Do you want the general update first? Yes? All right.
I received my Master’s Degree in May. I am officially a master. I get a seat on the council without whining. So there’s that. I’ve been catching up on reading that I put off while reading for the graduate program. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel…holy shit! These are good books. Stephen King rewarded me for the Master’s by publishing The Outsider in May and kicked my ass with it. Jeremy C. Shipp’s The Atrocities was a hallucination nightmare and recommended. There are other things, too, but we’ll worry about them another time, if at all.
I’ve been writing, too. I’m editing Echoes on the Pond and should be doing revisions next week. I should be able to begin submitting to agents/publishers by August. I also started a new novel, which is a middle readers novel. My youngest daughter loves novels as much as she loves picture books. At five years old, she’ll sit and listen as her Mom and I read a chapter or so a night. This has been going on for about a year. While I was still in grad school, she asked me to write something for her. Well, it just so happens that I had a story I came up with when I was between 10 and 12 years old, I even drew a picture of it. Funny enough, I found the drawing about four or five years ago in my parents’ attic and brought it home. It’s a slightly revised version of that original idea but I’m writing it now. I also wrote my first (good) short story in a few years and submitted that. It feels good to be back on the horse.
And that’s the thing, that’s the real topic of today’s post. It feels so good to be writing again for me and, by extension, you.
I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years writing academic papers with only a few small forays into my own writing that I feel like the world is mine for the taking. But it has also led me to think about (or rethink about) (or re-rethink about) some things. This blog is one of them. Now, before you get all sweaty and freak out, having waited oh so long for a new post from me and now you’re afraid I’m about to say I’m going to stop, calm down. If there is anyone out there reading these posts, I assure you, I intend to keep them coming. I’ve thought about several topics to write here on the blog in the last few months. They include:
- How the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Margot Kidder made me realize how their characters taught me about women when I was a child
- Writing about keeping the dream alive when everything seems to be working against it
- General observations about the world
- A remembrance of Harlan Ellison
The first and last things especially have hit hard. The thing is, though, as I look at the time that I have, it’s limited. I can either work on my novels, stories, general fiction that I hope to submit and get paid for, or I can write blog posts about things that I’d love to talk/write about but there’s no chance of getting paid for it. Money is very much in my mind right now. I owe over $100,000 in student loan debt. And even though on paper my wife and I make a pretty good income, the cost of living is rising ridiculously. This past month alone, I’ve found myself tight in the wallet, and I foresee next week is going to be really hard. Part of this is that changes will have to be made, and I dig that. But I also need to be able to earn some extra income. So while I’d love to be able to write more here, I think I’m going to look into turning these ideas into essays, columns, whathaveyou.
Now, I may look into Patreon at some point, once I’ve hit my writing groove again, and if I do, you will be the first to know. I may pitch some ideas for columns, too. Maybe bring back American Gauthic or something else entirely. I don’t know. But if going through grad school taught me anything, it taught me that I can juggle some of these things more than I ever thought I could. And if the last three weeks have done anything, they’ve lit a fire under my ass.
What happened in the last three weeks to do this? 1) The money thing. 2) The death of Harlan Ellison
If you’ve been a longtime reader of mine, you know how much Harlan Ellison meant to me. Since his death, I’ve been watching commentaries and listening to his lecture CDs put out by Deep Shag Records. It has reinvigorated me. I’d like to write more about Harlan but I think that should be its own post, and I also have another idea. You’ll know when and if I pull that other idea off.
So there we go. As the world burns around us, I am doing my thing. Writing, telling stories, and watching. I will report back, I promise. How and when is the real question.
Wow. I haven’t been here since April! What’s up with that? If you actually follow and read my blog, you’ll know that I’m a full-time teacher, father of an 18-year-old high school graduate and soon-to-be-college freshman, a 3-year-and-9-month-year-old, a husband, and going through my master’s degree program online. I’ve been busy this summer, too. It will end, someday. Truth be told, by the end of this school year, one which was one of the worst of my career, I was ready for a nervous breakdown. I’m really not exaggerating on that, either. But here I am now, and here you are now, and I thought I’d skip the homework I promised myself I’d do to say hi to my old friends, my blog readers.
I’ve had so many ideas that I wanted to write and post here. Whether I will or not remains to be seen. I’ve got just over a month of vacation left and my little one goes to day care two days of the week, but we’ll see. For today, I wanted to say hi, give a few updates, and maybe talk a little about writing. You with me? All right. As my little one says, “Let’s do yit!”
First the update. I’d sent a query off to one agent so far for Echoes on the Pond, and that was back before Christmas. Since then, classwork has kept me busy, as well as waiting for a few friends to read the most recent draft and give me their feedback. The feedback in question has me on track for One Final Draft. I’ll pause so you can join me in laughing at that. Done? All right, let’s carry on. This final draft shouldn’t take long, as I pretty much know where to go in with the knife, and also what needs rewriting. It’s not an overhaul by any means, though the ending will change a little to be stronger. Trust me. When the book comes out, you’re gonna love it!
I also started a new novel. I wrote a bit back in late winter, February through March, and only recently was able to return to it at all. More on that below. Besides those things, I also have an idea for a new short story that is so weird, I may just have to write it just to see what the fuck it’s about!
However, most of my writing these last few months has been for my master’s program. I have an 18-to-20-page paper due next week. Tonight I have a discussion board post to write and put up about the 1777 play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It’s an enjoyable play, but it held me from seeing Ghostbusters yesterday, a movie I can’t wait to see.
All this leads me to….
The common advice you see from professional writers to beginning writers is Read every day, write every day. This is awesome advice and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I also know that it can be difficult when you’re working full-time, parenting, expected to be an active participant in your relationship, etc. Before my grad classes began, writing every day was a challenge but doable. Since it’s started, it’s damn near impossible. In the past it would’ve depressed me, angered me, and got me all ready to join the Dark Side, Dim Side, or just plain Hulk out. It still does sometimes. When the voices in my head, all characters from current and future projects (and the occasional past project) who want to be heard, want a chance to run in the sunshine, become too much, I can be nasty, depressed, unlikable. Well, more unlikable than normal, anyway. Still, I’ve come to understand something about myself: The stories are still there when I’m ready to return to them.
Look, I’d love to sit down every night after Pamela and G go to bed and work on the books and stories (and blog). I’d love to try writing articles to make some side money and get my name out there more. But I can’t. I have a discussion board to write. Or a journal about this play or that story or that novel that I didn’t get to read all of. I have a major paper to write. Vacation time with a toddler is hardly a vacation. My two days with her at day care are mostly catching up on school work. I did get to write a little bit in the new project a week or so ago, but only a little.
I was asked by a friend last week, “How do you finish what you start?” Because of two little ones running around, I don’t think I actually answered, but the main answer is: Determination. I want to see it through to the end. There have been plenty of stories that have fizzled out on me before I got to THE END, but even those usually reserve a room in the back of my brain and wait for the right time to be written, like Under the Dome and 11/22/63 did for Stephen King. I sit down every day that I can and work on it. And work on it. And work on it. I may work on something else between drafts or because I need to at a certain time, but usually it’s just work on the project until you can’t anymore.
Which is why, unless an agent or editor asks for rewrites, this next draft I’ll do for Echoes on the Pond will be my last. I thought of a few things I can do to make the story stronger based on having it sit here so long as I attend to educational matters, and based on what friends have suggested that are good. See, not every suggestion that’s made gets followed, but when one comes in that gets you excited, you’re a fool not to follow it.
That’s how it’s done. I can’t write fiction every day right now, but when I can, I do. I know that once grad school is over, I’ll be back in the saddle every day. Once my little one is a little older, I may be able to easier, as well. But right now, I do what I can. And I’m all right with that.
I’m rather obsessed with writers’ workspaces. Their desks, offices, writing sheds, whatever it is they use, however they use it. I know I’m not alone on this, but I think the first manifestations of this obsession occurred before I was even aware of it.
Stephen King’s novel The Shining made me want to be a writer, which I’ve written about. I’ve also written about the television segment that led me to buy the book. It was an episode of ABC’s Primetime Live that aired on August 23rd, 1990, the day before my 13th birthday, that got me interested in buying King. As I was reading The Shining the following day, I turned to the About the Author page and saw that King lived in Bangor, Maine, which had to be nearly as uncool as New Bedford, Massachusetts, the small coastal city where I lived, if not even more uncool. Beyond that, though, there was an image in the Primetime Live profile that kicked open the doors of my mind. The image was of King sitting at a manual typewriter, clacking away. He was in a dark room, alone, with no other apparatus around him. Even at 13, I understood this was a set-up shot, done strictly for the television piece.
The power of that image rocked me, though. It made me think of Billy Crystal at the end of Throw Momma From the Train, where he’s sitting at his desk, finishing the last paragraph of the novel he never thought he’d be able to write. It made me think of Chevy Chase in Funny Farm where he’s trying to write a novel that never really seems to come out for him (though his wife writes a children’s book). I’m sure it made me think of Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me, working on his tale. Who knows? Maybe somewhere in the flotsam of my mind was Kathleen Turner at the beginning of Romancing the Stone, finishing her novel in a most unglamorous way. The thing with the image of Stephen King sitting at the typewriter, though, was that he was a real writer. He wasn’t an actor playing a part, he was a guy who was paid (a lot of) money to write books. And from what I’d seen that morning at Waldenbooks, he wrote a whole bunch of them, too! There was even a book club devoted to his work that ran commercials on TV! Remembering that image and reading a novel by him walloped me like a trailer truck come to life to mow me down. Later that day, I set up two or three milk crates, put my Royal Quiet De Lux manual typewriter on top, and began writing.
Something very similar, yet very different happened, happened several years later, again involving King. For a time in the 1990s, former King chronicler George Beahm, who’d written three books on Stephen King, began publishing a fanzine called Phantasmagoria. I don’t know how I came across it. Maybe from the Stephen King column in Cemetery Dance? Probably. Anyway, I subscribed to it. In one issue there was news that King was one of many writers who were featured in a photograph book about writers at their workspaces. It was called The Writer’s Desk and it was by a woman named Jill Krementz. I’d find out soon enough that Ms. Krementz was married to the writer Kurt Vonnegut (who appeared in the book, of course). I was working at a big chain bookstore at this point and decided to order it. It must’ve been summer or fall of 1997 because my girlfriend (who would become my wife, and then my ex-wife) was pregnant with my teenager. I remember that because the book was $35, which was too much money to spend considering how my life was really about to change. But I ordered the book because I knew that I wouldn’t have to buy it (it was the company’s policy) and I figured I’d look at it on break and then shelve the book for someone else to discover and buy.
Before I even opened the book, the cover mesmerized me. I had no idea who the woman on the front cover was (it’s Eudora Welty) but on the back cover was Toni Morrison, whom I knew though I hadn’t read yet; Tennessee Williams, whom I also knew but hadn’t (and still haven’t…and I don’t think I’ve seen any of his plays, either, which saddens and shames me); and Stephen King. I began looking through the book and found the huge quantity of writers and pictures that went back into the early 1970s. The photos were accompanied by quotes, or small musings on writing, or their desks from the writers. There were many writers whose names I recognized even though I hadn’t read their work. There were many more who were introduced to me by this book. I knew before I got halfway through flipping through the book during my break that I needed to have it.
It gave me a charge. To see where these people produced their work made me want to work. To see how simple it really was, this so very difficult task of wordslinging. Some of the writers have work spaces that are stately and well put together, organized. Some are a mess. Many used typewriters (remember, the book was published in 1996 and many of the pictures were taken in the ’70s and ’80s) though quite a few used computers. There was even a few who had notebook computers. Quite a few of the writers were working longhand.
I found myself cutting out pictures of writers at their desk should they appear in magazines or in the newspaper. Once I got a computer I began finding writers at their desk online and, for a while, kept a folder of images. I still have the folder though I hardly save to it anymore. There’s no need. A quick Google search (or a few, depending on your word-use) will come up with thousands of pictures. I’ve also discovered I’m not the only one obsessed with this. There are at least two blogs I know of, Write Place, Write Time and Writers at Work, that share photos of writer’s work spaces. Write Place, Write Time was cool because it had photos taken by the writers they featured, as well as a small piece about their work environment. Unfortunately, after a strong 2011, the posts began to be few and far between until they seemed to stop in June 2013. Still, it’s fascinating to take a look at. Writers at Work collected photos from around the ‘net and posts them. Some of the pictures are sent in by blog readers.
As I said, a quick internet search will show that writers and their workspaces are quite popular. Why is that? I think it’s partly because writing is so solitary, and so personal, that one wonders if they’re weird. So to see the famous French mystery writer George Simenon has an arsenal of pipes ready to go while he works, or that Tennessee Williams has another typewriter leaning back behind the one he’s using in case there’s an issue, he can just swap out (anything from a bad key to a change of ribbon; there’d be no slowing him down when he was hot!), makes me think maybe my rituals and quirks aren’t so weird.
I think the other thing it does is inspire. And I don’t mean that in some mystical, mythical sense of the word, either. I mean seeing writers, past and present, at their desks and knowing that from that person came a body of work, sometimes huge, sometimes not, all important, really makes me want to sit at my modest space and work. It makes me feel like if they can do it, and they basically have the same tools I do, then maybe–just maybe–I can do it.
I swear I thought it was only a month or two ago since I made my last non-Batman-related update. Oops. So, here’s why you haven’t heard from me save when I’ve been writing about men wearing rubber bat costumes:
I know, that’s broad. I’ve been writing as much as possible since school started back up again in late-August. I finished the second draft of the novel on October 18th. I’m not sure how it is. I’m waiting on a couple of people I trust to read it and give me the lowdown before I start the third (and, I hope, final) draft. When I wasn’t working on the book, I was writing the Gotham to Gautham Batman essays. I even wrote a 5,000 word short story last week.
When I’m not writing, I’m either reading (should finish Stephen King’s superb Revival tonight) or vegging out because teaching is hard motherfuckin’ work.
Before I go, I want to recommend two things to you:
Thing the First. If you haven’t checked out Mason James Cole, you really need to. His Pray To Stay Dead is a great zombie/horror novel. I’m not a huge fan of zombie books, but I loved this. Even better is his much shorter novel Buster Voodoo. I consider him a friend from afar, meaning he connected to me via Facebook at some point in the last five years or so, and we found that we had a huge admiration (obsession?) for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Stephen King, and basically nerd stuff. All that means nothing to me when it comes to the writing. Cole is the real deal, I promise. His writing reminds me of King’s, but definitely is his own. I can’t wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
Thing the Second. Richard Chizmar, owner, publisher, and editor of Cemetery Dance magazine and Cemetery Dance Publications, recently launched a new endeavor called Stephen King Revisited. With associate (and a really good writer himself) Brian James Freeman, Chizmar is re-reading Stephen King’s books in the order they were published and then writing essays about them. They remind me quite a bit of what I’ve been doing with my movie essays. Funny enough, I’d thought about branching off into the King books, too, but am now thinking that maybe I shouldn’t. Either way, you should definitely check this site out. It’s entertaining, insightful, and will bring you back to the first time you cracked open one of King’s novels.
That’s it for me. My essay on The Dark Knight Rises should be up within the next few days.
This Saturday marks my 5th wedding anniversary to Pamela, and I have to say that I’m a little surprised. Surprised that five years have passed, surprised that she’s been by my side for seven years, and surprised that I haven’t somehow fucked the whole thing up. There’ve been near-misses, but here we are with an awesome 19-month-old girl and still crazy in love.
Sunday marks the 11th anniversary of the e-mail that would change everything. I know it because it came the day after my best friend’s wedding to his wife. The e-mail was from Elizabeth E. Monteleone telling me that my short story, “The Growth of Alan Ashley,” had been accepted to Borderlands 5, the fifth volume of the cutting-edge horror/dark/weird fiction anthology that I’d only grown up reading. She and her husband, the writer Thomas F. Monteleone, co-edited the anthologies that had published some of the biggest names in the field, and several newcomers who would go on to become Elder Statespersons of the dark genres.
For me, the sale would be true recognition of hard work. Within 24 hours of the acceptance, their publishing company, Borderlands Press, released their first advertisement for the book. This ad listed all 25 contributors, including Stephen King. This was a dream come true.
“The Growth of Alan Ashley” appearing in Borderlands 5 (and its subsequent paperback from Warner Books, From the Borderlands) opened doors for me. Some I walked through, some I missed, some I still hope to walk through more than a decade later.
A lot has happened in the last 11 years. My life had been turned upside-down and rightside-up and everything in between. Still, I am hugely proud of my association with Borderlands and with my story. “The Growth of Alan Ashley” is a piece that I can look at and think that, at least once in my life, I wrote something that was as good as any other writer working at that time.
The story was reprinted (slightly edited) in my collection Catalysts. Since Catalysts sold out, it’s been out of print.
Borderlands 5 is now available as an ebook from Borderlands Press. Some of the reprint rights for some of the stories weren’t granted for this edition (for instance, no Stephen King) but it is still an amazing roster. I can’t go through my favorite stories entirely, because it’s been 11 years since I read the book, but I remember being blown away by Gary Braunbeck’s story “Rami Temporales”.
I hope to be able to get Catalysts republished in some form sooner than later, but for now, for a damn fine read, I can say that buying Borderlands 5 will be the best $3.99 you can spend. Honestly, I’d splurge and get all the Borderlands anthologies.
So last week I sat down to watch John Green‘s Vlogbrothers video called, “A Middle Aged Man.” The title should have tipped me off right from the start. But it didn’t. So there I sat, ready to be entertained by Green’s witty, intelligent, and machine-gun-paced monologue when he points out, right at the beginning of the video, that he’s a middle-aged man. The realization of that shocked him. I laughed. Ha! He’s right! He’s 36 years old, he is, indeed, middle–
That’s not possible, because I’m 36. Not only that, but John Green and I were born on the exact same day. I mean, Steve Guttenberg and Rupert Grint also share a birthday with me, but they were born in different years. Guttenberg is 19 years older and Grint is 11 years younger. But John Green and I? Twins. From different mothers. And different locations.
Goddamn that got weird.
So it stands to reason if John Green is middle-aged, then [gulp] so am I.
Which began to make a lot of sense.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, there were a lot of movies and TV shows about adults reaching their mid-30s. I didn’t understand why at the time because in the mid-1980s, I was too young to get it. Between The Big Chill and Thirtysomething, various movies and TV shows where people went back to their hometown or told stories of their childhoods in the 1950s, there was a lot of it. As I got older, I saw even more of that as I read Stephen King’s novel It and novella The Body (the basis of the film Stand By Me) or listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. which features “Glory Days” and “My Hometown,” amongst other songs looking back. Billy Joel was “Keepin’ the Faith” and it seemed everywhere you looked, people were coming to terms with this thing called adulthood.
That has been me for the last year. I’ve been longing, with an ache from my core, to return to those Saturday mornings when cartoons played on TV, and the Creature Double Feature aired on Channel 56 out of Boston. I’ve been longing to go back to the local mall as it looked back then, hit the Waldenbooks, and get myself stuff that isn’t available anymore. To be in a place, for just 24 hours, where the Internet didn’t exist to the public. When movies relied on more than CGI effects and explosions to hold a mass-audience’s interest. I mean, don’t get me wrong, 1984 was no walk in the park. And as Billy Joel sings in the aforementioned song, “The good old days aren’t always good/Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” Make no bones about it, I know I’m looking at things through rose-colored glasses.
But that feeling has been so strong for the last year or two, and I couldn’t figure out why. Until John Green pointed it out. I’m middle-aged. In 30 years, no one would be shocked if I dropped dead. Yeah, 66 isn’t exactly elderly anymore, but…. That’s a chilling sentence to me and I want so badly to delete it, but I’m going to keep it because it makes me uncomfortable.
I work with teenagers, I have a daughter who is turning 16 in two months, and another who is 15-months-old now. They help keep me young, all of them. But still….
There isn’t the kind of looking back now as there was in the 1980s because the Baby Boomer generation was so plentiful. They focused their attention on themselves and on the fact that the generation who would help change the world had become part of the establishment. Rampant crime, the destruction of business laws, the dissolution of personal freedoms, and the biggest chasm between the rich and everyone else since the Great Depression is what they left us with. They also left us with the Civil Rights Act, Equal Rights, free love, and the idea that we are both individuals and parts of a community. Oh, and the ability to be completely self-absorbed.
What will my generation leave behind? Cool status updates and Tweets? Some blogs? Superhero movies?
I don’t know, but I think it’s time I need to think about some things.
From 2004 through 2010 I wrote a column called American Gauthic for the magazine Dark Discoveries, which seemed to have some regular readers. A few, anyway. In 2006, I wrote an installment on Harlan Ellison, which was apropos. The reason I was writing the column was partly because of Ellison’s own excellent columns that I’d read collected in An Edge In My Voice, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, and The Glass Teat books.¹ They inspired me. Looking back on the earlier columns make me cringe. I was beginning to hit my stride, though, by the time I stopped writing them.²
Today, on Harlan’s 79th birthday, I’m posting my essay. It will be revised and have annotations throughout. I hope you enjoy and, if you aren’t familiar with his work, make yourself so.
From Gautham to Ellison Wonderland
Someone suggested at one point (I think it may have been John R. Little–whose work, including Placeholders, The Memory Tree, and Miranda, I love) that I write an installment about one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison. It’s a daunting task, really. Others who are far more talented than I am have done so and have barely touched the surface of the entity that is Harlan Ellison. But there have also been many less-talented people who’ve written about Ellison, so I figured why the hell not?
I’ve said to friends that if Stephen King is #1 on my favorite writer list, then Ellison is #1.5. As King pointed out in one of the last sections of the chapter called “Horror Fiction” in his 1980 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, “it is impossible to separate the man from the work.” The reason this is so is because Ellison has a persona that is as hated as it is loved and is as famous as any of his stories. There are few people who tend to fall into a gray area in regards to him.
I’ve never met the man. Some would count me among the lucky ones. I have had a little bit of contact with him, though, through the bulletin board at his website, which was begun by Rick Wyatt. Our few exchanges have been pleasant. At one point he needed a specific printing of his collection Troublemakers that I happened to have and I sent it to him. I soon received a first printing of the book with a short thank-you note on the book’s title page. It’s amongst my prized books (second only to my signed edition of Borderlands 5).
In person, I saw Ellison (along with Neil Gaiman and Peter David) at MIT in October 2001. I didn’t stick around for the signing because at the time I was too nervous and…well, there were some other complications, too. Gaiman brought out most of the crowd but Ellison was electric. What I remember best about that night (besides the albino with the goggles who seemed to have orgasmic fits almost every time Gaiman spoke, including, at one point, screaming “We love you, Neil!”), was the pure joy Ellison had reading his story “Goodbye to All That.” There was a running joke in the story that, after the third time the audience laughed, sent Ellison into a childlike dance of glee.
There was also an exchange with a young man that brought tears to my eyes. It was after one of Ellison’s diatribes about Internet piracy (this was in the midst a lawsuit against AOL) in which Ellison called most of the people in the room stupid. The young man was clearly upset and asked Ellison if he thought calling people stupid helped the message. Ellison came to the edge of the stage (which made some of the audience ooh and aahh, expecting him to pounce the young man and tear his throat out, to which he responded, “Shut the fuck up”), and asked, “Do you think you’re stupid?”
A brief hesitation, before, “Yes.”
Ellison climbed off the stage and went to the young man. “The very fact that you asked that question means that you’re not stupid.”
Then Ellison went on to explain about how asking questions and caring is so important.³
What does all this have to do with reading Ellison? Well, I think it’s a window into what Ellison’s work is about. There’s a lot of screaming in his earlier (and sometimes his later) work, mouths or no mouths, but there’s always an underlying tenderness–or at least an underlying caring–that is essential to Ellison the man.
Ellison seems to be a burst of energy; someone more prone to running around on stage like Robin Williams (who is a friend of Ellison’s) than sitting at an Olympia manual typewriter writing stories. This may be one of the reasons Ellison has published only four novels compared to the 1700 stories and essays. Like the man, his stories are bursts of energy that leave the reader moved.
I first became aware of Harlan Ellison when I was thirteen, when I bought the first edition of George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion. There was an interview with Ellison in that book, along with an essay from Harlan Ellison’s Watching. I read the interview and essay, and the name was filed under Someone Important In the Genres and that was about it. Ellison’s name popped up again for me in the aforementioned chapter of King’s Danse Macabre. Again, it was filed under a similar heading (along with Someone I Should Read Someday), and then ignored.
It wasn’t until we got the Sci-Fi Channel and I began watching their show Sci-Fi Buzz (which I miss wholeheartedly) that Harlan Ellison really hit me. He had a commentary on the show, done mostly from his legendary home Ellison Wonderland (or the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars). Being around seventeen, I thought he was a jerk. Yelling and screaming at the tv audience. But I was also entertained. And, while I might not have admitted it at that point, I looked forward to his small contribution to the show.
One night I flipped through the channels and stopped at CNBC to see who Tom Snyder was interviewing. He occasionally interviewed people I was interested in. This particular night he was interviewing Harlan Ellison and I remember thinking, It’s the old grouch from Sci-Fi Buzz. They were discussing Ellison’s new collaborative effort with Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka, Mind Fields, and Snyder asked Ellison what his favorite painting in the book was. Ellison said it was the painting called Ellison Wonderland, one of only two paintings in the book whose name he changed (because it reminded him of his house); the other story/painting was “Susan.” Snyder pulled out a large package and told Ellison that he had a surprise for him.
Ellison looked flustered and there, in his hands, he now held the painting Ellison Wonderland. And I saw something that, at that point, I didn’t think was possible. Harlan Ellison was speechless. Tears welled in his eyes as he stammered and finally was able to thank Snyder. Smiling, Snyder went to a commercial and I wiped the tears from my own eyes. Within days, I bought Ellison’s first volume of the ill-fated White Wolf Edgeworks project, which featured the collection of stories and essays called Over the Edge and the collection of Ellison’s column An Edge in My Voice. I was nineteen. I was hooked.
It’s been almost 17 years since all that happened. A lot has happened to me (and Ellison) in that time, but my admiration for the man and his work has never foundered. His audiobooks are amazing. His performance of “Jeffty Is Five” brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. Ten years ago, when I was very unhappy in my marriage and wasn’t sure what to do, it was his performance of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” that made me realize what I had to do. Like the characters in that classic story, I was trapped in something and I needed to make a painful decision to fix escape. That story gave me the courage to take off my wedding ring and decide it was time to end the marriage despite the fear I held for my relationship with my then-five-year-old daughter.
When people talk about Harlan Ellison’s work (when they can get past the legend surrounding him, anyway) it seems that the words angry and painful are often used. And while that may be true for many of his earlier stories, something that carries through almost all his stories is the hope that Ellison has for the human race. If he’s angry at you, at me, at all of us, it’s because he sees in humanity the godlike abilities to create, to nurture, to love. Love is a huge theme in Ellison’s work…having gone through four marriages before meeting and marrying his wife Susan, having gone through an uncountable number of relationships, Ellison’s work is as much about what it means to love as it is about anything else. He also sees humanity’s self-destructive nature and shortcomings and it upsets him.
“Jeffty Is Five” is my favorite story of his. The story has always choked me up, but Ellison’s reading of it has made me cry. Here is a fantastic, subtle story filled with love. And, maybe, a small amount of anger. Another favorite of mine is “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” in which a Hollywood star of old films is rediscovered in a diner and brought back to Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a heartbreaking tale and Ellison pulls it off with panache. I first read it when I was about twenty-four or so. At twenty-six, I read Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust and wondered how much West influenced Ellison’s own tale of that bitch of a vampire called Hollywood. I also love his story “Incognita, Inc.” This is a story about a man who has to put an old man out of business. The old man is a mapmaker who makes maps that will find things one could only imagine. All these stories have the caring that Ellison has for the world, mixed with the anger at what corporations and selfishness does to people.
His work has certainly influenced my own. Right after completing “The Growth of Alan Ashley,” I called it “my Harlan Ellison story” in an e-mail to a friend. Not that I’d copied his style or tried to mimic his voice, but because I tried to take the way he bends reality until it’s a mirror image of itself and use it in my own way. So when I heard that it would be in Borderlands 5, in a sense, I felt as though I’d succeeded. After all, Ellison had a story in the first volume of Borderlands.
His influence can also be seen in this column. Going back to that first Ellison book I owned, and then reading his collection Harlan Ellison’s Hornbook, and other essays, certainly made me consider being able to do anything like this. Even the logo I had for American Gauthic was reminiscent to the logos Ellison had for his columns.
At 79, he’s not done yet. His Edgeworks Abbey imprint has been working with Publishing 180 has released eight books in the last couple of years, including two (so far) this year, and while some of the books reprint classic stories, novellas, and screenplays, they also premiere never-before-collected work. Last year, Kicks Books published his early books Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind. This year, Hard Case Crime republished his first novel Web of the City. Subterranean Press is republishing two highly-regarded early collections, Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation and The Deadly Streets in very nice collectible editions. DC Comics will be publishing the long-awaited graphic novel 7 Against Chaos. And while there aren’t any on the horizon that I know about, the CD series of On the Road With Ellison from Deep Shag Records is up to six volumes now and I recommend them all. And that’s off the top of my head (with a leeeetle research).
While I’m excited about this new stuff, I still have a lot of his older stuff to read. And reread. Whether one loves or hates the man, one cannot ignore the impact his stories, his visions, have had. Whether he’s the Zorro or Jiminy Cricket of the speculative fiction fields can be argued, but what cannot be argued is his blazing talent. And what cannot be ignored is, love him or hate him, he’s done things his own way and has held no one else responsible for the outcome.
I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do from Harlan Ellison. And I look forward to many more years of his lessons. And, more than that, many more stories. I think Harlan would agree that when it’s all done, it’s all about the stories.
Right before this went to installment went to press in 2006/2007, I needed to change my address with Harlan Ellison’s newsletter, Rabbit Hole, which comes through his Harlan Ellison Recording Collection, and I mentioned the piece in the letter I sent. His wife, Susan, sent the last issue of the newsletter with a Post-It saying they’d “love” to have a sneak peek. So I sent it. Harlan Ellison called and left a voicemail to thank me for it, as well as correct a few errors and help me zipper my fly as far as some poor proofreading was concerned. It’s one of those moments that is so weird, yet so welcome.
When the essay was published in early 2007, I received another voicemail from him, again thanking me (and correcting a few things). Both voicemails were lost, since I was never able to figure out how to save them. Since the publication of this essay, Erik Nelson’s phenomenal look at Ellison’s life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth came out. Besides the incident with the young man at MIT mentioned above, there’s a clip where Ellison says, “I’m an Atheist, folks,” and some woo-ing can be heard. That’s me and my best friend Toby.
I never returned the calls to Harlan because I never knew what to say. It’s one of the many times my social anxiety has gotten the better of me. Still, I have the knowledge–an enough friends to heard the messages, including my wife, who heard the message back when she was my girlfriend–to know they existed.
Harlan’s influence has been great on me, both his writing and his life. So it is with great joy that I say–
Happy birthday, Unca Harlan! And thank you.
¹ I also found inspiration in Tom Monteleone’s M.A.F.I.A. column in Cemetery Dance.
² I stopped writing American Gauthic for several reasons, the biggest of which was lack of time. I needed to take classes to keep my job and found that a lot of my time was eaten away. Time wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one. I’d happily go back to writing it for Dark Discoveries or another publication if the opportunity arose. I’m much better at time management now.
³ This incident appears in the documentary about Harlan called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, as is another clip from that evening.
I was ten, I guess, when I first learned of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, though it came out days before my eleventh birthday. I wanted to go to the movies to see it as I had the third movie but didn’t have the chance to. My first viewing of the movie was on VHS, rented from a video store (a local chain, I believe). I liked it a lot. At eleven, I loved that Freddy said all these sarcastic one-liners and that the movie was visually fun to watch. I liked that he was just so big, larger-than-life. I also liked that this movie had so many special effects, effects that were all over the tv.
Again, its place in American culture is important. The Horror Boom was at its peak. There seemed to be shows on tv every other weekend about horror special effects, including a special that aired in syndication called Stephen King’s World of Horror, a special that gave me the first hint of who this Stephen King guy was as well as showed me how some of the effects that garnished The Dream Master came to be.
MTV was at its height. It had changed the culture and was, at this moment in time, the place kids went for entertainment, news, and information. Freddy Krueger’s ascension was as much a result of MTV as it was the Horror Boom. Freddy had a very rock n roll/punk persona. He didn’t care about social norms or what was appropriate. He was a big ol’ Fuck You to the establishment at the end of the Reagan era and the kids, damnit, were listening. I may have only been 10/11, but I was one of them.
Wes Craven was officially off the movie. For some reason, New Line didn’t go with Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont to write/direct. I suspect it was a financial decision. With Dream Warriors a success, it probably would have cost more to rehire them than it was to go with new talent. One problem, though, was a writers strike that made the screenplay difficult to pin down. They went with Finnish director Renny Harlin to direct. The movie was shot in early 1988 and released that August.
Character continuity. Freddy’s Revenge kept Nancy’s house (and diary) but bailed out on any other character (except Freddy) from the first movie. Dream Warriors bailed on its predecessor and returned to the first movie without any mention to the second movie. The Dream Master takes place sometime after the events of its predecessor and re-introduces us to the survivors of Dream Warriors: Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in all his stereotypical glory. Freddy even returns from the junkyard grave he was placed in by Dr. Neil Gordon and Donald Thompson.
Lisa Wilcox as Alice. Her acting in this movie could be better, but the character isn’t supposed to have much personality in the beginning of the movie, so it sort of works. If she’d had a stronger script and a better director, her performance may have been better. She’s in the dream section because I find her purrrrty.
The overall acting. Look, there are no future Johnny Depps or Patricia Arquettes or Laurence Fishburnes in this movie, but for the third sequel to a low budget horror movie (and being a low budget horror movie in its own right), the cast is pretty good. The teenagers are believable enough. Nicholas Mele as Alice and Rick’s father is very good. I believe in the characters, which is all one could hope for. Another standout is Alice’s brother Rick, played by Andras Jones. Part wise-ass, part martial artist, part caring brother, he brings a certain level of realism to the part and helped make this movie a cut above the typical horror movie sequel.
Robert Englund as Freddy. By now, Freddy Krueger was more than just the bad guy in some horror movies, he was a genuine pop icon, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Englund is able to infuse Krueger with glee as he tortures and picks off the teenagers in this movie. Krueger looks like he’s having fun because Englund is having fun playing him. More on Freddy later on, though.
The special effects and the visuals. Renny Harlin may have won more Razzies than just about any other director, but he brought a certain style to The Dream Master that some of the other movies didn’t have. With the success of the previous three Nightmares, there was also more budget for more effects, which were interesting and fun.
The late-1980s charm. Like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s pretty easy to see where in American culture this movie takes place. From the music (this is the second Nightmare to have a real soundtrack, but the first for it to have its soundtrack so entwined with the movie) to the hair styles to the clothes, this movie reeks of the late 1980s. And like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s taken twenty years for that charm to surface. Hardcore fitness? Check. A nerd like Revenge of the Nerds? Check. A karate kid like…well…. Check. MTV reference? Absofuckinglutely!
The ending. I like the ending. The church set is pretty cool. The idea of evil looking at itself and dying is a nice one. The souls on Freddy’s chest introduced in Dream Warriors coming out and getting their revenge is a nice touch.
Who’s that girl? Ooohh…it’s Kristen. Patricia Arquette, who so famously squealed her way into our hearts as Kristen Parker in Dream Warriors, is replaced by singer-actress Tuesday Knight. According to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion, producer (and Freddy’s Dead director) Rachel Talalay said that Arquette was never approached to reprise the role. Since it wouldn’t really be until 1993’s True Romance that Arquette would become a star, the only reason I can think of is the same reason I figure for not bringing back Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont: money. Arquette would probably have wanted a lot more. The other reason, and even more likely, is that Arquette probably would have said no. Coming from a family in the business, she might not have wanted to have been pigeonholed as a scream queen. After all, Joey, Kincaid, and even Kristen’s mother (Brooke Bundy) all returned to Elm Street for this movie. And even though Talalay says New Line never approached Arquette, I’m not sure that I’m convinced.
Either way, Tuesday Knight’s turn as Kristen Parker is okay, but there is a certain disconnect between her and the audience. She was a strong character in Dream Warriors and while Knight’s portrayal of Kristen is definitely more hard-assed, the character doesn’t feel right.
Again, stereotypes. Kincaid is written exactly as he was in Dream Warriors. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) is supernerd. Brooke Theiss plays Debbie, the hot fitness girl. You get the idea. Alice longs for Dan (Danny Hassel), the popular jock. In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street is heading down typical 1980s slasher movie territory. Luckily for us Fred-Heads (I swear I didn’t make that term up), it’s not there…yet. But it’s damn close. I’ll get to the reason below.
Who wrote this thing?! The Dream Master was worked on during a writers strike. As a result, the story is by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland, and the screenplay is by Brian Helgeland and Jim and Ken Wheat (under the pseudonym Scott Pierce). There are also rumors that other people worked on the script and added things as well. Post-Dream Master, Helgeland went on to be nominated and win Oscars for such movies as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, has written the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed movie Robin Hood, and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (He’s also from my hometown, which is pretty cool). I guess the fact that the movie is good at all is a surprise, but the story is definitely lacking. It’s the kind of movie that if you’re watching it and not thinking, just being entertained by the cool camera angles and flashy effects, you don’t notice the holes in plot and logic. There’s a blurring of the nightmare/waking world in this movie toward the end that is major. At eleven years old I thought certain tricks, like Alice and Dan repeating a scene several times, was cool. At thirty-five, it doesn’t make sense. Are they awake? Are they sleeping? If they’re sleeping, where are they sleeping? They’re in an accident from sleeping at the wheel, but would that happen if they’re running to go save Debbie? And how come Nancy’s house is now very much Freddy’s house? And how come none of the three survivors of Dream Warriors mentions Nancy or Dr. Gordon, two people I would think they’d believe to be nearly saintly? And how does Joey get stuck inside his waterbed? And how come Kristen’s mother doesn’t know her daughter’s bedroom is engulfed in flames until her daughter’s boyfriend and his weird, mousy sister show up? And if what happens in your dreams happen in the real world, does that mean that Debbie’s parents are going to find a giant squished cockroach in their attic or will it just be Debbie’s crushed body? And…. Get it?
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the first Nightmare that Robert Englund gets top billing, before the title no less. Not too shabby for the nerdy alien from V. By now, Freddy Krueger had become one of the 1980s answers to the Universal Monsters. Robert Englund had done interviews as Freddy, had hosted movies on HBO and music videos on MTV as Freddy. Freddy Krueger was on tee shirts, posters, yo-yos, albums, toys, pins, Halloween costumes…you name it. He was in music videos:
And where Freddy was, Robert Englund was. Freddy’s appearances became a sort of hammy, kitschy thing where Freddy would make quips at people, spin puns, and be a general friendly neighborhood child killer. I mentioned in my essay for Dream Warriors that Chuck Russell and his lighting people lit Freddy mainly outside of the shadows. In The Dream Master, Freddy is always lit very well. Not only that, but Freddy breaks the fourth wall!
You see, Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund) is no longer just the bad guy in the Nightmare movies, he is the Nightmare movies. Teenagers are no longer paying to see whether or not the kids will escape Freddy, they’re paying to see how Freddy kills them, which makes The Dream Master different than the other movies of the series so far. However it’s the template created in Dream Warriors that starts it. More on this later. You see this in Kincaid’s nightmare where Freddy is reborn. The bones that were left in the junkyard at the end of Dream Warriors come together in The Dream Master (thanks to some flaming dog piss) and Freddy is born again. There’s a poorly dubbed moment when Freddy is posing, backlit, and says, “You shouldn’t have buried me…I’m not dead.” [Is this the best line they could come up with?!]. And then the camera, which means we, follow Freddy as he looks for Kincaid. We’re surprised when Kincaid, from nowhere, drops a car on Freddy. This isn’t the only time where it seems as though we’re following Freddy’s adventure. When Debbie becomes a cockroach stuck in a roach motel, we’re then outside the roach motel with a midshot on Freddy, who’s peeking into the small box with tiny screams coming from it. Freddy squishes it, ending the tiny screams and then says, “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Not only does Freddy become the star, but with all the zany camera angles, Freddy also becomes a model. Every line is accentuated with a flick of the finger-knives, or some pose that deals with the glove and knives. In other words, Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger becomes too big. Though it’s still rather restrained compared to where it’s going (remember, I still have the worst of the movies to come), Freddy has officially stopped being the villain and has become the sarcastic 1980s antihero. Freddy becomes to the monster movie what Eddie Murphy became to cop movies around the same time.
The Morning After
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opened on August 19, 1988 (almost a week before I turned eleven) and was a huge hit. It was the highest grossing of the original Nightmare series. That summer, Freddy was everywhere. Every entertainment magazine had a story about the movie or Freddy. He was on television and the radio. He had his own 900-number. Freddy was more than just the bad guy in a horror movie now; he was a star. The template had been set by the previous movie, Dream Warriors a year before. The anticipation for the third movie was pretty big and there were more photoshoots starring Freddy than previously done. With the success of that movie, the PR on The Dream Master worked overtime. Generally, the makeup job most people think of when they think of Freddy is the makeup job done for The Dream Master, even though this one is, again, different than its predecessors and successors. It’s very similar to the makeup used in Dream Warriors, only has more color to it. But I digress….
With Freddy the star, the teenagers are now automatic victims. Dream Warriors, trying to get away from Freddy’s Revenge, basically introduced us to teenagers whose purpose was to last only so long before Freddy picked them off. However, those teenagers were pretty well thought out and the audience could buy into them (though not as easily as Wes Craven’s original cast). With the fourth movie, even though we begin with three survivors from the previous installment, we get the sense very early on that most of these characters will not make it through. The reason: We never learn about them the way we learned about prior Elm Street characters. As a result, we have more stereotypes cast only for flashy death sequences and a villain who is now the hero.
This puts the Nightmare movies on track to become just another slasher series. Its saving grace is its imagination. Because Freddy haunts the dreams and nightmares of his victims, the audience is always given the treat of interesting and bizarre sets and imaginative terrors. Only, there are no terrors at this point in the series. There are no horrors. There’s some gross-out and a lot of eye candy, but nothing that really gets under the skin. The original Nightmare was full of horror and terror. Freddy’s Revenge has a few (albeit too brief) moments of horror and at least one of terror (again, Jesse fighting to keep the basement door closed but losing, only to turn around and find the monster right there). Dream Warriors had several creepy moments and, with Nancy and her father central characters, definitely had moments that qualify as horrifying/terrifying. The Dream Master has no real horrifying moments and certainly never terrifies us. It’s unsettling in a few minor moments, but mainly it’s fantastic (in the true sense of the word), gory, and over-the-top.
Yet, its popularity has cemented this movie’s version of Freddy Krueger into our minds.
It also helped get horror fans ready for Freddy on television. In the fall following the release of The Dream Master, an anthology television series called Freddy’s Nightmares — A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series came out. Freddy was a character in a few of the episodes but was mainly the host, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first season (which has Brad Pitt in an episode) was the more “popular” season and had Freddy in his Dream Master makeup.
At this time, between the movie (which I didn’t see until its home video debut), the press, and the tv series, I was in full horror mode, renting such gems as Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II and other classics (as an aside, give me the money and I’d happily write/direct a remake of Mary Lou). I watched some of the Friday the 13th movies if they came on HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime, and saw Halloween IV and V (the first one was difficult to come by, for some reason), but Freddy Krueger and the Nightmares he inhabited were the poison of choice in the monster category. I also became aware of the movies of Stephen King, Pet Sematary being the more recent of his movies released at that time.
Today, I still hold The Dream Master in my heart, not for any reason of quality but because it was part of the building blocks of what made me who I am today. I wish that the filmmakers/studio had had the interest/ability to get Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy. With her death at the end of Dream Warriors, and Kristen’s promise to “dream her into a beautiful dream”, it would have been interesting to make Nancy the anti-Freddy. This idea was done in the early 1990s in a comic book series (Nightmares on Elm Street) written by Andy Mangels and published by Innovation. It would have gone with Craven’s symbolism of Freddy as evil incarnate and Nancy as good. Alas, it was not to be.
The Dream Master stands out for all the reasons above and for being Freddy’s swan song for a bit.
But not our swan song, for we still have four more movies to get to, including what I think is the worst Nightmare in the series, and the second best (and on some days, the best) Nightmare. So stay tuned, folks. This nightmare is nowhere near over.
In the fall of 1986, just after seeing the double feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge on HBO, my father took me to see the Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top. Before you suggest that my father is horrible and should have been jailed for such a thing, I’ll remind you that in 1986, Sly Stallone was huge, and I don’t mean the growth hormones but as in a movie star. The best thing I remember from that day, though, is not Stallone’s trucking or arm wrestling, but the huge cardboard display in the lobby of the now-departed Cinema 140 for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I was eager to see it, though I didn’t really think my Mom would take me. While she had begun letting me see some horror movies on HBO and on video, it was a whole other wall of pancakes to let your nine-year-old see a horror movie in a movie theater, right?
Yet, there we were in February 1987, Mom and me, sitting in the theater before the screen that would bring me to Elm Street. I wore my favorite red Raynor baseball cap with the brim in a position to protect me from the giant-ass Freddy Krueger on the screen. The brim would eventually be moved aside so I could actually see what was going on since Freddy is seen a whole lot onscreen at the end of the movie.
I was half a year away from being ten and I was jazzed as I left the theater. I thought that Dream Warriors was way better than Freddy’s Revenge and I couldn’t wait for there to be more Nightmares. I was already in a pretty deep NOES fever by this point. Dream Warriors intensified the fever.
Wes Craven returns. Kind of. Craven and Robert Shaye patched some of their problems up and Craven, with his writing partner Bruce Wagner, pitched and wrote a screenplay for Dream Warriors. For years I wondered what Craven’s screenplay would have been like without being touched by director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont. Thanks to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion (the fine fansite where I’ve been borrowing the pictures that have appeared in these little diatribes), I was able to download and read Craven and Wagner’s screenplay. I have actually written a review of the whole script but for the purpose of this essay, suffice it to say that the script was bad.
Director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont brings Freddy Krueger back to his roots. Where Freddy’s Revenge alludes to the first Nightmare through conversation between characters as well as Nancy’s discovered diary, Dream Warriors makes no mention of Freddy’s Revenge. It’s as though the second movie were a nightmare best forgotten. Freddy first appears in a nightmare that Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is having and he chases her through hallways and tunnels, before finally appearing in a bathroom mirror and slitting her wrist. The rest of the nightmares take hold of Craven’s idea that in the dreamworld, Freddy can do and be almost anything, and runs with it. Even though the fans knew the rules by now, even though they’d been down this street before, the movie has enough surprises in it to make it feel like more than the third movie in the series. They use some of what Craven and Wagner put into the original screenplay, yet tamed it down, and actually make it more like the first movie, while still being its own thing.
Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy Thompson. Without evil, there can be no good. Because Wes Craven is a writer as well as a filmmaker, and a very intelligent man to boot, he understands symbolism.¹ If Freddy represents evil at its worse, Nancy represents good at its best. During the course of the first Nightmare, Nancy becomes Freddy’s greatest foe. With her reappearance in the second sequel, the audience has someone they instantly connect to and root for. Now that she’s a little older and wiser, she’s a much more formidable foe for Freddy.
The overall cast for Dream Warriors also deserves kudos. Not every performance is great, and there are definitely stereotypes, but this cast far outshines that of the second movie’s. Patricia Arquette gets one of her first major film roles as Kristen Parker, the main character of the story. She is a little squeaky at times but there is a quality to her that makes one understand how she had a pretty good post-Nightmare career. Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon is superb as the stressed psychiatrist who cares so much for these troubled kids that he’s willing to put his career (and eventually his life) on the line for them. John Saxon returns as Donald Thompson, former lieutenant, current security guard. The cast portraying the troubled teenagers are also pretty good in this movie. Oh, and I can’t forget Priscilla Pointer as Dr. Simms and Laurence Fishburne (credited as “Larry Fishburne”) as the orderly Max. His understated performance also hints at the career he will enjoy.
One of the good parts of this movie is the information about Freddy’s origins. The mysterious nun that only Neil Gordon can see is a welcome addition. To find out that Freddy was “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” is a pretty nice touch, while not a subtle one. Of course, an argument can be made that this information is one step toward making Freddy more human and more sympathetic, and that it’s also pretty melodramatic. All true, but it also sets Krueger up as more of a symbol. Evil is what spawned him, evil is what drove him through life, evil is what drives him in the afterlife. It also doesn’t excuse his actions in any way.
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know. I’ve put this in all the essays thus far. Don’t worry, it won’t always be this way (remember, my least favorite Nightmare is still impending…). This is the last film of the franchise where Robert Englund gets last billing in the opening credits. Freddy is still the villain at this point. Yes, his role is larger in this movie than in the first one, and maybe even the second one, but he is still the villain. The audience only sees him when his intended victim becomes aware of him. One of the most frightening shots of Freddy in the entire series is in Kristen’s opening nightmare. She’s running through a long hallway and far behind her, Freddy comes running around a corner with his glove raised, headed straight for her. I believe the shot is slowed down just a bit, just enough for the audience to think, Oh, shit! There he is! It is clear that Englund relishes the role and basks in playing this despicable monster. When he rips his sweater open to reveal the faces of his victims, the smile on his face is priceless.
The ending. I dare say that the ending in Dream Warriors is better than Nightmare‘s ending. The dual climax of Donald Thompson and Neil Gordon fighting Freddy’s skeleton in the junkyard where the Elm Street parents placed him and the nightmare boiler room from hell and the mirror room are more interesting than the Looney Tunes hijinks Nancy sets up to defeat the pulled-from-the dream Krueger. Even Nancy’s demise feels fitting, especially with Kristen’s promise to dream her into a beautiful dream, which could have been used as a set up for further movies (and was eventually used in a comic book series written by Andy Mangles in the early 1990s).
There are less nightmares in this film than the previous sequel and the ones that follow, but let’s explore them, shall we?
Heather Langenkamp’s return as Nancy. Huh? Didn’t you just tell us that is was one of the dreams of this particular movie? Yes, I did. While it was great to see Ms. Langenkamp’s return to Elm Street as Nancy, I feel as though her performance was a little wooden in some scenes and that Russell didn’t really give her much to do. By making Kristen the lead character, Nancy gets a smaller role in the film. Yes, a lot of the movie follows her, but I also feel as though she’s along for the ride a little more than she should be. Here’s a character that has so much more potential. Honestly, I believe it was less Russell as the director than it was New Line’s bureaucracy that’s to blame. For them, the Nightmare movies (and Freddy Krueger) were huge moneymakers. They got a small fan rebellion with the poor quality of Freddy’s Revenge‘s story and probably felt that returning to teenagers having nightmares was the thing to do. The fact that there are so many adults in the mix of this movie doesn’t happen again until Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which we will get to in due time. Nancy’s return could have been more, especially if we’re going with the aforementioned symbolism of Freddy = evil and Nancy = good.
The beginning of the wisecracks. Yes, giving Fred Krueger a personality was genius on Wes Craven’s part, but here’s where the personality begins its decent. Freddy is still scary in this movie, but the sense of humor, while dark and smile- (and maybe even chuckle-) worthy, is a little too much. When Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) gets pulled into the tv, do we really need, “Welcome to prime time, bitch.”? Yes, it makes us chuckle, but this is Freddy fuckin’ Krueger! I don’t mind him fucking with his victims, it’s one of the things that makes him so scary, but this is a little much.
The stereotypes. The idea of having troubled teenagers that everyone thinks have tried to commit suicide is a pretty good one. It brings us away from the suburban Elm Street, though these kids are supposed to be children of those original parents (it also brings us away from Craven’s viewing that suburbia isn’t as nice as one might believe) but some of the stereotypes are a little much. There’s a recovering young addict who liked to shoot up, played by Jennifer Rubin, who has all the stereotypical issues and fantasies (though Rubin’s performance is pretty good and transcends the stereotype). Then there’s the nerd who loves his Dungeons & Dragons-eque role playing games. There’s the girl who wants to be an actress (with a face for radio, if not the voice), the shy kid who refuses to speak but fantasizes over the stereotypical hot nurse. The head of the clinic, Dr. Simms, is another version of Nurse Cratchett, who lacks any real bedside manner or compassion. The worst of the stereotypes, though, the one that irks me every time I see this movie, is Kincaid, the young, angry, foul-mouthed black kid whose fantasy is to have Herculean strength. By 1987, we should have moved beyond that, yet there he is.
Nancy’s house becoming Freddy’s house. Boy, did this take a lot of Expanded Universe ‘splainin’! In Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original script, Nancy and Kristen come across the home Freddy Krueger was born and raised in. It’s the typical haunted house. They find the house and their nightmares also bring them there. It’s not in Springwood on Elm Street, but somewhere else. Nancy is brought there in the same supernatural manner (though she doesn’t realize it) that pretty much brings many characters in horror fantasy fiction from place-to-place. Somewhere along the way from Craven & Wagner’s script to the Russell & Darabont script, Nancy’s house becomes Freddy’s house. Well, let me correct that: In this movie it’s still Nancy’s house. The idea, I guess, is that the nightmare version makes it look like a haunted house. For some reason, though, Freddy seems to have inhabited it in the nightmare. Maybe the boiler room was too uncomfortable. Who knows? But it throws us off. It’s good that it connects Nancy to the story again, but it doesn’t make sense that Kristen and others would go there.
The 1980s was a hot time for the horror genre. By the beginning of the decade, Stephen King had blown up and by the time A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, he was a household name. There were a lot of horror novels coming out every year and horror films being made. Maybe it was a sort of punk-anti-establishment thing. We had Ronald Reagan telling us everything was good, everything was fine, yet there was the sense that his finger hovered over The Button and all it took was his psychic to tell him he should push it; maybe this was one reason for the popularity of horror at this time. I think that a result of these times and the Horror Boom is that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors benefited. Frank Darabont was (and still is) a huge Stephen King fan. By the time he would have been brought onto Dream Warriors, he would have already written and directed the short film The Woman in the Room, an adaptation of a Stephen King story. Of course, Darabont would go on to adapt and direct other movies based on other King works. The Shawshank Redemption–based on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist were all very good movies that captured everything that makes King not only such an entertaining writer but also a great writer. When work on Dream Warriors was underway, King would have been having one of his most prolific and biggest years ever, with the publications of It, Misery, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Tommyknockers, not to mention the film adaptations of Pet Sematary, Creepshow II, and others I’m probably forgetting. Many of the ideas in Dream Warriors seem like something King might have put into the movie had he worked on it. The role of the adults in this movie is similar to the role of the characters of It, having to face something from the past, the teenagers being individuals with personalities, whether stereotypical or not. The way Nancy and Freddy seem to be drawn together is also reminiscent to how the characters of It are drawn to It.
Freddy has another makeover. Gone are the brown contacts and the too-high cheekbones, though the hook nose remains. His scarring is also more reminiscent of the second movie’s, yet less healed in some ways. His hat and sweater are pretty consistent at this point. The green stripes remain on the arms. The glove is back and there are no noticeable changes to it. What has changed is Freddy’s lighting. By now, everyone knew what he looked like. He was in magazines and hosting double features on HBO and doing interviews and appearing on MTV (to help sell the soundtrack) and showing up on posters, etc. His surroundings are still dark, but Freddy is lit better. The mystery of his face is gone and with it, so is the fright.
Freddy’s first music video! Dokken’s “Dream Warriors.” Patricia Arquette must be proud.
One other piece of info that you might be interested in. I mentioned above the copy of Craven and Wagner’s original screenplay for Dream Warriors (located at The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion). If you are a fan of the series, it might be interesting to read it. I read it with the hopes of reading a script that kicked the movie’s ass, but rather found a script with a lot of issues. I wonder if Craven truly intended that as a legitimate Nightmare or if he knew it would be rewritten. There are some interesting concepts in it, but I feel as though the script is lacking. Majorly lacking. What is interesting, though, is how much was borrowed by later Nightmares.
The Morning After
Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors works. Freddy Krueger has his last hurrah as a frightening character, it’s great to see his original enemy back to square off against him, and the new kids (and adults) are formidable opponents. Chuck Russell (who would go on to direct the movies The Mask and Eraser with the likes of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger under the name Charles Russell) and Frank Darabont use Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original story and build on it to success. Had they been interested (or allowed, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story on why they didn’t work on any other Nightmares, though I have suspicions) in going further in this franchise, I suspect there may have been some interesting movies (or at least one interesting movie). At nine, I thought this movie rocked. I went home and built a Freddy glove with pens and pencils. Realizing how silly it looked, I built another one with popsicle sticks, until I was able to buy the official glove one Halloween. At thirty-five, I still enjoy the movie. It doesn’t have the power of Wes Craven’s original, but it is a solid sequel and is better than any of the Friday the 13th movies. It shows imagination and an understanding of fear.
In history, the movie made big change for New Line Cinema and garnered enough press that it was inevitable that Freddy would be coming back. Perhaps that’s where things went wrong. Eager to capitalize on Freddy’s ascent from cult figure to pop culture icon, the movie was barely out of the theaters before New Line was prepping A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. So the summer I turned ten, Robert Englund was in Freddy makeup filming the fourth movie, and things began to turn ugly….
¹ In 2010, a pair of great documentaries about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had yet to be released. I Am Nancy, produced by Heather Langenkamp does not only show the importance of the character Nancy to the films she appears in, but also to the fans. It also features great interviews with Robert Englund and Wes Craven, who goes into great detail about the importance of Nancy as a character as well as a symbol.
A month or so ago, someone on Facebook bitched about Jodi Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes. You know the one, it went viral and lots of people said how brave she was for it.¹ Well, the part that got me most was about her privacy, asking–downright demanding–that her privacy, as well as the privacy of other stars, be respected. Someone on my Facebook wall wrote that Foster asked for the lack of privacy by becoming famous and if she didn’t want her privacy stepped on, then she shouldn’t have become famous. I’ve heard this before. Celebrities shouldn’t be angry when their privacy is stepped on because they asked for it by becoming famous.
Yes, there are fame whores out there. Almost everyone who appears on reality tv for no other reason than that they’re freaks (I’m looking at you, almost everyone on TLC) falls into that category. Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Real Housewives, etc. Sometimes it’s a strategic business move (I’m thinking Bethenny Frankel) but most of the time it’s “look at me” grown-up. Some actors and actresses also fall into this category. For those people, yeah, they give up their privacy in order to be noticed more and more.
I’m talking about the actors, actresses, writers, musicians, directors, artists, and everyone else who can fall into the category of loving a certain craft and wanting to work on the craft as much as possible with as few limitations as possible. I’m talking about the Robert Downey, Jrs, Jodie Fosters, Stephen Kings, Bruce Springsteens, George Lucases, and everyone else in their ilk. They are the people who love their work and want to do the best job possible. Sometimes, that means becoming famous, usually by accident. The fame allows them freedom. Without it, they couldn’t make some of the movies they want to make, to write the books they want to write and not worry whether or not it might lose readers.
I ran into this once in Bangor, Maine. I was vacationing with my then-girlfriend and her godfather in Maine and we went up to Bangor solely to visit a bookstore that specialized in their most famous local writer’s work, my hero Stephen King. So we went and I bought something. Then my girlfriend’s godfather asked if I wanted to go by the King house and I said sure.
“We can stop and take pictures,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said.
When he asked why, I explained that I wasn’t cool impeding on my favorite writer’s privacy. Driving by the house would be bad enough but at least that’s not annoying the residents of the place.
So we drove there. And he stopped.
“If he didn’t want people to take pictures of his house,” the godfather said. “He wouldn’t have become famous to begin with.”
I’ve never felt right about that. Yeah, we took pictures. Yeah, someone was entering the house (it wasn’t Unca Steve). But I’ve never felt right about it.
King did not choose to become famous. He chose to write books to the best of his ability and promote them to the best of his ability. That’s all. He wanted what I want: readers. Someone who would read his writing and be entertained. That was it. He did not ask for fans to go by his home and take pictures, or to bother him at Fenway Park, or stop him in the streets, or….
Back in 2000 or so I was at the local mall when I saw David Duchovny and Tea Leone with their new baby and a woman. I was with my baby, my sister, and her friend. Her friend ran up to me and said, “I just saw a guy that looks just like David Duchovny!”
I said, “That is David Duchovny.”
“Come on,” the friend said. “I’m gonna ask him for his autograph.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “He and his wife are here with their family. They’re on vacation. Leave them alone.”
She did. It wasn’t until a clerk in one of the stores announced their presence that anyone actually bothered them. The stars left immediately. I was pissed off for them.
So when Jodie Foster articulates that her sexuality, her life, is none of your goddamn business, she’s right. Her job is to act in movies, to make movies, not to live her life in front of the camera. When a writer writes a book you love, that’s what they’re supposed to do, not sign it, not shake your hand, and certainly not accept you taking pictures of their houses.
Most of these people understand that with popularity, some of their privacy is going to go away, and many will gladly shake hands with you, sign autographs, or pose in pictures with you, if you ask nicely. And should they say no, don’t go kvetching about it. They did their job by making the films, writing the books, playing the music, creating the art that you enjoyed. The rest is icing on the cake.
And yes, I will sign my books for you. Because I’m not famous and, at this point in my career, it’s pretty fun to do. But there may come a time when, for whatever reason, I cannot and I will say no. Don’t hate me for that, I may just have to go to the bathroom or have dinner.
¹ I actually found the speech a confusing mess. She “came out” of a closet that everyone already knew she was out of, she never really addressed anything of importance, and appeared almost out of it.
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
Bruce Springsteen, “The Promised Land”
So it’s Sunday afternoon, 4:55 as I write these words. There’s a hurricane heading toward New Jersey. Its name is Sandy, like in the old Springsteen song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”. Al Roker was in Asbury Park this morning. Apparently, the storm’s hitting there.
I’m further north, on the Southcoast of Massachusetts. I’m not on the water, more inland. The school I teach at has already called it. No school tomorrow. I was originally going to write about fall and how it seems like the perfect time of year for writers and artists. Maybe I will before fall disappears. Right now, though, the storm is on my mind.
I’m not worried about the storm. That’s the problem living where I do. We’re often told a big storm is coming but by the time it reaches us it’s usually wimpy. The reports say that’s not happening with Sandy. She’s supposed to come and kick some ass. I guess time will tell. I am worried that this is when my wife will go into labor. I mean, it’s a clichéd happening, isn’t it? Of all possible times to give birth, in the middle of a hurricane is when the water breaks. There’ll be a mad dash to the hospital. Maybe the car will be swerving around branches and felled trees. But I don’t think that’ll happen.
I’ll be plugging in my e-reading devices so I can continue what with what I’m reading (The Twelve by Justin Cronin) but even that’s not a big concern, I have plenty of books that don’t need to be charged or updated. I can write, at least for a little while, even if we lose power, with the computer or iPad. I can go old school with paper and pen, too. Shit, I can grab one of my manual typewriters.
And, of course, there’s just spending time with my wife, which is always great.
So we’ll be hunkering down. If you’re on the East Coast, be safe. Find a good book and enjoy it. One of my favorite memories is reading Stephen King’s The Stand by candlelight during Hurricane Bob in 1990. Enjoy yourself and be safe.
In Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Mr. King talks about how important it is for writers to read and how the excuse, “I don’t have time to read,” is bullshit. He says:
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.
This post isn’t about reading, it’s really just an observation that I’m making. I’ve been writing since I was 13 and publishing since I was 21. One of the things I’ve known from the beginning is that you must tell the truth, especially in fiction. Well, this blog and my Facebook/Twitter page(s) aren’t fiction. These are slices of thoughts, beliefs, ruminations, and jackanapery that are meant to entertain, enlighten, and edify. But mostly to entertain. They are sometimes meant to be taken seriously, but usually at your own risk. Whether it’s a 140-character masterpiece, a silly status update or meme, or a longer, more involved blog post, these little jaunts into the muck of my mind are all meant in good fun. But the one thing I promise to try to be is honest. Or as honest as I can be, in this forum, at this time.
Some of you like my posts so much you have chosen to follow my blog. I appreciate and thank you for that. Some of you might not like my blog or my posts, to which I bid you adieu. No harm, no foul. I’m not for everyone.
Still, it sort of smarts when I’m thinking, Jeesh. I haven’t seen a status update from _______ in a while. Let me see if Facebook is fuckin’ around again, to find that the Real Life Friend is no longer a friend on Facebook, etc. Did I say something wrong? Did I perhaps repost an offending meme? If we’re friends in real life, what’s this mean now?
The bottom line is, I only marginally care. The way I see it, if you don’t like what I have to say, so be it. But keep in mind, kids, it’s only the internet. My job here is to entertain and to tell the truth. Lighten up. And if it means I’m now a pariah in real life, well, what’s so good about polite society, anyway?
I’m not fond of being a slow reader. I discovered I read slowly fairly early on. There are people who read two books (or more) a week and that just befuddles me. There are occasional books that will take me a week to read, but often a book–a novel, that is–will take me a month, which is one reason I attempt to read more than one book at a time.
My mother used to read nearly a book a day, and at first that kind of upset me. Sure, I was 13 and she was 27 years my senior, but still. As I got a little older, in high school, I discounted her total by saying, “They’re mostly Harlequin novels.” This wasn’t an entirely fair assessment. Yes, they were formulaic. Yes, they were often the size of the covers for my Stephen King novels, but still, they were books. My mother, who bought a Kindle a few years back and hasn’t read Harlequin novels for probably 15 years, still manages to read several books a week. I’m still stuck with one or two a month.
I had a professor last summer who said I wasn’t a slow reader so much as a careful reader. I have professed to enjoy letting the language of the novels I’m reading to melt on my tongue like good chocolate, but is that a good thing? I know it’s not a race, but come on.
The book-a-month isn’t set in concrete. There are novels that I speed through. Nonfiction also tends to move faster. But it still stings. On Twitter, I feel stupid posting my #Fridayreads because many times it’s the same goddamn book! Here’s a for instance for ya:
I just finished rereading Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, including the new one, The Wind Through the Keyhole. Eight books in this series. I began reading them in January. I finished The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (I read them chronologically, placing The Wind Through the Keyhole between books IV and V) last week. I even put down the other novel I was reading, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, to focus my attention on Unca Steve’s books. Of course, within days of finishing The Dark Tower, I finally finished Goon Squad (I loved it).
Because of my slowness, there are many books I haven’t read that I desperately want to. I have had books in my To-Be-Read pile for nearly a decade. Of course, there are always new ones added. It doesn’t help that classes I’ve taken throughout those 10 years have forced me off my own track and onto their tracks for a bit.
So I do my best. Right now I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve never read and was at the top of my stack o’ books even before his recent death. It’s length makes me believe I should be done with it by the end of this week, maybe even sooner. I’m also reading Joe Hill’s Locke and Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft. I may also begin one of the nonfiction books I have about the television industry, one by Bill Carter and the other by Warren Littlefield. There are still some writing friends whose books I have to read, not to mention the classics….
Yeah. Well, I have my work cut out for me. Enjoy your reading, while I might be behind, I know I’ll enjoy mine.
I began writing a long, in-depth piece on Bruce Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball but stopped. There are several reasons why:
- There have been many reviews of the new album, all of them spectacular.
- The Boss doesn’t need my help.
- Why the hell would you care about my readings of “Shackled And Drawn” or “We Take Care of Our Own”?
So, basically, it works like this: I love the album. Big surprise there, right? There are some pretty cool elements to it and I enjoy it. I wish I had the dough to see the concert when it comes back around these parts (Springsteen and the E Street Band played in Boston about a week and a half ago by this writing). If you really do care about what I think, and you haven’t bought Wrecking Ball, do so. I promise it’s intelligent, heartfelt, and damn fine listening.
I finished my third reading of The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands the other night and am now reading volume IV, Wizard & Glass. It amazes me how much I enjoy King’s work. His talents are so damn sharp and he creates such a great world, I sometimes feel as though I’m living a fool’s dream writing my little stories and books. Yet, I can’t stop. So, what’s a guy to do?
Keep writing, I guess.