Welcome back to the dark side. As promised, today’s entry will take us up several feet into terror, but also into a gigantic household world, the afterlife, the end times, and the outer limits of our imaginations. How? Because today’s entry is on one of the great American horror writers, the late Richard Matheson.
Who He Is
Richard Matheson began writing at eight years old, which is when he saw his first story published in the local papers. Since then, he created a legacy of entries in the fields of horror and science fiction genres, not only as an author, but often as a screenwriter. Some of his best work were the many stories he donated to the classic TV show, The Twilight Zone. These include ‘Steel’ (the story of a future robot boxing promotion, also adapted in the 2000’s film Real Steel) and his most well known episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which William Shatner is terrorized by a monster on the wing of a plane (the story proved popular enough to be remade for the 1980’s Twilight Zone movie). Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the ‘Little Girl Lost’ episode (about a girl lost in the fourth dimension).
On his own, Matheson also wrote countless short stores, ranging from suspense to science fiction and beyond. He also wrote many classic novels, including I Am Legend, about the last human left in a world of vampires (which has been adapted for the screen four times) and the metaphysical What Dreams May Come, a tale of a man experiencing the afterlife and rescuing his wife’s spirit from Hell (also adapted for film). Matheson was fortunate enough to write many of the screenplays for these films, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, and even worked with famed horror director Roger Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe films.
What Writers Can Learn- The Basics and Best of Horror and Sci-Fi
Matheson’s contributions to these genres are invaluable; it is no surprise Stephen King refers to him as a great influence. His stories make up some of the best of horror and sci-fi, and are required reading for anyone looking to write in those genres. Matheson’s work utilizes suspense and drama, knowing how to build a story to heighten tension and grab the reader by the throat. He also understood the use of ambiguity, as many of his stories use paranoia to help throw the reader off track (even in 20,000 Feet, the original text never makes it clear whether the monster is real or the hero is mad). However, Matheson can also add unexpected elements- in Legend, the protagonist spends time trying to scientifically understand the vampire- why garlic and the cross are repellant, for example. And finally, Matheson understands the use of the twist ending- check out Legend for arguably the greatest one he produced.
The works mentioned above are really the best primer for Matheson’s work, and there are many collections of his stores in print or available digitally. His filmwork is generally well received, though The Last Man On Earth is perhaps the best of the four Legend films.
Come back next week, as we head to upstate New York and see if we can withstand the terror without losing our heads…
Greetings and Happy Halloween season to you all. I’m returning to the blog to kick off a favorite tradition- the October reviews of horror classics in literature and film (which will have increased entries to make up for their late start). To kick things off, we examine a horror masterpiece that is currently seeing a revamp in the theatres- Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer, travels to the mountains of Transylvania to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey to the enigmatic Count Dracula. As Harker’s stay becomes further extended, he slowly begins to realize that Dracula is an undead vampire that has terrorized the region for decades. Harker is able to escape, but is unable to stop the Count’s journey, as he reached England and begins a new reign of terror. As he attacks Harker’s friends, they band together and with the help of Dr. Van Helsing, work to stop the vampire, who has begun to turn Harker’s fiancée Mina.
What Writers Can Take- Imagination, Morality, Desire
Dracula has gone through countless revisions and rebirths over the years, but they often overshadow the brilliance of the original text. To begin with, Stoker uses Dracula in a way that is often forgotten by the horror films of the modern day- he has little actual time in the novel. The story is told as a series of journal entries from Harker and other sources, and we see a much greater view of their world then we do of Dracula’s, save Harker’s early writings in the castle. However, Dracula himself hangs over each page, an invisible presence fueled by the reader’s knowledge of him, and the characters’ growing fear. This builds him into a much greater force, painting him as a force of tremendous evil, but leaving his exact nature to the reader’s imagination, which makes fearful to all, but in a very individual way for each reader.
However, there are aspects of Dracula that are clear, and those are the moral and even sexual undertones the character and vampirism bring to the novel. After all, Dracula lives with three brides that attempt to seduce him before biting him. And the fact that Dracula’s victims are all women, who become more and more enamored of their escapades as his power over them increases. It paints Dracula, and vampirism itself, as a sexual temptation, a force that would speak volumes in Victorian London. Both are seen as a sense of freedom, of release from society and all else. But the cost is high- continual murder and the loss of one’s soul. It is no surprise that the affected characters struggle to hold on to themselves even as their vampirism increases. They know that while their new desires whisper of freedom, they come at the cost of their very souls and morality- often the price for an overabundance of freedom and what makes Dracula so very dangerous.
As mentioned before, there have been countless adaptations of Stoker’s work. However, fans of the silver screen are required to view Universal’s original Dracula, with Bela Lugosi’s career making performance. Another excellent entry is Hammer Film’s Horror of Dracula, which is loose with the original story, but holds to the spirit of the novel, and contains some effectively seductive and horrifying scenes (as well as an original death scene for Dracula). Francis Ford Coppola’s version is best for a pure adaptation, though it adds its own romantic touch that still works with much of the original plot. And there are several group monster films that feature Dracula in a fine light (Monster Squad, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). However, fans should avoid the 2009 book sequel, Dracula Un-dead, which is written by Stoker’s great grandson and a film writer, which retcons much of the novel and is largely seen as an attempt by Stoker’s family to reclaim the Dracula name (which has long been in public domain). And as for the current revision film, Dracula Untold?
Skip it. Just skip it.
Keep your eyes open, as I will soon be taking us on a red-eye flight, where there just might be something outside your window…
Welcome back. First, I must apologize for being absent for so long, but I’ve been busy editing the new book, getting artwork approved, and trying to promote my crossover petition. And in that sprit, I wanted to talk about something that is rare in popular writing, but does happen on occasion- the crossover.
What is It?
In the simplest terms, a crossover is combining characters from two or more existing worlds or franchise in a single story. In general, these are rare occurrences, due to both creative and corporate reasons. Creators themselves can be wary of combining their stories, and with the vastness of property ownership, being able to get through all the legal issues involved can doom a project from the start. However, they still have happened in the past, in films, TV, and comics alike. Sometimes it can combining two franchises under one corporate umbrella (the horror classics of Universal’s Frankenstein meets the Wolfman, and New Line’s Freddy vs. Jason) or two companies making a mutually profitable venture ( the DC Comics vs. Marvel miniseries). But regardless of the origins, writes of these stories must obey the fundamental rules in order to make it work.
#1. It Has to Make Sense- while this rule seems obvious, it is one that needs to be remembered. While certain characters are believable together, there needs to be a legitimate reasoning behind why they are working together. The set up is all important, or else it’s mindless fanservice. For example, in the DC/Marvel series mentioned above, the “God’ figures of the Marvel and DC universe are going to war, and the two sets of characters are set to battle to determine superiority, as a battle with the two godheads would wipe out all existence. It gives the heroes a good reason to fight despite their moral misgivings, gives us clean one on one battles, and a big enough force to bring two universes together.
#2 Two Franchises, Two Rules- every story has a set of rules and regulations for it’s universe and characters. Therefore, bringing them together means these rules have to be obeyed. In Alan Moore’s League of Extradinary Gentlemen, arguably the greatest crossover ever, we have numerous literary characters joining forces. One character is Captain Nemo, who was well established as disliking humanity for it’s sins. Therefore, in the story, he demonstrates moral outrage at the vicious ‘punishment’ of the traitorous Invisible Man by Mr. Hyde (who is also acting in accordance to his rules, haven grown more evil due to spending more time as Mr. Hyde) and abandons the group when they are tricked into bringing a deadly virus into alien infested London. Even the Invisible Man works according to his rules, becoming more and more untrustworthy as the story progresses.
#3 The Characters Have to Mesh (or not)- this is an expansion of the previous rule concerning sense-making. When two characters are brought together, they need to have similar enough traits that they could function together; a good example is the multi-planet, peace promoting Federation of Star Trek, and the similar-minded Legion of Superheroes. However, it can often be fun to bring together characters that are more opposite then alike, such as Batman and Spider-Man. Both characters are thought of as tragic and angst ridden, but deal with their pain differently- Batman projects a grim exterior, while Spider-Man cracks jokes. The interest them comes in watching the two characters find their similarities buried under their outward appearances.
#4 No One is Superior- This is the most important rule of any crossover, which is why I saved it for last. The central idea of bringing two characters together is to show them working together as equals with mutual respect. Therefore, neither character can be shown as superior to the other, as it shifts the balance to that character and makes them, and their universe, feel superior. Some ways to avoid this are to highlight each character’s skills at different moments- Batman is more of a detective and is more intimating, but Superman has knowledge of alien devices and is more trusted by the public. Another way is to have the characters fight each other, but end in ties, or have each one win a single fight to highlight how each approach can work. But above all, you must do something to make sure your characters are on equal ground, or your crossover is doomed from the start.
Greetings once again. I currently find myself in a lull as the Lightrider sequel is being edited. As such, I’ve found a new project to occupy time between books. As with many children of the 80’s and 90’s, I am a major fan of Back to The Future and Ghostbusters. As both films are either at, or nearing their 30th anniversary, I’ve been working on a comic book script to bring the two franchises together. The mere concept script has thus far gotten great reviews from fans of both francises, and as such, I have decided to implore the studios invovled (Columbia and Universal) and IDW Publishing (the current publishers of the Ghostbuster comic) to bring these two together through my work. I’ve created a peition on the link below, as well as a basic outline of the story. If you check it out and want to see it, then please, sign and help get it to the attention of the people involved. We’ve got nothing to lose and plenty to gain so please, check it out, and help bring two 80’s icons together.
This week, I find myself in the unique position of watching current events that further two previous topics of mine. Marvel recently announced changes to two of its major characters- giving the title of Captain America to African-American hero the Falcon and that the title of Thor will be carried by a woman. These announcements have been met with much speculation, including accusations of race and gender baiting. While I cannot give a definitive answer to that debate, I would like to examine them as they relate to my earlier discussions on race and gender in writing.
To begin, we should first establish exactly how these changes are coming about. For Cap, Steve Rogers has had the super-solider serum drained out of him, and is no longer able to function as Captain America. As such, he has assumed a strategic role and given the mantle to Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, a former sidekick and long time friend of the Captain. Of the two changes, this one is less of an obvious ‘baiting’. Unlike DC’s move to create diversity by placing Teen Titan Cyborg in the Justice League (despite his having no previous association or status with the group), Sam Wilson has been a part of the C.A. mythos for years, and has operated as a protégé to Rogers for almost as long. Beyond former sidekick Bucky Barnes, there are few else who could hold the shield of the Captain. As for his skin color, I again state that Wilson is a hero in his own right with a well established history that gives him credibility. Also, the C.A. mythos have already established Isaiah Bradley as the ‘black Captain America’, the lone survivor of early American tests to recreate the super-solider serum on black soldiers (who died as a result and were kept secret). Therefore, placing Sam as the new Cap becomes more meaningful then learning that the previous ‘black Cap’ carried shame as well as pride with him.
Thor’s change is more difficult to determine. As of this writing, the story calls for Thor to become unworthy of his hammer, which will be taken up by a female character. As this change has just been announced, no successor or method has been named. This makes it more difficult to judge; Cap’s succession contained true to form reasoning and a protégé taking up the costume. Without knowing how or why these changes occur, or who will take up the hammer, I cannot judge it accurately. However, based on what is known thus far, this change has more of a ‘baiting’ feel to it. While Cap’s mantle can be passed down, Thor is a mythological figure and is the ‘god’ of thunder. Unless his personality is also placed with the new Thor (unlikely), this new Thor could very easily seem a pretender and inexperienced. Also, while there has always been call for diversity in comics, I doubt that women find draping a woman in the guise and identity of a male hero is much of an improvement. Still, too little is known to make a proper evaluation; but since Marvel did a good job pulling off Loki’s temporary gender change, there is still a possibility this could work.
So what do we take from this? Is this a chance to update and adapt heroes or simply a ploy to increase readership? In honesty, I do feel this falls under a ploy. Despite the logic behind the Falcon’s ascension, and the too-early nature of Thor, I simply don’t believe Marvel would permanently alter two of its largest properties. One simply needs to look at Superior Spider-Man (in which Dr. Octopus temporarily took over the mind and body of Spider-Man) and how its run returned Peter Parker to the front just in time for “Amazing Spider-Man 2”. By the time the next Marvel film with Cap and/or Thor rolls out, I think things will have reverted. So what do we take from it as writers? First, how well Cap’s story not only follows logic and history, but how it also keeps skin color at the back- this is someone that proven himself, and just happens to be a minority. Second, how simply dressing an opposite gender character in an established identity may not be diversity as much as marketing. And third, that writers still need to watch how and why they create minority and female characters, because all this controversy clearly says there are still issues attached to it.
Welcome back to Composing the Trilogy. Today, we discuss the final piece of the puzzle- the last entry.
Coming to the End
The purpose of the final entry is to wrap up the story and solve the conflicts that plague the characters. That alone can make it difficult to write, since you have had two previous entries to build up the ending. It’s certainly not impossible, but it can be a daunting task. This is also where your previous planning can come into play. The more you know how things are ending, the better a picture you have of a complete, complex, and satisfying ending. Ending on a ‘blind note’ can have serious consequences, such as the case of Godfather Part III. This final entry was not originally planned, but written and filmed to fulfill studio desire and pay the debt of director Francis Ford Coppola’s previous film bomb One From the Heart. As such, it is widely regarded as the weakest of the three films, as even Coppola admitted the previous two films had said all he wanted to say.
So assuming you have planned out a full trilogy from the beginning, you are prepared to avoid this problem. However, you still need to bring a proper close to your story. Some stories, usually fantasy, end with a final, climatic battle between the established rival forces. Star Wars does this well, as we see Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker clash for the final time. But it also brings in other elements that can be used for a finale, the end of growth and redemption. Luke completes his training, resists the temptation of the dark side, and become a full Jedi. Vader, who has hinted at being torn between his son and evil master, redeems his character by saving his son and killing his master. To add more to the finale, Vader dies soon after, adding more poignancy to his redemption, and officially making Luke the last living Jedi. As for further battle example, look no further then Return of the King, which treats audiences the last battles of a war that will either end our characters or make them heroes, as well as determine the kingship of Aragorn.
At the same time, things can be added to the final entry to give it more heft. However, these additions must be made carefully, or they may distract from the film. Many jokes have been made about the teddy-bear Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, largely about their readiness for toys. And Return of the King suffers from a multitude of false endings that turn excitement in a desire for the film to be over. Besides, readers are more likely to want to see resolution of characters and themes, not a multude of new things. So when making additions, keep it simple and short.
And now we’ve reached the end. How do you end it? That part is up to you. It can be as simple as Sam coming home, or as joyous as a galaxy wide celebration. It can be as poignant as a peaceful death, or as empty as a man dying alone, having nothing left to care about. But above the ending must be true to what’s come before, and it must be something that you know is right. Because if you don’t know that at the end, then you’ve wasted three books.
Welcome to the second part of Composing the Trilogy. At this point, you should have used the first part to establish your characters, plot, rules, and initial universe. Now, you work on continuing the story you set up, as well as expanding the characters and unversed you’ve started.
Keeping the Flow
The main goal of the second entry of a trilogy is to show growth and development. There are many ways to do this- for example, the conflict of the previous story can be expanded upon. This is seen in Back to the Future, which moves from ensuring Marty’s creation in the past, to his success in the future and then maintaining the present. This opens up different goals and conflicts while staying true to the central themes and idea present in the first entry. However, new conflicts can also be introduced. Most superhero films have a rotating cast of villains and when done well, they can add to the hero’s development. The Sam Rami Spider-Man films do a fine job of, as Peter has personal connections to his first villain, Norman Osbourne/The Green Goblin. However, in the second, he ends up in a similar conflict with Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus. But in this case, Peter has a stronger connection with Otto, have befriended him beforehand, and is even able to redeem the villain at the end. Better still, Peter is able to use that redemption to solidify his own character growth and development. Finally, character is also a valuable way to show development, as in Godfather Part II which shows Michael Corleone’s abandonment of his young, moral self and his tragic move into crime and the Mafia.
Another use of the second entry is to raise the stakes, and make things bigger then they were in the first movie. Examples can be seen in The Two Towers, where the quest of returning the Ring becomes more perilous- Mordor is closer, evil is spreading across the land, and people are suffering. Star Wars also does this, as Empire Strikes Back shows the tribulations of the suffering rebellion and Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training. But this also opens up another possibility- adding more dark elements. This can help to make the story more memorable then the often lighter first act, as well as build excitement for the next entry. To again quote Empire, the film ends with the loss of Luke’s hand and the revelation of his parentage, Han Solo frozen in carbonite and in transit to Jabba the Hutt, and a reeling Rebel Alliance. The stakes are high for the sequel (which despite the teddy bears, managed to meet them).
In conclusion, the second entry must be about expansion, either through characters, the outside world, goals, or a combination of the three. Any less simply makes it an imitation of the first. But as Amazing Spider-Man 2 taught us, making everything bigger cannot override the story or the characters; writers must balance spectacle with storytelling, or they can never reach the final entry.
In recent months, I’ve been hard at work editing, re-arranging, and submitting materials for the next entry of Lightrider. But as I’ve been working on it, I realized how much work goes into writing what will eventually be a trilogy, and how daunting it can seem to first time writers who have an idea they just can’t do in one book. Therefore, today is the start of a multi-week entry entitled Composing the Trilogy, where I will discuss each part of a trilogy and how it works. And as such, let’s begin in the best place…
The first part of a trilogy is the most important. This is where the author sets up themes, characters, and a series of events that will go for two more entries. As such, there needs to be an amount of prep work done beforehand. The overall theme and story are vital. There is a reason famous trilogies deal with such large ideas as revolution or the effects of time- they have to fill a great deal of space whether in film or literature. Probably the best example is the Godfather trilogy, which deals with a single mafia family over several decades. In it, we are shown a rise to power, the cost of said power, corruption, betrayal, death, and loss of family. These are ideas that need proper care and time to be told well, and a trilogy is the perfect place to do it. Not only do the themes lend themselves to lenthgy storytelling, but they are enough to help fill not only the first entry in the tale, but future entries as well. One final tip should also be to try imagine as much of the story as possible- a clear final ending can lead to a much clearer vision.
Characters need to be sketched out, but in a way that they can grow and change as the story goes on. It can be good to have a character with a simple ‘design’ such as brave, or upbeat, and then put that character into different situations to see how well they react. Star Wars is a good example- Luke Skywalker begins as an impatient, green farmhand, but as the story progresses, we see acts of bravery and a willingness to learn, as well as the first hints of him accepting the greater power of the Force, which is a large part of his growth throughout the trilogy.
But the endings are also important. What happens in the first part must leave enough impact to continue throughout two more entries, so a certain amount of thread must be left hanging. There are many different ways to do this, but the most common are endings that solve a current problem but show another on the horizon, or the open-ended ending- the story would be acceptable as a stand-alone, but there is still enough material to continue forward if the need arises. Again, the original Star Wars follows the open-ended path, but films like Lord of the Rings generally leave endings where the viewer knows more is coming.
Having followed these plans, you should be able to compose at least the first part of your trilogy. However, this leaves two more pieces to compose, the first of which we’ll discuss next time.
One aspect of writing is being able to fit all the pieces together. Whatever type of story you have, each section needs to flow into the next, to feel organic and real. But writers need be wary of connecting the dots too well.
The reason this causes a problem harkens back to the old adage, which I’ve mentioned before, that mankind has been retelling the same basic stories for years. While this might not be entirely true, there are certainly examples of familiar stories. A slasher film, for example, can often hit the same plot points in different films. Or a romantic comedy about certain types of people, or even a dramatic sports story. Because of the familiarity we have with these archetypes, we can often predict what is going to happen next.
So why is this bad? Because it makes the stories boring. While writers need a story to fit together, they need to find new ways to bring the pieces together, or the audience will be bored. We’ve all been to a theatre where someone starts yelling out plot points which turn out to be true. It also tends to pop up more in sequels- I happen to be a horror fan and have watched the first four installments of Friday the 13th. The first one does an excellent job setting up the formula of summer camp, sexy teens and stabbing, and the second continues and adds to the story. However, the third and fourth are not truly connected to the first two, and simply repeat the story without adding anything to it. This makes them fell dull and perfunctory, and rob them of any sense of tension and suspense. Even successes can be guilty of this- the first Eragon novel contains several points familiar to Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings fans, while one of my favorites, the Sword of Shannara, often reads like a condensed version of LOTR.
So what can be done to avoid this? One of my strongest endorsements to writers has always been to study the genre they want to write in, and learn how it works. However, understanding how it works also means you understand how it can be tinkered with. Writers need to find twists and little tweaks that can make a tired story seem different. For example, Silence of the Lambs is a classic serial killer drama, but its most memorable character is Hannibal Lector, another killer that manages to gain the reader’s respect, fear, and even a degree of sympathy. That makes the story stand out, because we find ourselves intrigued by Lector as well as the murder. Many of the great Twilight Zone episodes also do this, such as the classic “The Monsters are Due on Maple St.” where strange power outages cause the neighbors of a middle America street to turn on each other in paranoia. However, instead of an overly shameful or preachy ending, we see the outages are a test by aliens, who are testing how easy it will be to divide mankind and take over. This leaves us not only shamed by our collective distrust and paranoia, but also aware of how dangerous it can be. And that leaves a lot more impact then connecting dots to form a cat.
In the recent weeks, I’ve seen my post on women in literature get quite a few comments, for which I thank the readers involved. But this interest also sparked my thoughts in another direction and another group that has issues being represented in the media. What is this group? Minorities.
One of the things I always intended with Lightrider was to have a Japanese-American hero, partially due to my interest and admiration for the culture, my desire to not write another ‘great white’ hero, and lastly, because I wanted to give my audience an Asian lead that was not focused on his nationality, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li (though both men have tremendous talent, American audiences tend to value them in set roles that limit their undervalued dramatic ability). However, I also noticed another trend in media around me as I was writing. Many publications had begun to emphasize minorities in their work, but in ways that seemed forced and politically correct. Understand, I am all for widening the scope of the media and showing the full range of the world’s peoples. But I detest doing so in a way that is meant to show sensitivity and inclusion.
The first media I noticed this in was comics, specifically DC and Justice League. As a company with a history stretching back to the 30’s, DC has had many accusations of racial issues, such a Justice League founded by seven white men and a woman, or saddling characters with names like Black Lightning. And of course, the Superfriends and their allies, Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, and Samurai. Yeah, really, just Samurai. While some of this can be excluded as part of the time of publication, it does lock DC into problems as people have a traditional view of the JLA that is predominantly white. DC has often tried to correct this, with varying degrees of success. But one that struck me was the revelation that Green Lantern Kyle Raynor’s discovery that his absentee father was Hispanic. This of course, made Raynor Hispanic but seemed like a backtrack way to say that the JLA had ALWAYS been inclusive since Raynor joined. A more recent one comes from the New 52 reboot, which features Cyborg as a founding member of the League. While Cyborg is a well-respected character and a great example of a hero that happens to be a minority, it seems like another way to rewrite history to make the League seem more open and inclusive.
Ironically, Justice League as a show is a much better example of inclusion. When first aired, some fans complained about the replacing classic GL Hal Jordan with John Stewart and the inclusion of Hawkgirl, voiced by Cuban-American actress Maria Canals Barrera. Some argued that these characters/modifications were included to force diversity onto the team, and give it more of a United Nations feel. However, both characters became integral to the show with barely a whisper of their status, save a nod in an episode focusing on imaginary Silver Age heroes.
So in conclusion, how does a writer write minority characters? It’s really a two-sided answer. One, ask yourself if it really makes a difference. If being black or Asian or Hispanic is actually important and crucial to your character as a whole, then do it. Don’t do it for political correctness. Second, if that’s the case then simply don’t focus on it. Never write these characters to expressly show their diversity, unless it can benefit their character somehow. These are PEOPLE not STATISTICS, and deserve to be treated as such. And you are a WRITER, not a PANDERER. Your work must stand on it’s own, and that means working to create characters that are not entrapped by the color of their skin.