28 October 2010

Halloween excuse: The World Fantasy Convention

If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I like to post my Halloween costumes as I develop them each year. But you wouldn’t have seen any photos so far in 2010, and that’s because I don’t have a costume this year.

Now why in the world would I skip out on having a Halloween costume? Isn’t this my favorite holiday?

Yes it is, but as I stated earlier this month concerning altered plans for National Novel Writing Month, I’ve also had to shift my Halloween plans. I won’t be in Los Angeles for Halloween weekend, since I’m leaving early tomorrow morning to go to the 2010 World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

This is my first time going to one of the “Big Cons.” I should have started going to conventions much sooner, but most of my SF community friends live spread across the country, and it wasn’t easy (or monetarily feasible) to attend. This year, however, Howard A. Jones at Black Gate convinced me to come out to Columbus as part of the magazine’s contingent.

I’m excited and a bit nervous—this is a major con with a lot of big names and heavy topics. I’ve never been much of a “social writer,” but making friends and contacts in the business is important, so this something of an “open declaration” for me—a small one, but one that matters a great deal to me personally.

I’ll be reading an excerpt from one of my Ahn-Tarqa stories that is slated for Black Gate, “The Sorrowless Thief," (the first Ahn-Tarqa story I finished), on Saturday night around 9:30 p.m. in the Madison Room on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Should you be at the con, please swing by. I’ll also be at the Black Gate table in the Vendor Room on and off during Saturday and Sunday.

I’ll probably go the World Fantasy next year as well, since it will be in San Diego, a three-hour drive south for me.

And, in case you haven’t heard, the next Batman film finally has a title: The Dark Knight Rises. I’m not thrilled about the title, but I’m sure it will not affect the movie’s quality.

26 October 2010

Because I Can Always Say More Re: Bride of Frankenstein

I will be one of the Black Gate team present at the World Fantasy Convention this weekend, so if you are there as well, just look for the guy who appears lost. (I’ve never been to one of the big conventions before.)

Two weeks ago I discussed the key Hammer Horror film for Halloween, Dracula (1958). It would be a grave omission not to discuss my key Universal Horror film for Halloween—especially since this year is that movie’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

This is going to be a “strolling” review, in which I walk through an entire film and simply point at things. It’s a good sort of October stroll, I think.

Three-quarters of a century ago, on April 22nd, Universal Pictures released the long-rumored, delayed, and awaited sequel to their 1931 smash hit adaptation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Bride of Frankenstein. The world of Gothic film has never been the same. Bride is the highest achievement of the Universal Horror series, the best film ever from director James Whale, and a defining moment in the cinema of the fantastic, weird, and grotesque. Every viewing of the film is an unfettered joy and a voyage through the dark imagination.

(Promotional materials advertise the film as The Bride of Frankenstein, but the actual on-screen title eliminates the definite article, and I’m a martinet about these things.)

Universal in the 1930s built their House of Horrors on the twin success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. A later successful double feature of the two would create the Universal Horrors of the 1940s. And it was the director of Frankenstein, British import James Whale, one of many theatrical directors who were given film directing jobs in the new world of the “Talkies,” that the studio pegged as their great hope not only for horror, but to put the studio on a competitive level with MGM. Whale wasn’t only a sure hand with horror movies like Frankenstein, The Old Dark House (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933), but also produced successful stylish comedies, musicals, and murder mysteries for the studio.

20 October 2010

La Brea Tar Trip

I had the day off from my job today, and with a major writing project recently finished, I wanted a break. My kind of break: a trip to the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Hancock Park. A.k.a. “The Page Museum” or the plain old colloquial delight, “The La Brea Tar Pits.”

The Tar Pits is one of my favorite spots on the planet, and it reaches back to my earliest history of living in Los Angeles. The museum opened in 1977 to display the finds of Pleistocene mammals and birds found in the asphalt pits on Rancho la Brea. That was also the year my family moved to Los Angeles from Augusta, GA, when I was four years old. (No, I was not born in Georgia, by the way, but in Washington, D.C.) I probably first visited the Page Museum in 1978, so it’s quite fair to say that the museum and I grew up together—although it would also be fair to say that the museum hasn’t really grown, since as I walk through it today, it looks almost identical to when I first came in 1978. The words on the displays are still the same, even though some contain outdated information. One of the guides mentioned to me today that the skeleton marked as an “American lion” may be, according to the museum paleontologists, really an enormous jaguar.

I return to the museum at least once a year. I probably came three times a year when I was child; I could not get enough of the ancient mammals, and often begged my parents to take me. I loved dinosaurs obsessively (most children do, it is a genetic condition and probably necessary for our survival to adulthood), but it never disappointed me that the Page Museum had no dinosaurs, but instead mammals from a much more recent era: 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. However, the museum apparently worried that many children would feel disappointed to find no dinosaurs in the museum (the website even has a page devoted to this apparent “absence”), so a special theater was set up to show a loop of a video about dinosaurs. The “Dinosaur Theater” is no longer there, nor the animatronic carnosaur outside, and the theater shows a film about the La Brea excavations. I think the change happened many years ago, however—this isn’t the first time I’ve seen the diorama of a saber-tooth cat attacking a Shasta groundsloth that is currently standing outside the theater.

Another change I’ve noted on this trip: the case with “La Brea Woman” in it, the only human skeleton excavated from the pits (probably a victim of homicide), has vanished. I wonder why. Inside the museum, it is easy for visitors who know little about the Pleistocene to miss the fact that there were humans, fully evolved Homo sapiens living among the megafauna by around 12,000 B.P. These were the ancestors of all Native North American tribes, given the hypothetical name “The Clovis Culture.”

But most everything else is still here, and still in the same spot. The mural that decorated the original small museum in a high school greets you as you enter, and then looming right before you is the first skeleton, the Harlan’s ground gloth, and next to it the Antique bison. A twelve-foot Columbian mammoth still towers in the rotunda at the second turn of the square exhibit, made more magnificent by the great loops of its tusks that stretch out over the wall surrounding his exhibit. The tusks seems much smaller to me as an adult, although still impressive. As a child, they were like the arms of giant reaching out across the whole museum.

Perhaps my favorite site in the museum hasn’t changed at all: a wall, orange back-lit, of four hundred and four dire wolf skulls (Canis dirus), a sample of the sixteen hundred of the animals found in the pits, the largest number of any animal discovered in Rancho La Brea. (The Antique bison has the best representation of herbivores.) I adore wolves, they are my favorite extant animal, and so the larger and heavy ancestors with the killer name of “dire” hold an immense fascination for me.

What the Page Museum represents, above all, is a reminder that it is only a geological blink of an eye between modern Los Angeles, and a Los Angeles resembling something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Only 12,000 years ago—nothing in the great time span of life on earth—North America was filled with an amazing biodiversity. Paleontologist Peter D. Ward describes the world that the La Brea discoveries reveal in his book The Call of Distant Mammoths:
. . . there were great beasts in plentitude: saber-tooth tigers and wild horses, giant ground sloths and camels, hippos and lions and enormous scavenging condors, great bears and giant wolves—a vast diversity of a kind associated only with Africa. Most splendid of all, the urban metropolis of Los Angeles was then populated by great herds of giant, now-extinct mastodons and mammoths. The area was thus home to some of the largest land mammals the world has ever seen, the biggest animals to walk the earth since the time of the dinosaurs.
All of the animals in that list appear in the Page Museum’s exhibits, by the way.

And then, somewhere between 12,000 and 10,000 B.P., this megafauna went extinct. Climate Change? Or Overkill? The debate goes on. But in North America we live in the shadow of a recent extinction of enormous scale. The closeness of this world, its astonishing and almost fantastical environment, and its rapid elimination, make for one of the amazing tales of life on this planet.
Unfortunately, the museum seems to need a bit more funding; places on the wall, floors, and within the exhibit cases have started to look shabby. Some of the gleam is off over the thirty-plus years. I don’t advocate changing much to the museum’s exhibits or even its layout: the square design, the access to the paleontology labs through windows (“The Fishbowl,” which had a staff of about seven at work today), and the quiet and non-distracting architecture are perfect. But some refurbishing would give it a new gloss. Most of the “new” material here are just posters tacked to the walls—more evidence to me that the museum doesn’t have the funding that it once did. That it should have.

There were no school groups in the museum today, which surprised me, since a Wednesday in October would seem to be the perfect time to bring elementary children in to show them the rich ancient history of their home city. It was sights like the Columbian mammoth, the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion of a skeleton of a Smilodon californicus changing into a sculpture of what it may have looked life in the fur-and-flesh, the diorama of ranging Dire wolves woven amongst the actal remains that fired my imagination as a young boy . . . and definitely contributes to what I write today. Think of all the other careers that an early love the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries has led to over thirty-three years.

Ah, the Merriam’s Giant Condor is still hanging from the ceiling in the same place! I can still see my young self staring up at in amazement.

18 October 2010

Time element

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The false motivational poster I posted yesterday was a reward to myself after a week of tough self-disciplined writing, aided by the simple power of time awareness. As I finished my enormous work on late Sunday evening, I celebrated my triumph with a small but exquisite waste of time, creating one of the many “demotivational posters” that travel around the ‘net as humor or an approximation of humor. Better than LOLCats, at least. This is my deep inner Tolkien Geek, who has always wondered what the Lord of the Nazgûl thought as he died under Éowyn’s blade on the Pelennor Fields. My guess: “Damn fine print!”

It’s little time-waster rewards like this that make getting through heavy writing projects just a bit easier.

But the real writing-aid VIP for me, and which has been a tremendous help since I started using it about two years ago, has been a time log. I’ve written previously about how I did revising “on the clock” for National Novel Editing Month (a March event—edit for at least fifty hours during the month) by turning on a desktop stopwatch whenever I sit down to do any writing or editing. I hide the clock, and have it set to chime at the half-hour. I use Apimac Timer, a Mac OS X application, for the stopwatch. For specifically timed exercises, I use a countdown on the same timer. After each work day, I record in a notebook how much time I’ve spent working, and my word count (if applicable). Apicmac Timer also also you to record a log on the program and not lose count of the time you spent

Nazgûl Should Read the Fine Print

It’s been a long week and longer weekend of some serious work. Now I need a break, so I finally gave in and made one of my own “de-motivational” posters. This one is just for Tolkien fans:
I wonder if there are any manufactures of “real” motivational posters anymore. I remember seeing them at the last business I worked at (for six horrible years), but anyone who manufactures this bilge now must have to do it with their tongue pretty much buried in their cheek.

Anyway, the Lord of the Nazgûl wouldn’t have had this problem if he wasn’t so sexist and unable to realize that “. . . and not by the hand of man will he fall” didn’t mean the whole human race. Just men. As in, “males of the species.” Chauvinist loser.

14 October 2010

Next quarter of Writers of the Future winners announced

I’m obviously quite interested in seeing who else will be sharing The Writers of the Future, Vol. XXII with me. Until today, only the first three had been announced. But now, the winners of the second quarter are unveiled:
  • 1st Place: Patty Jansen of New South Wales, Australia
  • 2nd Place: Ben Mann of West Australia
  • 3rd Place: Van Aaron Hughes of Colorado
As you can see, some sort of karmic geographical balancing has taken place here. Last quarter, two of the winners (Brennan and I) were from sunny California, America’s Vacation Paradise, only a sort drive from where the Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony and the writing seminar are held. Now, we shift across the globe to two winners who will need a—what, seventeen hour flight?—to get over here. Patty has never even been to the U.S. before, according to her.

I’m thrilled that I won the contest, but I’m not going to get the globe hopping experience here, will I? Just Hollywood traffic. And if you’ve ever experienced that, you might think a flight from New South Wales much more relaxing.

Anyway, congratulations to Patty, Ben, and (semi-local) Van. See you at the seminar.

11 October 2010

Classic Hammer: Dracula (1958) a.k.a. Horror of Dracula

Dracula/Horror of Dracula (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribbling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

October films come in two flavors for me: Universal and Hammer. I have affection for almost any Gothic horror films these studios produced during their Golden Ages (1930s and ‘40s for Universal, 1950s and ‘60s for Hammer), even the lesser entries. The studios have such opposite visual approaches to similar material—the black-and-white shadows of Universal, the rococo lurid colors of Hammer—that they create a perfect Yin and Yang for Halloween, a Ghastly Story for Whatever Suits Your October Mood.

And what suits my mood best, most of the time? Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula. This isn’t my top-pick of the Hammer canon—I lean toward two 1968 films for that honor, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Devil Rides Out—but it is the film I turn to more than any other when the calendar changes into the deep orange and serge hues of the Greatest Month.

06 October 2010

The NaNoWriMo plan is different this year

I have to make two explanations about two upcoming annual events that are usually a key part of my life every year. This year they are going to be treated a bit differently. I’ll discuss the first now, the second on a later post. (Which means I’ll get more posts up this month and make my blog look a bit busier.)

04 October 2010

The Halloween Tarot

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

October has come, my favorite time of the year. I have my special rituals during this season, such as reading classic weird tales (Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James are among my top picks for seasonal fun) and evenings watching Universal and Hammer Horror films.

Another tradition I have is dragging out of the sock draw my Essential October Totem: Kipling West’s The Halloween Tarot, published by U.S. Game Systems, Inc. If I ever needed to describe to someone all the wonders of my favorite holiday, all of its joys and sensations and beauties and cross-cultural marvels, I would simply hand them this deck of seventy-eight colorful cards with their black-and-orange silhouetted backs and say, “Look through that. Then you’re ready for October. Now, where’s the candy? You got Pixy Stix? Okay, then I’ll take a Baby Ruth.”