This isn’t me crapping on MFA (a Master of Fine Arts) degrees or everyone who has worked hard to get one. I know quite a few damn good people who have one they can add to their resume. This is about elitism and misguided entitlement. You can expand this from the microcosm of writing to all things great and small in our society.
For years, I’ve heard select MFA holders put down writers who they believe don’t possess such a degree, referring to them as hacks or worse. To them, only he or she who wears the MFA crown has the necessary skills to put words to paper. The rest of us are here to be dazzled by their command of the English language and storytelling prowess. I came across such a troll recently who lambasted my writing on Goodreads, basically saying I didn’t have the skills to be a good writer because it was apparent I never received the proper education to do the very thing I’ve been working at for over a decade. I read it and laughed, then looked up their name to find their writing credits. I wasn’t surprised to find zippo. (By the way, I’m a college graduate who never scored less than a 90 in English my entire life.)
Truth be told, the review didn’t make me angry. My skin is thicker than an elephant’s hide. If you’re going to do this for a living, you can’t let the bad or even the good reviews get to your head. What does make my blood boil is when I see a trend that deeply hurts earnest, honest writers.
An MFA degree doesn’t make you a writer, just as going to astronaut camp doesn’t qualify you for a stint on the ISS. In many cases, an MFA degree does put you in some serious debt, hoping to strike it rich in an industry that is pretty darn parsimonious when it comes to paychecks. As an author friend once said, better to learn a trade and be a fucking plumber.
I learned all I needed to know about becoming a writer from a chance meeting with the great Elmore Leonard. It was the late 90s and I was at a two day writers conference in New York City. I’d spent money I didn’t have to be there, hoping to learn from those who had scaled the mountain. I was in a classroom, sitting in the back because I had a hard time finding it and was almost late. A famous thriller author was giving a talk about the publishing process, but it was really an examination of the neurosis of a writer who never felt as if his stuff was good enough.
A small, older man sat next to me during the class. At one point, he leaned over and asked if I’d spent a lot of money to be there. I gave a quick answer, wishing he’d leave me be. He then said, “You see all these people? None of them will ever be writers. Don’t waste your money. You really want to be a writer?” Slightly annoyed, I said, “Of course.”
He said, “Then go home. Read a ton. Then write a ton. That’s all there is to it.”
I thanked him for the advice and shifted my attention back to the real author in the front of the room. When the class ended, the old man shuffled out and I headed for the next session. When lunch came, I grabbed a table by the podium, chatting with a world famous bestseller. Imagine my surprise when they brought that older man up to be the key speaker. It was Elmore Leonard!
I realized in that moment that I’d just gotten invaluable wisdom from a man who’d published more books than every writer at the conference combined. Who the hell was I not to listen to him? I vowed that day to never attend a writing conference. I was already a voracious reader, but I stepped up my writing game. Read a ton. Write a ton. I could do this.
And I did. As have so many others, all without the benefit of an MFA. You don’t need any high falutin’ qualifications to be a writer, other than a command of your native language, imagination, and limitless passion. I don’t care what degrees you have and don’t have, and neither do editors. Tell a damn good story they think will sell.
If you think your MFA makes you a better writer than someone who gets paid to write and publishes book after book, it’s time to dispel yourself of that delusion. That degree, especially if you’re not writing and publishing, is worth as much as the paper it was printed on. You are not entitled to a damn thing. You need to earn it. That means get off your high horse and get down in the mud and muck and write. Then go bust your hump finding someone to publish your work. Stop criticizing those who have accomplished the very thing that inspired you to get that degree. You are not the elite. You’re just a regular person who spent more on school.
Over the years, I’ve found that writers rarely criticize other writers because we all share the same story, the same grind. We not only know how the sausage is made – our hands are in it day after day. So next time you want to use your MFA to tear down another person, take a good, hard look at yourself and like most opinions, keep it to yourself. Writing is a great equalizer. You’d know it if you did it.
Just as I discovered there was more than one way to put my infant daughter’s crib together (to hell with those decorations written in an alien language!), there is more than one way to build a writer. Assembly usually takes a mere two decades. Batteries are not included, nor are they necessary.
This particular horror writer was not pushed by a Great Santini to become a wordsmith. My parents were quite happy to let me find my own dreams and goals and ways to achieve them. Looking back, I’ve tried to put all the connected, some loosely, pieces of the puzzle that eventually made me whole. So, here is how I was ‘built’. I’m interested to hear how others who do what I do came to be.
First, there were books everywhere in my house. I had a nice little library as a kid. My father would read anything he could get his hands on, so books were in just about every room. In school, my parents always let me buy books from the Scholastic catalogue. Nothing was better than the day the books came in and I waited feverishly for my name to be called so I could grab my booty for the semester. I was taught indirectly that books were to be treasured and sought after. Surrounded by all those books, reading became a vocation of sorts.
Issues of Time magazine were always in the bathroom. I would read them even when I was too young to understand what the articles were saying. It gave me an appreciation for a whole new structure of writing, and I learned a hell of a lot about politics. The first politician I wanted to be president was a guy named John Anderson who ran as an independent in the 1980 campaign. So sparked a lifetime of voting for underdogs. Ralph Nader anyone?
My father loved movies, therefore I loved movies. And the movies we loved the most were horror movies. We caught all of the Universal monsters on PBS when they aired. He took me to the drive in and the movie theater (with a balcony!) by our house all of the time. We watched Chiller Theatre together and Kolchak and The Twilight Zone. Half of my room was decorated with pages torn from Fangoria and Famous Monsters. Those movies didn’t just give me chills. They laid the foundation for my knowledge of the genre. I knew the tropes before I knew what the word trope even meant. I watched the progression of horror from the 1920s to the 1980s and I knew what worked and what didn’t. It came as no surprise to anyone that when I started writing, I pulled my car into the horror lane.
Until I was about 15, I thought I was going to be a artist, not a writer. My great uncle was an artist, even doing a lot of commercial art. That red French’s mustard flag – that was him. When I visited my grandparents, grandma would roll out what looked like brown butcher paper and give me a box of well-worn crayons. I would lay on the floor drawing tremendous space battles with star ships from Star Wars going mano-y-mano with Vipers from Battlestar Galactica. These scenes would be two feet high by three or four feet long. I wanted to be a comic artist. At age 9, I even created a one panel comic called Socks and Locks. It was about two buddies, ala Abbot and Costello, though with one of them being a psychopath. I submitted it to the paper and they gave me encouragement to keep working. Nowadays, they might have sent me to a shrink. I drew every character in the funny pages and comics. In grammar school, a friend and I created Mini-Hulk comics, with a diminutive and angry Hulk battling pencils and fingers and the whims of the artist.
My heart was set on going to the Rhode Island School of Design, but I plateaued before it came time to apply. I got so frustrated drawing hands! Oh, and girls came into the picture. But creativity was firmly implanted in my DNA.
Borrowing my grandmother’s typewriter, I started writing a series of short, post-apocalyptic stories on onion skin paper. They were all inspired by Escape from New York. If I couldn’t be Snake Pliskin in real life, I could make myself a close knockoff in stories. I then tried my hand at poetry, banging out four Zombie Moon poems. Again, I was a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead and if I was gonna sit down and write poetry, it better damn well have zombies. I wrote a lot my junior and senior years, even penning a story called Night Prayers that scared the wits out of my girlfriend, who later became my wife. I wonder if I still have a copy…
From the moment I got my first tape recorder for Christmas, I became an international radio star. Well, at least in my mind. I recorded hundreds of interview shows, radio serials and movie sendups, often playing multiple characters. I would rewrite entire films on the fly, acting out a bevy of male and female players. It taught me to be a great mimic, and whether I knew it or not, I was writing stories, just on tape instead of paper. And as far as I know, all of those tapes are gone.
By the time college came around, I was only writing papers to be graded. But being on the college radio station gave me a great creative outlet. I studied to be in radio, but just a few years after I graduated, the world went digital and everything I learned was obsolete overnight. So, I went to work for the phone company as a customer service representative. That should have been the death of my creative life.
But it wasn’t. I was hired along with a dude named Norm (whose Severed Press book, HUNGRY THINGS, is a hoot) who would reignite my creative spirit. Watching and listening to him talk about writing got me off my sorry ass to give it a try.
Little did I know, it would become a lifelong addiction. Luckily, I had done a lot of the heavy lifting all my life – by READING! Reading anywhere from 50 – 100 books a year gave me a subliminal master class on structure, plot, dialogue and all of the little things that go into writing a book.
I may not have been puffing away at a bubble pipe at five and struggling to pen the great American novel all of my life, but there was always creativity and a love of books. Whether it was drawing, watching movie, enacting radio dramas on a tape recorder in my room or writing bad poetry on paper so thin, it disintegrated a couple of years later, they were all outlets for an overactive imagination. Writers are dreamers. There are many ways to make those dreams come to life. When you marry the dream with a passion for the written word, well, no matter how many detours you take, you just might find yourself banging away at a laptop or going through legal pads like bath tissue. In my opinion, trying your hand at a myriad of different things will ultimately make you a better writer.
So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
When Severed Press asked me to write a lost world themed book, I put on several layers of coats and a balaclava and zipped my brain down to Antarctica. As a lover of The Thing, I couldn’t wait to strand a cast of characters in a cold, dark and bleak land. Many taps of the keyboard later, ANTARCTIC ICE BEASTS is born!
The ebook is out now, with trade paperback to follow shortly. So, what’s this little tale of winter horror about?
The South Pole in winter is one of the deadliest places on Earth. The seven person crew of the US Freedom Base lives alone in months of utter darkness with no hope of help or rescue. A freak storm batters the walls and threatens to expose them to the deadly cold. All they can do is wait…and pray.
The ground quakes. An alien screech rips through the night. There’s something, or someone, lurking outside. Fists bang on the walls. Each tiny crack in the base spells death by hypothermia.
Untold horrors have come to Freedom Base…and they want in!
When my good buddy Terry M. West comes a-calling, I answer the fucking call. This time around, the master of all things horrific is starting an Indiegogo campaign for his Car Nex Anthology. We’re talking fresh tales of ooey-gooey terror, gals and ghouls. I’ve been tapped to write a brand new bit o’ 80s inspired squeamishness and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
However, this shit ain’t gonna happen unless peeps jump on the campaign. (yeah, I said peeps without any sense of irony). So let’s spread the word and get this bad mutha off the ground. Here are the deets. (ok, you can mock me for deets).
Pleasant Storm, Texas. 1965. A God-fearing family man finds an ancient book of secrets and is compelled to perform a blood ceremony. The Car Nex is brought into our dimension, and Hell is given form and fangs. Weapons will not slow it. Prayers will not stop it. It is coming. And it hungers.
It’s a new year and time for some new books for your ravenous eyeballs! First up in 2019 will be my next Severed Press action/adventure/horror novella, ANTARCTIC ICE BEASTS. The fine folks at Severed just sent over the cover and as always, they nailed it.
The hard, and fun part, was writing a story set in a US base in Antarctica that wasn’t a ripoff of The Thing or another tired Journey to the Center of the Earth tale. I think and hope I did just that.
I’ll let you know the publication date once I get it.
So, what do y’all think?
Well, well, well, here we are again, nursing our New Year’s hangovers, making plans to go to the gym and opening up that new Dilbert desk calendar (and man, do I miss The Far Side calendars). 2018 had me very nervous, my dear Hellions. For a while there, I didn’t think there would be enough worthy movies to make it to the unholy top 13 list. Last year wasn’t the strongest year for horror movies, but there are some damn fine flicks to enjoy. So, take my paw and let’s travel back in time…
#13 – SATAN’S SLAVES
Talk about a last minute entry! I literally watched this right after I had finalized my list because I heard it was on Shudder. It’s not very often I get to tout an Indonesian horror flick. Not to be confused with Satan’s Slave (1976), this horrific ghost/Satanic cult foray into primo jump scares is tense, atmospheric and crazy terrifying. The English subtitles are in need of another pass by a translator, but you can enjoy it without them. It’s that creepy. * Editor’s note, this movie knocked The First Purge off the list. Sorry Staten Island.
#12 – THOROUGHBREDS
What’s a top 13 list without an entry that involves Anya Taylor Joy (The Witch, Split)? Thoroughbreds just skirts the horror line, but damn is it twisted fun. Lily (Anya) is a rich brat who hates her step-dad and lacks empathy. Amanda (Olivia Cooke from the amazing Bates Motel) is her old friend, an automaton born without the ability to feel emotions who once stabbed her beloved horse to death. These two chicks are fucking nuts in all the best ways. Great performances all around, and it’s also Anton Yelchin’s last movie before his tragic demise. Watch it and pour a little libation on the floor for Anton.
#11 – HALLOWEEN
I was very excited to see what the folks at Blumhouse would do with a franchise that had seen better days (but had yet to fall into the pit of Hellraiser inanity). I LOVE the original. It’s one of those pivotal movies in my horror education. I dig part 3 and 4 and could do without all the rest. And Rob Zombie’s attempt? Let’s move on. Anyway, this is a direct sequel to the original, asking us all to forget the others happened (did Bobby Ewing just step out of the shower?). Poor Laurie Strode is still traumatized by the babysitter massacre. Now a grandma channeling Sarah Connor, she’s just waiting for Mikey to get out of max so she can finish him off. Luckily for her, a pair of podcasters are just the hokey patsies to reenergize the unkillable killer. It was better than the sequels, but for me, fell flat in some areas that could have made it amazing. When it was over, my first thought was – I hope this is the actual end. I think if I had tempered my expectations, I would have liked it even more. Ignore me. It’s a solid horror movie.
#10 – TERRIFIED
We’re going international again, this time to Argentina for some bat crap insane multiple hauntings. Terrified has THE scariest and most disturbing imagery of the year. There isn’t just one haunted house on this idyllic Buenos Aires street. No, there are three, and shit is gonna get crazy. From rotting dead boys who come back home for milk and cookies and something sinister and hungry in a kitchen cabinet sucking the blood from a wounded hand, this is one of the craziest ghost movies I’ve seen in a long while. If you have a kid afraid of monsters under the bed, DO NOT let them see this. You’ll be carting them off to a looney bin if you do. I hear they’re remaking it for an American audience with the same director. I hope they don’t lose the mojo.
#9 – VERONICA
OK, now we’re off to Spain for a disturbing possession movie that, in my opinion, trumps The Exorcist. Teenager Veronica plays with a Ouija board during an eclipse and done gets her soul repossessed. Here’s the cool part. It’s based on an actual Ouija/possession case in Madrid back in 1991, so that always adds to the icicles up the spine vibe. I fell in love with Veronica, a teen with way too much responsibility who just wanted to be a dumb kid for a fateful moment. With scary nuns and devilish disasters and well executed jump scares, you’ll steer your ass away from spirits boards for life after this puppy.
#8 – TERRIFIER
Art the Clown is the scariest motherfucker who ever donned greasepaint. Taking place on Halloween night and mostly in an abandoned building, Terrifier channels the best of 80’s gore with spectacular kills and some true WTF moments. I’m no fan of clown horror flicks and thought this would be just like all the rest. Crap, was I wrong. Seriously, when Art smiles that bloody-mouthed smile, your genitals will crawl up to your esophagus. No blood is spared and please, oh please, let there be a world with more Art the Clown!
#7 – THE RITUAL
This was an early entry from our pals at Netflix. Based on a novel by Adam Neville, this British don’t-go-in-the-woods descent into terror centers around five buddies who have had their share of tragedy. Honoring their friend’s last wishes, they get to hiking in the middle of freaking nowhere in Sweden. When the weather gets bad, they find shelter in a rickety cabin and so, so much more. We’re taking hallucinatory images that may be real, bones in trees, a village of the freaking damned and a mythical monster. The creature effects in The Ritual are unforgettable. This is destined to be a movie I revisit time and time again. And yet another import from a far off land.
#6 – THE STRANGERS – PREY AT NIGHT
Did I have any high hopes for a follow up to The Strangers? Hell no! I took Hellion #2 and my mother to see it at a matinee so I didn’t have to pay full price. Well, I’m here eating my hat. In some ways, I liked this better than the first. Loved the 80s music (you will never hear Total Eclipse of the Heart and not think of the swimming pool) and it has two scenes that I think are damn close to legendary. Killer cast meets masked killers. What’s not to love? Unlike the first, this is one I have to own.
#5 – HEREDITARY
Kudos to releasing a ‘mainstream’ movie with more what-the-hell-am-I-watching moments than you can shake a machete at. Toni Collette gives the performance of the year as a woman cracking up as her family falls apart. Mom dies. Uber stranger daughter gets the James Dean treatment, son loses it and hubby just tries to make dinner and keep their shit together. This is basically two movies. The first three quarters has a The Shining aura about it with a gradual buildup and breakdown. Collette physically reminds me of Shelly Duvall and their mental collapses are just as similar and moving. There is a moment when a switch is flipped (you’ll know it) and it’s time to fasten your seatbelts. The ending is not for everyone, hence a lot of confused and angry people in my theater. Good. Stay out of my genre!
#4 – PUPPET MASTER – THE LITTLEST REICH
Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you that this is not only on my list, but in the top 5! I mean, it definitely has the most ridiculous title of the year. And it’s a fucking Puppet Master movie. It’s also the one movie I can’t stop thinking and talking about. Why? Well, it’s written by the amazing S. Craig Zahler (who has given us Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99). ‘Nuff said. Witty, self-aware and loaded with unique kills, nudity and gore, it’s everything previous Puppet Master movies are not. If you ever wanted to see a dead guy pee on his own head in a toilet bowl, look no further. And it has cameos by Barbara Crampton and Udo Kier. Hot damn, this was the most fun I had watching a movie all year.
#3 – REVENGE
I’m not a big fan of the rape/revenge subgenre, though I do like the trio of I Spit On Your Grave remakes. Revenge is made with such artful direction, it stands head and improvised weapons above the rest. Matilda Anna Ingird Lutz has herself a real star turn as Jen, a young wanna be messing around with a married man in his sweet desert house. When his two creepy friends crash the party for a day of hunting, the raping begins and the blood flows. And let me tell you, the amount of blood shed in this flick is epic. Jen bleeds more than ten stuck pigs. It’s over the top and goes a little Machete every now and then, and that’s perfect. The final sequence running in circles around the house is gag inducing and brilliant. The bar is now set and I dare someone to raise it.
#2 – OVERLORD
Thank you, JJ Abrams! Overlord is not one, but two great movies. If you like war flicks, this is your jam. If you’re a horror hound, ditto. If you’re like me and dig both, holy Hannah is this awesome. American GI’s have their plane shot down over a Nazi occupied town in France and need to take out a tower so Normandy can happen. No pressure. The shit that happens in the plane in the opening sequence had me breathless. I know it’s no shock that those creepy ass Nazis have been up to their old weird science shenanigans again. What ensues is pure chaos, savage monsters, explosions and gunfire. I could easily slide this into the number one slot. In fact, this and the next movie have been jockeying back and forth for months now. I’m sure a year or two, I might declare this the winner. But for now, we’ll call it 1B…or 2.
#1 – A QUIET PLACE
Jim Halpert, who knew you had this in you? A Quiet Place is, quite simply, brilliant. The world has been taken over by creatures from another world. They may be blind, but they can hear your every move. It opens with a stunning gut punch and ratchets up the tension like a torture rack for the next 90+ minutes. I’ve literally never been so uptight in a movie theater. I had to have my ass cheeks surgically separated. With a small but stellar cast, A Quiet Place is an instant classic. Especially for a guy like me who is obsessed with alien/horror movies (The Thing, Alien, Signs). This takes a familiar trope and adds a spin that makes it unforgettable. Like It Follows, this is one of those movies that will be the measuring stick by which I judge a person’s character. A sequel is already in the works, following a new band of survivors. I doubt it can equal this, but I’m in.
Here are the other movies that were in contention and just missed the cut:
CAM, MANDY, STEPHANIE, APOSTLE & GHOST STORIES
And my nod to the stinker of the year is THE MEG. Just like 2017’s dreadful THE MUMMY, The Meg was so bad, my blood pressure spiked and I wanted to tear the screen in half – or take a nap, which I settled for.
You made it this far. Let me know what you think of my choices and their ranking. What do you think I missed? What movie on the list do you think is a stone cold stinker? Most importantly, what movies are you looking forward to in 2019?