Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The New Boss

As Todd Robinson and Thuglit bid adieu with Last Writes... Plots With Guns picks up again with a completely boss new issue (lookit that swell design from N@B-alum Erik Lundy, eh? It is Lundy, right? It looks like Lundy).

Look at these lineups man: PWG has Benjamin Whitmer, Rusty Barnes, Patricia Abbott, Paul J. Garth, Leza Cantorel, Preston Lang, Math Bird and Paul Heatley,  and Thuglit's final barrage is S.A. Cosby, Mike McCrary, Dale T. Phillips, James Queally, Patrick Cooper, Nick Kolakowski, Nick Manzolillo, Aaron Fox-Lerner, Andrew Paul, Kyle Summerall, William Soldan and Blair Kroeber.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

The king may be dead, but the jester is running wild with the concubines. Don't forget Boo & Junior leave a big number two in a few short weeks. Rough Trade is landing soon, so stock up on Lysol and get The Hard Bounce under your belt if you haven't yet.

And next up for my summer reading is PWG contributor Rusty Barnes' new one Ridgerunner. Fucking loved Mostly Redneck and Reckoning. I'm counting on this brief novel to bonerfy my situation. And fuckin 280 Steps, man. Got new shit from C.J. Howell out and from Andrew Nette and Jonathan Ashley on the way. Pay attention.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Moonrunners & the Camaraderie of Poverty

S.A. Cosby's name may be familiar to you readers of Thuglit out there or possibly to listeners of The Crime Scene with Eryk Pruitt podcast where he's been a guest a couple of times discussing issues like race and rural noir, or maybe you were lucky enough to catch him at N@B-Durham a couple weeks back with Pruitt, S.L. Coney, Greg Barth, J. D. Rhoades, Katy Munger and Jay Wilburn. He teased this piece on the latest episode of  The Crime Scene and I'm sorry to have made everybody wait.

Johnny Shaw ain't the only one allowed to talk about c-movies from the seventies over here. Today Cosby talks about a 1975 dirty south outlaw picture with roots in Thunder Road and offspring still popping up on basic cable. Writer-director Gy Waldron has a pretty specific niche, but made an impact greater than the sum of his iMDB credits, and while most of that impact is camp and treacle, check out Cosby's piece for the personal significance and universal truths Moonrunners represents.

And for goodness sake keep your eyes peeled for his novel My Darkest Prayer in the near future.
Moonrunners and the Camaraderie of Poverty
by S.A. Cosby

There are certain things that poor rural people have in common regardless of age sex or race. We like cookouts. We adore sweet tea. We love to go to the Taste-Freeze or it's nearest geographical equivalent. We like to drink moonshine on a porch as the sun goes down or around a bonfire. We love fast cars with supercharged engines and souped up four barrel carburetors. And we absolutely adore movies that combine the last two activities. Old, young, black, white if you grew up in the rural South you are drawn to movies about good ol'boys in American muscle cars sticking it to the man or the man's associates.

One of my favorite movies in this genre is a grainy sepia toned 70's era low-budget gem called Moonrunners. Filmed in 1973 on a shoe-string budget and starring an assemblage of  B-movie veterans including James Mitchum, the son of Robert Mitchum (he inherited his father's perpetually sleepy eyes if not all of his talent), Moonrunners tells the tale of Uncle Jessie and his two nephews who produce the best moonshine in five counties. The movie recounts their efforts to maintain the purity of their shine and the efforts of a local political “Boss” to horn in on their illegal but honest enterprise.

Sound familiar yet?

Moonrunners was the basis for the Dukes of Hazzard. But where the Dukes played the plight of poor rural people forced to run moonshine to offset their dire economic predicament to comical effect, Moonrunners plays it mostly straight. Bobby Lee and Grady and Uncle Jessie have to run shine or starve. The cousins are beaten and harassed by local law enforcement who are working for Boss Jake Rainey. Their car is a suped-up 1955 Chevy that looks like they spent all  their money on the engine not the aesthetics.  In the movie characters actually die. Moonrunners isn't Oscar worthy but the film makers never look down their nose at their characters. They may be good 'ol boys but they are not buffoons.

As a ten year old who lived in a house with his mother, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, brother and great-uncle in a house with no indoor plumbing I first saw Moonrunners on the late movie one hot sultry Saturday night. We didn't have an air conditioner so we propped a big metal fan in the window. It sounded like a airplane taking flight but it cooled the house a few degrees. Sitting there in the floor I identified with Bobby Lee and Grady in ways my mind was not yet ready to articulate. I knew what it was like to get water from a hand pump in the front yard. I understood the joy of making something like shine. Something that was free and helped to dull the pain of abject poverty if only for a little while. I had cousins who were on probation that couldn't own guns just like the characters in Moonrunners. In the movies the lead characters weapons of choice were bows and arrows. My cousins preferred sawed-off pool cues but the idea was the same. More than anything I understood the freedom of riding down a two-lane blacktop country road at ninety miles an hour on a hot summer night with the windows open and the radio cranked all the way up until it almost hurt your ears.

The faces on the screen may have been white but the sentiments were the same.
We are poor.
We are proud.
We are put upon by outside forces.
We won't be denied our freedom.

Those are themes that a multitude of movies have tackled but those movies didn't resonate with me. I had never been a boxer working on the docks like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. I didn't know anyone who had been in the Dust Bowl like Tom Joad. But Bobby Lee and Grady?  I lived next door to them. I went to school with their kids. They like their grits the same way I liked mine.

Because of the deep and divisive history of slavery in the South many people would be hard pressed to see any common ground between poor whites and poor blacks. The first knee jerk reaction many African Americans may have is “Well they might be poor but they are still white.” And while this visceral idea is true in some context it is also a woefully short-sighted attitude in other respects. In my life I have found there are times I seem to have more in common with a poor southern white man than I do with a middle class black man from New York.

I've field dressed a deer on  a crisp Autumn morning. I've sucked honeysuckle in a field in June. I've shucked oysters with the scent of the sea still ripe in the air. I captured lightning bugs on a dark July night. I've ridden in the back of a pick-up to a football game. These and hundreds of other experiences are unique to the land below the Mason-Dixon. They are a form of shared connectivity that someone who grew up with sidewalks just can't access.

I'm pretty sure the makers of Moonruners were not trying to make some complex social statement when they were filming car chases on dirt roads through the Tennessee hills. And I won't lie to you and say that Moonrunners deserves induction into the Library of Congress. You will be hard pressed to find a copy of the movie in your local Wal-Mart bargain bin. However what the film makers did, perhaps better than anyone else except for the people who made Winter's Bone, was illustrate the reality of a form of poverty most people have not and never will experience. The type of poverty that leaves it's mark on you even after you get a flushing toilet and don't have to sit on the splinters in an outhouse. My family didn't have to contend with a Boss Rainey but we did have a Wetlands Commissioner who consistently denied our permit to get a septic tank.

There are other movies about poor rural living. Great films like Sounder or The Color Purple. Yet even though those films had an all or mostly all black cast their stories resonated with me on a different level than Moonrunners. Sounder was a story that reflected my mother's childhood. It spoke to a life she had lived. I understood what was going on in the film but I didn't understand it in a real intellecutal and intrinsic way. Not like my Mom did. I think I simply wasn't ready to dissect the subtext of a movie like that. Not at ten years old. Sounder is filet mignon. Moonrunners is fast food. As a kid I was able to easily digest the fast food. I had to learn an appreciation for the filet mignon. But both satiated my hunger.

Times have changed since I sat on my grandfather's living room floor and watched a grainy B movie that looked like it was filmed in my back yard. Kids don't seem to have the same love for muscle cars and unregulated liquor that puts hair on you chest. They would rather race cars through the streets of Liberty City.

But for us old guys films like Moonrunners remind us of a time when the smell of chitlins filled the house and grandma made the tea so sweet just looking at it gave you diabetes. A time where we ate gravy sandwiches until the next payday. When we were cash poor but rich in spirit. We have a tortured past in the south but sometimes, just sometimes we can outrun it for a little while. In  a big ol' Chevy with four on the floor and duals that sound like a pride of lions as it roars by. It was that idea a movie like Moonrunners was able to articulate to my impressionable mind all those many years ago.

The love of Freedom, like the fear of Poverty, is universal.

S.A.Cosby is a writer from southeastern Virginia. He has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including Thuglit, Shakespeare Goes Punk and The Age of Rococco. His fantasy novel Brotherhood of the Blade was published by HCS Publishing. He recently completed his first full length crime novel My Darkest Prayer.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Broken Mirrors: Mental Illness in Fiction and Film

I read Kristopher Triana's The Ruin Season in a single sitting, but in my memory it feels like I sat with it for quite a while. It covers a lot of ground familiar to crime fiction readers; small town sexual tensions, drugs, pornography, violent history threatening to repeat and mental illness, but finds a way to make each trope feel organic, unexpected and earned through a patient, deliberate attention to character set against an ever-encroaching countdown to armageddon.

We talked some about literary and cinematic depictions of mental illness (reading The Ruin Season I thought particularly of Ken Bruen's The Hackman Blues and Gerard Donovan's Julius Winsome) and I asked him for a piece discussing some of his favorites.

And that's what follows.

Look for The Ruin Season when it drops next week from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.

Broken Mirrors: Mental Illness in Fiction and Film
by Kristopher Triana

As an author with extreme bipolar disorder, I’m often astounded by how poorly mental illness is portrayed in fiction. Movies and television are particularly guilty of misrepresenting sickness of the mind, demonizing schizophrenics as serial killers and mocking bipolar people by making them the but of jokes in terrible comedies like Welcome to Me. Books often do a better job at portraying the subject with more accuracy and sensitivity, but novels are also often ripe with mean-spirited clichés that only further the social stigma of been afflicted by such a condition.

While I tend to just classify myself as bipolar, the fact is that I’ve suffer from bipolar disorder/schizoaffective disorder and intermittent explosive disorder all of my life but, because of the shaming stigma, I have kept it relatively secret until recently, as the truth about my condition has been revealed through my own fiction; partly to give a more serious representation of these disorders, and partly for my own catharsis.

But over the years, there have been some glimmers that have poked through the hackneyed debris, films and novels that depict mentally ill characters not just as murderous psychopaths and neurotic eccentrics, but as relatable protagonists. These wonderful pieces of fiction are not only entertaining, they give their audience an authentic look into the swallowing abyss of madness.

Affliction is an excellent example of this. It perfectly captures the intensity of bipolar mood swings, the wreckage left by delusions, and the horrible aftermath of child abuse. The film is a slow burn powerhouse, much like the onslaught of a mixed-manic state, a bipolar flare-up that twists reality, causing the sufferer to have paranoid rage, delusions of grandeur and yet also crippling depression. The character of Wade suffers a mixed-manic state through the course of the film, and is immaculately played by Nick Nolte. This is by far the best look at a bipolar breakdown that has ever been put to film. The source material is a novel by the same name by Russell Banks, which is equally brilliant and tender.

And there are other films that do an excellent job with individual disorders.

Falling Down is the story of a man with intermittent explosive disorder, a condition that causes the sufferer to lash out at others with more aggression than the situation may warrant. Throughout the film, a man known to us as D-Fens (Michael Douglas) rampages his way through L.A., trying to get home to his estranged family for his little girl’s birthday. The movie is as explosive as the disorder it portrays, D-Fens shooting and stabbing some of the street criminals and skinheads he comes in contact with. What sets him apart from a typical movie maniac is the fact that his victims have it coming.

Clean, Shaven is a stellar depiction of the schizophrenic mind, and Peter Greene gives a powerful performance as a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital, even though he clearly isn’t well. The movie follows him as he tries to find some way to carry on in society, and impressively the film even manages to tap upon the stigma of mental illness, as he is pursued for horrible crimes based solely on the fact that he is schizophrenic. It is one of the most unsettling films on this or any list.

Matchstick Men is a solid film, not just for being an intriguing crime story, but also for its exceptional depiction of an obsessive-compulsive drifter. Some may find Nicolas Cage scrubbing his house from top to bottom as comical, but I don’t feel like the movie is encouraging the audience to laugh at these scenes, it’s all just a result of the stigma. In my opinion, Matchstick Men makes a point to show just how crippling such a disorder can be.

Revolution #9 tells the story of a schizoaffective man as his life becomes unraveled by his own mental tailspin. He becomes paranoid and delusional, and the nonsensical conspiracy he convinces himself of causes him to attack an innocent director before his fiancé is able to get a court order to put him into an institution against his will. One of the greatest things about this movie is showing how mental illness affects the lives of the people who love the person with the disorder. Revolution #9 so mirrored my own experiences that I found it very hard to watch. The film is so affective and accurate that it feels like a documentary or biopic.

While these films do not represent the mentally ill as horror movie clichés, that isn’t to say that they’re not scary films. They are. Mental illness is a scary thing, certainly the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s terrifying to have your world completely distorted. You become trapped in a cyclonic, waking nightmare, fearing invisible enemies, conspiracies and experiments. You may attack your closest friends. Your outbursts can destroy relations and cost you your job. Worst of all, if and when you realize you’re mentally ill, you begin to feel the weight of the stigma, and the paralyzing fear of wondering if you’ll ever be sane again. A mental disorder leaves deep emotional scars that you wear where no one else can see.

There are other films that delve into these and other disorders with clarity and apt darkness, such as The Machinist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the champion of them all. But just because a movie has a mentally ill character in it, that doesn’t mean that the whole movie has to revolve around mental illness. It can still manage a truthful depiction of said character. An example of this would be in Sin City, the Robert Rodriguez film based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller. Marv (magnificently played by Mickey Rourke) is a down-and-out thug who goes on a vengeful manhunt after a prostitute is murdered. We’re told that he has “a condition”, and there is an incredible moment in the film where he has a moment of self-doubt during his assassination spree, in which he begins to question his own sanity in relation to the conspiracy he has uncovered. His inner monologue is a masterful representation of the struggles of mental illness, in the least likely of movies.

“What if I’m wrong? I’ve got a condition. I get confused sometimes. What if I’ve imagined all of this? What if I’ve finally turned into everything they always said I was gonna turn into? A maniac. A psycho killer.”

This shows us that even an outrageous comic book film can delve into the subtle nuances of disorders. The mentally ill on screen don’t always have to be serial killers and quirky weirdos.

And then there are the novels, which are usually superior because the written word allows greater access to the core of the human mind and heart. Films like Affliction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are excellent films because the novels they’re based on have excellent stories.

Hubert Selby Jr. is probably the best writer you can find when it comes to mental illness in fiction. Whether it’s a mind distorted by repressed sexuality (Last Exit to Brooklyn) drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), or lust and thrill seeking (The Demon), Selby’s work touches on the broken inner life with unmatched grace. His novel The Room pulls us into the life of a man who is living an anti-life, locked away in a room, suffering its sensory deprivation. The novel chronicles a complete and total mental breakdown with blistering prose and an empathetic voice, showing the reader that mental illness could happen to anyone under the right conditions.

Other books that come to mind are Vladimir Nabokov’s The Eye, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Each of these books contains shocking violence, but their mentally unsound lead characters are not just watered-down Norman Bates types; they’re fleshed-out and complex – even poetic – and that makes all the difference. The arch of each book is the main character’s descent into madness, which spirals them into their irrational, criminal behavior, rather than taking the cheap route of showing a straight-jacket bound lunatic busting free from an asylum that’s more like a haunted house attraction than a hospital.

The less lazy horror novels that address mental illness usually do so with great creativity. Some keep the reader on edge, using horror’s leanings towards monsters and demons to make the reader guess whether the characters are actually experiencing something supernatural or if it is all in their minds. Great examples of this can be found in Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and Nicole Cushing’s Mr. Suicide, as well as William Peter Blatty’s classic The Exorcist and its underrated sequel Legion.

There’s no better example of books better representing mental illness than American Psycho. The film is amusing, but holds none of the disturbing realism of Bret Easton Ellis’s book. The novel is told from Patrick Bateman’s point of view, and he talks about his life and desires diary-style, documenting his downward spiral, speaking of his murderous atrocities with the same passion which he talks of designer CD racks and imported suits. There are whole chapters dedicated to nothing more than his opinions on the music of Genesis and the texture of business cards. While tedious to read (and Ellis admits this), these portions of the book give the reader and intimate look into a sick and obsessive mind, which the movie lacks despite its efforts.

To those of you who may have seen and read only a handful of the above, I strongly recommend you pursue them. Not only are they incredible works, they will open your eyes to the reality of mental illness despite the fact that they are works of fiction. As writers, authenticity is our greatest tool when it comes to producing quality characters. If you’re going to write about mental illness, learn about it. Don’t just go off of what you’ve seen in a thousand serial killer movies. It is important that we all come together and try to better understand these disorders, so we can do away with the tired stereotypes that do so much damage to people who have already suffered enough. People with mental disorders aren’t to be feared or mocked. Would you fear or mock someone with a heart defect? They’re also not to be pitied. Like the handicapped, we don’t want to be treated differently, just fairly.
We’re just people, like you.

And at any point in time, you could be one of us.

Kristopher Triana is the author of the short story collection Growing Dark and the novel The Ruin Season, the latter of which deals heavily with bipolar disorder. His short fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. He works as a professional dog trainer and lives in North Carolina with his wife.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Silent Waters: Narrative Music

You know, you put the call out there for guest pieces about songs that tell a dark story and you expect a murder ballad or two, but I've been waiting for a proper metal or rap entry a surprisingly long time (hey, Jordan Harper I think you threatened to do both). Today K. Eason author of the just released Enemy contributed this piece about the song Silent Waters by Finnish metal band, Amorphis. Story? Check. Dark? Uh-huh. Grisly? Just a bit. Buckle up.

If you survive the crash check out K.'s own brand of dark fantasy.

Silent Waters 
by K. Eason

It starts with a body in the river. A young man's body, not much more than a boy.

His name is Lemminkainen, and he was trying court a young woman from Tuoni. Of course there's a young woman at the root of this. That can't surprise anyone.

Tuoni lies far to the north, cold and dark, bordered by a black river. It's a magic land, guarded by a snake (or a dragon--the stories conflict). The people of Tuoni are good and bad, like most folks. But unlike most folks, they're dead. You see, Tuoni is the underworld, or the otherworld, and living people aren't welcome there.

Lemminkainen was never one to pay attention to rules.

And now he's a body in the river, the black river.

That young woman, who is Louhi's daughter, she must really be something. Princess of the land of the dead and all. Truth is, she's very beautiful. Young women at the center of stories like this always are. Truth is, she's very powerful. She'll inherit Tuoni someday, and all the power of life and death.

Truth is, this young woman's mother--Louhi, Tuoni's queen--disapproved of the courtship. She thought this boy Lemmi (can we call you that, son?) wasn't good enough. What young man is, for an only daughter?

But you don't say no to young men. That just makes them more determined. You set them tasks. Make them prove themselves. And when they fail--and they do fail, like Lemmi failed, as Louhi knew he would--they end up dead in the river.

Only Lemmi has a mother, too. She warned him about Louhi's daughter. She told him, don't do this thing. But he did, of course he did. What young man listens to his mother when there's a beautiful girl to court? Young men think they're immortal.

Mothers, women--they know better.

A day’s light told me of my son’s fate
The sun showed the way, grim and severe
Pulled under the raging waters, my child
Sank in the drowning currents, my son

Lemmi's mother has magic.

But when she arrives on the bank of this black, black river, she sees there's the guardian slithering in the shadows--but oh, there, in the water, that black water: her son.

Only he's not just dead. He's in pieces. The guardian, the ghosts--they don't much care for the living.

Lemminkainen's mother has magic, but not enough. And here's where she does what mothers do when they've exhausted all their resources. She asks for help.

I plead for you, oh lightning, forge an iron tool
A magic rake for dragging a river for my son

Because iron, the forging of it--that's magic, too. Human magic, smith magic. A magic that doesn't come from blood and darkness.

God of fire, bring your light
Forger of sun, help me now

The gods of sky, now, they don't have a lot of love for Louhi. They grant Lemminkainen's mother her wish, her rake. And they lend their own magic. Light and warmth that drive the dead back into the shadows and lull the guardian to sleep.

Then Lemmi's mother walks beside that black, black river and she rakes and rakes. And when she's found Lemmi, all of him, she uses her magic to stitch him back together.

This, she can do. A magic born of blood and darkness.

It starts with a body. It ends with a mother doing what mothers do, bringing life out of nothing.

my child, my son

K. Eason started telling tales in her early childhood. After earning two degrees in English literature, she decided to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to writing her own. Now she teaches first-year college students about the zombie apocalypse, Aristotelian ethics, and Beowulf[MM1] (not all at once). She lives in Southern California with her husband and two black cats, and she powers everything with coffee.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Man in the Box

Needle drop of Pie IX by Suuns took me out of the story I was working on 'cause it's nearly impossible for me to hear that song without thinking of it's effective utilization in the trailer for David Mackenzie's prison flick Starred Up.

Man. What a fucking amazing film that was. What revelation Jack O'Connell was, what a confirmation of all my faith in Ben Mendelsohn, what a tightrope act to keep from dropping into either nihilism or sentimentality. What a motherfucker of a ride. O'Connell has yet to appear in anything looking like it could touch the quality of Starred Up (Money Monster? oof), but I'm hoping director Mackenzie's next one, Hell or High Water, delivers. The trailer didn't do a lot for me,  but the talent on screen (Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges), and off (Mackenzie and Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan) plus the subject matter -heartland bank robbers- have enough pull to get me out to see it.

Anyhow I got to thinking of my favorite prison films and something struck me as strange - the next three that occurred to me, Jacques Becker's Le Trou, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, were all French films. Plus the fourth, Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon, is based on the memoir of frenchman Henri Charriere and a fifth, Jules Dassin's Brute Force, was made just a few years before the director had to leave the USA in order to find work due to all that blacklist bullshit in the states. He lived in Europe after that and though he didn't speak French, made one of the best French crime films of the 1950s, the seminal heist flick Rififi (come to think of it, Papillon's screenplay was written by blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo too... huh.) Weird.

But... is it just coincidence that the first associations I have with great prison flicks have French connections? 
I mentioned this on FB and immediately Andrew Nette refuted the notion of French dominance of incarceration dramatics citing it as Australia's national specialty. As evidence he dropped titles like Alkinos Tsilimidos's Everynight... Everynight, Stephen Wallace's Stir (starring Nette's favorite avatar Bryan Brown) and Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (from director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave no less). Fuck me, I haven't seen any of those. When I think of Oz prison films the first thing that pops in to my head is Andrew Dominik's Chopper and... I might even accept Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright as a psychological prison film. So.. yeah, getting on it.

I dunno... that's all.