Fine-tuning my insecurity

Starting on a new project always feels so hopelessly daunting that there is a big temptation, for me at any rate, to give up and walk away. It’s like walking towards a rock face, which from a distance looks impressively grand, but up close just gives you impossible feelings of inadequacy, and turns your guts to water.

I really have to gee myself up to do it, and to resist the (many) voices in my head telling me not to bother, it’s not worth it, it won’t be any good. And of course it might not be any good – but unless I take the first step, I won’t know either way.

“You don’t look at the summit when you’re climbing the mountain,” as a friend of mine once said, speaking metaphorically (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a mountaineer).

So I squeeze my eyes shut, grab hold for dear life, and try and haul myself upward, knowing that when I eventually – hopefully – reach the summit, I will have (mostly) forgotten about all the pain and heartache of getting there, and can just sit back and enjoy the view.

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“Stranger Things 2” – Truth & Consequences

 

Warning: contains spoilers.

And so the Duffer Brothers’ phantasmagoria has returned for a second season on Netflix, and no doubt if you’re reading this you’ve already seen all nine episodes (they’ve been available to watch since the end of last month), and perhaps you’re one of those strange people with no social life and terrible sleeping habits who watched them all in one go. Shame on you.

I, alas, am not so brave as that, so have only just finished the final episode, but because no pop cultural event can ever be complete without my pronouncing judgement on it, and because, like you, dear reader, I really don’t have enough useful things to do, I thought I would post for posterity my thoughts on Season 2.

Season 1 appeared in July 2016, and quickly built up a dedicated following – I have to confess that, in common with many others, it was the reason for my taking out a subscription to Netflix in the first place. Now its young cast are big stars, and hype for the new season has been gathering momentum it seems for most of this year.

But is it, as they say, any good?

Perhaps inevitably, “Stranger Things 2” suffers somewhat in comparison to its predecessor – the novelty value of the first season has been lost, so the choices the producers make come under greater scrutiny as they seek to drive the narrative forward. Certainly, the plot is very similar – a year on from the events of Season 1, it is now Hallowe’en 1984, and young Will Byers is still haunted by his experiences in the Upside Down, and is being regularly monitored by Sam Owens, chief scientist at Hawkins Lab (why is the creepy lab still open? Don’t these people ever learn?). Will’s visions of the unpleasant parallel universe where he spent most of the last season incarcerated by all kinds of viscous nastiness seem to be getting worse, and the terrible blight affecting the local farmers’ pumpkin crop, and the bizarre goings on in a set of subterranean tunnels beneath the town, only serve to confirm our worst suspicions that something awful is about to happen.

Into the mix have been thrown some interesting new characters – Max, the tough young girl who joins Will’s class; her violent and aggressive stepbrother, Billy, who threatens Steve Harrington’s position as top of the high school food chain; and the kind and loveable Bob, Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend (too kind and loveable, as it turns out – you just know from the off that it’s not going to end well for poor old Bob).

In keeping with the show’s retro Eighties appeal, two of the new characters are played by actors familiar to fans of that era’s movies – Bob is played by Sean Astin, who of course starred in The Goonies back in 1985, and Owens by Paul Reiser, who was the villainous Burke in Aliens.

There are plenty of other nods to the world of Reagan, Thatcher and mullets (apart from the fact that several of the young male characters actually have mullets), from the posters for the November ’84 presidential election (Mike’s parents are Republicans, whereas Dustin’s mum is a Mondale supporter), to the lovingly recreated computer arcade where the young friends hang out, to the Ghostbusters costumes they wear to go trick-or-treating – and, as I wrote in my earlier post about the first season, for those of us who lived through those times, seeing your own past recycled in this way can be somewhat disconcerting.

But the introduction of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (a nicely judged performance from Brett Gelman, simultaneously ingratiating and sinister) is a reminder that the seeds of the “fake news” era were sown long ago, and that the familiar storyline of nefarious government agents plotting against innocent townsfolk, which has been a staple of Hollywood movies and TV shows for years beyond count, is perhaps not as benign as it seemed a few years ago. When encouraging your audience’s credulity helps to feed a willingness to believe virtually anything – so long as people we like are saying it – it begins to look somewhat irresponsible.

However, despite the broad horror of Stranger Things, its creators are too subtle to fall into all the obvious traps. Owens seems shifty at first, but turns out to be a decent man, and the other new main character, Kali / Eight, while not a villain as such, is nevertheless involved in a violent campaign of retribution against those she believes were responsible for the abuse she suffered as a young girl, a campaign that Eleven embraces but then ultimately rejects for its nihilism. Some viewers don’t seem to have enjoyed this episode, but I think it underlines a strong ethical current beneath all the fantasy and nostalgia – violence and revenge have consequences, after all, and they change people, and ruin lives, something also underscored by the touching scene where Nancy and Steve visit Barb’s parents: she may only have been a relatively minor character in Season 1, but her loss still reverberates, and I really appreciated that attention to emotional truth from the writers. Too often in these kind of dramas, the death of such characters seems to have been forgotten five minutes later.

The possession of Will by the amorphous, multi-tentacled being from the Upside Down – and the subsequent scenes where he is restrained as his family and friends try to exorcise the creature – I found genuinely disturbing, and though no doubt every care was taken to protect the young actors involved, nevertheless scenes of children in pain or distress are always upsetting to watch. But then Stranger Things is a horror serial with a predominantly young cast, so I suppose such scenes are all but inevitable. But maybe it could sometimes be handled a little better.

This no doubt makes me seem terribly middle-aged, to which I plead guilty – I am! But I’m still enjoying Stranger Things, though I think they need to keep new ideas coming if the show isn’t to run out of steam over the next two or three seasons. Ultimately, the key to its success is its cast, and its tight plotting. The way characters are allowed to develop – Steve Harrington was the school bully in Season 1, and has now become an unlikely hero, and Billy seems like a monster at the beginning of Season 2, but grows more sympathetic when we get to meet his appalling father – adds real depth, the kind of depth such fantasy horror requires if the audience is to successfully suspend their disbelief. As the writer M. John Harrison said in a recent interview – “You can’t really do the strange, unless you back it with the normal”.

Writing and Fear

If you’ve ever tried writing a story, a script, a novel (and that’s probably most of us at some stage), how frightened did it make you feel?

I don’t mean the story’s content necessarily (though if you aspire to be the next Stephen King, I guess you would want it to be pretty scary), but the actual process – having to face your own limitations, the realisation that there are certain things you may not be able to do.

I remember reading an interview with the author Sadie Jones, in which she said:

“I’m never happy with what I’ve written. You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed. And then you just try to make it the best shed you can.”

I love this quote. That little voice in your head telling you to give up, not to bother, that what you’ve written is a pile of crap – well, sometimes it is, but it also means you’re honest enough with yourself to recognise that you’re probably not a literary genius, and that you need to keep on working harder at improving your writing, at testing your limits, and doing the best with what you have. You can’t get better otherwise.

Keep reading. Keep writing. And make it the best shed you can.

Photo: homedit.com

Dreams and Things

Robert Aickman.

Last Friday I went along to the British Library for “Even Stranger Things”, an evening of talks and discussion about Robert Aickman, whose unsettling and beautifully written horror stories (though he preferred the term “strange stories”) were reissued by Faber here in the UK a couple of years ago, with a new collection set for publication in the States next year.

It was frequently remarked by several of the speakers – who included the horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who knew Aickman, and Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson of the League of Gentlemen – that Aickman’s stories are like waking dreams (or nightmares). The author Fritz Leiber called Aickman a “weatherman of the subconscious”, which is a wonderful phrase, and he certainly has the rare knack of conjuring the atmosphere and unbalanced logic of a dream, without resorting to cliché or pretentiousness.

I keep a sporadic dream diary, and for particularly memorable or evocative dreams it can be fun trying to identify a “plot” or through-line amidst all the craziness. And that fleeting, liminal space between waking and sleeping can produce some extraordinary and surprising ideas (and sometimes whole sentences). But I’ve never been able to hover there for very long. Soon the sharp elbows of reality barge their way in. But I always try and keep a channel open to my subconscious, to that intuitive part of my imagination, in the hope that something good – or scary, or interesting – will come to call.

Chewing on Ideas

A friend asked me the other day where my ideas come from.

As I recall, I gave some vague, waffly answer – I never have been good at thinking on my feet, and I fear am a practised expert at l’esprit d’escalier – but, chewing on it a bit more, I realised that the ideas that have “worked” for me, the ideas that have had “legs” and developed into something more than an idea, that have developed into a script, or a story, or a novel, are the ones that “stick” – i.e., the ones that have been rolling around my head for months, or even years, and that my imagination can’t seem to let go.

Once the germ of a story becomes this persistent, then it’s a safe bet it could grow into something reasonably sophisticated, something that just might be able to develop its own means of propulsion, and then go on to use that means of propulsion to go for a good, long wander, initially just to the end of the road and back, but eventually, hopefully, out into the world, where it can make its own living without any help from me.

To stand on its own two feet, in other words.

Failing that, if my brain is broadcasting nothing but static (which it is more often than I would like), I flick through the disjointed scribblings of my various notebooks, and even if I am currently bereft of any good ideas, I can usually spot something glinting amidst the sand and pebbles of my past thoughts.

And I reach my hand in, and try to pluck it out.