some who worked on the film claim it wasn’t a serious injury. So many times, what the audience sees isn’t acting at all, but a response to a real stimulus that wasn’t filmed (or in some cases, was).

Some of the more impressive feats are seemingly small in light of today’s technology. To get an unbroken shot from the front door of the house, all the way up the stairs to Regan’s room, they had to build a chair rigged up on a wire that could be moved smoothly and quickly, lighting the scene with extreme care to keep the rig from casting shadows. For a very small scene, where Regan injures the psychiatrist visiting her, they built a contraption the actor could lay on, with a camera mounted in front of his face to get the shot of him falling just the way Friedkin wanted it. There were a number of devices built specially for the film, but perhaps the most unsettling was the life sized, photo realistic dummy of Linda Blair they used to film the scene where her head turns completely around. Blair claimed that she didn’t even want to be in the same room as the thing. Watching the film, it’s nearly impossible to tell it is a dummy, even if you already know. One of the things that add to that realism is that they made sure the dummy “breathed” during the shot, her breath condensing in the freezing room.

Not only are the visuals incredibly realistic, and the actors responding sometimes genuinely to fear and pain inflicted on them by the director, but the story itself is about what happens when otherwise pragmatic people cannot find a logical explanation of events. Father Karras is a Jesuit priest who has lost his faith, and is considering leaving his position. Chris MacNeil is described by Blatty as “an atheistic woman”. When faced with the strange behaviors, vulgarity, and violence of her daughter, she first turns to her doctors, then to psychiatry, and only after one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, where twelve year old Regan is shown stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix, bleeding and taunting her mother, shoving her face into the bleeding crotch, does Chris seek the counsel of Karras. One of the many things Jesuits are responsible for is education, and Karras was sent to medical school by the Church to become a psychiatrist. He neither knows much about, nor believes in, exorcism and possession. He isn’t even sure he believes in God. He attempts to find an alternate explanation, even tries to point Chris MacNeil back to psychiatry, but in the end, he has to admit to himself that this is a genuine possession.

What is terrifying about this, is the feeling that we could be wrong. I don’t believe the viewer is afraid that they or someone they love will become possessed nearly as much as they fear the idea that events could conspire to prove our understanding of the world around us completely void. In many ways, this film doesn’t rely on the supernatural to get under the audience’s skin, it relies on the failure of medicine, science, and logic. Blatty himself doesn’t consider the story “horror” at all. He once said that while writing the book he never set out to scare anyone, while admitting that his words would be “an admission of failure on a stupefying level”, he felt that this story was a “supernatural detective” story. Friedkin says he never saw it as a horror film, either, going so far as to say, “Anyone who thinks this is a horror film is wrong”. They both claim it is a story about the mysteries of faith. Through the beginning of the film, that by modern accounts is quite slow, it is a mystery. Is the girl possessed? Will her mother realize it in time? Will Father Karras be able to help her? But the questions it raises when paired with the incredibly real effects create a horror, whether Blatty and Friedkin intended it or not.

William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in a cabin that cost $70 a month, holed away from his wife and children, only leaving to buy groceries and visit his mother who was in a convalescent home. Originally a comedy writer, it was the first time he wrote without the intention of getting laughs, and the first time he felt that the characters had taken over. He said he never had a plot in mind, but instead used notes on the physical symptoms of a possession instead. After a seven year correspondence with a priest named Father Bowdern, a man who had actually performed an exorcism, his notes must have been fairly in-depth. He based the characters on people he knew, and inserted his own grief over the loss of his mother into Father Karras’s narrative. Some of the events in the story were inspired by actual events unrelated to possession and exorcism, like the story he tells of a student attempting to steal a physics test from a classroom and being discovered, only to launch himself through a window and down a set of stairs. Even the bits not based on Father Bowdern’s 1949 exorcism case are steeped in realism.

The effects, make up, and compelling journey from skepticism to belief was so compelling that the cast and crew felt a deep unease. After a mysterious fire on set that delayed filming, and some accidents on set like Linda Blair’s back harness coming loose, causing her to be thrashed about on the bed while screaming, “It hurts! Make it stop!” which also happened to be her lines for the scene, it was believed that there was a curse on the film. Some posited that the Devil himself was attempting to keep the film from being made; afraid it would reveal him to the world. Most horror films have rumors of a curse surrounding the filming, as it adds a mystique to the film. The Exorcist is no different. Several members of the cast and crew said that nine people who were involved in the film died. It is difficult to corroborate the number as they counted relatives of the cast, and rarely name more than four people, to include the ninety-year-old woman who played Father Karras’s mother. The deaths all appear to be from natural causes, and some occurred years after the making of the film. Still, during filming the cast and crew were so unnerved that Friedkin asked a priest to come in and exorcise the set. The priest refused, in part because it was nearly impossible to get Church approval for an exorcism at the time, and because he felt it would only serve to unnerve the cast and crew further. He did come in and bless the set and speak with the cast and crew in an attempt to calm them.

Even after the filming was complete, the sense of evil looming infected people working on the postproduction. Not satisfied with the 150 hours of work the sound people put into making Linda Blair’s voice sound demonic, Friedkin hired renowned radio actress Mercedes McCambridge to do the vocal work. McCambridge asked to be bound to a chair, and have the restraints tighten during the lines where Regan was distressed. To achieve the rasping, deep, demonic voice she drank whiskey, chain smoked, and swallowed raw eggs, even her breathing sounded ominous. Despite her dedication to the role, or perhaps because of it, she had to take frequent breaks to be comforted by priests and read scripture. There were times that she spontaneously erupted into tears while recording, as she was so disturbed by the work.

Adding to the idea that the film was cursed, or evil in and of itself, it was sent to 666 Fifth Avenue to be edited. Friedkin writes in his autobiography that if he had believed that there was a curse he would not have been able to go on with it, despite asking for an exorcism and having priests standing by during postproduction voice recordings. In the same writing, Friedkin shares that Fr. Bowdern had written to Blatty saying, “I can assure you of one thing: The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then, and have no doubts about it now”. He also claims that Fr. Henle had felt that Blatty’s writing was a faithful, but fictionalized account of the 1949 case Fr. Browdern had participated in. Given his inclusion of the letter that wasn’t even addressed to him, is difficult to believe that Friedkin was completely divorced from the idea that the film was cursed or under some sort of supernatural black cloud, even as he talks about the good he feels the film did in confronting evil and bringing matters of faith to the mainstream.

The end result of all of this is a film that produced visuals years ahead of its time. Audiences had never seen a film where so much attention to detail and innovation had been put into what ended up on screen. Regan’s levitation was accomplished with a trick the director of photography had learned in advertising – if you paint dotted lines on the strings holding her and light the scene just right, the lines become invisible. Without the experience of seeing hundreds of films using CGI to create illusions, film goers of the seventies saw a girl rise up from the bed and float in midair, without any evidence of the device allowing it to happen apparent on screen. When the bed shook, jumped, or bucked like an untamed horse, it required the use of four different mechanized beds. Even the scene where Father Karras jumps out of the window and to his death, tumbling down those infamous stairs, a stunt man had to do just that.

In addition to that, we have the unsettling visual of Regan MacNeil’s demonic, gashed, bleeding and cracking face, the result of hours in the make up chair each day, but not so overwhelming that the audience cannot see the young, innocent girl beneath the demonic thing inside of her. Audiences were faced with the kind of vulgarity that was not commonplace in films of the time at all, let alone from the mouth of a twelve-year-old girl. Friedkin admits that casting Regan proved incredibly troublesome, as he needed a young actress that could portray innocence as well as possession, and could also deal with the subject matter and the possible results of portraying the character. Blair won the part after he had auditioned thousands of girls to no avail, and her mother brought her to his office without an appointment.

To hear Linda Blair tell it, she “simply did as she was told”, and in many cases had no idea what the things she did and said meant. Friedkin recalls the masturbation scene, telling her she had to thrust the cross into her crotch, and Blair responding that she wouldn't do that because it was “bad”. He had to coax her into it, and even then Blair says she didn’t really understand what she was doing, she just thrust the cross into a box between her legs that held a sponge soaked in Karo syrup, without fully understanding the vulgarity. Further, she says that her Lutheran family didn’t speak much of the Devil or evil, and thus she didn’t understand much of what she was portraying. As an adult, she says her mother told her “To play Jesus or to play the Devil will change your life forever”. She recalls having to explain to people that she was okay, that the film was just a film, and she had not been affected in any significant way by portraying Regan MacNeil.

Part of the reason The Exorcist lives on in several rereleases, documentaries, interviews, and books is because the themes are universal. One cannot put a date stamp on the fear that results from not being able to find a logical answer to a terrifying problem. There will always be things we cannot explain, things we cannot put a name to, things that get under our skin and cause us to doubt what we believe. Whether this doubt is doubt in a particular god or religion, or it is doubt of the institutions we have grown to trust in our modern world – hospitals, psychiatry, scientific research—it still arises for everyone at one time or another. So long as religion asks for blind faith, and so long as science leaves some questions unanswered, people will face disappointment in both. The story of Regan MacNeil put the audience face to face with that reality and forces us to ask ourselves how we would respond to an unanswered question with such high stakes.

Poor special effects have dated and made irrelevant many films. In refusing to take the easy route, Friedkin insured that the effects seen in The Exorcist will never be distracting. The realism of the film itself, when paired with the realism of the characters, and the questions of faith and logic, make this a timeless tale. It’s a film I watch at least once a year leading up to Halloween and it never fails to entertain me. It has aged well thanks to Friedkin’s obsessive directing style that took the film almost three times over budget, leaving the viewer unable to laugh off the more intense parts of the film because of dated effects. Though Blatty and Friedkin will disagree, I think it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and deserves both the hype it drummed up in the seventies and the continued interest in the film and the work done to make it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the book is, in fact, better than the movie. Some things are harder to communicate on celluloid, and Friedkin and Blatty worked hard (and argued often) about what would be included and what would be cut. We cannot get inside Father Karras’s head as he does everything he can to convince himself that Regan is suffering from a psychosomatic illness, or be drawn by his interior arguments that keep leading him to possession as the only answer. The friendship between Father Dyer and Father Karras is likewise explored more deeply in the novel, giving Karras’s sacrifice a more intense sting. The feeling of dread, the feeling of evil, and feeling of logic being stripped away little by little as things escalate are captured in the film brilliantly, but they will overcome the reader of the novel.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Outsiders author vs Twitter: Stay gay, Ponyboy

By Steve Weddle

This week, S.E. Hinton was asked on Twitter whether she'd intended for two characters in her novel, The Outsiders, to be gay.

I spent years in academia, arguing that the white whale was Jesus, that Holden Cauliflower was a communist, that Nathaniel Hawthorne was readable. Heck, five years ago at this very site, I wrote a thing about "what the author meant."

And I've seen many, many, many authors get beaten about on Twitter for saying things about their own writing. One sci-fi author caused trouble when he said he didn't think he was very good writing women's voices. Another best-selling author was in the middle of trouble when he was asked why he, a white guy, didn't write more about race in his novels. The author said, well, you know, I don't have many black friends. And so on and so on. You could spend days reading the results of "author twitter controversy."

Which brings us back to Hinton.

As a white, cisgen middle-class dude, I had plenty of people to identify with in books. At times, it seems to me that nearly all of the books in the stores, on the shelves, being reviewed are books written by people like me about people like me. While I was writing this paragraph, another coming-of-age novel about a white guy in Brooklyn was published.

I don't know what it is like to grow up gay. I do know that if I were a gay kid reading a book and found someone who seemed to be like me, I'd think that was pretty cool. Before social media, I'd just kinda hope it to be true, I guess. But, imagine if you were that kid and you could ask the author something along the lines of, "Hey, I think maybe I can kinda identify with this character. Is that cool?"

Again, I can't really know what that must be like, because so many of the books I was handed as a kid were about people like me -- straight and white and middle-class. Hell, even the guys in Murakami's books listen to the Beatles, you know?

Anyhoo, on Twitter @MrCadeWinston posted about The Outsiders and asked Hinton the question::

Now, there we go. Boom. Done. Here's my copy of this book. Here's my reading of this book. I can identify with these characters and love this book. Or maybe you're straight and this character seems gay, and so it makes you dig the book more. Or a parent in a book, who is written as a nice guy, seems to have an undercurrent of meanness that you've picked up on. 

Your reading of a book is super personal. Which, you know, is why I like books and hate movies. In movies, actor read lines. In books, you're allowed to read between the lines. It's cute, but it's cute. And speaking of cute, well, here we go (screenshot from's story): 

Yup. They nailed it. "Are they gay?" someone asks. "No. Did you read them that way?" or whatever. Or, as others have pointed out, it could have gone something like this: "Are they gay? They seem gay to me?" the reader says. To which, the author responds, "Well, I didn't write them that way, but it's totes cool if you read them that way. Cheers." or something about how there are 13 ways to look at a blackbird or skin a cat or whatevs. But, as everyone has said, the "cute" response was a bit of a turning point. If you've been on social media for more than three or four minutes, you can look at that Tweet and know you're about to see some fireworks.

Which, you know, is understandable. Next week folks will move on to something else, of course. Heck, maybe sooner if Franzen gives an interview somewhere.

What's left after the smoke clears is a kid who maybe identified with two of the characters. While you can scroll through Twitter (at your own peril) and see the many mistakes made by many people, what we're left with is someone asking about a hope, a dream, a connection. Yeah, we've got an exciting Twitter squabble and everyone gets to take sides and it's fun and political and share-worthy and all that.

Out there in Tulsa or Wichita Falls or Lyons, someone is reading a novel a little differently than the author intended. Someone is finding something hidden in there, making a connection that the author set up, but maybe didn't quite mean to deliver on. So what? Who cares? That kid who isn't like me cares. That kid who was assigned a dozen books in school to read, each book about straight, middle-class cisgen white folks. Who is going to write about race? Not Franzen. Who is going to write about gay boys? Not Hinton, it seems. But who is going to read about them? Who is going to read about people like you? You are. 

If you're reading one of the Greasers as gay, please be careful asking the author if your reading is the "right" reading. If a character seems like you and you're digging the connection, I dunno. I get wanting to have "the answer" and how validating that would be. It's just, well, you should never meet your idols. I mean, you can if you want. Don't let me stop you. Just, be prepared for disappointment and sadness and vague nausea that hits each time you hear an Air Supply song afterwards. Believe me.

That Hinton appears to have shut down this reading of characters saddens me, but it's understandable. She was asked a question and answered honestly. Things went sideways from the "cute" exchange. You know, if you're asked a question, it's reasonable to think you'd want to answer it honestly. 

Of course, we're fiction writers. We should know better how to lie our way to something better than facts, something more beautiful than the truth.

If you're looking for LGBT reads that are, ahem, open about their characters, here are some lists: