Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

WhiskeyHorror: Rare Exports and Black Christmas

December 18th, 2015

We watched Rare Exports and Black Christmas (1974) and drank Slaughterhouse American Whiskey. A few words about the booze: it was a birthday gift from my friend David Moles and it’s very tasty. Aged nine years in oak and then finished in Papillon wine barrels. It’s got a nice complexity and warmth about it, and also it has a picture of a cleaver on the label, thus making it the perfect WhiskeyHorror booze. We tried it neat (and that was nice) but a dash of bitters and an ice cube opened it up and turned it into a grand sipping experience.

My wife Heather and I had seen Rare Exports before, but it was new to my devoted WhiskeyHorror companion Katrina. I thought she’d like it (we’re established fans of horror films from Nordic countries, from Trollhunter to Dead Snow), and I was right. The movie is five years old, but in case you missed it: A young boy from a hardy community of reindeer-herding, gun-toting, wolf-trap-baiting, torn-sweater-wearing Finns near the Russian border sees a group of miners from the mysterious Subzero corporation excavating a mountain, and realizes they’ve found the grave of Santa Claus. The malevolent creature was trapped in ice and buried long ago by the Sami people. No one takes the boy’s dire warnings about this ancient, child-devouring origin of the Father Christmas myth seriously, until something slaughters several hundred reindeer, and later a naked feral old man with a long white beard turns up in a wolf pit. Naturally, the Finns assume the seemingly indestructible old man is Santa Claus, and attempt to sell him to Subzero corp… but everything is way more complicated than that. The little boy turns out to be a badass action hero. Feral Santas are herded. Helicopters are hijacked. Kids are stuffed into sacks, set free, and stuffed back into sacks. Things explode. It is ridiculous and fun. The movie was inspired by a pair of short films featuring the same actors (the first is here: https://vimeo.com/16878465 and the second is here: https://vimeo.com/16878465https://vimeo.com/16878465). The short films do not obviously lend themselves to feature treatment, as the premise is absurd surreal humor, but they pulled it off. One of my go-to holiday horrors.

Black Christmas (1974) is notable as the film that originated the “The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House” trope, a much-beloved and parodied horror mainstay. (Though, like “Play it again, Sam” and “Beam me up, Scotty” those exact words don’t appear in the movie; “The calls are coming from the house!” is as close as it gets.) It’s also nice to see Margot Kidder as a drunken misanthropic sorority girl, and John Saxon as an archetypal cop. It’s a foundational film of the slasher genre, and like many movies from the early days of any given subgenre, it doesn’t hold up quite as well to modern sensibilities… but the fact that the killer’s identity and the ultimate fate of the “final girl” are left ambiguous even as the end credits roll seems bold even by current standards. (Part of why the 2006 remake fails so badly is by attempting to develop the deranged gibbering killer more.) Director Bob Clark is far better known for his other Christmas movie: A Christmas Story. (Prompting me to joke “In Black Christmas, the leg lamps are made of ACTUAL LEGS.”)

It was all appropriately festive.

Ten Years a Novelist

December 1st, 2015

November 29th was my ten-year anniversary as a published novelist. My debut The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl appeared fully a decade ago. Yesterday, my 25th novel, Queen of Nothing, went up for sale. (There are links on the left there if you want the e-book. Print will be along in a few weeks.) That’s ten years of doing what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little kid. It’s not a bad life.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s read my work, told their friends about it, and generally supported me over the past ten years. I hope to keep writing and publishing books for decades to come.

WhiskeyHorror: Area 51 and Alien Abduction

September 16th, 2015

We drank manhattans and watched Area 51, the science fiction/horror found-footage film from the director of Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli.

And it was… pretty okay! Word of this film has been buzzing around the internet for literally years; I understand most of it was filmed in 2009, and movies delayed that long are often delayed for a reason. This one was pretty solid, though, and actually has some neat heist-film elements as the obsessed probably-abductee protagonist cajoles his friends (who exhibit varying levels of reluctance) into preparing to infiltrate the famed Air Force Base of the title in search of proof of alien visitors. The team grows to include the conspiracy theorist daughter of an assassinated Area 51 employee, who pleasantly never becomes a love interest.

They gather gizmos, learn to defeat motion sensors, chat with alien abduction theorists who foreshadow things we’ll see later, and have a tense stake-out and break-in scene to steal a key card to access hidden portions of the base. (It wouldn’t be an Oren Peli movie without footage of sinister things happening in the vicinity of people sleeping in bed, now would it?)

The first part of the base infiltration is pretty much what you’d expect, with their plan more-or-less working until it suddenly doesn’t, lots of moments where they nearly get captured by soldiers, and gross and/or cool encounters with alien tech and biology. In the last quarter or so things get darker, weirder, and more inexplicable, mostly in a good way, though it does fall prey to the “last-ten-minutes-of-every-found-footage-horror-movie” problem: people scrabbling around in a dark hole somewhere with a camera so shaky it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.

So, it was an enjoyable movie, but I couldn’t help but compare it not entirely favorably to Alien Abduction, the 2014 film about aliens and the Brown Mountain Lights — which I inexplicably failed to review, so I’ll do so now. The endings are almost identical, and are also the most obvious way to end an alien abduction found footage movie. (Just guess what happens to the camera; you’ll probably be right.) It’s a neat enough ending, but I was (unfairly) disappointed to see Peli “repeat” it, even though his was probably actually filmed first.

The aliens in Alien Abduction are creepier, but a lot of that is down to setting and circumstance: half-glimpsed aliens menacing innocent tourists (including a kid) in the backwoods are more disturbing than half-glimpsed aliens menacing some incredibly dumb and/or obsessed twenty-somethings who broke into a secret military base.

Alien Abduction also had the advantage of being set near where I went to college, and includes some documentary footage of my onetime astronomy prof Dr. Caton talking about the Brown Mountain Lights — talk about aiding my suspension of disbelief and increasing verisimilitude! (His bit is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVRJ26bzkdM).

If you can only watch one, go with Alien Abduction. (My co-drinker-and-watcher Katrina might disagree, as she prefers desert landscapes to mountain ones). Happily, you can watch both, and then go watch Fire in the Sky too for a triple feature, and why not also read Kim Newman and Paul McAuley’s great alien-abduction-movie story “Residuals” while you’re at it; here, it’s even free online: http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/9781625791061/9781625791061___3.htm

In Praise of Strange Horizons

August 20th, 2015

Strange Horizons launched at Worldcon 15 years ago. It would be impossible to overstate the impact the magazine had on my life. They published some of my earliest short stories, and certainly the first story of mine to get any attention, “Little Gods,” my first major award nominee. I published some of my best work there — “Artifice and Intelligence,” “Living with the Harpy,” “Another End of the Empire” — as well as heaps of my poetry (including my Rhysling Award winner, “Soul Searching”) and even some of my reviews, and they were for a long time the magazine I thought of as my “home.” (Here’s everything of mine they published over the years.)

I haven’t published there in a while, largely because I almost never send out stories on spec anymore, but I wouldn’t have my career without it.

Also, and rather more importantly, I wouldn’t have the life I have without it, because Strange Horizons led directly to my meeting my wife Heather Shaw. She worked for SH, and the magazine held an event for Nalo Hopkinson at Heather’s house in Oakland way back in 2001. Founder Mary Anne Mohanraj was kind enough to invite me (I was living down in Santa Cruz) and as soon as I saw Heather, I was hopelessly smitten. (She didn’t much notice me then. She had an event to help run, after all. But I wooed her.) A few months later we were living together, a couple of years later we were engaged, and four years later we were married.

Like I said. Impossible to overstate the importance of the magazine to me. It’s also one of the most long-running and dependably fantastic publications on the internet, and has helped launch the careers of more amazing writers than I can count. It’s been around so long I think people take it for granted. Well, don’t. Take a minute to think about how fantastic they are, and if you haven’t read much there, be delighted: you have 15 years of archives to explore.

State of the Me

July 29th, 2015

So. How’re things?

I have been writing a lot, and I’ve gotten so much done, that now the only thing on my to-do list is “Write the rest of Queen of Nothing.” It is indicative of how busy I’ve been that “write a novel” seems like a very restful schedule. (This month I’ve written a story, revised a novel, revised sample chapters for a proposal, contributed to a round-robin collaboration, and other miscellaneous bits.)

Our vacation in San Diego (where I went for Westercon and my wife and kid went for Legoland and swimming pools, mainly) was very pleasant. Returning to real life was bumpy initially, but I’m back in the flow now. I love summer. We’ve been going swimming a lot, grilling in the yard, reading in the hammock, drinking beer on patios, walking in the sunshine, watching movies, spending time with friends. Soaking up all the light. I’m enjoying the present and excited about the future. (Saying that will doubtless summon a devastating meteor strike directly on my house, but so it goes.)

In weird project news, I’m up to 101 supporters for my story-a-month Patreon! It’s not life-changing money, but it’s definitely life-improving money. I’ve done three stories so far, available to anyone pledging at least $1 a month: “A Wedding Night’s Dream,” about a strange wedding in the woods; “North Over Empty Space,” revisiting a couple of the supernatural mercenaries from my story “Cup and Table”;  and “Not a Miracle But a Marvel,” which I’ve been describing as my “polyamorous fairy abduction story.” Plus some excerpts from works-in-progress and forthcoming books and a piece of Batman fanfic, extras made available for those who pay $5 a month or more.  Basically, if you like my fiction, I encourage you to check it out and consider kicking in. I think I’m giving great value, and it’s a really exciting model for direct support of artists.

Westercon!

July 2nd, 2015

I’m at Westercon in San Diego! (Actually we arrived Wednesday, but Thursday was largely devoted to Legoland and the associated water park.)

I’m doing some panels and things! The schedule is here. Short form: Friday I’m on a panel about shared-world writing at 11, and a panel about writing irredeemably villainous protagonists at 2. Saturday I’m on a panel about fairies (or faery) at noon, and doing a reading at 2 (come to that, I’m good at readings), and doing an autograph session at 3. Otherwise I’ll just be wandering around and talking to people and avoiding talking to people. Hope to see those of you I hope to see!

WhiskeyHorror: The REC Quartet

May 30th, 2015

This week my whiskeyhorror companion Katrina had a cold so she drank tea with honey and whiskey and I drank a gin and tonic, so I mean, stuff was all weirded up.

Our respective partners went to see a Shakespeare play that night, being more inclined to historical costumes than blood-smeared tank tops. Before they left I said, “Well we are watching the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play: the fourth installment in a Spanish science fantasy found footage zombie franchise.” (I stand by it. Billy the Bard wrote what the people like.) Anyway, there are a million spoilers ahead, etc.

I haven’t reviewed the earlier installments, as I figured I’d cover them as a whole, but we watched them over the course of months, so this may be a little sketchy in parts. The basic setup will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Quarantine (an English-language remake of the first REC film): a reporter named Angela and her cameraman are doing a fluff piece on a local fire crew, they go along on an emergency call, and get trapped in a building full of bloodthirsty zombified Spaniards. While the American version places the blame on a doomsday cult and a mutated virus, the Spanish franchise is infinitely weirder, and the ultimate source of the disease is revealed to be a girl who was possessed and studied by Vatican scientists who hoped to come up with a vaccine against the devil, which, I mean, yeah: points for audacity. Our brave reporter is the Final Girl, ultimately trapped up in the penthouse apartment of the dead Vatican scientist, where the creepily emaciated and hammer-wielding possessed Patient Zero is zombie-ing around. Angela tries to hide. She fails.

REC 2 overlaps the first film slightly as a scientist-exorcist is sent into the building to get a blood sample from Patient Zero so they can continue work on a vaccine. There are some nice elaborations to the mythos, though they don’t make much sense continuity-wise, as they didn’t seem to apply to the first movie, but whatevs: they’re cool. The main new thing is that, in the dark, the world literally changes: monsters that are invisible/immaterial in the light appear when looked at through a night-vision camera; there are bottomless pools of water and doors that only exist in the darkness. The demon-possession stuff is made more explicit here, too. The big final reveal is that the reporter, Angela, is the new host of the demon (which slithered into her mouth in the form of a big-ass wormlike parasite), and is trying to muderscam her way out of the building to further spread the infection. We end with her escape.

REC 3: Genesis is then a big case of dramaticus interruptus (pretty sure that’s genuine Latin) as we shift casts and locales entirely, to a wedding in Barcelona where the demon virus spreads, on the same day as the events of the first two films. (The continuity is actually solid: we knew earlier that a dog in the original apartment building was taken to the vet because it was mysteriously sick; a guest at the wedding was bitten by a dog, and is the first to turn.) Zombies attacking a big wedding is fun stuff, with lots of great set pieces, and there are some nice interpersonal issues to be worked out as people are devoured and the authorities seal off the area. The demonic stuff is even more pronounced, as people take refuge in a church the possessed can’t enter because of holiness, and it’s also revealed that the zombies are basically a hive mind controlled directly by the demon/worm/whatever. We get a woman who tears the train off her wedding dress so she can run better and show off her legs as she attacks monsters with a chain saw, and a guy who wears antique bits of armor he found in the building, and a predictable but nice “I’d rather die with you as a zombie, my love, than live alone without you” ending. Honestly, it might be my favorite of the films, even though they only intermittently use found footage (wedding videographer, CCTV) and mostly just go with a standard cinematic style of film. I thought that was a clever choice to differentiate the “parallel sequel” from the other installments, but…

REC 4: Apocalypse has almost no found footage as all, which is fine. It’s fine. I mean, if the aforementioned Shakespeare got halfway through his sonnet cycle and then was like “Damn, sonnets have too many restrictions, I’m gonna write some free verse,” that would also be fine, totally fine, horribly disappointing and a failure of craft, but fine. We do get back with Angela and a couple of survivors from the rescue operation that saved her, and they are on a quarantine ship at sea, along with one survivor from the wedding, and a bunch of scientists, and many guys with guns, and a really nerdy radio technician/hacker who has an adorable crush on Angela, and a bunch of infected monkeys. The priest/scientists are still working on a vaccine though it’s a bit less “DEMONS THEY’RE DEMONS” this time, and the “strange things happen in the dark” stuff is entirely eschewed, and in general they try to make it more scientific, which is a shame, because I prefer the weird. Somebody takes advantage of a power failure to release some of the infected monkeys from captivity and let them run loose on the ship – zombie demon plague monkeys are scary – and naturally we are supposed to assume that parasite-possessed Angela is responsible. As people who’ve seen more than one horror movie, we knew, obviously, that Angela couldn’t possibly be responsible. The parasite jumped ship (ha ha, nautical humor, I am the worst) to a new host at some point. Once again we got some nice contained nightmare stuff, and some good character moments, and a woman wielding an outboard motor instead of a chainsaw, but to similar effect. Everybody makes plans to save themselves and almost all the plans horribly fail. It’s great. It’s the last installment in the series, and the ending is not quite the downer I was expecting. Not mind-blowing, but it’s a satisfying conclusion, and I’m glad to have watched the series.

WhiskeyHorror: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

May 13th, 2015

We drank perfect manhattans with bourbon and sazeracs with rye, and watched Farsi-language vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

I enjoyed this one a lot. At first I thought it was going to be a gloomy, stately, minimalist affair – the long shots of ruined buildings, the fact that it’s shot in black and white – but there is a ton of quirky humor in this film. (When you have a vampire woman skateboarding down the street of a desert town wearing a hijab – the filmmakers are having fun.) I loved the vampire’s preferred method of stalking, mirroring the movements of her intended victims, matching her pace to theirs – it was creepy, and funny, and maybe also suggested an attempt to better mimic humans.

The villain in the first third of the film is ridiculously over-the-top, a complete caricature of a sleazeball drug dealer and loan shark and pimp – he has neck and face tattoos and smacks around a prostitute and has fish tanks and animal heads and blankets with pictures of tigers on them in his apartment – but I stopped rolling my eyes after a while and just rolled with it instead. He’s supposed to be irredeemably awful; that’s why it’s fun to see him get eaten… and it makes some of the vampires later (and less morally defensible) attacks more disturbing by contrast.

The film *is* minimalist in a lot of ways. The James-Dean-esque male lead and the vampire fall in love without a lot of talk, and the most erotic scene they share involves him piercing her ears. We don’t get much in the way of backstory for the vampire (or anyone, but especially her), and there are a lot of moments when affectless characters gaze affectlessly into the distance… but it works, especially when there’s a very expressive cat sitting between them, calling attention to their blankness in an amusing way.

There’s also a whole lot of effective acting, too, with gazes and body language over words. I’d argue that the climactic moment of the film comes late, when the hero paces back and forth on the side of the road, struggling with a moral choice, and then making a decision – his entire struggle takes place silently, with no discussion or verbal agonizing before or after; it’s all in the way he moves.

The movie was filmed in Kern Country CA, not in the Middle East, but that area has a lot of empty places and dilapidated things and also palm trees anyway, so it works well as the setting for the nowhere-town of Bad City.

And it’s the first ever Farsi vampire Western! I’ll be watching director Ana Lily Amirpour with interest.

My Patreon: A Story a Month for $1 a Month

April 29th, 2015

The short version is: I’ve set up a Patreon at www.patreon.com/timpratt. For as little as $1 a month, you can read a previously unpublished story from me a dozen times a year. (Give more if you’re feeling rich and generous or want goodies.) For those who don’t know, Patreon is a crowdfunding site, but rather than raising a bunch of money for a big project all at once (a la Kickstarter), it’s for people who want to give regular donations for open-ended or ongoing projects on a recurring basis. You become patrons, basically. I expect to make the first story available to supporters in the next couple of weeks.

The slightly longer version is: I’ve been thinking about doing this for years. I tweeted back in late 2013 that I was thinking of doing a story-a-month subscription service via Patreon, but my interest goes back much further. I’ve watched with interest things like Bruce Holland Rogers’s ShortShortShort story subscription service and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest “monthly erotic vignette subscription service,” and her subsequent collections. I’ve been thinking for ages: “Wow, I should do something like that.”

I love writing novels, but writing short stories is the closest thing I have to a calling. It’s my favorite art form to read and my favorite to write. I’m also pretty good at it. I made my name as a story writer.

The problem is, as I’ve become more successful as a writer, my time has been given more and more to novels. I’ve gone from writing twenty stories a year to maybe two or three, and then mostly only when commissioned. It’s a loss I’ve felt keenly, but, well, it just makes more financial sense to write novels.

Wanting things to make financial sense is important since I have a family to feed and all that, but it doesn’t always make for the best artistic decisions.

So I’ve been contemplating story subscriptions as a way to justify writing more short stories, but I hesitated for various reasons. The main ones are, I already crowdfund a project at least once a year, and didn’t want to be constantly going “Pay me pay me pay me” on twitter and facebook. The organizational aspect was also daunting. But with Patreon I can set a really low threshold to entry for backers — a buck a month gets you access to new stories — and a lot of the organizational stuff is handled through the site itself. It’s also an ongoing thing, so I won’t feel the need to beat the drum constantly to get interest. I’ll send out this initial announcement, and will probably mention on social media when I post a new story, but it won’t be an annoying bombardment.

Another reason I hesitated is, since I can reliably sell stories I write on spec,why don’t I just do that? Write more stories, and send them out to magazines, instead of only writing stories when they’re commissioned? The simple answer is… I can do that, but I haven’t been. Without a deadline, writing stories on spec simply goes to the back of the queue of things to do, and so, I never do it. With a monthly deadline, and people waiting for stories from me, I’ll actually prioritize doing this thing I love.

So, if you support my Patreon: Thank you for helping me psychologically trick myself into writing more stories.

Here are links to some free stories, if you want to see what you’re getting into: http://www.timpratt.org/?page_id=10

WhiskeyHorror: As Above, So Below

April 28th, 2015

We drank Black Saddle 12-year-old bourbon, which is ridiculously good and the bottle is empty now and now I am sad.

We watched As Above, So Below, that “attractive archaeologist obsessed with the alchemist Nicolas Flamel goes into the Paris catacombs with some local urban explorers in search of the philosopher’s stone” movie.

The good: the Paris catacombs are cool. Urban explorers as horror movie protagonists? I like that. Spatial horror is always welcome, and that’s pretty much all this movie is: passages that don’t lead where they should, weird loops and doubling-back, being frightened and lost in the dark. The bit with the burning car. The shot of their emergence from the manhole cover.

The bad: the whole last third of it, basically (apart from the burning car and the manhole cover). The nonsensical and also cheesy answer to “What is the philosopher’s stone really?”) The fact that the surviving characters did not emerge into an Evil Mirror Version of Paris full of demonic mimes and baguettes that eat you. (That would have redeemed everything else for me, honestly.)

Mostly it made me want to rewatch The Descent, so we’re doing that next time.