Monthly Archives: February 2017

Book Review: Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow

22 February, LI A.S.

Great Cthulhu…Deep Ones…Elder Things…Azathoth…

These eldritch horrors and more are promised within the pages of Lovecraft’s Monsters, a 2014 anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, and published by Tachyon Press. My parents (love you guys!) bought me a copy as a gift, and I recently finished it, and now want to share my thoughts. In short, this book is creepy, it’s engaging, and it offers diverse and creative yarns of the Lovecraftian Mythos told from previously unseen angles. If you enjoy the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and are hungry for more stories of his Mythos, I would point you immediately to this anthology.

 

The book (at least my edition) is in paperback form, and well-presented with a glossy, full-color, and thematically appropriate front and back cover, as well as numerous internal black and white illustrations, all this unspeakable imagery the work of artist John Coulthart. After the Foreword and Introduction by Stefan Dziemianowicz and Ellen Datlow, respectively, the book launches into its eighteen stories by eighteen authors, starting with Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman! (Worth noting, two of the eighteen included entries are poems, rather than prose.) The back content includes a neat little Monster Index running from “Azathoth” to “Shub-Niggurath,” and bios for each contributor.

 

What leaped out to me about this anthology just two stories in was the diversity in setting, theme, characters, and style. We get Lovecraft in the Wild West with Laird Barron’s Bulldozer, which follows a Pinkerton on the hunt for a criminal of unnatural ability; The Same Deep Waters As You by Brian Hodge takes us to the 21st century and the efforts of shadowy U.S. government entities to address what ancient horrors lie slumbering in the dark and slimy depths; Elizabeth Bear’s Inelastic Collisions lends us a peek into the world of two Hounds of Tindalos banished to our plane of existence; and Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole by Howard Waldrop & Steven Utley dramatically expands on the strange and tragic Arctic odyssey of one of literature’s and film’s most treasured monsters. The anthology nimbly crosses genres. Not every story is explicitly Horror in the usual sense, or even Adventure: Caitlin R. Kirenan gives us an adorable and bittersweet snapshot of monsters-in-love with Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl.

 

Expanding on that topic of diversity, I appreciated seeing Black and Asian protagonists and cultural settings. As gifted as he was, Lovecraft the man was also rather, um…ok, racist. Non-white characters are almost universally scheming, villainous, impulsive, easily-cult-influenced, criminal types in his stories. His ignorant views (and from what I know of his life, I think it really was ignorance rather than some K.K.K.-esque active hatred,) in that area are something that I as a reader and writer recognize, and then set aside as I appreciate his masterful descriptions, plots, and world-building. That makes it so welcome to, within the Mythos, get into the thought-process, language, setting, and experience of mid-20th century African-American (unofficial) private eyes and (contractually-reckless) Blues players as they wrangle with supernormal deals gone bad in Joe R. Landsdale’s The Bleeding Shadow, or to experience the ancient terror afflicting a contemporary Indonesian family and their new nanny in the superbly titled Red Goat Black Goat by Nadia Bulkin.

While I (gasp!) liked some stories more than others, I found something to enjoy in each. They variably gave me chills, hooked with an irresistible opening line, got a chuckle out of me for some piece of gallows humor, left me darkly pondering the questions of the universe and our place in it, led to me treading extra quietly around and checking every corner of my dark apartment, or produced a genuine grin of admiring joy at a story’s originality in concept. (Lookin’ at you, William Browning Spencer!) This is much more than a collection of “spooky” stories.

 

This would be the point in the review where I’d say the negative points. Gotta be fair and balanced, right? There truly aren’t many negatives here, but I’ll try. Many the stories take place in Innsmouth, or are directly related to the events and background of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Other people may not like that, (maybe?) but I had no trouble with it, since the authors who featured that blighted town and its fishy residents did so from such different character and thematic angles. Another sticking point is that there was one story where the entire premise honestly did not interest me, and then it went on for way too long, at least for my tastes. I don’t think it was badly written: the author’s take on the Mythos just didn’t resonate with me. One last thing to note, which isn’t a problem with the book itself but may affect a reader’s enjoyment of it: if you haven’t read all or at least most of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, especially the most famous one, expect to feel lost, and therefore limited in your reading pleasure. Since this is a book by and for Lovecraft fans, this isn’t a gripe by any means, it’s just a small disclaimer for anyone whose interest I’ve piqued, who isn’t familiar with the lore.

 

Overall, Lovecraft’s Monsters is a kick-ass anthology, and if you’re a Mythos devotee you’ll love it. The authors here have done a stellar job of expanding Lovecraft’s world in the dimensions of space, time, and human (and non-human!) emotion. Ms. Datlow chose the entries well, and the overall presentation is top-notch. As I read, I was transported through the rotting wharf of Innsmouth, to the darkest part of the Amazonian jungle, to the center of a hollow earth, to the End of the World, to a hidden city plucked from dark dreams, and to everywhere in-between. I saw eldritch horrors that would drive the sane to shivering madness, I heard the Doom call of the Deep Ones, and I watched with fascination as ordinary human beings struggled in body, mind, and soul against the emphatically Unordinary. I like this book.

-G.R. Wilson

What am I listening to lately? Why, nuclear Armageddon, of course!

19 February, LI A.S.

Or more precisely, 

narrowly averted and ever-looming Nuclear Armageddon!

We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent.

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

-Dr. Julius Robert Oppenheimer

 As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a huge fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. His presentation style is slick, exciting, and concise, and he offers a great deal of fascinating and entertaining information, especially on the experiences of individual historical characters. While Carlin isn’t a historian, he does self-describe as a big fan of History, and does a lot of work reading and collecting notes for reach episode. Since I too consider myself a fan of History, I especially admire Carlin’s enthusiasm for presenting numerous and lengthy podcast episodes on historical conflicts ranging from the rise of the Mongol Empire, to the Greco-Persian Wars, to the Great War.

Recently, I finished listening to Dan Carlin’s latest HH episode, The Destroyer of Worlds, covering roughly the first twenty years of the Cold War, with the focus squarely on nuclear weapons. Carlin takes us into the White House situation room and the Soviet Kremlin as we learn about the dire questions facing Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and their respective successors as they dealt with the reality of atomic warfare emerging in the last days of the Second World War. We learn about the bitter exchanges between President Truman and J. Robert Oppenheimer (the so-called Father of the Atomic Bomb,) the ethical considerations in the grim potential of a first strike against the Soviet Union to strangle the Russian nuclear weapon program in the cradle, and the balance of terror that Kennedy and Kruschev especially struggled with during the harrowing two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I’ve been interested in Cold War history a long time, (and I’m a big fan of movies like Dr. Strangelove, and board games like Twlight Struggle,) so I was enthralled with hearing all this detail and context surrounding the birth of atomic weapons and mankind’s challenge in not destroying ourselves with said weapons. From my own perspective, I step back and find it worrying that younger generations (including my own) have no memory of the ever-looming Cold War, “Mutually Assured Destruction” dynamic, despite the continued existence of thousands of thermonuclear weapons massively more powerful and with more advanced delivery systems than anything conceived in 1945. Sure, as Carlin discusses, there hasn’t been a direct Great Powers war since World War II, and there are valid reasons (economic integration, decades of precedent and norms, faster communication, the United States’ current military dominance,) to think that such a war is highly unlikely. But in the scope of human history, those seventy years that separate us from the end of the last big war don’t look like such a big buffer, and historical trends sometimes have a way of reversing themselves with all the warning of an oceanic squall. I can’t help but think that the risk of nuclear war rises, as, to paraphrase Carlin, subsequent generations get so used to that “gun” pointed at our collective heads that we forget the gun’s even there. Making it over 70 years without a nuclear exchange is impressive, and the end of the Cold War does ease some pressure, but it remains to be seen how the next fifty or a hundred years go. It’s hard to understand historical undercurrents that you’re still in the midst of.

I can’t help but think that the risk of nuclear war rises, as, to paraphrase Carlin, subsequent generations get so used to that “gun” pointed at our collective heads that we forget the gun’s even there. Making it over 70 years without a nuclear exchange is impressive, and the end of the Cold War does ease some pressure, but it remains to be seen how the next fifty or a hundred years go. It’s hard to understand historical undercurrents that you’re still in the midst of.

Anyway, this is a great piece of work by Carlin, and even with the episode clocking in at a little under six hours, I never once felt bored. It brought to top of mind for me the critical ways in which the rise of nuclear weapons has altered political leadership, the meaning of security, and the entire American government apparatus. I had trouble finding the quotation online myself, but Carlin quotes Ronald Reagan Reagan, saying (heavily paraphrased), that Russian nuclear-armed submarines often patrolled off the U.S. East Coast, and one of their medium range missiles launched from there would destroy the White House in eight minutes, meaning that he, (President Reagan) has eight minutes to make a decision to talk with his advisors and make a decision on launching a retaliatory strike, based on no more information than little blips on a radar screen. The pressures facing American presidents (and their Russian counterparts) in regards to the grave responsibility attached to the “Football” and the grim power it grants, became much more clear and real to me after hearing talk of nuclear war decisions on such a personal level.

This new technology, itself seemingly inevitable in the pressures of an anarchic world stage of vying nation states, compels us to grant to the man or woman we elect President the unilateral power to unleash armageddon at the push of a button, for fear that without a convincing deterrence, someone else can threaten to unleash armageddon on us. From that flows the entire national security state of the C.I.A, N.S.A, the Pentagon’s intelligence services, secret prisons, secret armies, secret wars, cyberwarfare, double and triple agents: all of them, born to either directly seize and maintain a lead in the nuclear arms race, or to fight against opposing superpowers through means short of utterly catastrophic total war. Post-Cold War, that national security state still looms large, its individual officers and agents keeping their posts far beyond the timeline of any democratically elected leader, and now dealing increasingly in the shadowy field of counter-terrorism, as well as counter-nuclear super power, operations. Like the threat of nuclear armageddon itself, post WWII generations, and now post-Cold War generations, have grown accustomed to the opacity and reach of the national security state, collectively shrugging at its surveillance and extra-judicial powers as the price to pay for safety in the modern day. Since I tend to side with libertarian political views, I’d already read and thought a lot about the real and potential dangers of that persistent “shadow state,” especially since the revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden on NSA mass surveillance of American citizens. I just hadn’t put it all in such a defined context of the evolving and expanding threat of nuclear weapons from 1945 onward.

Will every country of the world fall into the iron grip of totalitarian, high-tech elites making use of the well-established and widely accepted security apparatus in place across all nuclear weapon states? Will Jihadi (or right-wing, or left-wing,) terrorists succeed in obtaining and detonating a dreaded “suitcase nuke” in a major Western city? Will Chinese and Russian challenges to American hegemony culminate in an outright conventional war with one or the other, inevitably escalating in a prisoner’s dilemma to an intercontinental thermonuclear exchange? The 21st century is still young, and the pace of history seems to me to have exponentially sped up over the last couple hundred years. It’s honestly hard to say, and I find that truly frightening.

The Atomic Age has also spawned stories involving the effects, for good or ill, of radioactivity. Take for instance Godzilla, the Hulk, or loads of other superhero comic book characters. Getting into more of the horrible aspects of radiation sickness and mutation, you have movies like The Hills Have Eyes. The prospect of a civilization-ending nuclear war is a common idea explored in books, television, movies, and video games, brought to the forefront for younger generations through the success of the recent Fallout games. Again, I wonder if that type of post-apocalytpic fiction raises the concern and alertness over the dangers of atomic weapons, or perversely desensitizes post-Cold War generations?

Anyway. Dan Carlin. The Destroyer of Worlds. It’s a great podcast episode, and I greatly recommend giving it a listen. It was sure as hell entertaining and thought-provoking for me.

-G.R. Wilson

My “King in Yellow” inspired story

7 February, LI A.S.

My King in Yellow inspired story

This is a little piece of fiction I wrote recently for reddit’s “nosleep” forum. I’m posting it here a couple minutes prior so I can prove my authorship of it. Enjoy!

I don’t know how long I have to write this. I don’t know if I should write this. I just know I need to get it out, out of my head, where someone else can read it and maybe begin to understand. No one I know in this place we call “real life” would believe me, but maybe the anonymity of information transmitted over electrons and photons will give you the freedom to question and consider, even if in the end you don’t believe.

If you find a 35mm film reel or God forbid even a VHS, laser disk, MP4, whatever format, of a movie entitled Schwertner- “King in Yellow,” 1933, or any linguistic variation, do not watch it. Not even the beginning. Destroy it any way you can. If you value your mental health, your sanity, burn that film. If that sounds paranoid, let me explain.

I’m a film student at a college not far from Boston. I’m hedging my bets with a double major in Business, but movies are my real passion. (My raison d’etre, if I’m feeling pretentious.) When I’m not studying or indulging in the occasional party, one of my biggest hobbies is the collection of rare movies. I’ll find ’em mostly on Ebay or Amazon, sometimes sites specifically for swapping movies and film equipment, and sometimes in the increasingly rare brick-and-mortar video store.

I’ll get ’em in any format, VHS most commonly, though I’ve gotten into reels more lately. The movies I find are usually “shit that’s so shitty it’s good:” forgotten, “B” sci-fi, horror, and comedy flicks of the 1970’s and 1980’s. I’ll get my hands on older and better stuff sometimes, too; cult classics of the ’40’s and ’50’s that would be full-fledged classics had they gotten a wider distribution.

I’d thought I’d fulfilled one of my film geek bucket list items when I got my hands on a lost film last Friday. A “lost” film is just that: people know it exists because there’s some record of it in letters and studio documents, often a poster or two. But these are usually movies so old that no one alive remembers seeing them, and so they are truly lost to time. That concept has always fascinated me.

The particular lost film I picked up is a 1933 movie version of Robert W. Chamber’s proto-Lovecraftian story The King in Yellow. H.P. Lovecraft’s been in vogue lately on much of the Internet, and he drew inspiration from Chambers’ work, so I got especially curious. The gist is that there’s a creepy play, sharing its title with Chamber’s book, which, if read, will drive the reader mad. The title comes from a character/monster who factors heavily in the play: the King, under the guise of a mysterious Stranger, dressed in a ragged yet regal set of yellow robes, face hidden beneath a placid mask.

All great and creepy Lovecraftian fun, I’d always thought. The fictional play remains mysterious, so writers and directors have a lot of creative freedom on how to portray it. This movie is an adaptation of the play itself. I was hyped to find this lost film, (of which I’ve only seen a couple sparse listings on movie database websites,) and snatch it up for an apparent bargain on Ebay. The seller clearly didn’t know what he had on his hands. At least, that’s my guess.

Fuck my curiosity. How was I supposed to know what I’d found…but still, fuck it!

Anyway. The reel arrived on Friday morning, carefully packaged. Packing peanuts, tape, real normal-like. The 35mm reel was in good shape too; you could tell it was 70+ years old but was looking fine except for a couple tiny dents. The title was written on with tape and a blue sharpie, in precise handwriting. All I knew about this movie was that it was an unlicensed adaptation, directed in German by a Jewish filmmaker known as Germund Schwertner. It’s the only movie to Schwertner’s credit, and there’s almost nothing known about the guy, apart from that he was a decorated soldier on the Eastern Front of WWI. Maybe he emigrated to Britain or the US and disappeared from the historical record, or got sent to a concentration camp when the Nazis took over. Either way, this damned film is his only legacy.

I felt like an archaeologist as I sat in my apartment alone with a cup of tea and a notebook that night, my restored 1966 projector spinning to life. I focused the fuzzy title images, as the soundtrack popped and blared through my speakers. The quality wasn’t bad, and the opening credits sequence brought a smile to my face. The haunting shadows, surreal images, and foreboding sense of the existential macabre were right in line with earlier German horror films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferuteau. The music matched the images: deep, thrumming base lurking beneath the increasingly shrill staccato of wild flutes and clarinets. Finally, with a final blast from the brass section, the main title appeared, in that glorious, stereotypically German Gothic font:

Der Konig in Gelb

…and underneath, in smaller, plainer font, the English title: The King in Yellow. I was literally rubbing my hands together in excitement.

Since the lore surrounding the play was invented by Americans, Schwertner must have figured an Anglophone audience would watch his little movie at some point. I was surprised, however, when the credits faded into the opening scene, which featured a dialogue between two stately, Renaissance-era dressed women: all the speech was in English! English with a soft German accent, but perfect English nonetheless.

Things initially looked like a normal First Act set up: an old dynasty has been restored in the fictional city-state of Carcosa, so the common folk and nobles alike are anxious about the potential for bloodshed between the factions of the old and new regimes as the King makes his return from exile. Meanwhile, one of the female characters is looking to be married off to a prince of the ancient but newly restored House of Hastur. This royal family is wealthy and mighty beyond ordinary human standards, and rumors abound that they got that way through sinful and supernatural ends.

The first scene, which dragged a bit after the initial novelty, transitioned to a soulful song by one of the two women, Cassilda. This was a haunting yet oddly beautiful overture for Carcosa, with the instruments echoing phrases and sounds from the title music. I recognized the song at once as one of the few brief excerpts that Lovecraft offered from his fictional play.

My excited recognition quickly turned to confusion, and then on-my-feet shock. While Cassilda sang, the video changed to show us startlingly realistic shots of the city: wide avenues filled with ornately-costumed extras, multi-tiered and strangely leaning buildings, narrow and twisting garden paths flanked with willows and tropical trees, the twisting spires of a palace backlit by three full moons, the black waters of a lake with tall and ancient ships floating swan-like across its surface.

While the opening credits’ static images had clearly been a combination of paintings and shots of indoor studio sets, these scenes of Carcosa, played over with that haunting voice, utterly blew me away. What kind of budget did Schwertner have?! I knew at once that none of the images he showed could have been shot on location, whether in the 1930’s or today. Everything about the sheer scale of those royal spires, the architecture, the many moons in the sky, the unbelievably…authentic faces and walks and costumes of those hundreds of extras. Impossible!

Heart beating with anticipation, I kept watching through an unexpected series of rather ordinary scenes filled with semi-Shakespearean dialogue and soliloquy, which included characters not known from the supposed lost excerpts of the play. It all held my interest but wasn’t anything amazing.

Finally, we got to the scene I’d anticipated, which I knew signaled the conclusion of the play’s First Act. The scene took place in a celebratory masked ball, the many noble gentlemen, and ladies dressed in exotic clothing and grotesque masks. Again, I marveled at the movie’s quality. After about a minute of establishment, the dreaded character, known at this point in the play as “The Stranger,” made his grand entrance. This sparked a flurry of hushed whispers among the party-goers, who turned to the new arrival.

A couple minutes later, it happened:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: [Terrified, aside to Cassilda] No mask? No mask!

As I watched transfixed, the music swelled, and my eyes were greeted with one of the most impressive movie… “monsters,” to use a feeble word, I’d ever seen. I knew instantly that it wasn’t CGI, and that even the best computer effects of movie-makers fifty years from now couldn’t produce a creature that moved and looked and existed like that. I also knew that it wasn’t practical special effects, as much as my rational mind screamed and thrashed against the implications of that conclusion.

The music blared horribly loudly, interlaced with the tortured wailing of much of the movie’s cast, who ran screaming to the street. Men were drawing their swords, gutting and dismembering each other, the women, and themselves, in a display of realistic bloodshed that would make Tarantino jealous. I’d seen plenty of graphic movie violence, and the worst real violence I’d witnessed in my life prior to this, which admittedly did screw me up for a couple years, was a dog getting squashed by a semi when I was six. The movie scene made me nauseous, but I kept watching, needing to know how it ended.

In the street, Carcosa’s people were panicking, the wailing rising and growing louder by the second until it felt more like a force of nature than any human vocalization. There were shots of the sky, showing the moons glowing red.

“NOT UPON US, OH KING, NOT UPON US!” screamed Cassilda, delivering another of the play’s few surviving quotes. I wasn’t even thinking of it as a movie anymore. Looking back, it was like I was hypnotized, sucked in, seeing and hearing and smelling the rest of the increasingly bizarre story as if I were a live witness rather than sitting in my apartment in Massachusetts, watching lights shine through a piece of film and flash against a wall.

You wanna know what’s even more messed up? I know you’re not believing any of this anyway, and I don’t know how to prove it to you without pulling you into the same shit as me. But, the Second Act and the Final are both in color. High definition color. High-quality sound. A subtle feel of the film, a certain graininess, lets me know that it wasn’t shot yesterday. But other than that, the transition from the First to Second Act was like leapfrogging over 80 years of movie-making technology.

I’m not going to describe what happens in the Second and Third Acts. I don’t know if what I’m experiencing will spread over text, but I’m not gonna risk it. The First Act is safe. But the rest of Der Konig in Gelb is every bit as horrible as the play is described. I still see it when I close my eyes and hear it when I’m somewhere too quiet.

The nightmares started that first night. The third consecutive night, I realized they weren’t nightmares in any conventional sense, when I woke up with that Sign on my hand, burned into the skin as if with an iron. No one else sees it, but I know it’s real. I can trace and feel the scars with my finger right now.

FUCK! I’m writing this in the busiest cafe within walking distance, but it’s quieting down now. I don’t want to sit alone, in the quiet. I’ll have to move to a bar.

I don’t want to tell you this, any of this, but I have to, He keeps telling me I have to, He says it without words. The King in Yellow is coming. Hastur is returning. That’s not even a warning, in the sense of preparing you or me for danger. It’s Doom. Think Genghis Khan launching the severed heads from the last city he destroyed over your city walls. Think the radar blips of ten thousand ICBM’s launching and climbing to sub-orbital altitude.

He sees the madness in us, the madness that we desperately paper over with Ideals, Laws, Philosophy. Science. Like kids standing anxiously to block a view of the mess we made on Mommy and Daddy’s clean white wallpaper when we went thought ourselves little gods and went crazy with the crayons.

Six thousand years of madness, tortures, Great Wars, and Holocausts. Fireballs and mushrooms in the sky. We think we’re different now. We’re angry monkeys who split the atom and called ourselves Enlightened. Hastur does nothing but hold up a mirror.

The Truths of that film are Truths as certain as anything I’ve ever known. I have all the proof I need after watching it. Breathing it. Dreaming it. I feel like a religious fanatic writing that, but it’s all I can say. Watch for the Yellow Sign. Hold your loved one’s close. I hope whatever God you pray to can save you from what’s coming, because I know mine can’t.

I still have the reel. I couldn’t destroy it. I buried it in a box in my closet under a mountain of books and clothes and other movies. Maybe I’ll need to watch it again, I think, find some new and useful insight, a way out? He probably just wants me to keep it intact, and alive …

I haven’t been to work or class this week. I’m talking to a psychiatrist tomorrow. I still have some tiny hope that this is all just a big delusion egged on by something fixable in my brain chemistry. And that hope’s all I got.

Thank you for listening. It’s like a toothpick’s weight lifted from my shoulders.

Quick recommendation: check out Grammarly!

2 February, LI A.S.

Grammarly is a handy little editing app I found recently.

Before I talk about Grammarly: did you guys see that Superbowl last night? That was amazing!! I was definitely rooting for the  Falcons, or more precisely, against the Pats, (I’m a Buffalo Bills fan, because yay masochism,) but there were loads of great plays on both sides, and that was a truly epic comeback. You know, not quite as big as The Comeback, but wicked impressive nonetheless. Mr. Brady, I may not exactly like you, but I sure respect the ever-loving Hell out of you. Well done.

Anyway, I just wanted to share with y’all a quick recommendation on a Web app I’ve found useful lately. It’s called Grammarly, and I learned of it from repeated YouTube ads which no doubt came about from my frequent Googling of writing websites and “Music for Writing” playlists. And no, the app’s creators are not paying me for this post.

Grammarly’s been around since 2009, and it’s a tool that helps you edit documents, social media posts, and other content you’re writing online. Essentially, it’s a more sophisticated version of the spelling and grammar checker found in most word processing programs, including MS Word. It finds mistakes and offers suggestions for improvement with prepositions, comma use, and various other forms of punctuation and sentence structure.

You can download the free version for Chrome and Microsoft Office, and from there it’ll automatically scan text for mistakes as you write blog posts, comments, emails, and documents. You can either copy and paste text into the web app for correction, or upload a document, fix it, and then conveniently download an edited copy. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s free.

There is also a premium version, which may be a bit pricey if you’re not someone whose income depends in part or in whole on writing, but it’s probably worth it otherwise. The premium version of the app unlocks the more sophisticated sorts of style, structure, and vocabulary advice. I’m finding it a worthwhile investment thus far.

Anyway, if you’re curious, go to Grammarly.com and check it out for yourself.

Peace,

-Geoff

Movie Review: The Visit

2 February, LI A.S.

My Thoughts on M. Knight Shyamalan’s 

The Visit

As much as I love the Horror genre, and find it overall highly underrated by critics, not many Horror movies have excited me the past several years. There are exceptions here and there, of course, The Conjuring series, Insidious, and The Cabin in the Woods being prominent examples. There have sadly been too many uninspired remakes and otherwise uninteresting movies built on a rickety structure of cheap scares and genre fads, without any real meat behind them to sink your teeth into. Shymalan’s The Visit, by contrast, is a masterfully written and performed scary story which places its trust in the fundamentals and then executes those fundamentals exceedingly well. I found myself fully invested, and on the edge of my seat, nearly all the way through, and now I’m cautiously optimistic (and hopeful!) that this 2015 masterpiece could represent a return to form for Shyamalan.

I recommend watching the trailer if you haven’t, but the premise of the movie is fairy tale simple, and intriguing. Two teenage siblings from Philadelphia go for a five-day visit with their maternal grandparents, while their divorced mother is on vacation with her new boyfriend. The teens, Becca and Tyler, have never met their grandparents, from whom their mother has been estranged since she left home fifteen years ago. We see the story through the lens of Becca’s camera, which she brings on the train trip out to Nana and Pop Pop’s rural home to document this family event. Early on, we see that the grandparents, while warm, friendly, (Nana bakes a lot!) and excited to spend time with their grandkids, are also weird. They quickly display a tendency for doing strange, even threatening, things, especially after 9:30 P.M. Our teenage heroes are left to figure out what’s going on, and what secrets their mysterious grandparents are hiding, even as the horror begins to unfold, and the isolation feels more suffocating with each passing day …

Oh, and their grandparents tell them right away that whatever the teens do, to not enter the basement due to toxic mold. And that 9:30 is bedtime, because, well, old people go to bed early.

Getting into the topic of why this movie is so good, let’s first talk about one of the most bedrock of movie fundamentals: the acting. The four principal cast members are: Olivia DeJonge as fifteen-year-old Becca, who is smart, insecure, and has film-directing ambitions, Ed Oxenbould as her thirteen-year-old brother Tyler, who is confidently goofy, germaphobic, and an aspiring rapper, Deanna Dunagan as “Nana,” who is an almost stereotypical doting and cheerful (until she isn’t,)  grandmother, and Peter McRobbie as “Pop Pop,” who is, well, grandfatherly, but also clearly hiding something, or some-things.

All four of these actors do an incredible job. The movie gives a lot of time for the kids to interact, and the writing and the actors combine to make those interactions realistic and entertaining, whether that’s Tyler’s cringey-yet-charming freestyle rapping or intense scenes of the duo anxiously attempting to unravel the mystery of “what the Hell is up with Nana and Pop Pop and their moldy basement.” When you give actors so young so much screen time, it can often lead to shortcomings, either from the kids not being able to convincingly pull off the intensity of highly emotional scenes, or sloppy writing dictating an unrealistic and corny portrayal of adolescents. But in the case of The Visit, the performances cause us to experience a genuine investment in our young heroes, including their relation to each other and their mother, the sour memories haunting their backstories, and their initial curiosity, and later mortal terror and will to survive.

Meanwhile, Dunagan and McRobbie blow it out of the water as Nana and Pop Popincreasingly concerned and probing questions. And, without spoiling anything, they do a great job of acting truly, off-puttingly, disturbingly, weird.

So we have those four characters interacting through most of the movie, in pretty much this one farmhouse location. The limited setting and small cast are major components of what makes this movie so interesting and scary on a fundamental level. The farmhouse is a long way from the nearest town. Mom’s out of the country on vacation. Nana and Pop Pop have become increasingly socially isolated, limiting any contact with potential saviors. What’s Pop Pop hiding in the shed? And, other than mold, what else is lurking down those basement stairs? The movie sets up a seemingly simple story, tells that story in such a way that keeps us invested and guessing, and makes it scary through basic childhood fears, looming unknowns, isolation, the masterful use of disturbing imagery and ideas, and a well-executed use of understated, yet hard-hitting, gore.

Being a Shymalan movie, of course, there’s a big twist. No, I’m not going to spoil it. But yes, it is amazing. Sixth Sense amazing. It’s the kind of twist that makes you stand up, eyes wide, hands pressed to your head, saying “Fuuuuuuuuuuuug I did NOT see that coming,” instantly followed by, “But what’s gonna happen next?! How are they getting out of this one?!” Seriously, it’s good. The movie throws enough information at you that you could piece it together before the revelation, but almost certainly won’t. And that, I say, is the best kind of twist.

In conclusion, I liked The Visit a lot, and recommend it to anyone who liked Shyamalan’s earlier work and has been waiting for a comeback, and to anyone who appreciates originality, refreshing simplicity, and deeply human characters in their Horror movies. It’s intriguing, it’s disturbing, and it’s bloody entertaining. The movie doesn’t rely on cheap scares, overused gimmicks, or gore for the sake of gore. My fervent hope is that Shyamalan makes more like this. I haven’t seen his latest, Split, yet, but it’s gotten a good reception so far and sounds up my alley. Great job, Shyamalan. Keep it up!