This review originally appeared in the BOULDER CAMERA
Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween by Vince Darcangelo Posted: 10/24/2008 02:34:00 AM MDT
October is the time of year to indulge those horror cravings. As the leaves turn, and a haunting chill fills the evening air, there's nothing better than curling up with a good thriller, be it a psychological mystery or supernatural scare, a genre gore-fest or high-minded literary horror.
We've compiled 13 can't-miss Halloween reads that will have you sleeping with the lights on. To get into the spirit of the season, crack open one of these terrifying tomes ... if you dare.
"Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque" -- Joyce Carol Oates
Nobody does literary horror better than Oates, and nowhere is the fear more palpable than in this 1994 collection of psychological terror. In the book's title story, a woman recounts a tale from her youth, when she and a childhood friend would explore a supposedly haunted farmhouse. But it's a very different type of horror that awaits the young girls. "Don't You Trust Me?" is an unsettling account of an illegal and controversial medical procedure -- and the exploitation it brings. And the disturbing "Extenuating Circumstances" is a mother's confessional that reveals its excruciating conclusion like a mummy unwrapping its bandages (think David Foster Wallace's "Incarnations of a Burned Child"). See also Oates' less-heralded sequel, "The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque," and "The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense," a collection of short stories about female killers.
This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY
The business of being human Sherman Alexie emphasizes the real and universal in the human experience
by Vince Darcangelo - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sherman Alexie is a human being. He writes stories about human beings and their trials and triumphs. And he is good at what he does–so good, in fact, that he has transcended the label of being a Native American author. Quite simply, he is an author.
"Because of my relative fame and fortune, I’ve transcended all sorts of racial and racist labels," says Alexie. "It’s interesting how green can change your color."
But the 36-year-old Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian certainly does not shy away from his history. With books like The Lone Ranger and Tanto Fistfight in Heaven, The Toughest Indian in the World, Indian Killer, Reservation Blues and his newest short story collection Ten Little Indians, Alexie has become the most recognizable voice in Native American literature today.
While Alexie is an award-winning author, poet and filmmaker (Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing), perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to create characters so deep that they defy the limitations of race, gender and other stereotypes. This is no more evident than in the short story "Can I Get a Witness?" from Ten Little Indians–the tale of a woman who survives a terrorist bombing in Seattle. "Can I Get a Witness?" is inspired by the events of 9/11, and–unlike his contemporaries and their blind, lockstep patriotism–Alexie has the guts to challenge the uniform apotheosis of the casualties of the attack.
"I remember the vocabulary, the rhetoric, was always about the ‘innocent victims.’ The heroes and innocent victims. And I kept thinking, ‘It’s lawyers and stock brokers. You’re telling me there’s not one complete and total asshole among them?’" says Alexie. "Nobody even talked about individuals and the idea of individual sin. There was somebody in there cheating on his wife. There was somebody in there beating on his kids. There was somebody in there embezzling. Right away, they became metaphors and symbols. And the best of the people in the buildings were grouped in with the worst.
"The reality of those people is much more complicated and magical and painful than the way we look at it. Canonizing people also dehumanizes them," he continues. "So I just got really angry with the rhetoric that day. And I knew it was being used, and would be used, to justify all sorts of violence on both sides."
Especially disconcerting to the author is how the topic has become off-limits, making "Can I Get a Witness?" all the more poignant and controversial. "Our stand-up comedians don’t even joke about it much," says Alexie, a one-time stand-up comedian himself. "And if our stand-up comedians aren’t doing it, then we’re really in trouble. If Chris Rock can’t be profane about 9/11, then what’s the point? That’s the best thing about this country: the celebration of our blasphemy."
But Ten Little Indians is not all politics and blasphemy. Like all of Alexie’s books, his characters are complex studies of imperfect humans and their daily struggles. At the heart of "Can I Get a Witness?" is a discontented wife and mother who would have happily perished in the bombing and uses it as an opportunity to disappear.
The directionless, spinning-wheels nature of the protagonist is also prevalent in the nine other stories in Ten Little Indians. The common thread connecting the stories is the product of Alexie’s prolific writing style. "I write so quickly and so obsessively–the stories are written in a very small time period–that most of my collections tend to have similar themes and similar ambitions," says Alexie. "This book is about white-collar Indians. I didn’t know what form that would take when I started the stories, but I knew it was going to be about successful Indians who were good at their jobs but clumsy at love."
Alexie’s quick-witted ferocity gives his work a biting desperation that he credits to his poetry background. "I think short stories are more related to the poetry form. I’m a natural short story writer and a reluctant novelist," he says. "I think it really is the quick in and out, the passion of it. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner.
"My short stories, in some sense, have always had very strong narratives, so I think that’s probably why I work better in the short stories," he continues. "It’s because I’m a poet. Short stories are like very long poems. At least mine are, I hope."
Alexie is an accomplished poet with eight collections in his catalogue–one of which, The Business of Fancydancing (a mix of stories and poems), was made into a film in 2002 and marked Alexie’s directorial debut. (Fancydancing made its first rounds locally at the Boulder Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last year, and was released on DVD on July 8.) Alexie was also the World Heavyweight Poetry Bout Champion from 1998-2001, before hanging up the gloves as the event’s first and only four-time champion.
Despite his forays into directing, lecturing, stand-up comedy and poetry slams, Alexie is still a writer at heart. "Sitting at my computer writing at two in the morning: That’s the best part of it," he says of his various artistic pursuits.
Even though Ten Little Indians is barely two months old, Alexie is already engrossed in his next, and very personal, project. "I’m working on a memoir about my grandfather who died in World War II on Okinowa, about him and my father. It’s called Inventing my Grandfather," he says. "It’s about philosophy and the idea of what war and warriors mean to Indian men. And how do you go from grandfather the war hero–he won 12 medals–to commie, pinko pacifist grandson.
"It’s a lot of research," he continues. "I’ve never had to do so much research for a book."
The research has already paid personal dividends, resulting in a touching appearance on Oprah. "I’m part of an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and it focuses on my grandfather and on my effort to get the medals reissued," he says. "That was supposed to have taken years, but on the Oprah show in January, Oprah had arranged for the medals to be delivered to me by a brigadier general. So, I was able to get the medals and give them to my father."
Always the entertainer, Alexie’s upcoming appearance at the Boulder Book Store promises to deliver what fans have come to expect from the charismatic speaker–sidesplitting social commentary, funny anecdotes, great fiction, moving poetry and the opportunity to catch one of the greatest American writers in their prime.
"I’ll read a story, I’ll answer questions, I’ll be funny," says Alexie of the performance.
More than that, he’ll be human–and in so doing will help all in attendance be more so themselves....more
Turgenev's "The Diary of a Superfluous Man" is a clssic of emotional and psychological distress, and despite being a century and a half old, feels likTurgenev's "The Diary of a Superfluous Man" is a clssic of emotional and psychological distress, and despite being a century and a half old, feels like it was written last week. Timeless, beautiful and tragic. And being Turgenev, it has an awesome duel!...more
This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY
A good story Dan Simmons weaves words into worlds
by Vince Darcangelo - - - - - - - - - - - -
Technology has enabled artists to express themselves and materialize their artistic visions in ways that would have seemed like fanciful science fiction just a few years ago. Take big-budget motion pictures, for instance. But strip away the hi-resolution, computer-enhanced dressing, and the core of great art remains the same as it’s been since the earliest cave drawings: You’ve got to tell a good story.
Cosmic computer animation is great, but is rendered meaningless without a foundation of creativity, discipline and idea development. And for that you don’t need advanced technology–you need a great storyteller. Boulder County is home to one of America’s greatest storytellers, author Dan Simmons.
Simmons is well known for his work in the genres of mystery, science fiction and horror, but a common thread in all of Simmons’ writing is the deep imagination of the unassuming author. And with more than 20 years of published fiction and non-fiction under his belt, Simmons’ voice is still as fresh as the most ambitious up-and-comer. This is partly attributable to his three-headed career as a novelist.
"I enjoy the switching of gears. Every genre that I like writing in demands a certain type of attention, and it’s a relief sometimes to enter into another project for nine months to a year where you’re using a whole different set of skills," says Simmons. "I sometimes compare it to when I was growing up in the Midwest. We had to rotate the crops or the soil would become pretty useless."
In science fiction circles, Simmons is best known for his Hyperion series of novels. In the area of mystery, he's known for his Joe Kurtz books, Hardcase, Hard Freeze and Hard as Nails, the last of which was released earlier this month. In horror, he's recognized for Song of Kali, Carrion Comfort, Song of Night and 2002’s A Winter Haunting. Writing in these voices allows Simmons to explore all his writing interests.
"It depends on what itch needs to be scratched," he says. "When I most want to engage with language, surprisingly enough science fiction is the most attractive genre to me because I’ve suggested to some people that it’s rather close to poetry… The sheer amount of linguistic invention is delightful to me. At other times I get sick of that and I just want to write very lean and mean, and at both times the mystery stuff comes in very handy.
"I still enjoy horror fiction a lot, but not so much for the linguistic dance," he continues. "That’s more for getting in touch with some very basic emotions… You’re not so much trying to raise goosebumps on everybody all the time as to just light a lantern and take people into the basement where they don’t want to go all too often."
To date, Simmons has taken millions of eager readers into that basement, and they keep coming back for a return trip. Simmons’ most recent horror offering, A Winter Haunting, is tied in with his 1991 classic, Summer of Night. Haunting is a psychedelic page-turner that adds a unique, user-friendly twist to the classic haunted-house tale. It’s as much about the horror of isolation and personal failure as it is about a haunted Midwestern farmhouse. Both books make for a great holiday read this Halloween.
Fans of the books will be glad to know Simmons is taking another trip to that haunted farmhouse on the big screen.
"Next summer I am re-engaging with Summer of Night / A Winter Haunting. Two producers have asked me to do a screenplay incorporating elements of both books, so they’ve optioned both books," says Simmons. "It’ll be A Winter Haunting per se, with more flashbacks to the kids 40 years earlier that were in Summer of Night. I’m really looking forward to that because it will in no way be a literal translation of my novel. I want it to be much more frightening; I want it to be exquisitely cinematic. I’m working with a director friend just to use modern technology–not super-special digital effects–just to use the technology because one of the points of view in A Winter Haunting is a kid who’s been dead for 40 years who’s still in this house, but he’s not a ghost. He’s a cyst of memory in the character’s mind."
Many writers are nervous about seeing their creations up on the big screen. It’s difficult to fit 300-plus pages of character development, dialogue and conflict resolution into a 90-minute feature film. And in Simmons’ case, it will be the condensing of two books. But unlike most authors, Simmons is excited by the possibilities.
"I think the movie can be superior to the novel," he says. "I’m the only novelist who thinks that."
A Winter Haunting is not the only movie project on the horizon for Simmons. The Hyperion series is slated for a big studio release, and there is the possibility of an ambitious, big-name production of his first published book.
"My first and in some ways scariest book was Song of Kali, set in Calcutta. Regency Films has optioned that, and the director they’ve chosen, who’s on board and working on it, is Darren Aronofsky, who did ¼ and Requiem for a Dream," says Simmons. "Quite honestly, I can’t think of any other director who might go at this material in Song of Kali better than Aronofsky because it would take tremendous guts and it has certain other things that nobody in Hollywood wants to put in a movie. And just the act of shooting in Calcutta, which he insists he wants to do, is very daunting."
But despite his Hollywood forays, Simmons still maintains a low profile, often receiving more notice on his book tours away from home than along the Front Range.
"Obviously, when you’re producing, on average, two books a year, you’re not out having too much social life. But over here in Longmont, I have a great advantage," says Simmons. "I was a teacher in the district for 14 years. I taught and ran gifted programs for 18 years before I started writing full time. So when people know me here at all, they just know me as old Mr. Simmons, the former teacher. So I’m pretty anonymous.
"I’ve been in the phone book forever. It’s rather nice," he continues. "I’m better known most places that I travel than I am here in Boulder County."
Simmons recently completed a book tour supporting his 2003 science fiction release Ilium. Ilium is the first of a two-part epic that will close with Olympos, the book Simmons is working on now. Olympos is set for release in the spring of 2005. Until then, readers can enjoy the prolific writer’s back catalogue and keep an eye trained to the local movie listings.
But whether he’s writing interplanetary epics, hard-boiled noir, disturbing horror or big-budget screenplays, Simmons’ greatest gift is that timeless creative component that is often forgotten in the boisterous business of the entertainment industry.
That is his gift to tell a great story.
Hard as Nails is currently available from St. Martin’s Press. Ilium is currently available from Harper Collins EOS....more