THE ELEMENTALS by Michael McDowell

I remember the first time I ran across one of the pictures from Kolmanskop, a German diamond mining town in Namibia, Africa. The pale faded paint of the walls, the sturdy frames of the doors, and the mounds of sand that had gently, but fatally, invaded the homes. It was haunting. Mysterious. Two worlds that are generally separate, collided.

It’s what drew me to the book The Elementals by Michael McDowell. The story of a haunted mansion slowly being overtaken by sand… by the elements… by the Elementals. I ordered a reprint and sat down to read this tale, set in the American Deep South, expecting a quick read. It’s a relatively thin book, after all.

Instead, I found myself wading through a story that took me a few weeks to finish. I would read a bit, and sit it down… almost exhausted by the effort. Not that it wasn’t good – in fact, it was too good.

This book is a classic Southern gothic tale, complete with decaying mansions, thick summer heat, and generations of secrets.  The descriptions were spot on, especially when the author sought to capture that lazy, lull of summers in hot climates. The mind-numbing pleasantness of just lounging around in swimsuits on sandy towels, napping in rockers on front porches, whittling away at a puzzle on a table somewhere in the house at night while your family members are spread out… reading, napping, talking quietly. The hours lose meaning. Daylight and not daylight. You rearrange your schedule to fight against the hottest time of the day.

Written in the early 80s, this book is a glimpse into the past. Of gentility and vanity and denials. Of the gay son that no one ever, ever, not once, acknowledges as gay (even the author) though everyone, and I mean everyone, knows full well he is. Of the alcoholics that are doted on, of the affairs that are ignored, of the weak willed gentle natures of men who have grown up under domineering women. It’s a story about loyalty and family and how that never really looks like we’re taught it does.

And, of course, it’s a story about the supernatural. The unknown that is never knowable, no matter how thickly you drape religion over it or decorate it with superstitions. Some things can not be known.

Of everything in this story, that was what struck me most: The strange acceptance of and blindness to the unknown. There are three mansions hidden away off the Gulf Coast in Alabama, cut off from the world and hidden away in miles of private property and lagoons. Each historic mansion is facing in a different direction, all three identical. Except one of them is being slowly overtaken by a dune of sand and for years the house has been empty, abandoned by its owners. A source of suspicion and sometimes terror, the two families that own the other homes do not approach it, even though it stands between them, visible from the windows of their home. They pass it every day. They live with it. And yet they just pretend like it isn’t there most days. It’s there and they do not wish to acknowledge it. They don’t even investigate who owns it, they’ve just accepted its strange and ominous presence in their lives. Just like the family alcoholics, the cheating spouses, the homosexual children, and any other issue they don’t want to address. It is ignored. A Victorian mansion sized elephant in the yard.

This story is very, very Southern. In the Deep South, in the 80s, you could call a woman Big Barbara as a term of endearment. The dialects, the traditions, the strange and fluctuating social rules of Southern families are captured to perfection in this book. And yes, through the modern lens you can definitely read the homophobia, the racism, and the patriarchy seeping through the pages – though I honestly do not believe the author meant to include them as such. You live in the times you live in. How the future will judge you for that… well, I’m sure the author would be curious to know. But he died before the turn of the 21st Century.

Michael McDowell. Screenwriter of Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas. He wrote a few episodes for Tales from the Darkside and the script for Thinner. Born in 1950 and raised in Alabama, he went off to Harvard to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  He seems to have stuck with his Southern roots and based most of his novels and short stories there before succumbing to an AIDS-related illness in 1999.

What was your life like, Michael? I kept wondering that, even as I was drawn into the story he’d written. Who is the man behind the words?

“Savage mothers eat their children up!” 

There is a coldness mixed in with the love in this novel. Children are left to fend for themselves, despite how well meaning their parents are. They grow up quickly. They take their secrets with them, to New York, to nunneries. They face horrors alone.

I highly recommend this novel, especially as a glimpse into Southern culture in the mid-20th Century. It’s also a really creepy read with some genuinely terrifying scenes. The ambiance of horror lingers in the shadows of every page. The Elementals, and their connection to the two families, are lost in time… buried in history, just like the third house. How much does anyone really know about their grandparents? About their great-great grandparents? About the ones before them?

We pass the torch. Some things change, other things linger. There are good days and bad days. And through it all, things we don’t want to know… and things we can’t know.

Review – Come & Hug Me

Come & Hug Me. What should have been a 10/10 winner – combining psychopathic serial killers, star-crossed lovers, fractured families, societal judgement, and a thrilling story of cat and mouse… barely made it to 7.5/10 due to its excessive use of unnecessary flashbacks, painfully long sequences of staring and slowly rotating cameras, faulty dialogue (and lack thereof), and jarring tonal shifts. Let us all examine this tarnished show as what happens when editing goes wrong.

 

Which poster most accurately represents Come & Hug Me? Unfortunately, they both do… and that’s a problem.

Korean dramas have mastered the art of blending genres – especially when it comes to mixing dark plotlines with beautiful romances. Think of Pinocchio, for example. This is a masterpiece of blended genres – adorable, genuine romance – gritty, urban crime – melodramatic, dark pasts coming to light – and an unflinching commentary of modern society. It had a large cast and plenty of subplots and characters to follow around and not a wasted minute in the entire show. There are also dramas like Just Between Lovers, that kept everything close to the main couple and focused heavily on their inner turmoil, tortured pasts, and slow healing from severe trauma. I Remember You has not one, not two, but three serial killers, a boat load of family trouble, and a whole mess of relational, dark plotlines and it still gave us a swoon worthy romance. These were tightly paced, well plotted shows worth every award and accolade given to them.

So it can be done, this contrast of light and dark. It has been done. Come & Hug Me just didn’t manage to do it and that’s a shame. It felt like a significant chunk of the writers quit halfway through the project. Or maybe the studio said, “I love this 12 episode drama – let’s make it 32 episodes!” and then tossed it to an editing crew to pull on it like taffy. There were sooo many spaces that just felt empty, drawn out, padded, and needlessly prolonged. Every character in it could have used additional development – there were plenty to choose from, too. It would have been easy to tighten this drama into a finely crafted show. Instead, it just unspooled into a mess on the floor.

The plotline of Come & Hug Me is amazing, though, and thus despite its many editorial flaws and awkwardness, it’s impossible to deny the plot is pure melodrama. It’s a blood soaked cocktail of murder and romance and that just so happens to be my favorite drink… so let’s discuss…

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THE WOLF GIFT by Anne Rice

The Wolf Gift, Anne Rice’s foray into the mythology of werewolves, or Morphenkinder, is an amazing, agonizingly slow, frustratingly rambling book. It was full of details you wanted to know, didn’t know you wanted to know, and absolutely didn’t want to know. Much like… most Anne Rice books. But the poorly paced plot is so well written you don’t really mind… much like most Anne Rice books.

I loved to hate it. Let me tell you why….

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LUCK KEY (2016) – Korean Film Review

Luck Key is one of those adorable, entertaining movies about identity and assumptions. The plot is simple – two very different men swap identities. One is faltering in life, the other is successful. How will they both fair when their circumstances are reversed?

Surprisingly, the answer is… exactly the same.  I say this is surprising because it subverts the usual trope of identity swapping. These sort of stories usually go like this… “Rich Man” is forced to live the life of poverty and learns valuable lessons about kindness and making genuine connections with people not based on monetary value. The “Poor Man,” by contrast, brings humanity and insight into positive working relationships with others to the cold, calculating world of wealth. Both learn the challenges the other faces and become better for it.

This is not the standard identity swapping story. Instead – it’s a humorous tale of two men whose personalities prevail despite circumstances. The hard working hit man and the train wreck youth.

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Movie Review – The Villainess

The Villainess opens with one of the most exciting, intense action sequences I have ever seen. Entirely from the protagonists point of view, you rush through a multi story building on a killing spree – seeing what she sees. I guess they mounted a camera to the stunt double’s head but geesh is it intense! Like a live action video game – with guns and blades and blood splatter everywhere. And, honestly, as deeply unrealistic as a video game… but why knit pick? Who cares if the bad guys cue up to fight her? Who cares if randomly none of them have guns when she’s brandishing a knives? It’s so awesome – just enjoy it. Enjoy it for the fun, furious murder ballad it is.

The Villainess is one of those rare movies where I was pretty sure I was going to love it before I even started watching it. Why? Because it’s loosely based on one of my favorite stories of all time: La Femme Nikita! It all started with French film Nikita by Luc Besson, which was excellent. America remade it, with the film The Point of No Return, which was also excellent. The Canadians did us all a favor and created an unbelievably sexy, sinister television series out of it – called La Femme Nikita. Oh Peta Wilson… you will forever be my first serious girl-crush. America followed suit, again, and made their own tv show several years later called Nikita… which I didn’t watch, for some reason, probably out of loyalty to Peta Wilson… but I hear it was pretty good too.

The premise is simple. A young criminal girl is caught up in the seedy underworld and ends up caught by the police. She will surely be sentenced to life in prison or death for her transgressions. A shady government organization sees potential in her and offers her an option – work for us and live… or serve out your sentence. She gets a makeover, learns to pass as a classy lady, and the next thing you know she’s off on assassination assignments and living under an assumed identity. In all stories, her handler is obsessed with her. There’s betrayal and secrets and amazing action sequences. And that’s Nikita.

The Villainess is a new Nikita. And she’s a worthy addition to the cannon.

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NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

Every once in a while you stumble on a compulsively readable story. Sometimes it gets you right away, sometimes you don’t notice until you’re a hundred pages in, but you’re hooked – and you can’t stop. You literally can’t stop turning the pages. Exhaustion usually forces you – and you crawl into bed with your head swirling and wake up a few hours later feeling elated, thrilled about the prospect of jumping back into the story. You waste no time – you get yourself a cup of coffee and disappear into the page again.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl was a compulsive read. A heavy book, pages interspersed with journal articles, website screenshots, investigative notes, medical reports, and photographs. The pages were silky smooth, like quality printing paper. I picked it up randomly from my TBR pile last night… and read it until 2AM, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer… then picked it right back up this morning.

I was intrigued. I was haunted. I was picking up pieces of a puzzle, hearing echoes, listening to rumors and letting my imagination run wild. It’s a terrific mystery, in my opinion, changing shape as it gets bigger. Extremely fast paced and moving quickly around the chess board – you’re never sure if you’re the pawn or the queen. I loved it. I loved its rather ambiguous ending – What is true and what is myth?

Ironically, the characters are rather boring and cliche. In a way, this worked very well with the theme – that what we imagine, the stories we tell ourselves and are entertained by, reveal more of our true natures than our daily lives. None of the three main characters were that compelling – but what drove them, what caught them up in the mystery, how they each were pulled in by it and changed – that was fascinating. The people they encountered, the enigmas they attempted to decipher… the secrets, which often revealed themselves to be sour disappoints or shoddy ordinary events, doubled down on this theme – these things were dazzling and full of life. The mystery solved is boring. Answers do not enchant us – what ifs do.

So if you like mystery – and dark turns down darker passages – that don’t rely on descriptions of gore or horror, but rather the implication of such – then this book is for you.

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

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Movie Review – Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a slow paced, achingly beautiful movie about isolation and friendship. The cinematography alone would be enough to warrant a recommendation – but the plot, the acting, and the direction are equally exceptional.

There are images and sequences in this film that will stick in my brain for the rest of my life. Ideas that will continue to pick at me. Moments that will continually unravel.

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Review: Kill It

Kill It is a twelve episode action-mystery drama that feels like it started out as a six episode drama that was handed over to an intern in editing who then chopped it up into a billion unnecessary flashbacks (flashbacks to what happened, literally, ten minutes before in the same episode) and excruciatingly long staring scenes where no one moves (did time stop? are there photographers on set? why do they keep doing this in dramas?).

It stars the handsome, tall Chang Ki-Yong as a brooding, introverted assassin… who is also a veterinarian. There are two ways to make scary men lovable, and that is to surround them with cute small children or cute fluffy creatures. This show chose the latter, as all children were too busy being horribly abused in this drama to enjoy even a  moment of cuteness.

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EVERY EXQUISITE THING by Matthew Quick

Every Exquisite Thing is about a teenage girl whose teacher gives her a book – and how her obsession with that book, and the ideas inside it, drastically change her life.

Like all Matthew Quick novels, it’s a story about figuring out your head space, about determining who you are and making peace with it. The man knows what it is to be human – and that’s a glorious, horrible mess of experiences and horrors and monotony and expectations and hopefully some really nice moments where you have an epiphany or two.

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap is a quiet and masterful tale of two brothers living in a small town whose lives are changed by the mysterious appearance of a beautiful Polish immigrant. Roza is a friend and beacon of hope to 18 year old Finn, known for his dreamy, absentminded behavior – and a spark in the heart to older brother Sean, who gave up his dreams long ago after their mother abandoned them. Just as suddenly, Roza is gone again – abducted by a stranger Finn can’t describe.

The town of Bone Gap puts its head together and murmurs – was it foul play? Did she abandon them too, fly away as fast and thoughtlessly as their mother? Does Finn know more than he’s letting on?

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