Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Little Taste of Midnight

As many of you already know, my latest novel, 100,000 Midnights was released in June by Musa Publishing. It's available as an e-book for Kindle or Nook or directly from the Musa site. I've had some very nice comments about the book, received a great review a few weeks ago, and I'm glad to report that people who have read it seem to have enjoyed it.

For those of you who haven't checked it out yet, I'm placing a short excerpt here today.

“You’re alone,” she said in a soft voice


She sat down without invitation, taking the opposite side of the booth. She smiled slightly as she sat. The waitress placed another glass of water on the table in front of my guest. She asked if I wanted more coffee, but my cup was still three quarters full and fairly warm.

I was startled by the situation I had found myself in, but knew I should speak.

“I’m Eric.”

“My name is Siobhan,” she said. The name was uncommon, but I had heard it before.

“Siobhan,” I repeated. “An old Irish name. It’s not heard much now, at least in the U.S.”

“Aye, ‘tis so,” she said with a smirk, faking an Irish accent. Perhaps she wasn’t faking it, but resurrecting it. No, that couldn’t be. She was certainly no older than me. How could she have had the time to grow an accent and then lose it for long enough for it to need to be resurrected?

“Are you from Ireland?” I asked.

“I was…once,” she said, “but I left there a very long time ago.”

“You speak older than you are…” I started to say, not sure if I was making sense.

“No,” she corrected me, “I’m older than I look. Much older.”

“How much older?”

“Before we get into that,” Siobhan said, smiling. “What is it that brought you here to this little place tonight, alone and so quiet here in this booth?”

“I come here when I want to feel the past,” I said.

“So,” Siobhan responded, her Irish accent put back in her pocket and her American one again at the forefront. “You like the past; you prefer it to the present year.”

I was amazed that she seemed to understand. She hadn’t tilted her head in a gesture to imply that I was weird, as most people would have done if I’d expressed myself like that.

“Do you think we’ve both found ourselves here coincidentally?” she asked.

“What else could it be?” I asked , unsure of where she was trying to lead me with her words.

She trembled a bit.

“Look to your left,” she said.

I did as she suggested, turning my head and glancing into the mirrors on the wall. I saw what I expected to see: my own face reflected back at me. The image seemed normal for about a second. Then it hit me. Siobhan’s face wasn’t there! Her hands weren’t there! I saw her clothing and it moved as if it was full of her body, but I could not see any of her! I turned back to her. She was there, looking just as she had looked before.

I reined in my shock and stared at her for a minute before I remembered how to speak. “What is this?” I said as clearly as I could. “A trick or a joke?”

Siobhan laid it all on the line. “It’s no trick, silly. I’m a vampire.”

If you've enjoyed the excerpt, if it makes you want to read more, the book can be purchased at the following links:

At the Musa site:   http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=11&products_id=307

At Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/100-000-Midnights-ebook/dp/B008DQTYN2/ref=sr_1_16?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1340452148&sr=1-16&keywords=aaron+smith

At Barnes & Noble:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/100000-midnights-aaron-smith/1111747841?ean=2940014724234&itm=1&usri=100%2c000+midnights

Those of you who have read the book, I hope you'll be happy to know that I recently finished the sequel.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

List and Let Die

Once again, we've come to the weekend of an event that's happened every few years for the past half-century and gets a lot of people very excited. It's time for the release of a new James Bond movie. I won't be seeing SKYFALL this weekend. I'll wait for the crowds to subside a little, but I'll see it soon. I hope it's better than the last one. QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a bland, murky mess, not at all what I want from a film about one of my favorite characters. But I'm glad to be able to say that QUANTUM was an exception to the rule. Almost all the other Bond movies are great fun to watch but they do, as with all long running series, vary widely in quality. With SKYFALL coming, various magazines and websites have been ranking the Bond movies from best to worst or worst to best, and I've yet to see a list that I agree completely with. So now it's my turn. I'm not going to tackle all 23 previous movies here. What I'm going to do instead is choose my 10 favorite Bond movies, starting with the best and going down the list. When you shake the mix (don't stir it!) these are the films that rise to the top:

001. GOLDFINGER (1964) Absolute perfection! This is Bond at his best. The series really hit its peak with this third movie. The series most colorful villain, Auric Goldfinger ("No, Mr Bond....I expect you to die!"), coolest henchman (Oddjob, with his razor-brimmed hat), best gadgetry (I want an ejector seat in my car), greatest theme song (Shirley Bassey can sing!). Every ingredient that made the Bond films so much fun is in top form in this one. The quality of the series has gone up and down many times in later years, but it may never get this good again.

002. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw absolutely shine as SPECTRE agents. The visual style of the film is stunning. Gypsy cat fights in Turkey, fights to the death on the Orient Express, our first partial glimpse of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the introduction of Desmond Llewellyn as Q. Nearly as perfect as GOLDFINGER, this one is a thrill from start to finish.

003. DR. NO (1962) What a way to start! From our first glimpse of Sean Connery as Bond, we know exactly what kind of a man he is. This film introduces all the elements of the formula that would keep this series going for a very long time. We not only meet James Bond, but Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny and Bernard Lee as M. Jack Lord is still my favorite actor to play Bond's CIA ally Felix Leiter. Joseph Wiseman does an excellent job playing our first Bond villian and Ursula Andress walking up onto that beach was the first in a long line of actresses who were as important to the films as whoever happened to be playing Bond each time.  

004. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969) How do you replace Sean Connery as Bond? You can't, not completely, for he defined the role. But George Lazenby, a man with little previous acting experience, did a damn good job filling 007's shoes. This is a magnificent movie from exciting start to tragic finish. The plot is one of the best, the locations picturesque, the supporting cast, including Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas all do an excellent job. One of the least mentioned Bond films (do most people even know who George Lazenby is?) is, in my opinion, one of the best. 

005. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) While Roger Moore played Bond seven times, only two of his movies make my top ten. It wasn't Moore's fault. He's a competent actor, but he was rarely given the chance to play the character Ian Fleming created. The series became more lighthearted in the 70s and gadgets and silliness became more frequent. But Moore's term of service as Bond had a few highlights and this is one of them. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME begins with one of the best opening sequences of the Bond franchise, a thrilling ski chase that ends not in a cliffhanger, but a cliff jumper, a literal skyfall! After that opening, we get Carly Simon's "Nobody Does it Better," which I think is one of the best Bond songs. The movie then proceeds to give us the breathtakingly beautiful Barbara Bach as Russian agent Triple X, Richard Kiel as Jaws, Curt Jurgens as the main villain Karl Stromberg, submarines, pyramids, and lot of action.

006. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) Timothy Dalton is my second favorite Bond actor. Only Connery was better. After the increasing silliness of the Moore era (and Moore getting far too old to play the part), having Dalton arrive and play a Bond who looked and acted as if he's just stepped out of the pages of Fleming's books was a breath of fresh air. He was perfect for the part and, being a big fan of the literary Bond, took the job very seriously. I really, really wish he had done more than just two movies. Of those two, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is the better of the two, following the formula of the others but renewing much of the seriousness that had been absent for most of the last decade. I also enjoyed Dalton's other appearance, in 1989's LICENSE TO KILL, but that one went a little too far in the direction of a standard revenge/action movie, making it a lesser Bond movie than THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS.

007. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) After the over-the-top space age silliness of MOONRAKER, the producers of the Bond series did a very smart thing. They stripped things down and got back to basics. This movie minimized the gadgetry and had Roger Moore playing a down to earth Bond in a very enjoyable film. It also has one of those little moments that makes me wonder how Moore would have fared if all his Bond movies had been of the more serious sort. In that ruthless instant, Bond gives a little kick to a car as it dangles over a cliff.  

008. THUNDERBALL (1965) While not quite as good as the first three films in the series, this fourth Bond movie is still classic Connery-era stuff and should not be overlooked. It has all the exotic locations, SPECTRE villainy, and beautiful women that made those early movies so good. It also features one of my favorite battles of the Bond films, a stunning underwater fight scene with spear guns and sharks!

009. CASINO ROYALE (2006) Daniel Craig's debut as Bond rebooted the franchise, showing us a Bond new to his Double-O status and trying to prove himself to M. I have very mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, it gave the serious, gritty intensity back to Bond after a decade of Pierce Brosnan's very Roger Moorish movies. CASINO is a well made film, full of action, darker and more exciting than the handful of episodes that came before it. But I do have a few complaints. I didn't think it was really neccesary to reboot the franchise. In Fleming's novel, Bond was already an older, experienced agent when the events of this story happened. That made certain elements of the plot more effective, showing a hardened Bond who's vulnerabilities are suddenly exposed, rather than the rookie fumbling his way through things that Craig portrayed here. But this is overall a very good movie and a good start for Daniel Craig as Bond. So far, Craig is one-for-two. QUANTUM OF SOLACE was terrible. Hopefully, SKYFALL will make up for it.

010. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983) At first glance, this movie has more flaws than good things. It's not part of the official Bond series, so there's no classic Bond theme song running throughout, no opening gun-barrel sequence, no familiar actors in the roles of M, Q, and Moneypenny, and the recycled plot is just a remake of THUNDERBALL. It shouldn't feel like a Bond movie without those elements in place...or should it? Looking at just those facts, one might expect this movie to stink, but something overrides all the weaknesses. Connery is back! Sean Connery's presence here, returning twelve years after his last appearance (in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) makes it well worth watching. Despite the same plot, character names, etc as in THUNDERBALL, it's different just enough to make it seem fresh. Connery shines in the part again, playing it with more energy and wit than in his last two appearances in the official series. Klaus Maria Brandauer and Max Von Sydow are superb villains. Bernie Casey is one of the my favorite Felix Leiters. It's a fun movie, and it was great to be able to see the best of the Bond actors come back one more time.

So those are my ten favorites. That being said, I want to mention that I don't really dislike any of the Bond movies (except the aforementioned QUANTUM OF SOLACE). There's something to enjoy in all of them, and they're all fun to watch in one way or another. Apologies to Pierce Brosnan for not including any of his Bond films on my list. They're entertaining, but none of them really stand out enough to make my top ten.

I look forward to hearing what others think of my list. If anyone wants to debate my choices, feel free.
In a week or so, I'll see if SKYFALL is good enough to knock anything off this list!   

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Origin-al Sins

When readers first met James Bond, in Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale, he was already an experienced agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. When a wider audience first met him, when the first Bond movie, Dr. No, was released in 1962, they saw him for the first time, played by Sean Connery, at a card table, winning his game and seducing a beautiful woman at the same time. Within the first few scenes, we are made to understand that this is a man who knows what he's doing, is very good at doing it, and has been there and done that. But we are not told exactly where it is that he's been and what it is that he's done. And we don't need to be told. We don't need every moment of his life spelled out for us. Where Fleming takes his stories next and where Connery's acting leads us shows us all we need to know and there's no need to flash back and watch 007 take his first fumbling baby-steps into secret agent-dome.

Fleming trusted his readers, respected them enough to know when enough information is enough, knew they were capable of filling in the blanks as little or as much as their imagination would allow them to. Luckily, the producers of Dr. No and the other early Bond films were smart enough to follow Fleming's lead and introduce Bond as an already seasoned agent and set him loose to save the world without bothering to explain to us exactly how he got what Liam Neeson's Brian Mills character would call his "very particular set of skills."
But then, more than forty years later, the James Bond franchise was rebooted and Casino Royale was finally adapted to film. By now, something had changed and the producers of the new films just couldn't resist the impulse to give us Baby Bond fumbling his way through his first mission as a Double-O agent trying to prove his worth to M. Overall, I thought Casino Royale was a good movie, but adding an origin to Bond's story was unnecessary and actually detracted from the appeal of the character, took away some of the aura of experience and ruthless confidence that made millions of readers and moviegoers over the last fifty years wish they were James Bond.

My point here is that sometimes less is more. Some, though not all, characters work better if they spring fully formed into words and images instead of us having to see exactly what events led to their being what they are when we first meet them. Something seems to have changed in recent years in movies, books, TV, and comics. There seems to be a plague of origins and backgrounds being added to characters and concepts that were once better for their lack of definite histories. It disturbs me that some of those in charge of the great properties in fiction no longer seem to be able to distinguish between which characters need everything to be spelled out and which are better when left mysterious to one degree or another.

I've been thinking of a few more examples.

When I was a kid and discovered the original Star Trek via reruns, I never bothered to question how Captain Kirk and his crew of Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and the rest wound up serving together aboard the Enterprise. It was self-explanatory.
These were military men and women, officers in Starfleet. Even as a child, having grandfathers who both served in our country's armed forces, I understood that assignments were handed out and those who served together on a base or a vessel often formed bonds of comradeship as they went through difficult experiences together. Kirk and company were thrown together by the powers-that-be at Starfleet and crew close as time went on until they had formed the deep loyalties and friendships that made them work so well together and often risk their lives for each other. I also did not need to know exactly how James T. Kirk had become captain of the Enterprise. It was obvious! He was commissioned as an officer, did his job very well, earned his promotions through his terms of service on various vessels, and rose through the ranks until given command of his own starship. There didn't have to be anything more to the story than that. I was more concerned with what happened to Kirk, Spock, and the others after they began their famous five-year mission than I was with how they had all come to be there in the first place. No explanations necessary!
But once again new hands took hold of the reins of a great fictional franchise and just had to go where no one was stupid enough to go before! The rebooted Star Trek movie, released in 2009, showed us a ridiculously plotted mess of a story in which one big giant crisis forces Kirk (who hasn't even graduated Starfleet academy at this point), Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekhov together and ends with them becoming the new crew of the Enterprise with Kirk apparently being promote straight up the line to captain without having to climb the ladder from ensign to lieutenant to commander and so forth.
Not only is this origin story far less realistic than the simple unspoken assumption that the seven main Trek characters served together because they were given that assignment by their superiors due to normal military protocol, it also undermines the heroism of Kirk's character. The original version of James T. Kirk, although young for a starship captain, had clearly risen through the ranks of Starfleet over the course of years, earning the right to be responsible, on a daily basis, for the lives of his four-hundred crewmen. What we get with the new Kirk is a young man, barely more than a boy out of school, being handed that responsibilty based on his performance in one emergency situation. Should he have received a medal for what he did? Probably. But a promotion to captain of the Enterprise with no intermediate experience? Absolutely not. I wouldn't want my life in the hands of a captain who gained his position like that.
So, the new Star Trek takes a great early career that was hinted at occasionally in the original series and wipes it away in favor of a ridiculous origin story that throws seven characters together by fate and puts them in positions they have not yet come close to earning. 
That entire film was insulting to my intelligence and to the legacy of the Star Trek that came before it.

Another character that fits into this discussion is the Marvel Comics hero Wolverine. Originally created to fight the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine was first shown as an operative of the Canadian government and then recruited into the X-Men when the second generation of that mutant team of heroes was created to revive their series. The great appeal of Wolverine in those early years of his existence, and one of the things that made him the most popular Marvel character to come out of the 1970s, was the mystery that surrounded him. Very little was revealed about his past for a very long time. During their brilliant run on Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne very skillfully dropped little hints about Wolverine's past. One example is this panel, from a late-70s issue of X-Men.
The reader is left with a big question. How did Wolverine come to know how to read Japanese? This could have launched a whole new story that explained exactly how this had happened, why he knew the language, and related his adventures in Japan in some previous time period. But Claremont and Byrne had the sense to know that planting a seed of mystery in a reader's mind can be a thousand times more effective than coming out and hitting them over the head with a fully detailed story. And there were other hints too. At a later point in the series, Wolverine revealed that his name was Logan. But was that his first name or his last name? Was it even his real name, or just another alias he had gone by at some point in his shadowy past? That also would not be made clear at any point in the near future. Wolverine was a fascinating character because of what we didn't know.
Of course, it couldn't last forever. The classic Claremont and Byrne era of X-Men ended and Wolverine has been in the hands of many writers since. Eventually, Marvel caved and forgot one of the best pieces of advice their legendary founder Stan Lee ever gave. "Never give the readers what they THINK they want."
But they did. Marvel went ahead and did a whole storyline about the past and the origins of Wolverine, sweeping away all the mystery and revealing events that pale in comparison to the ideas many readers formed in their imaginations when things were only subtly hinted at.
I, for one, no longer find the character nearly as appealing as I once did.  

There we have three fictional characters or concepts I've enjoyed for most of my life, who never, in my opinion, needed their pasts specifically spelled out, and who have now been made less appealing by the revelation of their origins. I find it disturbing that those responsible for delivering old characters to new audiences can't seem to recognize the appeal of leaving a little mystery there for us to relish. In a way, I find it insulting to my intelligence. I don't need or want everything explained to me! It takes away the relationship between the story and the part of the reader's imagination that fills in the blanks that, when skillfully left in by the writer, make the story stronger. I don't want to know the exact details of John Watson's war experiences before he returned to England and met Sherlock Holmes. I don't want to know everything Han Solo did before meeting Luke and Ben in the cantina. 

In my own writing, I always try to be careful how much I reveal about each character I create. Sometimes, we need to know everything. When I created my pulp heroine, the Red Veil, it was essential that the reader understand her childhood because it added a level of toughness to her personality that would later resurface when she faced tragic events as an adult and decided to act rather than sit and mourn as society of the time would have expected her to.
On the other hand, when writing about my character Hound-Dog Harker, I carefully chose which periods of his life would be detailed in my stories. His early childhood is prominently mentioned since he is the son of two characters from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. But the primary focus of the stories is his later life, in the 1930s, when he works as an agent of the British government (he faces situations that are somewhat stranger than anything James Bond ever got himself into!). In those 30s stories, Harker is already a veteran agent and knows, more or less, depending on the weirdness of the case, what he's doing. I've also revealed that Harker fought in the First World War and I even stuck a cameo appearance by him into another story that takes place in that war, but I have no plans to do any stories detailing his war experiences. The fact that he was there, acted heroically enough to earn his nickname of Hound-Dog, and survived it, is enough. I'd rather concern myself with writing tales of what he does when he's the fully-functional operative he is in his prime.   

In my vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights, I left the background of one of the supporting characters, Phillip, vague and did not plan to tell the tale of how he became a vampire. In writing the sequel, which I'm almost done with now, I changed my mind and did reveal quite a lot about Phillip's past. Sometimes, changing one's mind about something like that is all right (especially if the original writer is the one doing it).
But when a character's aura of mystery (as in the case of Wolverine) is what actually helps to make him wildly popular, or when a concept has worked very, very well for decades (Star Trek and James Bond) without everything being revealed, maybe those writers currently entrusted with such characters need to think very hard about whether it's wise to rip away the old curtain and show us what's behind it. There is such a thing as knowing too much, and it can often do more harm than good.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

You can always Count on him!

I've always been fascinated by monsters. That much should be obvious, since I'm a writer of horror (among other genres). Today's post is about two monsters that played very important roles in the past seven days of my life. One of these monsters was real, and the other is fictional but very, very famous. The real one attacked millions of people, to different degrees in the past week. Her name was Hurricane Sandy. The other monster is...Dracula! This is the story of how the two of them met in a crossover in which I was the primary supporting character.

This post had to be at least partially concerned with Hurricane Sandy. After all, she defined the events in the lives of everyone I know here on the east coast. I was one of the luckier ones, being temporarily inconvenienced but suffering no injuries, losing no property.

Sandy struck last Monday and hit the area hard. I left work at seven in the evening, drove home when the storm was getting bad. The ride home was dangerous. The highway was a blanket of fallen branches, leaves everywhere, darkness as the power failures began. At one point, I made a turn on the road and found a large fallen tree blocking two-thirds of the highway. Luckily, I was able to get far enough to the left that I only had to smash through the top, thinner branches. I kept going, did no damage to my car. I made it home safely, but the power was already out and would remain out for the next five days, finally coming back at two on Saturday afternoon.  

So I got home Monday night and the wind was howling fiercely and the rain was coming down and the house was dark except for the flames of the candles. It had not yet grown cold inside since the heat hadn't had time to dissipate. What does one do on a night like that? Candlelight and books make perfect partners. In a situation like that, especially just before Halloween, the obvious choice was to visit an old favorite, so there I sat with Bram Stoker's Dracula.

I had read it many times before. The old count and I go way back. It's on the short list of candidates for my favorite book of all. I've seen many, many of the movies based on the character (although few come anywhere close to adapting the events that actually occur in the novel!). One of my favorite comic book series is Marvel's Tomb of Dracula, which ran in the 70s and was written mostly by Marv Wolfman and drawn by the amazing Gene Colan. I've even used Dracula and some of his supporting cast in my writing from time to time. And, of course, I'm the author of my own vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights. 

Before even sitting down with the book, I couldn't resist gesturing toward the window as the wind moaned and shrieked outside, and reciting one of the most famous lines from Dracula, "Listen to them, the children of the night! What music they make!"

If I had to choose a favorite villain from all of literature and/or film, Dracula would be the one, but my familiarity with the character can also make him a comforting presence, like visiting an old friend, and that's what a rereading of that wonderfully eerie book did as the brunt of the storm hit the region.  

We were without power for most of a week. That was uncomfortable at times. It's funny how your wish list gets smaller and more basic with each day. At first, I wanted all the conveniences back. That second day, I just wanted my computer on so I could write. By day three, just having any kind of TV or movie-watching apparatus would have been a gift. And by the end of the powerless stretch, five minutes of hot water would have been something no word short of "heavenly" could describe! Even "orgasmic" might not be much of an exaggeration. But I made it through, and I feel terrible for those who suffered real damage in the storm or who are still without power and heat as I write this.

The world around here has been quite surreal lately. The patches of darkness where power is still a dream, the highways emptier than usual and those who are out and about waiting in long lines for gasoline. We're just missing the zombies.

But, back to Dracula. He was there when the week began and he showed up again at its end. Saturday, the power came back, but not the internet. So I had no Netflix and there is very rarely anything on regular TV worth watching. I had to look through my DVDs to find  a movie to watch as I finally relaxed and got the week-long chill out of my body and mind. I found the 1931 adaptation of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, probably the most famous movie version of the vampire legend. Since Sandy had fouled up Halloween, I hadn't had the chance to watch anything for that night, so I thought Dracula would partially make up for it. But, truthfully, I wasn't sure if I'd make it through the whole film. I've just seen it so many time that it was almost too familiar, had lost any bite it may have once had. I feared I'd get bored or doze off. Then something amazing happened.

Normally, I'm against later additions to classic films. I dislike the updating of special effects and adding things that feel incongruous with the flow of the original versions of movies (yes, George Lucas, I'm looking at you!). But, as I sat there looking at the DVD case for Dracula (I own the version called Dracula: The Legacy Collection), I noticed an option to view the film with a newer musical score, composed by Philip Glass for the 1999 DVD release of the movie. I decided to take a chance, knowing I could just switch to the regular soundtrack if I changed my mind.
Wow! The different music added a fresh, eerie creepiness to an old favorite that made it feel like an entirely new movie. I'll still always love the film with its original score, but this was an amazing experience, chilling and dark. I guess this makes up for the storm preventing me from watching anything on Halloween. Anybody who loves old horror movies should check out the version with the Glass score. It made a film that had become familiar cinematic comfort food into something scary again. 
Soon after watching Dracula, my internet came back and all the modern conveniences I'm used to having were restored. That meant it was time to get back to work writing and editing. What am I working on right now? The sequel to 100,000 Midnights. From one vampire story to the next!
So that was my week. The hurricane put a lot of things on hold, and the most feared monster in fiction made the wait for normalcy quite a bit more bearable. Sometimes it's good to have the Undead on your side!