R.I.P. Wes Craven

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I came home last night to the shocking news that Wes Craven had died at the age of 76, from brain cancer. Anyone who knows me, or even just knows my work, knows how much I love horror films. In conversation with a friend online, I mentioned how John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg where the holy triumvirate for me. The loss of Wes Craven is a major blow to filmmaking, and to fans like me.

Though I’ve seen just about all of films he directed, I have to admit only a handful are anything I’d call favorites. (I can, for instance, recognize the historical importance of his early films The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but I don’t like them. I don’t see the artistry in them, only the violence.) But the Wes Craven films I do like, I like a hell of a lot. There’s the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), of course, and the only sequel I like as much, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). His 1982 adaptation of Swamp Thing likely doesn’t hold up now, especially in this age of far more sophisticated comic book movies, but in my youth I thought it was something special. I thought Scream (1996) was great because it seemed made just for lifelong horror movie fans like me, and I even liked Scream 2 (1997), although not as much.

But my favorite Wes Craven film, far and away, is 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow.  It’s a trippy, creepy, beautifully shot film that packs some solid scares. In a pretty transgressive way, it also upends the expectations one goes into a horror film with. Here, the zombies are the ones you’re rooting for, because they’re not the shambling corpse type, they’re the political prisoner/dissident type. Also, the creepy corpse-bride in the picture above is one of the good guys! The bad guys are Haiti’s government and police, the very entities you would normally want help from in a horror movie. I loved this film so much I even bought Brad Fiedel’s percussion-heavy soundtrack (on vinyl!) and listened to it constantly. I wish I still had it. It would be good music to write to.

I saw The Serpent and the Rainbow in a small, nearly empty theater in Times Square when I was back from college on some vacation or other. The only other people in the theater with me were a contingent of people I assumed were either African or Caribbean, dressed in colorful, traditional garbs that had me imagining they were visiting from another country, or perhaps were UN delegates. Whatever the case, they fucking loved this movie as much as I did. At the end, when Bill Pullman’s spirit animal shows up again to help him defeat Zakes Mokae’s perfectly portrayed villain, they cheered like crazy. I think part of the reason I love this movie so much is because I saw it with such an appreciative crowd!

By the way, if you haven’t read Wade Davis’s nonfiction book that the movie is based on, also titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, it’s well worth your time. It relates the extraordinary journey ethnobotanist Davis took through Haiti trying to find and analyze the powder used in vodoun rituals to make so-called zombies in order to create a safe, new medical anesthetic. It’s riveting stuff, but obviously the film is a completely different animal.

To be honest, I’m still a little in shock about Wes Craven’s death. I don’t know what else to say except that his movies meant a lot to me, and I’m sorry I won’t get to see whatever movies he would have made in the future. Rest easy, Mr. Craven. As so many others have said already, thanks for the nightmares.

Runners Up

I think my new author photo is pretty rad — and I’m not someone who uses the word “rad” lightly — but it was a tough choice. We took a lot of pictures that day, almost all of them on the High Line, and a lot of them came out great. I thought it would be fun to show you some of the runners up, the author photos that almost made the cut. Here are the top three. (Once again, all photos are courtesy of Jeff McCrum.)

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They’re all pretty good, and in fact this last one is the one that came the closest to being chosen, but I think I made the right choice. What do you think?

In the Woods

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods by Tana French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me just say up front that despite only receiving three stars from me, this isn’t a bad novel. The prose is great — I’d go so far as to say it’s exquisite at times — the setting was interesting and evocative, and the mystery twisty and compelling. Everything points toward a wonderful reading experience for mystery lovers, except that, in my opinion, Tana French includes a single fatal flaw that sabotages the novel: Detective Rob Ryan, the narrator. He is, to put it simply, a chore. He’s a sad sack, he constantly makes bad decisions both as a detective and as a person, he’s rude to his friends, he’s absurdly judgmental, he has a myriad of problems with women (including an inexplicable anger toward anyone who shows any interest in him, as well as an equally inexplicable hatred of women who have salad for lunch, I mean what?), and perhaps most egregious of all, French decides that because he’s the narrator Rob needs to voice his opinion on every little thing, from the aforementioned salad lunches to his cuckoo roommate to how much he enjoys his sleepovers at Cassie’s. It became tiresome to me.

The more I read of this novel, the more frustrated I became because Rob kept getting in the way of the story. I understand that French wanted to craft a character who has significant emotional and psychological scars from his childhood trauma, but where she could have used this to make the reader feel sympathy for Rob, even root for him, she instead presents us with behavior that disgusts us and pushes us away, making it more and more trying to experience the story through his POV. (And frankly, many of his reactions in the latter half of the novel felt like a stretch even for someone who’s carrying around that much baggage.)

For all the good things this novel has to offer, and there are many, I find it hard to recommend it to anyone, simply because of the narrator. It’s a bold and ambitious decision to make your first-person protagonist so unlikeable, but in a dense and complexly written mystery where you’re deep in his head for over 400 pages it backfires. Or at least it did for me. It’s also quite bold what she does with the mystery from Rob’s childhood, a choice that has frustrated some reviewers and readers but one that I think serves the author’s overall theme of the knowable vs. the unknowable. I also love that French gives the woods in which his friends disappeared an almost supernatural presence.

But there were many times when I wanted to stop reading the novel altogether because I was so fed up with Rob. I’m glad I didn’t, although I suspect not everyone will make that same decision when the same thing happens to them.

View all my reviews

Story Behind the Book: Volume 5

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The non-profit, online literary magazine Upcoming4.me has a regular guest feature called the Story Behind the Story, in which authors and editors write about what inspired their latest books. The folks at the site collect those essays every year or so and turn them into a book, with all proceeds going to the UK charity Epilepsy Action.

The latest volume is out now, and includes an essay by yours truly about the story behind my novel Dying Is My Business. It also features essays by Charlaine Harris, Sarah Pinborough, Paul Witcover, Phil Rickman, Steven Brust, and many more, over forty essays in all.

It’s an excellent collection of essays that benefits an excellent cause, so if you’d like a copy you can pick it up from Amazon in both trade paperback and e-book. (I’m told they’ll be making it available from other retailers and for other e-readers shortly, so keep an eye out for that.)

 

 

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