Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Freedom to Change: The Haunting of Bly Manor

Two years ago, Mike Flanagan delivered The Haunting of Hill House, a horror show with a great emotional center I never saw coming. Now, in 2020, we get a spiritual sequel in Bly Manor, and Flanagan has pulled off a wonderful feat: daring to be different.


Unlike Hill House, I kind of predicted Bly Manor would have a nice emotional core. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. It was exactly that and more. But where Hill House was a horror show—complete with mystery and jump scares—Bly Manor dares to be less a horror show but more like an eerie tale of menace.

Loosely based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—a book I’ve never read—Bly Manor is narrated in the present day by Carla Gugino to a small group of people. She tells the story of Danielle Clayton, a young woman who, in 1987, takes a job as the live-in nanny/teacher for a pair of children—Miles and Flora—at Bly Manor, tucked away in the English countryside. Rounding out the small group is the housekeeper (Hannah), the chef (Owen), and the gardener (Jamie).

Oh, and the ghosts.

That’s not a spoiler. It’s what you’d expect from a story taking place in a giant manor house. But who the ghosts are and why they’re there, that’s the mystery.

I’ll admit I haven’t watched Hill House since it debut in 2018 so I cannot remember all the intricacies. But I do remember some of the jump scares and genuinely terrifying moments. I expected that here as well.

Flanagan, however, had a different idea. Instead of manufacturing simple scares just to make viewers jump, he crafted a well-told story over nine episodes (one less than Hill House). The story’s leaner and swifter, pulling you along nicely.

We get a good dose of flashbacks and present-day action doled out in just big enough scoops to make the mystery tantalizing. My wife had recently see a filmed version of The Turn of the Screw so she knew a few plot points going in, but I didn’t. All I did was let the story wash over me.

The actors were stellar. A few of them—Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Kate Siegel—also starred in Hill House. It was good to see them again. But the newcomers were just as good. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who plays Miles, can turn from innocent child into something else on a dime. That was unnerving. Another standout T'Nia Miller who played Hannah the housekeeper. There was always something buried just underneath her skin, and Miller was outstanding at her portrayal, especially episode five. And the scenes where she and Rahul Kohli (who played Owen the chef) interacted were very good.

It was probably around episode three or four that I realized Flanagan was doing something different with this new show. It wasn’t as scary. True, there was a palpable sense of foreboding, but not scary. Initially, I wanted the scares, but then I was content to watch the show he made. The longer the show went on and I finally noted what Flanagan had done, the more impressed by it I was.

Sure, Bly Manor could easily have just been Hill House 2 with even more jump scares and more lurid stuff, but that’s not what he did. He told a different kind of story, and I’m really glad he did. It let us viewers know that for however long he creates stories like this, they won’t just be cookie-cutter shows. They will be distinct stories with a similar, but unique style.

And it makes me even more excited to see what he comes up with next.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Proactively Trimming a Book's Fat

I think it's common knowledge that a good rule of thumb for reviewing your own work is to read it aloud. I do it all the time. I find easy-to-miss grammar snafus, but I find this method especially good with dialogue. I'll always read the dialogue (with voices!) to hear how it sounds. If I find my mouth adding words or saying the prose differently, I change it on the page.

Side note: if you have a computer that has the capability of reading text to you, that's also a good way to go. Just be sure you have a computer that'll sound more or less normal.

The reason I bring it up this week is that I completed my index card outline for my next major novel on Thursday morning. It's around 100 scenes or so--some smaller than others. It was kind of an exciting thing to be writing that last index card right as my alarm to signal it was time for me stop working on my new book and get ready for my workday.

Later on Thursday, I cornered--er, asked nicely--the wife if she'd be game to listen to me go through each notecard and tell her the story. She agreed, but initially didn't know what I was asking of her. She much prefers to read the drafts after I've finished them. She's a voracious reader, knows what works and what doesn't, and I rely on her all the time to course correct a story.

All I needed her to do is take the tale on a test drive. Did it make sense? Did the scenes flow nicely. Was there a huge plot gap in the middle of my story? Did she even like it?

We sat at the kitchen table. Initially, I laid out the first forty scenes or so, but swiftly realized it was much better with just the stack right in front of us. I talked over each scene, one by one, taking her through the story.

There's a look she gets when she glazes over and I stopped when I saw that. What was the problem? It was the sub-plots. They seemed extraneous. I reminded her they were sub-plots, but I adjusted on the fly and just kept to the main POV character--since it is her story.

The entire process was incredibly enlightening. I got to tell the story to someone else, serving as a way to get it out of my own head. I took notes along the way, mostly with nips and tucks my wife suggested.

But I came away with the idea that some of the sub-plots likely bogged down the story.

Look, I've written books like this before and I've written books without an outline at all. Each method has its merits and I stand behind both of them. But for this book in particular, I needed to verify that the story structure was solid. It was. Side benefit: I might actually have fewer scenes to write since I'll be proactively cutting some fat.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Recursion by Blake Crouch: A Time Travel Book with Heart and Thrills

 

(Imagine my surprise yesterday when I finished this review and went to post it on DoSomeDamage...only to discover my fellow author, Beau Johnson, also reviewed it. No, you are not suffering from False Memory Syndrome. Perhaps that is yet another key indicator of how good this book is.)

How often do you read a book in which the last sentence is the perfect end to the story?

Well, I finished one this week, and the last line was awesome.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is a thriller with a huge scoop of science fiction, specifically time travel. It was the most recent selection for my SF book club although I wasn't the chooser. We generally keep our selections within the genre--I actually picked the Sherlock Holmes book The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz--but occasionally we get books like this one. But this is one that really leans into the thriller aspects and it kept me engrossed all the way through.

As the story opens, New York police detective Barry Sutton has lived eleven years without his teenaged daughter who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. He's meeting his now ex-wife to commemorate their daughters birth. There have been a lot of things called False Memory Syndrome, a condition where folks remember whole other lives. 

In the reality of the story, these are alternate timelines.

Soon, Barry meets Helena, a scientist with a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Her goal is to invent a tool that can help map her mom's memories before they are all gone. What another character realizes is that this machine can be used to travel back in time to a specific, vivid memory. And, when a time traveler arrives at the point in time where the traveler actually left, all the other timeline's memories cascade on them...and everyone else.

And there's a race...against time. 

I really enjoyed it. Loved it, actually. As recent as this past weekend, I hadn't even started it. I started listening while doing chores...then started finding new chores to do so I could keep listening. The Houston Texans helped by sucking so I stopped watching and started listening to this book. The premise drew me in pretty quickly and just kept me going.

The alternating narrators really worked in the audio. Enjoyed both of them. 

Really liked the moments when a certain timeline caught up with a character. When I was explaining this to the wife, what came to mind (but not during the reading) was the end of the movie Frequency back in 2000. Also had lots of echoes to Replay by Ken Grimwood.

Go no further if you don't want the spoiler, so if you don't, I thoroughly enjoyed Recursion and would highly recommend it.


SPOILERS for the end



Lastly, it is very rare that a last line of a book is this awesome, but this one is. Again, this is where listening to an audio version really brought it home. I was standing in line at the DPS on Tuesday. Outside, morning sun, looking at all the other folks doing what I'm doing. Crouch is talking from Barry's POV and building it up to talk to Helena. This is after he's killed the bad to prevent the whole thing from even starting. And he has realized that life has pain and that, as humans, we just have to deal with it. 

And then the last line! "And he says...."  I barked out a "HA!" as the credits rolled, grinning big time. Loved it! Crouch let the reader finish the story, creating our own, unique timelines.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Butterfly Moments

How do you know when something you’ve written or planned out is good?

That’s my question for the weekend, folks. Thanks!

Okay, I’m kidding, but it’s an honest question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For me, it has something to do with the butterflies in my stomach and the racing pulse.

This week, as I’ve been planning out my next book, I’m still doing the notecard method I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. My routine is up at 5:30 to write/prepare/think for an hour before I have to prep for the day job. In that time, with no music, TV, or anything other than my cup of coffee (in my awesome Halloween mug!), I visualize the story unfolding. 

With a schedule like this, I have already spent the last day idly mulling various aspects of the story. I’ll write them down in my comp book and then get started writing the notecards, one at a time. Oh, I’ll spread out a dozen or so to remind myself where I am in the story. 

There were a couple of days this week when, as I’m seeing the movie in my head, I can actually feel the butterflies in my stomach flying around. I start writing faster (and sloppier), trying to get down all the details. 

In other moments, I can literally feel my pulse pounding in my wrist and arms as I’m writing. I realized it’s not just the coffee, but the story that’s making me excited.

Will others find those scenes exciting? I hope so. It does depend on me writing compelling prose to suck in other readers, but I’m comforted knowing that if folks like the stuff I like and *I’m* digging these scenes, there’s a good chance others will, too.

Time will tell. 

But I love those butterfly moments.