Blandly Titled "Incarnate" is, like a dream, forgettable.

2 stars out of 4

As I mentioned in last week’s column, I make a concerted effort to see any movie with a Satanic theme because I spent a lot of my childhood scared shitless of the devil.  Not only does this make the movies a bit scarier for me because of some vestigial terror, but it does double duty as a bit of therapy. 

But it can have a negative effect too, because I am more disappointed by a bad movie about the devil than I am any other kind of horror film.  Can’t they see what makes him so scary?  Why can’t they all be as complex and disturbing as, say, Robert Eggers’s fascinating The Witch?  As audacious in their casting as Constantine (a seriously underappreciated action horror film; watch it again for the great Tilda Swinton as a gender-swapped Gabriel and Peter Stormare as a literally unctuous Satan)?  As literary in its pretentions as The Ninth Gate?  As just-plain-wacky as The Devil’s Advocate?

How come they’re so often as dull as The Incarnation?  Is it one of Old Scratch's evil plans to bore us so?

You can tell how rote Incarnate will be from the first five minutes.  A young boy with the requisite bowl haircut (the haircut of horror movie children, boys and girls alike, since at least Danny from Kubrick's Shining adaptation, if not before) is menaced by a growling homeless woman as he and his mother, played by Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten, enter their apartment building.  This is a misstep; the film seems to think that a homeless woman with mental health issues is an appropriate first scare, and it is not.  From a liberal perspective, class- and mental-health shaming are cheaply offensive, and from the horror fanatic’s view, there has only ever been one scary homeless person in the history of horror film, and it was in Hellraiser.  Two, if you count the dwarf from Don’t Look Now, although I cannot recall from that film whether she owns a home, rents, or has another arrangement.

At any rate, the snarling-homeless-person is a trope that has been used so often that its inclusion in a contemporary horror film feels like it should be a red herring, a distraction from something more sophisticated and less obvious.  Not so in Incarnate, which has, moments later, the homeless woman dropping from the ceiling onto the aforementioned Bowl Haircut Boy, possessing him.

We know this because he spends the remainder of the film sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, staring.  We are invited to shiver with fear at the sight of a boy sitting quietly.  I am not a parent, but I have worked in retail for a long time and there are times when a child’s bawling mixes perfectly with the awful pop song playing with tinny cheeriness over the store’s speakers.  Perhaps the song is "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, one of the worst songs ever written, and one which plays constantly at every place I have ever worked.  In such moments I like to thank God that the kids are not sitting quietly, possessed.  But personal experience ought not to effect critical acumen.  The actor playing Bowl Haircut Boy, it must be noted, is very good at remaining still. 

The movie also stars Aaron Eckhart as a someone who is not an exorcist (“Let’s get one thing straight,” he growls early on.  “I’m not an exorcist).  He is, instead, an evictor.  He goes into the heads of people who are possessed and evicts the demon, although the specifics of this are vague and largely cobbled together out of more memorable films.  There are story and character beats collected here as cheaply as if they fell out the back of a truck.  Think Inception, The Matrix, The Shining and The Omen all boiled together, after the English style, until they lose all flavor and shape. 

At one point Bowl Haircut Boy kills a man by lifting him into the air and then dropping him from a height of about seven feet.  Now, malnutrition and a lack of exercise have rendered me nearly as fragile as a fat little dauphin, but I think that even I could survive a fall like that. But in the film the descent is fatal.  Perhaps there is a subplot somewhere on the cutting room floor in which they reveal that the man has glass bones, or is allergic to the floor. 

Since Aaron Eckhart the evictor must go into people’s minds, the viewer is forgiven for hoping that there’ll be some trippy shit once they go into Bowl Haircut Boy’s demonic dream.  Not so.  The boy dreams that he is in a public park and then later a carnival.  It is as if Inception took place in Norman Rockwell’s afternoon catnap. 

The Arch-Demon, when we meet her, is in the guise of (surprise) a scary old lady who mutters mock-demonic gibberish about torturing everyone the Evictor loves.  This occurs for no reason.  The demon has no reason to dislike him, except that it gives the movie a reason to start and, by extension, eventually and mercifully end. 

Things would be whole plots in other movies are dispensed with in one or two lines of dialogue so vague as to be funny.  At one point, Eckhart the Evictor tells us his origin story.

“When I was 29, I discovered I could enter into the dreams of people possessed by the devil.” 

How was this discovery made?  This seems like the kind of thing that would be difficult to accidentally discover.  Did he work at a day care for possessed kids at nap time?  Was it maybe on a long flight?  I assume that might have been an interesting story for us to hear, but the movie, maybe because it is bored with itself, keeps it to itself. 

I cannot say anything more about the movie because it was instantly forgettable, and so I have already forgotten all but the broadest strokes.  There was something about a capsule of blood harvested from a Vatican exorcist, I think.  There was also something about a car crash, which I think was supposed to be tragic.  Also, a lot of the actresses looked the same. 

One thing is for certain – no one sheds a tear for the poor homeless woman who gets her neck broken in the first scene.  Maybe if she had been an heiress or something the movie would have cared enough to at least give her a name.  I think that Bowl Haircut Boy must have had a name, but it was not memorable enough to recall it.  All that I clearly remember, in fact, was sitting quietly staring straight ahead, like a thing possessed.

Hooked

A writer makes a promise with every word they choose. The opening line is no exception. It could be the reader's first interaction with that writer. It could also be the last.

That opening--that hook--should give the reader some insight into what kind of story they can expect. It should give hints about the tone and content of the piece. It should draw the reader in and give them the confidence to go forward. If it's really, really good, it might tell them the whole story.

The Magicians opens with, "Quentin did a magic trick. No one noticed." If you've read the book(s) or seen the show, you know how perfect this. Quentin is a chronically (possibly clinically) depressed dude for whom magic solves nothing. He spends much of the story doing magic and not feeling noticed.

Ride the Train by Shannon Iwanski starts like, "Carla stared at the non-descript white card she held in hand and read the words silently again, knowing that simple act was enough to condemn her to death". In that line, he presents is with the main conflict and gives us a lot of tension. We immediately know that, whatever is going on, it's life or death. And that danger drives the reader on.

"Someone was after me," Joan D. Vinge wrote in Catspaw. It's simple, but, like Ride the Train, it opens with some danger. And like The Magicians, it tells us what's going to happen in the rest of the book.

Shirley Jackson sets up the strange psychological world of The Haunting of Hill House with, "No love organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." 

All of these lines are great. More than just grabbing attention, they make promises.

Jack's been working on his novella, Thirteen Hearts to Start a Storm. He had this hook, he was really proud of it. "The great Lake Pontchartrain Causeway had survived stronger hurricanes than this, but it cracked under the weight of the werewolves warring with an undulating mass of rats along its spans."

That is a damn good line, right?  He had to cut it because, while technically true, all that stuff was happening in the world it's all in the background. The werewolves are not the focus of this book.

And that's where the promise comes in. If a writer promises me werewolves and does not deliver werewolves, readers are going to feel lied to. It's kind of a bait and switch.

If you want to read more about hooks, I really suggest Richard Thomas's article about them on LitReactor.

A Word About Blasphemy for Blasphemous Words

Today I want to talk about blasphemy.

As you may know, we're accepting submissions for a new anthology, the Book of Blasphemous Words. As chief editor of the anthology, I'm super excited about it. We've been planning it for quite some time, and I'm honored to be working on it.

We've received a ton of submissions for it, and that's super humbling. But I've noticed one thing in particular with several submissions.

Though they may be well-written, they're not blasphemous. They're stories of gods and men playing by the rules. There may be supernatural elements, but that's not blasphemy.

Maybe it's my fault. Fellow Murderer, Jack Burgos, wrote the copy text that's featured on the submission guidelines for me. He did an excellent job. But looking back over it, it leans one way. Each example in the third section references Abrahamic faith, which matches my own background. And a lot of the stories I'm talking about don't.

Maybe blasphemy has a cultural connotation we've overlooked of, "any religious beliefs not commonly seen in society." But that's not what we were hoping to see when we opened submissions.

Blasphemy is showing contempt or irreverence to sacred or inviolable beliefs. Praying to Apollo for prophecy, Atalanta for victory, Eros for love is piety. And, while I may not know anyone who genuinely keeps faith in them, it feels dismissive to consider them for an anthology about blasphemy.

We want stories of man's beliefs turning on them, or vice versa. Of the creations of faith and myth growing beyond control, consuming their former masters, body and soul. Conmen siphoning a god's power from believers for their own gain. A cult worshiping a deceitful demon to learn the meaning of life. A demigod of harmony that plots to bring the world to ruin.

Obviously, certainly stories lend themselves to blasphemy than others. The Cthulhu mythos (and other works inspired by Lovecraft) are notorious for being the domain of heretics and madmen. (Also, I very much enjoy reading those stories, so maybe submit more weird and eldritch horror.)

So, new submission guideline: make sure your piece is actually blasphemous. 

Would You Light Our Candle

We have really big plans. Bigger than we can currently do on our own. So, we decided to try out Patreon. This is a pretty big undertaking, and completely unlike anything we've ever done before.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you're not up for getting involved in that, all it means that we're going to be trying to post here more. But if you are interested in getting involved, it means even more interaction from us, previews of what we're working on, early access, and lots of other fun stuff as we come up with it.

So, if you want to help us out, please, please, check out the page. Share it. Pledge. Help us #PayForMurder and be at least 20% cooler.

Best New News of the Year

We want to give a great big shoutout to Tracy Fahey. She made Ellen Datlow's long list for Best Horror of the Year not once, but twice! We are particularly excited about "Under the Whitehorn", which can be found in Faed, but she also shone with "Walking the Borderlines" in Darkest Minds.

Also sending congratulations to George Cotronis and Matthew M. Bartlett. They got in with "Blackbird Lullabye" from XIII and "Rangel" respectively. 

We're so happy for all of our authors and look forward to working with many more in the future.

Theater B Delay

As you can see by the title, Now Playing in Theater B is going to be a few days late.

Unfortunately, we ran into one of those invisible technical issues that no one ever knows about until someone says something like, "Hey, did you send out that thing yet? Because I didn't get anything."

I had hoped that we would could get it all dealt with in time, but time wasn't really down for that. So, here we are. Running late.

I am so sorry. It should only be a couple of days while we make the final edits we weren't able to before.

Reap What You've Sown

Jack and I have just finished putting the final touches on everything (we think) for Broken Worlds. The e-book is ready for its release on the 31st. You can pre-order it over at Smashwords. The paperback is running a bit behind, but should be ready in the next couple of weeks. 

This one has exceeded all of our expectations so far. We have been so blown away by the response and the great writing. You guys (and by "guys" I mean both our writers and our readers) are so awesome. 

Make sure you pick up a copy. Review it (unless you're one of the authors, get your friends to review it), and spread the word.