Saving Hascal’s Horrors by Laura Smith: ‘Tween Book Review by Shawn StJean

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In his famous short essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King makes a crucial distinction—though he witholds the alienating clinical terminology–between neurosis and psychosis, and explains that horror texts keep most of us on the harmless side of that line.  A parallel, critical definition of Gothics—such as Frankenstein— is that they explore the irrational impulses lurking beneath the calm surface of the rational mind.

Without delving into the why of it, King observes that horror has “always been the special province of the young.”  One might theorize that, before and during puberty, the id has a clear dominance over the superego, while the ego spends all its time in formation, self-absorbed and aloof from the battle.  Simply put, kids have more strongly expressed fears and desires than adults, because they haven’t learned yet to be ashamed of them.  In fact, they embrace them, through thrill-seeking: climbing trees, riding roller coasters, skateboarding, flashlight-tag, Truth or Dare.

Laura Smith’s adventure novel for ‘tweens, Saving Hascal’s Horrors, is neither Horror nor Gothic.  Yet its conflict does center around the culture of the Horror Shop (think comic-book store, leaning over a cliff’s edge).  Hascal’s store has been closed to the public for years, following alleged complicity in the disappearance and death of a local teen.

This navigation around a genre, without indulging in its excesses, is a bit of a neat trick.  Smith understands her audience (I‘d say 8-12 years old).  Many young children, given the opportunity, revel in the scatology, “sick jokes,” profanity, sexual suggestiveness, and gore of the horror text.  Smith leverages none of these cheap elements.  Rather, the major conflict resolves around a common, relatable fear: getting lost in the woods.  That’s not to say the book is sanitized: it does contain a dead body, for example.  But we aren’t asked to witness an autopsy of descriptive (and gross!) detail.

Part Hamlet, part To Kill A Mockingbird, Smith creates a neighborhood of characters in “Salemstown, PA,” in which the real tragedy is one of folks laboring under irrational prejudices against one another: the freaky/geeky boy who can’t fit in, and lacks the social tools to disabuse his tormentors; the mean-seeming old man, who doesn’t care to justify himself.  And stripped of the racial dimension of Harper Lee’s novel, Smith’s work might appeal to contemporary parents who would prefer their progeny focus on the more common forms of prejudice.  As one of the characters realizes, “Maybe a villain was just a good guy who had something terrible happen to him.”

Supernatural elements do introduce themselves, through a video message by protagonist Mike’s father, from beyond the grave: a mission to reopen the store, in the face of continued financial decline.  Further on, Mike discovers an inherited post-cognitive ability.  In fact, the book eventually transforms into an actual ghost story.  However, like Hamlet’s father, the spirit of the missing boy is not evil, only haunting the forest while it awaits release from purgatory.  A preoccupation with death imagery, paraphenalia, verse, and text almost defines the teen audience, and the book thus weaves a sort of unique appeal for so young an audience.  The YA bookshelves, of course, are filled with the stuff, but Smith offers a less intense, more fun experience for the neophyte crowd.   I especially enjoyed the repartee among Mike, Corey, Jack, Lisa, and Freddy, even amidst imminent danger in the caves.

The extended conclusion is suspenseful, but not designed to frighten, and devoid of terror.  In fact, it more often invokes nervous humor during the misadventures of the cohort of 9-11 year olds, in a Goonies-like manner.  The book also contains Easter eggs, scattered throughout, for the watchful older reader–if one should happen to be a fan of the horror genre.

Finally, there’s a lot of book for the buck, here.  In fact, the novel feels to me about two minor characters (several adults hover in the background,) and forty pages too heavy, with a few scenes that could have been harmlessly dropped, contributing to a tighter organic unity.  But nothing so problematic as the “Director’s Cut” that King himself has released of The Stand, all but ruining a good epic with excess material, and proving why editors are needed—even in the labyrinth of the unconscious.

FOUR stars.

Author’s website, with links to her other works:

http://lsmith335.wix.com/laura-smith-author

Purchase Page:

https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Hascals-Horrors-Laura-Smith/dp/1495345610/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1K0S7SDDCEFEXDN89XPS

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Age of Eli: New YA Science Fiction by J.E. Brink II, Review by Shawn StJean

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A decade ago, the media was populated by “horror-lite” books and movies, inspired by Buffy and Angel, and imitating the commercial success of Twilight, to the extent that you can’t walk over to the Roku today, without tripping over a horror property.  Inevitably, Sci-Fi, Horror’s nerdy cousin, would follow.  CGI made it not simply possible, but sustainable business.  Problem is, “Sci-Fi Lite,” or commercial sci-fi (in the vein of the ’50s pulps imported to the screen,) tends to rely a lot more on Fiction than Science.  Which is too bad, because, as the late Carl Sagan often lamented, the preparation of young people in this country in the sciences is deplorable.

Technology, Science’s practical side, certainly seems to have taken over the mindspace of children and adolescents.  But not in the way the futurists predicted.  When I was a child of the 1970s, hot on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and as George Lucas put out a little film called THX-1138, everyone thought that kids of my generation would all grow up to be computer geniuses.  After all, I bought a TRS-80 with my own money.  Right into high school, in the early ’80s (before Windows,) if one wanted a home computer to do something, one had to write a program, at the maddeningly patient prompt of a DOS cursor.  And we did.  Hell, it seemed a quantum leap over a typewriter.

Yet many 21st-century young people have shown no interest, to the extent that good IT folks and coders and programmers remain in high demand.  Many humans would seem to prefer the route of Frank Poole in 2001: “A little lower Hal, a little more to the right,” the astronaut instructs the ship’s computer, as he reclines in a lounger curiously similar to the ones found in today’s cinemas.  Computers and technology are meant to make life easier, not harder.  Or so we think.

J.E. Brink doesn’t seem to agree.  The Earth of the mid-21st century (not long from now,) in his novel Age of Eli‘s vision, is an extrapolation of our own: everyone has their gadgets and devices, of course, and internet connectivity has become universal and free, thanks to a grid of satellites orbiting the planet.  No one questions the wisdom of this, until a global disaster provides teen-prodigy Warren Novatec with the opportunity to both solve the problem, and implant everyone with an even better version of the smartphone: a nano-robotic exoskeleton for the brain called QPU.  This allows direct connection, through the net, with everyone else, but further benefits are promised: “enhancements” that allow a person abilities that seem superheroic.

Not everything works as promised, however: and this seems to be a perrenial human truth about our relationship to technology.  After all, when domesticated, fire can heat your house and cook your dinner; when out of control, it can raze your home and your body.

The novel’s author reputedly works in solar energy, so it’s unsurprising that the narrative concerns itself with energy expenditure: the “powers” that the protagonists and antagonists use must be paid for, and recharged–and they take a heavy toll.  You won’t see any CW/Supergirl feats of unlimited strength here (apparently the sun can also recharge her cells instantaneously, as well as infinitely.)  In fact, Brink’s entire AI premise retains the ring of actual science, as predicted by cultural luminaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.  Thematically, we have to wonder if all these “enhancements” are actually worth it–whereas, in ninety-percent of all comic-book-based fiction, it’s taken for granted (Stan Lee-based Spider-Man and X-Men material being notable exceptions.)  And, to give Brink credit, the book resists becoming about feats of superhuman ability.  It’s really about what happens to human relationships when metal and money come between people.

The title character, along with some others among Warren’s circle, as well as a few pockets of folks in the U.S., resist his inevitable takeover.  Our society begins to resemble a fascist regime under a benevolent dictator, with all the losses of freedom that real-life developments like the continuing re-approval of the Patriot Act, and the dispersal of drones throughout the skies of the world, forbode.  To call the book political allegory wouldn’t be to stretch its literary texture too thin, though the emphasis is often more on action and incident.  Both adolescent and adult characters are varied and developed, and clearly awaiting a sequel.  It seems to me that the “villian,” Warren, doesn’t emerge as evil, so much as misguided, and not without a hint of remorse.  Brink never quite rolls over into the pit of comic-book simplicity* that other franchises do.  I won’t spoil the climax, but I will say that, again, Brink eschews superheroics among his cast, in favor of the virtue of tactical retreat: “Live to fight another day.”  And because the marketplace is filled with shows and books and movies that trivialize the difficulty and cost of actual war (aided by our government’s insulation of the U.S. population from our ongoing wars outside our hemisphere,) it’s refreshing that a YA novel should remind us that conflicts are usually resolved by sacrifice and compromise.  And that, deaths aside, survivors of war are often scarred: physically and psychically.

For this reason, the novel–and presumably the series follow-up books–encourages a debate about whether we should whole-heartedly accept the self-driving cars, the Roombas and Alexas and other robots charging up for a place in our homes, the replacement of memory and books and first-hand research by Google searches and Wikipedia quasi-facts.  Many sci-fi texts have posed the question: At what point does Artificial Intelligence become human?  Brink asks the converse: at what point do we become robots?  You will not be hard-pressed to find a person today wondering aloud, “what did we do before we had these things?”–speaking of a personal communications device.  But perhaps the better question is, “What will we do when these things–utterly and irreversably–have us?”

Four and a half stars.  Well done, J. E. Brink II!

Purchase pages:

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/age-of-eli-j-e-brink-ii/1127687378?ean=2940154975244

https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/age-of-eli

https://www.scribd.com/book/367494284/Age-Of-Eli-Book-1

Promotional Video: https://youtu.be/qK5c7WyFhCs

 

*Not that all comic books are simplistic, but many are.  For every villian as complex as Magneto, there exist a hundred megalomaniacs, mercenaries, and Joe Chills.  An article for another time.

How to Fix Justice League for the Joss Whedon Director’s Cut

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by Shawn StJean

Imagine you’re poor Joss Whedon; I mean, sure, presumably you’ve got some money stashed away, by now.  But if you’re reading this, you know about the network interference with shows like Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse.

So you’ve co-written the screenplay for a huge blockbuster, and you’re suddenly tapped to finish the directing chores for a colleague, Zack Snyder, who vacates the chair due to a family tragedy.  I think we all feel for Snyder. No one should take this post as dismissing all the work he did.  But as for Whedon, it’s a thankless job.  He knows all-too-well that creative work by-committee rarely works out; he’s, at heart and in his post-TV incarnation, an auteur.  I’m guessing here, but the film was hugely budgeted and the studio bean-counters are going to mandate that the job gets finished with a minimum of re-vision-ing.  The release date looms, the trailers are out.  “So, Joss, work your magic, but without seeming to work it, or actually changing anything.”  Um.  Got it. Sure.

Some may argue that Snyder ought to get a Director’s Cut for Blu-Ray, and maybe he should.  He probably will–it’s good marketing.  So I’m here suggesting merely an alternative: a Whedon Cut.  Wouldn’t these two competing texts make back whatever money the studio felt it should have made in theaters, in the first place?  After all, the film got some abysmal reviews.  It may show 70% positive on imdb.com, but the 40% critics’ score on rottentomatoes.com would seem to be more accurate of assessments on the ground.

Is the film broken?  It’s at least cracked.  I’ll forgoe rehashing some of the familiar complaints: the dubious CGI, the ogling of Wonder Woman by the camera.  Bottom line, the narrative suffers from some fundamental problems, and all the humor in the world can’t redeem it.  It can’t be–and doesn’t need to be–scrapped.  But it does need re-editing, with a consistent, auteurial vision.

One of the major quandaries is/was shared with the comic books: how to get Superman back into the land of the living? After all, we all live by a fundamental human truth: dead is dead.  But in fiction, we fantasize otherwise.  Everyone from Mary Shelley to Stephen King had a resurrection story (confining ourselves to the past two centuries.) The problem remains, how to do it without seeming stupid, disrespectful, or a George Romero wannabe.  Whedon spent plenty of time working in the horror genre, so he knows full well the thematic dangers of raising the dead.  Buffy, of course, hinted strongly that she’d rather have been left on the Other Side, and vampire icon Spike sang out “Let me rest in peace!” in the show’s most famous episode, “Once More, With Feeling.”

This re-edit of Justice League (okay, yes, what follows is my own idea.  I didn’t even speak with Whedon.  He must have lost my number.  So I’m projecting it onto him,) could be done for very little money: it requires a re-shoot of one major scene, but only the rehiring of Ben Affleck for a day or two, and Gal Gadot for a single day.  And some supporting editing to existing footage.  Optionally, a short argument scene between Gadot and Affleck.

Here’s my proposal: In the film’s theatrical release, while performing the resurrection ritual for Superman, at least two characters voice the opinion that “This is a bad idea.” ‘Cuz it is.  Yet somehow, they do it anyway.  Then it doesn’t even turn out very bad.  If you took a ten-minute bathroom break at the wrong time, you missed the consequences of this ghastly and ill-conceived scheme entirely.

INSTEAD, have Batman go off alone, in secret, to the Kryptonian doohickey chamber and bring Superman back to life, a la Frankenstein’s lab.  CUT the silly scene of Flash and Cyborg digging Supes up.  It belongs in the archives.  This is not Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman.

After all, it’s Batman with the guilt over Superman’s death.  He’s a loner by nature.  It’s consistent with his character to have him say “Fine, I need you guys to fight parademons, but I’m quarterbacking this little game, and I don’t need anyone’s buy-in.”  He can’t fight everyone, while he fights Steppenwolf.  Especially Wonder Woman.  So he goes off the reservation.  His hamartia is in his perfect faith that he knows best–even though the previous film proved him wrong.

This would really change the points of gravity of the whole film–its essence of conflict.  At what cost, Justice?  Are we willing to sell our souls, to avoid slavery?  Is anything sacrosanct, in a world of horrors?  And who decides?

Add a new Ending scene, after Steppenwolf’s defeat, where the Big Three confer privately.  It’s a sort of Sergio Leone face-off (Tarantino, if you prefer).  I don’t even think you have to re-hire Henry Cavill–just CGI Superman in.  I’m sorry, but it worked for most of his scenes, already.

WONDER WOMAN: You were right about one thing, Bruce.  This team needs leadership.  An army must have a chain-of-command.  We can’t defend the Earth against threats from outside, if our own soldiers wander off on their own.

BATMAN (cowl drawn back to show Affleck’s face, brooding): I agree, Diana.  There’s only one problem [he glances sidelong at Superman.]

WW:  We can trust Clark; trust each other.  We have to.

SUPERMAN:  He doesn’t mean that.  He means: Which of us will be that leader?

Ominous music.  The camera pans slowly, around each of their faces, does a second circle around their full bodies facing each other, speeds up and tracks out to a longshot revealing they’re standing in the new Justice League orbiting satellite, and keeps circling out into space to show the Earth, the solar system, and the galaxy.  It pauses momentarily, to show an odd, incoming ship: BRANIAC’s.

COMPUTER: Analysis concluded.  Kryptonian life-energy re-acquired in third quadrant, on Sol-3.

BRANIAC [tethered by several cables between his humanoid head and the ship]: Acknowledged.  Just what we’ve been waiting for.  An ally.

Camera continues to spin out.  Credits roll.  Music theme comes up.

Much better set-up for a sequel than the Lex Luthor/Deathstroke “League of our own,” post-credit scene, which only promises more silliness.  Although that could be left alone:  I could see Braniac manipulating such an Injustice League as part of his own nefarious, grand scheme.  And Darkseid manipulating, or at least observing, him in his turn.  There’s the checker players, and the chess players.  Thanos is bound to come up short of expectations in Marvel Studios’ Infinity War (another silly premise). Make Darkseid the best onscreen villain ever, by having him sit back and manipulate all the pieces, using DeSaad for expositional dialogue.

Now, because any fanboy can do script-doctoring in retrospect, I want to add a few points of rationale here, for the proposed changes.

  1. The film, as finished, lacked what was absolutely vital: a proper villian.  Steppenwolf is bush-league, not Justice-League.  Make Batman the villain.  Not in a permanent way, obviously, and not in a “misunderstood Dark Knight way.”  This whole enterprise of a League has a steep learning curve.  He doesn’t know how to “play with others,” as Jim Gordon suggests.  He has to learn he isn’t always the smartest guy in the room.
  2. Superman as everyone’s pawn is something, to my knowledge, that’s never been done.  He’s a living weapon.  Batman’s, Braniac’s, Darkseid’s.  Maybe Luthor’s.  Let him grow, too–into someone who has to rediscover his roots, his Smallville basic morality: let the “S” stand, after too much service to others’ agendas, for “Self-Reliant Man.”
  3. Give the master-narrative more depth.  If DC has had one weakness compared to Marvel, pretty much forever, it’s that it’s both more complicated and less sophisticated, at the same time.  Too many Earths, too many doppelgangers, too many silly villians and flying heroes.  Hell, even Aquaman looks like he can fly in this film.  And that’s to cover up the fact that he’s silly: “Can you really talk to fish?”  Guys, you can’t mask all the inherent flaws of your cast by making a joke out of them (this narrative insecurity is revealed by the fact that not one, but two major characters [Flash and Aquaman] function as comic relief, and one as a straight-man [Cyborg].)  Instead, Embrace the flaws.  We all have ’em.  Humanize the cast.  Batman is frustrated by his lack of super-powers, and forced relaince on tech.  Fine.  He’s gonna overcompensate by bringing in the Kryptonian bigger guns.  Wonder Woman can’t bring herself to override Batman’squestionable leadership decisions.  Okay.  She needs to develop moral courage, as well as physical.  Superman relies too heavily upon his powers.  Very well.  Make his resurrection mean something: he should change–first for the worse, and then for the better.  If it were me–and speaking of returning to one’s roots, I’d follow the lead of the comic books here: make his powers diminish.  Focus on the Man; and Super will take care of itself.Joss-Whedon654

 

Pittsburgh’s Laura Smith Interviews Cranky Bear Wakes Up story-sketchbook author, Shawn StJean

Poet, editor, and author of several children’s books, including The Castle Park Kids, Laura Smith works tirelessly on the Indie Publishing scene.  One of her public services is to interview authors to aid their discoverability, amongst the flood of self-published works out there.  In the interview, you’ll find insights into the new picture book illustrated by Todd StJean, Cranky Bear Wakes Up, and a few about Shawn StJean’s older and forthcoming prose works, too. . .

Here’s a sample:  “So the book has an element of allegory. Put simply, we all need friends–and not just on days of personal crisis, but every day–especially the days when they need us.         It’s also a ‘story-sketchbook,’ which means kids are encouraged to color and draw in it themselves (as the back cover clearly shows, I hope.) There’s no more important attribute for a child to cultivate than an active imagination, I believe.”

Please SHARE one of the following interview links among your network:

http://lsmith335.wixsite.com/laura-smith-author/author-interviews

https://hubpages.com/literature/Author-Interview-with-Shawn-St-Jean

https://www.facebook.com/laurasmithauthor/

https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/16128525-interview-with-shawn-st-jean

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Cranky Bear Wakes Up: Todd and Shawn StJean’s New Children’s Paperback Published by Glas Daggre

cbbackcoverjpegJust in time for the Holidays (wink, wink,) a new “story-sketchbook” suitable for kids, ages 3-10, will be on the shelves this week from Glas Daggre, the independent publisher that makes this website its headquarters.  The illustrated, 8×10″ trade paperback features artwork by my ever-prolific brother,  Todd, and a humanistic adventure narrative in which cute and fuzzy mammals–though initially misguided–learn to make room on our planet for the birds, insects, fish, and other creatures that share it.  It makes ideal reading-aloud before bedtime.

Amazon purchase page (the legitimate retail price should be $13.99:) https://www.amazon.com/dp/1981271864/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512521353&sr=1-1 (or you can search Amazon for “StJean” or the full book title.)  There will be no e-book as yet, but a hardcover should follow next year.

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/cranky-bear-wakes-up-dr-shawn-stjean/1127591429?ean=9781981271863

PLEASE REVIEW on Amazon.com or in your favorite venue, should you give this work a try.  It should be turning up in the usual sales channels during the coming months.  Of course, you can contact the publisher directly for a copy with competitive pricing, and, upon request, an author’s signature.

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Trailer-itis: Where’s the Justice in this League?

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Movie Review by Shawn StJean

[spoilers follow]

When superhero-fatigue finally kills that movie genre for big profitablity, as it inevitably will, we diehard fans can lay part of the blame on trailers.  They’re symptomatic of the general ripoff that has become of the neighborhood cinema experience: once you walk in the door, your appetite will be ruined by the prospect of a six-dollar soda pop and a nine-dollar popcorn.  Trailers can make mediocre movies look good enough to get your bum in the seat; and apparently the philosophy of some studios, these days, is that the film itself holds no obligation to deliver on its promise.

A trailer–as the four that preceeded Justice League certainly did–can stripmine the film for its best fragments of dialogue and a few choice CGI effects, along with a licensed, catchy song.  It may hold back one or two plot twists, but if the film is disappointing enough, this might not even be a bad thing, from a promotional standpoint.

Much like a trailer, the JL feature film appears to me to have been cut with a blunt instrument, too quickly and heedlessly: too many repetitive shots of Aquaman and Wonder Woman bashing/being bashed by Steppenwolf, too many slo-mo shots of Wonder Woman in general.  All this to disguise the almost total lack of a plot. It’s nonsense unworthy of a Supergirl episode.  And as a villian, Steppenwolf is a second-rate enforcer in his best moments, and not nearly as entertaining as the comedic Grandmaster of the vastly superior Thor: Ragnarock.   His evil parademon minions make the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz look menacing.  Anyone anticipating so much as a cameo by Jack Kirby’s New Gods’ uber-villian, Darkseid (which Steppenwolf’s appearance in the trailers surely suggests) will go away empty-handed.

What the trailer doesn’t show us is the pathetic resurrection of Superman from his supposed death at the end of Batman Vs. Superman.  Since when do good guys hold (CGI-)seances, anyway, and when in the history of storytelling did that ever come to good?  The film even acknowledges this with two direct references to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and two of the five league members saying “this is a bad idea.”  Of course, whatever Superman might have been missing from his resurrection is taken care of in a ten minute fight scene, and visit from Lois Lane.  Any decent writer/director team–or the editor. . .someone–should have realized two characters digging up a grave would remind everyone, over the age of 35, of Young Frankenstein–though with far less humor.

The film itself completely contradicts the message of the trailers, which features Batman “putting together a team.”  Joss Whedon has repeatedly  shown, most recently for Marvel, throughout his career, that this Seven Samurai plot can be recycled to good effect, but no one here seems to have bothered to try.  The Justice League proves absolutely ineffectual without Superman:  and no number of Beatles covers of “Come Together” can shroud that fact.  They might as well have used “Help!”  And, by the way, the script doesn’t attempt to make any sense of the idea of “Justice,” whatsover.

There are a few laughs, and fun punches, and quiet moments: for example, Diana re-sockets Batman’s shoulder:  “You can’t do this forever, Bruce.”  I’m barely doing it now,” he replies, in a nod to all of us mere mortals.  It’s not a horrible film: but if popcorn costs nine bucks, it better not leave you hungry.  It should be noted that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the standout character for the third film in a row, and the trailers rightly emphasize this fact.  Her lasso of truth produces some of the decent moments of the movie, and Superman appears not so easily to bat her around, as the others.  Don’t be surprised, then, if she continues, like Atlas, to carry the DC movie universe on her shoulders, for the forseeable future.

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