Review: After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

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I’ve been meaning to read Jones for a while now and I’m glad I finally did. Short stories collections are a great way to dip your toes into an author’s pool and see if you like the water and, to belabor the metaphor, I found myself splashing about and doing cannonballs pretty much instantly with this collection.

Jones delivers fifteen weird horror stories that stick to your skull like a peanut butter pop song. The hooks are big, irresistible and obvious but only after the fact. Not that I’d call this bubblegum horror, each story despite the supernatural and bizarre trappings, revolves around real human emotion and the private fears and joys that make people what they are.

And according to Jones here, sometimes what people really are is monstrous.

Not that there is a hard lined nihilist edge running through this work, more like what makes us great as a species; our limitless imagination, is also why we’re so often doomed to tragedy. Basically, the shit we come up with. As a species and as individuals. Many of the characters in this collection can’t help themselves. They pick at scabs, they poke at sleeping dogs, and they obsess about things which are beyond their control. Because the realization that they have no control is the scariest conclusion of all.

One of my favorite yarns in here is called “The Spider Box” and it’s all about losing something important and finding something else that you think can give you back what you lost. Only it’s wild and you only got it to work once on accident but you know, just know, that if you can figure it out you can get back everything you’ve lost. Even what this new obsession has stolen from you…

Little vague for you? Well, I don’t want to spoil the fun. And there is fun throughout this book. Morbid humor, plain silliness, clever turns of phrases, all there to relieve you from the shadows and maybe to let you enjoy how big and spooky the echo of your laughter sounds bouncing back off the walls of the abyss.

A lot of the ideas infecting these stories are something like that last, unexpected, uninvited and unsettling thought that grips you just as you’ve gotten cozy in your bed, fluffed your pillow to the preferred position and prepared to drift off to a comfortable sleep. Those eerie, taffy stretched thoughts when you’re too tired to rationalize them away. This is book is full of them, only you have a writer like Stephen Graham Jones to articulate them into steely sharp focus. It’s like having him transcribe your nightmare back to you only he’s punched up the dialogue and fixed all those nagging plot holes.

What I really enjoyed here was watching Jones masterfully know when to give us explanations and when to leave it weird. Sometimes when authors are fashioning surreal or dreamlike stories they can rely too heavily on, it doesn’t have to make sense because it’s all so fucking crazy. Sometimes that’s great, but often it just seems like, again, someone telling you their really whackadoo dream which is cool I suppose but not a compelling story. In this collection there is plenty of mystery and unnatural events but none of them seem like they’re at all carelessly presented. When the scene calls for high weirdness, Jones delivers.  Likewise, when it calls for an inkling of a reason behind the madness or even a full on explanation Jones comes through again.  “Doc’s Story”a gutpunch in the middle of the book and another favorite of mine – tells you right from the first sentence that it’s about werewolves. And half the charm of it is it explains various part of werewolf lore in really inventive and convincing ways.

I’m also a sucker for working class horror because it’s just easier for me to relate to. Many of the characters here either didn’t go to college or didn’t get far after and I enjoy seeing their stories handled in varied, nuanced ways. Well-written fiction, what people think of as literary- more often than not centers on people who can afford to go on vacations to other countries to take their minds off of their existential woes. Which is great, do it if you can, read about if you like it (sometimes I do too) but I also like seeing stories about people who work in warehouses or at Circle K’s who are living paycheck to paycheck while also worrying about life itself and their place in it.

Which comes back to the notion of control and what After the People Lights Have Gone Off seems to obsess about itself. Take my favorite story here, “The Black Sleeve of Destiny,” it’s about a teenage kid working a shit job who gets a black hoodie at a thrift store. I know, already scary right, but it’s no ordinary hoodie, one of the sleeves is longer than the other. Complete terror, how I did muster the courage to finish it? It’s as if the story started out a refugee from Goosebumps, then it graduated to Fear Street and now it’s a resident of Pissed Myself with Abject Horror-Ville. But, trust me, stories aren’t just the setups, they’re the follow-throughs. See, the sleeve grants the main character a little bit of power – something crazy you’d never think of so stop trying to guess – but of course with these types of stories it’s power but at a price. But this main character, he can see where this is headed, can tell he’s out of his league, that he actually has no real control, but he likes the feeling of power the sleeve grants him. The illusion of control is that comforting even when it’s a known quantity. Maybe that’s the “Destiny” in the title? If we know we can’t have control is the best runner up the agreed upon lie that we do?

The title of the book, after all is After the People Light Have Gone Off.  A lyrical, brilliantly childlike or even inhuman sort of title; and above all,  a title which hints at the apocalyptic. A post human world to be inherited by things that need no illusion of control.

You can purchase the book here.

 

 

 

What is Lumen? Fake Video Game Manuals and The Dorks Who Love Them

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What if it was always night?

What if the sun never came up again? How could the world continue without sunlight? Life needs it to survive but what if there was an alternative?

More importantly: How could I make Green Lantern actually cool? Because Green Lantern sucks.

Not sorry.

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I’ve never liked the guy or his mythos. And out of all these questions that’s the one that really started all this.

Lumen began as a creative challenge to myself, if I was given the job of retooling Green Lantern and making that character interesting to me how would I do it? What would I keep, what would I throw out?

Turns out I’d throw out everything but the lantern.

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Because a hero or an explorer with a lantern, for me, that works. That’s primal. Hell, that’s the tarot.

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But before this story and its hero started coming together in my mind there was one other idea that I’ve had percolating for a long time: I’ve always thought that illustrated video game instructional manuals were an undervalued art form.

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I remember being a kid and pawing through my cousin Ben’s Zelda manual and be totally taken in by the artwork and storytelling therein. I was 7 or 8 and had never heard of The Hobbit so to me Zelda was my first big introduction to fantasy storytelling; at least beyond the Greek Myths I’d read and heard about in school. The format of the manual stuck to me. I have a love for it like I love my album artwork and liner notes for my favorite albums. And as a kid some of the first stories I’d create were video games in my mind. I’d draw out the levels and the characters and keep all the pictures together in big stacks. Those were my manuals.

Well, I got a little better at drawing since then and I have written a couple novels, so maybe it was time to try creating another make believe video game?

Which brings me to Lumen. This project is still far out but I’m really excited to start the conversation about it. I don’t wanna reveal too much of the story as I think it’s better to learn that from the manual itself but here’s the basics:

Lumen is the story of Esteban Vela. A young man living in a world of perpetual and unnatural darkness. The world has been this way for a millennium, the sun is now a myth. All after a falling star called “The Burning Beast” collided with the planet, destroying the empires of man and changing the atmosphere with a mysterious new layer known as “The Shroud.” The Shroud is what keeps the world permanently in the dark. But in addition to throwing the world into shadows the  Burning Beast also provided the new source of light and life for those lost in the dark. Lumen, a sort of land algae that emits a powerful glow begins to grow from the deeply imbedded core of the Burning Beast and into the rest of the world. This “Heart of Lumen” becomes the source of all light and life in the Shroud covered world which comes to be known as the “Nocterra.” Lumen is a living, harvestable substance with many uses and many of its characteristics and workings still not fully understood. Under its new light the world changes, new things grow. Some of them dangerous to the remaining humans…

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Under The Shroud with the light of Lumen evolution becomes rapid and humanity finds itself rivals with new races better suited to live in the Nocterra. Anglermen, feral and carnivorous beasts who use the spindly glowing lures growing from their backs to entice foolish humans hunting for Lumen in the wild,  wait in the shadows. And while they are fearsome the anglers are only the most well known of the dangers as so much of the Nocterra remains unexplored by what remains of humanity.

And what remains has changed… To better survive the Nocterra people have evolved to possess night eyes which shine in the night like the eyes of other nocturnal mammals.

Civilization has changed as well, survival has become key and most of the human world lives under the protection of the Nocterra Kingdom and its Lumen lit walls. But there are others who live outside the safety of castle walls. Hermits and madmen, ravagers and rebels. And of course the poor. Esteban Vela is sixteen years old and living outside the wall of the castle when he hears whispers that the Lumen is dying. Everywhere the glow is leaving. Panic hits and humanity rushes out into the dark to gather all the Lumen they can carry while it still lasts and the anglers lick their lips and wait to devour them all.

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One night Esteban sees a falling star, a small burning star of Lumen and he runs after it. Whether to use it for himself, to keep him alive in his cave or maybe to barter with to get him access inside the kingdom walls? He doesn’t have much time to think, he simply runs after the star. And when he finds it he also finds a strange suit of armor and a lantern. And that’s when the game begins…

Lumen is going to be illustrated instructional manual for an 8-Bit video game on the Alucinari Game System released in 1987. It’s going to be full color, have tons of awesome character designs, action scenes, item catalogs, maps, lists of bosses, allies, levels, dungeons (calling ‘em calabozos in this game) and tons of other stuff. They’ll be tons of crazy weird art and two stories: The first, the story of Lumen that unfolds as you play the game. The second, the story of Lumen the game and its console The Alucinari Game System and its sordid, controversial and possibly occult history.

That’s the idea at least.

Here’s some more rough sketches and idea fuel:

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Here’s some inspiration behind Esteban’s armor:

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Oh, and:

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And back to some more weird stuff of mine:

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better-5

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Happy Halloween (Inktober 2016)

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The season is upon us. I’ve been keeping busy during Inktober  and a lot of the art I’ve been producing has been horror themed, mostly by accident, I’m just a spooky dude like that. A lot of the rest has been working out ideas for my upcoming project Lumen. Here’s some of the ink drawings I’ve been doing. Most of the stuff has been on a much smaller scale but this Godzilla up first is appropriately gigantic. (Less gigantic, me in my underwear…damn, self-burn.)

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Here’s some of concept art for Lumen, the dude with the triangle head mask is Esteban Vela, our hero. Those angler men from up above also belong to this project.

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5 Reasons Why, Despite Painstaking 80s Nostalgia, Stranger Things Isn’t a Great Show

 

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Let me begin by stating that I was once like you: After watching the first episode of the Netflix original series Stranger Things I was reduced to a deeply smitten 10-year-old who had just landed their first kiss. Honestly after just watching the Stephen King paperback style title sequence I was already writing Stranger Things’ name all over my trapper keeper and practicing introducing myself to people as Mrs. Stranger Things. How could I not fall for this show? It was an homage to everything I ever loved growing up. But, turns out, that’s all it was.

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Simply Recreating What Inspires You Isn’t Actually All That Inspiring

At first it was really fun catching all the overt and subtle references to various 80s movies and books sprinkled throughout Stranger Things. But like that cool guy who you meet at a party that knows all the same film quotes as you…that shit gets old quick. Because after the fifth Big Lebowski quote in a row it hits you: That’s what he does. “That’s all that he does!” Christ, now you’re doing it too. He just keeps quoting movies and when you call him on it he responds with, “Well, that’s just like your opinion, man?”

So initially when the telekinetic Carrie/ Firestarter cocktail named Eleven wandered into frame I couldn’t have been happier. Ditto for her predilection toward Eggo waffles, a nod to another of her progenitors, E.T., an alcoholic from outer space who took to Reese’s Pieces and Coors Beer and once got a ten-year-old psychically drunk.

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But pretty quickly this whole Chris Farley Show-esque “Remember when E.T. made those bikes levitate…that was AWESOME” shtick became tedious. Yes, I loved Nightmare on Elm Street, It, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand By Me and Altered States too but is constantly recreating various elements from these works all you’ve got going for your story?

Not Having Anything New To Say About What Came Before Just Reminds Me How Much Better Before Was

Even if you’re the world’s best imitation artist you’re still just going to be the world’s second best actual artist. Get me? Yes, the show’s creators the Duffer Brothers have a fine eye for the trappings of niche genre and for cinematic minutia. But they never really put their own spin on any of this raw material or reshape it into something that feels fresh or exciting. Yes, remixing old and disparate elements when done well can result in compelling and groundbreaking work; take what Tarantino does routinely or what most of hip hop is built on for positive examples. But there’s a huge difference between the inspired sampling of say The Bomb Squad or Dr. Dre and the unimaginative, just add a new drum machine behind it sampling of Puff Daddy. Stranger Things just regurgitates old tried and true Stephen King and Spielberg stuff and guess what, nobody can do old Stephen King and Spielberg stuff better than them and they already did it.

All the Stories that Stranger Things Emulates Are about Something, Stranger Things is just about those Movies and Books

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Monsters, like the heroes they fight with, work best when they stand for something. Pennywise the clown sticks with us because he represents fear itself as well as fear of self; the change and uncertainty of adolescence. Likewise, the xenomorph from Alien will forever haunt us not just because of its pez dispenser from hell double mouth; but because it’s a rape metaphor tucked inside male fragility and pregnancy themed body horror. (Geez, Giger and the gang really covered a lot of ground didn’t they?) But the Demogorgon from Stranger Things what does it represent? Nothing, just a halfway cool looking design reject from Silent Hill or the crowd shot of a monster bar in a Del Toro film.

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And it’s not just the monsters, E.T. according to Spielberg was actually about his own parents divorce.

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Ditto for the crumbling family at the center of his companion piece Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Absent fathers and struggling, burnt out mothers are the hearts of many of these stories. We get tips of the hat to several of these notions in Stranger Things, we do, but they feel like only surface skims. The friendship expressed by the D and D playing foursome and their inclusion of Elle pale in comparison to the camaraderie and frankly the chemistry of the kids in The Goonies or Stand By Me.

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It looks like the Duffers tried to emulate their heroes in a lot of ways but the results prove that they merely understand the bare bones of why these characters from old horror and science fiction still resonant or what motivates any of these characters. The one exception interestingly being Sheriff Hopper, a character who feels the least like a call back or composite of characters from other stories. Oh, and Douchebag Steve. Gotta admit, I kinda love Douchebag Stevie. He’s the anti-Ducky, the reverse Troy with the bucket from Goonies. His arc was one real effort of the Duffers to consciously buck genre trends and give us a curveball and instead of coming off contrived this change made the character seem much more real. Team Douchebag Steve all the way.

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80s Movies Commented on 80s Concerns, does our Obsession with Nostalgia Comment on our Times?

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The real monsters of Stephen and Steven’s mythic suburbia were allegorical. Whether it was fear of nuclear war, fear of small towns dying out or fear of the disintegration of the American family, these were stories of their times. Stranger Things is a period piece but it forgets that all period pieces can’t help but comment on the times in which they were actually made. Because they are, no matter how much they fight it by adding film grain to their digital shots, just that: stories of their times.

So why not embrace that a bit and use the past to comment on the present as well as the times you’re depicting? Unfortunately Stranger Things doesn’t really do either and inadvertently gives us a telling lesson on the nostalgia addicted times we’re currently living through:

We long for the past imagined, like we always have. Not the actual past, mind you, but our idea of the past. Currently we long for that simpler, pre-internet time where we believe that while we were less widely connected as a whole we were also much closer connected to one another. Friendships carried more weight and you didn’t have to wear dorky helmets when you rode your bike.

But the Duffers didn’t intend for any of this insight about our current times, there are no real references or metaphors to the intrusiveness of constant artificial connection. If their concept of upside down is meant to be one then it’s handled sloppily. Because there are no apparent juxtapositions in the show between how the world we imagined 1980 was against how it really was. And if the characters have already failed to be more than cardboard simulacrums of our favorites from the past then even if this subtle message was encoded in the 8 episodes of this show would we even care enough to sift through it to find it?

Failure to Engage the Intended Audience

Not everything is meant for me. Thank god. But I’m reasonably certain that when the Duffer Brothers created Stranger Things the core audience they were looking to attract with it might look a helluva lot like me. I’m a 34 year old white American guy who cut his geek teeth mainlining Stephen King books and Spielberg and John Carpenter movies. It’s a safe venture that I’m the target audience here. Because, not for anything else, Stranger Things, like a lot of art was made by its creators primarily for themselves and subsequently for people like them. People who came up in the 80s when this sort of storytelling was commonplace and whose lives, upbringing and fantasies were reflected in the middle class humdrum settings depicted therein.

80s movies and books featuring posses of misfit kids mounting their bicycles in a quest to destroy certain evil or maybe just help out a lovable Coors pounding, otherworldly good ol’ boy with glowing Twix candy bars for fingers; that is my shit. It’s a formula I can fall for every time. Even the knockoff stuff. Sure, there were some Mac and Mes, some Prehysterias in there that I’d waste some time on but there were also gleaming weird gems like Monster Squad (Goonies 2: Wolfnards) and Watchers (A Dean Koontz penned, Corey Haim arthouse movie about a dog with a telepathic link to a murder yeti.) And both these knockoffs were better than this show.

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I’m fully aware that right now Stranger Things is enjoying great success. That’s great, a lot of work was put into it. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be curious if Season 2 of the show might not improve on the problems with this season and at least have the creators forge ahead with more of their own voice and personality in the final product. But I don’t know if they will from what I’ve seen with this existing season. And if season 2 is more of the same I have the feeling that more will come around to my view of the show as an impressive but ultimately hollow imitation of better stories from the 80s. All that being said I will however watch the shit out of a spin-off revolving around the further adventures of Douchebag Steve and Winona Ryder in her adorably tiny hazmat suit as they contend with the issues which confront young douchebags and single moms alike.

Basically the show will be about teen pregnancy.

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Unearthed Idols of Pop Culture

I’m working on a series of these, big giant statues of characters and people whose work I enjoy being excavated and repelled down by little figures with ropes and tools. You have to look closely to see them but they’re there crawling around like little doozers on the massive statues.

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Here are the drawings without digital color:

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This idea started with me doing the next image, which is just a character of my own creation. I liked the idea of it and thought I could do various already established characters in the same way.

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I’ll Be Reading at Noir at the Bar This Sunday

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Pleased as punch to be invited back to do another Noir at the Bar, apparently those folks didn’t learn their lesson the first time around. This time we’re going to do our readings at Osaka Japanese Sushi & Steak House this Sunday from 7pm-9pm. I’ll be doing a reading of a new short story (or possibly an excerpt from my one of my upcoming books) and I’ll be in damn fine company; check out this lineup of literary dynamos I’ll be reading with:

Joe Clifford

Bracken MacLeod

Kim Savage

Mr. Rory Flynn (Stona Fitch)

Stephanie Gayle

David Baillie

Books, booze, bullshit; Noir at the Bar has it all. All the authors will have books on hand to sell, the good people at Brookline Booksmith will be there to assist with those sales and there’ll be prizes and whatnot administered to the people in attendance as we see fit. I’ll put up some artwork prints as prizes (yes!)

Come down and get yourself a signed copy of one of our books and or just hang out and listen to some of the best crime/mystery writers in New England as they drop science on a sushi joint.