Monday, December 31, 2007

Horror Slasher Films Without a "Last Girl"

One of the "rules" of 1980s slasher films is that every film ends with a "last girl," a tradition begun by Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Yet a number of films break this rule.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Consider Pranks (aka, The Dorm That Dripped Blood). Very low budget. Four college kids (count 'em, just four!), at an deserted college campus. Two guys, two gals. The campus is deserted because the kids are closing it up for the winter break.

Okay, there's a fifth student, Daphne Zuniga (the Last Girl in The Initiation), but Zuniga dies early in this film (nicely run over by a car), along with her parents. Then two other college kids (and the red herring suspect) are killed over the next hour.

That leaves the Last Girl with another kid who turns out to be the psycho killer. There was no reason to suspect him, it's all arbitrary, but that's common and appropriate for horror films, albeit not for mysteries. Mysteries require clues so the audience may guess the killer; horror is about fear, not a puzzle, and a threat is all the more fearsome if its identity is unknowable.

Then this psycho kills the Last Girl. He also successfully fools the cops, so he gets off. We know he'll be out there killing again.

Then there's Hide and Go Shriek. Eight high school kids celebrate their graduation by hiding out in a furniture store for sex and hijinks. They can do this because one of their dads owns the store, Fine Furniture. (This is similar to the kids hiding out in the mall in The Initiation, because, you guessed it, Daphne Zuniga's dad owns the mall.)

The killer in Hide and Go Shriek turns out to be a cross-dressing gay. Probably a less likely villain in today's more PC climate, but standard for the time. What's remarkable about Hide and Go Shriek is that four of the eight students (two guys and two girls) survive!

That's right. Eight potential victims, and fully half of them survive. Yes, there are some incidental victims, but four survivors does not make for a very generous body count. Still, Hide and Go Shriek is entertaining, in that "1980s low budget slasher" sort of way.

And there's also Intruder, a very nice film about grocery clerks closing up a store that's about to be sold and torn down. Not only does the killer survive, but so do two of the kids -- the potential Last Girl (Elizabeth Cox) and her ex-boyfriend -- who are then falsely arrested for the murders. As in Pranks, the cops are fooled.

Again, this is appropriate for horror, if not for mysteries. The latter genre seeks order, while the former creates fear by disrupting that order. If the cops are inept, the world becomes a more fearsome place.

Intruder features Renée Estevez, who also appears in Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. Estevez is sister to Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, daughter of Martin Sheen.

All the the above films are recommended for hardcore horror fans. By "hardcore," I mean "forgiving." Only a forgiving, hardcore fan would enjoy some of the above ultra-low budget fare, Pranks being the lowest budgeted.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How Extras Were Exploited on Embrace of the Vampire

Let me demonstrate how extras are sometimes exploited in the film industry. Let me tell you of my day as an extra on Embrace of the Vampire.

Embrace of the Vampire is a soft-core porn ripoff of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Both films feature a vampire pursuing the reincarnation of his centuries-old love. Both films aspire to a sort of "vampire romance." At the end of Embrace of the Vampire, Martin Kemp's tearful bloodthirsty angst, Alyssa Milano's tearful rediscovery of her love, the "tragic" star-crossed finale, and the Christian iconography, all mirror Bram Stoker's Dracula. One senses that director Goursaud was trying to rise above her porn material.

But Embrace of the Vampire is no poor woman's Bram Stoker's Dracula. Milano is no Winona Ryder and Kemp is no Gary Oldman. For that matter, none of the other talent on this film compare to their counterparts. And the budget just wasn't there. The strength of low-budget horror is a gritty authenticity, which this film tries to hide rather than utilize.

How low was the budget?

I worked one day as an extra on Embrace of the Vampire. It was in 1993 or '94. Don't look for me. I ended up on the cutting room floor, and extras are rarely mentioned in credits. But let me tell you an "inside story" on the making of this film.

We were shooting in a nightclub on the Sunset Strip. The extras were divided into three camps: union, nonunion, and Modesto extras. Union extras earn the most, especially once overtime kicks in, so they were wrapped after eight hours. (They were only hired in the first place to fill a union quota.) This was during my nonunion days (I'm in SAG now), so I put in a full 14 hours, after which we were paid in cash and wrapped. The Modesto extras were still working when we left.

Now what, you may ask, is a Modesto extra? I also wondered, and so I asked one. I was told that they were from an acting class in Modesto, California. They had been bussed in to work on the film as part of a "class assignment." In other words, they were paying to come to work.

There's not a whole lot to learn about being an extra. It's neither glamorous nor difficult. And nonunion extra jobs for twentysomethings are very easy to come by. The lampposts in Los Angeles are covered with flyers seeking cattle ... ehr, extras. I did it for the cash, and because if you do it often enough, you increase your chances of getting into the union. Which I did, after some 13 grueling months.

Never pay for the "chance" to be an extra, not in Los Angeles. I made the mistake of volunteering (i.e., working for free) to be an extra a few times when I first started out, but I soon wised up. I certainly never paid.

My guess is that the producers of Embrace of the Vampire paid the acting teacher to bus down some cattle, paying far less than even nonunion extras cost. I know this teacher was getting paid by the students, and that the students were not getting paid to be on the film. So the teacher was double-dipping, getting paid by both the film and the students.

The film didn't care; they were getting cattle at below market rates. And the students didn't care; they were getting ripped off, but they didn't know it.

When I advised one "Modesto extra" that he was getting a raw deal, he grew indignant, saying, "Well, that's easy for you to say, but we don't have the same opportunities to be an extra in Modesto that you have in Los Angeles."

I suppose I can understand his feelings. I loved working on Bram Stoker's Dracula. But there you had Francis Ford Coppola and Winona Ryder. And I saw Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. And we worked on the Universal and Sony studios. And still we got paid.

By comparison, Embrace of the Vampire was a low-budget job, shot in a dingy nightclub. Nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn't do it for free. You certainly shouldn't pay for the chance to sit in a dingy nightclub with B-list "stars."

In Los Angeles, actors sometimes pay for the chance to appear in plays, in what are called "showcase" productions. While (a scant few) tickets are sold, showcase productions are mostly done for the benefit of managers, agents, and casting directors, all of whom receive free invites. Showcase productions are theater's answer to vanity publishing.

Okay, I can understand investing in your own play, along with the other actors, in order to perform a speaking role before casting people. But paying to be an extra? Sure, the Modesto extra claimed he was getting an "education." And the teacher did lecture to the Modesto extras between takes (so he couldn't be accused of fraud?). But even so, never pay to be an extra.

If paying to be an actor is like paying to be published, then paying to be an extra is like paying to run the copier at a publishing house, so as to learn about the industry. Copiers are run by minimum wage temps or by unpaid interns. It takes one poor, dumb bastard to actually pay for that sort of "learning experience."

Another inside story regarding Embrace of the Vampire: Someone stole a silver wolf pin belonging to a crew member. She was near tears because it had sentimental value. Never leave anything of value lying around on a set.

And some trivia: John Stanley says this film was "originally conceived as The Nosferatu Diaries," but on the set, we were told the working title was The Collector.

Oh yes, about my scene. We were in a smoky room. I was supposed to cross with a woman on my arm. But in that scene, two people (Milano and Kemp, I suppose), were making out. I and the lady on my arm were watching. Only after the scene ended did she and I notice the A.D. frantically signaling us to cross.

So we'd missed our cues. But it was okay, because many of us had missed our cues. The extras, the crew, we'd all been gawking at the actors' hot, steamy makeout. Tense laughter followed after the scene ended and we all realized how we'd all been gawking.

That was the first take. No missed cues after that.

Embrace of the Vampire was no Bram Stoker's Dracula, but I enjoyed it, though I was glad when my 14-hour day was done. I'd spent much of it on the club's second floor, hanging out with the other extras, talking Monty Python and stuff. Someone played a piano. We were served a good meal of Domino's pizza. (One woman complained that Domino's was "anti-choice" on abortion.) I didn't lose any jewelry. And I was paid in cash at the end of the day.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Was an Extra on Bram Stoker's Dracula

Sony's recent release of a two-disc DVD edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula brought back memories. And anticipation. Till now, there was only the one-disc edition, with no special features. No deleted scenes. Not "making of" documentaries.

Why my anticipation?

Because I spent some of the 1990s working as a film and TV extra, and my first gig was on Bram Stoker's Dracula. It being my "first time," I fondly recall my time working on that film (despite very long hours, it didn't feel like work at all), and I'd hoped to see more of myself in the special features.

No such luck. There's nothing of me in the special features. But the seeing the documentaries on the two-disc DVD did bring back memories.

I'd been working in a producer's office, two rooms the third floor of a building in Hollywood. On the second floor was a casting director's office. Shortly after my producer boss was evicted for non-payment of rent, I saw a casting notice in Daily Variety seeking "English, Turkish, and East European types" for Francis Ford Coppola's new Dracula film. The notice mentioned the casting office on the second floor.

I'd never done any acting before, but my parents are Hungarian (my father Transylvanian). When I so informed the casting office, they said they were eager to see me.

They didn't call me into the Hollywood building. Instead, I was called to the Sony lot and asked to audition in Romanian, improvising a frightened man. I explained that I spoke Hungarian, not Romanian. The CD said that was fine. So I acted frightened, in Hungarian.

The CD said that all audition tapes would be reviewed by Coppola himself. So I guess I've been seen by Coppola.

I can affirm the rumors that Coppola was a perfectionist on that film. The CD's walls at Sony were covered with old photos and sketches of late 1800s scenes from England and Romania. Coppola seemed determined to capture the look and feel of that time and place with accuracy. (The DVD's special features indicates that he took some creative leeway, but he certainly began his journey with extensive research.)

I didn't get a speaking role, but I was phoned a few days (or weeks?) later, and invited to be an extra on the film, because of my "East European look." I was later told, on the set, that another reason for casting me was that I had longish hair, which was true of Englishmen in 1897. (That's right, despite my "East European look, I was cast as an Englishman.) And men with longish hair were hard to find just then (in December 1991), because a lot of military films had recently been shot, so there were few male extras with longish hair. (Lots of military crewcuts, though.)

I was called in for a wardrobe fitting. They gave me a long black coat.

My first scene was with Anthony Hopkins. I was one of the medical students. There must have been a still photographer wandering about, because I ended up (uncredited) on page 87 of James Hart's lavishly illustrated published screenplay.

Curiously, I'm standing on the first tier (just above Hopkins) in the photo in the book, yet I'm standing on the second tier in the film. I don't remember why. I suppose they'd moved us medical students around, trying to determine the best setup, and the still photographer did his work at one point in the day, while the scene itself was shot by the cinematographer at some other time.

Us medical students kept wandering about the stage during breaks, upsetting the P.A. She said, "I swear, you're the antsiest bunch of extras I've ever seen." Antsiest. Her exact word. I never forgot that.

Some of the extras endured additional makeup, with mustaches and sideburns glued to their faces. I had a natural beard at the time (still do), so I escaped that ordeal. They did spray some plastic on my hair, to set in place the late 19th century hair style they'd given me.

At one point Hopkins addressed us extras up in the tiers. He asked, "Are you all actors?" Many of us answered yes. Hopkins then asked for a show of hands to see which of us were actors. I sort of half raised my hand, not sure if I considered myself one or not. I'd only just stumbled into this "acting thing," and was still wondering if I might pursue it further.

After the scene was wrapped, I overheard some A.D. or P.A. discussing the need for another extra for that night's chapel scene. (They were shooting round the clock.)

Remember the chapel scene at the start of the film, when Gary Oldman weeps over his dead bride? That was shot over two nights. And apparently, one of the monks who'd stood behind the priest on the first night of shooting had fallen sick and was unavailable for the second night. I came forward and volunteered to fill in for the monk. They accepted my offer.

So in that scene, sometimes one of those two silent monks is me, sometimes not.

Neither Anthony Hopkins nor Winona Ryder was on the set that night. Gary Oldman was the only star present, hunched over and crying. I knew he'd been in Sid and Nancy, a film that I'd liked, but I didn't recognize him on set. I was impressed with his work in the chapel scene. After the scene was wrapped, I said something to him like, "Very impressive work. Very good." He smiled and thanked me, tears still staining his face.

I didn't know at the time that extras weren't supposed to speak to the actors, but Oldman seemed not to mind.

The A.D. gave me a separate voucher for the chapel scene, apart from my previous voucher for the medical school scene. Thus was I paid for two full "days," although I'd worked the scenes back-to-back.

Maybe the production saved money by clocking me for two days. If they'd treated the medical school and chapel scenes as the same day, I might have earned some serious overtime. But I was nonunion back then, so the work rules were flexible as applied to me. And I didn't care about the money. Not then. It was my first time on a Hollywood film set, and I just wanted the experience to last. I'd have done it for free.

The A.D. did approve a "translation bump" for me, about $20 as I recall. This was because Oldman had been seeking some Romanian phrase or remark, not to speak, just to internalize, to help him assume character. So I'd told the A.D. some Hungarian phrases, which he'd passed on to Oldman.

Oldman was quite the Method Actor. He was indeed impressive to watch on set, and the results of his Method work remain evident on film.

I came in for a two other days. I was one of some 400 extras in the London street scenes shot on Universal's backlot. Both the daylight scenes and night time scenes.

The extras were kept in large tents. One large tent served as a dressing room for the men. Another large tent was the women's dressing room. One woman gasped upon seeing other women undressing in the tent. "You can't be shy in this business," another woman commented.

An even larger tent was a coed holding pen, where both men and women waited while not working on set, chatting and reading and snoozing. It had rained and the grass was moist. One middle-aged woman sketched her fellow extras. She sketched me in my costume, and gave it to me when done. I still have her work, framed and on my wall.

We were well fed. I was told that wasn't always the case, especially with crowd scenes. One extra described working on Steven Spielberg's Hook. "Lunch was some popcorn," he said.

Back on the set, I asked an extra if there were any stars on the set that day. "Winona Ryder," I was told. It was the first I'd ever heard the name. Although I was a fan of horror films even back then, I'd not yet seen Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, because those films sounded like they had too much comedic or fantasy content, respectively.

"What's Winona Ryder look like?" I asked, hoping for a glimpse of a star. "She's a little thing," I was told.

I rented Bram Stoker's Dracula when it was first released on video, eagerly seeking myself. Ryder made no impression on me, and I promptly forgot her when the film ended. I never saw her in anything again until earlier this decade, when I saw Lost Souls.

Everything in and about Lost Souls blew me away, and I then watched everything Ryder had appeared in over the previous decade and a half. So yes, now I'm a fan. Yes, she's got a very impressive body of work, especially Girl Interrupted. But her name meant nothing to me all throughout the 1990s; I'd even forgotten that she'd been in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Go figure.

After they wrapped a daytime scene, they brought in a second unit crew and a new group of extras. They also asked if any of us wanted to stay for a second "day" that night. I naturally volunteered.

I didn't make it into the daytime scenes in the final cut. Maybe they didn't film me. Maybe I ended up on the cutting room floor. I am in a night time scene; the one outside the railroad station, when Johnathan Harker returns from the Continent and sees Dracula "young again." I'm crossing the street, carrying a piece of luggage. I do my cross right after a horse-drawn carriage crosses my path.

A P.A. had wanted to give my luggage it to another extra. I was hesitant, because I'd signed for the suitcase with the Props Dept, so I was responsible for its return. I asked the P.A. if we could notify the Props Dept. "Never mind!" the P.A. snapped. "I don't mind," I said, not wanting to be difficult. "It's just that I'm responsible." The P.A. was testy, but replied, "Don't worry, it's not your fault."

I also had a scene with the white wolf. Or rather, I was called in, then taken out before anything was shot. They were trying different set ups. I'd stood facing the wolf, from eight or ten feet away, the wolf looking happy, yet unleashed. I was told it was only part wolf, and well fed. There were crew around me, and I was told it was safe, but not to make any sudden moves. "Because if you do," said a big, burly crewman, standing right behind me, "he'll BITE YOUR BALLS OFF!"

I worked on over 60 productions in the 1990s, on and off. Some I worked on for weeks, some only a day. Movies and sitcoms, commercials and infomercials, even a Japanese TV commercial shot in California. Many days were long and grueling, 14 to 16 hours. Work conditions got cushier, and the pay better, after I was admitted into SAG in 1994. Even so, the novelty of being on a set wore off, and I grew to dislike extra work. I stopped about 1997 or '98.

My personal record for the longest day working as an extra remains my time on Bram Stoker's Dracula, about 23 hours on set in one day. However, that day didn't feel long. It was a fun adventure, one that I never wanted to end. And although I didn't make it into the 2 DVD edition's special features (maybe when they release a 3-disc edition?), I retain fond memories of working on that film.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Soup Nazi is actually a Soup Objectivist

The Soup Nazi from season seven of Seinfeld is really a Soup Objectivist. He doesn't kill anyone. He merely insists on running his business, his way.

One can imagine this Soup Objectivist saying, in Roarkian terms, "I do not cook in order to have customers; I have customers in order to cook!"

And also, "Anyone who would buy my soup must eat it my way, on my terms!"

The Soup Objectivist serves as a good example of how Ayn Rand misunderstood businesspeople. Real businesses want customers. That's why they spend so much on market research.

Burger King says, "Have it your way!"

This is why the world is full of Burger Kings, whereas Soup Objectivists are only found in sitcoms, satires, and Ayn Rand novels.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Karl Marx's "Erupting Skin Boils" Gave Birth to Communism

What inspired Karl Marx to found Communism? Not humanism, as his defenders say.

Rather, a dermatologist suggests that Karl Marx suffered from "self-loathing and alienation" due to a repulsive and embarrassing skin disease.

Ugh, what a creep!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand

Libertarian satires of Ayn Rand extend at least as far back as Jerome Tuccille's nonfiction It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand (1971). Such works appeal to libertarians' conflicted admiration for Rand; her books inspired many readers to trek down the intellectual path to libertarianism, yet Rand's authoritarian personal life was a Stalinist parody of her individualist philosophy (e.g., her living room "show trials" of acolytes who'd violated the Objectivist "party line").

Rand herself was in no way conflicted over libertarians, whom she called "a random collection of hippies of the right." In 1976, she enthusiastically supported Gerald Ford for president over both Reagan and Carter, never mind the LP's Roger MacBride. Nor did she share many a libertarians' self-deprecating humor, which she regarded as a form of "sanction of the victim." She'd reputedly said that "laughing at yourself is like spitting in your own face." Who would John Galt laugh at? Not himself, certainly.

But all this history is mostly unknown to "outsiders," who often confuse Rand's Objectivism with libertarianism. Thus it may surprise Gene H. Bell-Villada (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and, one presumes, a good "progressive") to learn that many libertarians will delight in his "The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand," a 63-page novella that also lends its title to his 13-piece collection.

The novella will resonate with libertarians. Many of us have seen, or read of, or heard of real-life versions of Bell-Villada's characters. (I had a high school classmate who turned "Randroid" for a few years.) In "The Pianist," a university music student studies Rand to impress an Objectivist coed. But despite mastering an ability to spout boilerplate Objectivism, his amorous advances fall short of the Roarkian aggression needed to impress the coed.

Most of Bell-Villada's protagonists are nerdy Latinos; bookish beta males with a love of classical music. In "The Prize" a Puerto Rican boy is obsessed with a classical music radio station. But when he finally finds the courage to call the station and win a classical recording, it turns out to be an LP -- and his family's record player only accepts 78s. In "The Customer" a lonely engineer spends every Saturday savoring The New Yorker--articles, advertising, and all. His admiration for an unseen model's legs inspires him to drive to the liquor store and see if he can find a display ad featuring that same model.

In Randian terms, Bell-Villada's stories are naturalistic rather than romantic. Brief sketches of ordinary people pursuing minor dreams, defeated by petty, random events. His stories are satirical, minimalist, and literary. The sort of "slices of life" favored by university presses. Heavy on character rather than plot.

The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand remains in print, and inexpensive used copies are available on Some of the stories are better than others, but libertarians shouldn't care. "The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand" alone is worth the price.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Halloween Begins August 7th

It's well known that Halloween starts earlier every year.

Last year I spotted Halloween-themed clothing in a Rego Park, NY Sears on August 16. Orange-and-black sweater tops for women, featuring witch logos. A witch on a broomstick. Of course, it's possible that Sears put those items on display before August 16.

This year my first "Halloween sighting" was in a Santa Monica, CA Rite Aid on August 7. Two big novelty toys. One of them a giant plastic skull that supposedly flashes lights, or tells fortunes, or whatever, when you turn it on. I didn't try it, so I'm not sure what it does.

Again, it's possible that Rite Aid put these Halloween items on display prior to August 7.

I suppose it's only fair that Halloween get a jump on the Back To School sales, since last year I saw Christmas items on display in a Santa Monica Sav-On weeks before Halloween was over.

Speaking of which, now might be a good time to read Halloween Candy.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Iris Dorbian of Checkmate

Back in the 1980s, when I was an NYU film student, I shot a shot a slasher film. (It was the 1980s -- who didn't shoot a slasher film?). A short film, 25 minutes, on super-8 film, called Checkmate. About a psycho chess player. It ran on some cable public access channels in Los Angeles and New York.

I hadn't thought of Checkmate in many years. Then just recently, I got an email from Iris Dorbian, who played the Last Girl. (Every slasher film had a Last Girl). Iris found me on the internet, and just contacted me to say hello. Turns out she'd quit acting and gone into journalism. She now covers the theater scene in NY.

It also made me think to google Frank Craven, who played the psycho in Checkmate. Frank's still around too. Still living in Manhattan.

One of the things I remember about Frank was his play, Authority vs. Majority, which he'd told me about. Going to his website, it seems he finally had some success with it in 1999. Goes to show you should never give up.

Makes me wonder, should I take another look at Checkmate and expand it into a feature film? It wasn't art, but it was as good as any other slasher film out there.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Which Horror Killer Are You?

Why don't Cosmo quizes ever ask any important questions. For instance, why don't they ever ask: Which Horror Killer Are You?

And if you're wondering, the quiz says that I'm Jigsaw.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

Kurt Vonnegut has died at 84.

That's really sad. Of all living authors, Vonnegut was the only one that I deeply wanted to meet. Every time I was in New York, I'd planned to see if he was doing any appearances, but I always put it off. My loss.

I began reading Vonnegut in high school. His last great book was Breakfast of Champions in 1973. He didn't think much of it.

In 1972, Harlan Ellison wrote in Dangerous Visions that he'd asked Vonnegut how his new book was coming along. Vonnegut reportedly told Ellison that he'd stopped working on it because "it was a piece of shit." Even so, Vonnegut completed Breakfast and it was quite good.

Breakfast was eventually made into a film, as were Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, and Happy Birthday Wanda June. Although all films were faithful to his books, I didn't care for any of them. I don't think Vonnegut adapts well. You can't just film the story and dialog. For Vonnegut to work, you need his "voice," inherent in his prose. Take that voice away, and the resulting film carries the story's pessimism, but loses the black comedy that makes it bearable.

I also wonder, in this post-literate world of MTV and video games, if any contemporary novelist can be as influential as Vonnegut was with contemporary generations?

Also see my article on how Vonnegut's 1952 Player Piano works as a brilliant satire of today's Neocon America.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Amy Levy's Reuben Sachs

I've recently discovered Amy Levy. She's a late Victorian writer who, since about 1990, has been undergoing a rediscovery. She wrote three novels before her death-by-suicide in 1889. Reuben Sachs is generally considered her greatest work, a study of Anglo-Jewish life in 1880s London. The book is only a little over 100 pages (not including commentary by scholars; another of her three "novels" is barely 60 pages, so it's really not a novel).

Aside from being Jewish, Levy was a feminist, reputedly a lesbian, a friend of such notables as Oscar Wilde, plus she committed suicide at the young age of 27. (The ideal death age to assure an artist's immortality: Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones.)

So then why was Levy unknown and out of print for so long? Some theorize that Jews were offended by Levy's Reuben Sachs, which painted a critical picture of what Levy regarded as the materialism and sexism of Jewish culture.

It's an interesting work, thoughtful and moving and depressing. I suppose to some extent it's because we know the author eventually killed herself. Perhaps for no rational reason, suicide lends "authenticity" to an artist's work, imbuing her work with a pain that reaches across time. Knowing Levy's novels and life story, we wish we could have met and talked with her.

I seem to be on a Victorian binge. Just before Reuben Sachs, I read G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Some sharp satirical dialog -- and often insightful -- in what is sometimes called a spy thriller, but is really an absurdist comedy that grows into a Christian allegory. (And since it was published in 1908, it's really Edwardian rather than Victorian.) Chesterton tries to surprise, but as the novel progressed, I saw the twists coming. Even so, its humor and insight makes it worth sticking with to the end.

Then there is George Gissing's New Grub Street. Every writer should read this tale of the 1880s London literary scene. It seems the writer's life in 2007 is very much like that in the 1880s. There's even talk of how modern technology will revolutionize publishing paradigms and liberate authors. In our case, it's publishing-on-demand and the internet; in New Grub Street it's the telegraph, which will supposedly liberate authors from publishers by granting authors independent access to foreign markets. Didn't happen then, not happening now.

New Grub Street is some 560 pages, but I couldn't put it down. Its has literary scams, writers block, sleazy "agents" selling services to authors, struggling artists, cynical hacks, authors who lament readers' shrinking attentions spans, rejection slips, low pay, one author who's stricken with cataracts, another who must rush into a burning building to save the only copy of his recently completed novel, and much else. Plus, a large cast of memorable characters and exciting storylines (at least to other authors; I suppose few readers care that much about whether this or that character will get a rejection slip).

I highly recommend all three of the above books.

Monday, April 02, 2007

2007 World Horror Con blues

I've attended most every World Horror Con since Seattle in 2001. I missed Chicago in 2002. Then -- I was at all of them. Kansas City, Phoenix, New York, San Francisco. I was "gonged" at the Seattle Gross-Out Contest, but placed 4th at the San Francisco Gross-Out.

But I missed Toronto. Why? Partially because of new federal rules requiring passports to travel by plane to Canada. Too much hassle for someone like me, who hasn't been out of the US in decades. (Privacy advocates also worry that the new passports have radio chip implants: Terrorists Chip In).

So our encroaching police state kept me away from World Horror in Toronto. I wonder about the total economic impact of all these new security measures?

I do expect to be at the 2008 World Horror Con in Salt Lake City.