television

Robert Bloch and Inside Psycho

Last week brought the final episode of the six part podcast series Inside Psycho. I had been stockpiling them since the first episode released and then listened to them all over a few days’ time. I am so happy that I did, because this series sure was wonderful!

Psycho is a particular favorite of mine. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve seen it, and if I’m flipping through channels on TV and it’s playing, I will sit there and watch the rest of it. I love it for so many reasons: Hitchcock, film making/cinematography, creepy and weird, Anthony Perkins is pretty perfect.

With all that said, I must admit, I was a little apprehensive of Inside Psycho. So much has been written and made of the 1960 film, I wasn’t sure if there was anything to add. Would this podcast be more for the neophyte and offer nothing new? I was certainly wrong and delighted about that.

The first episode, of course, talked about noted Wisconsin weirdo Ed Gein, who was the inspiration behind Norman Bates in the book Psycho, written by Robert Bloch. Episode 2, however, revealed so much. Notably, I was unaware that the young Robert Bloch frequently corresponded with HP Lovecraft, the latter who encouraged Bloch’s writing and creativity. The letters have been collected in a book.

All six episodes were stellar. The production itself was an engaging amalgam of documentary-style, radio drama, and a little horror, thrown in for good measure. Yes, of course, there were aspects of the story’s history that I was well aware, but details, for example, like the film making process was more than appreciated. Psycho was innovative in its craft and film making. There was also a particularly humorous account about how the rating censors couldn’t agree if there actually was nudity in the shower sequence.

Also, can you guess another horrifying sight that the censors thought obscene? The shot of the toilet in the bathroom. The idea of showing a toilet in a film or television show was greatly verboten. THE HORROR!

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Dead lady? Yes. Flushing toilet? GOD FORBID!

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FORTITUDE: Recommended Reading

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All is right in the world once again. Personal favorite television show Fortitude is back for its second season in the US (totally jealous of UK fans who got to watch the new season a few months back). I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t get to continue the complete insanity that is Fortitude as the network that co-produced and broadcasted it stateside when under in the fall.

It returned on Friday! For those who don’t know anything about it, you can watch both seasons on Amazon; I’ve also include the season 1 trailer at the end. We would have to sit here for a while for me to explain what exactly is going on, but briefly, a quiet Arctic Norwegian village is disturbed when a series of brutal death/murders pop up…and that is only the beginning.

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This show ticks so many boxes for me: a chilly, remote climate, difficult characters, mysterious thrills, happenings, and crimes. But it is so much more. It captures the strangeness of it all: prehistoric mammoths, parasites, sketchy Russians, death by polar bear, ghost murder, shamans, Dennis Quaid, British people pretending to be Norwegian, reindeer scientists, the list could go on…

I am also a fan of books that take place in cold places. It is very rare that you will find me reading or writing anything that has a tropical locale. Here are a few reading suggestions for fans of Fortitude or general ice terror.

The Terror is inspired by the ill-fated trip of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, two ships that were tasked with finding a way through the Norwest Passage. However, in The Terror men are not only devoured by disease and starvation, but an unknown monstrous creature stalking them from out on the ice. I’ve read recently that this book will be adapted into a television series. For history buffs, the once lost Terror was found last year and a video of it was filmed by the Arctic Research Foundation.

The North Water is brutal and captivating. Moments can be so visceral and intense in this novel, and it was one of my favorites of this past year. I am baffled by the fact that it was not moved from the long list to the short list for the Man Booker Prize. I am a complete evangelist for it and I think everyone should read it (don’t get put off by the human murder, bear murder, and venereal disease). Two men are aboard a harpooner: one a medic, the other a murder and then a horrendous discovery is found.

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History delves in to both animal cannibalism and human. I generally stay away from deep dive cannibalism (unsurprisingly, I find it disturbing), but this book offers a lot on interesting animal behavior, including misconceptions (re: praying mantis and pet hamsters). It also, of course, explores the fiasco that was the Donner Party. Spoiler alert: Men are much quicker to starve to death than women.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Edgar Allan Poe’s only known finished novel. The writing can be a bit stiff, but it’s worth a read as 1. it’s short and 2. it was influential to other nautical works that came after (Moby-DickAn Antarctic Mystery). It’s has all of the makings of a nineteenth century nautical misadventure: calamity, mutiny, people eating, a dog, an enigmatic snow monster.

Has anyone else watched Fortitude? Appreciate the chilly thriller genre? Here’s the aforementioned trailer for season 1.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Back in October, I saw a short one minute long trailer for a new mini-series coming to HBO. Whoever created it was spot on. I was hooked. I had that feeling that marketers shoot for: I need this in my life now. The trailer ended with the note that the series is based on a book. When I looked it up, based on the cover, it appeared very much in the “chick lit” genre and perhaps, out of my normal reading purview. But this year, I decided that I was reading outside of my normal zone and in doing so, it has paid off. Especially for this book.

I also found it surprising that Stephen King, of all people, blurbed the book. His brief sentiment is exactly right. Big Little Lies was a dark, mysterious, funny, adroit novel. It was contemporary commercial fiction at its best.

Somehow Liane Moriarty has written a literary thriller that centers around the parents and children of a kindergarten class in suburban Australia. Immediately, a reader can see why Stephen King liked it. There are flash forwards to police interrogations, hinting at a crime that has taken place at a school function. It was reminiscent of the structure of King’s great first novel Carrie.

I often don’t read commercial fiction, because simply, the writing is tedious and abysmal (I imagine myself typing this with my nose in the air), but I unabashedly loved this. I also really recommend this book as a way to get back into using your brain. I’ve heard from many people that the past weeks have been hard and doing anything constructive, even reading or watching television, has been extremely difficult….

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While reading this book, I kept thinking that we are in a heyday of excellent crime novels written by women. I generally prefer the types that don’t feature a detective as the main character and are not part of a series. For example, I’ve enjoyed the imperfect Ruth Ware novels and some of Laura Lippman books are decent, but I still maintain the queen bee to be Megan Abbott (I reviewed her 2014 novel The Fever). Over the summer, she was interviewed on Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast, where she made a case that women writers have made a space for themselves within the genre. Abbott, I say, is an expert at “girl voice” and it’s so enjoyable reading. (aside- if I had the reading time, I would love to delve into Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

On the most recent episode of the NYT Book Review podcast, Pamela Paul talks about her recent pleasure read, All Things Cease to Appear, which she described as a literary thriller. I’ve downloaded the audiobook hoping to start soon.

One aspect of these type of books that I usually enjoy is the closeness to the characters and plot. Attention to writing on the sentence level is very important to me (this year, I’ve begun reading James Lasdun, whose books are thin and mysterious, and the writing is so enviable). I’ve never been drawn to hysterical realism, these big books that are more ambitious than anything else. They seem more concern with their “bigness.”

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But back to this HBO series. It’s developed by David E. Kelley, so I’m hoping he carries over the humor and dark, sharp dialogue and narrative. The book takes place in a beach community in Australia, but the series looks as if it has been transplanted to the craggy and beautiful Monterrey, California. Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the series, also serves as a producer and if you look at her past and upcoming projects, she is very interested in developing films and TV shows from books by women authors.

Last week, HBO released a slightly longer trailer, which shows a little more of the characters and plot. You can watch it on YouTube here, but below is the original one that I watched that got me intrigued (kudos again to the trailer designer!).

Froust Questionnaire, 10/12/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

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Reading HorizonThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. This was recently recommended as a page-turner. It is, plain and simple. It is not perfect, but Dicker knows how to plot and keep readers engaged. What fun.

Audiobooking: Ready to start A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Writing: Have a few pieces still in their infant stages. Everything is a bit too abstract right now for my liking.

ObsessingWestworld. Has anyone else seen it? I was skeptical at first and almost didn’t watch it, but I saw the first two episodes and think it’s really intriguing. Because it’s HBO, of course there is annoying female nudity, but it sort of works here (but I argue that you still don’t need it; especially, considering that the male nudity is close to nil).

Brainstorming: Ideas for fundraising for online magazine. This is a very hard task.

Procrastinating: Need to read submissions for aforementioned online magazine. Doing it today! I swear.

Watching: Scream Queens (does anyone else watch? If not, you’re missing out)

Disappointing: The Sunday night presidential debate for so many expected reasons.

TV Series: The Man in the High Castle

Yesterday saw the release of Amazon’s new pilots, including a one hour debut for the television adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. According to their site,

Based on Philip K. Dick’s award-winning novel, and executive produced by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), The Man in the High Castle explores what it would be like if the Allied Powers had lost WWII, and Japan and Germany ruled the United States. Starring Rufus Sewell (John Adams), Luke Kleintank (Pretty Little Liars) and Alexa Davalos (Mob City).

I watched it and liked what I saw. As a PKD fan, I hope they are able to make further episodes. Viewers in the US, UK, and Germany can watch it for free! Has anyone else watched it?

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Harry Houdini!

This past December, I reviewed Harry Houdini’s The Right Way To Do Wrong, which I highly recommend. Like many people, I’m fascinated by escape artists and illusionists of varying kinds with special note to talents of past days (I’m completely keen on the film The Prestige, too).

So, I am super excited for the History Channel’s two part series titled Houdini starring Adrien Brody. The trailer was just released. Have a look-see before the Labor Day release and also, read his book, too. You can find out Houdini’s feelings on “frog swallowing.”

Can we talk about how I lost 27 minutes of my life watching the new Rosemary’s Baby?

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So, perhaps the title is a bit overly dramatic, but the newest adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a total bore. I didn’t read any reviews of the mini-series beforehand, because I wanted to go in with a clear palette. I had heard that they relocated the story to Paris from New York, which I didn’t understand, but I gave the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt that she wanted to isolate Rosemary even more by moving her to a foreign country where she knows practically no one nor is fluent in the language (although, she seems to encounter only impeccably bilingual Parisians).

There was no subtly to this adaptation. Back in September, I reviewed the book. Although, I already knew the twists and turns from being a fan of Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation, Levin’s book still held a creepiness that made Rosemary and the reader increasingly more uncomfortable. On a small island of so many, Rosemary Woodhouse is still alone. At first, she is trusting of her friendly, elderly neighbors, but slowly the thread grows longer and Rosemary can’t seem to trust anyone, including her own husband. Polanski was immensely loyal to the novel and the movie is an accurate adaptation (he didn’t realize that directors stray from the original source material).

In both the book and the original film, there is a creep to the horror with a dash of the claustrophobic. The doers of evil are not what we all expect and, instead, as I earlier wrote, Ira Levin created a “real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people” and Polanski did the same. This new iteration of Rosemary’s Baby was so far away from this whole premise. About twenty-seven minutes into the mini-series, I finally gave up. I am not a fickle viewer and I try to give most things a go. Yet, this was so lukewarm.

There is no mystery to the underlying premise. Right off the bat, we know that Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s new benefactors/landlords/make-out buddies? are up to something more sinister. Heavy-handed would be an understatement. Zoe Saldana–the actress portraying Rosemary–keeps awkwardly oscillating between naive ingénue and the gung-ho type of woman who will chase after a purse snatcher in the middle of the Paris streets. She also has minor rumblings of discomfort over her new posh friends who gift her a wardrobe full of couture clothes, a hatbox filled with a wailing black cat, and after a quick massage to help relieve a headache, gives her a lingering kiss on the lips while lying in bed…all in the first 27 minutes! (oh, yeah, and Guy has a meeting with his colleague at a bar that could double for the set of Eyes Wide Shut). I am a fan of the ridiculous, but this falls more toward the dreadful.

There was absolutely no tension, no subtly, no mystery. We know that Satan is lurking right from the beginning. There is no Ruth Gordon to offer a glass of some questionable milky concoction, all the while, reassuring Rosemary that it’s perfectly healthy. When I turned the series off, I eventually made it to the internet where some cursory Googling confirmed by opinion. The only positive review I read was in the New York Times, but once I saw the byline, I immediately knew that the reviewer probably didn’t even watch the mini-series (my favorite article about NYT tv critic Alessandra Stanley is from the Columbia Journalism Review and is titled,“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong”; she is known for her gratuitous errors and the fact that she sometimes doesn’t even watch the program).

Okay, so I shall stop complaining now. Skip this mini-series and just read the book and watch the 1968 film. Did anyone sit through this in its entirety?

 

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Penny Dreadful

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This weekend saw the premiere of Showtime’s new series, Penny Dreadful. The show brings together some classic characters from literature: Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and his monster. The show is filled with dark creatures, hidden mysteries, and a dark and scrubby London.  The show is richly layered and for fans like myself who like Gothic fiction, the weaving in of these characters and their lore is delightful.

The creators set the show in 1891. Only three years after Jack the Ripper, the city is still on high alert when a gruesome murder has been discovered. Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green, who I’ve loved since The Dreamers) ropes American Wild West Show shooter, Ethan Chandler, in to helping her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) find the latter’s daughter, amongst other not yet said endeavors. Chandler is immediately thrown into an underground world with dastardly blood sucking beasts with very sharp teeth and Egyptian hieroglyphs etched into their skin. Oh, yeah, there is also a tortured young doctor who spends his days autopsying bodies along with his more clandestine nighttime behavior of keeping a corpse on ice connected to an electric generator.

Vampires are wicked in the first episode, but we’ve yet to see Dracula himself and I’m quite looking forward to Dorian Gray, as it is a favorite of mine. Something I particularly like about the series thus far is that they return to the more grotesque and sensational beginnings of the novels. Over the past decades and especially more recently, these characters (particularly the creatures) have been rendered so much away from their original iterations, that they lost some of their more frightening composition. Just look at what vampires have become in present day fiction and movies.

The creators of Penny Dreadful have also taken the route of foregoing heavy CGI in favor of makeup and prosthetics, which are stellar and not at all hokey. They give a reality to the fantastical storytelling and too much CGI, well, that can look too crisp and clear. Also, setting the series in 1891 was ideal. I’m sure they will take advantage of the era when modern medicine and science were evolving (but still stuck, no doubt; Doctor Frankenstein was putting his bare hands inside of corpses leaving him soaked in blood and what better way to clean your hands than to wipe them on a dirty rag). Also, this was a time that was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, so I’m sure all sorts of angst will run wild on the show.

Only episode one has aired, but there are eight in the series. For the weak of stomach, don’t fret. The gore is not obscene and fits well so far with the show. If you can watch an episode of [insert title of any banal cop or doctor show], you can easily watch this without succumbing to upchuck. The grotesque is impressive and just enough mystery was withheld to keep the momentum going. Lovers of both sensational literature and intriguing tales will enjoy Penny Dreadful.

The first episode is available for free with or without a subscription on Showtime’s website. For UK and Ireland viewers, Sky Atlantic co-produced, so I am sure it will air on your side of the pond as well.

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Unfinished Masterpieces

I recently watched the 2012 BBC documentary program, Unfinished Masterpieces with Alastair Sooke.* The host begins with the eternally frustrating predicament of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Charles Dickens novel that was never finished, because Dickens famously died during the writing of it, leaving very few clues to the intended outcome of the narrative. Biographers, historians, and artists have endlessly tried to anticipate Dickens’ wishes by both speculating about the novel’s unfinished portion and even going so far as to invent possible endings in different mediums like theatre, radio, and film, as well as boldly attempting to finish the task of writing the novel.

Alastair Sooke also looked at other unfinished works and pondered the reasons behind the unfinishedness of these respective works. Like Dickens, Jane Austen also has an unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was left incomplete because of her death. A dozen “continuations” have been penned, all trying to capture Austen’s specific voice and her intended path for the remainder of the book. When Sooke separately asked a handful of complete strangers which they would rather have, all chose to stick with Austen’s original unfinished work.

The program also took a look at works that might have been purposefully suppressed by their creators. For example, the famous portrait of US President George Washington, which is the basis for the image on the $1 bill, was left unfinished by the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. What started off as a difficult portrait, the fact that it was unfinished was a financial benefit to Stuart, who sold replicas for $100 a pop. The notoriety of its incomplete presentation might have been more lucrative for him than otherwise.  This, of course, is reminiscent to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation for his unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan.” He purports of wild inspiration from an opium haze and begins writing the famous poem when he is suddenly interrupted; when he returns to the poem, all inspiration is gone and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished. Perhaps, the story behind it is more exciting than having an actual completed work.

There are other works that Sooke investigates including newly discovered poems from English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was known for his WWI poems that captured the horrors of the war, but whose unpublished poems have a tinge of romanticizing. This conundrum of including them in Sassoon’s canon is questioned. Perhaps, the poet didn’t feel these were up to snuff and didn’t intend them to see the light of day, beside being out of step with his known views. This idea was reminiscent of other writers (who were not featured in the doc) like Franz Kafka, who famously asked that all of his documents be burned and left The Castle incomplete with the final written line ending mid-sentence and David Foster Wallace, who upon his death left an incomplete manuscript and notes on his computer. This was all gathered together by his widow, agent, and other literary folk to become The Pale King.

The question of whether we should finish something or bring to the masses an unknown work once the creator dies is debated and Sooke presents authorities with equally good arguments. Would The Garden of Eden really be a novel Ernest Hemingway would have written himself or could it only be imagined by editors after his death? Kafka wrote that he had an idea for the ending of The Castle, but who knows if it would have still been the same by the time he got there. He leaves the novel mid-sentence and incomplete, almost a perfect final note to a book so concerned with bureaucracy and never-ending frustrations. Sassoon’s poetry could have been just for himself, an attempt at a new form that didn’t quite fit with his other poems or maybe, they were simply something he was not proud of. Thus, choosing to let them go unpublished.

A whole other dilemma–the one of continuing a series–I shall leave to the documentary, but I’ll give you this small bit. Think of the long-dead novelists, Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters–James Bond and Sherlock Holmes–are still appearing in new releases, albeit, by different authors. What an entirely different conundrum. For some reason, we are ill-at-ease when it comes to the unfinished. We like wholes, a feeling of sturdy completeness. Although, I do not count myself among them, this might be why so many people had a hard time connecting to Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an EndingPeople generally dislike ambiguity and residing in the liminal.

Have you seen this documentary? Are there other famous incomplete works out there? It seems like a strange debate that I find myself on both sides of. I’m curious if anyone has additional thoughts.

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*The 50 minute program can be watched in its entirety on the BBC’s website here; I don’t know how long it will be available, so step on it.
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Cosmos: A Recommended Reading List

The new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson arrived last week. The follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos: A Personal Journey is stunning and exciting. I am a big fan of space and everything else, even when my mind gets fatigued just thinking about how expansive and unknowable it all is. The outer space section of my high school physics class (a course which I did miserably in) was my favorite part. Because I had always done so poorly in science class, when I went to college and moaned over the required science credits I had to take. However, I was pleasantly surprised with my dinosaurs and evolution course (I think this had to do with the engaging professor I had and the subject matter).

The cosmos, the beginning of everything, multi-verses, and light years are just a few of the many facets that fascinate me about the “spacetime odyssey.” I am not alone with this fascination. Even in our fictions–whether it be film, TV, or writing–artists and writers imagine different worlds or alternate versions of our own, and we can’t get enough of it. Below are a few book recommendations that fall into the fiction category–books and stories to enjoy while awaiting the new episodes of Cosmos. Do you have any favorites to add? Has anyone else started watching this stellar documentary series?

**If you want some supplementary non-fiction nibbles, I recommend the PBS autobiographical documentary HawkingInto The Universe with Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, AMNH.org’s article on Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang, or the marvelous gallery at the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’s website.

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