Fairy Tale Illustrations – Glimpses of Another World

Attempting as I am to write a book that is within the realm of the New Weird, somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, I know that this book needs to impart a sense of the strange, the (yes) weird, the bizarre and the beauty within the bizarre. It needs to feel a bit alien. And as I feel my way, writing prose that I hope imparts the strangeness of the somewhat post-apocalyptic world I’m creating, I’ve been drawn lately to old-school fairy tale illustrations. These illustrations convey at a glance what I’m struggling to portray through words.

Edmund Dulac - The Blue Bird

Edmund Dulac – The Blue Bird

One of the most well-known fairy tale illustrators is Edmund Dulac. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while. Here’s a favorite, for the fairy tale “The Blue Bird.” This story is not nearly as well known as tales like “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella,” but at one glance it’s clear that this is not a portrait of normalcy. For one thing, there’s three blue frogs – with wings! – drawing a carriage. A lady with a spangly black cape points a wand at a man who clearly objects. Not only is this a picture of magical hijinks, it is extremely compelling. I want to know what will happen next.

Edmund Dulac's The Firebird

Edmund Dulac’s The Firebird

Another favorite of mine is Dulac’s “The Firebird.”  One of the reasons I love this picture is its echoes of Marc Chagall, both in the saturated colors and the imagery of man and bird floating in the sky. Here, the triumphant firebird carries a presumed prince who is obviously overcome to see the lady slumbering on a bed of bright flowers. Again, we are catching a glimpse of a different reality.

Kay Neilsen's Prince Lindworm

Kay Neilsen’s Prince Lindworm

So, yes, I’m a big fan of Dulac. The artist I’ve been wowed by recently, though, is another well-known illustrator of fairy tales – Kay Nielsen. Here, for example, we have an illustration for a tale where an intrepid shepherd girl, with the aid of a mysterious witch, breaks the enchantment of Prince Lindworm, a serpent who has devoured his two previous brides. I must admit that when I look at this picture my eye tends to go toward the enormous candles, which to me are the strangest element of this illustration – and so, until I found the name of the tale this picture corresponded to, I didn’t notice the coils of the prince menacingly wrapped around the feet of his bride.

Kay Nielsen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier

Kay Nielsen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier

Nielsen also created a striking illustration for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Like many of Mr. Anderson’s tales, this is not a particularly happy story. It’s a tale notable for the tin soldier’s point of view and the fact that through all of his adversities and emotions, he makes the apparent choice to never change expression and to remain steadfast. At the end of the story, a child tosses him into the stove. The soldier isn’t sure whether the heat he feels is the fire or his love for the paper ballerina. A stray gust blows her into the flames as well and, without ever having exchanged a word with the dancer, the soldier melts down into the shape of a heart. Here, Nielsen has captured the dancer’s oblivious pose as she flies into the flames, as well as the tin soldier’s inability to help her.

Visual art is often an inspiration for compelling verse – just look at Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I know I need to convey strong visual images with my prose so that the reader can catch a glimpse of the same odd world I see. I used to dismiss setting when I read, skipping past pages of descriptive prose – I was always eager to get to what I considered the interesting part, conversations and inner dialogue. But I’ve come to understand that setting helps ground the reader in the world that the writer creates – and without it, the reader is untethered.

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Comics III: Locke and Key

Locke and Key Volume 5

Locke and Key Volume 5

I recently read the fifth volume of Joe Hill’s graphic novel saga, Locke and Key. Hill is the son of Stephen King, and like King he tends to write on dark subjects. But King has never written a graphic novel, and in this way Hill has managed to one-up his prolific dad – Locke and Key is a masterpiece that blends complex, compelling storytelling with beautifully detailed art by Gabriel Rodriguez.

The first volume of Locke and Key, titled Welcome to Lovecraft, shows that the Locke family has just suffered a major loss. Rendell Locke, the reader sees, was violently murdered by two young men. The rest of the family is lucky to be alive. In other hands this kind of subject matter could turn lurid, but Hill and Rodriguez show us the family’s grief, and in so doing craft their characters into people the reader wants to root for.

For example, we’re shown the eldest Locke son, Tyler, at his father’s funeral. He stares in grief at the red urn holding his father’s ashes, then sits on a long bench in the funeral home hallway, while first one, than another of his high school acquaintances speak to him and make inane comments. As Tyler remembers an overheard conversation between his parents, the hallway changes to that of his home, and he sees a much younger self walking to his parents’ doorway. Then the hallway is once again in the funeral home, his uncle comes over and sits with him, and Tyler breaks down in tears.

Locke and Key Volume 3

Locke and Key Volume 3

Once the family has moved across the country from California back to the old Locke family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, we see that the middle sibling, Kinsey, is still reliving the time of the murder, when she held her younger brother tight up on the roof and hid from the killers behind a chimney. She bit her lip until it bled then, and when she remembers, she bites her lip until it bleeds again.

The grief of the youngest, Bode, is strikingly rendered in a panel that shows his reflection in that red crematory urn, holding the hands of his sister and brother. His face, drawn with large staring eyes, is the only one with features – his family’s reflections are distorted and their faces are blank. Bode says, “After my dad died, they put him in an oven and burned him up and stuck what was left in a jar. That’s called cream-making.”

Having made this family’s grief clear, Hill then introduces two tantalizing elements, the first magical key, and a spirit who lives in the wellhouse. As the reader discovers throughout the volumes of Locke and Key, there are many, many keys, and each one does something different. One makes you a giant, one turns you into a spirit, one changes your gender, one fixes what is broken – the list goes on and on. And that spirit in the wellhouse, it wants the keys, especially one key, the key to the Black Door.

Locke and Key Volume 6

Locke and Key Volume 6

Throughout the Locke and Key saga, Hill weaves an amazingly sophisticated tale involving the past of Rendell Locke, the patriarch who dies so quickly in the first volume, as well as the creators of the keys. As his children discover the magic keys, they also must fight the spirit who wants the keys, for the stakes are incredibly high. I myself eagerly await the last volume of Locke and Key, which comes out next year.

Has anyone else out there enjoyed Locke and Key? Any thoughts on the connection between Joe Hill and Stephen King? I welcome your comments!

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The Night Circus: An Example of a NanoWrimo Triumph

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

On December 1, I heaved a sigh of relief. National Novel Writing Month was over, and I had written about 46,000 words. I still hadn’t reached the very end of my book (that ending is something I’ve been tinkering with, but it shall be complete within the next week, I vow). But given that NanoWrimo was over, I was now allowed to read an actual novel, something I hadn’t let myself do in November, in case the writer’s tone carried over into my work.

The book I chose was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of many sitting in piles on my bedroom floor, waiting to be read. I am one of those bookworms who enjoys browsing bookstores and acquiring more and more interesting books to read, even though I have piles aplenty at home. From what I had gathered from reading reviews, The Night Circus sounded like it had an interesting spin on the premise of a magicians’ contest.

And indeed this is the case. Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is an engaging account of a circus which is actually a showcase for two magicians’ talents. Morgenstern’s prose is so lyrical that you can see every tent containing wonders in this circus, like an ice garden or a wishing tree covered in lit candles.

But as I read this book, I also kept in mind that it had begun as a NanoWrimo project. Given the chaotic mess that I myself created in the month of November, I couldn’t help marveling at how beautifully written, how polished and precise The Night Circus is. But there are hints in Morgenstern’s Acknowledgements of her NanoWrimo experience. First she thanks her agent, “who saw potential in something that was once truly a god-awful mess…” Morgenstern also writes, “I am grateful to all who gave their time and insight to revision after revision…”

Whew. Thank you, Erin Morgenstern. I know I have revision after revision to go through before my mess becomes the polished novel I know it can be – but with your beautiful book, you’ve given me some hope that it can be done.

If anyone has any lingering thoughts on NanoWrimo, or the creative process, I’d love to hear them!

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Horror Movies Coda: Films You May Not Have Heard Of (But Are Good Nonetheless)

So I survived National Novel Writing Month. I still have to craft an ending to my manuscript – I didn’t get to 50,000 words mainly because that darn ending is vexing me a bit. But anyway – I did get to 46k and change! Which is an achievement for me.

Waaaay back in October I went on a saga of watching horror movies, mainly trying to see ones I hadn’t seen before. And in so doing, I saw some gems I wanted to be sure to share, even though it is now December, and not officially a horror season. Please pardon my intrusion into the holiday atmosphere that may be enfolding you, but if you’re a horror fan, chances are you will enjoy one of these movies.

Lovely Molly

Lovely Molly

“Lovely Molly” is the story of Molly, a young woman who’s just gotten married. The happy couple move into the house where Molly grew up, since both her parents are dead. The movie makes it clear that these are not well-off people – Molly’s husband is a truck driver, and she cleans at a shopping mall. This makes the reasoning behind their decision to move into the rather large old house, which is full of bad memories for Molly, easier to accept. Soon Molly is receiving visits from dearly departed dad, and not only that – she’s blacking out, unable to account for segments of time. This movie is in my favorite category of horror – it’s creepy as all-get-out. Molly’s battle to hold onto her sanity will have you clutching a loved one for comfort (as I did watching this movie, when I pulled my dog onto my lap).

Midnight Son

Midnight Son

“Midnight Son” is a low-budget horror, like “Lovely Molly.” This movie is a take on vampirism. I know,  I can hear the groans from here. But trust me, “Midnight Son” takes an interesting tack. Jacob is just a normal guy as far as he knows, but he starts having all kinds of medical symptoms for which doctors can’t give a satisfactory explanation. Like the fact that he can’t derive much sustenance from food anymore, or that sunlight literally burns him. Because Jacob is literally starving, in his desperation he stumbles upon the fact that blood curbs his growling stomach. Does this mean that he’s a vampire? Jacob’s struggle is a compelling journey – not precisely horrific, but certainly no less compelling for that.

Excision

Excision

Next up is a unique movie, “Excision.” AnnaLynne McCord, a veteran of the recent 902010 reboot, stars as a high school social outcast who takes a certain pride in her strangeness. She wants to be a doctor someday, and perhaps that might explain her dreams and visions that are rather…unusual. Or perhaps not. Like another recent horror, “The Woman,” there’s an interesting exploration here of burgeoning female sexuality. “Excision” certainly has a take on it that you haven’t seen before, and there’s a huge cast of well-known actors to add to the appeal – Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell, John Waters, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise.

Rabies

Rabies

Finally, I’m adding a movie that I actually saw around the beginning of November, but it’s another small one that you might not catch, so here you go. The Israeli film “Rabies” (Kalevet) actually has nothing to do with that affliction – it’s about different folks whose paths converge at a nature reserve. What I found interesting about this one is that most of these people are normal folks just going about their day – but in the course of different events, many characters change and surprise even themselves.

Any thoughts about these movies or other horror-themed matters, let me know! And I promise I won’t bring up any horror-tinged matters for a while…

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NanoWrimo Has Taken Over My Life

National Novel Writing Month

National Novel Writing Month

Yes, I know – I was supposed to give you a run-down on my recommended horror titles from all the movies I watched in October. Well, that’s going to have to wait. You see, I am deep, deep into the Nanowrimo challenge, and I can think of little else in my free time.

What is Nanowrimo, you may ask? Well, every November crazed writers take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words during this 30-day month. Which also contains a major holiday. Which will entail some travel (for me personally).

Some years back I attempted this challenge but gave up quite early. I didn’t have the sense of community that I do now. For instance, I went to my local Nanowrimo kick-off meeting and received a key hand-out containing the number of words I should strive to get down on paper every day of November in order to meet that 50,000-word goal. This way, I know how behind I am – like, always. There’s also a Nanowrimo website where I can input the number of words I’ve written so far, and it is creating a handy graph of my productivity for November. And if I feel the need, there are write-in’s, gatherings of writers who are all working toward that same wondrous word-count goal.

Nanowrimo

Nanowrimo

I’ve never been a very prolific writer. I have managed to write hundreds of pages on a project I’ve been working on, but it’s been a sloooow process. I’ve never pushed myself this hard before – usually, if I manage to write two pages in a day, I clap myself on the back and stop. But now I know that I can produce page after page after page. No, not all of these words I’m setting on paper are golden, but I may just finally have that first draft of my book I’ve been working on so long. Or at the very least, most of it. And that, my friends, will be sweet, sweet victory, no matter how many words I ultimately produce.

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October Horror – Two Favorites

So here it finally is, Halloween 2012. I’ve had a lot of fun watching horrors this month, and tomorrow (or thereabouts) I’ll give you a rundown on what new horrors I discovered and recommend. But this post is about two horror favorites of mine. I never get tired of watching either one of them. They are true classics.

Halloween

Halloween

My favorite Halloween movie is, appropriately enough, John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween.” There’s a basic and clear-cut brutality to this film. Carpenter famously used a William Shatner Star Trek mask for the evil and crazy knife-happy killer. The mask is painted white, and with this simple mask the killer becomes faceless and, symbolically, all the more difficult to kill.  Jamie Lee Curtis makes us care about her young babysitter character, who’s just trying to get good grades in school and make sure that the kids she’s supposed to take care of are safe. And I love the music – to me, it’s exactly what a horror soundtrack should be.  

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

On the other hand, my favorite horror movie is George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead.” The film’s grainy black and white texture only seems to heighten the horror of all the blood and gore that the zombies eagerly eat. From the opening sequence of a brother frightening his sister in a graveyard and then becoming a victim himself, to the locked-up house where different untrusting people must band together to survive, “Living Dead” is fast-paced and gore-filled. The racial subtext only underscores how in the end, no matter how many zombies there are, other people are usually the real enemy.

Of course I have many other horror favorites, but those will have to wait until next year. I’d love to hear your favorites too!

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October Horror – The Humor of It All

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. These next few movies are humorous takes on the horrific, and I love all of them.

Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein

“Young Frankenstein” is one of my favorite movies, period, and certainly the funniest horror-oriented film I know. Way back in 1974 Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder (with credit given to Mary Shelley as well) co-wrote this comedic gem. Wilder stars as FRE-derick Franken-steen, with a stellar cast including Madeline Kahn as his fiance, Teri Garr as his assistant (“roll-roll-roll in de hay”), Marty Feldman as I-gor, Peter Boyle as the Creature, and Cloris Leachman as Frau BLUCH-er (neeeiiiigh!). The combination of Shelley’s classic Frankenstein tale with Brooks’ and Wilder’s jokes, riffing on everything from Igor’s moving hump to the perils of the hidden bookcase to the Creature’s hidden assets, crack me up everytime. If you’ve never seen this incredibly funny movie, no matter whether you’re a horror fan or not, you really owe it to yourself to see it (but of course if you’re familiar with the Frankenstein story, you’re going to die laughing even more…).

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1994’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is, of course, as much about Christmas (arguably) as Halloween. But the dementedly delightful denizens of Halloweentown certainly are one of many reasons to check this film out in October, along with the star, Jack Skellington (dually voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman), and the songs celebrating Halloween and the joys of co-opting Christmas and turning it into another creepy (!) holiday.

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead

Finally we have “Shaun of the Dead,” which came out in 2004. Co-written and starring Simon Pegg, as well as Nick Frost as his best pal (and drinking buddy), “Shaun” is both a hilarious and, at times, ghoulish ride as Shaun and his friends battle to make it through a zombie invasion. If you’ve never thought of utilizing LP’s as a weapon against zombies or holing up in your local pub to weather a zombie invasion, then you simply must see this movie! Seriously, this film is beyond hilarious, but it isn’t afraid to be serious about the consequences of zombie attacks either. This shifting tone was surely difficult to pull off, but Pegg and co. make it work.

Next up – some of my favorite horror classics that never seem to lose their charm…

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