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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I give this one all the stars! What a fun, tight, and surprising novella! We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but in reading Stevenson’s original novella I realized the source material is very different from what we know from movies, cartoon spoofs, and just general societal osmosis. We tend to think of it as Jekyll’s story, his scientific quest to isolate the parts of man that are evil, his stumbling upon the potion that creates Hyde, etc. None of this matches Stevenson’s vision.

The first pleasant surprise for me is that Jekyll is not the story’s protagonist. Our POV character is Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer, through whose eyes the mystery of Jekyll’s relationship to Hyde unfolds. I was also surprised to discover Hyde already exists when the story starts, and has for some time. In fact, the revelation that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person is saved for the big reveal at the end!

Jekyll’s motivations are revealed to be quite different from what I thought from those other versions; he is far more selfish and desperate to walk on the dark side without tarnishing his good name. We tend to think of Jekyll and Hyde like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, with one personality going to sleep while the other takes over, but that’s not the case here. Hyde *is* Jekyll, with all his memories fully intact, but with his id finally released from the domineering superego of societal norms. Nor is Hyde portrayed as the hideously disfigured creature of the films. Instead, he is shorter than Jekyll (his child self, one could argue; a throwback to Jekyll’s own hinted-at wild youth) and sports an evil expression that implies, at worst, deviousness. He’s no monster, at least not physically. It’s his crimes, all of which happen off the page and are related to Utterson after the fact, that make him one.

Despite this 1886 novella’s archaic language (“cabinet” is used in place of “study,” for example, which was something I had to look up), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a fast and highly enjoyable read. Without a doubt it’s one of my new favorites of classic horror literature.

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The Scariest Part: Jason Ridler Talks About HEX-RATED

I’m delighted that my guest this week on The Scariest Part is an old friend of mine from way back, author Jason Ridler, whose latest novel is Hex-Rated. Here is the publisher’s description:

Fall, 1970. Los Angeles has always been a den of danger and bliss, but even darker tidings brew in the City of Angels. Cults, magic, and the supernatural are leaking into the worlds of glamour and dives of the gutter. To the spectators walking down Hollywood Blvd, it’s just more proof that La La Land is over the cuckoo’s nest. But to former child magician and Korean veteran turned newly-licensed private investigator James Brimstone, it means business is picking up.

After attending his mentor’s funeral, Brimstone signs his first client: Nico, a beautiful actress with a face full of scars and an unbelievable story of sex, demons, and violence on the set of a pornographic film in the San Fernando Valley. The cops chalk it up to a bad trip from a lost soul, but Brimstone knows better.

He takes the case, but the investigation goes haywire as he encounters Hell’s Angels, a lost book of Japanese erotica, and a new enemy whose powers may fill the streets of L.A. with blood. He’ll have to use his Carney wits, magic tricks, and a whole lotta charm to make it out of a world that is becoming . . . Hex-Rated.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jason S. Ridler:

Hex-Rated, the debut novel in my new series The Brimstone Files, is a supernatural mystery set in porn industry of 1970s LA. And the scariest part was writing the sexy bits.

I’ve written about love, lust, violence, horror and the grotesque for almost twenty years but this was a legit novel! And unlike Harlan Ellison and other heroes who wrote dirty books under pennames, I’d be using my own. What would the neighbors think? What might my family think???

Then I recalled a chat I had with my friend Weird-Ass Neil, back when I started writing fiction. Over hyper-priced coffee I complained that I was stalled. All my characters were lone wolves who had no family because I was worried that if I wrote a father, a mother, or sister…my real life family would scream, “That’s how you think of me? HOW DARE YOU!”

Ol’ Weird-Ass Neil’s about as blunt as a cement brick in the face. His response? “Sounds like you’re giving other people a lot of authority over what you can write, and they’re not even in the room. Dude, I think this is a recipe for mediocrity.” He was right. Fear of external judgment is the killer of creativity. If you please everyone, you’ll hate the work yourself. So I started writing about families and their influences (good, bad, and fugly) and my characters became vastly more interesting and “rounded” and I leveled up as a writer.

So, when I found myself at that crossroad of “Fear of External Judgment” again, I ran in the other direction. Hex-Rated is a pulp novel so there damn well better be some pulp sex. At the same time, the last thing I wanted was some kind of tribute to misogynist power-fantasies of that era. So I made Brimstone a sheet warrior, but a progressive and left-wing child of the Beats with an open mind and forward attitude about sex and sexuality. Yes, the sex in the novel is over the top and primarily built for hetero-normative modes, but it also fit his character and his attitudes. And, I hope, they’re fun to read!

Then, I waited for responses from the big bad world and the results have been HILARIOUS!

Some fans love those scenes for being salacious and ridiculous. Others say they’re “too much,” and Brimstone is “too good” at the beast-with-two-backs to be taken seriously. And my family, in true “children of the 1980s fashion,” skipped those parts like Fast Forwarding the “adult situations” in a teen comedy! I’ve walked the line, as Johnny Cash would say, with some folks loving the lusty bits, others hating them, and most folks loving the story and editing them to suit their interests.

That’s the kind of happy ending you only get when you don’t give in…to the Scariest Part!

Hex-Rated: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Jason Ridler: Blog / Facebook / Twitter

Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and left-wing military historian. His novels include Hex-Rated, the first installment of the Brimstone Files series for Nightshade Press, Rise of the Luchador, and Death Match. He’s also published over sixty stories and numerous academic publications. FXXK WRITING! A Guide for Frustrated Artists collects the best of his column of the same name, and his next historical work, Mavericks of War, is forthcoming from Stackpole Books. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a Teaching Fellow for Johns Hopkins University.

Legion (Not the TV Show)

Legion (Exorcist, #3)Legion by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the twelve years that passed between THE EXORCIST and LEGION, its sequel, author William Peter Blatty honed his writing skills. For the most part, I found LEGION to be a much better written novel than THE EXORCIST, at least on the prose level. When it comes to focus, however, I found Blatty’s writing here as frustrating as ever. Whole scenes and conversations amount to nothing and go nowhere. The entirety of the story is crammed into the first few chapters and the last few chapters, with the middle chapters containing little more than filler, especially the multiple chapters that follow Dr. Amfortas, a character who ultimately winds up not doing much at all. If Amfortas were removed from the novel, nothing would change but the word count.

Lieutenant Kinderman is presented somewhat better here than he was in THE EXORCIST, but his dialogue still comes off like someone doing a bad impression of a nebbishy Jewish person. The dialogue of his mother-in-law, whom we meet in Kinderman’s home life, is even worse. The mystery at the heart of the novel is good, and the supernatural elements are chilling, and they alone are what save LEGION from being utterly forgettable. I’m a big fan of the film adaptation — released as THE EXORCIST III: LEGION and starring the great George C. Scott as Kinderman — but the end of the novel is both different from and, unexpectedly, worse than the movie’s. The film’s producers famously demanded that an exorcism be added to the climax, since the word “exorcist” was in the title and they thought that was what the audience wanted to see. I always thought it was a mistake and wondered what the real ending was. Well, now I know. In the novel, the killer’s motivation, which involves a character we meet only once in a complete throw-away of a chapter, is resolved off-page when we’re told that character died from a stroke, and so the killer just stops killing and — literally — lies down and dies. The end.

There’s a theological philosophy couched in the novel that’s interesting, something about who is really watching over the world since it clearly isn’t God, and I wish more time had been spent exploring it. I also wish it had tied in a little better with the plot. But then, I kind of wish everything had tied in a little better with the plot. Ultimately, LEGION is a messy novel with a few good scenes and a couple of good chills, but not a novel I would recommend to anyone but Blatty completists or fans of Lt. Kinderman who want to see where his adventures take him after THE EXORCIST. For everyone else, rent the movie instead, bad exorcism scene and all.

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The Scariest Part: J.R.R.R. Hardison Talks About DEMON FREAKS

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author J.R.R.R. Hardison, whose latest novel is Demon Freaks. Here is the publisher’s description:

It’s the night before the SAT test. The forces of darkness are stirring.

Twin brothers, Bing and Ron Slaughter, know they’ve got to cram like their lives depend on it because their college plans sure do. If they don’t ace the test, they’ll be doomed to spend the rest of their days flipping burgers at the McDonald’s their parents run. That’s why they hatch a plan to meet up with the members of their punk band, the Ephits, spend the night studying at a secluded cabin in the woods, and maybe squeeze in a little jamming. What could go wrong with a brilliant plan like that?

Ancient evil. That’s what.

As a cataclysmic lightning storm rolls in, Bing, Ron and the rest of the Ephits find themselves tangled in a sinister plot to summon a demon. Yes, demons are real. To survive the night, the band must find a malevolent artifact, battle bloodthirsty monsters and stand against the most dangerous and powerful foe humanity has ever faced…the Golfer’s Association.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J.R.R.R. Hardison:

I do OK in caves, but I don’t love them. It’s an imagination thing. I see possibilities — and I see them more clearly the darker my surroundings get. People get lost in caves, they get trapped in them, drowned in them. They succumb to hypothermia, starvation, bad air. And there are bugs. Troglobites, they call them. I’m not fond of bugs, especially not odd, pale, never-seen-the-light-of-day, bulging-blind-eyed troglobites that might get on you while you can’t see them, or worse, crawl up your nose when you’re dead.

My cave paranoia increases in regards to the safety of other people. That’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s just because I’ve always been pretty lucky, and I feel like I would probably blunder my way out of any subterranean void in which I was lost. But my luck doesn’t extend to other people, like my wife, and I don’t trust my adventurer skills anywhere near enough to believe I could help someone else if something went wrong. If a part of the cave floor gave way and a fellow explorer was hanging over the edge of a lightless abyss, I’m pretty sure their desperate fingers would slip through my clumsy grasp. If underground floodwaters suddenly surged around our necks, it seems like a foregone conclusion that I’d be unable to hold my breath long enough to pull my submerged companion from the icy deluge. And if a falling stalactite pinned a loved one, my well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get help would only result in blind wanderings that would doom her bones to molder in eternal darkness.

All of this is a long way of saying that the scariest part for me in writing Demon Freaks was a sudden silence in the lightless void below the craggy slopes of Mt. St. Helens. I’d decided to visit some caves to prepare for writing the sequence in which two of the central characters are lost in a maze of tunnels and caverns under the clubhouse of the evil Golfers’ Association. For the record, it is a mistake to first research the dangers of caves before physically going into them. Google searching turns up a wide array of stories that all begin by coupling a cave name with the capitalized word disaster, and then end with people dying. The Nutty Putty Cave Disaster, the Mossdale Cavern Disaster, the Cave Creek Disaster…the list goes on. The National Speleological Society also keeps a handy official Journal of Record of Caving Accidents and Safety Incidents that tracks American caving mishaps going back to 1961. The incident entries in this journal are suggestively spare, like, “Fatality. Falling stone,” and “Fatality. Fell into pit.”

After all that reading, it was with some trepidation that I found myself joining various cave tours and forcing myself to hang back just far enough from the group to lose sight of the others. But I never felt really unsafe. Even if I managed to get separated from the group, a guy with a walkie talkie would undoubtedly track me down, or another tour would come along in ten minutes. More often than not, a tour guide would just say, “Sir, please keep up.”

So that’s why I finally decided to visit a nearby cave on an unguided tour with my wife. At 2.5 miles, Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States. It’s not a particularly dangerous cave, but as the website ominously informs you, “No cave can ever be considered completely safe.” They urge you to wear warm, heavy clothes (it’s generally about 42 degrees inside), to bring at least two light sources with spare batteries, and to never touch the walls. Never touch the walls? Yes. They harbor “cave slime,” which sounds like it might eat you alive, but is actually just an important food source for the troglofauna — the various creatures that live in the cave.

On the drive out to the cave, I managed to get myself a little worked up about the whole thing, much to my wife’s amusement. This was going to be just the two of us, inside miles of inky dark lava tube, no guide to pull our bacon out of the fire. She was rolling her eyes, but I was almost ready to turn back. Then we arrived at the site and found it swarming with other weekend thrill-seekers and inexperienced cavers. It was not just going to be the two of us.

Yes, it was a very cool way to spend an afternoon. Yes, there were a few heart-racing moments that involved scaling a slick lava wall or scrambling on our bellies through narrow crevices. And yes, I saw a few fearsome cave crickets. But for the most part, it was a pretty tame adventure.

There was one moment we found ourselves alone and out of ear shot of the crowds. We were crouched below a bulging ceiling of blobby black rock in a section of tube about six feet across, and I suggested we turn off our lights to get a better feel for the darkness. The second we flicked our switches, we were blind. In the absence of other sound, my wife’s breathing seemed very loud. Then there was a soft scrabbling and the sound of her breathing stopped. It just stopped.

I listened, strained actually, to catch the whisper of another breath. I reached out, groping for her in the pitch. But there was nothing. Nothing. The eyes of my imagination opened wide and beheld every account of every caving disaster spread before me. “Fatality,” I thought. “Fell into pit.”

And then someone else’s flashlight beam hit us. There was my wife a few feet further than expected, caught in the act of creeping away, a big grin on her face. She insists that she was just “helping” my writing process by holding her breath so that I could feel the full effect of the cave. Me, I don’t believe that for a second.

Demon Freaks: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

J.R.R.R. Hardison: Website / Twitter

Jim has worked as a writer, screen writer, animator and director in entertainment and commercials since graduating from Columbia College of Chicago in 1988. He is the author of The Helm, which YALSA praised as one of 2010’s best graphic novels for young readers, and has directed animated commercial and entertainment projects, including spots for M&M’s, AT&T, and Kellogg’s. He co-founded Character LLC in 2000 and has given story advice to many of the world’s largest brands, such as Target, Verizon, Samsung, McDonalds and Walmart, and has even appeared on NBC’s The Apprentice as an expert adviser on brand characters. Jim lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two kids and two dogs. Fish WielderJim’s debut novel, was released in 2016, and Demon Freaks, his second novel, was released in October 2017.