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The Howling

I rewatched this after having positive memories of seeing it on television long ago.

Plot recap:

Dee Wallace is Karen, a TV news anchorwoman in LA who has been getting messages from a serial killer who is obsessed with her. She agrees to meet with him, while wearing a wire, in the hope that she can bust him. But the wire doesn’t function and instead she is shadowed by a couple of cops. The killer lures her to a porno movie booth (through a happy face sticker device that is pretty creepy) and says disturbing killer-y things. When she screams, the cops shoot and apparently kill the guy.

Later she suffers from extreme PTSD, and cannot remember the details of what happened in the booth. Patrick Macnee, a counselor (psychiatrist?) with a book espousing some exotic theories about the “animal” side of human nature, sends her up to The Colony, which is supposedly a nice restful retreat and not at all a werewolf cult for weirdos, nope. Karen’s husband joins her. A sexy, witchy woman named Marcia tries to seduce Karen’s husband, even though she seems interesting and he seems really boring. After rejecting her advances a couple of times, hubby gets bitten by some kind of wolf-person thing, then the next night he sleeps with Marcia while both of them turn into wolf-person things. (This movie appears to use the three nights rule of full moon werewolfing.)

Meanwhile, two of Karen’s friends/co-workers investigate the serial killer. His body disappears from the morgue. They find his apartment full of obsessive drawings of Karen, and wolf people, and Karen as a wolf person. This sends them to an occult-themed used books-and-stuff emporium, where they get loaded up with werewolf-related mythology and have a box of *genuine silver bullets* pointed out to them. (Pay attention, this will be important later).

Karen suspects hubby’s infidelity (duh) and asks the female friend to come up to The Colony. The female friend discovers that one of the killer’s drawings depicts a scene near The Colony, and follows that up to discover more of those creepy happy face stickers, leading her to figure out who the killer is. Then he kills her.

Karen also finds out who the killer is. She calls the male friend for aid. He shows up with a shotgun and a whole bunch of silver bullets, ready to bust her out of there.

Then! Oh my God! They’re all werewolves! Even Patrick Macnee! Shoot shoot, burn burn. But hubby-wolf bites her right before they get away.
Back in LA, Karen decides that “the people need to know the truth” so she transforms into a wolf person live on camera during the news, then gets shot by the male friend. This plays out as if they planned the shooting part in advance. In 1980 could you just bring a shotgun into a TV studio? Whatever. Then in the coda, we see that Marcia wolf is just fine (go Marcia!) and hanging out in diners ordering hamburgers rare. Except then the closing credits show a sizzling hamburger clearly being cooked to a well-done state. The end.

So, yeah, if that plot recap didn’t make a whole lot of sense — you’re correct. After an intriguing but uneven setup, the rest of the movie suffers hugely from monster essentialism, confused plot resolution, and limply-fired narrative guns.

In fact, I misremembered the whole werewolf colony thing as being Dr. Macnee’s crazy idea about how to cure people with neurotic disorders, because of course werewolves are all in touch with their animal nature and therefore don’t have neurotic disorders.

(Note: in my Rougarou books, I generally operate on the assumption that werewolves are just as neurotic as everybody else. Just, you know, about different stuff. )

Anyway, I remembered the story as being much closer to “a werewolf doctor tries to use werewolfism to cure people of their psychological disorders, only to have it backfire when his treatment turns one man into a serial killer.”
I think that would have been kind of awesome, if that was the story. But I don’t think it’s really the story. Actually, having rewatched it, I’m not sure what the story is, other than Werewolves! Serial killers! Marital infidelity! Running around! Stuff!

The thing the movie really fails to deliver on is the serial killer’s creepy obsession with Karen. I think maybe the idea is that he wants to bite her so then they can be wolf people together? But if that’s his goal he seems insufficiently focused on it.

Plus, I found myself wondering why the other werewolves don’t seem more interested in stopping one of their own who’s taken to serial killing. Do they not know that’s what he’s doing? Or are we supposed to believe they’re okay with that sort of thing? Except we don’t see the other wolves try to kill any people. Until the end of the film, that is, when they’re trying to kill people who are coming after them with silver bullets, so, really, it’s self-defense.

Which is actually kind of a huge problem with this movie. We don’t see any indication that the wolves on the whole are dangerous in any way. Sure, they’ll engage in adultery with your loser husband, but is that actually supposed to be a killing offense? We just reach a certain point in the movie, the monster switch gets set to “on,” and HEY IT’S ALL MONSTERS KILL THEM BLAM!

That’s what I mean by monster essentialism. I don’t think a story involving any well-known monster trope, whether ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, Hulks, Loch Ness beasts, Sasquatches, Adam Frankensteins, fairies, robots, aliens, mad scientists, Kaiju, giant bees, invisible people, or — wait, where was I? Oh, yeah. I don’t think you can just say “oh, it’s X kind of monster, so it obviously has to die.” You have to establish the actual terms of the threat within the context of the story you’re telling, otherwise your “heroes” come across as the bad guys, killing perfectly average wolf people for no reason at all.

This lack also makes the ending seem really bizarre. Either Karen is so messed up that she is certain, based on very little evidence, that it’s better to be dead than wolfy, or her friend is equally certain of the same thing, based on equally scant evidence.

So, I dunno. I enjoyed watching it, mostly, but it just doesn’t make any sense.

Julie McGalliard Norwescon Schedule

Thursday

Paranoia (Will Destoy Ya)

9:00pm – 10:00pm @ Cascade 5&6

 

 Friday

Self Publishing Comics: Online and On Paper

1:00pm – 2:00pm @ Cascade 3&4

 

 

Inclusive Voices in Horror

4:00pm – 5:00pm @ Cascade 7&8

 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

6:00pm – 7:00pm @ Cascade 5&6

 

Reading:  Julie McGalliard

7:00pm – 7:30pm @ Cascade 2

 

Saturday

Autograph Session 1

2:00pm – 3:00pm @ Grand 2

 

Wolf in the Fold – Enduring Allure of Shape-changers

3:00pm – 4:00pm @ Cascade 7&8

 

Why Do Villains Look Like That?

6:00pm – 7:00pm @ Cascade 5&6

 

The Problem with Horror Movie Endings

8:00pm – 9:00pm @ Cascade 5&6

 

 Sunday

Get ‘Em While They’re Young – YA Horror

1:00pm – 2:00pm @ Cascade 10

 

Note to self: Does your novel have the same flaws as Crimson Peak?

Last year, I finished most of a draft of the sequel to Waking Up Naked In Strange Places (working title: Stripping Down to Scars). For a while I set it aside, because I was caught up in doing things related to the published novel, but during the Clarion West Write-a-Thon I decided to get back to it. I read what I had written. And…

…it wasn’t good. To tell you. the truth, it was kinda boring. There was a lot going on, but no sense of urgency. It was somehow missing that fundamental spark that makes something a story instead of a bunch of stuff that happened.

I sighed, because I was hoping for better, but I’ve been down this particular road before, and I thought I knew what to do. I looked for missing emotional resonance, and realized that I had made a mistake by not including a character from the first book. The plot morphed considerably — and improved — when I addressed that, but everything still seemed dull. I tried a dozen different openings, each slightly more exciting (or peculiar) than the last. But it still wasn’t quite coming together. I knew I hadn’t found “it” yet, whatever it was.

Then I saw the high-Gothic potboiler Crimson Peak, a movie that is unfailingly gorgeous yet frustratingly dull. Afterward I started writing an imaginary script doctoring session with Guillermo del Toro. It went something like this:

—–

Would you say that you were telling the story of a young woman who sees ghosts, and is terrified and tormented by them her whole life, until, in the end, she makes peace with them, and they save her life? Yes? Okay, then. Here’s your problem: you told the story of a young woman who sees ghosts, and then some stuff happens.

The ghosts, and the young woman who sees them, don’t drive the story. They kind of bounce around inside the story. Don’t worry! I think we can fix it.

She should see more ghosts in the beginning, especially ghosts who don’t want anything from her. Her entire life is deformed by seeing ghosts everywhere. She’s like that kid in The Sixth Sense. She’s lonely, because everyone else thinks she’s a weirdo who’s always talking to people who aren’t there and screaming for no reason.

We see her make exactly one meaningful decision based on ghosts — she goes to the party, where she dances with Mr. Gothic Hotpants (Tom Hiddleston’s character), because a ghost scares her when she’s alone. That’s it. Ghosts, and her reaction to them, should be engine one driving this story forward. We should see a clear arc to it — we should see her move from being paralyzed with fear, to taking a more active role in trying to connect with them and figure out what they’re telling her.

——

At that point I realized my book had been making the exact same mistake. A lot of stuff was happening, and some of it was pretty cool. Just as in Crimson Peak, the cool stuff provided a distraction that kept me from consciously noticing the lack of story. And yet, I couldn’t fool myself all the way down. That’s why I as bored. Everything was set decoration for a story that wasn’t happening.

With that knowledge, I went back to the plotting board and resolved a lot of my issues, although it took a few more iterations, and a key remark from a friend, before I really got a handle on the core story I was trying to tell. But I was reminded of why giving critiques is as useful as getting critiques: because analyzing the flaws in something else can help alert me to a mistake that I am also making.

Movie: The Witch

Premise: An exiled Puritan family trying to survive in the wilderness is targeted by an enigmatic supernatural threat, but the worst threat might be the paranoia that drives them to turn on each other.

Briefly: Beautifully made, with an excellent cast and a haunting soundtrack. The archaic language is a particularly interesting choice. However, if you’re looking for out-and-out scares, you will probably be disappointed.

What follows might contain spoilers (depending on what you consider a spoiler), be thou warned! Hence!

A witch movie set in early colonial New England cannot help but summon the specter of the Salem Witch Trials, and in light of that, this movie makes an interesting choice: the supernatural threat is real, and appears to conform exactly to folklore of the time about witches and devils. But, by fighting this threat with nothing but prayers and destructive paranoia, the family only seals their doom.

We begin in the early 1600s, with the family of William and Katherine being exiled from a small walled plantation community for some unspecified theological crime of William’s. In a trial or hearing, he’s given the option of shutting up about his heretical beliefs, or getting exiled, and he responds by calling them all a bunch of fake Christians. The next scene shows his family loaded onto a rickety wagon heading out into the wilderness.

My experience with witch trial narratives led me to speculate that his theological crimes might be denying the existence of witches, setting us up for irony later. But, the way the movie ends up going, his crime might just as well be believing in witches. Or being annoyingly pious even for a Puritan. Or being deceptive. Or just generally being a self-righteous jerk. Really, any of these things.

The movie unfolds more or less from the perspective of their oldest child, Thomasin, a girl just on the edge of puberty.

The plot kicks in when Thomasin is looking after her baby brother, and, during a game of peekaboo, the child disappears in between one peek and the next.

The next shot depicts an older, mostly naked woman running into the woods with the baby, and we follow her as she appears to sacrifice the child, and then — grind him into paste? And eat him? It’s disturbing, but murky, and it has the feel of something that might be a fantasy sequence. At this point in the movie, it’s still unclear whether the supernatural threat is objectively real.

The official family story is that the baby was taken by a wolf, but Thomasin is still in the family doghouse (so to speak). Her mother especially is absolutely unconsolable after the baby disappears, spending a solid week doing nothing but weeping and praying. She seems eager to find any excuse to lash out at Thomasin. There are even hints of sexual jealousy in this rising conflict, as if Katherine sees Thomasin as a threat to her own place in the family. Her solution, overheard by the children in their upstairs room, is to make plans to send Thomasin to be a servant in another family, perhaps back in the community they’ve been exiled from.

William takes his oldest boy Caleb — just at the age to start thinking about thinking about puberty, and this gets a bit disturbing later — into the woods — which are forbidden to the children, and, maybe to William as well? That part was a little unclear. I confess that the archaic language sometimes left me confused on finer points of dialog. What is clear is that William is concerned that the family won’t survive the winter with just the food from their disappointing harvest, so he has decided to start setting traps in the woods. In fact, he traded Katherine’s silver cup for the trap he’s using — but didn’t tell her about that, which sets up another conflict when she accuses Thomasin of the theft, and William is curiously reluctant to come clean about it.

William tries to shoot a hare, but misses, and hurts himself in the process. Is the hare supernatural? Is he a bad shot? Or are 17th century guns that iffy? This same hare will show up again a few times, always seeming to cause trouble just by its existence — spooking a horse so that it throws Thomasin, and luring both the family dog and Caleb deep into the dangerous woods. Like the goat Black Phillip (who really is one of the most beautifully demonic-looking goats I’ve ever seen — good job, goat casting crew!) the movie does a nice job of making these animals seem fraught with supernatural power, at the same time they also just seem like, you know, animals.

The family paranoia escalates again with a scene that I admit I found confusing. The twins, Mercy and Jonas, who are maybe six or seven, are running around the yard singing and chasing Black Phillip. Based on what happens later, maybe they were trying to chase the goat back into his pen? But since I couldn’t understand the words of their song, I thought maybe they were supposed to be acting possessed. Except nobody reacts as if there’s anything unusual going on, so I eventually concluded that they were just badly-behaved little kids. Which I found a bit hard to swallow — they’re on a farm and it’s the end of the harvest season, would they really be allowed to just run around freely like that? And they’re Puritans, aren’t Puritans kind of strict?

Mercy is the first person to suggest that the baby was stolen by a witch, in a scene where she announces that she is the witch of the woods. She’s so irritating that she prompts Thomasin to retaliate by claiming that no, she is the witch of the woods, and if Mercy doesn’t shut up she’s going to do all sorts of horrible witchy things to her.

These mutual accusations feel, at the time, like it’s just sibling conflict — one kid being a brat, one kid being super annoyed. But it will come back to haunt them both later. That particular story dynamic worked well for me.

In fact, a lot of the story worked well — it’s got a lot of atmosphere — but, having read many reviews that praised it for being terrifying, I was disappointed with how un-scary I found it.

It is eerie, though and the unsettling details accumulate. Thomasin drops an egg, which has been fertilized and contains a chicken embryo. Thomasin attempts to milk the goat, and blood comes out of its teats. The corn harvest is blighted. A witch’s curse, or are they just terrible farmers?

The family, as pressure mounts, makes bad decision after bad decision, and it’s painful to watch, especially once their bad decisions start to include accusing each other of witchcraft. Even though the supernatural threat of the witch is real, none of their actions help. Piety doesn’t help. Paranoia doesn’t help. There’s a key scene toward the end where Thomasin’s father is accusing her of witchcraft, and she responds by detailing all his deceptions and calling him a hypocrite to his face — which the movie treats as the much more dire accusation it would have been at the time. She’s exactly right, but does he repent?

Well, what do you think?

Maybe there was never anything the family could do to survive the winter, but — you know, they could at least have avoided the unspeakable evil of all going off the deep end and trying to kill each other.

In a typical Salem Witch Trial story, there is no witch, and there might be a Christian God who is appalled by all this immoral and un-Jesus-like witch-burning behavior. But in this movie, the objective reality of the witch is firmly established, without similar proof for the existence of the Christian God.

This is an interesting side effect of treating 17th-century witch folklore more or less literally. Because the folklore involves blaming bad things that really happen — everything from crop failures to headaches — on witches, and then inventing a lot of really juicy and lurid details about all the other things witches get up to (naked things), the witches, if real, must be present, tangible, and powerful (and naked). But the promise of the Christian God, even taken literally, is to save a soul that can’t be touched for an afterlife nobody has ever seen.

Because of this, the movie ends up feeling very pagan, even though the witch is the monster of the piece. Sure, witches will blight your crops and steal your children. But they also have cool naked flying parties in the woods. Anyway, once the Christians are also trying to kill their children, you can’t say that either side has the moral high ground. So, you might as well go with the group that knows how to party.

At least, that’s the lesson I took away from it.

The ending has been a bit controversial — without getting too spoilery, that same “take 17th-century witch folklore at face value” approach has pleased some people (like the Satanic Church) and bothered others for its potentially — uh, let’s call it “anti-feminist” interpretation.

For what it’s worth, that’s not how I saw it — but the ending is deliberately ambiguous. As always, your mileage may vary.

What Makes a Good Main Character?

What makes a main character my favorite? I’ve made a list of some of my favorite protagonists, from some of my favorite books, and thought about why they hooked me. I’m someone who is pulled in by character first, before ideas. I don’t have to directly relate to a character, but I do have to care about them, want to read about them, feel engaged in their struggle and their whole arc. Here is a list of some of my favorite protagonists of all time (not all of them, but still a very long list):

  • Anne Shirley – Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (pub 1908)
  • Cassie Logan – Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor (pub 1976)
  • Solveig Nilsson – A Horse for XYZ, by Louise Moeri (pub 1977)
  • Aerin – The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley (pub 1984)
  • Laura Chant – The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy (pub 1984)
  • Sophie – Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (pub 1986)
  • Eugenides – The Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner (pub 1996)
  • Mel – Crown Duel series, by Sherwood Smith (pub 1997)
  • Sunshine – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley (pub 2003)
  • Costis – The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner (pub 2006)
  • Kahu Apirana – The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera (pub 2006)
  • Kami – The Lynburn Legacy (Unspoken, Untold, Unmade), by Sarah Rees Brennan (pub 2012)
  • Rose Sweetly – Talk Sweetly To Me, by Courtney Milan (pub 2014)
  • Binti – Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (pub 2015)
  • Shahrzad – The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh (pub 2015)
  • Sierra – Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older (pub 2015)

I could write at length about why these books, and these characters, are some of my favorites. But in the interests of time, I’ll keep to some generalizations. (But I do heartily recommend all of these books, and authors.) Looking at all of those characters together, the take-away I think is that my favorite protagonists tend to be brave in the face of impossible odds, stubborn, smart, smart-asses, and willing to take a chance. They are impetuous, rascally, not always honest, sometimes jerks, and always, always interesting. Some of them are shy dreamers, like me, but by no means all of them. I like a character with fears and flaws, who stumbles and tries, and tries again, who works to become better. These aren’t unusual traits in a main character, but it helps to have a writer who can make them live. A writer who makes these traits seem part of a whole and immerses you in their world is a treasure. I want a protagonist who leaps off the page and into my mind. I want a story to live in my head, and characters who feel real and lived-in.

I do work hard for that feeling, as a writer. I appreciate the hard work that goes into making characters fully flawed and real and loved and loveable, only to shove them into terrible circumstances and make them fight their way out of it. But the fight is half of why we love them. And the flaws are what make the fight interesting.

When I write my characters, I live with them in my heads a little. I try to see their situations as they would see them, and how they would react, and then make that the reality of the story. And I’m a sucker for a smart-ass, it seems, so I usually have that in there, too. So my favorite main characters are the ones who grab you and don’t let you go, and face down the worst situations with determination and desperation and the occasional sarcastic jibe, and drag you along with them.