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It’s Halloween, Kids … Scary Stuff! Mwuahahahaha … BOO!

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True story: As a kid, I was unnaturally obsessed with monsters.

I would read or buy anything I could get my hands on that involved the classic characters, especially Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster or Mr. Hyde.

Looking back now on that time from the perspective a parent, I’m sure my own parents were a little concerned.famousmonsters131vgf

I partially blame my obsession on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which combined with MAD magazine pretty much explains why I write the way I do.

Every month Famous Monsters featured as many stories as you could possibly wring out of every monster movie ever made. Pictorials featured background stories on the movies and – most importantly to me – stories about the makeup.

So important, in fact, that at one time I actually considered becoming a makeup artist as a career. It was a nice idea and led me into one really cool high school job, but what I was missing was the “artist” bit.

My interest in monsters also led to to a period of masterful (if I do say so myself) construction of Halloween haunted houses in the spare attic over my parents’ garage at our house in Summerville, S.C.

Fortunately, I had equally bored, weird and enthusiastic friends who would help me in their own masterful ways to pull these off. The other (more normal) neighborhood kids would come and drop a quarter a pop to walk through and be frightened by old spook-house gags like grapes as human eyeballs. a glow-in-the-dark ghost suspended from a beam by black fishing line and one friend apparently being sliced open by a giant pendulum blade.

Yeah, we were those kids. To the parents of the neighbor kids who paid to see our horror shows, I apologize for any therapy your youngsters had to undergo.

So now I’m living Halloween as a 45-year-old, and I can’t help casting my mind back to those days. We did a lot of improvising as far as special effects and materials. The giant pendulum was cardboard spray-painted silver and embellished at the blade edge with red tempura paint. We pillaged my dad’s spare lumber and used tools that these days,¬†should I suggest that my son go off and build something with them, would get me arrested for child endangerment. There was lots of simulated gore (usually ketchup or red food coloring) and always – always – a record or cassette of spooky sound effects (thunder, groans, cats, evil laughing, etc.) playing in the background.

But should my kid want to do the same thing today, an entire industry exists to support him. Round about Sept. 15, Halloween shops pop up like mushrooms in otherwise vacant strip mall storefronts, packing in every single effect that we wish we had back them into a few thousand square feet, readily for sale to anyone with the wherewithal to pony up the cost. That cost, say those who track such things, is rapidly approaching what we typically spend on Christmas decorations.

Animated, full-sized talking monster mannequins. Smoke machines. Light effects. Everything you need for excellent make-up and costumes. Bony, motorized skeleton hands that rise from the earth and is guaranteed to make children under the age of 7 soil their pants and run away screaming. The spooky sounds, meanwhile, are available via download so you can freak out anyone anywhere with just your iPod.

It’s depressing, not because it’s too much, but because it’s everything I ever wanted and never could get my hands on.

My wife has hinted around that some year she’d like one of those giant inflatable Christmas decorations to go on our lawn. I say let’s take the money and invest in some really kick-ass Halloween decorations.

Santa chasing reindeer in an eternal loop of yuletide kitsch? Nah. Scaring the pants off the neighbor children? Yeah, that’s money well spent.

Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

The Monorail – Getting from Here to There the Science Fiction Way

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One of the early criticisms of Immaculate Deception (from a friend and former newspaper colleague who had not yet read the book, incidentally) was that there would be no way that anytime in the near future the United States could agree to build any sort of high-speed rail system, let alone the extensive maglev network I describe in the novel.

Had he known they were present in the narrative, he probably would also have pooh-poohed the presence of the aircar, loosely based on the designs of the Moller Skycar, which is an actual thing.

Granted, when it seems difficult for some in politics and punditry (the real in which my skeptical friend now dwells) to wrap their brains around better, cooler trains. The fact that people in urban areas (particularly along the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., where I live) actually like to use trains and would like to see more of them seems antithetical to the the current widespread belief that investments in forward-thinking infrastructure are silly. Honestly, it’s so much easier to spend all that money on fighting spurious foreign conflicts and letting bridges rot, right? But that’s another blog posting…

Suffice it to say that whether they’ll every really happen in the U.S., high-tech public transportation systems like maglevs (beyond the one at Disney World, of course) are an integral part of science fiction literature and film. There are even a few musical references – my favorite being “IGY” by Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagan.

And it’s not just a current (pipe?) dream – it’s one that’s apparently been around a very long time. Here’s a great story from the website io9 talking about the monorail concept through history.

All aboard!

Sci-Fi Author Richard Matheson Speaks to What All Authors Hope For

Science fiction author and screenwriter Richard Matheson died this week, having contributed immensely to the sci-fi canon with some of the best loved episodes of The Twilight Zone and the novel I Am Legend (the source for the Will Smith movie of the same name, as well as two earlier film incarnations – The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston and The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price).

Matheson also wrote What Dreams May Come, the basis for the Robin Williams film of the same name, and which coincidentally shares some similar imagery with my novel Immaculate Deception.

This is a great clip because it speaks to Matheson’s own legacy, but could be translated as the ultimate hope for most anyone who writes fiction of any genre.