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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Where the Hell is T.E.D. Klein?

Book #41 (November 21, 2010) Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein

In the late 1970s, in a hardback anthology of horror stories, I came across a novella called “The Events at Poroth Farm.” It was a terrific piece of slow burn Lovecraftian horror, about a professor of literature staying in a small outbuilding next to an unoccupied farmhouse who gradually becomes aware that he’s being visited by some kind of alien beings. The author, T.E.D. Klein, nailed the cosmic horror tone of Lovecraft’s later work while still maintaining a distinctive literary voice. The story was intelligent, elegantly written and genuinely scary. Klein later became editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, which (to my subsequent regret) I never read. Then, in the mid 1980s, he published two volumes of horror fiction, the long novel The Ceremonies (based loosely on “The Events at Poroth Farm”) and a collection of four novellas called Dark Gods.

I started reading this collection back in the 80s or early 90s. I got less than halfway through it not because it wasn’t a good read but because I was losing interest generally in reading. (I was born with a short attention span that just gets worse as I age.) Something reminded me of Klein recently, though, and I purchased used copies of both The Ceremonies and Dark Gods. This time I actually plan to read them.

I just finished Dark Gods and I recommend it to anyone interested in literary horror stories with a Lovecraftian influence. The stories are: “Children of the Kingdom,” about the dark secrets of a seedy Manhattan neighborhood at the time of the 1977 blackout; “Petey,” about an old house haunted not by ghosts but by strange experiments growing in jars; “Black Man with a Horn,” about an aging horror writer (apparently based on Frank Belknap Long) dealing with stories of a reclusive native race in Malaysia and his own memories of his one-time friend H.P. Lovecraft; and “Nadelman’s God,” a long story about an insurance executive who gradually realizes that at some time in his teenage years he had gotten a glimpse of a malevolent god who apparently still exists and wants to do his bidding.

Klein’s narrative voice is strong, graceful, and often humorous, and if he falls short in any area it’s one where many literary horror writers fall short: characterization. With one or two exceptions, the characters are sketchy and the dialog is unconvincing (though the cocktail party conversations in “Petey” are occasionally clever). This lack of characterization (which doesn’t seem to afflict less literary-minded horror writers like Stephen King, whose vigorously colloquial prose is a perfect vehicle for character development) is probably a deliberate choice. Lovecraft, whose stories rarely included memorable characters, was far more interested in the story’s millieu — the atmosphere of dread and the sense that the plot was moving headlong toward something so traumatizing that you’d go insane if you fully understood it. Klein doesn’t plunge quite as headlong into the horror as Lovecraft did, but he’s excellent at creating atmosphere (perhaps the greatest strength any horror writer can have) and at making cogent observations that elevate the horror well above the level of pulp.

Perhaps the saddest thing in this collection, published in paperback by Bantam Books in 1986, is the statement in the short bio of Klein in the back that says he’s become a full-time writer and is working on another novel. Yet, as anyone who has ever attempted to follow Klein’s career knows, no other novels ever appeared. (Apparently Viking announced a Klein novel called Nighttown in 1989, but it never came out.) The only things that Klein seems to have written since this collection are the screenplay to a 1994 Dario Argento horror film (Trauma) and a few short pieces, plus a collection of stories called Reassuring Tales that, aside from a couple of lukewarm reviews on the Internet, seems to have vanished without a trace. In many ways, Klein comes across here as a very promising young author (he was probably in his early 30s when most of these stories were written) who was going to write even better things in the future, but that future never seems to have happened. He’s apparently still alive — he’d be about 63 years old — but unless he’s got a large manuscript in the closet or on his hard drive, that next novel was never written.

The only explanation I can find is a quote attributed to him in Wikipedia: “I’m one of those people who will do anything to avoid writing. Anything!”

Apparently he wasn’t exaggerating.

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Several Items of Interest

Book #37 (October 19, 2010): Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #38 (October 23, 2010): Analog Science Fiction and Fact (November 2010)
Book #39 (October 30, 2010): Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #40 (November 13, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (October-November 2010)

Although it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when there was a very large market for short stories, including both genre stories — science fiction, mystery, horror — and mainstream, even literary, stories. This market was primarily in the cheaply produced pulp magazines, where writers churned out stories rapidly for rates of one cent a word or less, but it was also in slick magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Redbook, which paid higher rates and attracted a more thoughtful breed of writer. Circa 1952, the pulp magazine market collapsed, having lost most of its readers to television. Around the same time, the slick magazines went into decline as a market for fiction. Those few pure fiction magazines that remained moved into the digest-sized market, which survives (albeit tenuously) to this day. Digest-sized magazines are smaller than pulps were and are printed on better paper. Few newsstands carry digest-sized fiction magazines any more, though30 years ago you could find them in most drug stores.

Starting roughly in the 1970s, the most enthusiastic publisher of these digest-sized short story magazines was a company called Davis Publications, which quickly amassed a line of the most popular genre fiction magazines, some of which had started at other publishers: Analog Science Fiction and FactAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineAsimov’s Science Fiction and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. (About the only major short story magazine that Davis never acquired was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is now published by Spilogate, Inc.) At some point while I wasn’t watching, the Davis line of magazines seems to have been subsumed in turn by Penny Publications, a company best known for publishing crossword puzzle magazines. A couple of months ago I discovered that I could purchase these magazines via the Nook for $2.99 a copy, so I set out to read the November issues of all four. (If it seems like cheating to count these as part of my 52 books for this year, remember that these are closer to anthologies of short stories than to what is generally regarded these days as a magazine.)

I was originally planning to write about the stories, but to catalog them all would take too long and I’ve already forgotten most of them. So I’ll talk about the magazines: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has been around as long as I can recall and the fact that the cover of the latest issue (two issues after this one) reads “Our 70th Year” suggests that it’s been around considerably longer than that. Analog Science Fiction and Fact was born in 1930 as the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Starting about 1937, under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Astounding revolutionized the science fiction field by, well, paying more for SF stories than other magazines did. Campbell brought a stable of new writers into the field that included Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In fact, of major science fiction writers in the period 1937 to 1948, the only one who didn’t write for Astounding was Ray Bradbury. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine has been around since 1956. Like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I’ve seen it on the newsstands since I was a teenager, but have rarely bought an issue and even more rarely read one. I remember when the first issue of Asimov’s SF was published, in 1977. It was a relatively high paying magazine and so it was disappointing that early issues weren’t terribly good. But after a change of editors the quality of the stories went up substantially and it published some of the best science fiction of the 1980s.

If I were to sum up most of the short stories in these magazines in a phrase, it would be “competent but uninspired.” The best story by far, and one of the few that rises above this level, is Rick Wilber’s “Several Items of Interest.” Not surprisingly, it’s inAsimov’s SF. It’s about a near future earth where humanity is being smothered with love by seemingly benevolent alien invaders. Wilber makes a lot of good choices in telling the story. The first person narrator relates events out of chronological sequence, leaving the reader to piece the story together from fragments. Perhaps the cleverest stroke is that the narrator’s estranged brother promises to tell him what’s “really happening,” but the obligatory scene where he does so never happens and the true horror of the situation is left to the reader’s imagination, which gives the story a haunting resonance that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. I would expect to see this nominated for awards next year or at least reprinted in one of the few remaining Best SF of the Year anthologies.

The second best story is also in Asimov’s, Will McIntosh’s “Frankenstein, Frankenstein,” a horror story for the magazine’s Halloween issue. It’s about a pair of benevolent conmen who encounter one another in the midwest either in the 1930s or the 1890s. (The only hint as to the time period is that there’s a Chicago World’s Fair going on, but I’m not sure which one it is.) Both specialize in passing themselves off to credulous yokels as the original model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. They team up, only to encounter…well, I’ll just say that the ending is genuinely disturbing and more than a little moving. The latter, at least, is unusual in a horror story.

I’d sum up the rest but — damn — I’ve already forgotten them.

Superman, Without Kryptonite, Would Just Be a Dick

Amy and I went to see a fascinating panel discussion last night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, which is a big, magnificent, old-fashioned movie house buried inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences building on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills. I guess you could call it a multimedia presentation, because there were people on stage talking and there were film clips on the big screen. Technically what it was was the annual Marvin Borowsky Lecture on Screenwriting, which the academy has been presenting since 1974. It’s usually a lecture by a single, well-known screenwriter or screenwriting duo. (Although it’s an annual presentation, Bruce Davis, who introduced it, said that they’ve had to skip it some years because screenwriters just aren’t that reliable about sticking to these sorts of commitments.) Past lecturers have included Nora Ephron, Robert Towne, Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, John Sayles, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandell, Kevin Smith, and Paul Haggis. This year, perhaps keeping the unreliability of screenwriters in mind, they had three writers give brief lectures followed by a panel discussion. The writers were Susannah Grant (Erin BrockovichThe Soloist) talking about writing screen bios, Ehren Kruger (The RingTransformers 2) talking about writing for CGI effects, and Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force OneThe Hollow Man, and currently showrunner on Castle) talking about writing action films. There were clips from most of those films to illustrate the lectures, a group discussion afterwards, and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. (I didn’t think of one until we were on the way home.)

It was terrific, which didn’t surprise me. Professional writers are always, almost by definition, articulate. They have to be, because otherwise no one would pay for their words. They’re also almost always funny. I’m not sure why that is — Amy thinks it’s because screenplays always need some humor — but I think it’s just that a sense of irony comes with the territory. You couldn’t survive long as a writer, especially in Hollywood, without a sense of irony.

I couldn’t begin to summarize the whole thing, so I’ll just hit on a few high points, starting with some quotes (which are very much QFM, because I wasn’t taking notes like the guy sitting on my left was):

Susannah Grant: “This advice is only going to apply to about half the audience: Don’t wear a bra.” (She meant while writing, of course.)

Ehren Kruger: “I’ve written 35 screenplays, of which 35 use CGI effects. You might expect me to have an opinion about CGI. Well, I have two. The first is that, with CGI effects, we can now do anything. The second is something my mother told me when I was leaving for college: ‘Just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should.'”

Andrew W. Marlowe: “People respond to flaws. Superman, without kryptonite, would just be a dick.”

Marlowe probably had the pithiest things to say about actual story construction. He takes his inspiration from a book he read when he was a child called That’s Good, That’s Bad, which basically went like this: “‘I was attacked by a man-eating tiger.’ ‘That’s bad!’ ‘But I swung away on a vine.’ ‘That’s good!’ ‘But the vine turned out to be a snake.’ ‘That’s bad!’ ‘But I jumped off the snake and landed in soft sand.’ ‘That’s good!’ ‘But it was quicksand.'” And so on. He showed a couple of clips from Air Force One that illustrated the continuing reversals, often occurring within seconds of one another. (Susannah Grant said that the version of that book she’d had as a child was called Fortunately, Unfortunately. Ehren Kruger joked that his was called That’s Bad, That’s Bad. Marlowe said that he could see that in Kruger’s movies, then when the audience laughed had to explain that he hadn’t intended it as an insult.)

There was also discussion (again from Marlowe) about knowing who your character is, what he/she wants, and what’s keeping him/her from getting it. (Aaron Sorkin, in an interview I read with him the other day, refers to this as “intention and obstacle.”) There were also comments on my least favorite piece of writing advice: Write about what you know. At the beginning there were clips of various screenwriters giving out pithy, often contradictory pieces of advice and Eric Roth (Forrest GumpThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button) said, “I’m not going to tell you to write what you know because I’m sure you’ve already been told that. I don’t think anyone can write about anything other than what they know. What I tell people is to write about something you didn’t know you were interested in until now.” When the question of “Write what you know” came up during the Q&A at the end, Susannah Grant said, basically, that young writers take this to mean that they should write about their own lives and that the first thing they have to do is get over their belief that anyone else will find this interesting.

There was even a reference to my favorite songwriter, Stephen Sondheim. Ehren Kruger was talking about playing with the audience’s expectations and subverting them. As an example he used his screenplay for The Ring. It’s been several years since I sawThe Ring and my memory of it is hazy, but apparently it ends with a reversal, where what looks like the expected happy ending suddenly turns out to be a horrible ending. He said that he’s seen audience members get up and start walking out before the surprise ending, thinking the movie’s over, and wanted to yell at them, “No! Go back! It’s not over yet!” Andrew Marlowe joked, “Those must be the same people who leave the theater after the first act of Into the Woods.”

Some of you reading this may be wondering if our attending this lecture means I’m working on a screenplay. No, I think at this point I’m too old to break into screenwriting. But if somebody asked me to write one — and offered to pay me for it — I’d be all over that thing like zombies on a horse.

(If you saw Sunday night’s debut of AMC’s The Walking Dead, you’ll get that last reference.)