June has been a crazy month, so crazy, I’m not sure where to begin. Do I with the happenings of the outside world? How I learned via texts about looting in Best Buy near my parents’ house, then heard about George Floyd and a state curfew and defund the police and protests? Or maybe I should talk about America opening for business before spikes in the Coronavirus reached an all-time high? Disneyland was going to re-open in July; now it’s not. New movies were weeks away; they got delayed. Turmoil erupted just as I was making my mind up to re-enter the world.
Re-entering the world meant going to Panera to do my writing. There was a restaurant not five minutes from my apartment. I drove there and ordered coffee--small hazelnut, with cream and sweetener--and chose one of the tables bearing the green circle of availability. I’d sit with my homemade mask still on my face, not drinking my coffee (lest I need to run to the bathroom), with my computer, my composition book, and my cheap ball point pen ready to go.
I had determined, early on, that the month of June felt like a test. It felt like a test on a national level, but for me, personally, I knew I needed to make substantial progress on Company or I was not going to get it published. It was time to buckle down and write.
Unfortunately, I had a problem. My roommate’s puppy, Atlas, kept demanding my attention. He whined and barked and jumped up on the kitchen stove, all to get my attention. My roommate was struggling with a host of health issues and couldn’t bring the dog in her room. My bedroom is the living room, so there was no barrier to keep the dog’s yip from drilling into my ears. Even sitting in the patio, I could hear him.
I give the dog a lot of attention. I walk him for 45 minutes in the morning and the evening. But I needed time in the morning to write. Specifically, I needed the hours between 9:00 and 11:00 in the morning, my most creative time. These hours were the keystone to my productivity. I could work around the dog’s schedule the rest of the day, but I needed these two hours unbroken.
It got so bad that I decided to risk going out into the world again, just to get time to write. I spoke to my roommate and my roommate’s mother to make sure they were comfortable with me breaking quarantine. My roommate’s mother also volunteered to look after the dog in the morning. I was worried about finances, the cost of going out every day, but I learned Panera had a coffee subscription. For $8.99 a month, I could get unlimited coffee. I could afford that. It seemed like all the pieces were falling into place.
Reading The Snow and the Darkness put me in a bad mood, so I decided to watch Tucker & Dale Vs Evil to cheer myself up. It’s a comedic riff on a hillbilly slasher movie, and it’s available on Netflix right now. I’ve watched it before, and I really love it, because it's clever and funny and leaves me feeling good.
When a group of college kids travel deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a camping trip, they encounter a couple of hillbillies who occupy a creepy-looking cabin. It seems like the perfect set-up for a horror movie. However, the hillbillies turn out to be harmless. Pragmatic, beer-loving Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and hopeless romantic Dale (Tyler Labine) just want to renovate their “vacation home” and go fishing. When Dale rescues college student Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, a series of misunderstandings lead the remaining college kids to believe that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers. Soon the bodies start piling up in violent, gory, and hilarious ways.
Tucker & Dale is a kind of a parody movie, and I, personally, love parodies. They play with the conventions of genre, which I’m always a fan of. But whereas some parody movies are content to rest on laughs and not really bother with a story (I’m looking at you Scary Movie), Tucker & Dale Vs Evil delivers a well-written tale with fleshed out characters and plenty of heart. Also, it’s funny. Really funny.
The humor, as I see it, comes from two major sources. The first is that the college kids, through a combination of misunderstanding, bad luck, and extreme stupidity, end up killing themselves and each other. This is played for laughs, and it works because the deaths are so extreme, they’re ridiculous. However, this humor is predicated on shock value, and it becomes less and less effective as the movie wears on.
Fortunately, the second kind of humor is more consistent, as it relies on the charms of Tucker and Dale. They’re pretty funny from the start, but it’s their reaction to the extreme circumstances that’s particularly hilarious. Tucker and Dale are horrified and confused by the profusion of college kids “killing themselves all over [their] property.” This humor never lessens because it is rooted in character. It also helps that the actors are funny, especially, Alan Tudyk, who has excellent comedic timing.
The humor peaks in the middle, during a brutally gory and hilarious scene, where two college kids manage to kill themselves right near Tucker and Dale. Our two heroes first react in shock and horror, and then come together to try and figure out what’s going on. They decide that the college kids must have some sort of suicide pact and realize that the dead bodies are going to make the two of them look pretty bad. Right in the middle of cleaning up, a cop arrives. It’s a scene that’s genuinely tense, and watching Tucker and Dale squirm is oh-so-delightful.
But even if the humor declines somewhat after that second act, the story continues strong. As the college kids decide to “fight back,” Tucker and Dale struggle to survive. One college kid, meanwhile, is morphing into the titular evil. Will Dale find the confidence to become the hero and win the affections of the girl? Will Tucker ever get to have a beer and enjoy his vacation home? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a happy one.
Now as I was watching this flick for the hundredth time, I was thinking that, in order to be effective, Tucker & Dale has to make us care for the title characters very deeply and not care about the college kids at all--and it has to do both at the same time. As a writer, I find this a fascinating study. How do you make an audience care for certain characters? Likewise, what makes an audience stop caring to the degree that they actively root for the characters’ deaths? I have my theories.
Title: The Snow and the Darkness
Author: Matthew Warren Wilson
Jason doesn’t care that a snowstorm is coming. He spent $800 on plane tickets for him and his girlfriend Valerie to travel to Virginia, and he intends to use them. At the airport, Jason’s brother Frank and his girlfriend Lucy meet them. As Frank drives them home amid a freezing blizzard, an accident causes them to divert to a side road. There, Frank sees a lone man walking in the snow. He picks up the stranger out of a sense of compassion. But the stranger gives Jason a bad feeling. The worst seems to be confirmed when, on a pit stop, Lucy is attacked and their tires are slashed. But is it the work of the stranger? Jason thinks he saw… something… in the darkness. Can it be that a monster lurks in the snow?
I was on Amazon, buying some DVDs, when The Snow and the Darkness popped up on the suggestion screen. Normally, I’d download a sample, but this book happened to be free, so I “bought” it. Since it was a gloomy day and I was feeling tired, I decided to go through my books and see which one would be worth reading. The Snow and the Darkness was that lucky book.
The Snow and the Darkness is a horror novel that contains lots of gore, some of it very creative. But it has little in the way of scares. I felt disturbed once or twice in the beginning, but eventually the fountains of blood caused me to feel detached and repulsed. This was because I never felt more than a mild interest in the human characters. Rather than reveal deeper personalities and develop heroic traits, Jason and the survivors unraveled, and I found myself liking them less and less.
The character that came across as the most sympathetic was, ironically, the monster. The monster kept me reading, as I became curious about its origins, its relationship to the human villains, and its fate. Unfortunately, none of these things were answered in a way I found satisfying. Toward the end, the action was so bizarre and ridiculous it was almost comedic, and the ending put me in a bad mood.
As you may imagine, this book contains copious amounts of violence and gore, including mutilation and attempted rape. There is a healthy amount of cursing, mostly the f-word, and some sexual content and nudity.
(Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead.)
A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) on YouTube. It’s not a quarantine thing; I just like it. If you’ve never seen MST3K, it’s a T.V. show from the 90s that features a man sent up to space by villains who torture him by making him watch terrible old movies. The man and his robot friends keep their sanity by riffing and cracking jokes at the cheesiness on screen. (MST3K was revised briefly by Netflix; modern episodes can be seen there.)
The movies are well and truly awful. You really cannot watch them without the jokes; even then, they can be hard to get through. And yet this, ironically, makes it perfect viewing for when I’m doing something else, like typing or cooking or playing Candy Crush on my phone. Typically, I watch the same episodes over and over, until I have all the jokes memorized and can practically recite the bad movies word for word.
Sometime around the 20th viewing of an episode, I start to become oddly sympathetic to the bad movie. Once you get through the tedium, the confusion, the bad acting, the ugly visuals, and the lack of budget, there’s usually… something. An idea that went terribly wrong. What was it trying to be? What potential did it have? And why did it fail so miserably?
One of many problems I’ve noticed with these bad old movies--the one that’s been on my mind lately--is that these movies don’t seem to understand whose story it is, possibly due to sexism or racism. The main character has to be a white male lead, even when, as I examine the plot and character arcs, I realize that it is not that person’s story.
This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Writing, when you think about it, is an unglamorous and solitary act. You spend several hours in one place, by yourself, stuck inside your own head, confronting your own emotions. So if you think that quarantine is ideally suited for a writer… it is. Now that we’re about two months in, I feel comfortable sharing what I’ve been up to as COVID-19 rages on.
Phase 1: Stress and Anxiety
Somewhere in the middle of March, the world as we knew it shut down. It was on a Thursday, when Tom Hanks tested positive for the Coronavirus, Disneyland shut down, and the stock market plunged. At that point, I realized something very serious was going on. That weekend, I went to Panera to eat a bagel and journal about my anxieties. It would be the last time I sat down at a restaurant for many months to come.
My life was already in upheaval. I had moved into a new apartment at the end of February, with my friend Rita. She suffers from chronic pain and a host of other conditions, none of which were helped when she fell down the stairs and got a concussion 4 days after I moved in. With her being incapacitated, it fell to me to take care of her new Belgian sheep dog, Atlas. I had barely gotten the apartment equipped and was beginning to contemplate looking for a job, when quarantine hit.
I’m used to my life being a mess. I was not used to the world being a mess along side me. The anxieties built and built within me. For a writer, this can be a good thing. The higher my emotions, the easier it is to write. In this case, though, I was supposed to be focused on completing Company, my novel about a ghost and an imaginary friend, and I couldn’t focus. I journaled a bit, watched a little T.V., and played around with some other story ideas.
This phase lasted for about a week.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Last weekend, I was feeling anxious and no wonder. Between everything from schools to Disneyland being shut down, the stock market crashing, and grocery stores with whole sections gutted, it felt like the end of the world. I didn't know what to do, so I started re-watching my favorite Star Wars movie. I remembered how much I loved epic fantasy. Earlier, I'd dealt with the stress of moving by getting lost in a fantasy romance book. I was reminded just why I fell in love with fantasy. For me at least, there is something about fantasy that gives me hope when times are tough.
I don't think I'm alone in feeling anxious, and I wanted to do something to help. Since fantasy stories help me cope with stress and since it seems like many people have a lot of free time on their hands, I thought I'd offer the three fantasy books I wrote for free on Amazon. You can download them without leaving the house, kill a day or two reading, and hopefully emerge refreshed. I know in the grand scheme of things it may not be much, but I want to help people feel better during these troubled times.
Click on Picture Below to Get Free Book on Amazon Kindle
Free from Thursday, March 19 to Monday, March 23
My books will be free for five days, from Thursday, March 19 to Monday, March 23, 2020, which is the maximum amount of time that Amazon will allow me. So if you think you might at all be interested in these books, get them quickly. At $0, what do you have to lose. Get one or all three. And if you think anyone else might be interested, please share this link with them.
If reading's not your thing, what does help to ease your anxiety in times of stress? Are there any fantasy books, free or not, you recommend reading? Let me know in the comments. And please, take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Stay safe.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.