Monthly Archives: December 2015

Points of Light Christmas Edition: Christmas Vacation

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Welcome back to  the last entry in our holiday retrospective.  Well, the gifts are open, the turkey’s eaten, and the family’s gone home.  The post holiday blues are settling in, so let’s take a minute to reflect and laugh at the insanities of the holiday season.  And what better way to do that then with one of the greatest Christmas comedies ever- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The Plot

Clark Griswold, the hero of the Vacation series, has set his sights on a perfect, ‘old-fashioned family Christmas.’   As such, he attempts to create perfect family moments like going to the woods and finding a tree (without bringing a saw), decorating his house with thousands of lights (that don’t light), and bringing his entire family to stay with them (despite the fact they all hate each other).  But Clark continually puts on a cheerful face, knowing that he has a major surprise planned- a pool.  However, he needs his annual bonus to cover expenses, and it still hasn’t come.  Clark attempts to focus on the holiday, but the stress of constant failures, the arrival of his hated cousin Eddie, and the cancellation of his bonus, finally pushes Clark over the edge, which causes Eddie to kidnap his boss so Clark can insult him to his face, and the police to swarm Clark’s house, which still leads to a celebratory Christmas ending.

What Writers Can Learn: Parody, Conflict

Christmas Vacation is regarded as one of the best Christmas comedies, and for good reason.  The events that happen in the film, while exaggerated, are still familiar to anyone that has gone through the holiday.  We all want to remember Christmas as a wonderful time we spend with loving family, and that’s often how it appears through nostalgia.  But in truth, Christmas is always filled with stress- the preparation, dealing with relatives that you don’t care for, and being forced to pretend to be happy.  Through Clark’s actions, we are literally given a view of the ideal of Christmas verses reality.  Some of us can certainly remember people that get too into the holiday, and drag others into creating something that they don’t particularly want.  And all the events that Clark deals with- the tree, the lights, his family and bonus- while exaggerated, still have enough truth in them they we can relate them to our own lives.

But we also see the conflict take its toll as well.  Clark represses most of his stress throughout the failures of the holiday, but he does crack under the presence of obnoxious cousin Eddie, and the cancellation of his bonus.  But strangely, this manages to be work as a victory for both the ideal and realistic Christmas.  Clark may hate Eddie, but he doesn’t hesitate to help out when he learns that Eddie cannot afford presents for his children.  Clark’s breakdown shows him that his perfect Christmas is over, but it also prompts his father to remind him that past Christmas’s weren’t perfect either.  And finally, the kidnapping of Clark’s boss also forces to realize the impact his decision has had on his employees, and in an apology, reinstates the bonuses, and allows Clark his dream of a pool.  In that way, the film makes a unique resolution of its conflicts- saying that the realistic elements of Christmas are true, but that we can still come close to what we see Christmas to be through our actions.

Further Reading  

The Vacation series also pokes fun at other vacation aspects, from road trips to Europe.  Those looking for more Christmas style hi-jinks would do well with Home Alone, which also shows the difficulty of a family vacation at Christmas.  And with that, we end this year’s holiday retrospective.  Happy Holidays, and best of luck in the New Year.

Points of Light Christmas Edition: Hogfather

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Welcome back everyone.  This week, we continue our look at Christmas literature by seeing a story that goes out there.  And I mean out there.  Like giant space turtle out there.  Today, we examine a story we’ve mentioned on this site before as one of the best Christmas stories/satires ever- Terry Pratchard’s Hogfather.

The Story

On the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork, the people are celebrating Hogswatch, a holiday with surprising similarities to Christmas.  However, their version of Santa Claus, the Hogfather, has vanished, due to the efforts of the Auditors, who dislike human imagination and belief, and the efforts of Jonathan Teatime, an assassin hired to eliminate the Hogfather.  However, Death has stepped in to temporarily replace the Hogfather, performing his duties in order to keep belief going.  At the same time, Death’s granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is drawn into the mix as the lack of belief for the Hogfather has created excess belief, resulting in new beings being created simply by naming them (the God of Hangovers, The Eater of Socks, the Veruca Gnome).  Susan must discover the reason behind the Hogfather’s disappearance, and then save him or the Discworld will never see another morning.

 

What Writers Can Learn: Satire, Nature of Belief

The Discworld novels, as mentioned before, are full of satire and pokes at the ridiculous nature of society.  Hogfather is no different, as many of its pages poke fun at the traditions of Christmas.  The Hogfather himself is a symbol of how Hogswatch has evoled, having begun as a pagan god of the morning and changed over time as Hogswatch itself has.  Christmas has undergone the same progression from pagan ceremony to Christian holiday.  The commercial aspect is mocked as well, done best when Death makes an appearance at a store.

The store’s cheerful sleigh display is destroyed for the much rougher (but more realistic) true sleigh, and as he sees the children, Death questions why the store complains when he gives the children their gifts for free (as the Hogfather is supposed to do).  There is also a little girl who asks for a sword, despite her mother’s insistence she wants a doll.  Christmas morals are also examined- how children are more selfish then we like to let on (though a story where a little boy wants a toystore horse, is instead giving a handmade replica and is bitterly unhappy), and the story of the Little Match Girl (who supposedly dies in the snow so that people are grateful for what they have), who is instead saved by Death, as ‘there is no greater gift then a future.’

But Hogfather is also a way to view the peculiarities of belief.  As mentioned before, belief is what keeps the Hogfather active, and the lack of said belief causes other beings to pop on in his place, a comment on the human quirk of assigning unexplainable tasks to fantasy creatures (the Tooth Fairy, for example).  However, the nature of the Hogfather himself shows a much greater example of the need for belief.  Susan, following the adventure, questions her grandfather on what would have happened had they failed.  Death explains that the Discworld would not have been lit by the sun, but by a flaming ball of gas.  He further explains that humans need fantasy to be human, and beings like the Hogfather are a way to introduce ‘the little lies’ to children, so they will believe the ‘big lies’- justice and order.  Susan is shocked, but Death asks her to put the universe through a sieve and try to find a single, physical grain of those qualities, and yet humans continue to act and believe that there is a cosmic order and logic to the universe.

Further Reading 

The concepts of belief, and further satirical attacks on humanity are explored throughout the Discworld series, as are other stories featuring Death (recommendations include Reaper Man and Soul Music).  And be sure to stop by next week for our final holiday outing.

Points of Light Christmas Edition: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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Season’s greetings once again, as we continue our look at holiday classics.  Last week we explored the Christmas horror of the Krampus, and this week, we continue that theme with one of the most well known holiday mashups- Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The Plot

Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, a land that is literally all about making Halloweeen.  Jack and the other monsters work each year to create the perfect holiday, but Jack has grown bored with the same thing over and over.  He stumbles across the Hinterlands, an area of the forest that borders other holiday worlds.  Jack finds the doorway to Christmastown, and is enthralled by how different it is from the scares of Halloween.  Jack brings some of it back home, but it unable to truly grasp the ‘science’ of the holiday.  However, his enthusiasm convinces him that he can perform Christmas as well, and he gets the other denizens of Halloween to aid him.  But the monsters don’t understand the idea of the holiday, and make toys and gifts designed to frighten children.  Oblivious, Jack kidnaps Santa and delivers the toys, only to be shot down and lament his poor choices.  However, the experience has reinvigorated Jack’s creativity and love for Halloween, so Jack returns to save Santa from the clutches of the Oogy Boogy Man.

What Writers Can Learn; Obsession, Finding Purpose

Most fans love Nightmare for its design, songs, and imagination.  And with Burton’s mind, Danny Elfman’s songs, and its unlikely inspiration (Burton saw the mix of Christmas and Halloween decorations while shopping), these are all great reasons to enjoy the film.  But for writers, the film is a great example of two classic themes.  First, we have obsession, and a kind we can easily see around the holidays.  Jack is someone that is tired of the demands of his life, and living in a world that is a reminder of everything he has grown bored with.

But suddenly, he is thrust into a world that is bright and colorful and full of joy.  He not only brings this home, but tries to grasp to understand it and then make it his life.  We can all relate to feeling enthralled by the Christmas season and its colorful spectacle.  But anyone that has seen houses over decorated and people trying to outdo each other with gifts and parties knows that it is easy lose yourself to it as well.  But Jack’s attempts go farther- he tries to make his own Christmas before he understands it.  He recruits monsters, who only know scaring people, and happily accepts the frightening toys and decorations they make.  Anyone could tell Jack that he’s missing the point, but he simply accepts it because they resemble the things he’s seen.  Therefore, the movie stands as a metaphor for getting lost in Christmas spectacle and missing what makes it work.

But the greater purpose of the story is as a story of a mid life crisis and renewed purpose.  While all the monster of Halloweentown love their work, they require Jack’s creativity to truly shine.  And Jack has been doing this since Halloween began, so it is easy to imagine how draining the experience has been for him.  It has made him feel bored and unsatisfied with his life, but he has no way to leave the holiday he is in charge of.  Therefore, he is going through what can be called a midlife crisis- where he is wondering about the point of his life, and whether or not he can continue with it.  But the discovery of Christmas gives Jack the total opposite of what he’s been doing and lets him feel that he has something new to design again- in other words, it’s his new car.  But obviously, Jack’s creativity doesn’t fit the Christmas setting, and he is literally shot down in flames.  But as he lies among the ruins, he realizes that despite his failure, he has performed to the best of his abilities and has enjoyed his work for the first time in years.  Feeling reinvigorated, he promises new ideas for next Halloween.  For writers looking to sculpt a character full of self-doubt that rediscovers purpose, this is a perfect arc.

Further Reading

For those that enjoyed the style and themes of Nightmare, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice carry it on in spades, while James and the Giant Peach, a Burton production, carries on the stop-motion style and features a cameo from Jack.  And for those that enjoy more weirdness in their holidays, come back next week as we hitch a ride on the Great A’Tuin and visit the great city of Ankh-Morpork.

POL Christmas Edition: The Dark Servant

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Season’s greetings from the Lightrider Journals!  Today we continue our version of Christmas traditions with the annual Christmas Point of Light series, where we focus on Christmas stories that provide young writers valuable tools in their development.  This year, we begin with a story that not only highlights writing, but actually one of those young, inspiring authors.  In honor of the release of Krampus, the story of the Christmas devil, we straddle the line between horror and holidays, with Matt Manochio’s The Dark Servant.

 

The Plot

 In Hancock, New Jersey, the morning of December 5th is rocked by a car accident and abduction of a high school jock.  But this is only the first, as further kidnappings follow, including a high school Heather, a grade school student, and the son of the chief of police.  While the police strive to find connections, all they come up with are bags of sticks left near the crime scenes, and reports of a huge, hoofed, bear like creature.  The chief’s youngest son, Billy, does make a connection- the Krampus, the ancient twin of Saint Nicholas from German folklore.  And indeed, he is right, as the Krampus has come to Hancock to punish the worst of its naughty children- unless they can repent.  Billy and his school crush Maria, must race against time to find the Krampus before it kidnaps again.  But Billy must also come to terms with just what it is that brought the Krampus to Hancock- and his part in it.

 

What Writers Can Learn- Dialouge, Homage, Morals

 The Dark Servant works as a wonderfully twisted Christmas fable and succeeds as a fine debut in a number of ways.  To begin with, Manochio avoids one of the easiest traps for a first time writer- crafting smooth, realistic dialogue.  While I am certainly not claiming to be perfect, my experience with other new writers shows that dialogue can be a challenge.  Often times, writers try more to sound well-written then realistic, and either explain too much or sound stiff and tin eared.  While there are a few missteps, Manochio avoids this trap.  He characters talk like real teenagers and adults, and while the Krampus itself can speak like Freddy Krueger, its dialogue effortlessly flies the distance between scary and funny and back.

That leads into another of the book’s strengths- the knowledge of its material.  The Krampus itself plays into the mythos perfectly, and anyone that knows the creature will see its trademarks- the bad of sticks, its satanic appearance, and its desire to punish the naughty.  But beyond that, the novel clearly patterns itself after a horror movie, and Manochio clearly knows the genre.  The story builds in suspense, slowly bringing us out of the everyday bit by bit, as the Krampus becomes more and more visible.  The elements of blood and gore are not overplayed, the characters are intelligent and fill their roles perfectly, and the Krampus itself is a perfect movie monster- sadistic and witty, but with a clear purpose and goal.

And that goal forms the core of The Dark Servant.  The Krampus exists to punish naughty children, but also to make them repent.  While its victims are trapped, it continually pushes and torments them to admit their sins.  And these sins are not minor.  The kidnapped students are there because they bullied and tormented a classmate to the point of nearly killing herself.  The young boy bullied a classmate and had entertained thought of shooting him.  The Krampus pushes all of them into forced confession, threatening to kill them unless they repent.  But it does show restraint.  It releases the children that do confess, and forces less torture onto the child, even saying there is only so much a child should have to endure.  Only the Heather, who does not repent, is fully punished, and in a way the Krampus’s ‘Master’ would appreciate- throwing her down a lit chimney.  Bullying and suicide are dark topics to go through, and often, they are discussed in a way that comes across as preachy.  But The Dark Servant shows them in a way that is real, and with a grim message- that while the Krampus is a sadistic demon, it is our own evil that calls it- and only our own ability to face that evil that can save us.  After all, Christmas is the time when we are called to be at our best- and to forgive.

 

Further Reading

Those interested in seeing the Krampus on screen would do well to examine the new film, or the anthology Christmas Horror Story, which also features the Krampus, in a more villainous role.   And don’t forget to come back next week, boys and girls of every age, as we travel across the Hinterlands to see a town that more then a little strange.