Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

iamlegend

“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

omega

It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

i-am-legend-2-will-smith

The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

screenshot-2017-03-01-at-12-31-22-am

His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

nightmare-at-20000-feet

“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

the_nightmare_at_20_000_feet_by_lupographics-d5ozhnr

terror-simpsons-twilight

The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

the_devil_rides_out_t00-mkv_snapshot_00-43-04_2012-11-11_12-52-29

In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

duel

His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

screenshot-2017-03-01-at-12-49-08-am

Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

what-dreams-may-come-film-images-117c7ee8-c979-4079-ae8f-e1901b4b1d9

He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Imagination Vs Technology – The Writer’s 21st-Century Faustian Pact?

cs-lewis-quote

Imaginary things take time to write. Fantasy and horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction can be among the toughest genres to write as they are works of pure imagination. Science fiction can be slightly researched and current trends can be followed to their logical conclusion. Educated guesses can be made as to what direction science will go in. Fantasy and horror mostly comprise world-building from scratch and, depending on the writer, the concepts can take time to generate.

Added to that, readers want new product yesterday. They’ve become ultra-impatient in the internet age. Some of them even refuse to read the first book in a series as they are unable to wait for the other books to be written and published. “Am I going to have to wait years for you to finish your Vorbing trilogy? I’m an impatient bitch,” one of my readers helpfully explained to me.

In their book, The Neuroscience of Clinical Psychiatry: The Pathophysiology of Behavior and Mental Illness, Edmund S. Higgins and Mark S. George note: “People who can delay gratification and control their impulses appear to achieve more in the long run. Attention and impulsivity are opposite sides of the same coin.” This is especially true of all those internet babies who have grown up in the technological age. So the internet is a bit like Brexit; we don’t know what the full implications of its arrival are yet.

kids-on-phones

The web has its advantages. It’s a phenomenal communication tool. Twitter has definitely made me think faster and streamline messages better, that is certain. As a way of quickly disseminating a message or a product worldwide immediately, the web takes some beating. The net is like a giant synthetic brain our thought patterns are connected to (a strength and a weakness that can be exploited). There are concerns over privacy and who is doing what with our data and those worries will only increase as time goes on.

Back to the writing. This awareness of the disintegration of attention spans has unquestionably changed both the method and style I employ when writing books. I started writing my first book when the internet was in its infancy. I was able to remain in the world I had created all day interacting with my characters. I was totally immersed in it and wouldn’t notice hours passing. Now social media, that great thief of time, eats up chunks of my day without me noticing hours passing. I mostly interact online with people I don’t know instead of my characters. I’m totally immersed in the internet. Writing is done now in feverish bursts to meet my daily word count so I can get back online. Experience has enabled me to do much more in less time though. I no longer need to spend all day going down blind alleys trying to find myself creatively. So perhaps there is no damage done there.

There are writers who have given up social media for a month to get books out there. I’d be concerned about losing half my hard-earned followers. You can’t expect people to continue following you if you’re offline for weeks. Especially if you’re a self-published writer dependent on social media to market your books. It appears to be a 21st-century Faustian pact with the web.

Then there is the pace of the novel itself. I am only too aware that if you fail to hold the attention of your readers, social media is tickling their ears non-stop to woo them away. So they’re dealing with getting their electronic fix too (especially if they’re consuming your book on an e-reader or smartphone app that’s connected to the internet and the ejector seat button for your novel is half an inch away). The pacing of a novel has to match the online frenzy going on out there or you’re toast. Then again, if the flour is going rotten to begin with, maybe the quality of the toast isn’t so important these days. We shall see.

So the internet has rewired our brains, changed our expectations and how books are written, edited, sold and read (or not as the case may be). What form will books take in 2026? 2036? 2066? Will we be taking downloads directly into our brains as in a William Gibson cyberpunk novel? I have a saying: “The possible is just the impossible that we’ve come to accept.” It will happen.

My novel “The Vorbing” is available here

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

“You Can Quote Me On That” – The wise ramblings of Stewart Stafford (Slideshow)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

cpgvazjxyaaf_op

Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind

Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.

Close Encounters Crowd In Light

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.

Flight 19

Dreyfuss Alone

I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.

Burnett Guffey

There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.

Shocked Dreyfuss Kids

His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).

tarman-560

Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)

Day-of-the-Dead-1985-FilmCap

The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.

(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

“It is a time of sacrifice…good and bad.”

This is the first sequel in the Star Wars franchise in 32 years. A long time ago in an era far, far away.

The First Order, the new Empire, is set up awfully fast in The Force Awakens. The last time we saw the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, it was defeated and destroyed. Here, somehow, it is at full strength again and even has Star Destroyers and a battle station that dwarfs the Death Star. I think the writers have missed an opportunity to show The First Order as underdog fanatics plotting to overthrow the New Republic in a patient build-up. But nope, we get one line that they have risen from the ashes of the Empire and, that’s it, they’re back, just like that.

The writing is shorn of George Lucas’s interest in diplomacy. For all his flaws, Lucas always grounded the Star Wars movies in a political context. He was very interested in how the states he had created operated. Granted, in the prequels there was far too much talky politics that bogged the movies down in clunky exposition (taxation anyone?). The new script sacrifices depth for pace, humour and a lightness of touch that is reminiscent of A New Hope. The pulling back from full-on CGI aids the realism too.

Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back returns as co- writer here, but The Force Awakens is nowhere near as good as that masterpiece. There were so many great lines in the original trilogy “The force will be with you…always,” “I am your Father” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Some of them are repeated in The Force Awakens but there is nothing new to challenge the old lines. That is a pity. (In the age of the instantaneous internet, could the “I am your father” moment be kept secret now? I doubt it. I accidentally saw a major spoiler for The Force Awakens while typing in a hashtag on Twitter.)

Michael Arndt gives lectures on the original trilogy and wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens script. Perhaps he’s great at analysing why Star Wars works but not so great at creating something new. The script is okay, nothing more (there is a nice riff on the father/son theme that runs through every Star Wars movie and Han Solo finally accepting The Force as being true is a nice payoff to his “hokey religion” dismissal in 1977).

Harrison Ford brings weary charisma and some much-needed gravitas to the film in reprising his old scoundrel Han Solo. He’s given some better lines and more to do than in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but, just as in that film, the older stars are shoved aside in favour of the newcomers who aren’t that interesting.

Carrie Fisher looks like she’s been at the Botox. The only parts of her face she can move are her lips and even that’s a struggle. It doesn’t look like her and it is a shock seeing her as a shrunken old woman.

We know Daisy Ridley is miscast in the lead role. We know because J.J. Abrams told her on set that her acting was “wooden.” If you’ve cast someone that can’t act in the lead role of the biggest franchise in film history, you’ve hired the wrong person. Ms Ridley compensates by overacting horribly, shouting every line with her eyes as wide as possible. She runs (a lot) and cries (a lot). Apart from that, the jury is still out on her. Then again, Star Wars has a history of not-great acting, so she’s probably keeping up a great tradition.

Muhammad Ali-lookalike, John Boyega, took some criticism in early reviews, but I actually thought he had good comic timing, the audience liked him and he even struck up a buddy rapport with old grumpy pants himself, Harrison Ford. Let’s hope we see more of him in the sequels and spin-offs, he’s the best of the new breed.

John Williams returns to score the picture and it’s okay, nothing as unforgettable as Vader’s Theme from Empire. Darth Vader himself is, for me, the greatest villain in movie history and he is sorely missed. Vader choked people to death by breaking their necks if they defied him. Whereas new baddie Kylo Ren takes his frustration out by incinerating inanimate objects with his lightsaber to keep the rating kiddie-friendly. There’s also some predictable PC casting. Everything that was white and male before now has to be rebooted as female, ethnic and/or LGBT (we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and possibly a black James Bond in the future.)

The Force Awakens isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I doubt it will stand up to repeat reviewing as the original trilogy did but it is perhaps the best that can be expected now George Lucas has bailed out on his film company. It will no doubt break box office records. No film could probably live up to the hype anyway. It is good to have Star Wars back in whatever form it’s in (I think I know the big plot twist in the next movie too but I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved. (Star Wars ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

 

Back To Black: From Exterminator to Ex-Terminator?

The-Terminator-Poster

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie “The Terminator.” Even though it had been made in 1984, I didn’t catch up with it until October 1986. My parents had gone out for the night to my cousin’s 21st birthday party and I was left alone to watch whatever I wanted (a new and thrilling experience for a teenage boy!). They had also gone out the previous Friday and I’d rented a double bill of Bruce Lee movies (inspired by the early Jean Claude Van Damme movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” where Bruce Lee returns from the dead to teach a young guy how to overcome the evil Muscles from Brussels.)

This time I decided to choose a movie I’d had my eye on for a while. I had seen the phonebook-sized VHS cover with the word Schwarzenegger on it. I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but the name sounded foreign, unpronounceable and vaguely threatening. He also looked cool in his shades, leather jacket and with his gun raised up by his face. I had no idea who James Cameron was either (I didn’t particularly notice or care about movie credits then). I think I’d gotten it mixed up in my head with a film called “The Exterminator” that my friends had told me about in school. They said something about The Exterminator putting a gangster in a mincing machine and teenage boys love a bit of cartoon gore like that. So, after school, I cycled over on my Raleigh racing bike and booked “The Terminator” before anyone else could.

As soon as my parents went out, I popped the cassette into our suitcase-sized Blaupunkt video recorder. I had no idea of the unique quality of the movie I was about to watch. From the moment the future war sequence appeared on the screen, I knew I was watching something really different. Then this legend appeared:

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

I was spellbound. After the eerie opening images of Skynet’s probes and flying Hunter Killers (the precursors of today’s drones?) prowling the rubble of a skull-covered WMD-flattened city (the nuclear nightmare of every kid who grew up from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, including myself), there was now the promise of something even more exciting. How good was this movie going to get?

After the ominous Terminator theme tune by Brad Fiedel, we get to the time-travellers who in arrive in Los Angeles circa 1984. James Cameron, like John Carpenter before him, proves himself to be a master of atmosphere (indeed, the music for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “The Terminator” are very similar in parts and both movies deal with killer robots masquerading as humans). Both directors know how to use silence and shadows and even humour before hitting the audience with big shocks. The Terminator does ape the noirish photography, electronic soundtrack and editing techniques (Mark Goldblatt also edited Halloween II three years previously) of the Halloween series which was probably a clever move by Cameron as they were hugely popular at the box office then.

I was thrilled by Michael Biehn’s theft of a pair of Nike running boots as, believe it or not; I was wearing an identical pair of them as I watched this movie. I had bought them when I was on holiday with my family during the summer of 1986 and they served me well. The similarity in our footwear convinced me that this was a movie for me!

To cut a long story short, I was completely hooked from start to finish on the movie. I didn’t want it to end. But end it did and I turned over to watch one of those naughty “Red Triangle” movies they were screening on Channel 4 at the time. This one turned out to be Japanese.

Two months later, I went to see “Aliens” with my brother after he came home from America. (30,000 people emigrated from Ireland in 1986; my brother was one of them). So I suddenly got a double dose of James Cameron’s first movies all at once.

James Cameron, wanted “The Terminator” to be a film “that a twelve-year-old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen,” but also one “that a forty-five-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some sort of socio-political significance between the lines.” I can understand both perspectives looking at the film now and remembering my teenage experience of it that Friday night.

Terminator_2_poster

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as happened with the edgy protagonists in the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon franchises, the Terminator character is softened greatly. He becomes a family-friendly, wisecracking father figure and is no longer the ruthless, casually homicidal character he was in the first film. The character and the sequel lost the intense, nihilistic feel of the original by letting the audience off the hook through comic relief. The end of the world doesn’t seem so terrifying if you’re laughing at it. It coincided with Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into politics and his association with the Kennedy family through his marriage to Maria Shriver and campaigning for President George Bush Sr. So it could have been an overt attempt by Arnold to exercise his star power and reboot his image. There is also the possibility that the studio and/or James Cameron wanted to tone down the violence to get a lower age rating for the movie to make more money and that it did (The Terminator got an 18 certificate age rating in the UK, Terminator 2 got a 15).

I’m looking forward to seeing Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, whenever he brings out a movie you’re going to sit up and take notice. He’s hired the writers of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to help him with the “Avatar” sequel scripts and they’re talented scribes. It should be interesting to see what they come up with. The fourth sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator, “Terminator Genisys” is coming out in summer 2015. (Schwarzenegger’s movies since his comeback after politics haven’t been great. Escape Plan with his pal Stallone is easily his best post-Governor movie and performance. The rest have been forgettable and Arnold looks tired and bored in them with no sign of his old charisma or one-liners.) The Terminator has undergone another image change for “Terminator Genisys” to reflect where Arnold is now and his android assassin will have grey hair in the new film. Yes, will people take to a granddaddy cybernetic organism? We shall see.

Grey Arnold

So Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, like The Terminator, will be back, if separately. Let’s hope they can reach the levels that they did with their unforgettable first collaboration. If not, we can always time travel to the original again any time we want by putting it on our TVs. Arnold’s not an ex-Terminator yet.

Terminator-Genisys-4

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Science Fiction Faction

For me, the term science fiction is something of a misnomer. For me, science fiction is “science yet to be.” It’s amazing how the sci-fi films of the 80s and 90s have influenced our modern world.

1990’s Total Recall, seen as a classic at the time, is now pounced on by today’s generation as being not very good because its innovations are with us now from its then-futuristic webcam chats to body scanners at airports (although they still haven’t got around to making that touchpad device that turns a girl’s fingernails different colours on command). The pilotless flying machines in The Terminator(1984) that were called HKs or Hunter-Killers are quite clearly the prototype for the drones we have prowling our skies today (they’re even called Predator drones after another Schwarzenegger sci-fi film)

You could argue that H.G. Wells predicted all this with his Martian fighting-machines in his book The War of the Worlds in 1898. Or did the designers of mechanised warfare in the 20th century take their cue from Wells himself? I believe they did. Writers have the luxury of creating worlds in the freedom of their imaginations. There are no budgetary constraints. No chains of command or standard operating procedures to adhere to. They can play out their scenario in full and demonstrate its effectiveness which perhaps inspires those in power to emulate their proven hypothesis.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sits at the heart of the science fiction spider web. Her 1818 novel concerned itself with things we are still worried about today, especially in this interconnected online virtual reality world most of us live in 24/7. Where is all this technology going? Is our humanity being swamped by it all? Will it one day overwhelm us, its creators, and take over as Frankenstein’s creature did? What sort of world will that be? James Cameron extrapolated on those fears to spectacular effect in his Terminator movies (surely Schwarzenegger missed his calling with Frankenstein. In his prime, he did resemble something someone had constructed instead of a real human being or “a condom stuffed with walnuts” as Clive James once described him.) Those fears are also in everything from 1927’s Metropolis to Westworld in 1970s, Robocop in the 80s and The Matrix in the 90s.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde novella from 1886 is another cornerstone of the science fiction genre. He had two different personas inhabiting the same body. That idea is the basis of every comic book superhero movie from Superman (Kal-El/Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne/Batman) to Spider-Man (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), etc. It has also served sci-fi’s cousin genre, the horror movie, well in Psycho (Norman Bates/Mother) and The Exorcist (Regan/Pazuzu The Demon).

Science fiction is the exploration of innovations, not necessarily in a futuristic world, but the very projection of forward-thinking ideas does shape the construction of those worlds. Even if the influence is indirect, it is still fuelling reality through pop culture filtering into the public consciousness. The science “fiction” tag is dismissive to me, as if to label it ludicrous and put it in an unreal box. The cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword, like all clichés, has a basis in fact. Ideas really can and have changed the world. It is happening every day all around us. Fiction has been the launch pad of progress so many times and will continue to be in the future. Dismiss it as science “fiction” at your peril.

© Stewart Stafford, 2014. All rights reserved.

The Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2014

Here’s the Kirkus Reviews end-of-year list of the teen titles that really impressed them. Some fine work by trailblazing writers here. I’m more than happy to pass on the information to you.

Click here to read it.

If you haven’t read Kirkus Reviews appraisal of my fantasy/horror novel, The Vorbing, you can view that here or on my website here.