What Fresh Hell


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496265_22437560bycristinaAt the time I wrote the first draft of Nocturne, then called Nightmare, I was at a strange place in my experience of the horror genre. I’d read most the RL Stine oeuvre from children’s books to young adult, then devoured Christopher Pike. Dracula was (and still is) one of my favorite novels, and Jekyll & Hyde was my favorite musical. I’d started reading Stephen King and Thomas Harris in secret, because my parents thought I was too young for them. I’d been introduced to a handful of horror movies, but only PG-13 at the time. I loved horror, but I was still fresh enough to it that I hadn’t started seeing the mechanics of the genre—the conventions, the cliches, the timing, that sort of thing.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I really started watching all the rated-R horror movies I’d always wanted to watch, and it’s been steady consumption since then. But I wrote Nightmare in the summer between the end of high school and the start of college, before I’d introduced myself to Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers or the Wishmaster, before I’d experienced the sensuality of Coppola’s Dracula or the brutality of Saw and Hostel, before my family had started bingeing on The Twilight Zone every New Year’s, before I knew about the meta-horror of Scream or the way a person can use horror trends to gauge a whole society’s fears.

Between the first draft and the first rewrite, I had about nine years to develop a finer palate for horror appreciation as well as my skills as a writer. I added a few new elements to the story to add some much needed meat to the bones (the first draft was a little more than half the size of the final draft) and fixed the beginning and ending. (Beginnings are always my weak spot, but that original ending was truly awful, and even at the time I knew how unsatisfying it was .) It only needed one more reworking to fix some of those new elements before I was finally satisfied with the body of the novel, somewhere around two years later, and set forth polishing it.

And now here we are, thirteen years from the first draft. I don’t know how many versions there have been—somewhere between twelve and fourteen. It’s a love letter to the horror genre, a sprawling examination of demons that have plagued me from puberty through adulthood, though I don’t suffer nightmares nearly as often as you might think. Nocturne itself, a novel of nightmares, isn’t based solely on mine. I made sure a few of them make a cameo, because how could I resist?

Parasomnias (sleep disorders) have intrigued me more over the last few years, though, because I started experiencing the hypnagogic hallucinations commonly referred to as exploding head syndrome, which sounds a lot more alarming than it is.

I sometimes wake up to the sound of a terrible scream that’s almost mechanical but still sounds so very human—except I experience the sound as though it comes from inside my head. It isn’t thought-sound. I experience it as actual sound. I’ve also woken up to thumps and knocking. On occasion, I’ll think the cat has jumped onto my legs or I’ll think someone’s tapping me awake, but nothing is there (touch hallucination, a bit rarer).

Just last night, I had some trouble in the middle of the night passing between dream state and waking consciousness with some auditory hallucinations—voices of my family that I knew were from evil spirits, actual voices that woke me up because they were heard and not just thought, but I kept waking up first in the dream before waking up for real, so it got a little confusing.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and though these auditory hypnagogic hallucinations are usually accompanied by a sense of dread or the feeling that what it’s coming from is evil or demonic, once I’m awake, the worst I feel is a bit unsettled. As long as these things don’t repeat when I’m completely awake, I calm down pretty fast. It helps knowing what’s going on and not actually worrying about evil spirits in my bedroom. I think if I had visual hallucinations as creepy as the auditory, I’d be much more freaked out. It would be a lot harder for me to convince myself that what I’m seeing isn’t real.

And strangely, just this year, I’ve also had markedly more nightmares than usual. I’ve always had bad dreams, but they say the difference between a nightmare and a bad dream is that a nightmare wakes you up because your brain can’t handle it anymore. The tornado dreams I’ve had all my life used to create tornadoes all around me, with only the threat they’d hit. Now, however, they’re hitting. Last night (after the hallucination/evil spirit nightmares), I dreamed interstellar grasshoppers were crawling into people’s mouths and taking them over. The zombie dreams are getting more intense. One night, I woke up from a tooth-crunching dream with aching teeth—I assume from grinding them, but for a second, I thought I’d really crunched my teeth down. I got a sleep guard pretty soon after that.

Sometimes I’ll die in a dream and jolt awake with a hypnic jerk, which I’m also prone to, and there’s a theory that hypnagogic hallucinations are just hypnic jerks translated into sensory representation because the brain gets its wires crossed.

But I’m a little strange, because about seventy-five percent of the time, even though I still have residual terror in my system, I’ll be so intrigued by the nightmare upon waking that I’ll deliberately go back to sleep to try to go back into the dream and see what happens. Side effect of being a horror geek, I suppose, and I’m always on the lookout for the next horror idea. I won’t lie—I’ve come up with a few good ones by doing that.

Here’s hoping that Nocturne is just the first fresh hell I can share with you. Because these hells are far preferable to the ones I have to wake into.




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The RuinsThere were mixed reviews for this movie among friends and critics, but it’s one of my personal favorites, a regular go-to for a bit of character-driven body horror. The more I watch the movie, the more complicated it gets underneath the rather unoriginal, shiny exterior, which is why I feel The Ruins is seriously worth a horror fan’s time. As a shiny movie, it might also appeal to the non-horror fan, if they have the stomach for it.

Plants are a funny thing to make a villain, and I can see how some people might not go for the idea of carnivorous plants as something that can get your skin crawling, but it’s been a bit of a peripheral fear of mine. One of the shorts in the Creepshow anthology, the one featuring Stephen King as a simple-minded farmer baffled by a meteorite with a gooey interior that causes grass to grow on everything like a fungus has stuck with me for years—hits me again every time the parsley gets overgrown and starts trailing onto the porch.

Forests do get nutrients from death of both flora and fauna; creeping vines can infest and infect a whole grove; the fight for sunlight in rainforests is a brutal one; oils on leaves or thorns can cause serious damage or horrible death, all in the name of self-protection, and all without an as-yet demonstrable consciousness, which isn’t to say that plants don’t respond—which is the freakiest thing that I just said. We’re surrounded by plants, but too often, they’re just scenery or accessory to us, and that’s a mistake.

All that to say that, as much as I love my backyard and adore big trees and roses, I still find plants kind of creepy. So I can get into the mentality of villainous plants more quickly than some people. What can I say? I’m an ideal horror audience. (Not so much on board with the villainous vegetarians, but Trolls 2 is still worth a watch as one of the most awesome terrible movies ever made.)

After a cryptic prologue, The Ruins opens on a bunch of young, pretty twenty-somethings on vacation in Mexico—bikinis, alcohol, sun, sex, all pretty much the accoutrements of a typical horror movie, which is why it’s easy to think The Ruins is going to follow the usual, unoriginal punishing formula. Nothing new to see here, folks. Situation normal; all fucked up.

And as a trope, The Ruins definitely falls under the label of Tourists Behaving Badly. Or, more specifically, American Tourists Behaving Badly, although they’re tagging along behind a couple Germans and Greeks. It’s easy to roll your eyes when they flash money to do The Forbidden Thing, when one of the characters takes pictures of the Cute Locals in their Native Environment, and when the emergent leader of the group declares with absolute, desperate certainty, “This doesn’t happen! Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!” People disappear all the fucking time, man, and not just on vacation. Naive affluent illusions, shattered.

However, though The Ruins works within the framework of a fairly typical twenty-somethings-suffer horror movie, it’s what the screenwriter (same as the author of the original novel, which I plan to read one of these days) and the director did within that framework that’s worth a second glance.

I don’t think The Ruins would have done so well without an exceptional cast. Shawn Ashmore is one of my favorite underrated actors (actually, I’m a fan of both Ashmore twins, and they both have feet in the horror genre). Jonathan Tucker is a familiar face in the genre, and he has a quiet, odd-faced, hard-bodied intensity to him that serves him well. Jena Malone is also a surprising force of nature despite her slim build. Sergio Calderon plays the lead Mayan, and he might be a face you recognize, but you don’t know from where. I think he lends some unexpected gravitas in a role where nothing that he says is understood, but his face and tone speaks volumes. There’s no weak link in the cast, although the script has some weak points that don’t do them any service. One of the best things about this film, though, is that whoever you think the characters are at the beginning, they subvert those expectations by the end, which is the marker of good storytelling.

The basic premise of the movie goes something like this: The tourists visit Mayan ruins that aren’t on any of the maps to meet up with a group of archaeologists. They trespass onto forbidden land and touch the strange vine that seems to grow on the ruins and nothing else. A band of Mayans who apparently protect the area around the ruins quarantines them there. As expected, they’re in the middle of nowhere, no cell service, no sat phone, no airplanes, little expectation of rescue. And they quickly discover that the original archaeologist team is dead and that the vine is responsible.

What follows includes unspoken tensions between the members of the group coming to a head, some brutal decisions about how to take care of the wounded in primitive conditions, and what to do about the vine spore that’s entered into those wounds and coated everyone’s clothes and skin. If you’re a fan of body horror, there’s some good, flinching gore for you, but it’s the human element that keeps the movie grounded in something almost paranoid. Some of the best horror, in my opinion, comes from the lengths we’ll go to when we’re desperate to survive.

I won’t spoil anything about the nature of the vines or the fates of the characters, but it doesn’t disappoint, though the unrated ending beats the theatrical (unrated version also has an extraneous scene, but I can forgive it). In a contest between The Ruins and Cabin Fever about horror getting under your skin, The Ruins beats Cabin hands down.

Cold Feet


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I know writers do it all the time, master the turnaround from draft to publication so that the process is much more efficient. I did it back in my fanfic days, when the standards for posting fic were different than the standards for posting original work, because you were amateur. The amateur status forgave many sins of the beginner.

When I was a kid, I could make a Tootsie Roll last by treating it like hard candy. Ironically—or perhaps not so ironically—as I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown less patient. Yet my standards for putting my work out require me to take my time, even if I don’t want to. I’m a perfectionist and a control freak. They’re both qualities that led me to pursue self-publishing, but they certainly do nothing for my impatience.

Moving from amateur to professional changed my standards. I write a thing. I set it aside for at least a month, and more often than not, about six months to a year before I pick it up again. That lets me distance myself from it, forget a few things, and approach it with fresher eyes after my alpha reader’s gone through it. Then I edit the crap out of it. Then I set it aside again. Then I look over how the edits changed the look and feel of the narration and dialogue, and I edit again. Then I set it aside again. Then I edit again. In between all of this, I’m usually working on other projects, but part of me is always with a finished story, working on it in my subconscious. Only when I think it’s publishable do I even consider sending it to a professional editor.

And finding a professional editor that’s right for me has been more work than I thought it would be, given the number of writers who recommend their editors. Once I settle on an editor or editors, I’ll go through their edit. Then I’ll set it aside again. Then I’ll do at least one final sweep and proofread.

Then I’ll send the book to the formatter. Only after that will I submit the book. That’s not even getting into the cover art/designer side of the equation, or the promotion plans, both of which I can work on in tandem with the writing/editing side.

To give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about, I wrote Thorns in 2012. It’s probably not going to get published until late January/early February 2018. So much for quick turnaround.

I’m chomping at the bit for Thorns to be released, but not until it’s ready. Not until it’s right. Not until it’s as close to perfect as I’m capable of making it.

And isn’t that just the crux of the matter. Because there is no perfect. There will never be perfect. I’ll always come up short against my own standard, and an objective measure of writing quality is a foggy notion at best. If you don’t like a piece of art, it wasn’t made for you. Poor quality art can still be enjoyed by millions, which brings into question the designation ‘poor quality’ in the first place—because the art did what it was supposed to do, tap into something inside people and make them respond.

In most other parts of my life, I have ways to measure my success or failure and the quality of my actions, usually through some metric of quantity. In art, quantity doesn’t imply quality. I have nothing I can measure, and after a certain point, that takes quality control out of my hands. I can control spelling, grammar, punctuation, pacing, word choice. I can’t control how readers react to the story. That’s the indefinable skill that differentiates a good writer from a mediocre one. I certainly can’t anticipate readers’ enjoyment or engagement based on my own positive reaction to my stories. Mediocre writers entertain themselves, too.

The only solution available to me is to surround myself with people I can trust to tell me when something doesn’t work, but sometimes it’s a delicate balance to make sure that person is also the kind of person meant to enjoy the kinds of things you write. And deciding whether the reason you accept or reject them isn’t because they like or hate your writing. And determining whether your ego or your instinct is driving your decisions to take or leave their criticism. I can never tell whether I’m overconfident or underconfident, whether I’m second-guessing myself too much or too little. Sometimes, I’m a Professional Writer. Other times, I’ve got a serious case of Imposter Syndrome.

But here I am, willing to put my work out there through self-publishing, where the responsibility and consequences fall on me. If people react badly, all the egg hits my face and no one else’s. I’m impatient, with Thorns having been with me for five years and Nocturne having been with me for thirteen (a young adult book I wrote back when I was a young adult). Publishing’s a slow process, though in theory, the digital revolution was supposed to change that, right? But I’ve got some serious jitters, man, and a pathological fear of failure (although you’d think I’d be used to it by now).

There’s no way to objectively know it’s good. These are the things that keep me up at night.

Brief Update


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I’ve had a few horror movie reviews I’ve wanted to do, and things are slowly happening to make Nocturne and Thorns happen, but I’m in the process of fighting my diet and my attachment to caffeine and wondering why all the things have to tire me out so much, even though I’m getting more sleep than ever.

I’m also fighting my innate phobia of apocalypses on the regular, because it’s been seeming less irrational lately. Makes a person wonder why she’s fighting at all. The urge to duck and cover is overwhelming, but until I make that decision, I still have to go to work and be productive with my writing projects as though I’ll actually have a chance to write the next six or seven Thorns novels.

I hate feeling like this. I hate that people have put me in a position to feel like this, where hope’s a weak and failing creature. And the ones supposed to protect us from this are the ones getting us into the mess. May the rest of your days be filled with crazy ants and honey, you smug bastards.

Personal Life-Changing Wisdom


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I’m not quite to Rabboni levels of wisdom here, but thirty years ought to count for something, and sometimes, it takes me a roundabout way to figure things out. I figure I might as well share what I learn, although it seems most of us need to live through the mistakes in order to accept the wisdom in retrospect.

  1. I can customize my Frappuccino order at Starbucks. I’d been asking for custom cheeseburgers for most of my life, but I literally didn’t realize I could ask for my Frappuccino with a shot of hazelnut and no whipped cream until I was about 20. Really, any order I hadn’t been customizing since I was a kid, I didn’t realize I could. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to figure out that menus were suggestions. Oh my god, I don’t have to pick the walnuts out of my salad anymore!
  2. I can eat the thing. Anything. Anytime. I think the moment you become an adult is when you no longer have to ask for permission to eat the thing. If I want Sonic at midnight, I can get Sonic at midnight, period.
  3. Group projects in high school and college were valid life lessons. It’s totally not fair, and that’s exactly how it’s going to be when you enter the work force. As my dad always says, 80% of the people do 20% of the work, and 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Sigh.
  4. Naps are good, and there should be more enforced athletic recreation among adults. Believe it or not, I miss P.E. And sleep.
  5. All bodies are gross and wonderful. Some of our coolest features include copious mucus secretion (that would be cis-female orgasms, for you people in the back…and sneezes). The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can stop giggling over jock straps and acting horrified around tampons like children. Learn all you can about basic human biology; save yourself some grief.
  6. Literally every aspect of fashion is completely arbitrary. High heels used to be men’s shoes. At some point in history, many things that were considered the height of manly fashion can now be worn as a dress. Men’s clothing is generally cheaper and better made, not tissue thin so as to be worn in layers to scam men into buying more. And back when ankles were scandalous, women were practically baring their areolae. Wear whatever the hell you want.
  7. Profanity’s not the problem. I’m still resentful about how much energy goes into stopping people from using four-letter words instead of those that down people’s spirits. I guess it’s easier to police words than intent, but more damage has been done in eloquent speech than in a profanity-laden rant. I’d rather be called a bitch in fun than have someone call me ugly with every intention of hurting me.
  8. I’m allowed to enjoy the art that speaks to me. If you enjoy it, you’re who it was made for. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not who it was made for. There are some objective standards, but most are subjective (it’s why my horror movie reviews don’t have a star rating system). This revelation got rid of a lot of resentments and defensiveness I had about my lack of ‘taste.’ No more guilty pleasures. Something doesn’t have to be good for me to love it and get something out of it.
  9. A corollary of this is: Let people spend their money however they choose. Sometimes people grow into their interests rather than out of them, and being a grown-up sometimes means you can finally afford the things you love. Nerdy things are not childish things. (This is also why gift-receiving doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did when you were a kid and dependent on other people to buy things for you.)
  10. People don’t know everything they should. Please don’t throw your hands up and give up on them. There are specific kinds of knowledge that I pursue, but just because I walk down those avenues with regularity doesn’t mean other people have. I know all the nooks and crannies, but I can hardly expect other people to be familiar with a street they’ve just considered walking down. I’m tired of people’s sometimes dangerous ignorance, and I’m tired of explaining my Things to people, but guess what? There’s not enough time in the world for everyone to ‘educate themselves’ on everything they should. Other people have different Things than I do, and I’m sure they’re tired of explaining them to me, too. If you’re specialized in a Thing, especially an uncommon Thing, get used to explaining the Thing. You might literally be a person’s introduction to it. And remember they know a different Thing much better than you.

Too Late to be Popular


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i do what I want meme

I have a curious tendency to avoid popular things until they’ve stopped being popular. It’s not a hipster thing; I’m too square to be hip. It’s like my extreme introversion bleeds over into other things that you wouldn’t think of. Popular things have lots of people talking about them, analyzing them, critiquing them, judging them, espousing their qualities, and being a part of it is like being a part of a crowd. And being part of a crowd means I feel all the feelings and bleed energy out in fountains.

Even when I’ve been in a popular fandom (I’m an old HP geek), I’ve stayed on the darker fringes rather than wade into the biggest shipping wars. The closest thing I got to popular was enjoying Snape/Hermione (my reasons are my own, and my personal ship was far more unsuitable, and all the more interesting because of it).

I don’t know—I guess I feel like the people into popular things are a bit rabid. The criticism and judgment tends to leach all the fun out of anything, because then I have other people’s more unpleasant words echoing in my head while trying to enjoy something on my own.

It’s part of the reason I love superhero movies but rarely see them in the theaters (OMG Marvel fandom is like an evangelistic religion). It’s part of the reason why I finally bought Lady Gaga’s earlier albums to enjoy them in their entirety (I’m still not completely over the religious criticism over every fucking album, especially all the commentary about Born This Way). I’m just starting to listen to Hamilton (my earphones are crap, so I have to wait until I’m in the car, and it’s a lot of words to take in). I still haven’t watched Game of Thrones or The Vampire Diaries or most of The Walking Dead. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly well after they’d been canceled. I think the only reason I’ve seen the new Star Wars movies is because I joined my parents when they went to see them.

People are just so intense when they ask you whether you’ve shared pop art experiences—it wears on my introverted soul. Slightly less intense when you say you haven’t seen it, because at that point, all they can do without spoiling you is insist you have to see it.

I think I just prefer to enjoy pop phenomena after the fervor has died down, so everyone else’s energy can’t assault me in the same way, and so I can formulate my own opinions rather than get my echo chamber of other people’s opinions going too strongly in my head. It’s really not that I don’t want to participate; it’s just that I don’t want to experience everyone else’s participation at the same time.

This Land (II)


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Another one of the sights on I35 to San Antonio from Dallas is the dome hut farm. I’m sure it’s called something else, but that’s how I always thought of it. A whole little dome hut neighborhood, and the flagship dome structure made to look like a giant caterpillar. I’m sure it all makes sense, but I kind of like the whys remaining a mystery. And I kind of want a dome hut house now and then, logistical issues with furniture aside.

I rode in a Winnebago once during either our middle school church choir tour or mission trip. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by RVs. If I can ever make a living working freelance, that might just be what I do—buy a small RV or trailer and purchase a smartphone with a hotspot (I’m kind of a phone Luddite, always have been, probably always will be) and travel with my house behind me. The life of a nomad has been calling me more and more often lately. I know it’s a hard one, and I recognize I romanticize it even as I imagine what it would be like.

I call it my walkabout. To just put on a pair of walking shoes and go. Maybe a bike, maybe a bike trailer thing. I have incurable wanderlust, but I’m also an incurable homebody. Just put that up on the shelf of all the other contradictions that leave me in a state of perpetual frustration.

For another bit of amusement, there’s a place outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a big sign for a car body shop right next to a cemetery. That one can fuel my dad and me for hours.

When I smell strong woodsmoke, I know I’m in Arkansas, even when I’m not. Burning wood, sometimes the smell of burning rubber. I also associate the smell of skunk with our road trips up to northwest Arkansas, passing through the vents, and it’s why I like the smell of it—as long as the buggers keep a healthy distance.

We always stopped at a Braum’s for ice cream, and before we left Arkansas, we always ate at Tiny Tim’s Pizza. My grandparents’ church is what I think of when people point to megachurches and say we should tax the churches. In Texas, it feels like we have a church on every other corner, and many of them would be considered megachurches. But rural churches would officially die if churches were taxed—small and old and already strapped.

My grandfather was a Methodist minister, with the biggest, most resonant baritone you can imagine, and he boomed through that church while he could. I swear, it sometimes seems like half of my family and the ones we adopted as family make up that little church. I didn’t like going because I don’t like getting up weekend mornings, and I hate wearing church clothes. But in a rural town, churches are the social heart.

Sometimes I think I just like churches for the windows. My parents keep stained glass in the house, including a window from Grandpa’s first church. Through the choir tours and other visits, I’ve been in a lot of churches—big, small, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic. The window always capture me when my eyes don’t know where to rest. I can stare at them for hours, finding the details.

Arkansas was where I learned to fish, learned how to feed chickens, learned to fear ticks, learned to love cats with claws and German shepherds. We explored there farther than we could in the suburbs, even though our neighborhood has a helluva creek bed. Arkansas was a cabin in the woods on a gravel path and ATVs, a giant magnolia tree and dogwood, Cheerios and banana with honey or peanut butter on toast, an out-of-tune piano and an organ in the loft, persimmons and blackberries picked fresh, buckeyes and Easter eggs, a real pine tree for Christmas, the waterfall poster leading down to the clawfoot tub. Arkansas was the mill and the car cemetery, and the pond where I skipped rocks. A sheltered little suburban bookworm, and Arkansas was where I got my shoes dirty. We rode the ATVs to feed the cows. I nearly got a concussion when the bull came at the hay too fast, but most of the time, the cows were too skittish to let us close.

They didn’t have air conditioner until I was in my teens, and no Internet until after I graduated high school, no wifi, and no cell service without driving around the mountain. I read book after book out on their front porch when it was too hot to be inside or with the rain hitting the tin roof. The Shining was my favorite for the farm, although I don’t know why. Maybe it was the way the book smelled that seemed to fit.

On July 4th, they put on an amateur fireworks show. No one ever got hurt, and the displays became grander as the years went by. Sometimes the evenings were even cool. Methodists know how to put on a potluck, and we’d be full on our lawn chairs, goading the guys on while they set up in the dark.

Arkansas was where I would go to see the sky as it is, where I finally saw the cloudy Milky Way. I’d stay out there until the mosquitoes ate me raw, just to see all the stars that we can’t see against the streetlights.



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lights_out_2016_posterWhen I saw that David Sandberg’s amazing short was going to be made into a full-length movie, I was wary, especially since the trailers underwhelmed. But horror trailers often do, and the same director of the short would direct the full-length. I heard mixed reviews from friends, but as easy an audience as I am, I thought I’d give it a try.

I’ll start out by saying that the original short film is a hundred times better. WATCH IT. It accomplishes more in two minutes and thirty seconds than the full-length accomplishes in eighty minutes.

The film shares a lot of beats with another short-to-full-length movie that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be—MAMA (which I’ve grown to like much better as magical realism rather than horror)—but it tries more to compare itself to THE BABADOOK (also short-to-full-length), with its dark, Nosferatu-fingered nemesis and mental illness analogies. However, everywhere BABADOOK succeeds, LIGHTS OUT sadly fails, suffering all the more from the comparison. Maria Bello and especially Billy Burke were poorly used in a movie with such uncertain footing and logic potholes. All actors did their best, but the material proved too shallow and on-the-nose for them to do much.

Let’s begin with the logic potholes: If there’s one thing that writers of magic learn, it’s that you can make up your rules, but there still have to be rules. There has to be an internal logic to the supernatural, or else you’re cheating. There were plenty of problems with the logic to Diana’s character. If she was a manifestation of depression, why introduce us to her life prior to the mental institution to challenge that? SPOILER Given that Diana’s father killing himself didn’t remove Diana’s influence, was it the fact she was a ghost that allowed it to work this time? Which makes no sense whatsoever, since she’s dead and even more likely to go on attaching to people? And if she wasn’t dead and just transfigured, that still doesn’t explain why Maria Bello’s Sophie could shoot herself and destroy Diana in the process when it didn’t work for Diana’s father.

The movie had no clue as to whether Diana was a physical being who couldn’t exist in the light, which hurt her, and could move fast enough to avoid it or whether she was an apparition who disappeared in the light. She was one, then the other, and it just didn’t work. Figure out your rules, people, and work from there.

The best scene in the movie was the opening one, which most closely resembled the original short, and of course it borrowed the original actress, which was a nice nod, plus Billy Burke. After his unfortunate encounter with Diana, the movie deteriorates from there.

We’re introduced to supposedly-wayward-girl Becca and her boy-toy-who-wants-more boyfriend Lucas, plus young-boy-taking-on-too-much-as-child-of-mentally-ill-mother Martin. We don’t get much more than those hyphenations, unfortunately, and while Teresa Palmer tries so hard to play disaffected, troubled teen sister, Jessica Chastain did it much better as an adult in MAMA. The movie rests on Palmer’s back, but that’s not quite sound enough a foundation.

Which brings us to the mental illness analogy, where LIGHTS OUT tries to make lightning strike twice after the resounding success of THE BABADOOK. In both cases, the comparison is at time heavy-handed, but the emotional resonance of THE BABADOOK makes it work whether the analogy is obvious or subtle. LIGHTS OUT works best when the analogy is casual, but the areas where it’s heavy-handed (“Have you been taking your meds?”—words every single person suffering with mental illness absolutely hates) establish the horror mythology as a direct comparison. That left the movie open to explore potentially amazing horror/mental illness analogies, but it made huge missteps and came to outright terrible conclusions.

There were suggestions that our wayward-girl Becca saw and suffered under Diana in her youth, the way that children of people with mental illness can be tormented by their parent’s disease. And it can lead to children of those with mental illness abandoning their parents out of resentment and for their own safety. But while THE BABADOOK aptly made a comparison with depression that shifts into the psychotic, LIGHTS OUT suggests that Sophie’s bipolar or depression led to SPOILER the death of her husbands, which is troubling on its own, especially as a parenthetical. But when Sophie kills herself in order to save her children from Diana, that was downright irresponsible, suggesting that the only way to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from the ravages of mental illness is truly suicide—the way many people suffering already feel. And as I mentioned above, that logic doesn’t even work from the supernatural rules perspective.

There were several ways this movie would have worked much better from a storytelling angle that wouldn’t have been so effing insulting to people with mental illness, and they would have solved the internal logic issues as well. Basically, all Sandberg would have had to do was choose between whether Diana was a human oddity turned haunt or whether she was never human to begin with—angles that allowed MAMA and THE BABADOOK to work where LIGHTS OUT didn’t.

i. Diana as demonic/nonhuman entity: If we hadn’t focused so much on what Diana is and where she came from, she could have simply been a mysterious, malevolent haunt. The only explanation needed would have been that she was there and how to deal with her rather than inadequately trying to explain and humanize her.

Instead of being another inmate at the psych ward who attached to Sophie, with her own backstory and reason for being there, Diana could have just been something that appeared in Sophie’s life before or during the stay at the ward, a parasite that latched onto a tasty host in an ideal hunting ground. The doctors could have believed her to be a dissociative identity or hallucination, but a picture of Sophie at the time could have shown apparitions (i.e. the ghost lady in INSIDIOUS, the shine in THE SIXTH SENSE). And this haunting follows Sophie throughout her life but weakens from medication use. Her presence in Sophie’s house would have to feel less human (with less human motivations), less visible, as with THE BABADOOK.


Depression can truly feel like a demon on your back, like a form of possession. If LIGHTS OUT had shown that aspect of it the way that THE BABADOOK did, it might have worked better.

ii. Diana as a malevolent/pathetic human ghost: This is something that MAMA did well—and oddly enough, so did the American remake of THE RING. The investigation into Diana’s past with Sophie could have led to more concrete answers, more of a sense of Diana’s humanity—perhaps giving more than a passing nod to Diana’s father and her effect on other people in her life. In THE RING, we saw how living Samara poisoned everything around her, right down to the island she lived on. The viewer was deeply unsettled both by both the girl’s effect and by the antagonism toward a defenseless child. Diana’s presence would have to feel more human, with more human motivations.

One of the aspects of MAMA that sticks with me is that MAMA really was a good mother to those children while they were in her care. The children showed love and affection with her, with the smallest girl happily playing with her.

In LIGHTS OUT, instead of the demon possession of depression, we could have seen what Diana did for Sophie. Once you’re in the midst of a deep depressive episode, there can be a kind of comfort in it even while it rips you apart. It’s familiar. It’s dark and looming and embraces you in its cocoon. Artists have captured this tension with terrifying demon-like creatures offering dark comfort that the world does not—because your depression understands you, while the rest of the world just wants you to go away or spontaneously get better. (Have a listen to Delain’s “Chrysalis – The Last Breath” for a good exmaple of this.) It’s best described by that quote: “I used to wrestle with my inner demons. Now we just snuggle.”


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Sophie continually asserts through LIGHTS OUT that Diana doesn’t know any better, that she’s just lonely. We could have seen a bit more of that dynamic, the symbiotic relationship that Diana could have had with Sophie rather than just the parasitic. We could have seen Diana’s face; we could have had more pity for her.

There are two other ways I think LIGHTS OUT could have been improved that have nothing to do with the problematic aspects of Diana.

i. Mental illness is often passed down genetically. There was a suggestion that Becca and Martin’s experience of Diana could have been their own suffering rather than their mother’s. But given that Becca didn’t have a therapist or take pills yet managed to escape from Diana, I feel like Sandberg missed an opportunity, especially since Becca would have been a perfect age for mental illness to really proceed screwing up her life. Wayward she might have been, but she seemed to know her own mind and enjoy herself in her little room above the tattoo parlor.

ii. In my opinion, the solution to the movie giving such an irresponsible message about SPOILER suicide is not letting Diana die with the gunshot. She’s an undead parasite. When her host dies, she has to find another, but she won’t die. If we wanted to connect it to the last suggestion, we could have Diana latch onto Becca or Martin, not to destroy them but to wear them down like she did Sophie.

In conclusion: LIGHTS OUT disappoints on many levels because it doesn’t commit to one idea or another, and the ones it tries to run with both don’t make sense and are incredibly troubling, and not in a horror movie way. The poor script and unfocused vision make it impossible for me to recommend.

Instead, check out MAMA (as magical realism rather than horror—del Toro tends toward MR as a genre, but the US doesn’t really acknowledge MR as a separate genre from fantasy or horror and often promotes it incorrectly as horror) or THE BABADOOK for movies far more satisfying, consistent, and intense.

This Land (I)


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When I was a kid, my parents would take the opportunity during every fall break of school to vacate us on a week-long trip to a different state. National parks were a staple. I don’t remember them so much as individual trips anymore. My memory of America, the Beautiful, arrives to me in a melded series of visuals, vignettes, food. Hours in a Dodge Caravan or a Honda Odyssey when I would read books while the air conditioner poured cold air on me to combat carsickness. Listening to show tunes and probably singing too loud for a car full of people.

I’ve lived in Texas all my life. We never forgot we were our own for a while. No one understands the scope of our state until they start driving. And driving. And driving. Really, Texas seems comprised of its own states, each with their own unique climate and culture. There’s the Metroplex, wooded East Texas, desert West Texas, ranching Panhandle (my dad would recommend you read Hank the Cowdog for that), weird, artsy Austin, the border South (with San Antonio), and the Gulf. I went to school in-state, but it was still prohibitive for me to drive back home on a regular basis. On a good trip, I think it took five and a half hours. On a normal trip, more like six and a half. The width of the DFW Metroplex is that of Connecticut.

Again, my experience of Texas itself is one of patchwork memories—and a tremendous fondness for a state that thinks 90 degrees is a decent summer day and winter is optional. Big Bend is a broad watercolor mural in my mind. Bats look like cloud cover on the weather radar screens every evening. Most of my family is here. Most of my friends, too, even some I’ve never met. Nowhere does melted cheese quite like we do. Tortillas are the real Texas toast. Our secondary schools are as big as small universities. In another state, perhaps I would have been considered stranger than I was, but it’s harder to be weird when there are enough people weird just like you. Not impossible, just harder.

The stretch of I-35 from home to Trinity is etched in my skull—the Bruceville sign I took a picture of for my dad, the Czech Stop, my accidental stop at Bucc-ee’s that I only recognize in retrospect, the tangle of Austin’s overpasses, the calm when I reached Universal City and realized I was almost back to school, the Dallas skyline that said I was almost home.

I’ve yet to encounter a state or country whose representatives actually represent them. I’ve learned not to judge a place by its politicians any more than I can judge a religion by its leaders. The Nordic countries seem wonderful. Iceland. Canada. Australia. But my heart is here in the heart of Texas, and I’m not sure anywhere else could be home.

Written in Stone


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It’s on the internet now, so it must be true.

I intend to self-publish Nocturne—my first novel and a YA horror standalone—somewhere in the realm of late September or early October of this year.

I also plan on self-publishing Thorns—the first book in my fairy tale remix series—in November or December, but that will ultimately depend on how soon I can get my cover commissioned and on what editor in his or her right mind will tackle a very long novel. It may need to be in January or February instead.

Suffice it to say, no more waffling. These books have had multiple edits, multiple eyes. It’s time.