Liner Notes: Daughters of Arkham

cover.jpgWriting is generally considered to be a solitary pursuit. It’s what misanthropes like me do to remain connected with the rest of humanity. If I had any kind of interpersonal skills I’d be able to work in an office like a normal person. Yet writing is strongly collaborative, regardless of how you do it. More so in other media, like film or comics, but even if you’re sitting down to write a book, a ton of people are going to read that thing and tell you what they think before it gets within sniffing distance of a press. There is a difference, though, when you have a co-author.

Writing Daughters of Arkham was not the first time I had a partner. My entire career writing screenplays was/is/continues to be done with one other person sharing the authorial load, so this wasn’t completely uncharted territory. Every partnership works differently, though, and this is a bit of insight into how this particular one went. Spoiler alert: pretty well.

It started when I got a quick message from a friend, who is also the head honcho at Th3rd World Studios, asking if I wanted a job. The answer to that, incidentally, is yes. Assuming I’m getting paid actual money and not vague promises that it might help my career down the line. Dave Rodriguez had an idea for a book series, but as a comic writer (and a damn good one at that), he had no experience tackling prose. He sent over a quick page and a half of a series bible, which included the seven main characters (all three Thorndikes, the other three main kids, and Mr. Harris), and the basic beginning of the story.

I turned this into one of my patented 16 page outlines. I stalled out once, which can happen, but this time I was able to reap the benefits of having a co-author. I sent the half-finished outline and asked for help. And wouldn’t you know it, but I got the help necessary to get me over the hump. Once the completed outline was approved, I started in on the book itself.

I wrote two drafts of the novel and turned it in to both my co-author and the publisher. If I was writing on spec, it would normally be a fourth (or even fifth or sixth) draft that I submit, and any book goes through at least two more drafts (one content, one line-edit) before publication. In this case, the second draft was where my involvement ended. Granted, my second drafts these days are light years ahead of where they used to be, when they were the first draft that actually made sense as a book. The more detailed outlining is responsible for that. However many drafts were done after turning it in were entirely out of my hands. And you know what? That felt pretty good. While I am far too much of a control freak to give up much on something like the City of Devils books, I could do so for something like this. I’m proud of it, and I think I did good work on it, but it’s not mine in the same way.

I re-read it in advance of the sequel (which is already with Dave, don’t worry), and was surprised and gratified to see just how much of my stuff was in there. Some things were taken out, including at least an entire chapter. The ghosts were substantially reduced, which was probably the right call. I can get a little weird if you let me go. One character, who I used as a simple placeholder, had been expanded to the point that she gains a much bigger role in the sequel. That last part is one of the best parts of teaming up. A second writer might take what was nothing more than a name to you and graft an entire character onto her.

For me, the big favor Daughters of Arkham did was finally give me an excuse to write a female protagonist. The closest I had come thus far was Sophie in Everyman, and while she is the most sympathetic character, she’s also sharing equal time with two male narrators. I’d also played with it a bit in a few of the Coldheart short stories, and a few supplementary City of Devils stories as well, but this was the first time I hung an entire book on a woman. This is a good thing, helping both representation, and (more importantly to me) helping me grow as a writer. I’ve been keeping it up too, so you can expect a lot more ladies to be shouldering the narrative load.

One last note. Eagle-eyed readers will notice a reference to one of my other books in there. I don’t want to say what it is, because no one has caught it yet. I will say, no, this isn’t some elaborate linkage between universes. At best, this is a parallel universe. Don’t overthink it.

And one last point: this is Lovecraft’s Arkham, not Batman’s. A lot of people seem confused about this.

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Tread Perilously — Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma

whoTread Perilously returns to the Colin Baker era with “The Twin Dilemma.”

The Doctor’s recent regeneration seems to be failing and he decides to meditate in a cave on Titan III. But at the same time, his old mentor Azmael is also using Titan III for a different purpose. An evil purpose. He’s kidnapped a pair of genius twins to aid in the master plan of Mestor, a giant gastropod with designs on the galaxy.

Erik and Justin try their best not to blame producer John Nathan-Turner for the excesses in the story, C. Baker’s performance and the Sixth Doctor’s clothes. Erik theorizes why some Timelords take on titles and other just use their names. Justin ranks Peri on the newly dubbed “Padbury Scale” and finds he likes the production design. Erik tries to explain his like for the Sixth Doctor while the character’s first meeting with Peri inspires a visit from Sean Connery.

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Now Fear This: Killer Klowns from Outer Space

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How do you not spell “craazzy” with a K?

The way I watched television as a kid no longer really exists. Back then, you had maybe a couple cable channels and if you were lucky four movie channels. Rather than turning on the TV and selecting the exact episode of the exact show you wanted to watch at that exact moment, you were at the mercy of the programmers. Whatever films or shows the channels could afford was what you watched, and by god you liked it or you learned how to go outside and bathe in the unforgiving light of the daystar.

Premium cable channels had yet to really embrace original programming as well, so they had to fill out their rosters with a variety of movies they could obtain on the cheap. They aired these things incessantly, so while you thought you were getting HBO to watch stuff like Lethal Weapon, you were actually going to see Karate Kid Part 3 a hundred times. Because of their ubiquity, these cheap movies took on a place in the pop culture imagination of a generation entirely out of proportion for their modest budgets, bizarre scripts, and amateurish flourishes.

And this was a good thing. While the modern on-demand model is amazing, allowing you to watch an entire run of a show that was canceled twenty years ago (this still feels like sorcery to me), it does cut down on these random touchstones. You’re far less likely to find these tiny corners of pop culture, to know every second of a b-movie intimately. As culture grows more accessible, it also grows more homogenized. Granted, a lot of this is because people aren’t wasting their time with garbage, but as a counterpoint, it’s unlikely that an oddball like Killer Klowns from Outer Space would have found an audience, let alone the large and passionate one it has.

Released in 1988 toward the tail end of the second golden age of cinematic horror, Killer Klowns is a defiant b-movie, both wallowing in and subverting the tropes of the drive-in greats of the 1950s. The plot is largely an excuse for its title. Clowns, or, excuse me, Klowns, invade small town America and cause havoc, only to be defeated by a plucky band of everyman heroes. The movie even ends with a The End, or is it? gag that manages to be winning rather than irritating.

Clowns are so ubiquitous in horror nowadays so as to be almost stereotypes. While this didn’t begin with Killer Klowns, you can see the film’s fingerprints all over the modern conception of the monster. The creatures are created with full-body costumes with elastic, fully-articulated faces. The masks easily walk the line between looking like actual clowns and like awful inhuman monsters. Depending on what you think of clowns, that line might not be all that wide. The clowns themselves are clearly where the lion’s share of the budget went, rather than hiring the few kinda sorta recognizable actors (including a guy who was in the pilot of Friends and one of the girlfriends in Weird Science), or shooting in the crushingly generic suburb.

The clowns, though, are worth it. Beyond the excellent creature design are some truly inspired gags. See, the clowns are an alien species who apparently come to earth every now and again (one character posits that an ancient astronaut situation led to the creation, and fear of clowns, but to the film’s credit it never confirms or denies this hypothesis). Initially, the clowns appear to be there only to feed on human blood — making these, technically Killer Vampire Klowns from Outer Space — but the creators appear to grow bored with that idea fairly quickly. And that is where the movie elevates itself from harmless b-movie time-filling to legitimate cult classic.

The Chiodo Brothers, film journeymen who got their start in special effects and not Duke Nukem villains as I initially assumed, apparently wanted to think of every single clown trope they could turn into a sinister method of sadistic murder. A large part of the second act, beginning when everyman hero and guy-reading-all-his-lines-off-cue-cards Mike accidentally leads the clowns from their big top space ship into town, are short skits of clowns menacing the townsfolk. One of these scenes is basically, person sees clown, assumes clown to be a relatively normal clown, the clown does something silly/harmless/endearing, then that precise thing turns out to kill the hapless person. The film deliriously gives itself over to this anarchic Loony Tunes vibe, ignoring its ostensible protagonists for long stretches. This might be evidence of deep mental illness, but my favorite gag is when one of the clowns wants to drink from a captured human (webbed up in cotton candy because of course), and produces a razor-tipped crazy straw.

That’s not to say the film is entirely devoid of fear. There’s the obvious, and the vast majority of people who at least find clowns unnerving will likely be creeped out by the way the creatures live entirely in the uncanny valley. The most chilling moment is slightly at odds with the rest of the film’s tone, but it only succeeds it making it land harder. A portly clown attempts to lure a small girl out of a clown-themed restaurant, all while clutching a mallet behind his back. There’s still the Loony Tunes logic of it all, but it dovetails well with the pervasive fear of child predators that started in the ‘80s and continues today.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is relatively recently made, but it is still a relic of a different era. From the idea of a lover’s lane being important to the plot, to the prominence of a clown-themed ice cream truck, down to the fact that all the FX are practical rather than CGI and the subtle mullets on the guys and Whitesnake hair on the ladies, this is clearly an ‘80s movie. It’s also a relic of a time when there wasn’t much on TV, and so these strange orphans took root in the psyches of an entire generation. Killer Klowns is never a great film, but in its own way, it’s an important one.

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Tread Perilously — Doctor Who: Snakedance

tpsixfacesErik and Justin return to Doctor Who with the Peter Davison era episode “Snakedance” and wonder how the show survived with John Nathan-Turner in the producer’s chair.

When the TARDIS arrives on Manussa, Tegan dreams of a snake god known as the Mara. Meanwhile a bored Joffrey Baratheon type gets ready for the local festival of the snake. When the Doctor analyzes the situation, he realizes the Mara survived their last encounter in Tegan’s dreams and will use the snake festival to regenerate itself and rule the Manussan corner of the galaxy. Or something. There are caves. There are crystals. There is also a mystery man in the desert.

Justin and Erik find themselves critiquing the fashion choices of Davison’s second season as both Tegan and Nyssa get new outfits. One is definitely more hideous than the other. Erik recalls the commercials for the 1980s Southern California electronics chain The Federated Group. Justin reconsiders his ranking of Davison and compares him to non-flavored ice milk.

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Yakmala: Ninja III: The Domination

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Her hair is the ultimate weapon.

I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, I haven’t seen Ninja 1 and 2! I’ll be totally lost!” You would be, if the filmmakers had invested in prosaic qualities like continuity, story, or sanity. Ninja III: The Domination is the capstone on the Golan-Globus Ninja Trilogy, which makes perfect sense as long as you don’t know what those last two words mean.

Tagline: He’s the ultimate killer, she’s the perfect weapon.

More Accurate Tagline: He’s a hopelessly lost psychopath, she just happened to be nearby.

Guilty Party: If Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are within spitting distance of a no-budget ‘80s action flick where ninjas go shithouse on unsuspecting cops, it’s their fault. Not that they should totally be blamed for this, because make no mistake, this movie is fucking awesome.

Synopsis: Holy shit. The ninjas have invaded Arizona. It’s probable that movies like this were why, as a wee lad in the ‘80s, I assumed ninjas hailed from a sovereign nation, even more powerful than the USA and USSR. Why? Their entire population were fucking ninjas, that’s why. Ninjastan’s only exports were face kicks and ninja stars.

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President Ninjason demonstrates how he wants the economy to climb.

This ninja, who we later learn is called the Black Ninja — despite being neither black nor wearing any black — goes to a cave in Arizona because it’s time to fight the Gorn or something. He opens up a chest made out of rock, gets his ninja costume and some weapons, and heads down to a golf course where he just goes nuts. He’s there to kill one guy, but it ends up like one of those GTA missions were you’re trying to play darts with your cousin, but accidentally tap a cop car and before you know it, you’re standing on top of a tank firing a minigun and screaming something about Kahless the Unforgettable.

The Black Ninja — seriously, the only thing black on him is his Siouxsie eyeliner — gets totally owned by the local constabulary after murder-sprinting his way across half the desert. He runs into Christie (‘80s legend Lucinda Dickey, known for this and the Breakin’ films), this local telephone company worker, and wrestles with her a little bit. Then he keels over.

Christie goes to the cops, but she claims to not be able to remember all the wrestling. Billy Secord, a young cop with the lushest man-sweater you’ve ever seen outside of Wookie porn, decides he has to stalk the living shit out of Christie. She’s not into him, until he whines a bunch and acts entitled to sex. At which point, she decides they’re in love. This romantic subplot is so gross, it’s already a high-ranking member of Gamergate.

So Christie suddenly has crazy karate powers, mysterious bruises, and missing time. If this was the ‘90s, she’d immediately think UFO abduction, but it’s the ‘80s, so they’re flummoxed. She’s also got some poltergeist activity in her house, weird lights and a smoke machine in the closet. And oh yeah “someone” is offing the cops who killed the Black Ninja.

Meanwhile, another ninja shows up to visit the local Ninja Monastery in the foothills around this small Arizona town. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. This happens. This new ninja, Yamada, sports an eyepatch with a slit in the middle, that basically looks like a coin slot. He’s the coin-operated ninja. He’s like a parking meter who will cut your throat if you’re five minutes late to your car.

Eventually, Christie figures out she’s possessed, and everyone converges on the monastery for the big fight. Yamada ends up fighting the monks there even though before they were totally cool. In movies like this, if too much karate builds up in your bloodstream, you can hurt yourself by not letting it out. So that’s what’s going on. The Black Ninja goes full zombie, and he and Yamada fight. The good guys win and everyone is happy.

Life-Changing Subtext: Don’t let weird Asian guys inside of you.

Defining Quote: “Only a ninja can kill a ninja.” This is, incidentally, treated as fact in the film. In the ‘80s, we assumed ninjas were supernatural beings somewhere between angels and X-Men in terms of power.

Standout Performance: Sho Kosugi, who plays Yamada, claims to be an expert in ninjutsu. I’m guessing he also says he has a footlong in his pants, and he’s totally kissed tons of girls, but you just don’t know them. Whatever his bona fides are, he does know how to zip though an ‘80s fight scene pretty well.

What’s Wrong: Absolutely nothing. As long as you accept that ninjas are basically karate-sorcerers.

Flash of Competence: Did you not read that thing about karate-sorcerers? This movie rules.

Best Scenes: The opening, when the Black Ninja goes nuts on the golf course has to be seen to be believed. First, he’s just going berserk on a golfer (later obliquely referred to as a “leading scientist,” so maybe he was involved in ninja testing and the Black Ninja is part of People for the Ethical Treatment of Ninjas?), then the guy’s security, then the cops. The delirious sense of escalation makes you want it to never end. Had this been 90 minutes of a small man in pajamas beating the absolute fuck out of a bunch of overweight desert cops, it would have swept the Oscars.

In addition to working for the telephone company, Christie has the most ‘80s of all jobs. No, not freebasing hair spray for your collection of Lamborghinis. She’s an aerobics instructor. Secord stalks her here, and then she goes to the alley outside where a group of guys from the gym (we saw them there earlier), are cornering a woman, presumably to gang rape her. They’re like 20 feet from the exit, and based on the traffic, this is where everyone goes, and these guys are not being discreet at all. This really comes off as something that they sort of do after every aerobics class. Christie isn’t having this, and with a gigantic audience, tells the guys to stop, then uses her newfound ninja karate on them. Secord watches, then pulls Christie away, telling her she could be arrested for what she did. I don’t think Secord really understands the law very well. Or women. Or breathing.

Periodically, Christie wakes in the middle of the night to check her closet. Oh yeah, Christie lives in the Platonic ideal of the ‘80s pad. She has an old-school arcade cabinet, creepy clown masks on the walls, a Nagel print, superfluous neon, workout equipment, and everything is day-glo, like Bing Bong had his way with it. So anyway, she gets up, and her closet is made of lights, smoke, and lycra. The ninja sword then needs to float out and circle her like the new moon of planet Badass. This whole thing could easily have been scored by a-Ha.

Transcendent Moment: So remember that whole thing about how there’s suddenly sex? Yeah, she lets Secord take her home after she stopped the rape and he whined about how he was entitled to her treating him well. He was sick of anti-cop bias. Yes, this is a thing that happened.

So she takes him home for sex. But even the physical act of love must be turned into a moment of unremitting horror as she gets a can of V8 — you know, the stuff that’s basically cold tomato soup and exclusively consumed by people who hate themselves — and pours it on her neck, where it pours down her body like blood. It’s like she’s trying to confuse an Italian vampire. Based on Ninja III: The Domination’s understanding of ninjas, romance, and now sex, I can say with absolute certainty, this thing was written by a 10 year old.

An awesome 10 year old.

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“Maybe wear the fluorescent green tube top and the kusari-gama today?”

Ninja III: The Domination is fantastic. It’s rare you get an authentic time capsule for raw, uncut ‘80s madness, but this is it.

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Tread Perilously — Special Victims Unit: Rescue

tpsrvTread Perilously opens the case files of the Special Review Unit to take a look at the “Rescue,” a twelfth season episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which Olivia Benson once again destroys a life. What begins as a case of revenge, leaked files and handsy paramedics turns into a personal situation for Benson as the mother of her foster-son returns. And while she might be something of a trainwreck, she is the boy’s mother, something Benson expressly is not.

But it all works out as Benson adopts an infant a few seasons later.

Erik, Justin and special guest Louis Allred discuss the problems of the more character-focused SVU episodes, their preference for more episodic and insane episodes and actress Mariska Hargitay‘s ultimate victory over producer Dick Wolf. They also touch on what happens when a long-running network drama has to pivot and what SVU looks like in season 17.

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Lifetime Theater: In God’s Country

In polite company, you’re supposed to avoid two topics: politics, religion, and that thing on your armpit that’s gotten so big you’re too scared at this point to have it looked at. Fortunately for both of my readers, this is not polite company. Even more fortunately, I’m not talking about the thing on my armpit. No, it’s time to talk about religion. Don’t blame me. This week’s Lifetime offering started it.

Religion occupies a unique place in the Lifetime network. As a product that is ostensibly for the flyover states (though I’ve discussed at length that the network has at least acknowledged its irony-fueled fandom), you’d think Jesus would be like sand after having sex on the beach: in everything. The US is supposed to be highly religious country, too, so shouldn’t our least offensive entertainment at least include some pro-Christian subtext, a few subtle moments of the power of prayer, or a rapture or two? Yet most Lifetime movies treat religion in exactly the same way as a David Fincher movie, in that it might as well not exist.

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Appropriate, since Fincher now directs theatrical Lifetime movies.

It could be that Lifetime has embraced our cultural taboo. Even in a religious country, you don’t talk about religion. There’s a certain amount of sense there, since the two biggest denominations (last I checked) were Evangelicals and Catholics. Despite the fact that these are both ostensibly christian faiths, they go together about as well as peanut butter and vehicular homicide. And since religion is an all-or-nothing gambit, you can’t even embrace the golden mean fallacy. Putting the “truth” as halfway between Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism isn’t going to make anyone happy. Except maybe Pastafarians.

Yet there are at least partial exceptions to this “no talking about religion” thing. These are what most people call cults. I’ll admit, I have trouble telling the difference between a religion and a cult. If you ask me, it can be expressed in a simple equation, religion = cult + time. No one really wants to hear that, and if you say it, generally you’re the asshole. Not the person bullying a smaller faith, but the person pointing out that there’s no difference between the two except power. One belief is the same as any other, and it effects my life only to the extent that influential people allow it to guide their actions.

Now if you’re talking about something a religion/cult does, well, now I see a difference. So when this entry, 2007’s In God’s Country, takes aim at the systemic oppression of women and sexual trafficking of tween girls in polygamous Mormon splinter cults, well I am all about bringing those bastards down. Just as a side note, what is it with religions oppressing women? Like, that’s the second thing they do, right after deciding the sun is an all-powerful deity. I’d say it’s almost like religion was invented to fuck with women, but that’s the kind of thing people would find offensive. So I won’t say it.

The movie opens telling us that the Mormon church outlawed polygamy. I don’t understand this at all. Assuming you accept the holy books are divinely inspired, if something’s in those holy books, how can it be said to be wrong? Was that part not inspired? Was God taking a break and that kind of crept in? And if it was something inserted by Joseph Smith, doesn’t that kind of cast doubt on his character? Whenever religions decide to edit or change doctrine, they’re basically acknowledging that it’s all made up, and if you think that infuriates me to no end, well, you’ve been paying attention.

Our heroine is Judith Leavitt, one of the wives of Josiah, who is the head of one compound on what seems like a multi-compound Mormon cult. The compound is an idyllic section of Canadian woodland, and hilariously, in nearly every shot, there’s a pair of dirt bikers buzzing by in the background. I have no idea who they’re supposed to be, or why they’re obsessively driving laps.

Judith has five kids, four by Josiah, and the eldest, Charlotte, by another man. Late in the film she reveals that this was her first husband, who she actually loved, who was declared a nonbeliever, cast out, and later killed himself. The very next day she was forced to marry Josiah. Which is awful and gross. But she stuck around. You can’t blame her, she had five stamps on her Atrocity/Sub Club Card and she wanted that sixth one.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when another member of the community attempts to molest her daughter Alice. Judith fights the guy off, and when Child Protective Services shows up, Judith rightly wants to talk to them about maybe getting a dangerous predator out of the community. But as we’ve learned from heartbreaking reality, there’s nothing religions won’t close ranks around quicker than a pedophile. Judith is the one who gets demonized, exiled to a little farmhouse with her kids to think about what she’s done. Well, Judith says fuck all that, burns down the farmhouse (semi-accidentally) and flees with her kids.

The outside turns out to be a lot more welcoming than she initially thought. She makes a friend at the supermarket who donates some old clothes to her and gets her a job. There’s a helpful cop, who, to the movie’s credit, never becomes a love interest. Her kids have some difficulty adjusting, but for the most part like it. Alice, especially, finally gets to go to school and learns she’s crazy smart. Back on the compound, she would have been a baby-factory for a much older man. That’s a plot point, incidentally. Judith burned the place down when she learned Alice — 12 year old Alice — was going to be married off.

Charlotte can’t let go. She wanted to marry a kid from the community, Jamie. She was 16, he was 17. A little young, sure, but not gross. Well, when Josiah asks the Prophet if that’s cool, the Prophet points out how older husbands are really better for girls. Yeah, that’s your skin trying to crawl off your body and run away. It’s a normal feeling with this. Well, it gets grosser. When Charlotte runs away to be on the compound, she’s welcomed back with open arms and prepared to wed… Josiah.

Yep, they’re going to marry her off to her stepdad. You might need some time to stop dry-heaving.

Judith shows up with help from her outside friends and saves Charlotte in time. The movie just sort of ends when they leave the compound for, as the narration assures us, the last time. As Lifetime movies go, this one wasn’t bad. It moved pretty well, the stakes were solid, and Judith was a good heroine. You could do much worse than this one (and I have).

So what did we learn? Don’t wait to flee your cult; get out now. If you do flee your cult, don’t come back or you might wind up celebrating some seriously awkward Thanksgivings. And lastly, apparently some Mormon cults track sister-wife ovulation on special chalkboards. I wonder if they sell those things at Michael’s.

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