Fabulous New Review of Perfections

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermottKyla Ward has reviewed the paperback edition of Perfections over at Tabula Rasa. I guess she kinda liked it:

With only a slight shift of perspective, this could be a razor-edged depiction of the worst month in the lives of two sisters. The month one ends a four-year relationship. The month their mother dies. It could be that story; only then readers like me wouldn’t touch it. Readers like me need the gloss, the promise of something beyond. And that is exactly where the horror of Perfections lies.

The full review lives here.

And, of course, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to remind you that copies of Perfections can be snagged over at Twelfth Planet Press in both print and digital formats. 🙂

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Perfections: what a nice way to end the year!

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermottAs the last day of 2012 rolls over and plays dead — or maybe is dead; I hope, I wish; I hate you 2012, don’t let the door hit you on the arse on the way out — Sean Wright of the prolific Adventures of a Bookonaut blog (and fledgling podcast) has posted an excellent review of my new novel, Perfections. It’s excellent not because it’s positive — but it is positive, so sparkles and ponies for everyone! — but because he is so very careful not to give anything away. And this is a book that could too easily be slayed by a careless spoiler.  Of all the lovely things the review has to say, my favourite line is this one:

The writing is smooth flowing prose that seems effortless but that I suspect was agonising to refine.

If only you knew, Sean. If only you knew. There’s actual blood on the manuscript — okay, that’s from a paper cut, but the symbolism speaks volumes. I think I might compose a handful of blog posts about the writing of Perfections in the new year. It was the most difficult piece of fiction I’ve ever worked on, for a variety of complex, stubborn and sometimes stupid reasons, and I still have, shall we say, an interesting relationship with this this particular novel. We’ll see. One of my resolutions for 2013 is not to beat myself up over all the blog posts that I want to write but never find time to finish.

Anyway. Seeing Perfections out in the world at last is a great way to finish off 2012 for me. I hope your 2013 is all you wish it to be, with some fabulous surprises lurking along the way.

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Midnight Mass at the Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the WoodsLast Friday I went to a late-night, once-only screening of The Cabin in the Woods at the lovely old Astor Theatre here in Melbourne. I’d been looking forward to this for a while, albeit in a somewhat low-key way, and expected to have a pretty good time with this movie. Joss Whedon bringing his Pop Culture Home Dissection Kit to the slasher/horror film — a genre close to my heart, if one that has admittedly disappointed me time and time again over the years. (Oh but when they are good, they are very, very good.) Plus the director was Drew Goddard who helmed wrote Cloverfield, a film I admired for its smart, ambitious take on the Giant Monster Kills City movie — huge bonus points for what might possibly be the best ever use of the problematic “found footage” conceit to actually show back story, rather than have characters simply talk about their past. That was seriously smart.

Anyway. The Cabin in the Woods. Late Friday night. Wildberry choc ices and a packed, enthusiastic theatre. Fun times ahead, right?

Well, the times … they were complicated. Throughout the screening — amidst the uproarious laughter, delighted gasps, expectant near-silences, and low buzz of occasional commentary — I became gradually aware of an odd feeling, some kind of weird emotional reaction that was both strange and strangely familiar, but which I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t just about what was happening on the screen, but what was happening in the theatre as well. It was a response to the entire experience of that Friday night, and it wasn’t until the movie was over that I managed to pin the damn thing down.

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So This is What Lapsing Feels Like

Allow me a small, but pertinent digression. I was raised a Catholic. (Technically, I’m still a Catholic, as the Vatican doesn’t do much in the way of excommunication by request any more, and yeppers, it irks me.) I stopped going to church regularly around age fifteen, when I convinced my mother that I was old enough to make up my own mind about what I believed in and Catholicism wasn’t it. But my mother still went, enforcing the attendance of my two younger sisters for a few more years until they, too, put their teenage feet down. We’d all still go along for an Easter or Christmas service, because it was important to Mum, but after a while I stopped doing that as well.

CandlesOne of the important services on the Catholic calendar is the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve leading into the wee hours of Christmas morning. As kids, my sisters and I used to love this particular mass because it meant staying up late, getting dressed in our good clothes and going out into the dark — all with parental encouragement! One Christmas when I was in my early twenties, possibly the year before I moved to Melbourne, which would have made me twenty-two, Mum asked me to come along to Midnight Mass again with the family and I agreed. No skin off my nose, really. I didn’t believe — and so I wouldn’t take communion — but it would make Mum happy and it would likely be the last time I would go to church with her. At this stage I hadn’t been to any kind of a service for quite a few years.

The experience was strange and disconcerting. The mass was completely familiar to me — even after my years of non-attendance, I could still recite everything in my sleep — but, at the same time, utterly alien. I could go through all the motions, knew exactly what to expect as the mass progressed, and yet … and yet … I was no longer a participant in any true sense. I was no longer of these people and I didn’t — I couldn’t — believe what they believed. To be frank, I could no longer even see why they believed what they believed. The distance, the disconnect, between them — between the beliefs of a much younger me — and myself, now, was impossible to bridge. But still, the mass was so, so familiar. The kind of familiarity which should have been a comfort but which, because I was now a non-believer, felt quite the opposite.

This didn’t come from the other people in the church, I hasten to add. No one gave me the stink-eye or said anything either before or after the mass which wasn’t perfectly friendly and welcoming. It was all internal. I no longer shared their faith and was thus fundamentally unable to occupy the same psychological space they did. I was sharing their experience as an Outsider, yes, but as an Outsider who was once an Insider. It was, as I said, a strange and disconcerting feeling to have — and one that was entirely new to me — and I decided that it would be the last time I would attend mass outside of weddings and funerals. It just didn’t feel right.

Which brings me back to last Friday night and the realisation, as the credits rolled and we shuffled out amid a hoard of obviously satisfied punters, that my experience of The Cabin in the Woods felt exactly the same as being in church all those years ago for midnight mass. I remembered the loud, prolonged laughter at jokes that were, on average, really not that hilarious; the cheering and clapping at scenes so obviously scripted to elicit such enthusiastic responses; the knowing guffaws at the multitude of pop cultural references and in-jokes; the vocal delight expressed at the roles filled by known stars from the Whedonverse. I looked at the people around me, chatting and repeating lines from the film to each other, people who for the most part inhabited  that very visible demographic which I’m going to label — a little unfairly, but not totally inaccurately — as indie-hipster-geek. (Counting myself in for at least two out of those three parts, with enough self-conscious irony on occasion to scoop the hat trick.)

Wow, I thought to myself. This is the Church of Joss.*

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And now we must pause for the requisite warning that Here There Be Spoilers. I’m going to talk a lot about what happens in The Cabin in the Woods for the rest of this post. Especially the ending. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet and you don’t want to … blah blah blah blah … you know the damn drill. Still with me? Let’s continue.

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Irony Will Not Save Us

Here’s the thing. You know how ironic racism still looks and sounds just like racism? Well, when you set out to make an ironically bad slasher movie, you run a very high risk of ending up with something that looks and sounds just like a bad slasher movie. No amount of wink-winking and nudge-nudging with your audience — even if they are very much your audience — is going to change that.

So if you’re going to criticise horror flicks for the way in which they first sexualise girls and then punish them for being sexual — a very valid criticism to be sure — I don’t think the best way to go about it is by sexualising and punishing girls of your own. When we first see Dana — and we are seeing rather than meeting her, being as we’re outside the house, peering into her bedroom — she is dancing around in her underwear in front of several open windows in full view of the street. Fine if you’re drawing a initial character sketch, but the rest of the movie repeatedly underscores the fact that Dana is absolutely not the type of girl who a) would dance around in her underwear in front of anyone who might happen to walk by; or b) is so clueless that she doesn’t realise that anyone could see through her open window in broad daylight. So why do we see her in her underwear? Because the Gratuitous Girl In Underwear Shot is a staple of bad horror movies. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. But how does the irony help? We are still introduced to the female lead — who will almost, but not really, become our Final Girl — in her underwear, and watch as she is then quite literally schooled and lightly humiliated by her best friend’s boyfriend for being in her underwear. Ironic male gaze is still … um, totally male gazey.

Cabin in the WoodsConsider the sequence which takes place shortly after our five soon-to-be-sacrifices reach the cabin. After removing a hideous painting from the wall in his room, Holden discovers a one-way mirror looking into the room next door … where an oblivious Dana is adjusting her hair, checking her teeth and then beginning to undress. After a few moments watching his prospective date unbutton her shirt, Holden gets to demonstrate his Good Guy cred by thumping on the wall and alerting Dana to the whole creepy looking glass issue. They swap rooms, so Dana will feel more secure, after which she gets to perve a little on Holden getting his shirt off and unbuckling his belt before she finally throws a blanket over the offending mirror. The sequence is a nice little reflection of what is happening in the movie itself — the staff in the control room watching an oblivious group of kids about to be slaughtered — but it’s also a beautiful illustration of false equivalence. The first part of the sequence — Holden watching Dana — is the literal epitome of the male gaze. Holden is in control of the situation, with the power to call a halt at any time, while Dana is utterly unaware that she is being watched, that her body is being assessed. It’s the relationship between the (presumed male) audience of your average trashy slasher flick and the female actors on the screen writ large. Clever, right? But the second part, I dunno. If it’s meant to redress some kind of balance by showing that girls will similarly jump the chance to check out a half-naked guy, that hey, everyone will scope the hot body next door, so it’s really not a gender thing, then it fails big time. Because Holden knows Dana can see him. His striptease is a performance, made from a position of power and knowledge. The control of this scene is, again, in Holden’s hands. Girls in bad slasher films are seldom so lucky.

Cabin in the WoodsThen we have Jules. Our poor, dumb-blonde “celebutart” who is being drugged into both hypersexuality and ultrastupidity. We have the kissing scene with the wolf — masterfully acted and directed; who wasn’t waiting for those big white teeth to come to life and rip her face off? — the fireside dance and, of course, the bare-breasted sex scene in the woods immediately preceding her death by rusty crosscut saw. Tick all those bad horror movie boxes. And yes, we have the editing between all of this and the scenes in the control room. The constant manipulation, the crowd of spectators — all male, just this once — awaiting the money shot, the achingly deadpan response — “Score” — from Hadley when Jules’ top finally does come off. But for all clever winks and nudges, what’s really happening here? There is a still a beautiful, oblivious young woman getting naked not simply for the pleasure of herself and her lover, but for an unseen audience rendered here in triplicate with extra meta. Now watch her get punished for it. Brutally, cruelly punished in a scene played straight down the slasher movie line. I’m not seeing where the irony helps to critique or reclaim or recalibrate a tired old genre. If anything, it serves to remove the audience from the horror. For we are the Whedon audience, the audience who watches but gets nowhere near this particular cabin in the woods — because if we’re anywhere in this film, we’re in the control room, safely in on the joke.

And let’s not even start with the gaping logic holes right now, except to point out the twee ludicrousness of the exchange between control room staff at this point. When Truman asks whether or not it matters if Jules shows her breasts, Hadley reminds him that they’re not the only ones watching. “Gotta keep the customer satisfied,” adds Sitterson in a monotone. So, um, the great elder gods lurking beneath the floor are interested in seeing a young human woman’s mammaries? Really? But only an American woman, right? That must be the special ritual they’ve set up just for those in the USA. Because please don’t tell me the nine-year-old girls over in Japan are also getting their kit off at some stage. Because … no, I said I wouldn’t start with the logic stuff yet. And besides, we’re forgetting the old wink-wink, nudge-nudge. See, what they’re really talking about is the audiences of bad horror movies and how we — the Whedon audience — are so obviously above such tawdriness. Because we are sitting alongside the guys in the control room — we didn’t come to see this horror movie for the tits, but hell, if we have to watch them, you know, with our omg-how-bored-am-I-right-now faces on …

Ironic male gaze, ironic gratuitous nudity, ironic torturous death as punishment for female sexuality … don’t they all look kinda like the real thing to you?

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Back in the Dollhouse

You know how once you notice something, you see it everywhere? When it comes to female leads, even female supports, in the Whedonverse, there’s a recurring physical type. She’s young, slender verging on skinny at times, long of leg and modest of breast, with at least mid-length but more usually long and flowing hair, and she’s always smaller than her male counterparts. It’s a physique that denotes a harmless normative femininity as much as it does vulnerability and a need for protection — but of course, our girl will prove to be anything but vulnerable. We see it in Buffy, especially in the later seasons as the actors grew up with their characters, and it’s epitomised by River Tam in Firefly**, but where I first really noticed it was in Dollhouse. Which is possibly why the label I have in my head is “Joss’s Dolls”.  As in, “Oh look, Cabin in the Woods, you have a couple more of Joss’s Dolls.”

River TamI get it, I do. The contrast between a character’s petite physical presence and the totally mad skillz she will soon display is delicious. Underestimation by her enemies was one of the things that made Buffy work so well, and when it comes to underestimating women, our physical abilities — or presumed lack thereof — are often near the top of the list. Don’t judge us by our covers, is a subtext that an audience — especially a Whedon audience — can wholeheartedly identify with, plus the whole David vs Goliath motif makes for some tasty visuals and witty dialogue opportunities. But even the best devices wear thin, and there is a whole world of female body shapes and modes of physical appearance out there to choose from. Morever, The Cabin in the Woods didn’t play these cards. Dana and Jules weren’t deceptively slight girls who turned into awesome Kickers Of All The Arse; the physical juxtaposition wasn’t there. Instead we have, again, the stereotypical Girl in Slasher Film: Looking Good While Being Butchered with no critical commentary on the trope. And yes, I am fully aware that this is not a problem unique to the Whedonverse and that the physical representation of women in the western media is about as narrow as an infected urethra and twice as toxic. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking the producers of our cultural media — especially those widely and frequently hailed as Great Feminist Allies — to do better. Because they can. Because the Whedon audience will be there with bells on.

While I’m at it, I’d like to ask for something else. I want to see a girl who’s kinda scruffy, kinda plain and ordinary looking, but cool enough not to care. Strike that, it’s not about being cool enough — the subject of her looks, of makeup and salon-perfect hair and sexy clothes, simply never crosses her radar. A girl who’s intelligent and who knows her shit, but who’s also a bit bit goofy from time to time. Physically goofy, intellectually goofy. A girl who everyone likes to have around but who never comes across as a fifth wheel even though she isn’t hooked up with anyone — or showing any particular signs of wanting to hook up with anyone. Because she is comfortable and self-assured and supported in her identity by the narrative in which she features. You know, the everygeek. Because that staple of pop culture — exemplified in The Cabin in the Woods by Marty — is never, ever a woman. Not for long. Not without ridicule or threat of punishment. Not even in the Whedonverse.

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Oh Great Sage, What Sayest Thou?

So let’s have a closer look at Marty who, we are explicitly told on several occasions, plays the role of the Fool. Of course, culturally and symbolically, this also means that he plays the Sage, the Wise Man, the Teller of All Truth. (Fools, being traditionally gendered male, get to inhabit dual roles. Traditional female dichotomies, such as Madonna/Whore, are almost always split between two different and often opposing women; girls are not allowed the same complexity and contradiction of self.)  In the role of Sage, Marty shows his colours early, waxing lyrical on the way to the cabin: “Society needs to crumble. We’re just all too chicknshit to let it.” I think you can pretty much flag this statement as the truth-line of the whole movie. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed several times, especially in the final scenes — and we’ll get to those soon, don’t worry.

Cabin in the WoodsMarty is the designated voice of snark and reason — the de facto voice of the Whedon audience — in The Cabin in the Woods. He refutes the notion that the ominous cellar door was opened by a gust of wind, suggests that it might be imprudent to read the Latin phrase from the creepy diary, and questions the wisdom of the four remaining survivors splitting up into separate rooms. As Fool, he is duly ignored. As Sage, he is proven right time and time again. As Fool, Marty is also the one who improbably escapes the homicidal clutches of cannibal-sadist Judah Buckner. As Sage, he finds the hidden cameras, the concealed elevator, and begin to puts together the pieces of a weekend which, to him, never felt quite right. And then he comes back to rescue Dana with the Fool/Sage weapon of choice, his Super Awesome Telescopic Bong of Truth (with Optional Coffee Cup).

Now, Dana. By all rights, she should be our Final Girl. The one who manages, usually through wit and ingenuity, to survive her fellow slasher movie cohorts long enough to defeat the Great Evil by which they are all beset. In some films, she manages to walk away from the horror at the end, although her psychological state is definitely up for grabs. In others, she dies or is carted off to a mental asylum. In more recent downbeat times, the sole survivor often appears to have vanquished the Great Evil, only to have her foe re-emerge at the very, very end to complete the slaughter — showing us that everything  she went through, all her struggles and sacrifice, were for nought. Downbeat, yes, very much so. The Cabin in the Woods cleverly plays with this last scenario, having an exhausted and water-logged Dana haul herself up onto the dock for a few quiet moments before Judah Buckner once again bursts into frame with his gruesome bear-trap. Cue loud music and fade to the control room after party in lieu of closing credits. The staff don’t care that Dana is being brutally beaten and (presumably) murdered on the screens behind them because her death doesn’t matter one way or another. For them, the story is over. Just like an audience at the end of a bad downbeat slasher movie, leaving the theatre without a thought to the downbeat Final Girl being tortured behind the rock music and closing credits. Clever, right?

Cabin in the WoodsOnly Dana isn’t really a Final Girl in this movie. Instead, she is the Protected Girl. Protected by Curt, Holden and Marty, and moreover by the control room itself — because she must die last, if at all, if we even care by that point. She doesn’t survive so long because she is smart or resourceful or courageous, but because the narrative requires it. (And, yes, she does stab Judah Buckner through the eye in order to save Holden; I’m not saying she’s completely helpless, I’m saying she’s protected. There is a difference.) Now, while there is some very nice meta mojo in play here, it’s a shame that it has to be done at the expense of yet more female agency. Even at the very end, when Dana and Marty have broken the fourth wall and should no longer be constrained by the demands of bad slasher movies, she is robbed of the most important decision she will ever be required to make. Dana doesn’t decide to save the world by shooting Marty. Dana doesn’t decide not to save the world by not killing Marty. Instead she is attacked by a random werewolf. From which she has to be rescued yet again by our Fool/Sage who then claims the whole To Save Or Not To Save choice for himself.

(And do I really need to point out the uncomfortable bookending here? That the werewolf attack on Dana is an echo of the mock seduction scene performed earlier in the cabin by Jules? That, as designated Virgin/Whore, the girls are symbolically two sides of the same female coin? That therefore the lesson to be drawn, yet again, is: girls who tease wolves should expect to get bitten? No, I didn’t think so.)

What irks most is that Joss Whedon already knows this stuff. After all, Buffy originally came to life as a conscious subversion of the Final Girl trope — the beautiful, sassy, non-academically-minded blonde cheerleader who got to have sex when she wanted to without ever dying horribly — or at least, permanently — for audience entertainment at the hands of some Great Evil. So why all the backwards steps with The Cabin in the Woods? Why would you think that replicating all the bad shit that happens in crappy slasher films could in any way be redeemed simply by layering on an expositional meta-narrative with added snark? It only serves to further distance the audience — the clever, pop-culturally literate Whedon audience — from all levels of horror on the screen, which is surely no redemption at all. See above, about Irony and the Not Saving Us.

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Rolling Out the Big Barrels of Stupid

Bad horror films don’t believe in Occam’s Razor. Instead, they tend to overcomplicate things, building more and more extravagant houses of cards to explain precisely why their characters are being hunted and killed by means too often elaborate and prolonged. Because bad horror films — like bad action films, and bad science fiction films, and any genre too easily entranced by empty spectacle — tend to revolve around a series of effects-saturated set pieces, with the script existing merely to funnel their unfortunate characters from one grand guignol sequence to the next. Because of this, the underlying premise/explanation often turns out to be very, very stupid. The kind of stupid that usually requires entire fleets of dockside cranes to be enlisted for the suspension of audience disbelief.

Unfortunately, The Cabin in the Woods decides to replicate this aspect of bad horror films as well. And what is the explanation we are ultimately given for the onscreen shenanigans? Giant Evil Gods. Ancient ones who used to rule the earth at some unspecified time in the presumably distant past, but who have for some reason now agreed to live beneath the earth in exchange for the secret ritual sacrifice of … well, it’s complicated. If you’re in the United States, it appears to be five archetypal young men and women — you need at least two women, don’t forget, one for the virginity and one for the tits; them elder gods, they do love them some tits. If you’re in Japan, a whole gaggle of pre-teen schoolgirls will do. If you’re … no, let’s have The Director, played by former Final Girl and Whedon audience darling Sigourney Weaver, explain:

It’s different in every culture. It has changed over the years. It has always required youth. There must be at least five: the whore — she’s corrupted, she dies first — the athlete, the scholar, the fool, all suffer and die at the hands of whatever horror they have raised, leaving last, to live or die as fate decides, the virgin.

Sound familiar? That might not just be because of all the horror movies you’ve seen. It might also be because we’ve already had it explained to us several times in the course of this movie. I mean, how slow on the uptake do Whedon and Goddard think we are? In the service of being funny, they’ve told us. In the service of being clever, they’ve told us. In the service of being cool, they’ve told us and told us and told us. In fact, being funny and clever and cool is given preference over just about anything else in The Cabin in the Woods. Including horror. Including shock. Including emotional connection. Because of the funny-cool eagle scene near the beginning of the movie, for example, we know exactly what is going to happen to Curt on that motorbike, and thus we do not share in the horrified, confused reactions of Holden and Dana when he predictably hits the forcefield. Because of funny-cool betting scenes and the clever-cool exposition back when our five victims enter the cellar, we know they they are unwittingly responsible for choosing the manner of their deaths, and thus we do not share Dana’s horrified revelation in the elevator shaft as she confronts the faux-Cenobite, nor her furious emotional response. We’re way ahead of you, honey. Buck up, and let’s move on to the good stuff.

Cabin in the Woods

No, wait. Let’s go back a little. Ancient gods. Different for every culture. Changed over the years. And yet youth is always a requirement, as is the need for at least five victims. What the what? Always? Since when, the 1970s? Seriously, just when and where was all this ritual sacrifice of whore-athlete-scholar-fool-virgin supposed to be going on? Did the makers of slasher movies just accidentally happen across the formula? Did the makers of horror movies all over the world just happen across the formulas specific to their culture? Or do we suppose The Cabin in the Woods takes place in a different world where there are no horror movies? And why are some details of the ritual so important to the elder gods — the archetypes, the killing order — and others seem so arbitrarily optional — doesn’t matter if she’s not really a virgin, doesn’t matter if your sacrifices break the fourth fucking wall. In fact, considering that both the environment and the degree of knowledge/choice on the part of the sacrifices seem entirely optional so long as everyone’s dead by daybreak, why go to all that trouble in the first place? Far easier, far safer for everyone, to send your sacrifices one by one into a controlled arena with a monster they’ve drawn from a lucky dip. (I’m sure you can still make the whore take her top off.) Your house of cards, it is falling, falling.

But, okay, let’s handwave the premise and pretend there are really, really good reasons why everything has to play out precisely the way it does in the woods, and why we get to take a pass on some of those pesky ritual sacrifice specs. Giant Evil Gods move in Mysteriously Giant Evil Ways, after all. I still want to know why, once Dana and Marty leave the arena with all its traps and tools of manipulation, they bring the stupid with them. The Cabin in the Woods sells itself as a clever critique of just how dumb bad slasher movies can be and how their much-maligned characters really don’t stand a chance in the face of inane narrative tropes that are unfairly rigged against them from the start. Stupid people do stupid things in stupid slasher films because stupid. So once our intended victims leave the artificial world of the stupid slasher film, things should be better, right? Because we’re in the smart horror movie now. Which is why our control room staff take so long to pin down the escapees instead of just checking the elevator cell that held the Buckners. And why a lone guard is on hand to intercept Dana and Marty in the elevator cell and why he doesn’t immediately shoot them instead of moving inside onto a zombie hand while telling them to step out. And why the huge underground zoo designed to keep All The Bad Things contained comes with a handy and apparently use-intuitive red button installed in the guardhouse to release them all at the same time. And why The Director herself comes completely unarmed into the collection chamber to ask very nicely if Marty would like to sacrifice himself. You know, once she gets her redundant exposition out of the way.

And why does all the stupid happen? In the name of the set piece. So we can finally see All The Monsters killing All The People with All The Blood. It’s epic and monumental and gross and gloriously funny, and it comes with a vicious unicorn eviscerating a dude with its horn. (I fucking loved that unicorn. Best twenty seconds of the whole damn movie, seriously.) But that’s all it is. Basic fan service for the guts-and-gore crowd — among whose number I definitely count myself, in case you were wondering. Does having all the monsters — and possibly putting paid to all the monsters — make up for all the stupid? Maybe. Still, you know, sometimes when you set out to make an ironically bad horror movie, you simply end up making a bad horror movie. Trashy, gory, stupid fun. Just don’t expect me to believe it’s anything more than that. Or anything better.

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It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses the World

Nothing I’ve discussed so far would ordinarily have inspired me to write such a lengthy critique of The Cabin in the Woods. I seldom review movies, or even books, on this blog at all. (You can probably see why. I would get very little else done.) But as I said way back at the beginning, it wasn’t simply the film itself to which I found myself responding, but the whole experience of that late night screening amid the Church of Joss. And the disconnect from the congregation which I had been feeling since the start was really driven home by the final scenes or, more specifically, by the audience reaction to those final scenes.

Cabin in the WoodsDana and Marty have been put through hell and, once The Director fills them in on the whys and wherefores, they remain understandably unappeased.  “If this is what we need to do to survive,” Marty tells her, “maybe it’s time for a change.” Nice, but hardly that simple. It’s not a question of change, it’s a question of the agonising death of every human soul on the planet. Because we’re talking about ancient evil gods here, kids, and once you bring that into the equation, you have no more room in which to manoeuvre. All powerful and beyond defeat, gods own the high ground. There is no system against which to successfully rebel, no secular status quo to challenge and overthrow. Because, fuck us all, GODS are real. And they’re evil. And they kill us for their sport. Check-fucking-mate, people.

At this point, The Director presents the final ultimatum, the only choice that remains for Marty and Dana to make: “You can die with them, or you can die for them.” It’s a direct counterpoint to the Sage’s earlier line about us all being too chickenshit to let society crumble, and it’s delivered with perfect, aching, fearful sincerity. (Weaver acts the pants off her all too brief cameo.) So what do Dana and Marty do? Well, after some werewolf action and then some gun-wrestling action, and then some homicidal zombie cannibal girl axe-through-the-head action, they choose to die with them. “You were right,” Dana tells Marty after apologising for almost choosing the whole world over him. “Humanity …” she concludes, shaking her head while firing up one last joint. “It’s time to give someone else a chance.”

Really, Dana? Like who? Those Giant Evil Gods who’ve been ultimately responsible for putting you and your friends through the wringer for the past twenty-four hours, not to mention those countless other kids sacrificed over the millennia? You want to give those guys a chance? Because, you know, not a lot of other contenders out there. And judging by the Giant Evil Hand that breaks triumphantly through the ground as the complex crumbles, things don’t look so rosy for the rest of the planet’s denizens either. Not sure those guys are going to be too concerned with preserving ecosystems or maintaining biodiversity — and besides, that isn’t what The Cabin in the Woods really cares about, is it? Dana and Marty aren’t consigning humanity to the scrapheap because we’re no good to the planet; they’re consigning humanity to the scrapheap because we’re no good to ourselves.

Cabin in the WoodsReally, though, I can appreciate where they’re coming from. Here are two people who’ve been traumatised, tortured and nearly murdered. Who, until this night, thought they had their whole futures ahead of them. Now being asked — nicely, since the old stick approach fell through — to kill themselves in order to save a whole bunch of folks they don’t even know. (Let’s not pause to wonder if they spared even the briefest thought for the family and friends who would be subjected to agonising deaths without their sacrifice. No, let’s just assume they’re all sibling-free orphans whose only friends were in the woods with them — it’s a bad horror movie, after all, where characters are little more than complication-free constructs.) I can absolutely buy them sitting back and raising a defiant middle finger to everyone who conspired to put them out there in the cabin. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! Totally on board with the logic of that reaction. Totally disappointed and pissed off with them, but totally buying it. Downbeat fucking ending. Got it.

Only it wasn’t. Not in the script or direction, which gives us wistful jokes and shared joints, and not with the audience, who clapped and cheered and laughed in uproarious approval at the way things turned out. Fuck yeah, we choose the end of the world. Giant Evils Gods for the win! This is the gleefully sardonic conclusion that the movie has been steering us towards all along. Humanity is rubbish, we’ve made a total mess of things, let’s just start over. Only, you know, without the actual starting over part. Because death and destruction is cool. The end of the world is cool. Fuck yeah.

No, Cabin in the Woods, fuck you. For real. A couple of white middle-class American kids decide that, if they really have to die, then they’re sure as hell gonna take everyone else on the planet down with them, and we’re meant to start up a cheer squad? It’s just so unbelievably solipsistic and self-centred. What happen to the optimistic — if occasionally pragmatic — humanism that was a defining characteristic of the Whedonverse? Have we become so cynical and detached that the sort of self-sacrifice once made by Buffy in the face of an Evil God named Glory now seems so dreadfully passé? Have we determined that, when confronted with an inescapable and insurmountable system of oppression, it really is better to simply lay down and die? To make everyone lay down and die, regardless of what they themselves might want? It’s an easy solution, granted. It doesn’t involve nuanced discussions about cost and sacrifice, about what it means to honestly have to choose the lesser of two clear evils, about the nature of the individual and the needs of the social group. Because we are in a bad horror movie, as it turns out, and bad horror movies always favour black and white over tones of grey, so long as there are liberal splashes of red to distract us.

So. I guess I’m just about done here. For the record, I don’t think The Cabin in the Woods is an appallingly irredeemable movie — if that was the case, I doubt I would have been able to spin out 6,000 or so words in response to it. But I’m not buying its clever-horror-movie-takedown sales pitch either. And I feel utterly disconnected from the OMG Best Movie Ever Because JOSS vibe that seems to be making the rounds. Truth is, Mr Whedon, I’ve simply lost the faith. I fell sometime during Dollhouse, rallied just enough to see Avengers — my honest reaction: meh — but now there’s Cabin in the Woods and I just can’t sing along any more. I can’t value cleverness over compassion, style over substance, or ironic detachment over messy, passionate, painful truth-seeking. I’m sorry, it’s probably not you, it’s … blah blah blah … you know the damn drill.

But hey, thanks. Because bad horror movies — and thinking about bad horror movies — that might actually bring out the best in me.

Cabin in the Woods

* It’s not a perfect metaphor, obviously. If it was perfect, it wouldn’t be a metaphor. Don’t even start with me.

** Yes, I know there’s also Zoe in Firefly, who is anything but a Doll. Firefly actually provides the widest scope for how women are represented in the Whedonverse, in my opinion, and it’s also probably my very favourite thing Whedon has worked on for a variety of reasons. I’m not saying that every female actor he casts fits this physical type, just that it is predominant. I’m also not saying that there is anything wrong with this physical type, just that it is simply one of many “average” forms that women generally take and it would be nice to see more of them. That’s all. Again, don’t start with me.

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A Thoughtful Review of Madigan Mine

Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermottI don’t generally acknowledge or point out a lot of reviews of my work, both because it is generally considered a tad gauche to Respond To Criticism — especially if the criticism is bad — and because I think it places undue pressure on reviewers and critics — even if the criticism is good. Reviewers shouldn’t have to worry about the author looking over their shoulder, although I’m sure most of them have this possibility in their back of their minds when they’re talking about a work. I know I’ve been hyper-aware of it ever since I started The Writer and the Critic podcast. I try not to think about it while we’re recording — or else I would probably say nothing at all! — but I do have stabs of guilt afterwards if I’ve been particularly hard on a novel. Particularly if I know the author. It is a difficult line to tread but a necessary one. And authors need to be able to separate themselves from their work, an even more difficult task!

Anyway. The above tangent is by way of saying, I found this brilliant review of Madigan Mine the other day. (Or Google found it for me. Whatever.)  Tansy Rayner Roberts read my novel as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge and — spoilers — she liked it very much. But what I loved about this review was this paragraph:

Kirstyn McDermott has done something very clever here, making a male character into the ‘haunted woman’ prototype often seen in gothic fiction.  She has also, in Madigan, created a marvellous monster who wreaks destruction as much when she is alive and human than when she is a ghost, or a figment, or an obsession, of the protagonist.

This echoes some things Tansy said about the book on a recent episode of Galactic Suburbia, and she remains the only reviewer I’ve come across who seemed to really get this particular aspect of Madigan Mine. Interestingly, I have had a couple of people comment in person that they found the protagonist, Alex, to be somewhat feminine — except that when these impressions are teased out through further discussion, they admit that, actually, they simply found him to be very passive. Which he absolutely is, deliberately so. An inversion of a traditional Gothic heroine archetype.

So, then, passive=feminine? Still?

This was one of the themes I was exploring in this book, which is why it tickled me no end to see Tansy talking about it. As well as a lot of other crunchy stuff about the horror genre in general and how it’s much more complex and variegated than it’s generally given credit for. It really made my day!

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How not to respond to someone being wrong on the interwebs

Go get yourselves a cup of tea or something first, kids. I’ve got my ranting pants on today.

So, there’s this little review blog out there on the interwebs called BigAl’s Books and Pals which focuses on “indie” books, specifically those available on the Kindle eReader. The label is problematic in itself, with the site owner (“BigAl”) defining an “indie author” as being “any author whose book isn’t published by one of the ‘Big Six’ publishing companies” — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster — either directly or via an imprint. This leaves a wide range of books within his scope, from out of print backlist titles (even if these were original published by a Big Sixer), through to boutique and small press publications, and all the way into the wilds of self-published authorship.

However, it’s the self-published books that seem to be primary focus of the site. Acknowledging that self-published authors are largely without the resources available to major publishers, and that this can result in lower standards of quality control, BigAl’s Books and Pals declares: “We can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.  Point you towards books you might like and steer you away from others.” A worthy enough goal, if a sometimes thankless task.

The Greek Seaman

A couple of weeks ago, on 16 March, BigAl posted a review of a self-published eBook called The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett. It’s not a great review — garnering only two stars out of a possible five — with the major concern being the “numerous proofing, typo, and grammar issues” with which the novel seems to abound. A potentially good story, essentially, lost somewhere in amongst the overwrought and overly wrong prose. “Reading shouldn’t be that hard,” says BigAl. Ouch.

Now, until two days ago, the site doesn’t appear to be all that heavily trafficked, with most reviews only attracting a handful of comments, if any. Often the author being reviewed will pop along to say thanks, and maybe another couple of readers will offer words of agreement or otherwise. A fledgling blog, a developing community, some publicity for the self-published author without a lot of marketing resources of their own. Nice.

When the review of The Greek Seaman was published, the first comment came two days later (18 March) from Jacqueline Howett herself — and it wasn’t pretty:

You obviously didn’t read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted, so this is a very unfair review. My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get. Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.

The next day she re-posted the two reviews her book had thus received so far on Amazon: five-stars from a person with the same last name as the author, and an earlier one which gave the novel four-stars. On 23 March she returned to re-post a new five-star review which had subsequently appeared on Amazon. On 25 March, two  “anonymous” commentators posted brief replies (essentially: facepalm) before BigAl came back to post a lengthy and very restrained follow-up, pointing out that he had in fact read the “reformatted” copy for the review and quoting a few lines to demonstrate the awkward and error-riddled prose that bothered him.

Then, on 28 March, things got really nasty. “My writing is just fine!” Jacqueline replied to BigAl, before going on to demand that the review be removed from the site. “Who are you any way?” she demanded of him. “Really who are you? What do we know about you?”

It’s probably around about this time that someone posted a link to Twitter. The site was quickly flooded with commentators who both critiqued the author’s online behaviour and writing style, and encouraged BigAl to “stick to his guns” and leave the review in place — not that there had been any indication that the review was in any danger of being withdrawn. Jacqueline Howett certainly made no friends that day. She continued to defend work which, in terms of grammar and spelling and outright readability, seems largely indefensible, insulted the reviewer and accused him of hiding behind “anonymous” screen names, and repeatedly demanded that people contact her via email rather than post their criticisms in public. Finally, she left the site, but not until she posted a succinct parting shot: “Fuck off!” — twice in quick succession.

Comments continued, despite the lack of any further input from either Jacqueline Howett or BigAl, with posters offering (increasingly snarky and patronising) advice to the author, as well as arguing among themselves the merits or otherwise of self-publishing and “indie” authors. The thread was finally locked off at 307 comments.

I was intending to post about this on 28 March when it all blew up. Not at great length, merely to point it out as an object lesson in how not to respond to a bad review. It’s not the first time an author has reacted in an outlandish fashion to criticism, and not even the first time it’s been done on a relatively insignificant blog (sorry Alan), but it was a fairly amusing example of Authors Behaving Badly. I’d also had this presentation from Scott Edelman on “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing” sitting open in a browser tab for a few days and thought it would make a nice contrast. (It still does — you should go and watch that clip. Especially if you’re likely to be in a critique group or workshop situation any time soon.)

But I was busy and I’m not allowed to blog when I’m busy and I figured enough people were linking to the site already, having a chuckle and shaking their heads. Then last night I read this blogpost by Ben Payne in which he remarked:

The pervasive sense of enjoyment that permeates the comments, the sense of self-righteous judgement and animosity, just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure not all the commenters had that intent, and as I said above, I laughed too at first. But piled together, on top of one another, it’s hard not to feel that the response verges on being a kind of bullying.

Ben makes a good point in regards to the tone of self-righteous judgement, but I wasn’t entirely in agreement about the bullying part. Let’s be clear about this: the author of a reviewed book came onto the reviewer’s own blog and began to repeatedly harass and insult him — “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom” — accusing him of dishonesty and demanding that he remove the review on the grounds that it was “abuse”. To me, it is this sort of behaviour which smells of bullying. If other people defended BigAl and the basis for his review, so the much better. It worked; the bully picked up her bat and ball and left the field. Sure, perhaps the comments could have been closed earlier, but it’s BigAl’s blog and he gets to do with it what he likes.

Now, if the discussion had begun on Jacqueline Howett’s blog — if, for example, BigAl had posted his review as a comment to her own announcement about her book — then I would regard what happened as clearly bullying behaviour. Location, in this case, is context. You don’t get to come into someone else’s backyard, yell and scream at them, and then feel like you’re the one being bullied when their friends — and passersby attracted by the noise you are making — start to yell and scream back until you leave or apologise. Yes, I know it’s an imperfect metaphor: BigAl’s blog, as a stated review site, is not entirely “private grounds”; Jacqueline Howett didn’t accuse anyone of bullying her. But you know what I’m saying — and if the whole thing had ended there, on BigAl’s Books and Pals, I’d be standing by it.

But then Ben Payne made mention of a number of negative reviews that suddenly seemed to be popping up on the Amazon page for Jacqueline Howett’s novel, and I wandered over to have a look.

Prior to 27 March, The Greek Seaman had precisely the three reviews, each with either four or five star ratings. Sure, at least one of them seems to be from family and maybe the other two are from family/friends as well — certainly they read more as copies of the author’s own book description than actual reviews — but then it’s a brand-new, self-published book on Amazon, isn’t it? Prospective readers are probably more than capable of reading between the lines. Of course, the fact that Jacqueline Howett reposted these three reviews to BigAl’s blog in defense of her novel was highly inappropriate — not mention highly idiotic.

On 27/28 March, BigAl simultaneously posted his own review to both Amazon US and UK sites (the date discrepancy is accounted for by international timezones) as he does with all his reviews. I would hazard a guess that it was these postings that inspired Jacqueline Howett to return to BigAl’s Books and Pals on 28 March, and we all know what happened then.

From 28 March and as of this writing, there are now a total of 92 “customer” reviews of The Greek Seaman posted to the US Amazon site. Of these, a staggering 72 are one-star reviews. And don’t get too excited about the ten five-star reviews either, as most of these are snarky and sarcastic negative comment in disguise — “the greek seaman was a rivolting romp threw history and made me know how it feel to be a young woman taken advantage of by men and who trys to escape through exceedingly poor english,” begins one. (The Amazon UK page, though less trafficked, fares little better in terms of content: seventeen reviews with thirteen being one-stars.)

amazon reviews

It’s depressing, although perhaps unsurprising, to note that the majority of the one-star reviewers proudly declare that they have either not read the book or have only read the first few pages. More quote material originally cited on BigAl’s Books and Pals as the reasoning behind their review, which again suggests that they themselves have not actually read The Greek Seaman, let alone formed their own opinion. “My review of this book is unfair in that I have not had the desire to read the whole book after the few paragraphs I have already trudged through,” admits one reviewer, with at least a modicum of honesty.

And this is the point where I find myself in 100% agreement with Ben Payne — what’s happening on Amazon is absolutely and deplorably a case of bullying.

Okay, The Greek Seaman doesn’t sound like a great book. It doesn’t even sound like a particularly good book, although it might have been with some help from an editor and proof-reader. But, you know, there’s a free sample available right on the Amazon page, so a prospective reader can judge this for themselves. And yes, Jacqueline Howett broke the first rule of successful social marketing: Don’t Be a Dick on the Internet.

I’m in no way defending anything she said or did on BigAl’s site, but when a whole bunch of self-righteous, pitchfork-wielding tossers rampage themselves off to Amazon to spam her review page with recycled vitriol and oh-so-clever quips, you’d be forgiven for thinking the woman had been torturing meerkats and uploading her antics to YouTube. You know the old adage, two wrongs don’t make a right? Well, I’m pretty damn sure that 72 wrongs don’t come any closer to balancing that scale.

I mean, really, is this a thing we do now? Isn’t it enough to laugh and shake our heads, and send links around to our friends, and maybe even blog a little about how this soooo not the way to respond to criticism? Do we actually need to sally forth and stomp the object of our derision into the cyberdirt? Just in case they, what, dare to write another mediocre novel that none of us will ever actually be forced to read anyway?

Why yes, that was me ineffectually waggling my finger at the interwebs, so glad you noticed. Ben Payne puts it a little better:

If the internet is incapable of forgetting, we need at least to teach it to be forgiving.

Amen to that, Ben. I don’t know if Jacqueline Howett is doing anything about it, but I hope Amazon will decide to pull most of the dodgy reviews if she requests them to look into the situation. (It seems they have already pulled some of the more offensive.) It drives me to both despair and anger when I see this sort of thing happening. Because human beings really are capable of being so much better than this, and of encouraging each other to be so much better as well. When we’re not encouraging each other to be so much worse.

And this is why I’m not allowed to blog why I’m busy.

Twelve Planets (and two reviews)

Twelfth Planet Press

This is something I’ve necessarily been keeping under my hat for a while, but now I am very proud to report the following update regarding the Twelve Planets series forthcoming from Twelve Planets Press:

Who Are the Twelve Planets?

Margo Lanagan, Lucy Sussex, Rosaleen Love, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Deborah Biancotti, Kaaron Warren, Cat Sparks, Sue Isle, Kirstyn McDermott, Narrelle M Harris, Thoraiya Dyer, Stephanie Campisi.

What Are the Twelve Planets?

The Twelve Planets are twelve boutique collections by some of Australia’s finest short story writers. Varied across genre and style, each collection will offer four short stories and a unique glimpse into worlds fashioned by some of our favourite storytellers. Each author has taken the brief of 4 stories and up to 40 000 words in their own direction. Some are quartet suites of linked stories. Others are tasters of the range and style of the writer. Each release will bring something unexpected to our subscriber’s mailboxes.

When Are the Twelve Planets

The Twelve Planets will spread over 2011 and 2012, with six books released between February and November each year. The first three titles will be Nightsiders by Sue Isle (March), Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts (May) and the third collection will be by Lucy Sussex (July).

How to Receive the Twelve Planets

The Twelve Planets will be available for purchase in several ways:

  • Single collections will be priced at $20/$23 International each including postage.
  • A season’s pass will offer the three collections of the season for $50/$65 International including postage and each sent out on release.
  • Full subscriptions to the series are $180/$215 International including postage and each sent out on release.

More information relating to upgrades, ebooks and distribution will be made available in due course. Please visit the Twelfth Planet Press website for more details.

In other news, two short stories of mine have garnered brief but satisfying mentions in reviews this month.

Scenes from the Second Storey (edited by Amanda Pillar and Pete Kempshall) received a lengthy and very positive write-up on HorrorScope in which Shane Jiraiya Cummings notes:

She Said” by Kirstyn McDermott is another standout, an almost painfully personal sketch of an artist, Josh, and his girlfriend, Mallory. There are strong surrealistic touches in this story, but unlike other, more bizarre tales, “She Said” is held together with well-realised characters and an internally consistent world. As McDermott says in her afterword, this story is about “masochistic muses”. There is a thread of need pervading this story, and that neediness feels dirty, both for the characters and the reader. Darkness doesn’t get much more personal than this.

Also in Horrorscope, the anthology Macabre (edited By Angela Challis and Marty Young) is highly recommended by Tony Owens who says of my piece:

Kirstyn McDermott’s story of Melbourne goths and a nasty little secret, “Monsters Among Us”, has the virtue of sounding like the author had eavesdropped on a real group of people. The dialogue has an exciting verisimiltude that is sometimes lacking in dark fiction.

And that’s probably more than enough preening for one day! Back to the bunker, McDermott.

Aurealis #44 Review

Aurealis No.44

Mark Smith-Briggs has posted a lengthy review of Aurealis No.44 over at HorrorScope. The issue includes my story, “We All Fall Down”, of which Mark has some very nice things to say:

Fresh from the publication of her debut novel, Kirstyn McDermott shows she hasn’t lost touch with the shorter side of fiction with We All Fall Down – a creepy ghost story about a pair of car crash victims forced to spend the night in a strange house. McDermott puts an old troupe to good use, breathing life into a familiar story with vibrant characters and a well paced narrative. Readers may pick up on the ending well before it arrives, but such is the richness of Emma and Holly that it doesn’t really matter.

I love this story. It started life as a very, very different beast to what it eventually became and changed forms in my head many times before I finally knew enough to put fingers to keyboard. But the characters of Emma and Holly remained constant. I love them both and this made “We All Fall Down” a wrenching story to write … once I realised what the story was.

Aurealis is available at $14.95 an issue or as a four-issue subscription for $46. Issues are printed twice a year.