Posts Tagged ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

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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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!

I’ve mentioned time and time again how I want to visit haunted locations. In the past, I managed to visit the Paris catacombs, where I saw plenty of skulls but no paranormal phenomena, and last year I visited The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, where I caught my first paranormal evidence on video. And over this weekend, I had the opportunity to visit another one, one that’s in my home state of Ohio that I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time: The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. And wouldn’t you know it? I saw plenty of stuff that can be considered out of the ordinary (besides me, I mean).

Some context first: for a while now, my dad’s side of the family have been planning an “Ungarfest,” where the whole family gets together and hangs out. It’s a chance for all three of the families–my dad and his family, his brother and his family, and his sister and her family–to see each other now that most of the next generation are grown and there’s a chance our lives will take us all over the place. Currently all three families still live in Ohio and Michigan, so the majority of us were able to come together and see each other. And guess where the family ended up spending the afternoon after spending the morning at a nature garden in the morning? You guessed it, the Ohio State Reformatory.

Now some of you may know the reformatory, or OSR for short, as the place where The Shawshank Redemption, among other famous films and a few TV shows, were filmed. However, the OSR is also famous for being something of a paranormal hotspot. Plenty of deaths have occurred there over the years, and of course stories of hauntings have popped up over the years. With that in mind, I bought my own pair of dowsing rods so I could speak to the spirits there (the ones at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast worked so well for me).

Me protesting my guilt with a cell-door on the lawn.

Me pretending to shank my stepsister for some reason.

So once we got there, we went in (two of my sisters decided not to go in because they found the whole thing too freaky), and met JD, our tour guide, who was honestly just the best tour guide we could ask for have (I’ll get into why in a bit, but for now, just know that if you get to come here for a tour, you can’t go wrong by asking for JD). He took us around for the first half of the tour, talking to us about the history of the prison and what it was like for a prisoner during the prison’s heyday.

How can one describe the prison accurately? Well, it’s big, I can say that. Metal and drywall and brick and stone are everywhere. The paint on the walls and every other surface is peeling all over the place, and you can smell the building’s age and paint everywhere. In various rooms, you’ll see original artifacts from when it was an active prison, such as the original electric chair that was used there, products made in the shops the prison ran, and much, much more.

You also got to see a lot of the locations where The Shawshank Redemption and other films used as sets. Warden Norton’s office is perfectly preserved for the most part, as well as the door that the guard broke the window in that one scene of the movie. And apparently Brooks and Red’s apartment was filmed in the prison too. It was cool to see that piece of film history on display there.

JD (left) and his fellow tour guide Michael (right) talking to us in the room where a scene from Air Force One was filmed.

Me at the foot of the stairs where Andy Dufresne and Warden Norton talked about budget issues in getting a library.

I’m at Warden Norton’s desk. There’s a bit of “blood” still on the window.

Me doing my imitation of that guard from the movie. Also, this is my new author pic.

And so was Rami

But definitely one of the best parts of the tour was JD. He was friendly, funny, and a really cool dude with a voice that reminded me of musicians I’ve seen in movies and TV (and that description is how you know I’ve been writing for a long while). I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out he was a musician, he seems like the kind of guy who would enjoy playing some guitar on the weekends. But he was also very inspiring. You see, JD was an inmate for a short time at OSR back in the 1980s. During the tour, he took us by the cell in the west block where he stayed while there, and how his experience at OSR helped him turn his life around. It was really inspiring to hear. A lot of people think of people who have gone to jail, and it isn’t usually a positive image. But JD was able to give us this personal story of how his stay affected him. Combined with his friendly and very humble personality, it really made his story all the more powerful. You couldn’t help but like him, not just as a tour guide but as a person. And on top of his personal knowledge of what it was like to be a prisoner at the Ohio State Reformatory, it just made for an excellent tour.

JD in front of his old cell, telling us how being at OSR changed his life.

If it’s not obvious, I highly recommend JD as a tour guide. On a scale of 1 to 5, a definite 5. If you get him as your tour guide, you won’t regret it.

Of course, you’re curious about the paranormal stuff I witnessed. First off, the dowsing rods had an excellent first time out. I got a lot of communication from spirits, some of which made it onto video and then onto YouTube. One of the first places we visited was solitary confinement, where the spirit of Frank Hanger, a security guard who was murdered by three inmates in that area, is said to hang out. Here’s the video of that particular encounter.

Something you should know: that question Jay threw out about the electric chair was a trick question to make sure we were actually talking to a spirit and it wasn’t random movements on the part of the rods. Turns out it wasn’t random movements: those three convicts committed suicide, so Officer Hanger’s “no” was a point for the I-was-communicating-with-spirits side.

The other major spirit I spoke to was that of James Lockhart, an inmate who killed himself by immolation. His cell is notoriously haunted. I got to speak with him as well, and learned some interesting things.

Sorry about the vertical filming. You can only do so much with your cell phone.

I also had a lot more communications, some of which I got on video. But these are the best quality, so I wanted to make sure people got to see them. You can draw your own conclusions on what happened while at OSR that day (just don’t leave vitriol-filled comments for me to read), but I like to think that I got some communication from the other side that day. And a lot of people who witnessed me using the rods, including this one family I kept seeing around the east cell block (they’re the ones asking me to ask Lockhart if he burned himself), probably believe me now (I think they took video footage of some of my communications. There may be footage of that floating around the Internet somewhere).

Oh, one more thing I want to mention. This isn’t so much explicitly paranormal as it is weird, but it’s worth a mention. You remember that photo of me at Warden Norton’s desk? Well, this may have just been an issue in the transition from my camera to Instagram, but it’s still weird and kind of freaky.

I have no idea what happened here. The photo of me at the foot of those stairs seems to have been overlaid with me at Warden Norton’s desk. Not sure how that happened, but it is pretty cool. Even if it isn’t exactly supernatural.

All in all, the Ohio State Reformatory was an amazing experience. It is a beautiful building, filled to the brim with history, pieces of culture, and a few spirits. I’m so glad I got to go, as well as to test out my dowsing rods in such a great venue. And now that I have my driver’s license, I may be able to go up again someday very soon and perhaps get some more proof of the paranormal. In fact, you should bet on that happening (Zak Bagans, call me). Until then, definitely consider making a trip to the Reformatory and seeing the history and hauntings yourself. Guaranteed you won’t regret it.

And thanks to JD and the folks at OSR for hosting my family this weekend. We enjoyed ourselves immensely while there. I hope you’ll see us (or maybe just me) again soon.

The Ungar clan, AKA 40% of the reason I’m as messed up as I am.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope you enjoyed my little travelogue. I’ll be seeing you all again very soon. Until then, pleasant nightmares!