Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Is Stephen King Overrated?

Why I Think Stephen King is Overrated
My mother wouldn't let me anywhere near Stephen King's novels when I was a kid. Of course, that didn't stop me from reading them. Cujo was the first book of his that caught my attention because I thought the idea of people being terrorized by a demon-possessed dog sounded cool. Granted, Cujo is not King's best work.

But, to be frank, I never thought any of his work was that great. Even as a teen I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out why his books were so popular, and I thought, “You know what, I don't like these books. Why am I reading this?" From Carrie to It to Pet Sematary to Thinner, I thought King’s books were boring, wordy, unscary, and forgettable.

But that's not my beef with him. There are plenty of awful writers out there, and I just don’t bother reading them. But with King it’s different.

You see, he wasn’t all the rage when he first started writing. Throughout the early parts of his career, King was dogged by critics who called him out for his genre-specific, “popular” literary stylings, even as he was selling millions of books annually.

In the early 80s, The Toronto Globe called his novel Carrie "a clumsy experiment." The Los Angeles Times called Cujo "Paws" instead of "Jaws," saying, ‘[the book] doesn't work." In 1983, the same year that Christine and Pet Sematary were published, an essay in the Times suggested it was a slog for reviewers to read King's work, saying they would rather just have a beer with him than read his books. In 1986, the Times said, "Where did Stephen King, the most experienced crown prince of darkness, go wrong with It? Almost everywhere."

In 2003, King won the National Book Foundation’s award for distinguished contribution, and writer and Yale professor Harold Bloom let the world know that giving King the award was wrong. He said it was “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”

A recent article in The Huffington Post said King can’t write. The author, Michael Conniff, an instructor and writer himself, said Stephen King’s broad-stroke descriptions are actually hurting his work.

In an article in Salon, Dwight Allen from the LA Review of Books asked why is Stephen King so beloved? Allen dissected a bunch of his books and came to the conclusion that King is overrated as a writer and as a storyteller. He argued that sales do not translate to excellent writing, and questioned some publications that wrote glowing reviews of King's body of work.

So why is he so popular?

I think King’s saving grace was Hollywood. His books, though poorly written, were edgy, and edgy is always what catches the attention of Hollywood. Once movie makers started turning his books into feature films the Stephen King bandwagon really took off. Remember those two-night Stephen King television "events"—It, The Langoliers, Storm of the Century? When those mini series became trendy people assumed some literary masterpiece had landed on earth and they started they eating his books by the trough full.

And then King's popularity began to overshadow his shortcomings as a writer.

When King published the seventh volume of his Dark Tower series, The Washington Post gave it a gushing review, saying it was “a humane, visionary epic and a true magnum opus.” The New York Times listed his JFK assassination novel 11/22/63 one of "The 10 Best Books" of the year.

Ultimately, I don’t think the quality of King’s work stands up. In fact, I think it’s downright awful. For a guy who has taught English for much of his career, who had given lectures and written books about the importance of story, he spends a good deal of time drowning his stories in words.

But what do I know? King has sold over 350 million books so he is obviously doing something right. Readers have voted with their wallets, and they have crowned King… king. I’m glad that a fellow author has found success, I just wish it could be for the quality of his work and not because he won a popularity contest.

What do you think? Is Stephen King overrated?

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Tell Me Again Why You Won't Read My Book

If you're still on the fence about my latest novel Rabbit Punch, here is a PDF download of the first 20 pages. Enjoy! Click to download.

Rabbit Punch by C.W. Thomas
The biggest joy for any writer is having their work read. Nothing else means as much—not money, or book readings, or New York Times reviews. Just being read is its own reward. Well, for this writer anyway.

So when I come across people who aren't willing to give my book a chance, it's kind of frustrating, especially when they give me some of the excuses they've got for not reading Rabbit Punch.

Bear in mind the story is about the actions of an old retired boxer when he finds out his neighbor's 9-year-old daughter was abducted by pedophiles. He sets out on a one-man mission to punish those responsible. Think Death Wish in rural New England with some good old-fashioned Scottish flair.

I understand if content like this turns some people off. I've had several close friends and family members tell me they won't read it simply because they can't stomach this kind of thing. What frustrates me is that some of these people won't miss an episode of Criminal Minds or CSI, shows that depict the same kind of content I'm writing about.

One family member told me that Rabbit Punch goes against their moral beliefs, and they wouldn't want anyone in their church knowing they read that kind of stuff. But I've been in this person's home, and I've perused their bookshelves. I know what I've written about is no worse than what they've already read.

Maybe frustrated is the wrong word, because Rabbit Punch has received excellent word of mouth and great reviews. It's not like I'm dying for someone to 5-star me on Amazon. I think perplexed is a better word. Confused, maybe. They'll watch shows about murdered strippers and drug-dealing rapists, but they won't read a book about child abduction.


Then again, maybe my twisted mind is just too jaded.

If you haven't decided to give Rabbit Punch a go, click here to download what is essentially the opening act. I hope you enjoy it!

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

10 Horror Movies That Are Actually Scary And Why

Why horror movies aren't scary anymore
Tell me if you've heard this one before.

A group of unrealistically gorgeous twenty-somethings go out into the remote woods to get drunk and have sex when they stumble upon *insert random demonic zombie killing machine ghost creature here* and end up getting cut to ribbons.


Of course it is. Worse than the redundant storytelling, worse than the cheap jump scares, worse then the lack of originality, the problem with horror movies today can be summed up in one phrase: (to quote the great Magneto when he plugged Rogue in the back of the neck with a tranquilizer dart in the first X-Men): "Young people."

Why horror movies aren't scary anymore
Young people running scared through the woods, Evil Dead.

Why horror movies aren't scary anymore
Young people running scared through the woods, Friday the 13th (2009).

Why horror movies aren't scary anymore
Young people running scared through the woods, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Horror movies have always appealed to young people, teenagers mostly, people who don't know enough about the real horrors of life to even know what's scary. They'll jump at anything that's thrown on the screen accompanied by a loud sound effect and a splash of gore. And most of the time you don't even need the gore.

I still watch the occasional horror movie, but I'm selective with what I see. The first thing I look at is the cast. If they fall into that "unrealistically gorgeous twenty-something" range, I move on.

There have been some decent efforts though. The Blair Witch Project, Scream, Evil Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, but mostly it all looks the same: Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Prom Night, House of Wax, My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Joy Ride, Wrong Turn, Rest Stop, and all their sequels, remakes, ripoffs, and retreads.

You can only watch teenagers running around acting scared for so long. Eventually, you realize they're all repeating every performance that came before them, and that's not scary. Not in the least.

The Older Protagonist

I sincerely believe the problem with horror movies today is the lack of older protagonists.

There's something different psychologically about watching grown adults be scared, people who have been through enough of life's hardships to know that everything that goes bump in the night isn't a mask-wearing serial killer.

It's not the job of creature effects or jump scares to sell the fright. It's the responsibility of the cast. If we're convinced they're scared, then we crap our pants. And a young cast just can't sell the scare factor like seasoned adults.

That's why the protagonist in my latest novel, Rabbit Punch, is a 62-year-old retired boxer. His feathers don't ruffle easily, and it makes the stakes feel higher when they do.

Here are ten horror movies in random order that nailed it in the scare department thanks to a cast of mature actors that knew how to deliver scary.

Alien remains the quintessential "how to make a horror movie" movie. The entire cast is made up of mature adults, weathered and weary "truckers" who aren't easily deterred. So when they start losing their cool, you know what just hit the fan. You want to know when the Alien movies lost all sense of scariness? 2004. When the studios watered down this R-rated franchise to PG-13, cast a bunch of gorgeous young twenty-somethings, and marketed it to teens.

John Carpenter's The Thing remains another one of horror's classics. You can point to the tremendous creature effects, the isolating locations, or the brilliant direction as the reason this movie is so terrifying, but, as always, it's the cast of grown adult males that make this bit of science fiction feel real.

Jaws. It's not the shark jumping up out of the water that's scary. It's Chief Brody's reaction as he backs away slowly in shock until he looks at Quint and says, "You're going to need a bigger boat." People always remember the shark, but they don't realize that it's Chief Brody that sold the scare.

Dog Soldiers looks like a B movie, and it is, but the thing that makes this werewolf story one of the best in its genre is the cast of hardened Scottish soldiers who, during a training exercise, wander into the territory of a family of werewolves. Nothing's scarier than seeing grown soldiers frightened out of their fatigues.

The Pack. I've never found dogs to be scary, so I watched this movie with a bit of nonchalance. To my delight, the cast was mainly a middle-aged man and his wife, their two children, and a local police officer. When a pack of wild dogs start invading their farm, the scares feel genuine because anyone who knows a farmer knows rugged ol' farmers don't scare easy.

The Exorcist was plenty scary, but having someone with the aged gravitas of Max von Sydow playing Father Merrin lent the film a tonal weight that chilled the bones. The Exorcist is considered by many to be one of the scariest films ever made.

Predator. As far as horror movies go, this is more action, but you can't deny this franchise lost a lot of clout when the studio began watering down its R-rated content for teenagers—remember my mention of Alien vs Predator above? Before that, nothing was scarier than watching Arnold Schwarzenegger's tough-as-nails team of soldiers be terrorized in the jungle by an alien who thinks he's a spinal surgeon.

Misery. Hollywood, take note. Stephen King is not the master of horror for no reason. He knows what scares, and his books generally feature older protagonists. Misery, one of the best screen adaptations of King's books, works thanks to the sweaty, agonized performance of James Cann alongside Kathy Bates' psycho with a sledgehammer. Try not to flinch. I dare you.

The Shining. Who didn't cringe watching Jack Torrance lose his mind in the isolated Overlook Hotel? It's his wife, Wendy, played by actress Shelley Duvall—who was often actually terrified on set—who convinces us what's happening is truly frightening. And it works.

American Horror Story. There's a reason this show is scaring people all across the world. Its cast is almost entirely adults reacting to supernatural horror situations like any logical adult would react. Watching their pysches break down is the most terrifying thing of all.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Latest Baby Goes Out Into The World With A Punch

Rabbit Punch, by C.W. Thomas
There's something about the prospect of revenge that taps into the very animal inside us. It doesn't matter who you are. There's not a person on the planet who hasn't at one time or another wished for instant "karma" on someone else.

Movies like The Brave One, or Death Sentence, or the infamous slew of Charles Bronson Death Wish films, a revenge story hits us in the heart.

And so it was with no small degree of emotion that I penned Rabbit Punch. I started by asking myself what subject gets under my skin more than anything else. If someone did "_____" to someone I loved, I would totally lose my cool and go all Liam Neeson on them.

The answer, for me, was child sex trafficking. Considering I wrote the novel right after the birth of my firstborn son, "Rabbit Punch" is as raw and gritty as I could make it.

My other inspiration is real life hero Frank Corti, a retired junior boxing champion who served in the Royal Engineers. In 2009, at the age of 72, Mr Corti stopped a knife-wielding home invader using nothing but his fists. I've always enjoyed stories with a more mature protagonist because, simply put, old people are awesome!

Frank Cort

I can't name ONE horror movie starring a bunch of picture-perfect twenty-somethings that's actually scary. Why? Because young people scare too easily. There's nothing scary about watching a bunch of college students running from the boogeyman. Give me a character like Father Merrin from The Exorcist, a weathered old man who has seen it all. When someone like him gets scared, then you know the stakes are high.

All of this lead to the creation of the story behind Rabbit Punch as well as its main character, a 62-year-old retired boxer and tough-as-nails Scotsman, Glen McLeod.

From the back of the book

Glen McLeod learned to box the same way he learned to drink: through pain. Now 62 and a recluse in the rural community of Bath County, Glen spends his days with his garden, his dog, a bottle of hard liquor and harder memories.

That is until Lauren, the 9-year-old daughter of his next-door neighbor, is abducted.

When the county sheriff appears complicit in covering up the truth Glen begins his own investigation. The clues lead him to something more sinister than anyone expected. Caught between justice and revenge, Glen will discover what he’s truly capable of when he’s pushed against the ropes.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"Rabbit Punch" Proof Copy Arrives

Rabbit Punch Proof Copy C.W. Thomas
Even though most people will probably not see this book in its print form, I like to examine a physical copy. My years as a graphic artist laying out books and interior designs has taught me to always examine the printer's work. Fonts and colors can look a lot different in print than they do on a computer. Errors pop out more too, whether they be typos or errors with the margins or design.

This copy looks pretty darn good. Got a few tweaks to make and then it's off to the presses.

I'm always pleased with my work until I see it in print form. Then my opinion changes to "What am I thinking? I can't release this into the world. This sucks!"

*palms face*

So, world, brace yourself for my sucky book.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

How I Saw The Hero Change - A Look At Heroes In The Movies

I was raised in a pretty traditional home in rural Vermont. My father was a police officer. My mother a God-fearing woman. So a strong sense of justice and right and wrong was instilled in me.

As a kid, the types of heroes I gravitated to were the heart-of-gold heroes, uncompromising and duty-bound. The heroes who believed in truth and justice. Superman. Batman. Luke Skywalker. He-Man. The Ninja Turtles.

In the early 1980s, there was no question that heroes were good. It didn't matter what made them good, just that they were good, that they fought the bad guys and won in the end. And that's pretty much all I cared about too.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger in Cactus Jack
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger in Cactus Jack
When I was around eight years old, my mother introduced me to a movie that changed my perspective on what makes a hero. Cactus Jack, also known as The Villain, was a western comedy that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger, a perfect cowboy who did what was right because, well, it was right. In my little eight-year-old eyes a hero couldn't get any bigger than Schwarzenegger. I mean, come on, he was Commando, Kalidor from Red Sonja, Detective John Kimble from Kindergarten Cop, and Dutch from Predator. He wasn't just a hero, he was the hero!

But the main character of Cactus Jack wasn't Schwarzenegger. It was the bad guy Cactus Jack Slade, played by Kirk Douglas, a thief and a scoundrel and a liar. Heck, he even had his own "Bad Men of the West" handbook. He was rotten to the core, but he was the hero of the story. Sort of. He was the focal point anyway, and it's the first time I remember thinking differently about what makes a character a hero.

Seeing the trend

As I got into my teen years I began to notice a trend in popular culture. Heroes went from being wholesome and good and chivalrous to dark and brooding and even more dangerous.

I didn't know it at the time, but the anti-hero was nothing new. The movement began, I think, in the 70s with films like Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Death Wish, and Dirty Harry—in fact, Clint Eastwood became the poster child for the brooding anti-hero for many years.

The Punisher - A look at heroes in film
This wasn't just a film trend either.

In comic books, we saw the emergence of The Punisher and Wolverine in 1974. This ignited a dark and brooding anti-hero trend that exploded in the 80s with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns—a title that redefined Batman as a nightmarish vigilante—and Alan Moore's Watchmen series, which gave a dark new definition to what makes a comic book hero.

In literature, we saw the popularity of the anti-hero rise with books like Steven King's The Dark Tower, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, and many, many others.

On the political front, Ronald Reagan began appointing conservative judges who cracked down on crime at a time when most of the public perceived crime rates as high. The sexual revolution and the Cold War era helped breed a mindset within American culture that had a lot to do with shrugging off society's standards and government control.

The public perception of what a hero was supposed to be was changing. No more Greek demigods or mortal "chosen ones." Heroes were becoming more human and more imperfect.

My favorite imperfect hero

Bruce Willis - John McClain - Die Hard - Heroes in film
For me, the next big milestone came in the early '90s when Bruce Willis took on his most iconic role, that being the tough-as-nails cop John McClain in Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). I might not have been drawn to a character like John McClain with his drinking binges, foul-mouth, and bad attitude had it not been for the fact that my dad was also a cop.

The more I watched John McClain, however, the more I realized that underneath his imperfect exterior was a true hero. Sure, he was a nut, and he screwed up a lot, but you could always count on him in the end. Die Hard remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Other movies that challenged my perception of what makes a hero included Sean Connery in The Rock, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys, Wesley Snipes in Blade, and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon.

The hero becomes the villain

Shortly after the turn of the century, I observed another change in how our heroes were being portrayed. This time dark took an even darker turn.

Sin City (2005), based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, remains an incredibly grim and hyper-stylized story of bad guys doing the right thing. Its brutal violence pushed the anti-hero to the edge, even going so far as to make the audience root for the bad guys. (Let's face it, everyone was a bad guy in that movie!)

Also in 2006 Showtime presented us with Dexter, a hugely popular series that ran for eight seasons, based on the books by Jeff Lindsay. The hero of this series was a serial killer. Oh, sure, he was a conflicted serial killer, and the show did an amazing job at making him likable, but this kind of programming never would've been produced ten years ago.

The hero had changed again, and he was really, really bad.

How far the hero has fallen

Nowadays you'd be hard-pressed to find a film with a perfect, uncompromising hero. If you do, it's probably made fun of—i.e. Metro Man as voiced by Brad Pitt in Megamind, and Emmet as voiced by Chris Pratt in The Lego Movie.

The closest example would probably be Chris Evan's strong-jawed portrayal of Captain America in Marvel's Avengers franchise, but even he is depicted as being an archaic concept from a bygone era.

Has the concept of the "true hero" become a thing of the past? Why are we, as a culture, so averse to the notion of perfection? Why aren't our heroes wholesome anymore?

As much as we as individuals strive for perfection we know we can't reach it, and we're quick to tear down anyone who appears even slightly perfect. Tabloids hound celebrities for their dirty secrets. Politicians attack one another like rabid dogs to expose the skeletons in their closets. For some reason perfection makes us feel awful about ourselves, so when we meet people who seem to have it all together our impulse is to gossip about them, talk behind their backs, smear them, bring them down so we feel better. We hate perfection, and yet we're obsessed with it.

We want to see our heroes win, but it's like we can't buy the scenario unless we can perceive them as being worse than ourselves.

I guess all of this is to say as much as I've embraced the anti-hero with all of his foibles and problems, I kinda miss the heroes I grew up with.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Indie Authors Need To Make Waves, Not Splashes

I've been taking some time away from Children of the Falls and the world of Edhen to focus on a new project. It's a short book that I wanted to write to market as quickly as I could, because as much as I love my gargantuan fantasy novels they do take a while to write. I want to output more books, learn to write better faster, and hook into a popular genre that can actually put some money in my pocket.

Whether us indie authors like it or not we need to be concerned with output. A novel every year or two is not enough. We need to publish more frequently. It's the difference between making a big splash and making waves. A splash lasts for a moment and its ripples quickly fade, but waves never stop.

These past couple of months have been a test for myself. I've measured how long it takes me to write a 70,000 word novel, what my average per hour word output is, and whether I'm more productive at home, at a coffee shop, in the afternoon or evening. It's yielded some interesting insights that have shown me ways I can improve.

For example:

  • As much as I love to get a blended latte at Krispy Kreme and work in the corner booth, I've found that my average per hour word output drops from about 1,500 words to a thousand or less while working in a public place. Ouch.
  • Interestingly enough I find editing is easier when I'm at a coffee shop away from home.
  • At home I did my best writing between the hours of 10pm and midnight with about 1,700 words per hour. I can't focus enough in the mornings or afternoons to obtain that level of output.
  • The quality of my work is best when I've outlined what I want to write. Even if that means taking five minutes before my writing time to consider what direction I want to take a certain scene or conversation. When I've got a map to follow the quality and speed at which I write is much faster.

The new mystery novel is a genre jump for me, but it's a genre that sells more consistently than medieval fantasy. The problem with fantasy is that it requires an investment on behalf of the reader. People want to be immersed in the worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, and Westeros, but they're often hesitant to take the plunge. Getting familiar with a new world is a big undertaking, especially if the author is an indie guy like me.

I appreciate the loyal fans I have for Children of the Falls, but it's time, I think, to expand my horizons.

The new novel, Rabbit Punch, is a vigilante mystery thriller set in a small New England town similar to where I grew up. It was inspired by a news article I read back in 2014 about a 72-year-old retired boxer who defended himself from a 20-something home invader. When this punk kid broke into his home and attacked him with a knife this old man took him down with two punches. The paramedics who responded to the scene described what the kid looked like after being hit by this old former boxing champion—"It looked like he'd been hit by a truck." I found that amusing.

I love old people. I think they're undervalued and underserved in this country. I think they've got so much to say and so much wisdom we can glean from if we weren't so wrapped up in our selfish day-to-day lives.

I'm looking forward to releasing Rabbit Punch for people to read. It's a fun, fast-paced who-done-it story with a dash of brutal vigilantism. Coming soon!

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