Alien Taught Me Everything About Writing Monster Horror

I wish I could say I saw Alien on the big screen in 1979, and experienced the glory of Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s chest-bursting, face-hugging terrors before they became property of pop culture and parody. Alas, Alien was years before my time. The film was nearly thirty years old before I borrowed the DVD from a friend and watched it alone in a small, dark room. Mistake.

What my tiny, flickering television experience lacked in silver screen quality, it made up for in atmosphere, intense claustrophobia, and the eerie sense of being isolated in the universe. Space is already a terrifying, incomprehensible void to me; adding Alien’s Xenomorph only made me check my locks thrice and start looking up how to make homemade napalm… at least for fiction’s sake.

I watched the film countless times, breaking down the movie down into its basest parts, trying to understand why it succeeded to frighten audiences so thoroughly with its modest budget, low performance expectations, and a fairly lukewarm critical reception. Nowadays, the film is widely considered a classic.

[Here’s what Alien taught me about writing horror…]

King Lear and the Syntax of Insanity

Maybe it’s because I have this facial recognition problem that makes it tough for me to tell the difference between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but I don’t think fictional character is a question of faces. Or bodies. Or clothes. Or even actions, actually. Those things are important, but I’ve become pretty convinced that the hot beating heart of character is language. If you know how a character talks, you know how she thinks, and if you know how she thinks, you know how she acts.

This isn’t my idea. It’s the whole premise of theater. A play’s script is a record of spoken language. The task of those producing the play is to translate that language into character and scene. Sometimes there are stage directions, but stage directions are secondary. You can imagine performing a play stripped of its stage directions, but cut out the dialogue and you’ve got nothing.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Shakespeare, who was sparing with his stage directions and brilliant with his language. We can take, as one of the innumerable examples, the case of King Lear. We can look at how this horrible, tragic figure is built up from a series of syllables set on the page, one after the other.

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“You’re an even more screwed-up mess than I thought” — Ang Lee’s Hulk

A movie featuring the Hulk—the only Marvel character whose 20th-century adaptation to the screen could be considered an unqualified success—was first hatched by Avi Arad at Marvel and Gale Anne Hurd as early as 1990, shortly after The Death of the Incredible Hulk aired. They sold the rights to Universal, and that started a lengthy development process that saw numerous scriptwriters and directors brought in. At various points, Joe Johnston and Jonathan Hensleigh were attached to direct before Ang Lee was hired.

A Taiwanese director, Lee came to prominence as the director of Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But it was more likely his genre film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that got him the gig directing a comic-book movie…

[“I’m also aware that he saved my life.” “Yeah, from a mutant French poodle…”]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Five Books About Heroic Hackers

Although news media are quick to portray hackers as outcasts and criminals, in fiction they are usually heroes and hacktivists, or the sidekicks who empower protagonists to save the day. What would Jack Bauer do without Chloe O’Brian? Felicity Smoak is the next best thing to a convenient “hacking arrow” on Arrow. And don’t forget that on Chuck, the title character was a nerd who could do things with technology that the supposedly cooler CIA spies couldn’t.

When I began writing my YA thriller, The Silence of Six, one of my biggest goals was to avoid the Hollywood cliché of making hacking look like magic. Five minutes of mashing the keyboard and you’re inside the Pentagon? That doesn’t happen, unless someone hands you a quick and easy exploit to work with. Five months of research and social engineering and gradually prying your way into the system is more like it.

I read a variety of nonfiction books to make sure the technology and terms I used in The Silence of Six were as accurate (or at least convincing) as possible, but as always, I turned to fiction for inspiration. Here are some of the books that helped me crack the code.

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Duncan Jones’ Moon Is Still a 21st-century Classic

Mute, Duncan Jones’ long-awaited follow-up to Moon, hit Netflix last month, after a lengthy incubation period. It’s part of Netflix’s current trend of producing and/or acquiring somewhat esoteric genre movies, a trend which began with Bright and continued with The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation, up through imminent releases like The Titan. Often these releases are intended for overseas audiences, sometimes global, but the process is ongoing and has so far given us a wide slate of films that have varied from frequently great (Annihilation) to ones that seem to be setting up a far better sequel (Bright).

Mute is something of the middle child in all this, and its reviews have reflected that. Slammed for being an unusual combination of cyberpunk and film noir, as well as for a script that touches on everything from Amish woodwork to the aftermath of Moon, it’s a choppy piece of work, to be sure, but there’s some real worth to it. If nothing else, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s characters and their transition from Cyberpunk Hawkeye and Trapper John into something infinitely darker is compelling stuff, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

[Love it or hate it, Mute gives us a chance to celebrate everything that’s great about Moon…]

Read Martha Wells’ Serialized Magic: The Gathering Story “Return to Dominaria”!

Dominaria coalesced around Gideon and the first thing that struck him was the stench of rotting plants and dank earth. He stood on a high stone foundation between a ruined town and an overgrown stinking marsh, the landscape desolate under a cloud-covered sky. Gray stone structures once tall and graceful had lost sections of walls and roofs, and some were just heaps of tumbled stone. Mist cloaked the tall grass, bubbling mud pools, and rotting trees of the marsh, empty of any life except clouds of insects. It was like an artist’s attempt to visually capture a representation of death and failure. He couldn’t suppress the bitter thought, How fitting for this moment.

For its 78th expansion, Magic: The Gathering returns to where it all started: Dominaria, the original setting for the card game’s storylines before those narratives branched off into a multiverse full of “Planewalkers” moving between Dominaria and other planes. With the Dominaria expansion out in late April, MTG is serializing a tie-in story, “Return to Dominaria,” penned by new head writer and The Murderbot Diaries author Martha Wells.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Annihilation is Amazing, and Full of Women

I suspect the reason I got to watch Annihilation on Netflix is the same reason that I enjoyed it so much. Its parent studio Paramount didn’t believe it would make money on a theatrical release, and thus didn’t spend much energy on promoting the film. And I find myself unwilling to believe that the fact it stars five women—women who are presented as complex and intellectual, who aren’t present as objects for sexual consumption, but whose competence is assumed in every scene and every glance—had nothing to do with that.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Publish and Perish

Linnet Ellery, a young attorney at a prestigious New York vampire law firm has proved she has extraordinary luck—and not just in the courtroom. She has walked unscathed through events that would kill a normal person.

Linnet’s elven ex-boyfriend is trapped in Fairyland, and Linnet will have to lead a raid into Fey to free him—alongside her boss, whom she is falling in love with. But a love affair between a vampire and a human is strictly forbidden, and any violation is punishable by death for both parties.

As events unfold, Linnet determines the source of her mysterious power, and is dismayed to discover that she is the most dangerous person in the world to her vampire and werewolf friends. The more secrets and treachery she uncovers, the more Linnet realizes that a decision must be made: Can she be her true self, without sacrificing everyone she cares about?

The third installment in Phillipa Bornikova’s Linnet Ellery series, Publish and Perish is available April 24th from Tor Books!

[Read an Excerpt]

Flirting with Revolution: Torn by Rowenna Miller

Rowenna Miller’s fantasy debut, Torn, starts with great promise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its promises: like many fantasies that flirt with revolution, it ultimately fails to actually critique the system of aristocracy, ascribing the flaws in a system of inherited power down to one or two bad apples and general well-meaning ignorance among the aristocrats rather than the violence inherent in a system that exploits the labour of the many for the benefit of the few.

I hold fantasy that flirts with overturning the status quo to higher rhetorical and ideological standards than fantasy that doesn’t question the established hierarchies of power within its world. It sets itself up to swing at the mark of political systems and political change, which means that when it fails to connect, it’s pretty obvious. When it comes to systems—and rhetorics—of power, the question of who ought to be in charge and how change can—or should—come is deeply fraught and powerfully emotive. And significant: the rhetoric of our fictions informs our understanding of how power operates in our daily lives.

And yeah, I expected Torn to offer a more radical view of revolution.

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A Less Comforting Supernatural Guardian: The Grimms’ “Godfather Death”

It can be easier, I suppose, to imagine death as something a little less impersonal than, well, death. Say, something, or perhaps someone, almost human, or at least looking almost human, arriving more as an escort than a killer, pointing people to the next step – whatever that step might be. A little bit easier, maybe. For some people, at least.

This comfort perhaps explains why so many myths and folktales in western culture focus on the figure of Death – often inviting Death to enter their homes, or even almost join their families. “Godfather Death,” retold by the Brothers Grimm, is one of several typical examples.

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What Made Us Toys “R” Us Kids? Romanticism, Consumerism, and Nostalgia

Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye argued that where you are is as important as who you are. Just as one affects their environment, people are, in turn, affected by those same surroundings. The Romantic poets located this exchange in nature, turning their work toward subjects ruminating on not only their own individuality, but the natural world in which that rumination occurred. It is therefore only logical, in the highly commercial, Capitalist late 20th and early 21st Century United States, that this symbiosis of person and place can be housed, at least for some, in the malls and chain stores freckled across the American landscape.

For me, this was Toys “R” Us. It has been a permanent fixture throughout my 32 years, just as it’s been for the lives of many of my Millennial peers. In light of last week’s announcement that the chain will be going out of business, much is being reported about the people who made, and ultimately eroded, this place—but there’s much more to be said about the place that made the people. The Toys “R” Us Kids. Those for whom the place precedes the person.

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Writing the Distant Future of Global Politics

What if citizenship wasn’t something we’re born with, but something we choose when we grow up? In the Terra Ignota future, giant nations called “Hives” are equally distributed all around the world, so every house on a block, and even every person in a house, gets to choose which laws to live by, and which government represents that individual’s views the most. It’s an extension into the future of the many diasporas which already characterize our present, since increasingly easy transportation and communication mean that families, school friends, social groups, ethnic groups, language groups, and political parties are already more often spread over large areas than residing all together. In this future each of those groups can be part of one self-governing nation, with laws that fit their values, even while all living spread over the same space.

Readers of Too Like the Lightning have enjoyed playing the “Which Hive would you join?” game, but this system is very different from a Sorting Hat, or a personality quiz, for a simple reason: people aren’t assigned to Hives. In this world you choose, freely and for yourself when you come of age, which of the many worldwide nations best fits your ideals. And, even better, you can switch nations as easily as signing up for a different school club, so if a change in policy or rulers makes you feel your government no longer reflects your values, you can choose again. But what are the options?

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Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print?

About two years ago, I reviewed Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall. I could not add a link that would allow readers to purchase the book because as far as I could tell, The Fortunate Fall has been out of print for more than twenty years. I was astounded because I had the impression that the book was warmly regarded. The evidence suggests it was warmly regarded by a small number of very vocal fans1.

I tend to expect that many others will love the same books that I do. I have been proved wrong again and again. Books that I love are not reprinted. Even in this era of ebooks, all but a few lucky books come forth like flowers and wither: they slip away like shadows and do not endure. Ah, the sorrows of the reader!

Not to mention the author….

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