I talk about my new novel from TOR Books, STRANDED, my first novel, MOUNTAIN HOME, the process of creating, and the value of readers to me as an author and as a fan of horror and suspense. I hope you enjoy it!
I recently read an article about DC Comics’ expanded story for The Killing Joke animated feature that got under my skin. Ignoring the problematic aspect of “fridging” Barbara Gordon in the source material, and Azzarello’s grade school response to a journo who asked him a question about the new material, I wanted to address the expanded story. [NOTE: I have not seen the movie, but my comments are regarding subject and story, not execution. It may be a fine adaptation of The Killing Joke, but I find issue with the prologue storyline at the conceptual level.]
If you don’t have an interest in the entire article, the part that stood out to me is this:
In that [all-new expanded] opening, we meet Barbara Gordon as a young librarian who has started donning the Batgirl costume in order to attract the attention of Batman—not just in crime-fighting prowess, but sexually, telling co-workers that she has “a man in her life” (throughout, Batman is apparently portrayed as emotionally distant from Barbara).
This culminates in the sex scene moment mentioned above. After the encounter, Batman keeps away from Barbara, refusing to speak with her, leaving the young woman spurned (the film shows Barbara waiting for Batman to call her on the phone). Then, of course, the rest of The Killing Joke happens—and any fan of Batgirl knows how that plays out. Barbara is paralyzed in front of her own father after being shot in the stomach by the Joker, an infamous moment widely considered to be one of the lowest points in Batgirl’s 40+ year history.
The Killing Joke movie has indeed added more Batgirl—now, she’s a jilted romantic interest who only exists in the story to justify Batman’s ongoing conflict with The Joker. [READ THE WHOLE THING HERE]
See for yourself.
idk how to feel about this pic.twitter.com/gsBGHsYet5
— ☕ (@AcroNite7) July 22, 2016
I just don’t see how that could be the best idea they could come up with to expand upon this story and deepen Babs’ character. The following outline is what I came up with in the hour I spent driving my son to camp this morning. In traffic. With my son singing along to the stereo in the back seat.
We open with Batgirl chasing after a group of villains (one of whom is perhaps visually reminiscent of the Red Hood). As she’s pursuing them, they break off into two groups, and she decides to follow the apparent leader of the gang. He’s a decoy, however, and the ones who broke off ambush her after he leads her into a bottleneck (say a dead-end alley). They have her back to the wall and she fights fiercely, barely squeaking out a win, capturing some, while a couple get away. But she’s got the head of the gang. She ties him up and leaves him for the police with a note, Batman style.
On the rooftop above the alley, Batman stops Batgirl, explaining that he was watching, but didn’t intervene because he knew she could take care of herself. He takes the opportunity to mentor her, however, and counsels that she be more careful. “You’re talented and daring. But that’s not enough. You have to be smarter and more cunning than they are. If you’re reckless, you might not get a chance to help the people who need you tomorrow, and the night after, and the one after that. Fight hard. But always be smarter. You are more than Batgirl. You’re someone else’s only hope.” He ziplines away, and she’s filled with pride that he could have easily intervened to save her, but respected her enough to let her save herself instead. Because she’s that good (though she can be better).
Back at home, she’s sore, but still riding high on her encounter and lesson from The Batman. She’s making dinner for her dad, who has had a hard day at the station. The doorbell rings….
[Insert The Killing Joke here]
[Post credits coda]: Barbara in a wheelchair, wheeling up to her computer to advise Bruce for the first time as Oracle. Because she is still a god damned hero despite the Joker!
Maybe I’m being arrogant, but that opening is exciting, humanizes BOTH Batgirl and Batman, tells the story of their relationship without cheapening either it or her. It also preserves Bruce’s relationship with Jim Gordon, while keeping the stakes in The Killing Joke storyline focused where they are supposed to be: on the Joker being wrong about how “one bad day” can destroy a person like Jim Gordon (or, perhaps more importantly, Batgirl).
Holy shit. Look! I wrote a better Batman pitch than Batman writer, Brian Azzarello (and I don’t call people “pussies”). You can call me, DC, when you’re ready to script a Batman animated feature that respects the whole Bat-Family and the intelligence of all Bat-fans, male AND female.
Back on this day in 2012, I wrote an article about horror storytelling for a blog that has since changed ownership, and while I don’t really want to promote that blog, I do like the piece I wrote. So, I’m reprinting it here in its entirety. I hope you dig it.
What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I cannot in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense—in short, that I am seen. – Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Every story I read or write involves a promise. It is the pledge that an author makes to the audience that they will be rewarded for their faith in the story. In romance, the promise is love. Mysteries guarantee the satisfaction of the unraveling of a puzzle. In horror, the promise that the writer makes to the reader is the he or she will evoke fear.
I understand the attraction of “subtle” and “atmospheric” tales; well done (and how I love them when they’re well done), they can produce a wholly satisfying sense of fearful dread. But I’d also say that even in atmospheric horror, the dread the reader feels is the result of the promise of what is being subtly revealed. And that pledge is exactly the same as it is for extreme horror. The deepest root of fear is the threat of violence. Just because someone doesn’t have whip welts on their back don’t think there hasn’t been violence. That is to say, all horror assures violence of some kind: physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. Without it, what have you got? A ghost isn’t scary merely because it is a ghost. Neither is a person holding a knife. Both must offer something to the reader to evoke fear.
To expand on an example given by Alfred Hitchcock, a bomb underneath a table is more terrifying if the people in the café carry on their conversations unaware of its presence while we, the viewers, know it is there. But the bomb is only frightening in the first place if three conditions are met. First, we must understand the underlying concept of a bomb. Since most of us possess an understanding of a bomb’s only purpose (destruction), we can leap into the conceptual future and imagine the result of the ticking timer reaching zero. The second condition is the storyteller’s willingness to make us believe that the device might actually go off. If we know the bomb’s a dud or the hero will always defuse it at the last second, it is simply not scary. Finally, and most importantly, is our ability to put ourselves in the place of people in that setting—to be present at the table with violence and death. Fear exists is the moment of transformation from the known to the lived—bridging the gulf between conceptually understanding that danger exists and being in danger. Thus, as I see it, the sine qua non of good horror is the transformation of the reader from subject (i.e., conscious observer) to object (i.e., victim).
In a horror story we want the babysitter to hide because we are vicariously experiencing events from her perspective. As long as she remains an observer hidden from view behind slatted closet doors, the tension dissipates and we relax. Until she is discovered. The scariest scene to me in John Carpenter’s Halloween (to stray again from the written word for a moment) is when Laurie Strode believes she has defeated the Shape and collapses in the doorway of the bedroom from which she has just escaped. Behind her, perfectly silent, Michael Myers sits up and turns his head toward her … and keeps turning it all the way toward us. In this subtle breaking of the fourth wall, Carpenter assures us that being seen is the onset of violence.
Let me give a more concrete example. My wife and I are what I like to call shoe-leather tourists. That is, we like to navigate the cities we visit on foot, moving between neighborhoods without mediating our experience from behind the barrier of a cab or a rental car window. On a trip several years ago to Salvador, Bahia (Brazil), however, we were told that we could we not walk the neighborhoods between the hotel and the historic district without endangering ourselves. The hotel concierge assured us also, once at our destination, that we should stay on the main thoroughfares. As long as we could see shop signs, he explained, we were reasonably safe. Wander down a side street, however, and we would again be taking unnecessary risks with our well-being.
Reluctantly taking his advice, we took a cab to the historic district of the city and thereafter stuck to the main streets. But it is impossible to move in a city without at least passing those side streets. And it’s just as impossible (for us, anyway) not to look up them, curious what wonders or terrors await. Passing by a narrow alley in Cidade Alta, the Upper City, we paused. Half way down the alley, three men vigorously kicked and beat a fourth who lay motionless on the ground. It was a sobering experience, until one of the men administering the thrashing looked up from the object of his wrath and made eye contact with me. Then, the promise was made, and it became a terrifying experience as I became an object in the gaze of another.
Reflecting upon that moment, I came to understand in a visceral way (the known becoming the lived) the existential horror of a shift of perception. Years later and thousands of miles away, those men are still present with me. I’d had a direct experience dreading the shifting gaze of The Other. What was scariest about Salvador wasn’t its reputation for violence, but rather the actual in-context promise of it. The difference between being and not being a body in an alley for me was merely a matter of shifting observations and the promise of what may follow upon.
That experience, has helped me truly understand the blurring of lines between the observer and the observed and between voyeurism and engagement. Emotional and psychological detachment from someone else’s suffering—what Michel Foucault would call the “medical gaze,” the dehumanizing separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s identity—is anathema to good story telling and the frequent problem with all bad story-telling, extreme or atmospheric horror or in between. The beating heart of fear is found at the point where the wall between knowing and experiencing comes crashing down, leaving the observer exposed.
And it all begins with a look. I promise.
 The observer who identifies with the monster is either missing the point or is in it for a different kind of titillation.↩
 To finish the tale, we fled and found a sympathetic policeman with a smattering of English (not an easy task on either count) as quickly as we could, doing our best to describe what we saw and where we saw it before going on with our vacation.↩
My interview with Derrick Belanger for the MY PECULIAR FAMILY anthology is live. You can read it in its entirety below and on his Goodreads blog HERE (if you’d like to see his Sherlock Holmes Anthology update as well as the MPF bits). I hope you enjoy, and I hope you consider contributing to our Kickstarter. Cheers!
1. Tell us a little about your story. What makes it so peculiar?
A: My story is titled “KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENT.” That bit of legalese is a term of art that has fallen out of favor, but used to be put at the beginning of legal documents in order to declare that whatever followed was intended to be openly known. My peculiar family member, Davis A. Willingham, is a real estate speculator from the turn of last century, so he’d be familiar with the line (even if seeing it didn’t give him pause). The title is a bit of a double wink and a nod with regard to the contents of the story. The first subversion is that the story itself is something only being discovered a hundred years later by the readers of My Peculiar Family —there are secrets here that are not widely known. In a plain language interpretation of the title, I also want to hint you might be able to know something about all men by the conduct of the one present in the story.
2. What made you want to participate in My Peculiar Family?
A: I was approached by Christopher Golden about it. He told me about the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast and the anthology and it sounded like both a good cause and a fun time. I don’t typically write period pieces, so this sounded like a great opportunity to stretch a little as a writer while also helping out.
3. What are some of your other projects you’d like to tell the readers about?
A: My new novel, STRANDED, is coming out in October 2016 from Tor Books. It’s the story of a ship that gets trapped in the arctic. Icebound and unable to summon help, the crew of the ship find themselves succumbing to a mysterious illness that leaves only a single deckhand, Noah Cabot, unaffected. As their distrust of him grows, Noah must lead the crew in a struggle against the elements, the ghosts of the past, and ultimately themselves. It’s scary and cold and perfect for reading during the Halloween season.
Warner Horizon Television has optioned the adaptation rights to STRANDED, with—and, Derrick, this ought to interest you—Dan Lin, the producer of the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES movie, attached to produce along with Brendan Deneen at MacMillan Entertainment.
After that, in early 2017, I have a short story collection titled, THIRTEEN VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS, coming from ChiZine Publications.
4. Any last thoughts?
A: When I was still a practicing lawyer, my advice to my clients whenever they were asked a question like, “Do you have anything else to add?” was always, “Your answer is ‘no’.” I would, however, like to say thank you for letting me have a minute to talk about My Peculiar Family I loved working on this project and I hope the backers of our Kickstarter enjoy reading it as much.
Derrick Belanger is doing a series of author interviews regarding Belanger Books current Kickstarter project, My Peculiar Family (in which I have a story titled, “KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENT”). The first interview in this series is with my friends Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, regarding their collaboration.
[DB:] I thought I’d start this series off with a bang! This post includes an interview with not one but two huge names in the publishing world. Christopher Golden is the co-author of the Cemetery Girl series ( The Pretenders) with Charlaine Harris. He has written multiple fantasy, horror and science fiction novels and graphic novels, and is currently working on [BALTIMORE, a comics series with Mike Mignola].
James A. Moore has written everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dr. Who. He is known for the Subject Seven series and the Chris Corin Chronicles (Possessions). I interviewed these greats via email about their contribution to My Peculiar Family.
1. Your story, “The Geneology of Chastity Willingham Dinsdale,” sets the tone and theme for the anthology My Peculiar Family. Did you realize, when crafting the tale, that it would have such importance for the collection?
Christopher Golden (CG): The interesting thing about the story is that it only came about because we got our wires crossed a bit when communicating with the Dome about the book. He’d given us a photo and a little write up of the history of Chastity Willingham Dinsdale, and we just sort of assumed that “origin” story was the story he wanted us to write. So this story that lays the groundwork for the whole anthology wasn’t supposed to even exist. It was going to be done in a sort of foreword or introduction where he told readers about those events. Instead, we dramatized them. And though it started as a mistake, I definitely think it makes for a better, more textured presentation when readers can go into the other stories having first read hers. Jim and I are very pleased with our accident.
James A. Moore (JM): Chris really covered it all here. It was an accident but it was one that was a lot of fun and a challenge. I don;t normally work under the constraints of someone else’s plot and that is exactly what we THOUGHT was going on. It was a very different way of working but we had fun.
[DB:] 2. This story is co-written by both of you. How did you go about writing the story together?
CG: Collaborating is usually a lot like playing tennis, just batting it back and forth to each other. In this case, we worked a bit differently just based on time constraints. We fleshed out the plot of the story, agreed on what exactly would be in it, and then Jim went off and wrote the first draft. He’s much faster than I am anyway. Like the Flash of horror writing. I came in after him, added some things, revised it to something that sounded a bit more like us together than just him, and also filled in some of the texture of what I thought the Dome was looking for. With Jim doing the heavy lifting, I wanted to make sure I did my part. Though Jim and I have done the more traditional collaboration on other projects together, I think this one really benefited from that division of labor.
JM: The thing about collaboration is you never quite know how it will shape itself. Chris and I have worked together on multiple projects and the one guarantee so far, for me, is that I’m going to enjoy it.
[DB:] 3. What makes the story so peculiar?
CG: The Dome, man. Have you met the guy? Heh heh. His twisted imagination provided the concept for our story. We just wanted to bring his nightmares to life.
JM: What Chris said!
[DB:] 4. This question is for Chris. One of the Kickstarter awards is the Christopher Golden Novella Award where you are offering a signed personalized hardcover copy of your book Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism: A Novella. Tell us a little about the book which you co-wrote with Mike Mignola (Hellboy).
CG: This is a hardcover novella published by St. Martin’s Press and I’ve offered ten copies, personalized and signed for the donors who choose that level. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism is set during World War II on the island of Sicily. The Allies have just taken Sicily from the Germans, but in the bombing during that battle, many people were killed, many children left without parents. A church rectory has been turned into an orphanage, and a young new priest has arrived to teach the children. Trouble is, after being made orphans, many of them are having trouble with the idea of a loving God, so Father Gaetano is struggling to find a way to get through to them. He finds an old puppet theater in the basement along with a wooden box full of old puppets. Each day, he repaints and recostumes the puppets to tell Bible stories—Noah’s ark, David and Goliath—but what he doesn’t know is that each night, the puppets BECOME whatever characters they were made to be during that day. Which is fine, and wonderful for the orphans…until the day Father Gaetano tells the story of the fall of Lucifer….
[DB:] 5. What are your current projects?
CG: I’m just wrapping up my new novel ARARAT, a crazy horror thriller that’ll be out early next year, and working on BALTIMORE, the comics series I do with Mike Mignola.
JM: I just finished THE SILENT ARMY, the fourth book in an epic Fantasy series that comes out in May. I’m about to start another series called TIDES OF WAR, and before that happens I need to finish a novel called SPORES. I like to stay busy.
[DB:] 6. Any last thoughts?
CG: Just that I hope folks will support this Kickstarter, My Peculiar Family. Not only do you get a great anthology of weird fiction, you get to support one of the best genre podcasts out there!
JM: Once again, Chris beat me to it!
You can support the Kickstarter project here at My Peculiar Family !
Coming from Tor Books this October! STRANDED is the story of an arctic supply vessel that gets trapped in the ice and the horrifying series of events that transpire when the crew realizes the only way out, is to walk across the ice toward a mysterious shape in the distance. Pitched as John Carpenter’s The Thing meets Jacob’s Ladder. TV rights already sold to a major studio with MacMillan Entertainment producing!
My friend, Izzy Lee, is a fierce woman and fiercely talented film-maker. Unfortunately, she and her hubs are also in a bit of a bind. The short version is that their kitty took a bad spill and needs expensive surgery to save its leg (of course this happens right after Izzy and her husband hit an economic rough patch and right before the holidays), and they could use some help. If you can throw them a couple of bucks, it’d be a huge help. Izzy has also set up some cool perks for donation if you want to own a wonderfully sinister short film or have a piece of Edgar Allen Poe and Jeffrey Combs (of Re-Animator fame) memorabilia. Or you could just throw them some cash and let that be its own reward. Either way.
As always, if you can’t donate, even just amplifying this message with a share would be wonderful. Thank you again, friends!