Saturday, October 31, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #6

For our final episode in this week long special, we take a gander at one of my favorites in 1990's Maniac Cop 2, sequel to the film of our previous episode in 1988's Maniac Cop! For all intents and purposes, I consider both movies to be one long story, so I suggest listening to that episode before coming into this one. Spoilers from that one are unavoidable in this one. That said, this is the superior movie of the two films.

Whereas the first was a tense thriller where we are questioning just who the killer as and what they might want as the tension ratchets up, in this one we know who the Maniac Cop already is and their general motive. However, we are given more context and more information that reveals some of the more obscure parts of the first movie as well as the depths of the injustice that caused this whole mess to unfold to begin with. It takes the promises of the original, and brings them into full fruition here. By the end of the story, everything is put right and the revenge has been settled. This is how horror was always meant to be.

As I said, this is one of my favorite horror movies, and a perfect example of a sequel that builds upon and fixes everything in the original, while enhancing the previous entry at the same time. Check out the full episode to hear my full opinions on a movie that should be reevaluated as one of the best of its kind. It is worth the second look. You can also watch this cross-posted at Cannon Cruisers instead, if you so desire.

And that's all for our week-long special! We've been on quite the journey of weird movies. Thank you for sticking around for the journey, and I hope you will have a good weekend. It's been fun!

I'll see you next week. Until then, have a Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #5

We're in the home stretch! For the fifth movie in our week long special we cover 1988's Maniac Cop, a unique gem in an era swimming in them. This is a movie that has gained more popularity over the years, and for good reason.

Throwing it back to the Fear City era of New York, Maniac Cop is the story about a man in a cop uniform going rogue and attacking innocent people. Who is he and what is his motive? Those questions are what the story is all about. In fact, they lead directly into the sequel, but we'll save that for tomorrow. For now, it is about the original movie.

As usual, check the episode below for my full thoughts. You can see it on the Cannon Cruisers site, if you'd prefer. The Maniac Cop movies (at least, the first two) are some of my favorites in the genre.

I hope you're ready to have a Happy Halloween! There's only one more episode before we wrap this special up, and I guarantee that it's a good one.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #4

On the fourth day of our six day festival of fun films, I am going for another oddball pick. This time it is the obscure buddy cop, horror, comedy, existential piece, Dead Heat.

This is one that wouldn't feel out of place on an episode of Tales from the Crypt, sort of like how the House movies would have fit in on Tales From the Darkside. It's a specific sort of horror that could only exist in the era they were made, for better or worse. For the audience? It's definitely a win.

See the episode below to hear my full thoughts. I definitely believe this is a movie that deserves more attention than it gets.

Just as before, this one is cross-posted on Cannon Cruisers. Watch it wherever you'd prefer.

Be sure to have a Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #3

As we continue our movie madness, I chose to cover the sequel to haunted house gem House. The difference with the sequel is that it is really a whole different genre of movie. Whereas that was more influenced by classic horror with a dab of black comedy, this is a pulp-styled lost world adventure with a helping of '80s comedy to go with it. It's quite different from the original.

But, in many ways, it's also the same. The themes that run through both are almost identical.

What helps is that most of the same staff and personnel from the first movie are in this one, creating a project not too out of line with the first, despite not even really being the same genre. Check out the episode below for my full thoughts.

Just as before, this series is being cross-posted on Cannon Cruisers. Choose whichever location you'd prefer to watch it. It's your choice.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #2

For the second movie this week we will be taking a look at an underrated gem. I'm talking about the movie House by director Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2 & Part 3, and Warlock) and writer Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, the Monster Squad, and episodes of Tales from the Crypt) which has quite the staff and cast behind it.

This is a haunted house movie about a man brought to the edge after losing his family to this place, and is given the chance to move in and take revenge. What unfurls following this setup is some of the most impressive special effects you will see, as well as some surprisingly effective comedy, and trippy horror that adds to a building atmosphere of tension.

It goes without saying that I enjoyed this one! Check out my full thoughts below!

Also, a reminder that this is cross-posted at Cannon Cruisers, but you can watch it here if you'd prefer. I just wanted to make it easier for anyone passing by to see these posts.

Once again, Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Halloween Movie Madness #1

This week I decided to do something a bit different than my usual posting. Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I'd try a new idea to liven things up.

All this week up to the 31st, I will be cross-posting with Cannon Cruisers and sharing my thoughts on a Halloween movie of my choice. So get ready for six posts of insanity for Halloween week. Sit back and enjoy the discussion.

For Monday I decided to cover the obscure 1988 cult hit Night of the Demons. Check out the video below for my full impressions.

Oh yes, and Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Fear of the Dark

Keeping with the theme of Halloween themed subjects for October this year, I wanted to talk about probably the most influential one for me both as a boy and one that led me to eventually be a creator. That would be the 1990-1996 (...) horror anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? that ran on Nickelodeon down south and on YTV up north. This was one of the first live action series that managed to speak to me as someone who usually preferred animation. There was a short two season revival that brought the series back in 1999, but by 2000 it was over for good, at least in it's original incarnation.. In other words, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (or AYAOTD?) pretty succinctly captured the 1990s for Gen Y kids during its entire run.

The series began in Canada in 1990, the place where most live action shows were once filmed for kids (at least, the non-sitcoms and game shows) and was soon aired by Nickelodeon in 1991 where it achieved most of its fame in the south. In Canada it primarily known for airing on YTV, which I've written about before. To this day, it is still fondly remembered by Gen Y kids, and for a very good reason. There wasn't much else like it.

So what is Are You Afraid of the Dark? about? Well, aside from being a horror anthology series for kids, it also stars kids telling stories about other kids. In other words, it felt (though it wasn't) a lot like a series made by children for other children to enjoy. It was unique in that sense. For a traditionally adult genre and series format like a horror anthology, it was the first to show these sorts of things could be made for wider audiences. And it is still the best at what it did, even years later.

Every episode begins with a group of kids called "The Midnight Society" gathering around a campfire in the woods and telling scary stories they came up with themselves. They each take turns every week to tell one. There was no limit as to what the stories could be about as long as they were horror tales of some bent. What this did was give the stories both a bit of levity (knowing they're being told by kids adds a certain charm to them) and an incite into how that character thinks or acts since what is told sometimes relates to something that happened to the kid recently. Sometimes there would even be reoccurring characters depending on who was telling the story. Doing it in this way has actually managed to help the show age far better than you might think, since any cheese is given a good context for why it's there.

And it remains popular, getting a short mini-series revival in 2019, and known for airing during Nickelodeon's prime period of popularity in the '90s, it has a name that still commands nostalgic clout today. Being that this year is its 25th anniversary, I believe it deserves at least a little bit of exploration. Heaven knows far worse things get attention these days. You can find a (far too) short oral history here, some of which I will use to talk about it going forward.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was created by D.J. MacHale and Ned Kandel. At first it was a special that aired on Halloween before repeated airings gave it the success it needed to get a full series order. The show was originally pitched to Nickelodeon, but they were unsure of a horror series for kids. Kind of weird for the network that prided itself on edge, but that's what happened. It was up to Canadian production company Cinar to jump in instead, and they did. As a consequence, the show is basically a Canadian show that aired in the US. Again, this isn't out of the ordinary for the time. Unless it was a sitcom, all live action kid shows were Canadian productions.

Because of the strict guidelines of no violence, blood, or depravity, the writers more or less had to try to stick to Gothic-style creeps of the sort the Twilight Zone had to rely on back in the day. These limitations would probably strangle most productions in the crib these days, especially with how nihilistic gore has gotten, but the lack of it made Are You Afraid of the Dark? what it was. It was a good way to help the series stand out, even among others of its own genre. You definitely wouldn't see this sort of thing in a Tales from the Darkside episode, and that's a good thing.

This was also the time before computers came into heavy use, so the series had to use practical effects instead. In the era where mainstream horror was dying, they still went with the classic approach to the scares. However, despite that, the effects have aged surprisingly well, for the most part. The worst looking ones are those where they tried to use computers, but then those have never aged well and never will. However, combining the focus on old style horror with the practical effects of the time lends the show a look that still works today.

There is a bit of a misunderstanding in how horror works in that so many think horror can irreparably scar children and they must be hidden from it. No doubt there is much that can traumatize anyone, and there is also a reason horror is primarily for adults, however, that doesn't mean it all is. Horror stories are fundamentally tales of bad choices leading to bad ends, or lessons being taught to characters through an unfolding plot stemming from Something That Shouldn't Be. It's a genre essentially about showing why things are the way they are and why they need to stay that way. Horror that forgets that lesson tends to not work.

For an example, let us talk about my favorite episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and explain how it works so well. There are many more popular examples that could be used, but I would rather stick with a more common episode. The one is called The Tale of the Phone Police. Though it is not spoken of much by aficionados of the series, though it is quite a good one.

Every episode begins with a title like this.

Jake and Chris are making prank calls from Jake's room. Jake is experienced at this sort of thing, but Chris is unsure and nervous that what they're doing is okay. Jake's sister catches them in the act and warns them that if they keep it up they will upset the Phone Police and things will get back for them. Who are the Phone Police? A mysterious group that enforces phone etiquette and punishes those who go against it. One of their biggest pet peeves are prank callers.

To emphasize this she tells the story of a bad boy named Billy Baxter who was once a troublemaker until he was caught by the Phone Police and never heard from again. Naturally, they don't believe her, however, they do have their doubts and soon find a suspicious number in the phone book. It has six numbers instead of seven! Jake calls it, and a creepy old man replies asking for help. He's trapped. Jake keeps hanging up, but the caller keeps calling back, pleading for help.

It keeps getting weirder, so the two boys end up going to the phone company and asking about the number. They are soon take to the records department in the basement where it somehow gets even weirder.

Jake is arrested by the Phone Police while Chris overhears the manager reading him his crimes. The prankster is taken to a cell while his friend escapes unseen to find help. Inside his cell, Jake finds nothing but solitude--no way out, and no neighbors or cellmates. He s trapped alone with nothing but a phone.

The phone rings, and the old man voice returns. He reveals himself as Billy Baxter, the boy that went missing so long ago. All Jake can do now is sit in a cell and receive prank phone calls of his own: the phone cannot make outside calls so he cannot call his parents or anyone for help. The only exception is that you can call back numbers that call you. The old Billy Baxter laughs and leaves him alone in the cell again.

Meanwhile, Chris gets back to Jake's house to explain what happened. However, Jake's sister doesn't remember him or her brother at all! She does remember the story of the Phone Police, but the tale wasn't about Billy Baxter. It was now about a boy named Jake O'Brien! Chris is now alone in rescuing Jake from captivity as he is the only one who knows he exists.

That's right, the Phone Police not only arrested Jake, they also erased him from existence. These guys are a lot worse than we first thought they were. Chris probably only escaped because he was in the building when it happened, but no one saw him there. It doesn't matter that much, Jake is in serious trouble regardless.

Chris then shows his resourcefulness by sneaking back into the building back down to Jake's cell. He gets Jake out and tricks the manager into getting trapped in the cell himself. The two head for the only exit--the underground tunnels. But the manager is adamant that no one escapes the Phone Police!

A chase begins underground as the two escape back out through the sewers to the streets. However, suspicious police cruisers are all over the place and the pair have to hide in the dark. After a close call, they get back into Jake's house and his sister remembers him again. Whatever the Phone Police did to his existence had been undone. But before they can relax, there is a knock at the door! They plead his sister not to answer, but she does anyway to reveal--a pizza delivery man. Turns out he just had the wrong address. Jake's sister makes fun of them saying she just made the story up, and even they begin to question just what they went through.

However, the pizza delivery man returns to the car to remove the sign from his door--it is a picture of a phone. Jake's phone then rings again and the laughter of Billy Baxter can be heard as the story ends. Were the Phone Police real? It doesn't matter because neither Jake or Chris ever made another prank call ever again.

A few tidbits about this story. It was obviously inspired by the Thought Police from 1984, Jake's last name is even O'Brien. This episode also inspired Weird Al Yankovic's Phony Calls parody of TLC's Waterfalls. A bit of odd trivia, but the show did have an odd reach.

What makes this episode work is that it nails the concept of childhood horror from unexpected places perfectly well. Not only is this the type of story that kids would tell to each other on the playground, but it also successfully captures the sort of thing that would unsettle them. Prank calling is (or was, I don't know how common it is anymore) a pure childhood thing that tapered off during the teenage years. Turning it into the plot for a  horror story for kids was a masterful stroke. This is what the show was best at, and what no one else could match them at doing. Not even Goosebumps managed to be as good at it in this area.

As mentioned before, horror stories show what happens when the rules are broken, and this episode goes to the nines with it. At the same time, it doesn't have to explain everything to the viewer. You never learn everything about the Phone Police, not even what they actually are or what their exact purpose is. It is never explained how they can erase your existence by imprisoning you or why they have the power to do the things they do. They just have it, and you'd better not mess with forces you do not understand. There is no tired, pointless backstory or origin story. It just is what it is. That is what makes horror work.

As a series for introducing kids into horror, it does a great job most of the time, and this episode is one of the best examples of how it works. It presents the sort of thing that would unsettle the audience, but also reinforces the morality of the norm at the same time. It is no wonder Are You Afraid of the Dark? was such a big hit. It truly was unique, and successful, in what it was doing.

The original title sequence.

However, nothing lasts forever. After two season of a 1999-2000 revival, the series was shelved for good (aside from the reboot miniseries 20 years later meant to cash in on nostalgia) and so was children's horror as a whole. Despite breaking new ground, and proving it could work, those in charge still refused to allow more series like it to air. As a consequence, instead of being a pioneer, Are You Afraid of the Dark? became an anomaly. Horror anthologies as a whole didn't survive in network TV either, though. The television landscape of the late '90s was a very different place than it was even a few years prior. Times were changing, whether the audience wanted them to or not, especially with 2001 just around the corner to reshape everything in the west forever.

One of the reasons co-creator D.J. MacHale got out of children's productions is because the major broadcasters no longer wanted to create series like this anymore. He moved out of the industry because it was no longer about making the sort of thing he liked making. This is pretty obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to mainstream entertainment.

We all know this. The only thing networks want is the lowest common denominator comedy series that can be disposed of quick so they can replace it with a new one and not have to get a mega-hit and have to pay the actors more money as a consequence. Nickelodeon is forced to rely on milking '90s nostalgia for a reason: this practice of producing only trash for a quick buck has destroyed their brand over the decades. We all know the only reason the reboot miniseries happened is because Nickelodeon is hurting and relying on their old properties from their highest point to stay alive. It's hard to emphasize how their biggest property still running is a series that premiered in 1999. This is not a healthy industry, but they chose to make it this way. It is a horror story of their own making.

This emphasis on recreating the past instead of being inspired by it to create new things is a big part of the problem with modern art and entertainment. There is nothing stopping a new series inspired by Are You Afraid of the Dark? from being made except that those in charge would rather cash in on the name instead. It's easier. That's what it's been about for some time now. It's not about the art, or even about supplying the customer with a product. It's about the easy money. As a result, do not expect another series like it to come around, at least not in the old system.

But you don't have to settle for that.

As the mainstream art world implodes, there are many new creators coming up outside the system to entertain you. The next Are You Afraid of the Dark? could be just around the corner. It just won't come from the old system. They had their chance, and they squandered it. That might be the scariest prospect for the old guard. They just aren't needed anymore.

It's an awkward Halloween this year, for sure, but it won't be like this forever. Eventually normality will return, and just like the show's characters we will be able to look back and reassess our path. How did we get here? Well, it's been a very long and strange path that lead us to where we are. The destination, however, remains unchanged. We still know where we're going. Normality still exists, and it's still worth fighting for.

Happy Halloween! I've got a bit of a surprise for next week, so keep your eyes peeled!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Signal Boost ~ 9Volt Comics Pulp Anthology!

Find it Here!

Today I would like to highlight a brand new comic anthology project from a group of great creators, including my cover artist for Duel on Dalpha (which you can still get FOR FREE here), the great ArtAnon! There has been a huge uptick in independent and smaller publishers stepping up to fill the void the big two are leaving with their recent nonsense over the years, and this is one such project intended to show what other artists are capable of. 

9Volt is a new series from the Triple-A-Creators Comic Community. The first release was centered on superheroes. The second is about pulp! Obviously this means there is no way I'm not going to highlight it here for you! One of the best parts about the boom in NewPub comics is the return of abandoned styles, and comics are jumping right into them as if they'd never left.

Featuring 17 different stories all set in an a different old school pulp setting, and clocking in at over 200 pages, you get more bang for your buck than you might expect for a typical anthology. Considering some creators charge twice the price for a quarter of the content, this is the considerably better deal. Be sure to spare them a glance.

As the description states:

The Nine Volt PULP ANTHOLOGY features 17 amazing stories, and a full 224 pages of comic book magnificence from the independent writers and artists of the Triple A Comic Creators Community! Slam-bang action! Adventure! Explosions! This is the second incredible comic anthology from our group!

Be sure to check the 9Volt Comics Pulp Anthology out for yourself here.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Destruction of Horror

There is plenty about the horror genre that works. Even in the visual format, horror has lasted long in movies and television, even though it relies on more extreme content to tell its story that some just can't stomach. Up until about the 1960s, the favorite subject of the genre was in ancient legends and myths, torn out of the pages of Grimm, the Bible, and ancient history. It was a way to link the modern age to the old. As shown last week, when horror stories try, they can easily match up with the masters. It's a genre that sticks around for a reason.

However, sometime in the 1960s, creators decided it was time to be "original", subvert legends, and explain that everything their ancestors thought up was either wrong, mistaken, or completely inept, as these new creators wrote stories of the power of evil, the death of God, and how modern political theories and new age beliefs were good enough to replace the superstitious old ways. Everything we knew for centuries was now wrong.

Needless to say, none of this has aged well in the slightest. Where Hammer's horror movies could have easily come out decades earlier in black and white, and the stories in Weird Tales could have been printed in a fairy tale book, these new "horror" stories were dated before the decade even ended. They certainly are hard to go back to now.

All one needs to do is look at the trinity of popular horror from this era to see how they hold up despite past acclaim. Rosemary's Baby, once seen as a classic, is no longer talked about as its relevance died five seconds after its release. The Omen is remembered more as a wacky series of escalating insanity than as any kind of chiller. Only The Exorcist retains any power, and that is because it used modern film techniques to tell a traditional tale with themes that have always resonated. This era shows how being "modern" is a good way to make an irrelevant work dated quick.

But while horror movies went through a renaissance in the 1980s, horror novels were at a bit of a crossroads. It might be the most unsure era in the genre's history, with writers not knowing if they should connect with the past, or create something out of whole cloth, unaware if they should attempt to scare the audience with shock or existential revelations. As a result, reading horror from this era is a bit like shooting ducks with a slingshot: you can hit them, but will it do any damage?

From my experience, it is a very uneven era for the genre. I've reviewed two books, one that was great, and one that was merely okay with editing issues holding it back. These both showed potential in the time period, and the hope that it might match where cinema was at the time. After all, 2 out of 2 is a good ratio. I hadn't read anything that turned me off of reading more horror from the 1980s.

Until now. You can bring that ratio down to 2 out of 3.

As stated before, I've been diving into an era I was too young to experience back in the day with 1980s horror books. Paperbacks from Hell and its description of the pulp-inspired covers and premises made me want to check them out and see just what I might have missed. In Nightblood, it showed me how written horror from the time could be just as powerful as the visual horror from the era. In Ghost Train, it showed me that great ideas and plotting could be mashed up and harmed by OldPub's insistence to hit a word limit. Both were worth reading, so I didn't have much reason to doubt my inclination to read further. This is why I went for one of the most popular books from the time, The Keep by F. Paul Wilson, the author's first work, and one that was advertised by horror aficionados as one of the best from its time period. I disagree, but we will get to that.

The set up to the book is simple, and it has potential. Near the beginning of World War II, a group of German soldiers are stationed at a keep in the mountains of Romania. Men start ending up dead and some SS officers show up to cause conflict with both the locals and other German soldiers that dislike their arrival. They call in a Jewish scholar and his daughter to help find out the cause of this problem, and that is when we are off to the races.

As mentioned, this is a very promising set up with enough conflict to buoy a story on its own. Slowly as the book goes on, the monster reveals itself as something straight out of the legends of old, and a lone warrior appears in order to combat this being. It has all the hallmarks of classic horror, and being that this came out in 1981 it looked as if it would fulfill the anticipation I had for such an era. This set up and the early chapters work hard to establish a Gothic atmosphere. Every piece on the board is a good one.

And then the book reveals it was actually written in the 1970s.

The reason I say that is because of what unfurls next. All of that set up I mentioned? It goes entirely wasted, and the book slides downhill before an ending more predictable than an after school special caps it all off in an unsatisfying manner. But that's not even the worst part of the book. But we'll get to that a bit later.

We should start with the characters. It should be easy because there are only six actual characters in 400 pages of story.

The most interesting characters in The Keep are the two Germans. Woermann is a World War I veteran, unimpressed with the state of his country and at odds with the higher ups. He is an older man with much experience in war and has the potential to be the lead character and take charge during a bad situation. Spoilers: he's not the lead, nor does he take charge.

The second German is Kaempffer, an SS officer who detests Woermann because he saw his cowardly side during the Great War. He comes to the keep after casualties are reported and is put in charge of the operation, refusing to budge even as men are killed. He's a vicious man with enough wrinkles to make a compelling secondary villain or reluctant ally in the unfolding horror. Spoilers: he is neither.

Then there is Cuza, the elderly crippled Jewish scholar, and his daughter Magda. Cuza's conflict between researching what is killing these men and what they are doing to his people is an interesting contrast. Unfortunately there isn't really any conflict there aside from one dimensional hate. His daughter, in contrast, might as well not even be in the story. She doesn't really do anything except fall in love, for some reason, with another character who doesn't do anything for over 90% of the story. There is a weird emphasis on her being uninterested in men and into playing music and studying the arts, but it falls away fairly fast, making one wonder why it was even there to begin with. She is the least interesting character, and does the least in the story. There is no reason whatsoever for her to be here. Spoilers: she's the protagonist of the story.

The villain is a "vampire" called Molasar. I put the phrase in quotes because he never says that's what he is, but gives off all the hints that he is one. For the first third of the book he is a nameless and shapeless force, striking from the distance and giving off vibes of ineffable darkness. When he reveals himself, however, he never stops talking and revealing information to the audience, thereby lessening his impact as a mysterious entity. In the final third he loses all characterization and becomes living cardboard, stripping him of all potential threat. This makes a later story turn have far less impact than the author desired. Spoilers: Molasar turns out to be the most evil being in all  of existence.

Finally, there is a red haired man named Glenn. He rides out of nowhere into the village, muscular and tough, and clearly meant to be the pulp-styled hero in this sort of movie. However, Glenn has a hidden past with Molasar, apparently part of an Order (I can't explain it better, since the book barely elaborates on it) that hunted his kind down over the centuries. Glenn is set up to be the secret trump card that will give all the answers. Spoilers: he is, but not in the way you'd think.

And those are the only real characters in the story. There are incidental characters with a line or two, but they don't end up mattering at all to the overall story, or have anything in the way of characterization. You follow these six people for most of the story, even when there is no reason to.

This deficiency in the cast becomes more and more noticeable as the story goes on, especially after the "twist" ends up derailing the entire book and making a third of the cast entirely irrelevant. One has to wonder why these characters were deemed worthy of a reader's attention.

So where does The Keep go wrong? I would say the story decays as it goes along, but falls completely to pieces at one specific moment which fails for more than one concrete reason. This single moment is symbolic of the failure of most modern horror to strike any sort of emotion in the audience aside from admiration over cleverness. What is this scene? It is the moment when we finally learn what Molasar actually is.

There are a few things a writer can do that can ruin a horror story. The horror can be substandard. The main characters can fail to carry the load. The pacing can be disjointed or broken. Technical problems can add up.

But one thing that can't be forgiven is when a story breaks its earlier promises to the reader and delivers a twist far less interesting than what a more straightforward story would deliver to them. This isn't a problem exclusive to horror, but it is a problem with the genre when you not only make the horror incredibly uninteresting as a result of the subversion, but are also oblivious to the the fact that you have done it. This is The Keep's fatal flaw and what makes it fail as not only a horror story, but as just a narrative.

There are going to be spoilers from here on. It's unavoidable. Should you want to read it yourself, then by all means. However, you are about to learn why I would not recommend this book to anyone, horror fan or not.

There's a reason this happens.

As stated before, the book starts off like a straightforward classic Gothic Horror. Germans arrive in keep, men start dying, Germans send for help, help arrives, help turns out to be unexpected, easy conflict is created. Character conflict is inevitable, as are the horrors to follow. In a normal horror story the characters must either surpass their faults and work together to defeat the threat, or they succumb from their inner conflict and get destroyed by the horror. These are really the only two ways a horror story like this can go to be remotely interesting as that is what the genre exists to do--enforce morality or show the consequence of breaking rules. Tense conflict between extremes is the hallmark of horror and what gives it the punch it has.

So, of course, neither of those things happen in The Keep. What happens is instead very limp and utterly flaccid.

Horror is about fear of the unknown, and learning more about the known in order to overcome it. What happens in The Keep is that about a third of the way through the book, the villain monologues all the backstory in an attempt to manipulate Cuza. This works on him, even though the audience is given no ambiguity and all mystique is drained from the villain. This is bad enough on its own.

Then about two thirds of the way in we learn that Molasar was lying about what he is to Cuza, for a really weak reason that is an excuse to lie to the audience. He isn't actually a Bram Stoker vampire--we're not allowed to have those in fiction anymore. Remember, this is post-Interview With a Vampire. No, he's far less interesting than a Stoker vampire. In fact, what he is ends up breaking the back of the worldbuilding and removes all potential horror from the story instead. This is when the book falls flat on his face, and reveals itself as a very dated modern genre fiction book that could only have been written in the decade it was written in.

Please be patient, because this is a lengthy issue to go through.

After the Germans attempt to seize Glenn, after about half the book of said character doing nothing, he is thought to be shot to death and falls off a cliff. It should also be mentioned that this is the only thing the Germans have done plot-wise since the beginning of the story, but I digress. Glenn is rescued by Magda and she finds out he has supernatural abilities that he was hiding from her and everyone else. As he heals, he tells her the truth about what he and Molasar are . . . for around fifty pages of info-dumping as nothing else of note happens.

This comes right after a scene where Woermann, after pointlessly disappearing for near a third of the book, finds out the dead bodies of his men have disappeared. He is attacked in a dark hall and raises a cross and utters the name of Jesus Christ to repel the approaching vampire. That doesn't work and he is killed. 

The author certainly thought this was clever (the monster is smiling, of course), but there are several reasons why this is stupid.

What this scene means is that not only is the villain not a vampire for no real reason, but the character had no relevance to the story except to be fodder in a dumb twist. He dies accomplishing nothing and no one thinks about him afterwards. So why did we follow him for around half of the book?

Kaempffer also dies not long later in a very similar way, as do the rest of the Germans in the keep. Two of our six characters are dead, never having had a single impact on the plot except to get Glenn to monologue things he should have been telling people from his first appearance. In other words, there is no reason for this story to take place in the time period it does because the time period is irrelevant to everything that happens.

Then there is the monster reveal. This is what entirely breaks the story in half.

You see, Molasar is not a vampire. He is an agent from a vague force (it is not "evil", it's not that simple!) that's probably chaotic, I suppose. Maybe. We don't get much in the way of information. Glenn is actually named Glaeken and is an opposite from an opposing vague force (that force is not "good", it's not that black and white!) and that both sides are older than any religion. This makes them more important than any notion of Satan or some probably non-existent idea of God you might have in your non-Gnostic brain.

These forces aren't good and evil though, one force just gave Molasar power to be evil and slaughter innocents, and the other gave Glaeken power to stop him. But they aren't good and evil. It's not that simple. I guess. Oh, and they disappeared one day because they were bored with humanity, or something. In fact, all that folklore about crosses scaring the supernatural? They are actually scared, not because it's a cross, but because it reminds them of Glaeken's sword hilt. Aren't you silly thinking it has thousands of years of mythology, history, and religion, behind the legend. It's actually because it reminds them of one random sword some vague force gave an insignificant coward once who refuses to do his job and slay the not-evil genocidal maniac centuries ago. Molasar hides in a fortress covered in crosses because . . . you know what, I'm not sure anymore. The book gave at least five different convoluted reasons from tricking the Church, to the villagers, to Glaeken, to anyone trying to get in . . . it doesn't make sense no matter what it is. But I guess it fooled the audience into thinking Christianity so that's good enough.

That Mr. Wilson thought this twist was interesting in the slightest is absolutely baffling. This twist creates lore on the level of an Image Comic, not a horror "classic" that has sold millions. It doesn't hold together with even a few seconds of scrutiny.

While all the above is awful, what doesn't help are all the implications these reveals mean for the story and the world it is set in. These twists make it even worse.

Glaeken has refused to slay Molasar because he believes he will be erased from existence when he kills his opposing agent. He believes it because of some vague talk of balance he made up in his head. No one tells him this will happen, and he doesn't know if it will be happen, but this very unfounded fear is worth letting countless people be slaughtered over the centuries, including the ones in this story, because he won't tell anyone what Molasar actually is and never has bothered to try. And for some reason we are expected to get behind him when he finally decides to do his job (he has someone to have sex with now, so he has motivation to act) and disappears from existence in the final chapter, for a reason that isn't explained. Good riddance. He ends up killing Molasar in about two pages, anyway, really showing how worthless he is. Imagine if this would have happened ages ago?

The book ends with Magda crying after everyone is pointlessly killed from her father (who somehow broke away from Molasar's side despite literally attempting to decapitate his daughter mere seconds earlier) to every German in the keep to . . . you know what? We never learn what happens to anyone in the village. They could all be slaughtered, too. I guess it doesn't matter. The author doesn't care. Either way, the final chapter concludes with her alone and everyone else dead after an anti-climactic final battle.

Then the epilogue reveals Glaeken is alive, for some reason, and now mortal. We're in Highlander now, I guess. He gets up out of a pile of rocks and meets Magda. The end.

Forget being completely unearned, there is no build up to any of this. Whatever horror book existed at the start no longer remained by the end, and all I am left with is a vague attempt at mysticism, sword and sorcery, and Harlequin romance that never comes together. It's a bunch of scraps slapped together in an attempt to make a modern horror story.

I'm also left with that same feeling I get whenever I experience modern horror. That being the feeling that the author has no idea what is actually scary. Considering how vague the threat is in this book, and how weak the worldbuilding is, one cannot come to any conclusion other than nothing was thought out beyond the surface level. Just throwing together parts of something scary doesn't make it good or interesting. It makes it a jumbled, confused mess.

For one specific example, let us go into what Molasar feeds on. We are told he doesn't feed on blood--he feeds on something far worse than that. He is sustained by fear and misery (but the force that gave him power isn't evil! Really!) and by vaguely making people upset and feel bummed out. He feeds on intangible, undefinable things.

This isn't worse than drinking blood. 

Blood drinking, besides being cannibalistic, is the act of draining life instead of giving it. It is saying that your victim's very existence doesn't matter and that you deserve their very life force for your own. It is also the opposite of Christ in that while He gives His blood to you for nourishment, the vampire takes it by force to sustain him and gain power. This is why he is an anti-Christ monster. He literally is against everything Christ, the Son of God Himself, is. This is why Christian symbols and objects, not vague things like "faith" or "belief" from hacky modern vampire stories, injure them. Intangible ideas like "feeding on misery" is not even close to as interesting, nor does it really mean much. It needs to be concrete to be scary. Vampires feed on something much worse than "ideas" or feelings.

Then there's the implication that all religions are wrong and that these two vague forces are older than everything, but that they're not good and evil. Questions then naturally arise from this sort of reveal. If God and Satan are inventions, then you need to fill in the holes in existence. You have to explain to me how good and evil exist. How is what Molasar doing bad? Based on what context? What moral code? Who decided it was bad? His opposing force doesn't even believe in God. Why is he doing this then? What motivation is there to stop his counterpart? Why does any of this matter if existence has no meaning? Why would those vague forces even bother doing this? Why is this conflict even here, and how is all this vague nonsense interesting? Spoilers: it's not.

You might have noticed I have said "vague" a lot, because that is the main theme of the book. There is nothing concrete in The Keep because the author has not set up a concrete view of good or evil or any sort of motivation for the characters. We are supposed to believe in characters that don't really have characteristics, because they are barely used or do anything, in a repetitive plot of going to the keep to the village to the keep to the village and back again, over and over. The Germans don't matter--this story could take place in 1863 and it wouldn't change anything, making their deaths as worthless as their role in the plot. Magda doesn't initiate anything in the story except to lose her virginity to a man she met a day ago and to be kicked around by her ungrateful father. The villain has no mystique and is always talking about nonsense, and Cuza is a puppet that has no ability for self-reflection or critical thinking. Then you get to the fact that the person we're supposed to root for in the final battle has just let innocent people die for thousands of years for such a monumentally stupid reason, and you complete the circle of pointlessness. Nothing really matters in The Keep.

To add insult to injury, one of the reasons Cuza refuses to ask Molasar to kill Kaempffer early in the story is because if the higher-ups learn their men were killed they would throw a fit and retaliate by sending high amounts of SS officers in revenge and scorching the area. This is mentioned as a big reason as to why they can't just kill their enemies. So what do you think will happen to the villagers or the innocents in the area after the events of The Keep when every German there is slaughtered? The author doesn't speculate on it. The story more or less forgot they were in the plot by this point.

Probably because it doesn't matter. None of this matters. Some vague force was defeated, I guess. That's enough story for today. Word limit hit. Go buy another paperback from Big Chain Bookstore and consume more books.

That is The Keep, a story about nothing, where nothing matters, and nothing gets accomplished that you care about.

And somehow this book became a bestseller and is looked at fondly by horror aficionados. For the life of me I cannot understand why. It's incredibly dated, its worldview is incomplete and not thought out in the slightest, and nothing interesting happens for its stock mass produced 400 page length. It's a clunker, and deserves to fall into obscurity. How Nightblood went forgotten for thirty years while this remained in print, and even got a film adaption by Michael Mann, is a mystery for the ages. There isn't even a comparison as to which succeeds better as a horror story.

But then, one was released in 1981, and the other in 1990. That might just explain the attention one received while the genre was a hot trend and the other while OldPub was trying to kill it off to be replaced with generic 400 page thriller books. Because if this book came out at any other time it would be as obscure as any other random '70s horror novel.

So, no, I do not recommend The Keep. Stay far away. Even though this was published in the '80s, it feels very '70s, and I mean that in all the worst ways. There are much better horror novels to occupy your time. Go read those and let this one fall into obscurity where it belongs. It isn't worth your time, not when there are so many better options out there.

The horror genre has taken a beating over the decades, but it is thankfully crawling away from the nihilistic influence of books like this and the rotten influence of the 1970s. NewPub is offering much that OldPub hasn't in ages, which means we don't have to settle for substandard material like this any longer. The new age is here!

Nonetheless, I will keep reading horror from this era. It's given me a lot to think about, and perhaps that is enough. That's more than I can say for the fading, dusty modern empire of OldPub, left to crumble like the keep in this story.

We've got better things to concern ourselves with.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Victory in Horror

One of the toughest aspects about being a writer or creator is dealing with a cautious audience and tackling tricky subject matter without being needlessly flippant or aggressive. It is difficult to forget that not everyone sees things the same as you do i your field. Creative types take those that insult their entire line of work very seriously, which can lead to a divorce in the audience and those making the art due to miscommunication. Art exists to connect--artists shouldn't want to sever that connection. Unfortunately, one never knows how far the audience will follow them.

So perhaps this post might make a few uncomfortable. All I can say is to please read it to the end. I promise it is going somewhere.

Take the horror genre, for instance. It's especially touchy to talk about for those who take grave spiritual matters seriously. This is fine, since spiritual matters are of utmost importance, and should be discussed. However, what does not help is the dismissal of an entire genre of art as useless, degenerate, or evil. Despite no matter how you explain it, there are those who do not want to engage with it. We all have our own tastes, but I do wish to make something clear about it.

Horror is not pornography, and you will find very few horror stories (that aren't terrible or bottom of the barrel trash) that will glorify evil at the expense of the good. The very best in the genre reinforces the good by showing how ultimately powerless evil is in the face of true opposition. Ultimately, the genre is a celebration of light over dark.

Horror isn't for everyone, of course, as its subject matter is not for the faint of heart, and there are those who misunderstand its intent as a way to celebrate degeneracy and carnage, but the original point of horror is beyond either of those things. Having its roots in fairy tales and marchen romance will do that. The genre is about the opposite of destruction and the victory of evil--it's about reinforcement of the good. All the best horror tales get this right. The ones that don't? They aren't horror, they're pornography for violence lovers. They don't stand up for a reason.

The two biggest aspects that build horror up are two things: the importance of rules and societal strength, and the ultimate victory of even the simplest flicker of good against a powerful wave of evil. You engage in a horror story for the same reason you read fairy tales: to fortify the good. Horror that doesn't do either of these things, fails. Without exception.

One of the biggest believers in this concept was director Terence Fisher, responsible for some of the best horror movies ever made. He directed 50 films ranging from 1948 to 1972 (the last was later released in 1974), he only died a few years later in 1980. In other words, directing was his whole life and vocation.

Mostly he began his career creating pulp thrillers with titles like A Song for Tomorrow, Wings of Danger, and Blood Orange. They were mostly standard for the time, but it was steady work. In the late 1950s he began to make horror movies for Hammer Films, and that would end up defining his career, and his later life. Near half of his 50 film output was spent on this genre with the occasional adventure, fantasy, or science thriller picture, because they are all related genres anyway. It isn't as if his work in noir crime didn't prepare him for horror. They have many similarities with each other, as most in the adventure genre do.

Regardless, his horror films are the ones he is most known for today. And that is the subject of this piece. Today I would like to talk to you about my personal favorite horror movie, one that Mr. Fisher directed, and one that deserves far more attention that it gets. It is a classic, but it is somehow still obscure. I hope to help change that.

But before we get there we should start at the beginning.

One of the biggest names in the horror genre was, and still is, Hammer Films, a British film company that operated from 1934-1979 (yes, starting from the pulp era) which specialized in horror of the older sort. Gothic tales and stories of the eerie over the explicit and profane. You might even recognize some of the actors that made their name there from Christopher Lee to Peter Cushing to Oliver Reed: there are many actors and creators from the era that we go on to do many more exciting things, even after Hammer closed its doors in 1979. For a long time, Hammer was the name for horror, due to their staunch traditional view of the genre and their insistence to treat it with respect and reverence.

Ironically enough, what killed Hammer was the explosion of grotesque and nihilistic horror in the late 1960s and early 1970s such as Rosemary's Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These sorts of movies ended up changing the market towards more explicit content, and by the start of the 1980s consumed the genre. True horror couldn't compete in this era of decadence, so they could do little but fold. It didn't help that most of their later films simply weren't very good, but they were probably running low on inspiration at the time.

Yes, they died before the big horror boom in the 1980s, probably one of the biggest missed opportunities in all of film. There was nothing to be done about it. Their time was simply up. It happens.

However, time is a very strange mistress, and due to the passage of time and the death of horror as a viable genre by the '00s, many had begun looking back on the past and taking stock of what worked. From what I can muster, you can tell the enthusiasm for what worked in film by what gets the most attention with a modern Bluray re-release. The two things that always seem to sell out fast are '80s horror movies and Hammer films. They also take up the majority of the discussion online. The "dated" nature of the films has come around to the point where they have aged far better than most of the competition that outsold them back in the day. Truth always wins.

So what is it that Hammer did that worked so well? How are they looked back on so fndly despite being so criticized for being out of touch, tired, and out of date? That is the subject of this post--that favorite horror film I wanted to talk about.

Today we will be taking a look at the 1968 Hammer horror movie, The Devil Rides Out. This is an occult adventure movie about the dangers of the dark and the ultimate victory of the light. It is the anti-Rosemary's Baby, except it has aged far better. Another interesting fact is that they both released in the same year.

Our Heroes

The Devil Rides Out is based on a book by Dennis Wheatley, in particular the second in his Duke de Richleau series, a series of eleven novels that ran from 1933-1970. Unlike other series characters such as Seabury Quinn's occult detective Jules de Grandin, Wheatley's series did not have a set genre it was required to operate in. The first book was an adventure story called Forbidden Territory and was adapted to film way back in 1934. The Devil Rides out is the second book in the series, and is vastly different in style from the first. Just as was common in the pulp era, genre wasn't so set in stone. This story could have run in Weird Tales, it is so bizarre.

It most likely took so long to adapt due to the subject matter, which is very tricky and was not one mainstream filmmakers were keen with taking on, especially in the 1930s. This doesn't even take in to account the level of special effects that would have to go into it just to make an adaption work on a basic level. This would be a nightmare to adapt at any other time. It's hard to imagine now, but pulp was far more ambitious and big than what film could allow before studios like Hammer came around. Much of this just couldn't be done.

Nonetheless, it took until the '60s for a proper adaption of Wheatley's second book, and what an adaption it was! Hammer pulled out all the stops for this one, getting Terence Fisher (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Earth Dies Screaming) as director, and casting Christopher Lee in one of his best roles (and few as a protagonist!) as the Duke among the rest of the perfectly cast ensemble. They went in hard on this picture, sparing no expense. It should also be mentioned that this adaption was penned by Richard Matheson, of all people, so that should help explain its masterful transition from page to screen.

The story starts with one of the Duke's friends coming to him with a problem. His son seems to have gotten himself involved in something strange. Richleau investigates and finds the young man is involved in the occult, in specific a cult worshiping a demon named Bahomet. Now the Duke plots to get him out and escape without getting himself or the young man killed. What follows after this is daring escapes, spiritual attacks, odd monsters, fights, and time travel (!) along the way to the stunning conclusion. I don't want to spoil the finer details of the plot except to say that you are not going to guess where it's going, and where it goes is quite incredible, especially for a movie from the late '60s when nihilism was all the rage in film. 

I should probably tackle the elephant in the room, which is the demonic part of the plot. This is going to make some wary, but it should be explained first.

It can't be stressed enough that the evil in this movie is treated as evil, there is no ambiguity here except when it involves questioning how deep someone might have fallen under the cult's influence. The main character uses a cross to make a demon explode (yes, that happens and it is one of the best scenes ever put to film), and one plot point involves turning a coven into a church. Then there is the denouement. The entire movie is a reinforcement of good over the inevitable failure of evil. This subject matter can make the movie hard to watch for some, and it doesn't need explicit content to do it, either. However, it is in service of good.

In case you are unaware, the writer of the novel and the director were both Christians, faithful Anglicans, so you won't see much in the way of celebrating degeneracy. They aren't Roman Polanski or the crowd he ran in.

From wikipedia's page on Fisher:

"Given their subject matter and lurid approach, Fisher's films, though commercially successful, were largely dismissed by critics during his career. It is only in recent years that Fisher has become recognised as an auteur in his own right. His most famous films are characterised by a blend of fairytale myth and the supernatural alongside themes of sexuality, morality, and "the charm of evil". Drawing heavily on a Christian conservative outlook, there is often a hero who defeats the powers of darkness by a combination of faith in God and reason, in contrast to other characters, who are either blindly superstitious or bound by cold, godless rationalism."

And in regards to a later adaption of his work, Wheatley detested it for being obscene. This helps put what happens in The Devil Rides Out into context, since its subject matter is intense yet covered respectfully. Just before he died he received conditional absolution from his friend, the Bishop or Peterborough, and he spent his life warning about the evils of dark spiritual forces.

In fact, according to wikipedia:

"He came to be considered an authority on Satanism, the practice of exorcism, and black magic, toward all of which he expressed hostility."

Wheatley also believed Communism was created by satanic power, so you know he's a true believer in what he writes.

I also don't want to spoil it, but the final line of the film is as far from Rosemary's Baby-style nihilism and a reaffirmation of everything listed above about the writer. Good is not going to roll over for evil, not like Polanski would have wanted it to.

Suffice to say, these two individuals are a good part of the reason the film never veers off course in its morality, just as Matheson's tight adaption and Lee's tremendous performance keeps your eyes glued to the screen. The film flies by a confident pace, always knowing where it needs to be, and the actors help tremendously in holding the viewer's attention. In fact, Christopher Lee considered this one of his favorite roles. He was not wrong.

What also contributes is the amount of action, from car chases to fist fights, spiritual attacks and monsters, to heroic characters and seedy villains, all flying at you at a pace that other such films wouldn't have until the 1980s. It's pulp of the best sort, and a reminder of the potential such a fun first mindset can have, even in a horror story about the conflict between good and evil.

As for faults, there are few. No movie is perfect, though this does come close.

The special effects are not going to wow those used to modern CG or even the perfection of practical effects from the 1980s, but they are remarkably effective and evocative regardless. The imagery is no less disturbing just because Tom Savini isn't handling makeup. You just have to keep in mind that effects were limited right now.

I also wouldn't recommend showing this to children. It's too intense and the themes are to tall for kids to properly see the top of. This is an affair for older audiences only.

Another sticking point some are going to have is the ending, and I mean the way the characters reach it. Some consider it to convenient, or a deus ex machina, and your mileage might vary. However, it is not quite typical for this sort of story.

It really isn't that controversial, however. If you keep in mind the movie is about the battle between good and evil and how arrogant, overconfident, and stupid, evil can get at its peak then it works just fine. But if you were expecting a grand sword-fight or gun battle where the Duke shoots the villain through the heart then you might be disappointed. The ending isn't like that. Though one should keep in mind that a final confrontation in a story is about summing up the greater themes from the work, and such a violent ending would not be in tone with what the heroes were trying to accomplish throughout. It would be at odds with the events of the plot.

That said, the end probably could have been stronger, but I can't complain about what we got from this ending. At the very least, you aren't going to see much else like it.

And that's the takeaway here. There isn't much like this movie, and I highly recommend seeing it, especially in this season where we celebrate Good's ultimate triumph over evil. This is why we engage in the genre to begin with.

The Devil Rides Out is the ultimate battle between good and evil and how that might go deeper than we first expect it will. It's masterfully directed, perfectly written, expertly acted, and phenomenally paced. You will not see any other movie like this, especially not from the modern film industry. Much of this comes from the Gothic influence and the morality prepackaged in it, but the genre itself is so far from its roots these days that such a film is incapable from coming out of the minds of modern producers. Don't expect anything like this coming from the mainstream.

But that's fine. Independents and NewPub can take it from here.

Gothic is the beating bloody heart of horror. The battle between good and evil is perilous, dangerous, and unsettling. Everybody isn't comfortable with that, and it's understandable, but to dismiss an entire genre that has so much to offer is simply wrong. We need to be reminded of we are are and what we aren't. Considering this is the season right before we celebrate the ultimate victory of Good, it is imperative to remember what we are up against.

So this Halloween do your part and celebrate the ultimate powerlessness of horror against the normal. Evil has already lost and that is something that we should all be reminded of over and over. Good has already triumphed, so cheer up! We only have to make it to the end to see for ourselves.

It goes without saying that you should see this movie. I can't recommend it more highly.

I'll see you next time when I go through another season appropriate subject. For now, have yourself a fun time and remember that good things are on the way. Times are changing. Don't forget the spirit of the season: triumph!

And triumph is what NewPub is all about.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Signal Boost ~ "Fiendilkfjeld Castle" by Matthew Pungitore

Find it Here!

Are you in the mood for horror this Halloween season? Well, I've got the book for you. This one is from an author with a pulp spirit and a love of the weird. Just the title alone evokes Horace Wapole or Robert W. Chambers. You're definitely not going to see anything like this on OldPub's shelves! Today I wanted to highlight a unique book you won't see anywhere other than from NewPub.

So check out this Gothic Horror novel from writer and author Matthew Pungitore!

The description is below:

"Theodemir Fiendilkfjeld has been having strange dreams for many months. In his dreams, he sees a beautiful woman who is trapped in a castle. Theodemir learns that a missing heiress, Alison, who looks exactly like the woman he has been seeing in his dreams, was last seen at his family's Gothic castle, Fiendilkfjeld castle, in northern Italy. Theodemir goes there to investigate her disapearance with a detective, Roman, who is Alison's friend. The castle rests in the region of Fiendilkfjeld, which was dedicated to Theodemir's ancestors. Believing that Alison could be in danger, Theodemir and Roman want to rescue her, and they hope that she is still alive. During this quest, Theodemir hears rumors about how this region is haunted."

This is, once again, proof that NewPub is killing it! You're not going to find this sort of Gothic Horror from the old guard.

You can find Fiendilkfjeld Castle here.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Reader Beware!

It's spooky season again, and this time I wanted to talk about something related to this creepy time of year. I also wanted to tie it into last week's post about Choose Your Own Adventure and that specific tiny period of time where kids were encouraged to pick up books and read. Before the scolds fully assumed control, things were quite different in a lot of ways. What better way to start Halloween off than with the last real trend in reading (You can count Harry Potter, but that one goes beyond books) which got children to pick up books and became readers. That last trend would be R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series.

You might not know about it if you weren't a preteen at any point in the 1990s, but if you were then you remember just how big Goosebumps was. It's still one of the highest selling book series of all time, even now. That's not a record liable to be beat anytime soon.

Running from July 1992 to December 1997 (There's that year again...), Goosebumps was a series of short horror novellas written for kids. Every volume would contain a brand new story, cast of characters, and style of horror tale. Each book was different so there was something for anyone who wanted to read a fun horror yarn.

Considering this was more or less the golden age of toys and entertainment for children, it only made sense that the series would expand outside of books. The series was soon made into a TV show not unlike Are You Afraid of the Dark? and other such kid fare from the era. The series would go on to sell over 400 million copies worldwide, being one of the biggest literary successes of the 20th century. For a long time Goosebumps was simply inescapable.

How did R. L. Stine manage all this? Surely something like this seems foreign to us now. Books just don't become phenomenons anymore. How did he do it? The same way Choose Your Own Adventure did. Keep it simple and straightforward. Short, punchy tales that offer pure entertainment to the reader was the key.

Yes, pulp horror is what led to Goosebumps' success.

Books in the series were about everything from creepy living dolls to werewolves to house hauntings and everything in between. What Stine would do would be to take a good, their younger sibling, and a friend, and throw them up against a monster, a creepy situation, or just plain oddness, and have them attempt to figure a way out of the conflict. It was a basic formula, but a perfect one.

Unlike a series such as Are You Afraid of the Dark? which was more straightforward and traditional horror for the younger set, Goosebumps was more '90s-edged with some tongue in cheek humor and more twist endings than you can shake a Shyamalan at. There was subversion at play, but of the good kind. He wanted kids to remember that these were just stories, and he did by making his stories as weird as possible. Check out the ending of Welcome to Camp Nightmare for prof of that. They didn't always work, but they did give his stories a flavor of their own.

Either way, Goosebumps struck a chord with younger audiences and caused a mini-boom in reading even at my own elementary school. Just about everyone read it, even those who didn't like reading. It's hard to understand this now when there hasn't been an actual literary phenomenon in near two decades, but Goosebumps was a household name, and it was everywhere. I knew teachers and adults who detested it, but even they would have to admit that it did get kids reading and, if anything, they were a success for that alone.

Getting children to read used to be an important goal, but it just hasn't been one in the west for a long time now. Back in the 1990s? It was still a priority.

The series originally started as a trio of books released in the summer of 1992 that just did okay. It took some time for them to build steam from word of mouth, which they eventually did. Positive reception and buzz continued and eventually the series moved to being released in a bimonthly schedule. They were flying off the shelves. The original series would have 62 installments in total before the beginning moments of declining sales brought it to an end in December of 1997.

Scholastic attempted a relaunch not long later in January of 1998 called Goosebumps 2000 (because that was very popular nomenclature at the time) which was marketed as being more intense and (relatively) serious, but sales only went down. Probably because no one wanted a relaunch. By the beginning of 2000 they were down to 200,000 from 4 million, either of which OldPub would certainly be begging for now, but the relaunch series never had the same appeal as the original. Stine and Scholastic had already been getting in contract disputes since about 1996 and that rising conflict ended Goosebumps entirely in early 2000, thereby allowing the series to fade out of public consciousness as a relic of the 1990s.

None of this really explains why Goosebumps caught on, though. Sure it's easy to say that Stine "gave the audience what they wanted" and leave it at that, but what was it they wanted? Were it that easy than OldPub would still be creating hits, wouldn't they?

Much of this goes back to how badly schools misunderstand children, which has more or less always been a problem since those who choose to get into high positions in the school system only do so to whip their prisoners into shape. They want to mold kids in their image, not teach them, and they have never--and will never--understand at least one whole of the two sexes. Rowdy boys are tough to control, so they are just punished for being rowdy and ignored. Naturally this means they books they are assigned school are given purely to wash their thoughts clean, and little else. None of this ever sticks, however. I've never met anyone who remembers anything were assigned to read in school in a positive light. I meet even fewer who still read at all.

Children want escapism, this is why they are always playing games, make believe, or holding contests. They want something more than the drab day to day of their "punching the clock" equivalent. They want to be reminded that there is something bigger and better out there. Much like adults crave wonder and action, so do children. No one ever grows out of it, though there are many systems in modern society meant to stamp it out.

The school system doesn't know this, and if they do they don't care, and OldPub is either also oblivious to it or they actively choose to not give their customers what they want. Either way, this is why they both fail at what they are supposed to do, and will continue to fail until they finally collapse. Utopia isn't coming, and they will never create it.

Mr. Stine, however, appeared to know all this. He understood what kids actually wanted in their stories. A big element of his success is that he doesn't use his books to preach or moralize.

He's already smarter than your typical modern OldPub genre writer or editor, just based on that one statement. Who Knew that you didn't have to shove half-thought out propaganda in order to give people what they wanted? R. L. Stine. That's who. Oh, and his resulting series is one of the highest selling of all time. Funny how that works.

Reading is entertainment, at the end of the day. You can learn a lot from books, but teaching is what non-fiction is for. Heck, that's what documentaries and educational video games are for. Fiction, creative storytelling, and imagination, is meant for exercising wonder. It's a whole different thing that many refuse to understand, but fiction doesn't exist to teach--it exists to uplift. Sure, you can have morals to your story, they're more or less unavoidable in anything you do, but they aren't the main point of a piece of fiction. The adventure is the point. Even Charles Dickens entertained his readers with his serialized stores, modern writers have no excuse.

Though one of the other big issues with the current OldPub industry is in its odd dismissal of an entire sex. They deliberately cut out half their potential audience. As mentioned above, boys don't read, but no one ever tried to assess the problem or figure out a solution to why that is.

And yet Mr. Stine did it. He managed to enthrall an entire demographic that OldPub has never tried to court since the success of Goosebumps even near two decades since the series first landed on the racks. That's right, the books were a hit with boys.

You can tell OldPub took this success seriously by all the attempts they've made to reach that audience again since. Sarcasm aside, this is a telling sign that these companies are either run by people who don't care, or people who deliberately make bad decisions. Both are possible. But to not even attempt to replicate the success of Goosebumps shows enormous ineptitude. They are called OldPub for a reason, folks. They couldn't even figure out how it got popular to begin with.

In fact, from what I can muster, it looks as if, opposite to Choose Your Own Adventure, that Goosebumps' success was more or less entirely by word of mouth on the playground. Librarians wouldn't push it because the series didn't teach morals, teachers found them vacuous and trashy, and Scholastic just treated Goosebumps as if it was an obligation to put it out. I'm sure if you were alive at the time and if you were thinking back on it now you probably couldn't remember any such marketing blitz campaign for the series. They were just popular and other kids were reading them. It's odd, but that's what a lot of successful properties of the 1990s felt like. Word of mouth carried more than advertising dollars did.

While Goosebumps took a little while to take off, it did get a boost from the fact that it had a television show by 1995 that lasted 4 seasons until 1998 (...) and was a major success from the get go. I'd wager a guess that if you were around at the time and had read a book or two that you also stuck around to watch some of the series. Running on Fox Kids, it was one of the most popular series on it and did well even in reruns. Peggy Charren must have been fuming.

You might think the television show was a good bit of promotion for the book by Scholastic, but you'd be wrong. It was the producers that came to them to create the series. The publisher saw the dollar signs and they took it, but they certainly didn't go out of their way to get it made. Some of the same people involved with Are You Afraid of the Dark? were even involved in it, including casting and filming even being done in Canada, for the most part.  Here is an oral history of the Goosebumps TV show, should that interest you. It has an interesting bit of history, too.

It was around that time that Stine's production company and Scholastic began to have legal battles and much back and forth. By the beginning of 2000, Stine's contract had run out and the two parted ways, Goosebumps fading out with him. Scholastic threw away an entire cash cow for nothing, really. Stine did eventually return eight years later to continue the series, but the gap in time certainly didn't help anything. That lost time is never going to be made up.

The 1990s were a strange time, particularly the first half. While the Greatest Generation were handing the reins over to the Baby Boomers to run everything (into the ground, it turned out), this was the last period where entertainment for the sake of entertainment was allowed to flourish. At least, in the first half of the decade while the baton was still being passed. Goosebumps is one of these things that got under the wire just in time. It blew up just before the wall was put up. This was in the same brief time period where Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Image Comics struck gold by offering big entertainment for the younger set. It's no coincidence that none of these things managed to carry their full popularity into the ensuing decade. They couldn't, not in the changing climate.

But while that era ended by the late '90s, so too is the current era. OldPub and Hollywood are both on their last legs with nothing much left to carry them forward. That era of weird and wild entertainment is coming back, but in a much different form.

I'm sure I do't need to tell you that this is what NewPub is going to do.

This is the spooky season where we remind ourselves of the ultimate powerlessness of the gruesome and ghoulish, and where we prepare for the glorious season of hope ahead. There's no point dwelling on what was already done, but instead looking forward to what is coming, because what is coming is going to be better than anything you can imagine.

Halloween is here, so lets have ourselves a good time and remember what's coming next. Readers beware! You're in for a good time.