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21st-Century Scop Header

scop (noun):

Old English – bard, minstrel, storyteller

Double-Feature Book Review:
The Ritual of Illusion & Hollywood North

The thing I miss most about movie-going in the 21st-century is the lack of double features. I used to love watching those as a kid, sitting in a single-screen theater and letting a pair of thematically linked features roll over me.  Things like Jack the Giant Killer & Last of the Vikings or Jason and the Argonauts & Siege of the Saxons or Die Monster, Die & Planet of Vampires, or even Frankenstein Meets the Space MonsterCurse of the Voodoo (yeah, they weren’t all classics).

Perhaps it’s my fond memories of those double bills that even today has me seeking out interesting pairings in genre entertainment. To wit, the topics of today’s post: two books about filmmaking and the supernatural. And fittingly, as was often the case with those double-features of my youth, the first is one that I missed upon its initial release. The second is brand new, due out this week.

The Ritual of Illusion
by Richard Christian Matheson
PS Publishing (HC)
Crossroads Press (eBook)
October 1, 2013
118 pages

I somehow missed this tour de force when it debuted at World Fantasy in Brighton, UK, in 2013.  Such oversight is indicative of one of the problems facing the contemporary reader. There’s so much stuff out there that even the best of it can be overlooked. That’s one of the reasons why we shouldn’t put too much stock in best-of-the-year awards, as it often takes time for truly remarkable works to get the attention they deserve, and that is especially true when those works challenge the conventions of form and content. Case in point, Richard Christian Matheson’s remarkable novella The Ritual of Illusion.

Centering on the mysterious career and disappearance of fictional starlet Sephanie Vamore, the story is presented as a series of articles, transcripts, reflections, and excerpts from interviews. Reading like pieces of flash fiction, the segments link together like frames of film to create a persistent, page-turning narrative about the nature of film, stardom, and the supernatural power of cinema. What I find particularly fascinating about the book is the way its minimalist approach creates a fully-realized sense of time, place, and mounting dread.

Last summer, after finishing the book, I took part in a panel discussion on “The Best Recent Horror” at the Confluence SF convention in Pittsburgh. You can read some highlights of that discussion here.

I can’t recommend the book enough. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels 
by Michael Libling
ChiZine Publications (HC, PB, eBook)
September 3, 2019
360 pages

Just released, this novel by World-Fantasy-Award finalist Michael Libling works as a time-machine to transport the reader back to the not-so-halcyon days of the mid-20th century.

Told from the point-of-view of what critic Barry Malzberg calls “perhaps the cleverest use of the so-called unreliable narrator that I have ever seen outside of Nabokov or perhaps Evan S. Connell Jr,” the novel presents the coming-of-age adventures of Leo “Gloomy Gus” Berry, a disaffected kid with a fondness for movies — particularly the horror and sf flicks that played in matinee double-features in the 1960’s. His cinematic preoccupations pepper his narrative with film references that are sure to delight anyone who came of age during the cold war.

Told at a leisurely pace that allows for the development of a rich sense of place and time, the novel moves into horror territory when Leo and best-friend Jack happen on a collection of title cards used in the production of silent films. Along the way, they learn that their sleepy Canadian town was once home to a nascent film industry, one that came to a suspicious (and diabolical) demise before they were born. It’s a chilling book with a narrative that will creep up on you and linger like a specter afterward. It’s easily one of my favorite novels of 2019.

In the spirit of the vintage double-feature, the books complement each other in subtle ways that are even greater than the sum of their remarkable parts. A great way to spend a weekend. So pop some popcorn, kick back, and let me know what you think.

Also, if you have any double-feature reads to recommend, please pass them along via the comment button or social media links at the bottom of this page. I’ll try to share some of them in an upcoming post.

In other developments, work on the redesign of this website continues apace — albeit at a slower pace than anticipated. To paraphrase Douglas Hofstadter: Stuff always takes longer than you think.

The big change so far is that the text now flows freely around the graphic in a way that should facilitate reading across all platforms. About half the users visiting this site do so with mobile devices, and the old format didn’t quite work on small, vertical screens.

Currently under construction are some new banner designs (courtesy of W. H. Horner Editorial & Design), which should start appearing soon (though likely not as soon as I think).

 

Maintenance Time: Creative Hands at Work

Things at this site aren’t as messy as that men’s room in “This Way to Egress.” Nevertheless, you’re likely to find the layout looking a bit different, maybe even a little messy while web designer Will Horner (of W. H. Horner Editorial & Design) and I work to give things an overdue upgrade.

With more users accessing the web on mobile devices, we’re hoping to develop a design that works on a variety of platforms. To that end, in the days ahead we’ll be making some changes to the headers, margins, and overall designs — changes that we hope will work more effectively on the kinds of screens people are using today.

I also plan to update some sections, particularly on the Books, Stories, and Music pages, where I’d like to include more dynamic content and purchase links.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, drop us a note in the comment section or via the contact tabs (Facebook, Twitter, Email), which you’ll currently find along with the website’s section tabs at the bottom of each page.

It’s a big job. But it’s going to be great when it’s finished. Just ask my colleague Ron the Janitor from “This Way to Egress.” He’s the expert on big projects.

Images:
The 21st-Century Scop on the set of  Nightmare Cinema.
Ron the Janitor in a still from the film.
Nightmare Cinema. Cranked Up Films, 2019.

 

Fade In:
Talking Scary Movies with Bob Scott of CSW

Last month, following the release of Nightmare Cinema, I had the chance to drop by PCTV-21 for a conversation with Bob Scott of Carnegie Screenwriters.

Bob is a screenwriter, playwright, poet, actor, director, producer, stage manager, and host of the series Fade In, now in its third season on PCTV-21.

Since its debut in 2016,  Fade In has explored the many facets of indie filmmaking through interviews with writers, producer, directors, actors, crew members and other industry professionals with connections to Pittsburgh.

If you have any interest in indie movies and the people who make then, you owe it to your self to check out Fade In.

In addition to producing the show, Carnegie Scriptwriters holds regular scrip-readings at the Third Street Gallery in Carnegie and recently hosted a script and screen festival at The Tull Family Theater in Sewickley. Monthly meetings are currently held on the third Saturday of each month from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

In all, CSW makes it clear that indie filmmaking is alive and well in Pittsburgh.

My conversation with Bob Scott will air in September on PCTV-21 ( Comcast Channel 21, Verizon Channel 47, and on-line at www.pctv21.org.), Thursday evenings at 8:30, but you can catch it all now on CSW’s YouTube Channel or by clicking the player below.

Give it a click. I’ll meet you there.

Recommended Horror:
Good Stuff You Might Have Missed

Horror exploded in the 1970s. Following the runaway success of Rosemary’s Baby and fueled by the political turmoil of the time, horror publishing rode a wave that didn’t break until the late 1980s. That phenomenon is explored in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk 2017), which presents a road map to the horror that filled the bookracks of drugstores, supermarkets, and newsstands of the day. Some of those books were amazingly good. Most weren’t. And therein lay the dilemma —  separating the wheat from the chaff, the cream from the curds, the high-octane from the unprocessed crude. It wasn’t easy, and toward the end of the run, the glut of mediocre and outright-bad product led to a genre implosion by the early 90s. Something similar is happening today, but with digital platforms taking the place of those ubiquitous 20th-century bookracks.

So many titles. How does a reader find the good stuff? That was one of the questions explored at last week’s Confluence panel The Best of Recent Horror, where moderator Darrell Schweitzer led a discussion that identified some of the panelists’ favorite works from recent years.

First off, Darrell Schweitzer recommended a Japanese vampire novel that he reviewed in Dead Reckonings 23. A Small Charred Face (Haikasoru 2017) by Kazuki Sakuraba presents a fresh take on the familiar vampire trope, proving something that Ellen Datlow writes in The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, namely that “there’s a reason these tropes […] don’t go away. They are not tired, they are not worn out. And as long as writers take a fresh look at them and continue to create bracing takes on them, they never will be.” According to Schweitzer’s review, A Small Charred Face is such a novel. I’ve ordered my copy.

Another highly recommended novel is The Ritual of Illusion (PS Publishing 2013) by Richard Christian Matheson, which not only presents a frightening tale set against the backdrop of the Hollywood film industry but does so in a format perfectly suited for a story about movies. Told as a series of brief quotations, the novel might be considered a collection of flash fiction stories were it not for the compelling way the snippets link together — like single frames of film — to create a persistence-of-vision narrative.

I’ll be reviewing The Ritual of Illusion in more detail in an upcoming post. For now, I urge you to check it out. Highly recommended.

The panelists also talked about a few favorite short stories and novellas from the past decade or so, foremost among them “The Church on the Island” by Simon Kurt Unsworth, originally published in At Ease with the Dead (Ash-Tree Press 2007) and currently available in The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror (Robinson 2010). Benefiting from a rich sense of place and a whispering weirdness that recalls the best work of Robert Aickman, the story explores the place of evil in the world and the way that a single person might keep it at bay. Nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the story is worth seeking out, as is everything else Unsworth has written.

You can read more about Simon Kurt Unsworth’s work and hear a short audio interview here.

A few of the other noteworthy stories mentioned during the panel included “The Lowland Sea” (2009) by Suzy McKee Charnas, “Little America” (2012) by Dan Chaon, and “Black and White Sky” (2010) by Tanith Lee — all of which can be found in The Best of the Best Horror of the Year: 10 Years of Essential Short Horror Fiction edited by Ellen Datlow. Indeed, the many Best-Of collections currently available from established publishers are one of the best ways of finding clear signals amid the noise.

Some people claim that horror fiction is dead, that all the truly great novels and stories have been written. The author Saul Bellow once dismissed such of logic in a thoughtful review of Ralph Ellson’s Invisible Man. “Fine novels are few and far between,” he wrote. “But then fine anythings are few and far between.” The good stuff is out there. Seek it, and enjoy!