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Halloweek Page-Turners - Best Reads for Cold Nights
Staci Layne Wilson
I’ve been reading a lot of horror lately, and fiction to boot! (Usually, I stick with nonfiction, true crime, and memoirs.) As the days get shorter, and the nights longer, what better way to while away the extra hours of darkness than to shiver with some spooky stories?

I read two new anthologies back-to-back. The first one is called Seize The Night, and it’s all about vampires.

“The notion of the romantic vampire is transcended to chilling and even heartbreaking effect in this stellar anthology of tales…These stories move smoothly from the subtle to the horrifying…” —Publishers Weekly Starred Review

These are original, blood-curdling vampire fiction from New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors, including Charlaine Harris (whose novels were adapted into HBO’s hit show True Blood), and Scott Smith (publishing his first work since The Ruins).

Before being transformed into romantic heroes and soft, sparkly emo antiheroes, vampires were figures of towering terror. Now, from some of the biggest names in horror and dark fiction, is this stellar stack of short stories that make vampires vicious once again. Edited by New York Times bestselling author Christopher Golden and featuring all-new stories from the likes of the aforementioned, as well as John Ajvide Lindqvist, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Michael Kortya, Kelley Armstrong, Brian Keene, David Wellington, Seanan McGuire, and Tim Lebbon, Seize the Night is old-school vampire fiction at its finest.

My favorite stories were: Up In Old Vermont, by Scott Smith. It’s about Ally, a down-on-her luck caretaker who, in her darkest hour, miraculously finds a job watching an Alzheimer's in exchange for room, board, and a stipend. Sounds perfect, but of course, it’s not. Whisky and Light, by Dana Cameron. It’s a period piece, and center of superstitions steeped in historical fact. The Last Supper, by Brian Keene. It’s about the downside of immortality and is a tale succinctly, brilliantly, told.

The next anthology I read was 18 Wheels of Horror: A Trailer Full of Trucking Terrors, Edited by Eric Miller. I read this book because some of my favorite writers (and friends) are featured in it pages (or pixels, in my case – I Kindled it), but was pleasantly surprised to be hooked regardless of my connection to any of the authors.

The description reads: "Psychotic killers, devious ghosts, alien monsters, howling storms, undead creatures, and other dark forces haunt the highways and the truckers who drive them in these 18 chilling tales! A ghostly voice on a trucker’s CB radio knows more about his life than it should… Two drivers find their cargo gives them inhuman appetites… A boy in a truck stop encounters a supernatural force that threatens to destroy the world… The hypnotic singing lulling a driver to sleep might not be coming from the tires… A fender-bender between a big rig and a four wheeler is not as accidental as it seems… The sinister cargo lurking in a rock and roll band’s fleet of trucks is unleashed at their final show... Hit the road with this anthology of trucking horror fiction!"

My favorite stories were: Whistlin’ By, by Shane Bitterling. This is hillbilly horror at its finest distillation, about an extremely superstitious truck driver who makes the mistake of whistling past a graveyard; even though he takes all the precautions, fate has other plans for him. Lucky, by Del Howison, is the only story about a female trucker, and she turns out to be so lucky after all. Happy Joe’s Rest Stop, by John Palisano. This story, set in a truck stop convenience store, reminded me of a cross between The Mist and Phantasm, but with its own unique twists and turns. Take the Night, by Joyce Holden. I am a sucker for anything to do with guitar stars and bands on the road… in this trippy tale, it turns out the lead singer of a rock group has sold his soul to the devil, and the 18-wheelers on the tour are carrying more than just amps and instruments.

Did I mention I’m a sucker for rock star stories? Well, I also recently finished the novel, The Nobodies Album, by New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Parkhurst. I fell head over heels in love with Parkhurt’s unique, unforgettable, indelible writing style and wholly unique way of thinking when I read her debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, back in 2003. She’s not a prolific writer, so it took years for her second book, Lost and Found, to come out. I skimmed through it, having trouble with all the characters. So then I kind of forgot about Parkhurst – though I am an avid follower of her funny Twitter feed – until it came time to interview her for my podcast, Dread Central Presents: Killer Queens, which I cohost with Vanessa Gomez. I picked up her third novel, The Nobodies Album, which came out a few years ago, and didn’t put it down until I was finished. What a story!

Here’s the official description: “Centered around a famous novelist Octavia Frost, The Nobodies Album explores her troubled relationship with her son Milo. When Milo, a renowned alt-rocker in San Francisco, discovers his fiancée brutally murdered after a night in which he has blacked out, he finds himself the prime suspect in the international media circus that follows. Having been estranged from Milo for many years, Octavia sees this as a chance for reconnection and redemption. The two share a difficult past, their relationship never having fully recovered from the accidental death of Octavia's husband and daughter. And it is the tentative progress of their bond that propels the heart of Parkhurst's story.”

Even though there’s a lot going on in the book (as there was in Lost and Found), I had no trouble following it and sticking with it, because it’s all from the first person perspective of one person. It’s got elements of the Sid Vicious / Nancy Spungeon murder case; an ageing rock star who brought up a daughter not his own (which reminded me of Todd Rundgren raising Liv Tyler as his own, until the truth came to light that she was Steven Tyler’s lust-child); and a writer wanting to go back and rewrite history – which was reminiscent of the recent news surrounding Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird being published against her will.

Parkhurst’s stories – always centered around grief and uneasy family dynamics – are like page-turning beach reads, in spite of the very dark, insular subject matter. Laced with humor and pathos, I must say: The Nobodies Album is one of the best novels I’ve read since burning through all of Gillian Flynn’s oeuvres.

Next up is the first in a new series by L.J. Oliver, the combined force of New York Times bestselling author Scott Ciencin and acclaimed author E.A.A. Wilson, called The Humbug Murders. According to the press release party line, “Readers are in for a chilling ride as they join Ebenezer Scrooge in his pursuit of a killer through the streets of Dickens’ London. Full of action and wry humor, The Humbug Murders is a fun take on a classic character—Scrooge as you’ve never seen him before.”

I can’t wait to dive in. I am a huge fan of “What if?” stories and alternate reality fan-fic. One of my faves is the series by Harold Schechter, which feature Edgar Allen Poe as a crime-solving amateur detective.

Battle of the Bio-Pics
Staci Layne Wilson
I have seen some truly interesting, informative, and inspiring biopics lately. I love the variety of these – one is a full-on narrative, one is a mix of recollections and recreations, and the other two are straight up documentaries – but one is liner from birth to death, while the other covers just a year in the life.

Directed by: Jay Roach

The successful career of 1940s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo comes to a crushing end when he and other Hollywood figures are blacklisted for their political beliefs. This film tells the story of his fight against the U.S. government and studio bosses in a war over words and freedom, which entangled everyone in Hollywood from Hedda Hopper and John Wayne to Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I knew Bryan Cranston was an amazing actor from watching every episode of Breaking Bad ever made, but seeing him as Dalton Trumbo, he amazes anew. Fully embodying this real-life, larger-than-life character, he goes from top dog to underdog, to downright dirty dog, to top dog. Not only is the story engrossing – and true! – sometimes upsetting, and always informative, but it’s also funny (director Jay Roach is known for his blockbuster comedies). Helen Mirren as Hedda “The Hat” Hopper steals every scene she’s in, and comedian Louis CK turns in a surprisingly heartbreaking performance as one of the Hollywood 10, and Dalton’s best friend. This is a must-see movie, and I am certain there are Academy Awards in its furture.

Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed By: Amy Berg

This moving and insightful film reveals Janis Joplin in her most genuine, and rawest, form. The narration is in Joplin's own words, from letters that she wrote over the years, as read by Southern-born musician and actor Chan Marshall (a/k/a Cat Power). The film depicts Joplin’s evolution into a star, encompassing soul-stirring concert sequences, studio footage, and interviews with music industry veterans, collaborators and close friends such as Clive Davis, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, founding Grateful Dead member Bob Weir, and Joplin's younger siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin.

While this documentary isn’t presented in an especially innovate way – visually or narratively – its subject’s bright, burning light shines through. I already knew a lot about Janis Joplin, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something – and, I was deeply moved by its inevitable end.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans
Directed By: Gabriel Clarke, Jon McKenna

The turbulent production of the Steve McQueen car-racing classic Le Mans serves as the subject of this documentary from filmmakers Gabriel Clarke and Jon McKenna. At the time Le Mans went into production McQueen was one of cinema's biggest stars. Given his choice of film projects thanks to a lucrative deal with Cinema Center Studios, McQueen quickly began work on the passion project he had been dreaming about for the past decade. But as production on Le Mans got underway, the driven star would be forced to contend not only with the sudden departure of the film's original director, John Sturgis, but his own failing marriage, the threat of bankruptcy, and the fear of learning that he had been targeted for death by one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th Century as well.

I knew the basic highlights of Steve Queen’s careers – acting, and racecar driving – and his marriages, but not much about the blood, sweat, and tears (literally) that went into making his passion project, Le Mans. While I think it’s a worthwhile doc, it runs too long and paints a rather (unintended, I believe) poor portrait of McQueen as a chauvinist, a liar, a hothead, borderline narcissist, and unreasonable, paranoid drug and alcohol addict. I’d rather just think of him as “The King of Cool” and leave it at that.

Dreams of a Life
Directed By: Carol Anne Morley

Would anyone miss you? Nobody noticed when Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in North London in 2003. Her body wasn't discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on. Newspaper reports offered few details of her life -- not even a photograph. Interweaving interviews with imagined scenes from Joyce's life is not only a portrait of Joyce but a portrait on London in the eighties -- the city, music and race. It is a film about urban lives, contemporary life, and how, like Joyce, we are all different things to different people. It is about how little we may ever know each other, but nevertheless, how much we can love.

This biopic is a few years old, but I’ve been meaning to see it. Since I either missed it on Netflix or it never made it to the queue, I ponied up the $2.99 to rent it on Amazon Prime. I am really glad I waited until after seeing it, to read the user reviews. I was amazed at how many people disliked the imagined scenes from Joyce’s life (portrayed by actress Zawe Ashton), which I thought breathed fresh air into the melancholy, mysterious story. (Plus, this device is commonly used in true crime TV – I love all those shows on Discovery ID.) Another complaint was that the doc is skewed to provoke a certain emotional result – Michael Moore does that all the time. I’m not sure if all the facts were presented (some argue that Joyce’s sisters did try to find her… but the fact remains, no one tried hard enough or she wouldn’t have been rotting to skeletal remains for three years in her flat), but to some degree I agree with the adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – Morley has a filmmaker’s point of view, not a documentarian’s.

Now I’m eager to check out more of director Morley’s work. Not only is Dreams of a Life an imaginative, multilayered post-mortem examination, it also paints a portrait of London in the 80s—the city, the club and music scene, racial tension, and the working class. I like how she juxtaposes urban life with inner life, and how the two don’t always intersect.