A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Writing a Post Several Months Ago…

No, I didn’t join a cult. This is just a sign I saw on a hike today…while at my weeklong writer’s residency!

But I bet I got your attention, didn’t I?

So a few months ago, I watched Prom Night with the express intention of writing a blog post about it. Then a month passed by, so I watched it again. Then I was just days away from a vacation followed by said residency, so I put it off.

Dudes, I desperately was in need of a vacation. So Michael and I head off to Pinecrest Lake one Sunday for a week….only it was a super short week. The Forest Service CLOSED the whole fucking forest on Day 3 of our vacation because humans are idiots who cannot be trusted to not start a massive blaze at the height of fire danger season. So I get it. I was understanding. But still….no writing.

Which is of considerable concern when you’re like, supposed to be working on a follow-up book to the first unpublished book at a writing residency in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a whole week.

But you know what? I made it. I’ve just about nailed down Act One. Or at least, the first segment of Act One. I’ve actually written pages and am figuring out the characters, little by little. So it’s HAPPENING.

All of this is just to say, I will post my Prom Night thoughts soon. I’d like to just give you a sampler teaser: Jamie Lee Curtis, DISCO QUEEN! Back in a jiff.

Saturday Night’s Questionable Horror Feature: Night Warning/Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (Pick One)

Poster for Night Warning (1982)

You know you’re in for an interesting ride when the studio can’t decide what the title is.

The version I watched over on Shudder was titled Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, which made maybe a little more sense than Night Warning, since I’m not really sure what the warning was in this movie. I mean, things happened at night, but they weren’t really warnings. They were murders. So maybe Night Stabbings would be more accurate?

So this movie starts off with Anonymous Mom and Dad leaving their toddler, Billy, with Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell) while they go off to visit their parents. Billy is most definitely NOT happy about it, because he cries like someone is threatening to murder his puppy off-camera. Mom and Dad drive off and almost immediately are on a steep and winding road when the brakes go out. They run into the back of a lumber truck and a log crashes through the windshield, flattening Dad’s head and causing the car to fly off a cliff, with mom screaming all the way down until it lands in a creek.

At this point, I was in the middle of writing, “I’m a little disappointed that the car didn’t explode” when guess what? THE CAR EXPLODES. Even though it’s sitting in water. I immediately decided this movie was BRILLIANT.

Cut to 14 years later, and apparently Billy is still staying with Aunt Cheryl. BTW, Billy is played by Jimmy McNichol, Kristy’s younger brother who has apparently not quite mastered speaking like a human. Aunt Cheryl, on the other hand, thinks it’s totally normal to wake him up by draping herself over him and blowing sexily in his ear. And I guess if he’s been raised just by her, he wouldn’t know that was weird. Which begs the question: why does he seem so normal, with his perfectly feathered hair and all?

Then we see Billy playing basketball at school (it’s shirts vs. skins, woohoo!) and it’s made clear that Billy’s an awesome player even though teammate Bill Paxton doesn’t like him. I kind of wish Bill Paxton had more to do in this movie, but sadly, he doesn’t even get murdered. So while they’re playing, my screen started to freeze every few seconds, and I thought it was a glitchy stream but NOPE it was just the film’s way of showing us that the someone’s taking a lot of terrible action shots of the game. Enter Julie, school photographer, and HOLY SMOKES it’s Julia Duffy from Newhart! Who else is in this movie???

Chill, Bill!

So Billy and Julie are jazzed because not only is it Billy’s birthday, but a basketball scout is coming to The Big Game and the coach thinks Billy may win a scholarship, which is great because Aunt Cheryl has made it really clear that she does NOT support Billy’s going to college and leaving her. Meanwhile, a Nosy Neighbor Lady asks Cheryl if she’d like to be set up with some new single dude in town. Cheryl firmly says no…but then makes a really awkward pass at the handyman just a few hours later. He is totally not into her so she stabs him to death, which Billy sees because it’s suddenly nighttime and he’s home now.

The dude dies and Billy removes the knife from his neck as Aunt Cheryl screams that he was trying to rape her and then she throws herself, bloody exposed chest and all, at Billy. So now they’re BOTH covered in blood and in walk Mr. and Mrs. Nosy Neighbor for Billy’s big birthday dinner. OOPS! It’s like a Three’s Company episode gone off the rails, especially because this couple is very Roper-ish. “We said ‘COME AND KNOCK ON OUR DOOR,’ not ‘WALK RIGHT INTO OUR MURDER KITCHEN!'”

Aunt Cheryl, your…ummm…never mind.

So then the cops come and Aunt Cheryl is sticking with her story. But unfortunately, Bo Svenson is playing the detective in charge and he’s like a cross between Dennis Leary and Joe Don Baker, only SUPER HOMOPHOBIC. Like, way over the top, even for a cop in 1982. It becomes clear pretty quickly that he wants to pin this all on Billy, not for any reason that makes sense but because he just doesn’t like Billy.

So naturally, Detective Bo gets super excited when he finds out that the handyman was gay because that would mean his instincts were right that the handyman didn’t try to rape Aunt Cheryl. But not for crime-fighting reasons; it just would mean that Billy was a QUEER, which he really wants to believe because of REASONS.

But the corker is, here’s how he KNOWS the handyman was gay: because he was wearing a ring engraved, with love, from the basketball coach. Not because his name is there, but because of the INITIALS on the ring.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but sharing initials isn’t exactly evidence, amirite? I mean, just because the basketball coach has the same initials as whoever gave the handyman a ring doesn’t mean that (a) that person is the basketball coach or (b) that the ring-gifter was in a sexual or even a romantic relationship with the handyman. Right?

But when confronted in the sleaziest way possible about this by Detective Bo, Coach just kind of smiles and shrugs. REALLY??? So despite clearly not wanting to be outed (because it’s 1982), Coach just admits to a clearly homophobic cop that yes, he was in love with the handyman and gave him a ring. But he really wants Detective Bo to understand that Billy had nothing to do with this. And of course, this just makes Bo want to pin this on Billy even more, because he’s an awful human being first and a cop second.

Meanwhile, Billy and Julie finally have sex (does Peter Scolari know about this, Julia?) and Aunt Cheryl catches them and kicks Julie out. The Good Cop–you know, the one that’s not Detective Bo–steps out of the bushes and tells her, hey, if you guys had sex, that’s GREAT because that would mean Billy’s not gay and somehow this will prove he didn’t murder the gay handyman. Right??? Again, I still am not following the logic.

Around this point, we realize that Cheryl’s been hiding the remains of her ex-boyfriend (no, it’s never been mentioned before, so don’t worry if you’re confused) in the cellar for years, but I guess Billy hasn’t even tried to go down there because the body’s not even hidden — he’s just laid out there on a cot beside a little altar she has where she talks to his picture and tells him about how she needs to keep Billy there with them.

Things come to a head when Aunt Cheryl starts drugging Billy so he’ll pass out at his big game and lose his scholarship chances. But Billy’s been suspicious and wants to snoop around in her keepsake box. So even though Aunt Cheryl’s been having a ton of angry outbursts and he even SAW her murder the handyman, he asks Julie–the one person Aunt Cheryl detests more than anyone–to distract Aunt Cheryl while he looks through her things.

Want a haircut?

Julie does, but Billy doesn’t hear Julie being attacked with a meat mallet while he’s in the next room, I guess? He comes out and Julie’s nowhere to be seen, but he notices that Aunt Cheryl has given herself a Pandemic Haircut a few decades too early. (Actually, it doesn’t look half-bad. Brad Mondo probably would have given her a “good try!”)

Brad Mondo. If you don’t know him, GOOGLE HIM NOW.

But Nosy Neighbor Lady pops in just as Billy’s passing out from drinking drugged milk. Nosy overhears Cheryl tell Billy that she’s his real mom, and Dead Cellar Boyfriend is (was) his real dad. That couple from the beginning in the exploding car? They’re just Cheryl’s….something. Brother or sister. It’s not real clear.

This all seems SO MUCH MORE COMPLICATED than it needs to be. It also doesn’t explain why she wants to bang her nephew/son. If anything, this makes it even weirder somehow! Okay, so Nosy has overheard this and knows something weird is happening, so she goes to hide but finds Julie’s camera and handbag. I guess she knows they are Julie’s because they have nametags on them? IDK.

This movie does not stop bringing the crazy at any point. There are several showdowns between Aunt Cheryl and basically everyone. It’s okay though, because somehow Julie survives after several head wounds and Billy’s finally killed Aunt Mom. Detective Bo shows up and even though some other cop tells him that Cheryl was the killer, Bo still wants to just kill Billy. Aunt Mom comes back to life just long enough to distract Bo so Billy can shoot him and somehow, the other cops just know Bo had it comin’ and don’t have a problem with it. Instead, they let Julie run to his arms, and then the film pulls an Animal House where-are-they-now thing and the titles tells us that Billy was found not guilty in the cop shooting due to temporary insanity (said no one ever). It also tells us that Billy and Julie are both at college together. Thanks for the update, movie!

This movie is just banana after banana-level bananas. Seriously. The plot and actions make zero sense, but in its favor, you have a really fun cast doing the best they can with a shit script and apparently, five dollars. Susan Tyrell is pretty freaking awesome as Cheryl, especially when she starts unravelling post-haircut. Check it out if you’ve got Shudder, but please don’t pay more than three dollars to rent this thing.

I Just Watched 1980’s “Terror Train”, and I Have Questions.

Jamie Lee Curtis. Ellis from Die Hard. Vanity (the singer, not the deadly sin). David Copperfield. Abuse of at least one corpse. So much to unpack…

I’ve been listening to the With Gourley and Rust podcast, wherein Matt Gourley and Paul Rust discuss all kinds of horror films, and when they covered Terror Train, I decided I needed to rewatch it because, while I’m pretty sure I watched it at one point in my youth, I couldn’t remember anything about it other than it was one of those prank-gone-wrong-vengeance films. And BONUS – it was free with Amazon Prime, so we watched it on Saturday night.

Let’s start off by saying, okay. It’s not the best horror film of all time. But as one who fully expected it to suck a bag of dicks, it was a lot more fun than expected.

Like many slasher films of this time period, the filmmakers decide they need to make it clear exactly what set the killer off on a life of psychotic murder. And in this case, our killer and med school fraternity pledge, Kenny (Derek McKinnon), is the victim of a really bonkers prank wherein he gets into a bed with Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), only it’s not Alana. It’s a corpse that’s falling apart (because pre-med students apparently have access to such things). Naturally, this freaks him out, but a lot more than they intended…which is apparently shown by him twirling around in some sheer curtains. I guess that’s supposed to represent his psyche unravelling? Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, is somehow SHOCKED, just SHOCKED that she was tricked into participating in a prank involving a dead body, but HOW DID SHE NOT KNOW?

Cut to three years later, when said frat bros and their womenfolk are celebrating their last New Years’ Eve together as a group by partying on an old tyme steam train, which I guess is something that gets rented out for parties? Kind of like a wine train. And I’m totally ready to accept this, only for some reason, everyone’s in costume. So is it Halloween? No, really, it’s New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing?

The lead prankster, Doc (Hart Bochner – the guy who played douchey Ellis in Die Hard!), is apparently in charge of this thing, so he gives a big speech about how this is the last time they’re going to be together and at this point, I’m BAFFLED. It’s January 1 — doesn’t that leave them with like, five months of probably much better weather to party it up together? Or are finals going to be that exhausting?

Check it out, you guys! It’s Ellis from Die Hard with his “Hans! Bubbie!” smirk on! Somebody pour him a Coke!!!

The train takes off, with Crazy Kenny killing class clown Eddie, who’s dressed in the WORST Groucho Marx costume ever. Maybe they were worried about getting rights to the patented Groucho-Glasses, because instead they just use a really creepy and not-very-Groucho-looking mask and a fat tux. Kenny steals this costume and, despite what the movie poster suggests, never puts on a Conductor’s cap. He climbs aboard and starts bringing the terror.

During the overlong getting-on-the train sequence, we see that David Copperfield is going to be performing on the train. Which makes me wonder: What the hell kind of a fraternity hires a magician for its New Year’s train rager? Canadians, I guess. (I’m going to use this explanation whenever I’m confused, which will be often.)

Among the partygoers is Vanity (yes! Prince’s buddy!), dressed in some sort of Cleopatra sort of costume. And her boyfriend is dressed as this:

This is not a Sleestak.

I got super excited at first, thinking it was supposed to be a Sleestak from one of my favorite childhood shows, “Land of the Lost.” But then my husband said no, it was probably just some kind of snake and Vanity was a snake charmer, which in no way is obvious, but okay. That was disappointing.

Anyway, the party rages on while Kenny as Groucho gets all murdery, first with NotASleestak and then with Doc/Ellis’ girlfriend, and eventually, Doc’s best buddy and JLC’s boyfriend, Moe (who kept reminding me of Judge Reinhold for some reason). Moe is killed in the middle of David Copperfield’s act, which I’M SORRY but was super pointless. It was almost like a bathroom-visit interlude because they kept cutting away to show the audience and the entire point is TO BE LOOKING AT THE MAGICIAN DO TRICKS. Also, can I just add that David Copperfield tries hard to give JLC a lot of sexy looks that actually just are super creepy. Like this one:

#Imtotallynotacreeper “Hey babe. Check out my Flying Nun Collar! You know you love it.”

Finally, things pick up as the conductor (Ben Johnson, an Oscar-winning actor who was in a lot of Westerns) starts finding bodies and realizing that hey, something weird is going on! Which seems reason enough for him to manhandle my girl JLC a bit as he drags her around the train showing her the bodies of two of her friends. And then Moe’s also dead, so it REALLY sucks to be JLC and Doc then. This is when they somehow realize that it’s got to be Kenny….in fact, doesn’t David Copperfield’s character (also named Ken, although that seemed unnecessary) look a lot like that kid we pranked in a way-over-the-top manner three years ago? (Fact Check: NO. He doesn’t. AT ALL.) JLC dumps some expo on us suddenly, explaining that Kenny dug magic and also allegedly killed somebody after being hospitalized for his “accident” (getting tangled in curtain sheers, I guess?). Seems like a weird time to remember to add this in, but okay…

Now it’s time for Doc to really channel that inner Ellis and he locks her out of his train compartment even though she’s screaming for him to let her in. Naturally, he’s just locked himself in with Kenny, who has mastered hiding in small spaces. It’s actually a fairly tense scene, and very unusual to see a male actor in total panic mode and letting out high-pitched screams. Unusual but honest? It was kind of funny, but also pretty refreshing, TBH.

TIME OUT to say….there are some contradictions in here. At the top of the movie, the Conductor says something about there being no radio communications on the train, but there’s a phone he uses to talk with the engineer. So…what gives? Where is this train even going? They are in the middle of nowhere! Does it just turn around and come back? No idea.

Meanwhile, Kenny reveals himself to Alana (JLC) in a pretty cool way and we get a little twist when we realize he’s been SUPER busy while hiding in plain sight during this trip! No spoilers here, though — just watch it for yourself. In fact, I’m not even going to tell you how it ends. So take THAT! Stream it and see.

I watch a lot of these 80’s-era slashers, and I have to say, a lot of them are unintelligible/unwatchable. And while this one had some problems, they did a good job with the use and idea of magic/illusions/tricks going awry. The acting was occasionally even good, especially in the case of JLC, Hart Bochner, Ben Johnson and Derek McKinnon. And how many slashers give us a hero in the shape of a 60-year-old train conductor?

On a scale of Utter Rubbish to Entertaining Rubbish, this ranks at Entertaining Rubbish. Well done, Canada!

Ohhhhh, Canada! You minx.

My Perfectly Normal, Totally Healthy Obsession with House Stalking on Zillow

Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

I didn’t start getting weird about habitually cruising the Interwebz in search of the perfect home until I was stuck at home with a broken ankle in the summer of 2019. Before that, I may have occasionally glanced at homes for sale, but not with the regularity I do now.

Let me give you some backstory: we’ve lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco for about twenty years. The same one-bedroom apartment, in fact. It’s rent-controlled, so we can’t afford to move or we’d lose the low rent that has enabled us to stay in the Bay Area. As time passes, I find myself fantasizing about becoming a homeowner and yearning for more (or maybe just different) space.

We’d considered moving in the past to the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is close enough to still be able to work. We even put a bid on a home in Felton at one point, but we were outbid. Then, there were fires and evacuations, and we sort of shoved the serious thought of moving aside.

But being stranded in bed, I started checking once, twice, maybe even three times a day. And not just around Santa Cruz! Sometimes I’d look for places around the Russian River in Sonoma County or even as far away as the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tuolumne County. Are you picking up on a theme here? MOUNTAINS. TREES. FORESTS. Maybe even a RIVER or a LAKE. Would it be possible to turn my love of mountain living in the heart of nature into a full-time thing rather than just a vacation?

When life screeched to a halt in March of 2020 (for a good three months in my case), I began to amp up my daily visits to real estate websites like Zillow and Realtor. I saved searches. Zillow started emailing me daily about sales rates in various zip codes I’d been stalking. They also would nudge me about homes I’d saved, that little heart emoji making them wonder if perhaps I’d like to TAKE THE NEXT STEP?

Morning. Mid-day. In the dead of night. All were good times to revisit real estate. I realized eventually that I wasn’t looking at real estate, really. I was looking for the ultimate full-time vacation cabin. House preferences: cathedral ceilings were a plus, especially if they were made of wood or even just had cross-beams present. Skylights with trees above were another bonus. Wooden walls? PERFECT. Just do NOT paint those bad boys white or you will lose me. You’ll also lose me with any ANGLED wood walls, which was a regrettable design kick in the late 1970s/early 1980s. I love dark wood but open rooms that get at least some sunlight.

I like the idea of neighbors, but I don’t want to have to see them from my back patio or really, any of my windows. Outdoor space is lovely as long as there aren’t NEIGHBORS just on the other side of that fence. Ideally, the home will back up to forested views, or perhaps a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.

But perhaps most importantly, it HAD to have a hot tub, or allow for one to fit somewhere.

Today, as I waste yet another Saturday scrolling through house after house online, it occurs to me that I’d be better off just sticking with renting AirBnBs in all my favorite getaway places. Getaways are best when they take you out of your daily routine, after all. Would a place in the woods become limiting rather than dreamy after a few weeks? Or perhaps it would just become dull over time, the once-inspirational sweeping vistas eventually becoming just a backdrop to the daily grind.

But that really is an adorable Craftsman you’ve got there, Zillow, you temptress.

Technology Grandma

When technology surpasses my ability to understand how it works

Me, eventually

Back when my mother sold the family home in Menlo Park and moved out to Pacific Grove, me and my eight sibs were cautiously optimistic. I remember asking her if she needed instructions on how to record on the VCR (this was the early Nineties). It was a seriously old top-loader VCR, complete with corded remote that could pretty much only STOP, PAUSE and PLAY. Anything else, you had to get up and do it directly on the machine. Setting the timer to record was a complicated process that was super easy to screw up, so I wasn’t too surprised when my mom responded to my question with a laugh. “I don’t think I need to know that,” she added.

I got it. All she needed to know was STOP, PAUSE and PLAY, and that was on the remote, cord or no. I used to think to myself, all this new technology must be confusing. And I was probably right. She never did get herself a cellphone. Why would she? She only went outside for walks or maybe to the grocery store. And when she relocated eventually to assisted living, she had even less use for technology. There were nurses for that shit.

Meanwhile, technology has surpassed my own capability to understand it. Case in point: I recently started watching WandaVision streaming on Disney+. At home, I have an ultra-easy Roku. But I’m dogsitting this weekend, and last night, I decided to pick up watching on my client’s Apple TV. And as I touchpadded my way to the correct episode and got it to play, I was surprised to hear a female robot voice describing everything that was happening on the screen:

“Agent Monica Rambeaux materializes, surrounded by an ashy substance. All around her, people are appearing as ash whirls around them…” says Magic Voice. What’s happening? Is this on purpose? Is this another kooky Wanda Maximoff trick? I mean, she is forcing a town to take part in her dream sitcom life. Adding a narrator wouldn’t be all that weird, would it?

But yeah, it was weird. And I quickly realized that in my struggle to pause playback on the tiny Apple TV remote, I’d somehow managed to turn on voiceover narration…but only for Disney+. Shit. So I for-real paused it and went to the Disney+ settings…..okay, nothing there about audio or accessibility. I found the accessibility settings for the Apple TV, but voiceover narration was already turned off. So…..what now?

Stuck, I did what everyone else in my age group or younger would do: I Googled “how do you turn off voiceover narration on Disney+ on Apple TV”? At least I’m young enough to know that Google still has all the answers. The Apple TV forum had the answer at their seventh option: swiping downward on the touchpad would bring up the option to turn voiceover narration on and off. Somehow, when trying to pause the playback, I’d swiped downward and then arrowed down and then clicked, turning on the narration option. It’s such a random but specific set of actions! How could anyone know that without instructions?

I guess I, like my mom, “don’t really need to know that.” But when I did need to know it, at least Google could bail me out! I know that probably won’t always be the case, so I’d better get all my binge-watching in now.

Our Neighbor, Sasquatch

“Yeah, so I’m a little loud. So what???”

A while back, I was chatting on the phone with my friend Pam. We were in the middle of chatting about work and movies and daily life, when my floor and walls shook a bit. I looked over at my husband, Mike, who was sitting a few feet away, working on his computer.

“Exists is home,” we both said. A distant BOOM followed, as if someone just dropped an anvil downstairs. Then a door slam and more structural quaking caused by the being that occupies the apartment beneath us.

“What’s ‘Exists’?” Pam asked.

“Our downstairs neighbor,” I reply. “We have no idea what the hell this guy is doing down there, but either he’s throwing heavy equipment around, or he himself is a Sasquatch. We prefer to think it’s the latter.”

“But what does ‘Exists’ mean?” Pam is still confused, and I don’t blame her. I forget that Mike and I speak in a near-secret language comprised almost entirely of obscure film references. Like “Mike Brady,” our name for our other neighbor with kinda ’70s Dad/Mike Brady hair. Or “Andy Richter,” a former neighbor who used to live down the hall who reminded us of Conan O’Brien’s sidekick. “Stuart from Big Bang Theory” lives on the first floor, a few doors down from “Tony Stark.”

“Oh! You haven’t seen Exists? It’s an awesome Bigfoot movie. I mean, the found footage thing is kind of played, but all told, it’s legit scary and the creature effects are the best I’ve seen of all the Bigfoot movies.” And I should know, because I’ve watched almost all the horrible Bigfoot movies out there. Or at least the first 10 minutes of the really bad ones. But out of those, only Willow Creek and Exists are worth multiple viewings. “Our neighbor is super loud and stompy, so we call him Exists. It’s kind of a compliment, if you think about it.”

Pam is amused enough by this to give Exists a viewing, and agrees: it’s downright scary and even a little sad when you realize why Bigfoot’s so pissed off. Maybe our neighbor is pissed off by something sad and that’s why he bangs shit around at 1 a.m. and stomps his way up and down the stairs, rattling the building. Whenever we feel the vibration of the building around us, we have to wonder if the pandemic is what’s troubling Bigfoot, because his walks in the woods are now crowded with people who can’t go sit in a café like they normally would. Plus, the guy downstairs shares a name with a tree, so that’s gotta be a little harsh.

It’s tough being a Bigfoot in the City, I guess.

What’s in a Genre Name?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

So, I have some exciting news: at long last, I have a literary agent! This is huge for me, obviously. I’ve been writing pretty much my entire life, but only recently has it become of high enough quality that someone who doesn’t personally know me thinks it can sell.

But the question is: what genre does this new story fall under?

I think the overarching and oversimplified answer is simply: HORROR. If you want to get fancy with it, I’d say paranormal mystery. But the thing is, some publishers who may be super into HORROR are less excited by the term “paranormal mystery”. I was hoping my agent might have a snappy answer for me, but then she asked me what genre I felt this book was. So naturally, I turned to the Interwebz for answers.

I came away with about a million different answers, a lot of which ended up at “paranormal mystery” and “horror.”

My agent then brought up the idea of using the subgenre term Magical Realism, and HOLY SHIT that sounds cool! And look at the amazing writers who fall under that (sub)category: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Milan Kundera, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King… of course, that’s super-specific but it adds a lot of class to HORROR.

Now I’m wondering why HORROR has such a bad rep? Is it because it’s a genre fiction category that some consider automatically cheesy or bad? If so, why is that? Is it all Twilight‘s fault? Discuss.

Which leads me to want to create some new subgenre that’s accurate without undercutting deeper themes within the book. So here are a few ideas:

  • Modern Gothic Horror (I like this one the best!)
  • Natural Horror (This sounds like what would happen if David Cronenberg set a film in the woods)
  • Ghost Mystery (This one is confusing! Like, is it about ghosts solving mysteries, or what is it…?)
  • Cabin Gothic (This sort of sounds like the shabby-chic of fiction, like a style of furniture called Rustic Baroque. HARD PASS.)

Did Shirley Jackson have to struggle with this? Or did they only use the term FICTION back then? Not that I’m as amazing as Shirley Jackson. (I wish!) But I have to wonder if the writers I love would even get published now because breaking down the barriers of genre can be so tricksy. But worth it! I hope…

A Comfortable Sort of Terror

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

A friend recently told me, “I love how you’re all deep cuts, only with bad horror movies instead of music.” And I gotta say, I love that people both love and notice that about me. But after this crazy Pandemic Year, I got to thinking: I wonder why this is? Why is it cheesy horror that often comforts me in times of stress?

I suspect it has a lot to do with nostalgia. When the Pandemic first started last March, I spent at least six weeks watching Night of the Comet repeatedly. It got to the point where I’d just turn it on while playing computer solitaire late at night until I was finally tired enough to go to bed. It was such a cheerful portrait of the Endtimes, after all, in that ’80s consumer bliss way. It’s the story of two sisters, one a teenager and the other just out of high school, who find themselves in L.A. after a passing comet has vaporized almost everyone on the planet but a handful of survivors…many of whom start turning into mutant zombies. The apocalypse itself was blissfully fast, something that seemed sooooo enviable from our standpoint of stay-home-and-wait while our government did little if anything to give us guidance.

A lot of the movies I turn to for feel-good vibes (or at least, survival vibes) are films that I associate with younger, carefree days. Sometimes, they were movies that scared me as a kid, but now are more funny/bad/cheesy than they are scary. Yet, the times they take me back to fill me with fond memories and feelings of security that only come from a pretty well-adjusted childhood.

Example: When I was about twelve, I was visiting my oldest sister Ginny in Seattle for a few weeks. She always had the latest thriller paperbacks or would buy me whatever book I was interested in reading. And when it came to television, she was more than happy to make recommendations for movies to watch. In retrospect, she probably just wanted to keep me happily busy while she went about her day, but I think she also enjoyed chatting about the movie with me afterwards (to a POINT…before I just got nerdy-chatty and started basically reciting entire scenes from the film). I’ll never forget one such recommendation: Burnt Offerings, a mid-’70s schlocky horror film with Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis as their aunt.

An incredibly detailed lobby card for Burnt Offerings (1976) by United Artists

It’s your basic family-wants-a-cheap-summer-rental, become-summer-caretakers, then-become-possessed-by-the-house-and-somehow-consumed-by-the-house story. It’s effectively creepy, mainly because everyone in the cast is effectively creepy. Being only twelve, it totally worked for me for the same reason Let’s Scare Jessica to Death worked for me when it played on Creature Features late one Saturday night. Basically: I had no better thrillers in my frame of reference to compare them to. But also, there was something undeniably foreboding about that grainy filmstock and the telltale signs of what I now recognize as a low-budget film: bad sound that echoes because of only one boom mic and lighting filled with unintentional shadows. Things that would be a turn-off to a schooled moviegoer just added to my this-is-creepy meter.

Also, I just plain loved being scared, preferably by the supernatural. Ghosts were always just a more comfortable scare because I knew the chances that I’d encounter ghosts, killer houses and vampires in real life were slim to none. But a human killer stalking babysitters, like in When a Stranger Calls? That was straight up terrifying. The more normal the setting, the more uncomfortable the scares became.

Which begs the question: Do Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees fall under the category of supernatural or human killers? Wait, you mean that wasn’t the first question that popped into your head? You clearly don’t know me at all. But Michael Meyers in Halloween is, for all practical purposes, just a guy. But as Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis tells us repeatedly, he is also the physical embodiment of EEEEEEVIIIIIL. And by the end of the film, we believe it a hundred percent. Jason Voorhees’ entire existence is pretty much never explained beyond, well-I-guess-he-never-really-drowned-and-is-somehow-alive-and-keeps-coming-back-so….? But again, I saw both Halloween and Friday the 13th for the first time at age 12, edited-for-television complete with commercial breaks, and therefore wasn’t entirely immersed in them. I watched them in the warmth and safety of my own home, possibly on a black-and-white portable TV in my room, so those are go-to feel-good films.

Does this make me weird? Probably. But who wants to be normal? Besides, it’s not like these are the only films that make me feel better on a dark and dreary day. Like anyone, there are a slew of other films that took me out of my world and that I love to revisit: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the OG Star Wars and (again, horror!) Poltergeist all do the job nicely. Just like Die Hard at Christmas, right? 

But for someone who loves Halloween more than Christmas, nothing warms my heart more than the comfortable fear I get from watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, and knowing that Jamie Lee Curtis will get away….for now.

Songs of Loss Become Inspiration

Revisiting Loss Through Music and Finding the Flame of Hope Within

Every year for the past thirteen years, this date sneaks up on me: November 30. My son Jack’s birthday is also the date on which we lost him in 2007. There were a number of complications throughout my pregnancy, since I was on a few medications and at 39, I was far from my prime. I know I should have been a lot more worried when the ultrasound showed lack of growth and the doctor advised they induce labor two weeks early. But honestly, I was excited. Sure, there was a problem with just leaving him in there, but since we were going to get him out while the getting was good, I didn’t allow myself to consider all that could (and would) go wrong.

I think it’s a mom thing, that inability to let yourself linger on the idea that you might lose your child. In my case, my husband and I had not planned this pregnancy (thus the medications that I was still on), but we embraced it nonetheless. We were living in a large enough rental house in the ‘burbs, and I had a new business in college counseling for high school students in Silicon Valley. I was at the age where I really was running out of time to have kids, and even though I’d never really wanted them, I couldn’t think of a reason not to carry this pregnancy through. After all, is there ever a good time to have kids?

I made playlists to listen to in the car on my commute or while running errands, and some of those songs became forever associated with that brief window in time where we were parents. Okay, maybe not in practice, but in our hearts. We set up a nursery, and my husband spent hours putting the furniture together with inscrutable printed directions composed entirely of Swedish hieroglyphs. We had a baby shower (actually TWO — one for friends, and another for family). We were excited. We learned our baby’s sex was male, and struggled to find a name that made us both happy.

And then, in a matter of hours, everything fell apart. I won’t go into detail here, but things went from joyous to panicked to stunned shock pretty damn fast. I remember my husband sitting right there with me, as if afraid I might break into a million pieces. I remember feeling oddly ripped off, as we were moved from the delivery ward to some nameless recovery area downstairs in the hospital, where we wouldn’t bum any of the new families out. And my playlist? I deleted it, and certain songs were unchecked for several years so that I wouldn’t have to hear them.

Among the songs, there are at least three that I cannot listen to today without being catapulted in time back to those hopeful days, and images of a future that never got a chance to happen. Those songs: “Lullabye” by the Dixie Chicks (I’m not really a fan of theirs, but this one sucker-punches me every time), “The Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance (this wasn’t on my playlist, but it was used at the heartbreaking ending of The Mist, which we saw in the theater the day before going into the hospital) and a hidden song at the very end of Rasputina’s “A Quitter”, in which lead singer Melora Creager’s infant son makes noises while she sings a lovely song to him. I call it “My Son” but it’s not credited anywhere on the album. That one is beautiful and I still love it, even though I feel a bittersweet sadness every time I hear it.

During those first years, I was very aware of this date, and dreaded it. I’d get very downhearted as the day approached, and even as more years passed, if the day slipped past me, I’d still be depressed or quick to anger and not know why until the day was almost gone. Or one of those songs would mysteriously pop up on my song rotation, like a persistent specter of hopes gone by. Hey, remember me? it seemed to say while the music played in my car, forcing me to pull over. I’m still here! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!

Music is one of my most heavily associative mediums. Media in general is like that for me, but nothing transports me — for better or worse — as immediately and thoroughly as music. I’m actually toying with the idea of creating a soundtrack of my life thus far, but such a project feels far too huge for someone with a questionable memory.

I used to dread these associations and visitations of plans and dreams that never quite materialized. Hearing these songs, though, can really be restorative. It acknowledges those hopes and plans, and rather than feeling the failure, now I let myself feel it without trying to interfere or muffle the pain. Because what comes with the sadness is the knowledge that even though those people I loved are gone now, or those great plans never quite happened, or my heart got crushed for the hundredth time…here I am. And a lot of other truly amazing and wonderful things have happened and I’ve met people and made decisions I may never have made if those losses didn’t happen. For everything, every wish and hope and desire, there is a price to pay. And paying it is not for the squeamish.

So today, I am taking out the memory box that the hospital put together back on that sad day, November 30, 2007. And I will listen to those songs and feel those feels, and remember to be grateful that I was lucky enough to know, even for a short time, what it was like to be a mother in spirit. And that today, while I don’t have children of my own, I’ve embraced my caretaker role in my dog care business while I try to carve out a life as a writer. My husband is here with me, too, and a whole support system of loving friends and family who make every second of pain worthwhile.

What are your songs of pain? Do they inspire you and drive you forward? Or are they still angry ghosts for you? I hope you can befriend and embrace them someday. It’s a hard journey, but it’s worth it. Keep going, my loves. Keep. Fucking. Going.

Happy birthday, Jack. Mom and Dad miss you and love you.

Living the Dream in COVID-19

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Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Last Summer, you may recall that I suddenly found myself trapped at home for 13 weeks with a broken ankle. And if you know me, you understand that this was actually a HUGE gift. As a dog walker who takes out two groups of six dogs for off-leash play daily, I’m generally exhausted at the end of each day, and making writing near-impossible. In fact, I’m lucky if I can even play Candy Crush while watching Bob’s Burgers endlessly at the end of a normal workday.

Facing 13 weeks of being mostly bedridden, I now had no excuse to procrastinate working on the novel I’d been attempting to write since late 2017. I’ll admit, the first three weeks of being bedridden were mostly wasted on watching TV, listening to podcasts and writing a few blog posts. But eventually, I got serious, got organized, got plotted, and wrote the majority of my latest novel (paranormal thriller, BTW) between late August and late October of 2019. The premise was strong, the characters were awesome and the plot eventually found a great pattern, once I cut out all the dragging-it-down stuff.

Then, in late October, I went back to work. The first month kicked my ass so seriously that I’d pretty much go to bed by ten or eleven. I basically went from 100 steps a day to 5,000 and then 9,000 steps a day. On top of that, there were SO MANY ERRANDS that needed to be run that I was quite useless by the time I got home. I did get to work on editing, but that work was mostly spent taking notes about all the crap I should change in the second draft rather than actually working on it.

In January and February, I did manage to get a fair amount of progress done on Draft 2, and when we took a short five-night holiday to a cabin on the Russian River, I really cooked on it. I made it almost to the very end before we left to come home, knowing full well that work was going to massively mess with my mojo.

We got home on Thursday, March 12.

Talk of Coronavirus was really ramping up while we were away, but all of that was a distant drama happening outside of our little woodsy vacation bubble. I’d check the news, and did worry sometimes about what the future held, but it wasn’t until the trip home that we realized the oh-shit implications. Lockdown in San Francisco seemed imminent. I’d come down with a bad head-cold just before my vacation, and while I doubted it was COVID-19, I knew it could conceivably be an easy version of it. I wanted to get tested, but friends who straight-up KNEW they had it could not get tested, so I knew it wasn’t going to happen for the vaguely curious.

I was supposed to start back up at work on March 16th, but instead, stayed home. I just felt so worried about potentially spreading whatever I had to someone whose system might not be able to handle it that I was up all night the night before. And by the time I finally woke up on Monday afternoon, I had a text from  a client telling me she’d have to cancel due to the shelter-in-place order. She wanted to take her dog with her to her parents’ home rather than be stuck alone in the City.

I squinted at my phone, confused. Shelter-in-place? I turned to the news, and realized that I was just ahead of my time, because work was cancelled for the immediate future.

I’m going to admit it: I was pretty thrilled. Firstly, I had no idea if I had a cold or something worse and did not want to spread it, least of all to my clients. Secondly, I already knew from the Summer of My Broken Ankle that I EXCELLED at staying home. I TOTALLY TRAINED FOR THIS! Thirdly, I knew I could finish editing Draft 2 and maybe even Draft 3 with the extra month or two of no work.

Cut to: Me, obsessively checking different news sources online for pretty much two weeks non-stop. Those first two weeks of lockdown were a haze of Tiger King, internet surfing, and considering booking a trip back to the Russian River. Also looking at a lot of distant real estate and daydreaming about moving far, far away from the maddening pandemic crowd.

Finally, though, I prepped for finishing Draft 2. For some reason, truly serious work was hard to do with my husband sitting right there, so I started getting to it after he’d gone to bed. I stayed up ridiculously late working heavily on Act 3 of my book, rewriting just about all of it and throwing out huge chunks of anti-climactic chatter.

Now, I am ONE SCENE away from being finished with Draft 2. This is a FAR CRY from being Actually Finished; Drafts 3 and 4 await and man, are they pushing at me to get on it! But the writing of this last scene is staring at me, and I’m running away, just as I did with Draft 1. I suspect that I don’t want it to be over because I love this book so much, even though I know damn well that it’s far from over, as Frank Stallone once sang (or his ghost singer did–whatever!.

So I’m here now, committing to finishing Draft 2 TONIGHT, and prepping notes for what I want to start doing with Draft 3 TOMORROW. You heard me: I’m creating SHORT-TERM GOALS, with an eye towards getting a draft worthy of being edited by a pro by early May.

I hate to sound like I’m finding a silver lining on the COVID-19 cloud that’s all about me, but you know what? I kind of am. I mean, I can’t think of a worse way to get this much time off short of setting myself or a loved one on fire, and I know there’s going to be ongoing adjustments in a post-quarantine world. But if you’re gonna be quarantined, you may as well find a project to work on, amirite?

I don’t think that simply wishing for more time off brought all of this on–I’m not that self-aggrandizing. For now, though, I’d better get back to work! Happy COVID project, everyone!