Sunday, October 19, 2014

12 Days 'Til Halloween: Candy Sunday (3)

Some kids are perfectly happy to eat their Halloween candy straight out of the plastic pumpkin, sticking their hands in blindly and unwrapping whatever comes out. And some kids prefer to dump the contents onto the kitchen table or the dining room floor and inventory their haul, the better to formulate some kind of optimized consumption strategy.

Clearly, given which approach could be described as "unthinking" and which might qualify as "overthinking", I fell (read: fall, who do I think I'm kidding) into the latter category. So, speaking as an insider, I know there are a few different motivations that lead to this kind of careful candy accounting.

One possibility is that the kid in question has one or two favorite candies, and the kid wants to first find out how many of those favorites he or she actually managed to score, and second ration those favorites accordingly. (Corollary: if there is a surplus of someone else's favorite candies and a deficit of one's own, some reciprocal candy exchange may be brokered.) It's dispiriting to discover without warning that there aren't any Peanut M&M's left in your stash, and simultaneously realize that you didn't properly appreciate the last of them, whenever past-you happened to gobble them down. I do have my favorites, and I do try to savor them, but this isn't really my main rationale.

Another possibility is that the kid has come to the sophisticated realization that not all candy goes together perfectly. It is gustatorially jarring to chase a mini Mounds with a strawberry Starburst (or any flavor of Starburst, at that). Laying out and tallying up the candy allows the kid to, at the very least, identify the chocolate/non-chocolate divide and proceed with some kind of flavor-profile coherence. This is getting closer to where I'm coming from ...

All right, look, the thing is, I like to eat Halloween candy in a very specific order. I enjoy smooth transitions from one combination of ingredients to the next. So I like to know exactly what I have on hand in order to arrange things in their proper order. If I can form a taste bridge between a fun-sized Milky Way and a Hershey's Special Dark by way of a fun size Milky Way Midnight, why wouldn't I obey that simple logic? Or start with a Milky Way, proceed to a Snickers (essentially a Milky Way plus peanuts), follow that with a Snickers PB Squared (the "PB" is for peanut butter), and stick the landing with a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?

Don't judge me. I can't be the only person who does this. I'm just willing to admit it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

13 Days 'Til Halloween Grab Bag

Don't forget to enter the contest going on this month!

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I don't think I've got it in me to do a full write-up, but I did want to mention during this Halloween Countdown that I recently saw 28 Days Later, which is (fairly rightly) considered a modern horror classic and one I had missed out on the first time around. It's certainly another impressive entry in Danny Boyle's filmography, both on its own merits and in terms of just how different it is from his other work in Trainspotting and Sunshine (the presence of Cillian Murphy notwithstanding).

There are aspects of the plot that really don't make a ton of sense, mostly involving the zombies and how they work. I'm all for a new breed of zombie that moves with punishing speed and ferocity, and putting that down to a virus that manifests as pure rage and spreads via blood and saliva is as good an explanation as any. Except for the whole pandemic aspect, when you stop and think about it. By making the monsters living hosts for a neurological disease rather than reanimated corpses with a hunger for brains, it seems to me that the vectors get all screwed up. Undead zombie bites you, you die (of the bite or other causes), then you rise again as a zombie, that has a certain mythic logic to it. It doesn't matter if the zombie bites you once in the course of you fighting it off and escaping, or if multiple zombie bites are part of the zombie killing you. Rage-infected person bites you, you get infected as well, but you have to be alive in order to become one of them. If you die, you're just dead. So why would these rage-zombies leave any of their victims alive? If they are truly infected with pure rage, wouldn't that manifest as attacking someone and just savagely beating/biting them to death? Pure rage does not, to me, imply "and also they have an agenda of spreading the virus to other living hosts". It implies an initial outbreak of violence that would quickly burn itself out, as a small number of rage-zombies kill a bunch of people, then are contained, then turn on and kill each other (because why not? it's not like they crave the brains of the living and can't get any sustenance out of cannibalizing each other; rage is still rage directed at any target). It's as though the writer (Alex Garland) came up with a nifty pseudo-scientific explanation for a scarier kind of zombie, then plugged them into all the old tropes of zombie movies despite the fact that a game-changer does in fact change the game. By the latter portions of the movie, where Major West is bragging that he has one live, captive zombie as a kind of experiment to see how long it takes for their kind to starve to death, it's as if everyone has forgotten that the "zombies" are supposed to just be human beings infected with a fury-inducing virus, and presumably they'd starve to death about as fast as anyone else.

None of that matters, clearly. A zombie pandemic with different bells and whistles is just an excuse for an examination of how human beings get by in the world and what might happen if the extraneous elements of civilization were stripped away, and between that and the audacious visuals brought to the screen the movie has to be considered a success. But since it's October, I felt compelled to consider the creatures as a concept, just in the spirit of things. (That spirit is apparently "nitpicky".) Still, no version blood-spitting predators can really top Brendan Gleeson looking at the only unspoiled fruit in a post-apocalyptic grocery and delivering the immortal line, "Mmmmmm ... irradiated."

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This week I found out that a short story I've written has been accepted for a forthcoming anthology, which was an unexpected bit of good news. I won't get into too many details about it here, and for that matter probably won't until the book is much closer to a publication date, but I'm including it in the grab bag because it's at least tangentially Halloween-like. The tale I told (or retold, as it happens) is a horror-story twist on a classic fairy tale. Fun stuff. Updates to follow!

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We've made it more than halfway through the countdown and I haven't missed a day yet - can I keep it up for another 12 days? Come back tomorrow and find out!

Friday, October 17, 2014

14 Days 'Til Halloween: Weathering the storm

I can remember one October, probably fourth or fifth grade or thereabouts, hoping very hard that there would be a full moon on Halloween. Because I was going to be a werewolf that year, you see, and so I wanted every detail including the phases of heavenly objects to be just so in support of that. I think it also occurred to me that given the full moon's general association with supernatural doings beyond lycanthropy, it just was the optimal kind of moon to have on Halloween. And at that age I was vaguely aware of the existence of some holidays which always fell on the same date and some holidays which floated around, based on "lunar calendars", and I could not for the life of me figure out why Halloween fell in the former camp as opposed to the latter.

These days I'm less concerned with the relative positions of the sun and moon on the 31st and more focused on the weather. And of course my priorities have completely flip-flopped: I'll grant without question that a driving rain and thunder and lightning are atmospherically appropriate to just about any imaginary Halloween narrative, but at this point practicalities trump aesthetics and I would vastly prefer a clear, dry, unseasonably mild night on which to tromp around the neighborhood with my kids. Don't get me wrong, I would undertake said tromping with a golf umbrella in hand and endure the chill and damp without complaint, and the thought of telling my kids "no trick-or-treating in this downpour, better luck next year" would never cross my mind. But I was speaking of preferences.

It strikes me that this is yet another strange distinction that Halloween has in the childhood calendar, that it's an event entirely dependent on one's ability to get outside. Or, at least, in my middle-class suburban template-based childhood; I understand there are kids who live in highrises who can trick-or-treat up one hallway and down the other and never see what moon is up in the sky, and there are also kids who live in remote areas where the preferred nighttime activity is converging on some central location for a big party or somesuch. But go with me on this.

If Easter gets rained out, you can still hunt for eggs hidden around the rooms of your house. White Christmases are nice and all but nothing is ruined if December 25th is sunny and warm. Lousy, uncooperative weather on Halloween is just the worst. And it's been fairly lousy around here this week, massive storms on Wednesday, which just happen to translate into serious sinus headache aggravations for me as the waves of rapidly changing barometric pressure roll on through. So perhaps I've had seasonal weather on the mind even moreso than usual. Everybody talks about it, nobody ever seems to do anything about it, ain't it the truth.

Fight Club Friday! (3)

- WHOA! WHOA! WHOA! Ok, you are now firing a gun at your 'imaginary friend' near 400 GALLONS OF NITROGLYCERIN!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

15 Days 'Til Halloween: The little things (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble)

Since Halloween is both a holiday for kids and a festival of frights, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about a storybook that scared the BEJEEZUS out of me when I was a wee lad of maybe six or seven years old:

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is an award-winning children's book; but it's no Cat in the Hat or Where the Wild Things Are, so some of you may be familiar with it and some of you may not. It is not an intentionally scary book, as far as my adult mind can reckon. Like any truly worthwhile bit of children's entertainment, it has its moments, of course. It's not in the let's-all-cooperate-and-share vein (which has its own worth too, granted, but more as a pro-social teaching tool than as narrative art that can and should stick with someone past early elementary school or so), it actually has conflict and tension and stakes, but arguably still of a fairly manageable level, with brightly-colored and gently-rendered illustrations of the anthropomorphic animal characters. It's not unexpurgated Grimm's fairy tales. But for pure, abject existential terror, there's not much else in my childhood which stands out quite so hauntingly.

Sylvester is a young donkey who collects things, like interesting-looking pebbles. And one day he happens to find a magic, wish-granting pebble, which in the context of the story is a fairly unusual object. Human-like animals aside, it's a pretty mundane world that Sylvester inhabits, and the magic pebble is his special secret little treasure.

So clearly right off the bat we have a premise in which it was all too easy for me to project myself. Sylvester's not just a collector (ahem) but also a bit shy and quiet and maybe even nerdy, when suddenly an element of the utterly fantastical is introduced into his life in the course of indulging in his usual solitary pursuits (which, it goes without saying, was a daydream I had all the time growing up).

One day Sylvester is frightened by a lion (the implications of the co-existence of savage feral animals and domesticated civilized animal-people is never fully explored, not that this occurred to me as a young'un) and a panicked Sylvester wishes he were a rock, because the lion couldn't hurt a rock. His wish comes true, but since he now has no hands (he's not a statue donkey, he's a big oblong boulder) the magic pebble drops to the ground. And if he's not holding the pebble, or at least making physical contact with it, he can't make any more wishes, including the wish to turn back to normal. So he is stuck as an inert stone, but still very much mentally awake and (at least inwardly) aware.

WHICH IS HORRIFYING. This is basically the nightmare at the heart of Johnny Got His Gun, right? A nightmare so terrifying that Metallica wrote a song about it and then underlined it by making a video that referenced both film versions of that novel. Of course I didn't know about the Dalton Trumbo novel when I was a little kid, and Metallica's "One" came much later, but the concept struck a chord in me. I don't know why exactly this should be a particularly devastating fear of mine; maybe it's just the fact that I'm a natural extrovert and I need other people's attention and energy, and therefore extreme isolation strikes me as absolute torture. And maybe, too, in the case of Sylvester and how much I identified with him, I could see myself making a similar mistake, a reflexive mental spaz with dire consequences.

The book then spends a little time describing how Sylvester's parents looked all around for him when he didn't come home, but could never find him, and this also struck terror into my little heart. All well and good now in my rational adulthood to chuckle about how we used to freak out in the 80's about stranger danger and child abduction, blowing them out of all proportion, but living through those times was not always so fun. There was always an undercurrent in the PSAs and school assemblies and whatnot that we kids needed to be careful and protect ourselves not only for our own sakes, but for the sakes of our poor parents who would be so heartbroken if anything ever happened to us. Which must have worked on some level, whether via programming or due to social instinct, I don't know. I do know that when I was little and watched the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy is unafraid about running away from home, but then changes her mind when she imagines how distraught Auntie Em is, it made perfect sense to me. So the plight of Sylvester's parents, the horror of their loss as well as their not knowing what had happened or why, was pretty dang chilling to me.

The story has a happy ending, as one day Sylvester's parents (presumably now somewhere in the "acceptance" phase of their grieving process) go out for a picnic and discover a nice big rock to spread the lunch out on, which of course is the metamorphosed Sylvester. And they happen to notice the magic pebble in the grass, and think how it's the kind of thing Sylvester would have liked, and they set it on top of the boulder. Coincidentally, at the same time, Sylvester's consciousness, floating around in some mental limbo within his geologic prison, is thinking fondly of his mother and father and wishes he could be reunited with them. The pebble grants his wish, changing him back, and everyone is overjoyed and the picnic becomes a celebration.

But even at the tender age of six or seven, that resolution struck me as a bit pat. It was pure dumb luck that Sylvester's parents found him, found the pebble, and put the magic wishing object in contact with their transmuted son at the same time he was idly wishing. There was no comforting lesson about how devoted parental love, or Sylvester's own indomitable spirit or individualistic intelligence, or anything like that, led to his salvation. The message of the book did not seem to be "Disasters happen, but here's how to proactively navigate the storm" but rather "Self-inflicted disasters happen, and there's not much you can do except wait and see how it's all going to turn out due to forces beyond your control." Which, yikes.

I admit, I have not revisited Sylvester and the Magic Pebble at any point. I believe it was checked out of the public library for me and returned a couple of weeks later, so it's not like I could pull it down off my parents' shelves again when I was thirteen or nineteen or twenty-seven. It deeply creeped me out well through my childhood, just popping into my consciousness at random intervals to unsettle me. If I were to run across it again, maybe I'd find that it's perfectly benign, certainly much less sinister than I remember it. But that's assuming I could bring myself to open the cover and risk falling under its spell, and I'm not entirely sure that I could.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

16 Days 'Til Halloween: Sacrifices in vain

Last year, around the approach to Halloween, I read a collection of comics that were part of a crossover called Infestation, and I really only mentioned it here on the blog because it was vaguely seasonally appropriate, and because it gave me a chance to work in some cheap pops for beloved 80's properties like GI Joe and Transformers and also make fun of myself for being the kind of geek who hears about an interesting story concept that's actually the sequel to something else, and insists on going back to the beginning and doing the homework before checking out said attention-grabber. I held off on passing any kind of actual judgment on the Infestation storyline itself because the publisher (IDW) had split the whole crossover up into two volumes, and I had only read the first one, and couldn't fairly evaluate the whole.

A year later, and I finally can. It turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. The fundamental idea is solid enough, particularly if you look at things from a meta perspective (as is my wont). Zombies are such a flexible archetype, which can really fit into just about any setting, so they suggest themselves as a unifying element for telling stories in such disparate environments as the far reaches of Federation space and the New York City where the Ecto-1 is registered. IDW publishes comics based on all of these pre-existing standalone intellectual properties which represent discrete continuities, so they invented a cosmic force of evil called the Undermind, which is the source of all reanimation of the dead and is bigger than any one universe:

And events springboarded from there to the Undermind trying to invade and take over various realities, including those we would recognize as the settings of Star Trek and Ghostbusters and so on. As a result, the story never has to bear the weight of Captain Kirk meeting Peter Venkman, or any other tonal whiplash-inducing mash-up. Spock, Bones and Kirk fight zombies tailored to their milieu, and Ray, Egon, Peter and Winston do the same in theirs, and only the shared backstory weaves them together into the same tapestry.

Which is all well and good for some monster-ized retro pop, not to mention the spectacle of a zombified Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but the freedom of the narrative's episodic nature becomes a drawback when the story requires an ending. Each group of heroes battles zombie hordes and fends off the invasion, but what about the Undermind? Who's going to deal with the Big Bad? The answer IDW provides is ... their own in-house intellectual property, a team of mystics and magical creatures working together as a government supernatural task force with the unlikely title of C.V.O. (Covert Vampiric Operations) It was in fact the C.V.O. that kicked off the whole Infestation by delving too deep and unleashing the Undermind, allowing their resident nice female vampire Britt to become the Undermind's thrall and point woman for invasion. (It was also the C.V.O.'s artillica, blending of magic and technology, which allowed the Undermind to develop the ability to infect robots and create zombie automatons, so that the Transformers could be part of the story, in case you were curious.) In the end, everything climaxes in a big showdown between the C.V.O. and the Undermind, with resident nice male vampire Cross heroically choosing to deliberately become infected by a zombie bite so he can match Britt's new power levels and ...

... and a whole buch of stuff that sounded like they were making it up as they went along. Cross, in addition to being a vampire, is also a magic-user, and so he uses magic to cast as spell that negates all magic in the universe, which renders the artillica useless and creates a feedback wave banishing the Undermind, or something like that, I don't know. Because I had never read a C.V.O. comic before in my life, so I'm a little fuzzy on the details of who was who and what they were capable of and whether or not it was supposed to be emotional and dramatic and noble that one vampire(-wizard?) would willingly undergo zombification to rescue another vampire and incidentally save the world and/or multiple universes. It was a classic bait-and-switch, in other words; I was lured into the story by the promise of revenant Decepticons and shambling corpses versus Ghostbusters and then asked to invest myself in a climax to the whole saga involving characters I had no attachment to whatsoever.

But, as with any good horror franchise (and as I alluded to above) there is a sequel out there, and I will no doubt wind up checking it out, because once I am into something I am in to the bitter end. Something to look forward to for Countdown 2015!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

17 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Garbage Pail Kids)

Wacky Packages may be the first trading cards I can remember buying, but Garbage Pail Kids are the first ones I remember specifically collecting, as opposed to picking up at random intervals somewhere between impulse and habit. I've alluded to my pre-adolescent love of GPKs before (I think? Surely I've at least included an image tangentially related to a post at some point). Much like Wacky Packages, a lot of the appeal derived from the combination of punny wordplay and gross-out gags. And, I am forced to admit, I'm sure some of it was perhaps an unconscious bit of nose-thumbing at my father. To this day (as the blog can attest) it sticks in my craw that despite the insane popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids, to the point where it was not the slightest bit unusual for boys (including my male cousin) to own them, they were essentially verboten in our house because my fathers sons were not going to play with dolls. So doubtless some part of me got a kick out of over-indulging in a bit (read: a lot) of puerile humor, knowing my dad couldn't really object to poop and booger jokes as insufficiently boyish, even if the underlying imagery was inspired by the banned baby dolls.

Anyway, here's some Halloween-ish Garbage Pail Kids in all their nostalgic glory:

I grant you, in hindsight, the series was a bit one-note, which is especially true of later installments as the franchise was driven mercilessly into the ground. Honestly I gave up on collecting GPKs before they gave up on printing new series. But early on I was all in, because my sense of humor was neither refined nor sophisticated back in those halcyon days, and as a result today the nostalgia value is still pretty high. I roll my eyes at my younger self, but I smile all the same.