Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Hill House is a great example of Gothic fiction and a Gothic location.

You’ve probably heard someone describe a work of fiction as being “a very Gothic work,” or describing a place they visited as “having a Gothic feel” (which now that I think about it, could be said of The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast). But what actually is “Gothic horror” or “Gothic fiction?” And why does it still appeal to us after more than two-hundred and fifty years?

Surprisingly, Gothic fiction has very little to do with Gothic architecture or with Goth fashion and music (for more on that relationship, check out this brief YouTube video). And while most of the genre do take place in haunted houses, not all haunted house stories are Gothic, or vice versa. As this very helpful Tor.com article points out, “Some genres build the house. Others come along and decorate it. Gothic horror is a very decorative genre.”

So what is Gothic fiction? Well, to be honest, it’s a genre that arose out of another genre that was a response to a popular movement. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment movement emphasized discarding superstition in favor of science and reason. Some artists didn’t care for this philosophy and turned to Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the self, as well as a veneration of the past, nature, and in some cases the supernatural. Gothic arose out of Romanticism, with artists and authors combining elements of the latter with horror, death and the supernatural, starting with The Castle of Otranto in 1764 by Horace Walpole, and followed by the works of Poe, Mary Shelley, Byron, and many others.

To put it simply, Gothic fiction could be considered the love-child of 18th and 19th century Romance stories and horror stories.

But that’s how Gothic fiction came to be. How do we identify it? Well, the horror novel Kill Creek by Scott Thomas (which I highly recommend), itself a Gothic novel, gives a great run-down of some of the common elements of the genre (I hope Mr. Thomas doesn’t mind me using them):

  • Emanation from a single location. The source of the evil is often a single location, usually a house. A great example of this is The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It is the book’s main location, and it is the source of the evil in the story.
  • A sense of forbidden history. There’s a dark history associated with the location or something related to it. Again, a great example is The Overlook, which has been the setting for murders, suicides, and all sorts of horrid deaths and events, all of which have been swept under the rug for the sake of the hotel’s reputation, and later gets drudged up by Jack (and the hotel).
  • An atmosphere of decay or ruin. Things are rotting or falling apart, or seems to be anyway. It’s in the very air, almost. And it doesn’t have to be physical; it can be mental too. Just look at Jack’s mental state as The Shining progresses, if you need an example.
  • Corruption of the innocent. This one speaks for itself. The evil wants to destroy good and innocence and replace it with evil. Dracula, a great example of Gothic fiction, has the titular character turning good and innocent people into bloodsucking vampires. This is corruption of the innocent in its best example, and why vampire fiction is often grouped with Gothic fiction (did you expect another Shining reference?).

Dracula is another great example of Gothic literature, even if it’s not confined to a single location.

But those features aren’t universal among Gothic stories. They’re common features, but not there in every one (Dracula doesn’t just kill in one single place, after all). So what else makes a Gothic story? Well, there’s something I’ve noticed about Gothic stories: along with the atmosphere of decay, there’s also a veneration towards the darkness and to beauty. Remember, Gothic fiction rose from Romanticism, which venerates nature, emotion and beauty. So while we’re feeling an atmosphere of terror, there’s also this sense that the author has a respect and love of the darker elements along with the Romantic ones.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of what constitutes Gothic, and I could go on for days on the subject if you let me. The best summary I can do for this post is to say that Gothic fiction are horror stories with a particular group of tropes, a veneration of darkness and horror, and Romantic appreciation for aesthetic and the fantastic world. And even that feels incomplete.

So what appeals to us about Gothic fiction, and has allowed it to survive and evolve whereas other niche genres like Westerns went out of style in less than sixty years? Well, there’s no easy answer there either. The Tor article says that the rules and expectations of the genre can be learned and make it appealing to readers. I’ve heard some people say good Gothic horror has an atmosphere unlike other genres, and that keeps them coming back. My opinion is that, in addition to those theories, Gothic can evolve because its main tropes are relevant no matter what age we’re in, especially the houses. But on a deeper level than that, most Gothic literature takes the childhood idea of home, a big place we feel safe in, and turns it inside out into a giant house of fear that is still somewhat beautiful and appealing. That is a strange inversion that can be attractive to readers, and may explain why we keep writing and reading Gothic stories over two-hundred and fifty years after Walpole started the genre.

However you define Gothic fiction or whatever its appeal is, there’s no doubt that it is a popular and influential genre that we’ve all experienced at lest once in our lives and remember. And perhaps by understanding it better, we can keep Gothic horror going for many more years to come. And I certainly wouldn’t mind that.

What elements of Gothic fiction did I miss here? What about it appeals to you?

What Gothic stories would you recommend for anyone interested in the genre?

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You know, I’ve never reviewed a proper Stephen King story on this blog before. I’ve reviewed plenty of adaptations of his work, but never any of his actual stories. Probably because I’ve either gotten to them too late and so much time has passed that doing a review seems silly (which is true with the vast majority of his bibliography) or I didn’t feel there was enough to talk about to actually write a decent review (such as Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written with author Richard Chizmar). So I’m glad I’m finally able to review one of his books here. And this one is something else: it’s his latest novel, The Outsider.

The Outsider follows Ralph Anderson, a detective in the small city of Flint City, Oklahoma. The novel opens with Ralph and his fellow officers arresting Terry Maitland, a local teacher and boys’ baseball coach who is beloved by Flint City, for the horrific murder of a young boy. The state’s case seems ironclad: there’s not only eyewitnesses, but a ton of physical evidence linked back to Maitland. But soon after the arrest, evidence arises to cast doubt on Maitland’s guilt, and it’s just as ironclad. The contradiction in this case leads to a domino effect as Anderson and his allies try to figure out if the beloved Coach Maitland is hiding a darker personality, or if someone else, someone darker and worse, is at large in the town.

Now before I go into my review, let me just say that this book shares a few characters in common with King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and contains a few spoilers. So if you haven’t read those books yet and would like to be surprised, probably hold off on this book until you’ve read those.

So I have to say, I came away very satisfied with this story. I like how King starts out with this novel seeming like a regular thriller-mystery: he shows the arrest, switching between the action and then showing interviews and documents from the investigation. The Outsider continues in this vein for a little while, but then goes in a different direction that defies your expectations so far. From there it develops into a compelling and strange read with some great characters. I especially liked Holly Gibney, who comes from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. She’s neuro-atypical, like myself, but is shown to be an integral part of the investigation and makes certain leaps that, without her, the other characters might never be able to. It’s a very real portrayal of someone with disabilities, and I related to Holly on a number of levels. I love those sorts of portrayals of neuro-diverse people in fiction, and I hope to see more in the future.

But probably the novel’s greatest strength is just how hard it is to put down. King takes mystery, the strange, great characters, and much more to make a read that’s hard to put down. Normally I’m able to restrain myself to reading during my lunch break or on weekends, but this novel was so good, I found myself reading it late into the evening at times (which helped me to get to this review today).

That being said, The Outsider does have its issues. One of the biggest ones is that we’ve seen a lot of the concepts used and explored in the book in other King novels, and frankly done better there. I won’t say what, but they’re pretty obvious, and every time they came up, I kept thinking to myself, “This feels like a lighter/duller version of insert-story-name-here.” That, and I felt that the climax could’ve been a bit more epic. It was decent, but I felt it was hampered by too much exposition on the parts of the characters and the story’s villain, who is humanized a little too much (that makes more sense if you’ve read the book). Which, unfortunately, lowers the terror factor with a creative villain that could be as scary as some of King’s other famous villains. I was disappointed about that.

Overall, The Outsider is an entrancing and powerful read, subverting your expectations and leaving you wanting more. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.6. Check it out, and get sent down a mine shaft full of the strange and the unsettling.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ve got my own novel to work on, so I’m going to get on that this evening. Until then, pleasant nightmares!

You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?

It’s a question every creator wrestles with from time to time. Writers are no exception. We wonder if anything we write is worth reading by anyone other than our family and close friends (who, most likely, will tell you they loved it because that’s what family and close friends do). We wonder if we’re just wasting our time sitting at the computer or in front of our typewriters or in our notebooks, trying to tell stories that range from the mundane to the fantastical and mundane.

In short, we ask ourselves, “Do my ideas suck?”

This may surprise you (I am Mr. Smiles and Jokes and Weird References to Demons and Monsters, after all), but I ask myself this question a lot. I often wonder if I’ll write anything that more than a few people will read in my lifetime, let alone afterwards. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot more lately as I’m in the midst of rewriting a lot of Rose. Although I tell myself that I came up with these changes myself, and that both I and my publisher think they’ll do a lot to help the story and make it a better read, in the back of my head I’ve got this little voice whispering dissent and telling me that what I’m writing won’t amount to much.

And you know what? Sometimes I’m tempted to believe that voice. I mean, thousands upon thousands of novels are published every year, but very few of them gain the attention we wish them to have. Quite a few even get critically panned. It often seems like the field is too big and too difficult to really make a difference in. So why should we try?

But then there are a couple of things I keep in my mind that can, if not shut up that voice, then at least turn the volume down on it. Both of them, not surprisingly, involve Stephen King. The first has to do with his debut novel, Carrie. Did you know when King first started writing Carrie, he actually threw the first few pages into the trash because he was convinced it was trash and would come to nothing. He only kept at it because his wife fished the pages out of the trash, read over them, and said they were good and that he should keep at it. The novel was later published and as we all know, became a huge hit, inspiring two excellent movies (though I prefer the 2013 version), a meh TV movie, and a musical that I wish would get a proper revival and a North American tour. All from a story that King was ready to throw in the trash.

The second story is another King work, Thinner, which he wrote under his Richard Bachman pen name. If you were to give the story an elevator pitch (see my article on elevator pitches for more on that subject) it would probably be something along the lines of “A man is cursed to become thinner and thinner.” And just from hearing that, you might laugh. That sounds like a comedy involving some prissy housewife who thinks if she doesn’t stay a certain weight, her husband will cheat on her and then she starts magically losing weight. It doesn’t sound like a scary novel.

Thinner by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King); silly sounding concept, great payoff.

But from what I hear (I haven’t read any of the Richard Bachman books yet, though I know I should), it’s a pretty creepy story, one that inspired a movie (quality of the movie is debatable). All from a very simple idea of what happens when weight loss goes really, really bad. It sounds stupid, but it turns into an effective horror story.

And I could come up with tons of examples of this (did you know HP Lovecraft thought The Call of Cthulhu was only so-so? And now it’s one of his most famous works). But they all boil down to one thing: our ideas don’t always suck. In fact, they may only suck in our minds. To others, they may be great, mind-blowing, or even influential. And sure, not all of our stories will turn out to be great, but the vast majority of them, with enough work and a little bit of luck, can become awesome.

And I’m reminded of that every time someone expresses interest in reading Rose. People hear what it’s about, and they want to know more, or for me to tell them as soon as the book is out. If these people really do end up reading Rose, liking it and even letting people know they like it, then who knows? I might be able to shut up that little voice once in my head, at least for a little while.

So if you’re worried that you’re only writing crap, don’t pay your little voice any attention. Just keep writing and polishing and seeing where your story goes. Who knows? You may end up putting out something really amazing, and you’ll be glad you stuck with it for so long.

A good number of you probably remember that late last year, I did a series of posts where I reevaluated scary movies I’d previously seen and disliked called the Rewatch Series. The first of those movies was the psychological horror anime movie Perfect Blue, released in 1997. I found that my previous dislike for the film had been based on my not understanding it, and that with a few more years and a better understanding, I found it to be a really good movie.

I’d also known for a long time that the movie was based on a novel, but it wasn’t translated into English and therefore I had no hope of reading it. That is, until I found out a few months ago that Seven Seas Entertainment had licensed and translated the novel for the English-language market. Naturally, I got excited and tried to get my hands on it. And after about four months, I finally did get a copy and sit down to read it.

Boy, that’s different than the movie in more ways than one. But of course, this won’t be a book-vs.-movie comparison (at least not entirely). It’s a review, so let’s get to reviewing.

Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis follows two very different people: Mima Kirigoe, a Japanese pop idol who is trying to leave behind her image as an “innocent” starlet and take on a more mature image; and the other is someone simply identified as “the man,” a man who is obsessed with Mima and her “innocent” image and resolves to keep her innocent by any means necessary. When their paths intersect, their lives will be changed forever.

So right away, I should point out that the movie took a lot of liberties with the original story. Whereas the movie was a deeply psychological story about a young woman struggling with her identity, how people saw her, and how she saw herself after a career change, the novel itself is a very basic stalker story, like what you might find in an episode of Criminal Minds.* The story is mainly told from the viewpoints of Mima, who in this version is okay and even yearns for the changes to her image so she can progress in her idol career, and “the man,” whose sanity erodes the further Mima seems to get away from her innocent image and whose plans get more drastic. There are times when the story is told from the POV of other characters, but they’re always related in some way to the lives of Mima and “the man.”

What I do like about the novel is that “the man,” who in the movie is called “Mr. Me-Mania,” is given more complexity and we see more things from his perspective, why Mima’s innocence is so important for him and some of his ideas about the world. Not only that, but in the movie Mr. Me-Mania is, while intimidating, mostly a passive character, not taking any sort of action beyond stalking until late in the film. But from the beginning of the novel, “the man” is completely active and menacing, committing a horrific crime within the first few pages of the novel. It’s very effective for setting our perceptions of “the man,” and sets things up for the more disturbing actions he takes later in the story.

Speaking of which, there are some really disturbing scenes in the novel, especially as you go later in, that utilize body horror. Now, normally I’m not that big a fan of body horror (I associate it too much with torture porn, which I’m not the biggest fan of), but here it’s done very well, especially when “the man” starts practicing for his plan to “save” Mima. This is followed by a very scary climax, which utilizes tension, body horror, and good old-fashioned chase to effectively keep the reader drawn in and wanting to find out what happens next.

While not the same as the film, the novel is still good on its own merits.

However, the novel isn’t perfect. As I said, the story is a very basic stalker tale. The novel doesn’t go as deeply as it could into who Mima is as a person, and I would’ve liked to go deeper into that, as well as into other aspects of the story (but then again, Takeuchi did say in an afterword that he was simply writing a story around the conflict between an idol’s desire to grow and a fan’s desire to hold onto the image he fell in love with. On that alone, he certainly succeeded). That, and I felt that the novel ended a little too abruptly, without really showing the aftermath of the story’s main events.

Still, t is a decent, if very simple, story of psychotic cat and mouse. And while I like the movie better, I have to say I’m glad I picked up the original novel. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis a 3.8. A gripping story of obsession with plenty of tension and well-written body horror. Take a look and let the story get under your skin (whether you want it to or not).

*In case you’re curious about the author’s feelings about the changes made to the story for the movie version, there’s an afterword at the end of the book written just after the film came out where he seems not only okay with the changes, but also was enthusiastic about the movie itself. Always nice when an author is okay with the changes made from book to film.

I’ve been hearing about this film for a few months now, and the earliest whispers I heard was that it was going to be scary. Some event went so far as to call it an instant classic in the horror genre. Well, with rumors like that, I had to see this one myself. So today I went to the theater, trying to go in without preconceived expectations so as to give it a fair rating.

God, Hereditary is unsettling. And I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Hereditary follows the Graham family: father Steve, mother Annie, teenage son Peter, and 13-year-old daughter Charlie. The film begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother Ellen Leigh, who had a very complicated relationship to her daughter. What follows is a strange and twisting journey as the family experiences tragedy, psychosis, and the strange, all in two terrifying hours.

Where to begin? Well, for one thing, the film is excellent at creating atmosphere. It’s a slow burn story that doesn’t pile on the scary stuff all at once or starts small and then continues to escalate. Instead, it features small instances of horrifying and/or possibly supernatural occurrences, followed by big scary moments that stay with you for ages (one early-ish in the film left my mouth hanging with my hand covering it for several minutes) before retreating back to low levels. It’s a method that I don’t usually see in horror, but it’s quite effective. And when paired with odd camera movements and a soundtrack that’s quiet for nearly half of the film and only utilizes music during the most necessary scenes, the unsettled feeling you get while watching is doubled.

And on top of all that, you don’t really know if what’s happening is actually caused by supernatural forces or is taking place in the characters’ heads. Annie admits that her family has a very dark history of mental illness, and it’s hinted that daughter Charlie possibly has some mental/learning disabilities as well. So is what’s happening on screen actually the work of malevolent, supernatural forces, or is it some sort of shared delusion manifeting in a family under stress? Hereditary makes you ask that question throughout the movie, and you may not be able to answer by the end. All these elements come together to create this really freaky atmosphere that where it feels like nothing is stable, and anything can shift under your feet at a moment’s notice. Heck, the camerawork for this film, like sliding one person to the next and then backing up all in one shot or revealing a character’s reaction to a scare before showing us what’s so scary, feels like something right out of The Shining.

Actually, one wouldn’t be wrong in calling Hereditary a modern-day Shining, as its ability to unsettle and make audiences question the characters’ sanity, along with the excellent tricks of music and camera, are reminiscent of the Kubrick film. Of course, knowing my feelings on The Shining, it won’t surprise many of you to know I like this film better.

Of course, none of this would work so well without a brilliant cast to back it up. There are a number of excellent actors in this film, like Toni Colette as Annie, Alex Wolff as Peter and Gabriel Byrne as Steve, and they all do an amazing job in their roles. But the prize definitely goes to young break-out star Milly Shapiro as Charlie, who embodies the strange, creepy kid almost too well. You watch her, and you can’t help but be mesmerized and afraid. I hope she appears in more horror films (or films in general), because if her performance in Hereditary is anything to go by, she’s going to have quite the career in the future.

If there’s one problem the film had, it was the last couple minutes. I mean, they were passable, but I expected more after everything that came before. Other than that, great film.

All in all, I think the moniker “instant classic” is an excellent one for Hereditary. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.5. An unsettling, gripping addition to the horror pantheon that you won’t be able to disengage from and will stay with you long after the credits roll. Check it out, and be prepared for scares.

Before I give you the news I hope you’re all eager to hear–the latest on my novel Rose, which is to be published by Castrum Press–I want to first share something I was told recently. Now, I’m not sure if this is true and I haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence, but according to someone I talked to online, in the first draft of Carrie by Stephen King, Carrie actually grew horns and sent bolts of electricity from her eyes at some point in the story. This was later dropped during the revision process of the novel.

Okay first off, I kind of want to see that version of Carrie, not just in book form but in movie form as well (I still maintain that the 2013 film is the superior adaptation, and you know the horns and lightning bolts would’ve looked awesome in that film). Second, it shows that even King’s works, including one of his greatest, require extensive revisions. And that made me feel a whole lot better about the revisions I have to do for my own story.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Rose, it’s a novel I’ve been working on since my senior year of college, when I wrote it as my thesis project. It follows a young woman who finds herself turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems).

I’ve mentioned before that my publisher asked me to do nix the many flashback sequences in Rose, essentially throwing out one-third of the book, and another third that was dependent on that first third. Although I was understandably more than a little disappointed about that, and it even brought my mood down quite a bit at times, I decided to try and find a new direction for the story that didn’t rely so heavily on flashbacks. Somehow, after a lot of head-scratching and extensive use of a method of brainstorming I’ve been wanting to try for a while (I’ll write an article about it for Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors soon enough), I managed to find a new direction and plot for Rose that I thought made for a good supernatural thriller.

I sent a new outline for the story to my publisher, and just today they got back to me. I was really worried that they might not like the new direction, but the tone of the email was really enthusiastic. They just asked me to keep in mind some things about chapter length and a few other things, and wished me luck.

I can’t tell you what reading that feedback did for my confidence. The closest I can get to is by saying that it felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.

And since I’m on vacation for the first third of June (not going anywhere, I’m just having a relaxing stay-cation at home), now is the perfect time for me to get back to work on Rose. I plan on getting through at least the first seven chapters of the novel, and then start on the new material for the novel. All that, along with more than a few blog posts I’ve been wanting/meaning to write for a while, and of course the normal stuff one does while on vacation (sleep, watch TV & movies, read, hang out with family and friends, run errands, have tea and scones with a succubus you’ve been seeing on another plane of reality, etc.), should keep me pleasantly occupied during my vacation.

So as you can see, Rose is still coming along. It may take some time, but I still think we can get the book out before it starts to turn chilly again (though in my state, that can happen even in summer). And I think when I get it done and on the shelves, it’ll surprise more than a few people. Especially those who’ve read earlier versions of the story.

That’s all until morning, my Followers of Fear (got another post I need to work on after I’ve gotten my much-needed sleep). Until then, pleasant nightmares. I’ll see you soon.