Houses vs Homes

Well, the holidays are upon us, which means I’m still on Halloween. These past few weeks I’ve been absorbed with haunted houses. “The Legend of Hill House” slowly roped me in on Netflix. This, of course, led me to the 1963 film version, “The Haunting”, reading the original Shirley Jackson novel, trying desperately to pretend the god awful 1999 version of “The Haunting” was never made (I seem to recall tentacles being involved. Ghost tentacles. That’s all that needs to be said about that.), annnnd beginning work on a haunted house story of my own like I actually have time for another damn project.

So, Christmas will be postponed to mid-May this year.  Halloween will be continuing into mid-March. You are welcome. (Sorry guys, I was too late to hold off Hanukkah. I hope yours was a happy one.)  With that in mind, this installment of VS presents a battle between the seasonally appropriate stories found in “The Haunting of Hill House” Netflix series vs “The Haunting of Hill House” novel. (I thought about discussing “The Haunting” film as well, but it’s mostly a retelling of the novel with overly simplified characters. It’s fine, I guess, but most of what Rod Serling was doing on the Twilight Zone at that same time was much more inspired.) As always, there are no losers, I’m here to help you replace all forms of healthy social interaction with indulgence in fiction. I don’t waste time telling you about things I don’t love. No social life for you. It’ll be better that way.

Also, please wash your hands after reading this. Everyone in my house has been sick for three weeks now, and I’m pretty sure the damn virus will come for you straight through your damn phone, keyboard of what have you.

Trust me, I’m a trained nurse.

I was not, at first, enamored with the Netflix “The Haunting of Hill House” series. I watched the first episode in a spooky basement in Maine and slept like a baby. Considering I’m an anxiety ridden scaredy-cat, that’s not a promising response from me. It had its moments, but it was mostly predictable haunted house stuff that was a little heavy on the “look at this! Scary, right? RIGHT?” approach. It wasn’t awful. I just didn’t give the show a thought the next day. Or the next.

Though, here’s the thing about giant budget television shows that take their time telling one intricate story in a season…the first episode is hard. You have to introduce the story but also, not tell too much story. You have to do it with a writer’s room that can’t possibly have settled into a groove yet. Chances are, there are studio execs looking for some serious spoon feeding. Even without all that working against your first episode, imagine judging a movie by the first ten minutes. Maybe you can tell if it’s awful, but it’d be tough to recognize brilliant.

“The Haunting of Hill House” turned out to be kinda brilliant.

So, I read the book.

Pop-culture’s primary food source is itself. It eats its own tail and somehow grows larger. You tell a story today, fifteen different people retell it in different ways for the next hundred years, leading in different directions. Your story becomes a footnote to theirs. Worse, some confused souls will think your story is a weak newcomer and give the originality points to the rich range of work it inspired. (I’m looking at you every space-fantasy story for the past hundred years! You all need to apologize to John Carter of Mars for ruining his chance at a movie franchise.)

That’s my smarty pants way of explaining why, while you’ve probably come across a few better haunted house stories than Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”, “The Shining” wouldn’t exist without it. I’m not a literary historian, but I’m as skilled at generating half-cocked hypotheses as anyone on the internet, and I say the modern haunted house story, with a house not merely full of ghosts, but with the house itself being predatory, catching people and webbing their souls into its cellars and attics, began with Shirley Jackson. The house that toys with its inhabitants, was built evil, that has a heart and, worse, a stomach, is all her.

The novel is sparse by modern standards. For my money, it feels more like a prologue than a book. It’s full of characters that I was really enjoying, but their stories all just stop when one of them makes a dramatic exit. In a modern novel it’s expected that everyone who strolls onto the page gets some kind of arc. Sometimes that seems a little trite. Life is not full of arcs, it’s full of random nonsense. Yet, whenever I read an author brave enough to just let a few things go unresolved, because few things ever resolve in life, I feel short changed.

It’s a product of its time. Readers of fiction in 1958 had different expectations. So, read it, but read it like it’s 1960. Imagine you’re Don Draper, smoking and drinking hard liquor from the bar in your office at 11 AM, reading the book everyone is talking about and hating your life.

You should also know Shirley Jackson knows how to put words together. She creates some gorgeous sentences, and they find their way into the TV series, even though it has next to nothing to do with the book. Cups of stars and showers of stones, parts of the scenery in the book. have echoes in the series. If you did take the book as a prologue, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a prologue to the series I suppose.

While the book hurries along, packed full of characters with unexplored potential, the series is on its own schedule. It has so many complex characters who look alike,  you’ll have to put your phone down and pay attention to know what’s going on. It tells two primary stories. The first is the story of a family with a dream. They’ve been working toward building their “forever home” by moving all over the country and flipping houses. Hill House is, of course, their big score, and it has to go well. It doesn’t. Horribly traumatic events ensue.

The second story is about that same family decades later. The traumatized children have grown up. Guess what! They’re a mess! It never occurred to me that I wanted to see a story about the aftermath of surviving a supernatural trauma, but turns out, its fertile ground. A lot of this part of the story could be pulled out of any survivor experience.  Then, just when you get a little comfortable with the situation, it shows you what’s really happening to these poor people and it is chilling.

It’s rare that I care a lot about spoilers, but I want to spoil nothing in this for anyone. The reveals are super important.  Maybe don’t read any more reviews and such until you see it. 

Also, brilliant doesn’t mean perfect. There are a few moments driven by the basic need to get characters from point A to point B that don’t work. (Hint to all makers of movies and TV…parents, well, good parents, don’t leave their children alone when there’s an emergency and they run super-fast towards their kids when they start screaming in terror.) They are brief, and nothing is perfect. I write. I understand.

But still.

Anyway. Go read the book and watch the show. Maybe in that order. That way you get yourself a prologue and you get to point out all the details you notice to whoever you watch it with. Who, of course, will be your cat, dog or parrot because you know better than to engage in human interaction.

Have a happy Halloween. I’ll catch up with you for a special Christmas edition of VS this May.






Not many people are buying "Piggyback to the End of the World" as an e-book. It even comes free with the trade paperback, but no one seems terribly interested in even the free copy. 

Why do you suppose that is?  Sure, everyone likes a real book. I do too. I also like being able to carry a whole shelf of books in my pocket. 

So, where are you, mysterious people who like a good e-book? How do I find you? 

The Americans and TV

Ya know, this television thing is getting good. What's it taken, fifty, sixty years?  

The Americans finished up recently and I finished watching it last night.  Damn I love a good espionage story. There are so few of them.  I think the trick is, it takes a long time to tell a story about spies. Movies can't quite do it. It takes novels, comics or television, but movies seem to try it more often than anyone else. 

The other trick is, what makes a good spy story isn't what the spy is doing, but what it takes to be a spy.

The Americans digs so deeply into the complexities of being a decent person who has to do terrible things, presumably for a greater good, but a greater good that is awfully far away. There is no character in the show that doesn't break your hearty a little.  

The story takes five season. It ends, because stories end, but it ends the way chapters of a life end.  The lives of all involved have to keep going the way real lives do. We endure the past while facing an uncertain future, wondering if we did the right thing.

It makes me want to write a spy story.  I'm not sure I have the ability. I don't have a particularly deep understanding of international politics, and what I do know keeps me up at night, so maybe that won't happen. 

In any case, stop reading this and go watch The Americans if you haven't already. I kind of have to re-watch it. Spy stuff always has lots of little details I miss the first time around, so I spend a good amount of time not really knowing what's going on, but liking it anyway. Much like the rest of my life.

Hmm. If you miss the Americans you might want to check out a comic series (It's been published as collections too) called Queen and Country.  It won an Eisner award and it too is a great spy story.


Marketing is making my mind melt!

I've been either painting or writing for about thirty years now. The hard part has always been marketing. 

It takes time to make a story. It takes focus and a kind of layering of thoughts. Ideas are reworked and pushed into new shapes that fit the puzzle better. The first words written get rewritten and cut up into something that hopefully flows a little better than a blog post might. It's exhausting and frustrating and it all has to happen while life goes on.

Children need to get to all the places they need to go. (How can a three year old have such a full schedule?), the dog needs reassurance that he is important, dinner needs making and dishes need doing. All of that takes time, yes, but more importantly it occupies the mind and soaks up energy. That's if nothing goes wrong. If things go wrong, if there's chest pain or a tree lies down on the car, time evaporates and the thought of creating anything at all, much less a whole book, becomes something alien. 

I've been creating things under the harsh conditions that all humans deal with for over thirty years. (I know I look young. Like Batman, I've aged phenomenally). I can do that.

What I'm not good at is marketing under those same conditions. 

I enjoy it to a degree. I like making the websites anyway. The problem is, it just sucks the energy right out of me. An hour of sorting out how to market my book, combing through other author's suggestions, feels like four hours of work at my day job. I spent an afternoon writing to literary blogs to ask them to review my book. I got through twenty of them. I received two responses. One agreed, one turned me down.

An entire afternoon to get one review.

That's time I'd rather spend writing. 

Honestly, I'm not doing this for the money. I'd like some money, just out of recognition of the effort I've put into making something, but it doesn't have to be a lot. When I was a painter I was always happy to sell a painting at all and didn't quibble much over how much it went for, provided it wasn't an insult to the time and effort I'd put in. I feel the same way about writing. 

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. 

I think, I am looking for simple ways to let people find my work.  I need ways that don't involve countless hours writing to blogs or agents. Ideally, places I can just place a link, or better yet, a cover image, and let it be seen.


I don't read much fantasy, but...

So, I'm reading The Witcher books. (Polish fantasy books. There's a big old video game that took the world by storm a few years ago, so I'm just discovering it recently, because I'm always way behind on these things. Give it a google if you don't know what I'm talking about)

I'll tell you right now, I'm not a fantasy guy. I'm not big on vast political stories of imaginary lands, magical McGuffins,or authors who describe exactly how attractive every female character who walks across the page is or isn't.

The Witcher, to one degree or another, is all of these. I'm liking it in spite of that, mostly because it is doing something I like and don't see much of.

The stories are, mostly, small. They're about characters stuck in a world they don't have much control over. Politics are whirling around them and screwing up their lives, but they won't be slaying any evil kings and setting it all straight. They'll just muddle along like everyone else.

The stories are about their lives, more or less. 

Rather than tell a story of a monster being slain, you're just as likely to get on that picks up immediately after a monster is dead. The real challenge is that the love of your life has two loves of her own life, or you want to save someone who really wants to destroy themselves. 

There are plenty of fantasy elements, but they're used to tell the stories of the characters, not the stories of the magic doohickey or dragon.

Way more interesting than walking across the realm to throw a magic ring in a volcano if you ask me. 

Also, it does all kinds of nifty, Easter egg type things with polish folklore and Grimm's fairy tales. And, the writer has this quality to his writing that makes it all seem a little like a play. I like that.

Away in the Legion

Well, that took a while. I decided to continue to be sick and neglect all other things. I'm still sick. Also, I've had two hours of sleep out of the last 36. 

That said, I think you should probably watch Legion. It's like Stanley Kubrick decided to calm down and do a little television. I'm not certain, but according to my too tired brain it even uses a bit of the old Helvetica Black. 

One thing I particularly enjoy is that it takes place in a larger universe. I won't spoil which one, but I love fictional universes.