It’s been a rough day. Let’s talk the intricacies and difficulties of writing fiction!

I often like to talk like a know-it-all on this blog, but let’s face it, there’s still things I could be better at. Or that I think I could be better at. One of those things is themes. Most stories have them: Harry Potter has destiny vs. fate, prejudice, and our relationship with death; The Shawshank Redemption is about finding hope in a hopeless place, learning to survive and even find ways to thrive in harsh conditions, and, of course, redemption; and The Very Hungry Caterpillar is about how the inevitability of change crafted by thousands of years of evolution and the incessant need to feed to support the process.

Okay, that last one is a huge stretch, but you get the idea. Plenty of stories have deeper meanings and commentaries wrapped into them, like several candle wicks wrapped together to form a new and beautiful candle. Some of these stories are written with the theme in mind, while others arise during the writing of the story. And depending on the kind of story, it can seem odd if a story does or doesn’t have a theme (I wouldn’t expect one from any variation of The Three Little Pigs, but I would expect plenty of thematic elements in an Anne Rice novel).

But how well you carry the theme can vary sometimes. It’s like carrying a tune: sometimes you’re able to do it well, sometimes it varies depending on the tune, and some people, like me, can’t carry a tune that well at all (though that never stops me when there’s a karaoke party going on). With some of the stories I’ve been working on lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how well I carry the themes written into them. And after a lot of thought, I’ve come to the realization that authors are probably not the best people to judge their own work.

Which is probably why we have beta readers and editors, now that I think about it.

With Rose, there’s a big theme of toxic masculinity, especially in the latest draft, that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. That theme kind of arose on its own while I wrote and edited and re-edited the story, and I like to think I carry it very well in the book,* though at times I wonder if I’m being a little too obvious with it. Meanwhile, in this novella I’m working on now, there’s a pretty obvious theme about the perils of racism. I’m not too sure how I’m carrying it, if maybe the angle I’m going for or just the way I carry it is the problem.

Then again, some really good stories do go about exploring racism without being subtle at all. Heck, sometimes that’s the point. A Raisin in the Sun┬ámakes no attempt to hide what it’s about. And the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been criticized about how it portrays and explores race relations (as well as who’s writing it), but it still gets its point across very well. Maybe I’m doing something right after all.

Despite my own uncertainties about how well I carry themes, I still write and try to carry them as best I can. What else am I supposed to do? I’m not going to give up writing anytime soon just because I’m unsure of how well an idea or a deeper meaning in one of my stories is presented. Hell, I should keep writing, because that’s how I’m going to get better at carrying them. And if I make a few mistakes along the way, I’ll just pick myself up and try again, either by editing the story or trying to write a new one. It beats beating myself up over it, right?

Besides, I may be my own worst judge. What I see as clumsy carrying, others might see as pretty damn good. And that’s reason enough for me to continue writing in the first place.

*Which I hope to have more news on soon. Thank you, as always, for your continued patience as my publisher Castrum Press and I make sure that Rose is up to snuff before publishing.

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My cousin has been in town for an internship, so I invited him to see this with me. We both had heard that it wasn’t good or it wasn’t going to do good, but I think we both went in with open minds. And after a billion previews, ranging from cute family films to all-out R-rated horror films (where’s the consistency these days?), the lights went down.

That was very good. I’m not kidding, I liked it a lot. That was better than expected.

The Predator takes place around thirty years after the events of the 1987 movie. A Predator ship crash lands on Earth after getting away from another Predator ship. A soldier nearby manages to get his hands on some Predator tech and, fearing being silenced by the military, sends it to a PO Box…only for it to end up in the hands of his autistic son. This, and the arrival of the other Predator ship, which contains a much more powerful breed of Predator than ever seen before, leads to a domino effect of events culminating in one insane battle.

So this film actually has a lot going for it. Rather than being a simple sci-fi stalker/slasher film like the original (and let’s face it, everyone’s comparing it to the original), The Predator has a much more developed story that delves both into its characters as well as a bit more into the Predators themselves (because outside of canon-questionable comic books, novels, and video games, what exactly do we have to go on?). And it’s very well-written. There was never a moment where I found my mind wandering, whether it be an intense action scene (and there are several of those), scenes where people are talking to explain things or scenes where the cast is being downright funny.

And there”s another thing: this film is funny as heck (and before you get turned off by that, Terminator II was funny at times, and it’s an awesome film). Whether the more eccentric characters, whom I could watch all day get into antics, are being themselves or other characters are poking fun at the nickname “Predator,” this film knows how to put in laughs, as well as where to put in laughs. Yeah, a lot of action films like this might put the humor in all the wrong places, but this film gets it right.

But my favorite part of this film is its representation of autism and an autistic character. Rory MacKenna, the son of the lead soldier played by Jacob Tremblay, is on the spectrum and it weaves itself into the plot in a very intrinsic, surprising and positive way. It reminds me of how the character of Billy in last year’s Power Rangers film (another discounted film that was actually really good) was portrayed, only this was a lot better. I could say more, but that would give too much away, so I’ll hold off. Instead I’ll say, as an individual on the spectrum, it was great to see.

Is there anything bad? Well, it isn’t the most extraordinary film I’ve ever seen. Those who go in expecting it to be as amazing as the original film or as awesome a sequel as Mad Max: Fury Road will be disappointed. However, those who go in expecting to see something like Jurassic World–something that’s not as good as the original but good in its own right and maybe worthy of a few sequels–won’t regret spending money on the tickets.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Predator a 4 out of 5. An enjoyable sci-fi action romp with fun characters and great representation of folks on the spectrum. I don’t know if this film will do well (movie audiences can be pretty unpredictable sometimes), but I’d encourage you to suit up and disappear into the story.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll try not to make my next post a review if I can help it. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

You know me, I HAVE to review the season premiere and the season as a whole, every season, for American Horror Story. And with Apocalype being the series’ most ambitious season yet, I was interested to see if they could pull it off. I mean, not only is this an apocalypse-themed season (can’t get bigger than that), but it’s a crossover between the original season, Murder House, and Coven, the season that divides many fans (personally, I like what they were trying to do, but found it all too campy and maybe a little too expansive). So can show runners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk really pull it off?

If the first episode is any indication, yes they can.

The first episode of Apocalypse, appropriately titled “The End,” depicts what you would expect: the end of life on Earth as we know it. Nuclear missiles are launched at every corner of the Earth, sending the planet into a nuclear winter. Everything seems to be gone…or is it? A group called the Cooperative has brought people together–some for their money, others for their genetic makeup–to an underground bunker to become the survivors of humanity. Watched over by Madam Venable (Sarah Paulson), life in bunker is strict and the punishments for disobedience are harsh. As the months go on, the survivors start to go stir crazy and worry how much longer they can tolerate conditions. That is, until a mysterious figure enters from outside the compound. Does he bring hope…or hell?

The first episode is definitely off to a good start, depicting the chaos and fear that would all but surely arise if Armageddon began in the first ten-fifteen minutes: riots, people committing suicide, everyone going insane trying to find shelter. But then a very different tone arises after we’re introduced to the Cooperative and its agents: things become very claustrophobic. Lots of sharp angles that are meant to make you feel closed in, plenty of shadows. It makes you feel as uncomfortable as the characters, and makes the punishments for disobedience all the more awful.

Plus, those hazmat costumes are freaky! If I didn’t already know what I was going as for Halloween, I might try to get one of them and wear it!

As far as acting, Sarah Paulson’s Madame Venable is clearly the best. She’s an icy woman, almost psychopathic in the way she interacts with these characters. It’s quite a change, as Paulson’s never played this sort of character on the show before. I’m looking forward to seeing where she could go from here.

I can’t point to anything that didn’t gel with me. It was a really good episode and a great start to what will hopefully be a memorable season. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give the season premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse a 5. I have high hopes for the rest of the season. If you haven’t yet and are curious, check out the first episode. And prepare for the end.

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Stephen King fan (cue everyone who knows me saying in a torrent of sarcasm, “Gee, really? We had no effing idea!”). So when I heard some time last year that Hulu, JJ Abrams and His Royal Scariness Himself were collaborating to create a TV series set in his famous fictional town Castle Rock, you know I was interested. Fast forward to July 25th, and the first three episodes of Castle Rock premiered on Hulu. I didn’t write a review for them (I think that I was busy with a hundred other things that week), but I thought that the series had a strong start, and I was looking forward to seeing where the story went.

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve just finished Season One. How did it hold up?

First, the story. Taking place in the Stephen King multiverse, particularly in one of his frequent settings, Castle Rock, Maine, Castle Rock‘s first season follows Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a lawyer who returns to his childhood town after receiving a call from nearby Shawshank Penitentiary after a prisoner (Bill Skarsgaard of IT fame) was found in its deepest depths, in a cage, with no name or other identity, only asking for him. Deaver, who left town after disappearing and then being found, only to be accused of murdering his adoptive father, tries to help this mysterious young man. But as he delves into this man’s case, as well as his own disappearance, he finds some strange connections between the two. And as violence starts building in the town, the race to figure out both mysteries takes on a whole new importance.

Okay first off, the cast is the best thing about this show! Every character utterly inhabits their character and make them feel like real people, some of whom you can imagine hanging out with (others, stay the hell away from). I especially liked Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand, a realtor with psychic powers and a history with Henry Deaver, and Sissy Spacek (yes, the original Carrie came back for another Stephen King story) as Ruth Deaver, Henry Deaver’s dementia-addled but still feisty and witty adoptive mother. And Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn (maybe the only character who actually comes from a King story in this show) is a very sympathetic character, though he does come off at first as almost unlikable. Still, Holland as Deaver is the one who carries the story. We see things mainly through his eyes, and see how he struggles with all the baggage he carries as he tries to sift through all the confusion between events past and present.

I also liked the plot and how the story was told. It’s clearly geared towards people who are familiar with King’s works but still makes it accessible to those who haven’t seen the series. The writers also took the approach of a slow burn, taking their time to set up these characters and draw us in with the mystery while every now and then pumping things up to keep it interesting. And the writers weren’t afraid to take risks: two episodes are told entirely from the POV of a single character, and one of these episodes, through the eyes of Sissy Spacek’s character, is probably the best episode of the season.

Love Sissy Spacek in this show.

And finally, this does feel like a Stephen King story made for a television format. It’s not based on any particular story he’s written, but incorporates all of his stories, especially the ones set in Castle Rock, to give us a drama and a place that’s both familiar and new. Plus, you’ve got all the tropes you love (or in some cases, hate) from King: psychics, small towns full of secrets, religious fanatics gone crazy, sheriffs (or in this case, retired sheriffs), and of course, a whole bunch of weirdness that makes you go, “Say what? That works, but still, what the hell?”

Was there anything I didn’t like about Castle Rock? Well, a few things: one is that there’s a little too much weird. King’s been known to include a lot of odd concepts and sci-fi ideas into his work to varying degrees, and Castle Rock has a lot of that. The problem with that is, too much weird can lead to a lot of exposition and slow sequences where not much happens. Consequently, it also bites into moments where we could be totally terrified. And in my opinion, there weren’t enough of those moments, which is sad. Stephen King or Stephen-King inspired, his work is truly at its best when it features a shape-shifting clown hungry for children, or a Nazi war criminal burning cats alive in his oven,* things that make it hard for us to sleep. And that was lacking here.

On top of that, I didn’t like the season finale as much as I thought I would. It had its moments and explained a lot, but the climax could’ve been more epic, and I have mixed feelings on the final scene, both in what it featured and how it was told.

Still, all in all, it’s a great start to a series, and I’m looking forward to whatever they cook up for the upcoming season two (maybe something involving my man Leland Gaunt?). On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give Castle Rock a 4.3. Take a visit to the Rock, and hope that while you’re there, you come out with all your fingers attached.

That’s all for tonight, my Followers of Fear. Expect a review tomorrow for the season premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse (I’d review it tonight, but it ends after I should be in bed!). Until then, pleasant nightmares.

*I’m reading Apt Pupil right now, and that part had me frozen in my seat!

Oh my God, it’s finally Day 10! We’re at the end! Whoop whoop!

So if you’re tired of me posting every day (sometimes twice daily), don’t worry, I’m planning on going back to my one-or-twice-a-week schedule after this. It’s too much of a hassle to keep posting day after day after day like this. It was still fun to share my favorite books with you, but still. a lot of work.

Anyway, here’s the rules for the Ten Day Book Challenge, brought to you by my cousin Matthew (who is probably glad this thing he started is coming to an end):

  • Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
  • Explain the rules.
  • Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
  • Explain why (because I don’t see the point of just posting a picture of a book cover without an explanation. That goes for Facebook as well as blogs).
  • Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.

So for the last day of the Ten Day Book Challenge, I picked a book I read quite recently. Actually, I finished reading it on Day Four, on the ride back from the chiropractor’s. The book is the Future Days Anthology from my publisher Castrum Press:

There are several reasons why I wanted to highlight the Future Days Anthology. Obviously, it’s from my publisher, so I wanted to highlight it and support them, even if I’m not in this anthology (maybe I’ll be in a later one). Besides, supporting small presses and their authors allows for decent competition in the publishing industry and allows the authors to feel their hard work has paid off, which is never a bad thing.

Another reason why I wanted to highlight Future Days is because it’s fairly recent: it was only published August 15th this year, so it’s barely been out a month. The first couple of months a book is out is very important, so I’m happy to spread the word.

But the most important reason is because, let’s face it, this is some damn good sci-fi!

As I mentioned in my most recent interview with Matthew Williams (who is also in this anthology) I’ve always been of the opinion that good science-fiction should show us a reflection of humanity’s current state, as well as what humanity could do in the future. The Future Days anthology does this quite well, in my opinion. First, it takes a lot of issues that we’re currently dealing with as a species today–overpopulation, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and corporate power over common people’s lives–and explores how those issues might shape our lives in the generations to come.

As for where we’re going as a species,* that’s given a lot of exploration too. Space exploration to be exact: many stories deal with the challenges humans might encounter once interplanetary travel and off-world colonization becomes possible. Who will pilot and care for the ships during the long travels between worlds? What will be the physical and psychological effects of such travel? Are there ways to get between planets faster?

The value of human life also gets plenty of examination: what happens when, in an increasingly technological age, we’re no longer able to hold jobs now occupied by machines? How much sway do the powerful have over the lives of the weak?

I could go on, but then why spoil the fun? If you’re looking for some decent hard science fiction, look no further than the Future Days Anthology. With several great stories from a variety of excellent sci-fi authors, you’ll be transported when you read it. Don’t believe me? Go to Amazon now and check out some of the reviews (including the one I left). And if you’re still not convinced, just read the book. Believe me, it’s worth it.

And before I forget, I have to nominate someone. Adan Ramie, you’re tagged! I look forward to seeing what you put out.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. With September here, Halloween is approaching, as is just about everything else awesome about this season. And I’m going to revel in every aspect of it.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*Or where you’re going as a species. I still maintain I’m only half-human on the best of days, and there’s plenty of proof that’s not just me messing around.

Agh! I’m late! I have to get to my flight! I’m flying a dragon back to Ohio. And while dragons are rather flexible with what time they take off (they’re awesome that way), I’d rather not keep this one waiting. Anyway, welcome back to Day Nine of the Ten Day Book Challenge. I’m almost through with this challenge, so I’m making sure to keep putting up interesting books so neither you nor I get bored with it.

Thanks again to my cousin Matthew for nominating me for this on Facebook. I hope you don’t mind I made this into a blog thing. And if you do…well, it’s too late to do anything about it, isn’t it?

Now for the rules:

  • Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
  • Explain the rules.
  • Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
  • Explain why (because I don’t see the point of just posting a picture of a book cover without an explanation. That goes for Facebook as well as blogs).
  • Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.

Today’s book is the other reason why I decided to take up a History major in college and studying the Holocaust. That book is Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally (yeah, not all of these are fiction novels. Some are about actual events).

I’d seen the movie earlier in the year I read this book, so I was curious about the book it was based on. I ended up reading it during a five-week trip to Israel alongside The Plot Against America. And Schindler’s List affected me way more than Plot. Reading all those stories from people who had known Oskar Schindler, a complicated man who grew to care deeply about the Jews under him and decided to risk everything to protect them, in a time where that could lead to execution, spoke to me on a level that few books do. I decided then to study the Holocaust when I got to college alongside English and creative writing.

I also came back from Israel with a ring on my finger that says in Hebrew, “He who saves a life, it is as if he’s saved the world entire.” This is similar to the ring Oskar Schindler was given at the end of the book and the movie, and I had it custom made so I could remind myself of that every day. I still have that ring, and I wear it every day. It shows how much one person can do if they put their minds to it, and the good that come from it.

Perhaps someday I can have the same effect or inspiration on someone else someday. We can hope.

Today I’m tagging my friend Tricia Drammeh. Hope you have fun, Tricia. I know I have.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’m headed back to Columbus. I look forward to sharing the last book in the challenge with you tomorrow. Until then, pleasant nightmares!

Don’t fly off without me, dragon! I need to get home!

I was very excited waiting for this film to come out. How could I not be? I saw the original trailer three times before I sat down in the theater, and it made me jump at the end every time! And apparently another trailer was so scary, it was taken off YouTube (I wish I’d seen it before it got taken down, but that’s life). So you could see why I was interested in going to see it, and why I hoped it wouldn’t be terrible.

I’m glad to say, for the most part, The Nun lives up to the hype.

The Nun follows Father Burke, a priest who investigates paranormal and strange events on behalf of the church, and Sister Irene, a young novitiate with a history of fantastic visions. They are sent by the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a nun at a convent in Romania, and while there face an ancient evil that is seeking to escape the abbey and to wreak havoc on the wider world.

First off, the best part of this film is its characters and the actors playing them. Although they’re not the most developed, they feel like real people you might know and even want to hang out with. Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga (the main series’ star Vera Farmiga’s younger sister, if you can believe it), is a loving, down-to-Earth woman who is trying to figure out whether to become a full nun. Frenchie, a young man who helps Father Burke and Sister Irene out, is wonderful comic relief as he flirts with Sister Irene and asks the occasional stupid question. And the Nun…yeah, that monster is still freaky as it was in the Conjuring 2. No wonder a film centering on it got made.

I also love the set of this film, a castle which is like a cross between Hogwarts’s darker sides and some castles in Europe I myself have been to. It’s so creepy and decrepit,, and is made to look almost like a maze you could get lost in. Add in all the touches–like the hundred thousand crosses placed throughout the castle–and it adds the perfect touch.

And, as always, there’s a strong atmosphere in this movie, just as we’ve come to expect from the Conjuring franchise. It keeps you tense and, coupled with some good jump scares (including that one from the trailer, which still got me) and a decent plot, keeps you interested and even a little scared throughout the movie.

Still, The Nun isn’t perfect. While the plot is decent, you can kind of guess where things are going to go about sixty-percent of the time, with the other forty-percent just being minor touches like a twist with the hauntings or something the demon does that you don’t expect. That, and the film may over-rely on jumpscares. This is a criticism that many people have had about the Conjuring films, but this is really the first time it bothered me. It might’ve been better if maybe the film relied more on creeping terror and a few more twists rather than making me jump in my seat.

Still, The Nun is a great addition to the Conjuring series and a good sign that there’s still plenty to mine from the lives of Ed and Lorraine Warren. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving the film a 3.8. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it and I’m glad I went to go see it. Take a look, and pray for safety…and that the next Annabelle film is good.

Yes, there’s another Annabelle film on the way. It’s going to be released next summer, and it looks like it might be the last Annabelle film, dealing with the titular doll and the Warrens’ daughter. Obviously, I’m looking forward to it.