Life got in the way of my ability to attend this year's World Fantasy Convention--a shame, especially since my horror story "The Promotion" debuted in Skull Fragments - A Skelos Sampler, out from Skelos Press during the con. The story will appear in an upcoming issue of Skelos, but you can obtain the sampler from Amazon now.
Armadillocon 39 will take place at the Omni Southpark Hotel in Austin, Texas on August 4-6, 2017. Along with such writers as Christopher Brown, Nicky Drayden, Stina Leicht, and Rick Klaw, I will be on several panels covering various aspects of genre, especially horror fiction (which seems apt when you consider that I seem to be writing quite a bit of it these days), as well as a reading and a signing. You can review the entire schedule here, and can find me at the following events.
Hope to see you there.
Saturday, August 5, 2017
Sa1100SPB Religious Horror and Horrific Religion
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon Southpark B
M. Cardin*, D. Johnson, R. Schwarz
The Enduring Entanglement of Horror Fiction and Film with Religious Themes
Sat 1:00 PM-1:30 PM Room 102
a1500BF Movies You Should Have Seen
Sat 3:00 PM-4:00 PM Ballroom F
A.T. Campbell, A. de Orive, D. Johnson, R. Klaw*, G. Oliver, P. Sullivan
Sat 4:00 PM-5:00 PM Dealers' Room
C. Brown, K. Catmull, N. Drayden, D. Johnson, A. Martinez, J. Nevins
Sa1700SPA The Return of the Feminist Horror Panel
Sat 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Southpark A
G. Faust, Mi. Finn, D. Humphrey, D. Johnson, S. Leicht*, J. Nevins
Sa2100BD Zombie Flicks
Sat 9:00 PM-10:00 PM Ballroom D
P. Benjamin, M. Bey, C. Clevenger*, D. Humphrey, J. Jacobs, D. Johnson
Will the movie-going public ever tire of them?
Over the past week, news spread across the skiffy slices of cyberspace that Penthouse has acquired OMNI magazine, and that the magazine will be printed later this year.
It's news that fills me with incredible pleasure.
This year has been a dumpster fire since November 2016, and shows signs of spreading with each passing month. From the trillion-ton iceberg separating from Antarctica to the prospect of having tardigrades outlive us all, I have had to seek solace wherever I can. The new season of Twin Peaks (and my subsequent resurgent interest in David Lynch's work) offers much-needed cognitive dissonance (however grim). A resurgent OMNI may offer another.
OMNI was not my first exposure to science fiction--that occurred when my mother allowed me to stay up to watch Star Trek when I was six--but it resulted in the same sort of life-changing effect as Roddenberry's wagon train to the stars. While media sf of varying quality presented me with the images that fueled my preadolescent imagination, I knew almost nothing about its print counterpart beyond the novelization of Star Wars and its sequel The Splinter of the Mind's Eye and the Victorian adventures of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson. One of my teachers, seeing my interest in fantastic literature, recommended Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles to me, which I promptly checked out from the school library. Some of its stories resonated with me ("The Third Expedition" and "Usher II" terrified me to the point that I left my closet light on for at least a month), but its future seemed wrong, especially as I was devouring news about the impending launch of the space shuttle Columbia and absorbing episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos on PBS.
During a trip from Houston to Austin at the beginning of the summer of 1981, we stopped at a convenience store for soft drinks and so that I could find something to read. I purchased the May issue of OMNI, which promised a glimpse of the year 2081 and also featured a story by Ray Bradbury. In its pages I also discovered a story called "Johnny Mnemonic," by a writer I had never heard of, William Gibson. For 90 miles I read Gibson's story to have my mind blown by a story featuring a man with a computer in his head, an assassin with retractable razor wire spooled in a hollow finger, and a dope-addled dolphin that spoke through a board embedded with light bulbs. I understood maybe a quarter of what was happening, but I could feel its world rewiring my brain.
It became my mainstay. The magazine always included interesting science articles, compelling interviews, and even opened up a Speaker's Corner for fringe science topics. But mostly, I purchased it for the fiction: the diversity of ideas and approaches, the infusion of several genres in what was ostensibly a science fiction magazine, and the quality of the writing. It was the Galaxy magazine of the computer age.
It was here I discovered writers who taught me much about crafting stories: Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Gardner Dozois, Octavia Butler. In its pages I discovered Dan Simmons (through the novella version of "Carrion Comfort"), Jonathan Carroll (who, in "Mr. Fiddlehead" and "The Dead Love You," showed how you could upend not just genre conventions but narrative conventions themselves), and Ted Chiang. OMNI also not only exposed me to modern horror fiction beyond Stephen King (in the guise of George R. R. Martin "The Pear-Shaped Man," which made me unable to eat Cheetos for a full year) but also introduced me to Clive Barker. The stories also featured illustrations by H. R. Giger, Rallé, and other surrealistic artists who evoked the strangeness of each story.
I began picking up the digest magazine as well, something I had initially avoided because of the grainy paper. I purchased my first issues of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine because of Michael Swanwick "The Man Who Met Picasso," and became a reader of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction after I learned that Lucius Shepard published there regularly. And I actively sought the novels and collections of those who appeared in it's slick pages.
I tried keeping up with it after college, but by then magazine purchases were more rare, and missed it altogether when it switched to online publication because I did not have regular internet access until 1999. But what I thought of as an OMNI story stayed with me: strong prose, literary approaches, interesting ideas. I missed the magazine, but I found similar material elsewhere.
And now it's back. I wonder how much its return is driven by nostalgia; the past has overrun us with in the guise of remakes, sequels, the return of television shows we thought long dead. Even with the return of my favorite magazine I have to ask myself if this is something I really want. It was important to me at a specific time, and is fixed in my mind in the 1980s.
I'm hoping it will work. It will work as long as it understands the world is different now. We need science education to brighten this dark age now more than ever. And we need fiction that will help illuminate it.
Upstream Color (2013). Shane Carruth's follow-up to his dizzying Primer (2004) will baffle more people than it will excite. It's an experimental movie, and thus frustrates the casual viewer. That doesn't make it any less interesting than Carruth's first justifiably famous effort. Here he follows a pair of individuals bound together because of a shared experience, examining them as they try to piece their lives together. Strange and at time too obtuse, it remains heartfelt and arresting.
Spring (2014). In Spring, a grieving young man runs off to Italy, where he falls in love with a mysterious woman. As their relationship develops, she attempts to keep secret her true nature. The surprising thing about Spring is how it shifts gears from a slow-burn horror movie to science fiction love story. Beautifully shot, and with a powerful lead in Nadia Hilker, it resembles a story that might have been written by Lucius Shepard were he in a very good mood. (Review here.)
Time Lapse (2014). A trio finds a camera that can take pictures of future events, and they begin to use it to their advantage. I'm never fully convinced that science fiction and film noir merge well together (with one or two obvious exceptions) but Time Lapse uses its fantastic elements to weave a tale of paranoia and fate that shouldn't be missed.
Embers (2015). Lyrical and haunting, Embers follows several people in a world where almost everyone has lost their memory, and one young woman who retains hers. This premiered at Other Worlds Austin and remains one of my favorite science fiction movies, illuminating the fragility of identity and the bonds we share with others.
Polder (2015). Another Other Worlds Austin entry, but replace the words "lyrical and haunting" with "batshit insane." (You know you're in for a wild ride when your pretitle sequence includes a quote from John Clute.) Polder is a movie that breaks down reality with a sledgehammer, pulverizing it into powder and leaving its audience to make sense of it. It's somewhat reminiscent of Cronenberg's eXistenZ, only far stranger.
Midnight Special (2016). A young boy possesses unusual powers and becomes the focus of a manhunt by a religious order as well as the target of a federal investigation. Jeff Nichols focuses his otherworldly tale on fascinating, driven characters in a picture that has elements of Steven Spielberg in the 1980s, but with far more depth. Midnight Special works very well until the end, but the journey doesn't disappoint. (Review here.)
Television told gripping genre tales in Stranger Things and Westworld, demonstrating just how absorbing the medium can be when strong talent crafts its narrative with care and insight, yet both kept their eyes on the past. Stranger Things, for all of its heartfelt characters and spooky scenarios, never broke free from the letter-perfect King-Spielberg homage, while Westworld, despite heightening and deepening themes and ideas, could not hide its obvious basis on Michael Crichton’s classic B picture.
It’s amazing that the genre didn’t transform into a pillar of salt with its perpetual nostalgia. And yet studios released features that charted new territory, with stunning results. Director Jeff Nichols turned his eye to science fiction with Midnight Special, about a boy and his father pursued by both government agencies and a religious cult because of the boy’s otherworldly powers. Boasting a strong cast and an assured hand, Midnight Special only falters at its climax, a transcendental moment whose wonder never makes sense. It may be beside the point, as Nichols appears far more interested in the characters than the skiffy material. Midnight Special owed a bit too much to the Spielberg of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but it never depended on viewer nostalgia.
Stranger still was Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, a dystopian comedy about a society where people must find a mate or be turned into an animal. Colin Farrell develops a relationship with a woman with whom he shares nothing in common, then falls in love with loner Rachel Weisz, rebellious for her desire to remain single. Understated and brooding, this small, surreal movie depended on atmosphere and absurdity to talk about the challenge of finding satisfying relationships and our fear of being considered outcasts for simply being alone. The Lobster won’t satisfy every cinematic taste, but those willing to brave its stark vision will find much to admire.
Denis Villeneuve directed the strongest science fiction movie of 2016 with Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s classic novella “Story of Your Life.” This bittersweet movie told the story of a linguist (Amy Adams) who must serve as interpreter for aliens who come to earth, only to begin viewing the universe as the aliens do. It’s an odd story to translate to screen, yet Villenueve makes it work with a strong script by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who finds the perfect balance between hope and tragedy) and a powerful cast that includes Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Add a moving, haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival proved that science fiction movies do not need to sacrifice characters for ideas.
Horror movies saw another very good year in 2016, with movies that stand with the previous year’s The Babodook and It Follows. The Invitation created an air of unease arounds it simple premise (old friends reunite for a dinner party), while Green Room told the relentless, brutal story of a punk-rock band held captive by white supremacists after witnessing a murder. They served as outstanding exercises of terror. Lights Out, meanwhile, created a monster out of shadows, one that literalized our fear of the dark, and Southbound used the anthology format to deliver unusual, macabre tales.
Closing out the year were several excellent movies playing at the Other World Austin film festival, including the claustrophobic Capsule, the Israeli romantic comedy OMG, I’m a Robot?!, and the dystopian insurance thriller Stille Reserven. The best movie I saw at this year’s festival was Somnio, writer/director Travis Milloy’s feature about a prisoner who must outsmart an AI in order to escape. This one-man show starring Christopher Soren Kelly at first glance owes some debt to Duncan Jones’s Moon in its Kafkaesque situation, yet it remains its own picture throughout, in no small part due to the honesty of its vision, and stands with Arrival as one of the genre’s best movies.
Lastly, the television show Black Mirror found a home on Netflix for its third season, delivering a half dozen harrowing episodes about living in our technological age. It’s most chilling episode was “Shut Up and Dance,” in which a teenage boy must carry out orders delivered by text messages or find all of his secrets leaked by anonymous online trolls, but it also menaced denizens of the future with the threat of falling social media status (“Nosedive”) and internet shaming (“Hated in the Nation”) as well as the veiling of reality via digital overlay (“Men Against Fire” and “Playtest”). But Black Mirror offered hope with “San Junipero,” a virtual-reality haven where love can replace personal pain. It’s a message that we need, especially in a world weary from future shock and awe.
"Language is a virus." -- Laurie Anderson
In this gem of a zombie movie, set almost entirely in a church basement converted into a radio station, talk radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) begins reporting on a series of bloody, seemingly spontaneous riots occurring within Pontypool, Ontario. The rioters, Mazzy learns, elicit zombie-like behavior brought on by language. Tension mounts as one of Mazzy's coworkers becomes infected, trapping him and his producer in the broadcast booth. There's much to love in this suspenseful tale, from the claustrophobic setting to a surprising amount of humor. (Pontypool's "Sunshine Chopper," for example, is a lone reporter cruising through town in his Dodge Dart.) Combining elements of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Pontypool stands as one of the most ingenious and unique entries into the ever-widening pantheon of zombie movies.
"Halloween is once again almost upon us, and once again some of us will want to prepare by tripping the dark fantastic. While I view myself as a science fiction writer and critic, I love the horror tale regardless of media, be it print or visual. In that spirit, I've decided to forego the usual top ten lists of movies that characterized my previous columns at SF Site and SF Signal, and instead focus on great terror and horror in print and media. Because I view the month of October as The Halloween Season, I will do my best, time and energy permitting, to focus on genre media I deem exemplary. For my inaugural entry (a day late, yes, but I plan to proffer another entry this evening), I want to draw your attention to two exemplary tales: Joe Hill's "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," and Matt Reeves's Cloverfield (2008).
In the space of fewer than two decades, Joe Hill has gone from being one of the most intriguing of rising stars of fiction of the macabre. I remember reading 20th Century Ghosts after Paula Guran's glowing review and rushing to PS Publishing to purchase a copy. Within its covers were stories of vast range, from magic realism to suspense to outright horror. While I viewed "Best New Horror" as the standout, I admired "You Will Year the Locust Sing," an homage not only to Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis but also such great 1950s creature features as Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In it, a boy wakes one morning to find himself transformed in a giant locust, which alienates him from his fellow human beings but also liberates him. He rampages through the town where he lives, terrorizing his family and his classmates in an acid diarrhea-driven frenzy. Perhaps imperfect and too tied to standard nerd-revenge fantasies, it nonetheless sticks in the reader's mind in a similar fashion as Harlan Ellison's "Basilisk."
Like Hill's tale, director Matt Reeves's Cloverfield also is a homage, though the most pronounced one remains hidden. A found-footage picture about a group of young people in Manhattan who find themselves at the locus of an alien invasion, Cloverfield obviously takes cues from both The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Gojira (1954) in both approach and subject matter, though it maintains more control over its presentation than the indie classic and delivers a monster far more freaky than the classic kaiju. However, in structure it resembles Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), in which a tale of terror interrupts one of romance. (It adds an interesting element in that the found footage appears recorded over a tape made by a couple during happier times, adding a bit of pathos.) If it takes too seriously its self-absorbed twentysomethings, it at least gets right the confusion and terror one might feel during a general emergency. Sentimental, yes, but worthwhile.
I don't do top ten lists each year, and in a year like 2015 it poses a huge challenge, in no small part because I neither read much new fiction nor saw a large number of new movies. That said, there were books released that I did enjoy, including the horror tales These Last Embers by Simon Stranzas and The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud. Many fans held Alastair Reynolds's novella Slow Bullets in their hands and found it wanting, perhaps because it lacked the heft (read: page numbers) of Revelation Space or Blue Remembered Earth, but I found its bare-bones tale among his best work. Another space opera, the incredible Archangel by Marguerite Reed, announced the arrival of a bold new talent.
This month's Watching the Future column for SF Signal will feature a recap of genre movies, including a list of my favorite science fiction movies. Although it seemed like a good year for SF cinema in general, too much of it left me underwhelmed. Outside of the genre, movies seemed to fare much better. Below includes my favorite movies released in 2015. It is worth your while to seek them out.
In no particular order:
Mad Max: Fury Road
A new year has begun. Thank Jeebus.
I look at 2015 as a mixed bag. On the plus side, I sold an autobiographical essay to Flame Tree Press for its book Science Fiction Movie Posters by David Golder. I also finished fiction, though...
...on the minus side, my new fiction did not sell, and I have yet to find homes for two pieces. I don't even want to go into a few of the personal upheavals that occurred as the year drew to a close.
I don't have many resolutions for 2016, except some of the usual: write more (I will work on my film column for SF Signal this weekend, which will include a list of what I considered the year's best genre fare, and will begin plotting and writing stories I've been meaning to get to), read more (I met my reading challenge on Goodreads, a task I hope to repeat this year), and try to be a bit better about completing what set out to do.
Wishing you all a very good year.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, his work has appeared in Rick Klaw's Rayguns Over Texas!, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty's Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column "Watching the Future" appears each month at SF Signal.
He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.