Friday, October 30, 2009

Things I"ve Noticed: Documentaries are starting to freak me out

One day to go before Halloween and its time for me to talk about the films that have been freaking me out the most over the years, movies that get under my skin and have me looking over my shoulder in fear, I'm talking about documentaries.

It all started back in 1997 for me when I watched the film Trekkies. I'll happily admit that I grew up watching Star Trek on Saturday mornings, both the original series and the cartoon, I loved the movies, some of the novels, and was very excited to see the Next Generation when it came out. When I was 16 I even wore a Star Trek uniform to high school one day (and no it wasn't for Halloween). Watching this film I realized that I was actually pretty low on the Trekkie scale (maybe a 4 out of 10) but it hit very close to home.

Then just two years ago I came across the film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and was sucked right into the lives of Steve Wiebe and his Donkey Kong playing nemeis Billy Mitchell. Donkey Kong was the first arcade game I ever played on a home console (I would have been 6 or 7 and the system was a ColecoVision), I grew up being pretty proud of my status as the kid who played games till the end and in my early twenties I even had a Billy Mitchell-like nememsis who seemed to have it out for me and my modest successes. Although never a Donkey Kong champion myself, I was really able to connect with this film.

The documentary that finally did it for me, that showed a world so close to my own that I got a little scared, was Monster Camp. I did a lot of Live Role Playing Games in my twenties and even went to the trouble of running a few. The process of creating a world, handling dozens of players concerns, creating props, finding locations, and more (for FUN!), can easily drain even the most die-hard of Gamemasters, and I have definitely gone through the process of giving up games forever more than a few times. This film was like watching the latest end of one of my live games, the players, the problems, the late nights, everything. Although the film was made in Washington and I'm up in Canada, the story was definitely the same.

All three of these titles are in my wish-list, as movies they are really great and the devotion (trekkies), emotion (King of Kong) and frustration (Monster camp), shown in the films comes across very well. Part of what I love about documentaries is that they show you how incredibly amazing real life is, but as the ones I've been watching have become more geek-centric, I am getting a little nervous about how much I can relate to them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Genre Character of the Week: Rick Grimes

This week I thought I would start looking at some of the many characters I love from genre fiction. As I focused on a personal favourite from SF last week, and as Halloween is a mere three days away, it's time to focus on one of my favourites in horror.

From the horror comic series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Officer Rick Grimes, represents, to me anyway, one of the better role models when it comes to surviving a zombie apocalypse. Waking up in a hospital in the first issue, Rick is dropped head-first into the horrors that this new zombie-ruled world has in store for him. Over the more than 60 issues of this series (it is still ongoing) Rick continually, although not voluntarily, stands up for his small band of survivors and does everything he can to ensure their survival. This guy is simply a blue-collar every-man who is trying to do the best he can in one of the worst situations in genre fiction.

I find there is a lot about Rick I can relate to; he's married, a parent, likes to be proactive in problem solving - rather than simply running from the zombies he looks for a safe long-term location to live, and his solution makes perfect sense from a zombie-defence point of view. Although I am not a police officer, the main character as protector is easy to relate to as a dad, and the importance of getting people to work together is something that I think is relatable to most people.

In the end, Rick goes through more than I would ever, EVER want to go through. He does things for his family I only hope I could do if the world ever went to hell, but I think that is his greatest appeal, a regular guy who does everything he can to protect the people he loves.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: The Travelling Vampire Show

On Saturday I saw the film "Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," in which a young boy goes to a shady travelling carnival, meets up with vampires and has his entire life changed. The movie was pretty good, and incidentally, I totally bought John C. Reilly as a vampire. Overall it was a great flick for me to enjoy with my vampire loving 12-year-old. When I think about stories involving travelling vampire shows for myself, I've got to admit, my personal favourite is definitely Richard Laymon's The Travelling Vampire Show.

The Story itself focuses on three young kids, Dwight - our narrator, Slim - his tomboy love-interest, and Rusty - his best friend. The novel is set in 1963 and has a very nostalgic vibe throughout. Basically the three teens hear about this upcoming show, try to sneak an early peak with unfortunate results, and the show itself, featuring a very sexual vampire called Valeria, ends up being the climax of the book. The whole books balances expertly between a nostalgic look at being 16 and a horrific look at the actions surrounding the show - the violence is pretty extreme. I guess this may not be your grandmothers travelling vampire show book.

Richard Laymon (pictured right) died at age 54 of a heart attack in 2001. His works, although critically praised here (both Stephen King and Dean Koontz were fans), were most popular in Europe. I haven't read anything else by him yet, but this novel, along with David Morrell's Creepers, was one of the best unheard of titles I found while reading the Bram Stoker Awards.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Things I've Noticed #10: The More I Notice, The More I Notice

I think we've all had it at one time or another, you take a course on something, go on a trip somewhere, or just start checking out a new author and then suddenly this new information you have starts showing up all over your favourite TV shows, books, Movies and games.

A few months back I took a university course on Ancient Greece and all of a sudden I started noticing references to the time period in the movies I was watching (and not just obvious ones like 300, but stuff like Run, Fat Boy, Run) and the books I was reading (I read a 1953 western by Lois L'Amour which started with a refernce to the Persian Wars) like some kind of demented Where's Waldo image, only more like a Land of Waldo image (Pictured left).

And although at first I thought that this was only something that I'd noticed, yesterday my friend Mike talked about the same thing - he just went on a trip to The Netherlands and suddenly he's noticing Dutch culture showing up everywhere.

I think that this stuff was always out there for me to see, the references to Ancient Greece or whatever other stuff I've started paying attention to, but I'm only now becoming really aware of how far these references go.

It's kinda cool, actually; the more of the world you notice, the more of there world there is to notice.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

You Owe it to Yourself #10: Favourite Characters

We all have them, the characters in books or movies or even video games that just stand out, that we relate to, and I think it might be interesting to take a closer look at the ones that you like best. Unfortunately, you aren't writing this post, so instead we'll look at the ones I like best and you can tell my your favourties in the comments.

When analysing why your favourite characters are your favourites, you should follow these steps: (I'll give an example)

1. Gush - Begin by explaining everything you love about the character.
For me, one of my favourite characters in SF is Miles Vorkosigan, who features in more than a dozen books by Lois McMaster-Bujold. This guy starts out as a trainee, becomes a mercenary, then the leader of an army of space mercenaries, a spy, a diplomat, and has a LOT of character development, dealing with his parents expectations, growing up, growing older, falling in love, changing careers, and lost of other stuff - but with Laser guns and spaceships!

2. Relate - Try to figure out things you and the character have in common.
All right, I'll admit it, I'm not the head of a band of mercenaries, or a super-spy, or even the next in line of a royal family in a military world, but Miles and I do have a lot in common, we both come from a mixed marriage, we both have a significant health problems we had to overcome (Miles' health problem, an issue with his bones which makes them very fragile, definitely trumps my asthma and vision problems, but I can relate), and we both married women we are crazy about.

3. Role Model - What attributes does the character have that you want?
Miles' two greatest strengths are thinking outside the box and working through a problem until it is finished. I love how regardless of the danger he is put in (these are Action-Adventure SF stories) that he can overcome it in unusual ways (Check out the short story Labyrinth for my personal favourite) and actually thrives in most any environment. Miles ability to see a job to completion, whether a murder investigation, or a difficult mercenary mission, is also really admirable to me as I like to think I'm pretty good at finishing what I've started, too.

So there you have it, three simple steps to getting a handle on why you love the characters you do, as well as a look at one of my personal favourites, you know, I might actually make a "Favourite Characters" post a regular thing here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bookmonkey's Top Five Scary Comic books

As we get closer to Halloween I try to read or see some new scary stuff as much as I can. This is the one month of the year where you can proudly read all sorts of horrific titles on the bus and nobody minds. My biggest problem is actually selecting which stuff to read as there is so much of it out there. My solution - categories.

Two weeks ago I looked at the 5 horror novel classics I figure everyone should check out, today I'm going to look at comic books. So here goes, my five favourite horror titles in comic books:

5. Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
This comic was actually the first graphic novel I ever purchased. Flipping through it on the shelf at the comic store, I was simply in awe of the artwork; Dave McKean's painted panels freaked the hell out of me, each character looked different than the standard comic book versions but way WAY scarier. The basic idea is that the inmates at Arkham have taken over the Asylum and will only see reason if Batman comes to play. This story is a little hard to read, as each characters word balloons are very different, but believe me, it is totally worth a visit (or revisit) for Halloween.

Really all I can say here (because if you haven't read it I am not going to wreck it) is issue 21 "The Anatomy Lesson." Go get Saga of the Swamp thing #1 (issues 20-27) and start reading. This is some of the freakiest, scariest stuff I have ever come across and for you first time readers I am completely envious of you, this stuff is simply comic gold.

3. Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
Like probably half of the comic book readers who started in the early '90s, this is were I started too. These books are so good I have difficultly trying to break it down into a synopsis. I think my friend Mike described it best as saying "In every issue there is at least one panel that I would classify as Nightmare batter." From Serial Killer conventions to the Cuckoos to the Devil himself, this comic has it all.

2. The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman
I started purchasing this series for my brother-in-law Jeff as he is a big fan of zombie stories, but while they were sitting in my house waiting for his birthday or Christmas to come around I would take a peak, and then another, and then I got hooked. Done entirely in Black and White, these comics go beyond the end of every zombie film you've ever seen and attempt to answer the question "What happens next?" I've been following the survivors of this zombie plague for the last five years and I don't want it to end!

1. Hellblazer, by Jamie Delano
This comic is one of my favourite titles over all, but with one simple rule. Read the comic issue by issue, rather than purchasing the graphic novels. I'm not exactly sure of what DC is trying to do here, each graphic novel is a collected story, but there isn't actually any attempt to label them vol. 1, 2, 3, etc. so if you want the whole story of this very broken, talented bastard, you will have to read them issue by issue. Frustrating, expensive, but totally worth it, as hands down Hellblazer is the scariest comic I've ever read.

So now that you have my top five, how about the rest of you? Any scary comics I should be reading? I'm always looking for more.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thing I've Noticed #9: People can tell a lot about you by your collections

What do you think your book or DVD collection says about you? I mean, what would a new friend think about your tastes in books and movies when they look over the stuff in your house? We've all done it, checked out our friends collections and been a little surprised at the titles they own.

One of my favourite quotes from the 1983 film "The Big Chill" goes as follows:

Michael: Harold, don't you have any other music, you know, from this century?
Harold: There is no other music, not in my house.
Michael: There's been a lot of terrific music in the last ten years.
Harold: Like what?

Although not as strict as Harold, I do think there is a definite benefit to going through your book and movie collections and culling out stuff you no longer want people connecting with you.

Every August (just before my birthday) I go over my DVD and book collections and shift them around. Basically there are three stages to a titles life in my house.

Stage One: Out on the shelves in my living room or study. These books or movies are ones I'm currently interested in, or are titles I'm planning to check out soon. When people come into my house and look around, these are the titles that they notice and can safely assume I'm currently proud to own.

Stage Two: The titles I keep in the basement are either ones I want, but not around my kids (mostly horror titles), or titles that I think I might still need. Most of my University course books are down there, old RPG books are down there, my VHS collection is down there.

Stage Three: The Garage. These books are in bins and are treated as follows, if they stay there for a year, they go to the Used Book store. It is important to note that this isn't a one way trip, titles can migrate back and forth from these three spots for years.

I think it is fair to say that people do judge you by your collections, and honestly it can be a pretty good place for them to start, as you probably paid money for these things and are displaying them in your home. I've got lots of favourites, and whether they are classics, or guilty pleases, I definitely stand by them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You Owe it to Yourself #9: Attack your "I'll get around to it" pile

When it comes to gamers, readers, and viewers, we all have one; a pile of stuff that we are definitely going to get around to checking out, someday. For me it sits on the shelf next to my computer (pictured above), a collection of books I've put together over the last few years from used book stores, my local comic book store, and even from Amazon that although I haven't read yet, I promise myself I will definitely be reading pretty soon.

I've got other lists for movies and games as well; they exist on spreadsheets and includes classics, hard-to-find, and upcoming titles I am totally going to check out... sometime.

Now, just like all of you, I lead a pretty busy life - I'm a husband, a parent, a worker, a reader, a blogger (for the last two months - Horray!), a part-time university student, a BFF, and a guy trying to get on top of my weight. These things are all pretty big priorities to me, and sometimes they mean that I don't get around to checking out the stuff I want to get around to checking out.

In addiction, I'm also more than a little obsessed with working my way through lists of stuff (my latest two, lists from new friends on Facebook, give me a suggested reading order for the novels of Neville Shute and a list of Laurel and Hardy flicks to check out - I'm pretty excited about those actually), but even with my successes in that, I seem to constantly be adding to my collection of titles and lists of titles that I haven't checked out yet, but want to get around to soon.

So hears what I suggest, lets call this The Bookmonkey Challenge '09. Take a couple minutes today and go through your "I'll get around to it" pile. Pick one thing and try to check it out before Christmas - that's 75 days to read a book, watch a movie or play through a game you've been meaning to get around to.

As the guy who suggested it, and being pretty excited about the idea (pictured right) I'll try to do three (my picks - Novel - The Wolf's Hour, by Robert McCammon, Comic - Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, Brian Lee O'Halley, and DVD - Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson) We'll compare notes and Christmas and at the very least will have put a small dent in our "I'll get around to it" piles, because, after all, you owe it to yourself.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Reivew: Creepers

A while back I decided to read all the winners of the Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel from the beginning (1987) to now (2009). Two years and twenty-three books later I have read a lot of really good books, a few really great books, one average book, and two books that really surprised me with how good they were. This week I'll be looking at the first of those two; Creepers by David Morrell.

Lets begin with the fact that this book is actually a little different than the horror I usually read: no monsters, no supernatural, and no end of days scenario to be seen. Actually this book takes place in the (previously unknown to me) world of urban exploring. Basically, this pastime involves exploring closed or condemned buildings in cities, and involves a lot of climbing, personal danger, and comfort with dirt.

Creepers is actually the popular nickname for these urban explorers and they are definitely a real thing, check out one of their Canadian websites at

The author, David Morrell (pictured right) is actually most famous for having written First Blood (The novel that the first of the Rambo films was based on), which by the way is an excellent book in its own right, ends differently that the movie, and took me over a year to find in various used-book stores before I could read it.

The story itself leans more towards Thriller than Horror; basically it follows a group of Creepers as they explore an abandoned hotel while some very nasty thieves are up to the same thing, so it involves the adventure of exploring an old building with a treasure hunt and a lethal game of hide and seek.

I really, really dug this book and I have to say that although I wasn't expecting much at all from it initially, it was by far one of my favourite Horror books of the last 10 years. (Suck it, The Ruins.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Things I've Noticed #8: Are Remakes giving up?

I just watched the trailer for the new "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie, due out next February and I noticed something pretty strange. Except for the opening bit where the parents of Elm Street burn Krueger alive, practically every single other shot in the whole thing was a direct steal from the original film.

Just as the '90s were filled with kid movie remakes (The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat, etc.), our current decade is full of horror remakes. The problem is this, if you have nothing new to say, why exactly are you saying anything?

I actually don't mind remakes - although I don't mind reading subtitles, a lot of people do and therefore the idea of taking a foreign film and remaking it for western audiences is all right by me, I'm even a pretty big fan of the horror remake, because when it is done well - John Carpenter's "The Thing" for example, it can actually add to the enjoyment of the original without simply being a shameless steal.

I think that Dark Castle Entertainment actually started out with a pretty good idea - remake b-movies from the 50s and 60s with better actors and bigger budgets. The key however is to stick with movies that can be remade without alienating their key audiences.

When the remake of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" came out, I wasn't excited, I was kind of pissed - the original 1951 film said everything so perfectly, what could a new movie do?The point of a remake is to take the original material and do something new with it, if you simply copy the original, but add a new word here or there, it's called plagiarism.

Now I'm not saying remakes should never happen, but at the very least they should show something different - and for the record, a higher gore level is not different - I mean something different with the story, or the theme, or characterization.

I remember being blown away back in 1998 by the idea that Gus Van Sant was going to remake, shot-by-shot Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and although the result was not great, at least you can say he was honest about what he was doing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

You owe it to yourself #8: Keeping up to date

Over the past two months I've said a lot about reading your current favourite genre; focusing on award winners, classics, and trying to define exactly what your favourite genre are. This week I'm going to switch from the old to the new. I'm talking about the currently best selling books in your genre.

If you are well known among your friends and co-workers as "The Fantasy Guy" or "The Comic Book Guy" or even "The Non-Fiction Guy" it wouldn't hurt for you to keep an eye on one of the many best-sellers lists available on line for books you should be reading.

Being a Canadian, my first stop is The Globe & Mail best-sellers list. As I run a small library I like to think that I keep up-to-date on what my fellow Canadians are reading. Next I go to The New York Times best-sellers list. I like the fact that my neighbours to the South also keep track of the best-selling graphic novels each week. For a more specific comic list I check out the best-sellers at Diamond Distributors.

I'm not saying that you should limit yourself to only reading best-sellers, just like you shouldn't limit yourself to only reading one author or one genre; what I am saying is that you should be aware of the current big stuff in your genre of choice. I'm a huge horror fan, it would be silly for my friends to think I was unaware of the entire Saw series or the Twilight books - actually I didn't like either of them - I like my horror movies with less torture-porn and my vampire books with more, you know, VAMPIRES in them.

Basically, if your friends and co-workers are reading about your genre in the paper or online, you owe it to yourself to know what they are talking about, even if the stuff isn't exactly your favourite part of the genre. Otherwise you quickly fall out of the loop and are no longer seen as "The Horror Guy" and are instead simply seen as "That guy who says he likes horror but doesn't even know what Twilight is about."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Top Five Horror Classics everyone should read

As a huge fan of horror fiction, I am often asked, "What's a good place to start?" and considering we are now in the month of October, I get asked this a lot. So here are my five top horror classics everyone should read. A big part of why I chose these particular books is that each of them are great starting points in multiple ways (massively influential, very scary and short), so here we go:

5. The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore (1933)
Set in France during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the novel follow Bertrand Caillet, a young man who suffers from a strange family illness and his attempts to escape his family curse. The book is full of dream imagery, sex, and violence. As Betrand falls under the family curse and finds what may be his only chance at true love his outbursts become bigger and more frightening. This book, the only one on the list most people may not have heard of, is a treat for the interested horror fan as it is a very readable book that asks the question right until the end - Is Bertrand actually a werewolf, or simply insane?

4. Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Many people see this book as the first true werewolf novel, as although Henry Jekyll does not transform into a wolf, the book does focus on a man attempting to escape the actions and consequences of his other self, a creature which leaves murder and destruction in its path. This book was a huge influence on the creation of both The Hulk and the Batman villain Two-Face. The story actually asks a lot of pretty deep questions: If man is a creature of both good and evil, and the evil side could be removed, should we? How much of who we are actually comes from this evil side? The book is quite short (it's a novella) and is totally worth the day or two it would take to read it.

3.Frankenstein or, the modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (1831)
First thing first - this book, considered by many to be the first Science Fiction novel was written by an eighteen-year-old girl. Any time people suggest to me that horror or SF is for boys, I always remind them that one of the most influential, frightening stories in both those genres the world has ever seen came out of the mind of a young woman. The book follows a story-within-a-story format, wherein an Arctic travelling ship rescues doctor Victor Frankenstein and in that ship, the captain is told the doctor's story. You probably read it in high-school, but this book is completely worth a revisit, as are the two original Universal pictures based on it.

2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897)
What can I say here, the book awesome. Fitted together as diary entries, news clippings, and letters between friends. Acting like a vampire itself, the novel sucks you right in from the beginning and doesn't let you go. There is a reason why Dracula has been adapted for the movies more than any other character from literature and you have to read this book to get it. It's greatest weakness is that its Victorian-era characters tend to go off on little speeches, but it's greatest strength is that the book is a little different than you might remember, especially if all you remember are the movies.

1. The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells (1897)
Why do you ask, does this book beat out both Dracula and Frankenstein for me? Simple, Griffin, our main character, is just about one of the craziest, nastiest people I have ever read about. In the course of the novel he kills more people than any of the monsters in the other four books, and that doesn't even take into account the people he probably killed (for instance, he breaks into an old man's house, beats him nearly to death, ties him up and then throws him down a flight of stairs into an unheated basement - we never hear about the old guy again). Kevin Bacon actually said it best in one of my guilty pleasure horror film "Hollow Man" (2000) when he stated "It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore."

So there you have it, five classic horror stories, none of them over 250 pages that will all do a pretty great job of giving you chills this Halloween season. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Things I've Noticed #7: The 5 Reasons Horror Fiction Rocks

A couple weeks ago I spent almost an entire post explaining why I hated Scott Smith's The Ruins. As we have now entered October, I figured it might be a good idea to explain some things I love about Horror Fiction.

1. It's pretty much the only genre that allows you to kill off your main character - yes, I know, people die tearfully in dramas and often in action and mystery books, but for the most part, your main character is a guaranteed survivor - unless you're reading horror and then all bets are off.

2. Shorter is often better - Short Stories seem to be a natural place for Horror, I think it's easier to ramp up the tension and really get the fear going when the story is less than 50 pages. Even when I think of my favourite horror novelists, Stephen King and Richard Matheson, both of them excel at the short story.

3. It can even work when you know how it will end - case in point, I read Psycho by Robert Bloch two years ago - and even though I had seen the movie and knew the entire story, the book seriously gave me a case of the heebie jeebies.

4. Horror is not often considered literature - and sometimes that suits me just fine - I read a lot of books that are good for me, but every once in a while it is nice to just read something that has an incredibly high "Cool" factor. Also, since it is not considered literature, more people are willing to talk to you about it.

5. Horror is an emotion - so it can show up in any genre. I've read horror westerns (Track of the Cat), Horror Fantasy (Night's Master), Horror SF (The Sheep Look Up) and tonnes more. Unlike other genres, horror can easily sneak up on you anywhere - and when it mixes with comedy (my personal favourite), you get something very cool!

I think the reason I love horror is simple; I like getting an emotional reaction from the stuff I read, and really good horror can leave you a little scared for a long time.