Give the author his Due

Horns Review Part 1 : Nearly Spoiler-Free

When it comes to the art of crafting fine stories, let’s give Joe Hill his due.

With the debut of his second full-length novel, Mr. Hill has established himself as a master of dark fantasy & horror, defying the sophomore slump with a devilish grin. And that’s not blowing smoke out your nose.

The narrative settles around Ignatius (Ig) Martin Perrish, an upright man coping with the rape & murder of his lifetime love, Merrin Williams. The death of his loved one would be hard enough, but the pain is made unspeakable when everyone – his own family included – believes he is the culprit. After a fit of blasphemous, drunken rage, Ig awakens to find himself the owner of a peculiar new headpiece: a pair of horns that “gift” him the power to see into the darkest memories of anyone he touches; and when others see the horns, they are overcome with a desperate need to confess their darkest desires.

Horns is not the emotional trapped-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-deathride that characterized the pace of Heart-Shaped Box. Mr. Hill has chosen instead to allow his narrative to develop at a slower pace, weaving the story through the memories of  Ig, and those whom the power of the horns allows him access.

We are taken on a journey that scales the heights of first love, and descends into the lowest levels of human depravity. This is not a novel for the easily offended; not a novel for those averse to deep philosophical (and demonstrative) questioning into the nature of good & evil; and certainly not a novel for those whose definition of dark fantasy is Twilight with the lights out.

Horns is a novel for fans who loved the themes of Voluntary Committal & Gunpowder, but found themselves wishing that he had explored those themes in greater detail. For those readers just beginning your Wonderland dive into the mind of Joe Hill, I would recommend 20th Century Ghosts & Gunpowder as excellent places to start, with the huge caveat that 20thCG’s opening story, Best New Horror, is no joke – it is one of the most frightening shit-in-your-pants tales you will ever find in print.

For those interested in a more thorough analysis of the story, including how it relates to my understanding of good & evil, stay tuned for my Horns Review Part Two: Curse God & Die.


The Descent: A Book & Film Review

The Descent is a title worthy enough to be used twice – once in the book written by Jeff Long (1999), and again in the film directed by Neil Marshall (2005). My first instinct was to conclude that the book came first, followed by the movie, but they are distinctly different beasts, and the director of the movie insists it was not based upon Mr. Long’s adventure novel. In this review, which I shall break into two parts, I will demonstrate this undeniable reality, and hopefully get you to spend 2 hours of your life, instead of the weeks it takes to plumb the novel.


The Descent: The Film

**Spoiler Alert**

Directed by Neil Marshall, with an all-woman cast, this British-born hellfest is an action-driven gore-athon. The story is set in the underbelly of the Appalachian mountains, where the ladies have decided to retreat for their annual life-revitalizing adrenaline-adventure. Their mascot, Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), has decided to take them spelunking into the depths, where chaos promptly ensues.

The film has a strange beginning. Apparently, the director was a bit uncertain how to create necessary characterization before plunging his thinly drawn cast into the abyss, but as they descend into hell, the breadth of the cast is quickly overshadowed by the film’s riveting suspense. As they descend deeper from the world, the distance between them grows, until the slow erosion collapses any supposed closeness between them. Trivial (and some not so trivial) matters begin to gnaw and eat away at their friendships, and the deeper the descent, the more estranged they become, until the question must be asked whether the monsters met them, or were brought by them.

The film has been called “claustrophobic,” and for those viewers uncomfortable with tight spaces, it is surprising how enclosed it can feel, even when viewed on a 14″ computer monitor. The director’s use of lighting, terrain, and camera angles recall such classic thrillers as Aliens, Jaws, and Psycho.

The cast does a passable job, buoyed especially by the better performances of Shauna MacDonald (Sarah) and Natalie Jackson Mendoza (Juno). The tension between these two unleashes slowly, enjoyably, even as a separate hell unfolds around them.

Although I’m not supposed to say it, I must say it: the ending is disappointing. It takes a bit to get into the film (again, the director’s strange setup), but once you are in, you are hooked, and you expect much more for your time than what is offered; HOWEVER, there is a little secret I discovered – the British version of the film is a few seconds longer, and those few seconds make a world of difference. If you can manage to obtain a UK version of the film, do so, if not, just be prepared.


The Descent: The Book

**Spoiler Alert**

When I was 10, Nintendo released Castevania II: Simon’s Quest for the original NES. This was supposed to be the epitome of vampire-slaying gameplay, and I coerced my parents nonstop to buy me a copy. After a few months of persistent nagging, they finally caved (or bought it as a b-day present, I can’t remember); I still remember those first hours: “What a horrible night to have a curse.” (oh no!) Flame whip? (sweet!). But the initial joy faded quickly, as I realized this impressive looking game was filled with serious issues.

And believe me when I tell you, The Descent, written by Jeff Long, is filled with serious issues.

But first, I completely agree with the book’s cover praise, hailing it as “An Imaginative Tour De Force.” It is an imaginative tour de force, but it is certainly not a literary tour de force. Jeff Long has very good ideas, very poorly put together.

The first of these ideas was trying to make an excellent horror-adventure story into something else. In an online interview, he cites such classic stories as Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Virgil’s Aeneid as influences for his work. Because of these influences, I think he was wanting to write an epic adventure with religious depth, cultural insight, historical nuance, scientific fact, apocalyptic undertones, romantic inklings, and detective discoveries. And this is precisely the problem – wanting too much. One critic described Jeff Long’s writing style as, “an immense bulletin board.” It leaves you wishing he hadn’t descended quite so deeply into the side tunnels of his own world.

It had many good things going for it: characters I cared about, a well-developed fictional world, an interesting premise, and a gripping narrative. But a problem developed during the first few chapters: he kept introducing characters. And each new chapter felt like a different book (even written in a different genre!), until it became a chore to keep up with the scene changes, and trying to understand how each obtuse character fit within the overall scheme.

After just a few chapters, the book shattered into several vaguely related stories:

The adventure story – Helios corporation employs a group of scientists and military personnel to explore the farthest depths of the sub-planet…

The apocalyptic story – An end of the world in 2 chapters…

The detective story – A frustrating diversion back to the surface, catching up on the Beowulf Society’s failed attempts to locate Satan…

The religious allegory – An interesting (though underdeveloped) interplay between faith and science, faith and superstition, and faith and literature…

The romance story – The torturously slow relationship that develops between Ike and Ali…

The horror story – Any encounter with the hadals (this is really where the story should have stayed)

And the science fiction story (though I’m told that Mr. Long was adamant that his story was not science fiction) – The exploitation of the sub-planet by The Helios Corporation; the use of futuristic technology such as “Lucifer Rounds“; as well as an artificially created super-toxin called “Prion-9” (How is this not science fiction?)

Trying to be so much, it failed to be much of anything.

In the words of another critic, “an epic novel can be a true adventure to read, but a novel that thinks it’s an epic can be laborious.

And then there is the ending..

This time, I don’t feel guilty spoiling it. In fact, I will go one step further.

By re-writing it.

Rather than the anti-climatic, “he circled her in his arms,” I have decided to develop the Branch-Satan-Ike element to its logical conclusion:

*WARNING* Spoiler Alert! (while reading this re-write, you may learn secrets about the story; on the other hand, this may be your last chance to avoid reading the book entirely..)

The Satan-possessed-Branch follows Ike and Ali out of the abyss, hellbent on revenge for the destruction of his people. He catches up with them before they break the surface. A terrible showdown occurs. Ike is forced to make a wrenching decision: does he fight against his former mentor and friend? or risk the woman he loves? A terrible battle ensues. Ike wrestles Branch-Satan to a precipice, Ali attempts to intervene, but Ike yells for her to get away, and then Branch-Satan pushes Ike off the edge; at the last moment, Ike grabs his enemy by the horn (yes, Branch-Satan would have horns), and pulls him over the edge. Ali rushes forward…only to find them impaled together on a stalagmite far below. She lingers next to the precipice for days, unable to admit Ike’s death; but the lure of sunlight from the surface calls for her to continue, and she hears Ike’s memory silently pressing her upward. As she emerges from the depths, she discovers that months of living underground has transfigured her into the same physically deformed person as Ike. And she is left to ponder this new world, without her lover, which causes her to question her faith in God. In a powerfully metaphorical (and climatic) way, she is left deciding between returning to the depths (Satan’s victory) or continuing on into the light (God’s victory). And the story ends.


Now all I have to do is forget Jeff Long’s ending and pretend like half the book never existed. On the other hand, if you are capable of suspending astronomic portions of belief (borderline schizophrenic levels), you may want to give the book a-go, and find out for yourself if it’s half as bad as I say.

Or, you could climb into a hole somewhere and imagine an equally interesting premise.


For those of you NES players that grew up traumatized trying to figure out how to make that damned tornado appear in Castevania II, check out Angry Nintendo Nerd’s review (the first time I saw this, I experienced a sensation akin to exorcism).


Believe it or not, the zombie on the left is my pastor, James Harleman. 

This picture was taken at the San Diego Comicon.

Admit it. 

You wish your pastor was so cool!

I am overjoyed that my pastors (James AND his wife Kat) enjoy zombie movies, horror, anime, and other great films. 

In fact, they enjoy it so much that the name of their 9th wedding anniversary party is,

Harleween 2008 – The Walking Dead

and they have invited me to partake, which means I have to come up with a zombie costume over the next 2 weeks. Google to the rescue!

The first thing I came across was this great zombie-making video on Youtube,

Next, I ran into this website that goes into specific zombification details,

So You Wanna Be A Zombie?

Finally, in keeping with the zombie theme, you should check out Diana Taibi’s review of George Romero’s Zombie Quadrilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead). Diana is the webmaster and one of the contributing film critics for Cinemagogue, a ministry sponsored by Mars Hill, my church. 

You can check out her review here.

Any suggestions on what kind of zombie I should go as?

(The best-dressed zombie gets a prize!)

Oh man, all this zombie talk has got me hungry.. for… some…brainnnnnnnnnnnnssssssssssssssssss…………………………….

Published in: on October 10, 2008 at 4:30 am  Comments (1)  
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Story Endings


I was tempted to title this post, “Story endings: When good stories go bad.” I decided not to. 

But there is something tragic about becoming invested into a good story, becoming attached to the characters, gelling with the setting, only to have it torn away with a bad ending. 

Friends and I watched “Umney’s Last Case,” a TNT production of Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It is an anthology series of eight one-hour episodes from Stephen King’s incredible book of short stories. Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the ending (though I am very tempted to do so). 

First of all, the story had great potential. It starred William H. Macy, whom I remembered fondly from Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. It started light and funny, with a very believable (and enjoyable) 1930’s L.A. setting. It began as a typical Private Eye story with dames and hardboiled detective quips. A little cheesy, but entertaining. But the story took a nose dive about 3/4 the way through, and continued with both engines aflame to its awful demise.  

(the thought running through my mind, once the ending credits started rolling was, “What the hell was that?” and yes, I imagined little Stewie Griffin uttering it with complete disdain)

The ending was illogical, abrupt, very unexpected. Sometimes this works. A couple weeks ago my church showed No Country For Old Mena brilliant, dark suspense movie about unintended consequences, and the bitter fruit of sin. Not to mention greed’s sadistic drive. It also had an unexpected ending, but it left me satisfied, in a completely unsatisfactory way, if you know what I mean. I wanted it to be different, but I could appreciate what it was saying. This was not so with “Umney’s Last Case.” 

My friends and I spent about 15 minutes attempting to salvage the story,

What if they did this?” “What if they tried that?” 

It was actually kind of fun, but a bit dishonoring to the writers. I don’t suppose they would appreciate knowing that we were trying to do their job for them. But you know what? It was somewhat honoring that we even bothered. They at least got it right to the end, then they just dropped the, actually, they punted it to the other team and let that team plough them into the mud.

So I was wondering,

Do you and your friends ever re-write endings to stories (movies)?

Do you know of any stories (movies) that were great, up until the end? 

Villainy: How to Write Evil


(Another post to Randy Elrod’s Water Cooler Wednesdays a weekly series on arts & culture)


I’ll beat you to it and address this question right up front. You saw the title, it tweaked your interest, but now you want to know the answer to these simple questions: 

Why should I waste my time learning how to write evil? What’s so good about the bad guy? 

Let’s start with what this article is not about. 

It’s not about glorifying evil.

It’s not about justifying evil. 

It is accepting that for every story with a good guy, you need a bad guy. In order for the hero to win, he’s got to fight; and the better the hero, the worse the villain. I didn’t make the rules, but I hope to help you follow them.  

First, if you want to write a good bad guy, you’ll need to do a little research. The way I see it, you’ve got at least three types of villains to choose from: 

1)    The Bureaucrat

2)    The Enemy as Friend

3)    The Archnemesis 

But before we dive in, a word from our sponsor, 

Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment.” – C.S. Lewis 

Lewis is talking about a book he wrote called The Screwtape Letters. It’s written as correspondence between a demon protégé and his demon superior. Lewis says it’s easy to write villains, and I agree, but that doesn’t make it fun. Just keep this in mind – every hero needs a villain. You may not like thinking about why your villain likes to kill people, or why she likes to lie, but your story will languish into mire if your readers cannot genuinely despise (or pity) your villain. 


1)    The Bureaucrat




He is called, “The Architect of the Holocaust,” and is one of the most despised human beings of the 20th century. His name is Adolf Eichmann, and he is my hands down pick for the most despicable picture of The Bureaucrat. 

I was one of the many horses pulling the wagon and couldn’t escape left or right because of the will of the driver.”  – Adolf Eichmann’s explanation of his involvement in The Holocaust 

These are the presumably remorseful words of the man responsible to carry out Hitler’s Final Solution – the extermination of over 12 million European Jews. In his mind, it was nothing more than a horse pulling a wagon. 

Haruki Murakami references Eichmann in his book, Kafka on the Shore, 

Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine…Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.” 

Or as I like to put it, these types of villains argue,

It’s just my job.


2) The Enemy as Friend


Tony Stark & Obadiah Stane


He was your father’s friend, and he is your friend, too; He claps you on the back and wishes you a happy birthday; He’s constantly telling you not to worry about things, he’s got it all taken care of. Obadiah Stane, you are my pick as the most despicable Enemy As Friend.

When I ordered the hit on you, I was worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived it, leaving one last golden egg to give. You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?” – Obadiah Stane, Iron Man Movie

The Enemy As Friend usually wants something from us. Sometimes they want everything – our whole life – theirs for ours. Jealousy is the understatement here; they would wear our skin if they could (friends close, enemies closer?).  

The Bible talks explicitly about these types of villains, 

Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” Proverbs 27:6

These villains tend to think,

No one ever suspects the nice guy.


3) The Archnemesis




They are close enough to be family, in a highly dysfunctional way. Heck, your hero might even see more of them than they do their real family. They don’t really want much: only your hero’s complete and utter humiliation, devastation, and destruction. What’s so bad about that?

You see, I don’t want to do good things, I want to do great things.” -Lex Luthor, Smallville

The Archnemesis is usually the shadow side of your hero. Both want to do great things, but only the hero stays the course, always making sure to use his power for good. The Archnemesis will also use his power to do great things, but for fame. He wants to go down in history as the greatest “_____________” (insert grandiose title here) in history. Picture a bald head the size of Jupiter, and you’ve got an idea of the Archnemesis’ ego. 

These villains will often say, 

The world’s not big enough for both of us. 


Let’s review what we’ve talked about. 

1) If your story’s got a hero, it needs a villain. You can make it a type of person (like the three I mentioned), or Nature, or conflict within oneself, but it’s got to be there.

2) If your story’s got a villain, make me hate him. Take your time to flesh him out. If I don’t despise (or pity) your villain, I probably won’t read your story. If somehow I do read it, I probably won’t like it. 

3) Try to have some fun with it. It won’t be much fun, but it shouldn’t be too hard either. Just think of all the things your hero should be doing, and have your villain doing… something else. 

Most importantly of all, whether the hero wins or the villain wins, make it a good fight. Because that’s something we’ll all read about.  





Published in: on May 21, 2008 at 6:03 am  Comments (3)  
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