Saturday, September 02, 2006

Del, Ellen, Kim, Joe, DJS and I (and Kasey)

Where I'm At: This upcoming week, my next SIGHT & SOUND column is due and I must go through a fresh print-out of the BAVA book interior and check my red pen corrections to the previous print-out against the changes Donna has implemented... and somewhere in there, I also have to start (continue, actually) putting together the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

I have spent much of this past week fighting to reel in an article that so far hasn't wanted much to cooperate. I wonder how many of my fellow film journalists have tackled articles on a given subject only to realize, in the midst of the process, that you can't imagine whatever possessed you to undertake it in the first place? With me, this problem article is about the films of Del Tenney. I've always enjoyed his films, which I've found to be interesting and fairly consistent and recognizably the work of the same filmmaker. When Dark Sky released their DVDs of VIOLENT MIDNIGHT and the two-fer of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE earlier this year, I thought I might write something in an attempt to sort out whether or not Tenney qualified as a genuine horror auteur -- and I've been fighting with this article ever since. A couple of nights ago, I watched VIOLENT MIDNIGHT again... a film I've always liked, but suddenly, I could only see what was wrong with it. The article is somehow making me feel adversarial towards the films, which is not a good thing. Del Tenney only produced VIOLENT MIDNIGHT, of course... and that's part of the problem. It's far and away the best-acted movie to carry his name. I'm now at the point of wondering whether I should junk the article and break it up into a series of reviews, without a unifying context, because frankly I'm now questioning whether the question that prompted this article is worth the effort of answering it.

I've also been feeling some discouragement from the arrival of the new edition of THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant. Back in 1995, when my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS was published, Ellen very kindly singled it out in a paragraph as the year's best first novel; it's been more than a decade since then, and I had hoped that THE BOOK OF RENFIELD would be acknowledged in some way, for good or ill -- especially as there were so few reviews. Certainly an incentive in undertaking a novel is to see what knowledgeable people will say about it, especially when they've shown signs of being discerning about your past work. Unfortunately, Ellen's section on "Notable Novels of 2005" in the new edition begins with her lamenting, "I rarely have time to read novels..." and then proceeding to list the best of those she had, including the latest Harry Potter. (As a fellow novelist commiserated, "I think it's time people stopped congratulating themselves on reading YA" -- besides which, Harry Potter is fantasy, a genre subject to an annual overview of its own by Link & Grant, who give every book they mention its due.)

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is mentioned in Ellen's overview, but only as a facet of a lengthy, many paged list of novels "Also Noted." Here, the titles of novels and the names of their authors are presented on an unbroken list so multitudinous as to appear unselective, so monolithic in their accumulation as to resemble the Viet Nam War Memorial. Readers of the book are unlikely to read through such a list. Such uncomprehensive handling of the category made me feel sad -- not only for myself, but for every other novelist who took the time and care this past year to contribute something more substantial than a short story to the genre. If Ellen's not reading many novels these days, she needs to hire someone who is; better still, perhaps an altogether new horror anthology is needed, one that would select and excerpt from the best horror novels of each given year.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate Ellen's continuing enthusiasm for VIDEO WATCHDOG, which once again received first mention among the year's best film-related magazines. "One of the most exuberant film magazines around... invaluable for the connoisseur of trashy, pulp, and horror movies and enjoyable for just about everyone," she writes. She also singles out Charlie Largent's Ray Harryhausen retrospective and David J. Schow's Triffids article as outstanding, which they certainly were.

I'm also very pleased for VW's own Kim Newman, whose novella THE GYPSIES IN THE WOOD (originally published in an anthology of all-new novellas called THE FAIR FOLK) was selected for inclusion in this edition and, in fact, closes it out. It's unusual for TY'sBF&H to reprint entire novellas, but Kim's appears to be fully deserving of this honor. I've started reading it, and it's an inspired piece of writing, beautifully detailed and completely absorbing; every page makes me wish that John Gilling was still around to film it. The British fantastic cinema we all miss still breathes in the written word.

Finally, I want to write a few lines about Joseph Stefano, while our thoughts are still on his recent loss. As a connoisseur of the dark fantastic, I'm as much in it for beauty as for horror, and Stefano was one of the rare American proponents of this ethic. I truly believe he would be remembered as one of the greats, had he written only "The Forms of Things Unknown," "The Invisibles," or "The Bellero Shield." Somehow, in these teleplays for THE OUTER LIMITS (which he also produced), the grace and eloquence of his words vaulted past aggressively stylish directions and visuals with a force all their own. Lines like "History forgives great men their murderous wives" resonate to this day as powerfully as any shot and, in a show as artfully filmed as THE OUTER LIMITS, that's saying something. Stefano also had the good fortune to write the greatest horror film ever made, Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and -- based on what I know of his later work -- it's my belief that Stefano's contribution made the difference between PSYCHO being the cheap, hard-hitting shocker that Hitchcock wanted to make and the infinitely chewable box of chocolates that it is. "I'll lick the stamps" is certifiably a Stefano line -- thoughtful, vulnerable, aspiring, deep-cutting -- consistent with the peerless eye for detail and the carefully weighed word that we find in Mrs. Bates' "periwinkle blue" dress (mentioned earlier this week in my memorial blog for Lurene Tuttle) or the "fine stilletto heels" of Kasha Paine.

David J. Schow's indispensible THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION (if you don't own a copy, buy one now) pictures Stefano holding the drafts of a first and only novel, LYCANTHROPE, back in 1985. David tells me that the novel was accepted for publication but then rejected after a round of musical chairs in the publishing company's editorial board. Now that the life's work is done and the road is clear, here's hoping that the manuscript will be exhumed from its desk drawer and properly shepherded to publication. As the author of THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION, David is now feeling a special pain because Joe Stefano was not only a personal friend, but the last OUTER LIMITS man standing. My sympathy goes out to David -- and to all devotees of the fantastique for our shared loss of one of the genre's true artists.

In the meantime, a new novel is whispering to me. (No, not the one that remains to be finished.) Do I listen? And, if so, when?

PS: I finally got around to hearing Kasey Chambers' album BARRICADES AND BRICKWALLS (2002) last night, which I think comes fairly close to being a perfect alternative country album -- closer than Lucinda Williams' last studio album actually, which is tantamount to blasphemy, coming from me. The final track is followed by a minute or so of silence and then moves into an hidden track called "Ignorance," which is the finest song of its kind I've heard since John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." This Aussie gal's amazing, and she's got a new album out in a couple of weeks, too.

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