Monday, November 27, 2017

Unlikely Heroes and other anthologies

November has been the month of anthologies.  I've had three stories published this month, two originals, and one reprint.

I want to talk about all of them, but I'll start with "Dying to Live," which features Esther, the flapper ghost from my Jonathan Shade series as the protagonist.  I'm a member of a small group of authors who meet every week online to discuss marketing and accountability.  This group also does the occasional anthology, so when they invited me to join the group, I was also invited to contribute to the next book.  That book is Unlikely Heroes.

Here's the cover:

While it's not necessary to have read any of the Jonathan Shade novels to enjoy "Dying to Live," people often want to know where in the Shade timeline a story takes place.  This one takes place shortly after the events in Timeless Gods.  Esther faces off against a creature who wants to feed on her life and memories.  I hope you enjoy the story.

Back when I mostly wrote short fiction, my most popular character was a blue collar hitman.  He made appearances in Robert Bloch's Psychos, Pulp Friction: Noirotica 2, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Crime Spree before being collected into my short story collection, Quick Shots.  A couple years ago, Josh Viola asked me to submit a story for a crime anthology that would include stories from our world and beyond.  Mario Acevedo was the co-editor.  I suspect they were hoping I'd write an urban fantasy story about Jonathan Shade or Kelly Chan.  Instead, I wrote "An Officer and a Hitman."  Our world.  A straight-up crime story, though a bit over-the-top as all the hitman stories are.  Fortunately for me, they liked the story and bought it for Blood Business.  The book has two covers.  The hardcover and paperback flip over like the old Ace Doubles so one side is our world, and the other side is the stories from beyond.  Here's the cover for our world:

To see the cover for beyond, just click the link above as the ebook edition features the other cover.  All the stories are included, of course.

Finally, we get to the reprint of "Mending Wounds," which first appeared in the Marion Zimmer Bradley anthology Sword and Sorceress VII.  It was my first sale (third story published).  It was also the first of my stories that Edward Bryant, the Nebula Award winning author, read and critiqued.  I made the few minor changes he suggested and the story sold with ease.  Ed died back in February.  Ed was a mentor and a friend, and I'll always miss him.  Ed helped a lot of writers, and this summer, Charles Anderson and Jim LeMay decided to assemble a tribute anthology, which would include reprints and originals from the authors Ed had influenced.  I'm honored to be included in the book with such amazing authors as Connie Willis, Kevin J. Anderson & Janis Ian, Steve Rasnic Tem, Lucy Taylor, and so many others including a lot of old friends.  The book is called Edward Bryant's Sphere of Influence.  And here's the cover:

Thanks for reading about the anthologies.  Now it's time for me to get back to work on the novels because, while short stories are fun, the novels pay the bills.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bundles of Fear

The Fear Bundle

It’s October, and with Halloween staring at us, this is the perfect time to read some cool horror fiction.  I started out writing horror.  Yes, my first story sale was fantasy, but the first stories I ever wrote were all horror.  I was a huge fan of monster movies, TV, books, and comic books.  I lived for movies like The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I will always have a fondness for the old Universal Monsters.   

But I also watched Dark Shadows on TV, totally hooked by Barnabas Collins, the vampire and Angelique, the witch.  Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) was my idea of a hero in that he was a regular guy who always took it upon himself to face down whatever supernatural critter attacked the city in The Night Stalker.  With comic books, Werewolf by Night was my favorite, though I also loved Tomb of Dracula, and Ghost Rider.  Yes, I was a Marvel guy.

And books!  I read the classics.  Dracula by Bram Stoker wasn’t as good as the movies because I got so tired of reading letter after letter.  But Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was awesome!  My favorite short story was always “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.  That story got its claws into me so deep that at the age of eighteen when I went to visit my father on summer vacation, he asked me to go buy him a lottery ticket at the local 7-Eleven, and I said, “Dad, are you sure you want to do that?”  And I was serious!

I lived for books like Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.  I was a bit too young when I read that one because I kept thinking, wow, these vampire dudes really like each other.  I read books like Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws, The Exorcist, and others.  Then I discovered Stephen King.  The Shining creeped me out, and I kept reading his books.  The Dead Zone, Christine, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, and on and on.  I loved them!

So when I started writing, I was all about the scary stuff.  My first published story was a ghost story called “By Death Abused.”  I sold a bunch of horror stories, and while I mostly write urban fantasy these days, my love of horror has never faded.

Recently, I read a wonderful book called Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix, and I’m back on a horror reading kick.

So I was delighted when Kristine Kathryn Rusch assembled a StoryBundle called The Fear Bundle, which is loaded with horror.  I’m honored to have a novel included.  The bundle will be available only for a limited time, so grab it while you can.  Get your horror fix now!  I know I will.

For the low price of $5.00, you get four books: Show Trial by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Last Call by Sean Costello, The Night Killers by Rebecca M. Senese, and Fiction River: Feel the Fear edited by Mark Leslie.

And if you pay at least $15.00, you cut loose another six books: Calling Dead by Dean Wesley Smith, Immortal Clay by Michael Warren Lucas, I, Death by Mark Leslie, When the Moon Over Kualina Mountain Comes by Leah Cutter, Gates of Hell by J.F. Penn, and One-Way Ticket to Midnight by some clown named Gary Jonas (oh, that’s me).

You want vampires?  Check.  You want serial killers, we’ve got you covered.  You want magic, music, the end of the world?  You’re all set. 

The charity for this bundle is the American Red Cross, and the funds are being directed to Puerto Rico relief.  People there are suffering, so while you scare yourself silly with some terrific books, you’ll also help the people of PR recover from the hurricane.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Eddie the Eagle, The 5th Wave, and The Witch movie reviews


I got behind in my reviews, so I’ll go with three quickies to get back on track.  Let’s borrow from Clint Eastwood and go with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good.

Eddie the Eagle
Written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton
Directed by Dexter Fletcher

If you’re in the mood for a feel-good movie based on a true story, Eddie the Eagle fits the bill nicely.  Taron Egerton plays Eddie Edwards, the British ski jumper who had such a good time at the 1988 Winter Olympics.  The story follows Eddie from childhood where he wants to go to the Olympics, but he has not been graced with the athletic prowess required to perform at Olympic levels.  He’s a tenacious cuss, though, so you can’t help liking him as he faces each challenge with a smile and a refusal to take no for an answer.  Hugh Jackman plays Bronson Peary, a former Olympic ski jumper who reluctantly agrees to help Eddie—mostly so he doesn’t have to see him get killed.  Wet clean up on slope three!

This was a fun movie.  Definitely worth watching once it hits cable or Netflix as I think it’s already gone from the theaters.  I saw it right before it left the Owasso theater.  Egerton and Jackman are terrific.

Grade B

The Bad

The 5th Wave
Written by Susannah Grant and Akiva Goldman & Jeff Pinkner based on the novel by Rick Yancey
Directed by J. Blakeson

I haven’t read the novel, but I tend to give more credit to the original writer.  So while I don’t know how much of the suckage came from the book and how much was added to try to clone The Hunger Games into an alien invasion movie, I’ll guess that most of it came from the Hollywood side of the equation, and that’s understandable.  After all, if you’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to make a movie, you want to give the audience something you know they’ll like so if there was a recent popular movie you can borrow from, it might help.  Of course what it really does is hurt, but when there’s that much money involved nobody can see that.  And even with The Hunger Games, people complained that it was too much like Battle Royale.  Let’s just say that The 5th Wave is a paint-by-number movie and if you can’t predict every single plot twist it’s because you fell asleep.  Seriously, just think, hmm, what’s the most obvious thing I could do here, and you’re pretty much going to nail it.  The effects are good, but that’s a given in an SF film these days.  Basically, the movie quickly covers the waves of an alien invasion.  The aliens show up, they wipe out people quickly with an EMP, natural disasters, disease, becoming body snatchers, and then using kids as soldiers.  Was that a spoiler?  Like you couldn’t see that coming from the title once they started going through the waves.  Right.  Pass on this one.

Rating D-

The Ugly

The Witch
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers

This movie is set in the 1600s and follows a family of Puritan settlers from England as they try to make a life on a farm at the edge of the wilderness.  Unfortunately for them, there’s a witch who takes an interest in them.  The witch steals their newborn baby, and the family essentially unravels over the course of the film, turning against one another and making themselves an easy target for supernatural evil.  The writer/director did his research, so all the sets, costumes, and even the dialogue is as accurate as can be to the period.  The film riffs on Christian mythology and some of it works very well, while some of it falls flat.

People back in the day were scared of witches, and if you were a Puritan family living in the middle of nowhere on the brink of starvation when the crops failed, and your baby was stolen, you’d likely cling tight to superstition and fear and think you’d somehow offended your god.  The problem I had with the film was that the characters don’t really do anything to try to improve their lot—they’re reactionary rather than taking action.  Once you settle in and get used to the dialogue, the film crawls along, but fails to really engage the psychological battle going on within the family.  Everything stays a bit too much on the surface for me.  Yes, the mother is upset about the baby being gone.  Yes, the father worries that he can’t feed his family so he sold a silver cup and lets his daughter take the blame.  Yes, the daughter is there to do chores until she can be married off to do chores for someone else so she has nothing to look forward to.  Yes, the son kinda lusts after his sister trying to look down her dress, and eventually chases a rabbit but finds a Victoria’s Secret model who wants to kiss him.  And yes, there are two really irritating kids who insist their older sister is a witch.  But all of it stays on the surface level partly because it doesn’t get to play out to raise the stakes enough.  All of that would be okay because up until that point the film worked well creating atmosphere and letting the setting be a character too.

Then the boy returns after kissing the witch, and he coughs up an apple and dies.  Yes, apple, Adam, original sin, all the mythology from the Bible is there for you.  Babies go to Hell, people are inherently evil, and here, have an extra helping of guilt.

Then the witch shows up.  Well, things just got stupid from there.  I won’t give away the ending here, but let’s just say that if it had been handled better, this could have been a good movie.  For me, the ending didn’t work.  I saw what the writer/director was trying to do, and hey, it was a good try.  But for it to work, we’d need to care more about the characters themselves.  My problem is that while I understood their basic motives and such, they never stopped being essentially paper dolls to be manipulated this way and that.  They didn’t feel like real people to me with a mix of good and bad traits and personality.  And most importantly of all, they never took any active steps toward making any choices good or bad.  Everything happened to them rather than as a result of actions they took.  Now, if the director’s view was that it doesn’t matter what you say or do, everything is part of some divine plan for both good and evil, okay, but even in that case the main characters should try to take action.  Right?  As it stands things just happen.

So, good effort, but missed the mark.  Unfortunately, when you miss the mark on a movie like this, it makes it harder to grade because I felt like my time was wasted, but I appreciated so much of what was done from the sets and costumes to all the period details, and all.  But we go to movies to be entertained by stories, and this story didn’t work.  So A for effort, but I have to rate based on other things.

As such.  Rating D+

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Movie Review

Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder

First thing I’ll say here is that the critics have bashed this movie left, right, up, down, and diagonally, but it’s far better than Man of Steel, which is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

Did I hate Batman v Superman?  No.  I actually enjoyed parts of it.  Did I love it?  No.  The vast majority of it doesn’t work on a basic story level.

The good: Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  She’s not in the movie much, but she’s damn fine as Wonder Woman.  Not only is she gorgeous, but she makes you believe her.  So I’m looking forward to seeing the Wonder Woman movie.  I predict it will be excellent.  Why?  Because as I type this, only one writer has credit for the script (always a good sign), and because Patty Jenkins is directing (she directed Monster).

The good continued: Ben Affleck as Batman.  Affleck plays Batman in the dark Frank Miller sense, and Batman takes a page from the Punisher’s playbook in this mess.  According to IMDb, Affleck will star in, direct, and co-write a new Batman solo flick.  That one will likely kick ass.

Henry Cavill does fine as Superman.  Actually, most of the acting is decent considering the material.  It can’t be easy to deliver some of the truly horrible dialogue, but the actors carry most of it off well enough that you just remind yourself it’s a comic book movie and you’re fine.

On the acting front, Jesse Eisenberg, who was terrific in The Social Network, was horribly miscast as Lex Luthor.  I suspect he showed up, did as he was told, collected his paycheck and went home with enough money that he can say no to a lot of crappy scripts and find something he really wants to do instead.

I haven’t read the screenplay, and I have no idea who rewrote whom here, but I suspect the good parts were written by Chris Terrio and the awful parts were written by David S. Goyer.  Why do I say that?  Because Terrio wrote Argo on his own, and it was terrific, while David S. Goyer is the sole screenwriter on the ultimate piece of shit movie Man of Steel, which I hate more than any other movie I’ve ever seen.  That movie sucked big green donkey dicks and then expected you to suck them too.  Goyer has done good work in the past (the first Blade movie, Dark City, Batman Begins), so he does have talent.  Maybe it’s Superman that makes him turn out clunker lines and moronic plots.

Zack Snyder’s directing here leaves a lot to be desired.  I’m not sure if they shot a six hour movie and had to edit it down to three hours so important pieces are missing or what.  The film needs connective tissue to get the story to unfold in any reasonable way.  Then again, what story there is in this flick is beyond stupid.  Batman hates Superman because Superman killed a lot of people in his battle with Kryptonians at the end of that aforementioned piece of shit Man of Steel, which is still and probably always will be the worst movie I’ve ever had inflicted on me.  Yes, I need to get in touch with my feelings about that stupid flick.  Superman hates Batman because Batman brands criminals with a bat.  After a long time with all sorts of things happening that don’t really amount to much, Superman and Batman are forced to fight, and Batman has some Kryptonite so he isn’t just squashed right off the bat (sorry).  I’m going to give a spoiler here, but you can read it and you’ll think I’m pulling your chain, but this is actually a major plot point.  Batman forgets all about hating Superman and decides they’re going to be best buddies because … are you ready for this? … their mothers are both named Martha.  I shit you not.  If Superman’s foster mother had been named Brenda, all bets would be off.  This is the level of motivation used in this movie.  Aww, isn’t that cute?  It’s all good, Supes.  I’ll save your Martha.

One of the big problems with movies like this, and most action movies shot by Hollywood directors, is that the action tends to be shot in close-up and edited together so you can’t see what the fuck is going on.  Hollywood, please rent some Jackie Chan Hong Kong movies.  Look at the Police Story movies or the Project A movies or the Armour of God movies or Drunken Master II, or damn near anything Jackie does in Hong Kong.  Notice that the action is shot with the camera back far enough that you can actually see what’s happening?  Get away from the cut, cut, cut, cut, cut and just let the camera roll.  Pan along a bit, and keep the action in the damn frame!

Okay, I went into this movie with extremely low expectations.  After all, the trailers made the movie look truly awful.  I had no interest in seeing it.  But then some fanboys geeked out over how much they loved it, and I decided to review some movies so I’d have something to post on my blog.  On top of that, I have MoviePass, which means it didn’t cost me anything extra to see this (other than my time, which probably would have been better spent working on my latest novel).

So the critics have slammed it, but a lot of comic book people will still enjoy it.  This movie is critic-proof.  Here’s the deal, if you don’t mind comic book movies that are dark and without intentional humor, and you don’t mind turning off your brain enough to accept that no matter where Superman is, he will instantly appear when Lois Lane gets tossed off a building, and if you don’t mind that the main villain, well, sorta the main villain, has zero motivation, but likes to talk a lot and gets people to give him things like crashed spaceships in exchange for cherry Jolly Ranchers (I am not making that up), and if you don’t mind scenes played out in odd order and without any narrative flow, you might enjoy this movie more than I did.  And if you can read that sentence in one breath quickly and in Jesse Eisenberg’s voice, you’re all set.

I feel like I should give this movie an F or maybe a D-, but I liked Affleck, and Gal Gadot is terrific, and it wasn’t as bad as Man of Steel, the worst movie of the century.  So I’ll give it a C-.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

London Has Fallen Movie Review

Written by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, and Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John
Directed by Babak Najafi

The Prime Minister dies after a routine surgery and the world leaders must attend his funeral in London, so you know terrorists are going to have magically infiltrated everyplace so they can kill all the leaders except the US President (Aaron Eckhart), who is being protected by Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).  Man, if only the terrorists had seen Olympus Has Fallen, the first movie where Mike Banning saved the president, they might have had second thoughts about going ahead with their silly plan.

All right, first of all, this movie is beyond stupid.  There is pretty much nothing believable anywhere in the film, and whenever they can, they go for the cliché instead of trying for anything new or different.  Sample dialogue:

“There are a hundred terrorists in that building!”
Mike Banning nods.  “They should have brought more men.”

At the beginning of the film, I saw the long list of writers with the writing team of Creighton & Benedikt getting a story by credit plus a screenplay credit before the AND Gudegast AND St. John, and I knew the movie was probably going to suck balls.

Explanation time for those who don’t know how Hollywood works.  When you see the ampersand—that’s the & symbol—you know those two writers worked together on the script.  They collaborated and pounded out story points and character arcs and callbacks and set pieces to build and deliver the action, story, and emotion as best they could.  When you see the word AND spelled out, it means that the next writer took the script and reworked it.  In order to get a screen credit, they have to add a certain percentage of new material.  Note that this movie had a collaborative team (the authors who wrote the original Olympus Has Fallen and created the main characters) and then the producers or director (or both) hired another writer to rewrite the script and then they hired yet another writer to rewrite the script.  Odds are, other writers worked on it too, but didn’t make enough changes to get a screen credit.  There’s more money when you get a screen credit, so as a writer you really want that.  Consequently, you’ll make changes that don’t need to be there in order to get the extra pay. 

Screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer said (and I’ll have to paraphrase here because it was during an interview I did with him years ago), “There’s a point where your ethics become soluble in hundred dollar bills.”  He was talking about taking a job to rewrite Barb Wire.  Don’t judge Chuck by that cinematic gem, or by his work on other movies (Hard Target, Navy SEALS, The Jackal, etc.).  If you want a great book by Chuck, definitely read Warrior Soul, his memoir about his time as a Navy SEAL; that one is outstanding. 

In any case, when multiple writers rewrite one another, it’s not about story anymore.  So the original team works to get a layered script, and others come in and screw it up or perhaps fix it and let someone else screw it up or maybe they all screwed the pooch.  It’s nearly impossible to say, but too many writers normally means you’ve got a bad movie on the way.  It’s rare when you get something decent after seeing multiple ANDs in the writing credits.

I may be off the mark here, but I suspect a lot of the set up was by the original writing team.  There are a lot of players introduced, and we get their names and positions displayed on the lower third of the screen so we can hopefully keep track of the various characters we’ll see throughout the film.  Only we don’t really see most of them throughout the film, so you won’t need that scorecard.  Some are killed off because they’re world leaders.  Some are simply forgotten because the other writers couldn’t be bothered with them.  Why not cut them altogether?  Maybe they were rewriting the script as they went.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  The only name you’ll really need to remember is Mike Banning.

What surprised me is that I was able to turn off my brain enough to enjoy the movie more than I should have.  It wasn’t the writing, which was pretty bad, and layered cliché on top of cliché from the stay-at-home pregnant wife of Mike Banning to the piss-poor security where policemen and palace guards are easily infiltrated without anyone noticing before the bullets start flying to the brave black woman who dies a noble death, though it meant nothing, and I hope Angela Bassett got a big paycheck and didn’t have to spend much time on set.  She deserves better roles.

So by all rights, I should have hated the movie.  Yet, I sat through the whole thing.  I suspect it has something to do with the way Gerard Butler played his role.  He’s like the Ultimate Bad Ass American who will throw one-liners out there like Arnold Schwarzenegger did back in the 80s.  In so many ways, this was an Arnold movie without Arnold.

After Mike Banning kills a bad guy, the president says, “Was that necessary?”  Banning grins and says, “No.” 

Mike Banning banned bullets from hitting him, knives from cutting him, bad guys from getting him, bombs from blowing him up, helicopter crashes from injuring him, car wrecks from slowing him down except at the point where the bad guys need to be able to take the president hostage so Banning can go save him against all odds, and go it alone in spite of having a Delta team there with him.  No, this is a job for one guy.  You guys stay back here and press this button when I tell you to.  I’ve got this.  I’m Mike Banning, after all.  I am not kidding.

Mike Banning gets shit done.  See Mike Banning kill terrorists.  See Mike Banning jump out of the way so terrorists kill each other.  See Mike Banning arrive in the nick of time to save the president from being beheaded.  Bad guys ought to just shoot themselves to save Mike Banning the hassle of killing them.

Go, Mike, Go!
Kill, Mike, Kill!
See Mike Kill!

Taken on that level, the movie is actually kinda fun.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still godawful, but it’s so bad it’s almost good in spite of itself.

A few years from now, if this movie is remembered at all, people will be doing drinking games to this movie.  Take a drink each time a worn-out cliché rears its head.  Take a drink each time a normal guy would have been killed.  Take a drink each time Mike Banning should have reloaded his guns (Mike Banning has banned guns from running out of bullets until he’s ready to eject a magazine and slap a new one home in dramatic fashion).  I saw Olympus Has Fallen when it came out, and I’d completely forgotten about it until I looked up this movie’s credits for this review and saw it was a sequel.  Based on that, maybe the drinking game won’t happen.

This movie should probably get an F for being stupid and illogical.  However, it embraces every cliché and doesn’t care if it disappoints people who might want a bit of nuance.  There are remnants of a deeper story here and there—the initial drone strike that opens the movie kills lots of innocent people, but when the USA causes collateral damage, that’s okay because we’re the good guys.  When the other side causes collateral damage, they’re terrorists.  I suspect there’s a more interesting draft of the script that explored that.  There are occasional nods, such as the mention that the terrorists aren’t specifically targeting civilians.  That movie would have given us a better story.

In spite of that, I have to say that on the level the movie wants to be taken, it delivers.  Does it matter that the CGI helicopters look like they were taken from a Tom Clancy video game?  Not really.  Does it matter that the movie will probably offend everyone outside the USA?  Maybe—after all, action movies often make more internationally than domestically.  London Has Fallen is pure pro-USA: one bad ass secret service agent is better than a hundred terrorists.  Outgunned, yes, but Mike Banning has banned reality from intruding on his action fantasy.

On that level, I have to give it a C.  Your mileage will vary.