Friday, December 30, 2016


SIOBHAN (copyright Tim Murr/St Rooster Books 2016)

Her English accent carried the quirk of Europe, but there was an American corruption that was very noticeable-New England with a touch of Southern twang she’d never shake, no matter how many years she spent in Berlin, which spoke about often and fondly and looked forward to returning to. She was kind and open, and could make people feel comfortable and safe with her, even me. She had come to Knoxville for an extended visit, staying with a friend from college, who was teaching high school English there.
She was unembarrassed by her wealth and freely spent money while slumming in The Old City, Knoxville’s old down town, with the punks, poets, and singers of that era, specifically early 1996. A trust fund afforded her freedom I couldn’t imagine, and she went where she pleased. Her poetry had been published in little magazines and warmly praised. Out of boredom she had wandered into the Tuesday Open Mic at Manhattan’s in time to see me take the stage a little on the shaky side.
I was having a typically bad night. I’d already been in a fight with some girlfriend and nearly fired from my job. I had a full pint of stout and I was dropping pages out of my notebook. I kicked the stool across the stage, because I was no sit down poet, damn it! The MC told me to take it easy, like he did every week. I plopped my notebook on the music stand and saw her. She had sat down at the table right in front of the stage. She looked regal, wore a black dress, a black bow in her purple hair. She was in her mid thirties, but from different angles she could be much older or younger. The only real constant was her sly and knowing grin. Even her eyes couldn’t be trusted, as they gave away nothing while consuming everything. She would be a couple days to remember.
She was looking at me sideways and I realized I’d been staring at her for a while. I looked out at the rest of the room and everyone was waiting for me to start. I took a big gulp of stout and opened my notebook to a page somewhere in the middle. I rarely planned my material ahead of time. Whatever page I opened was what I read. I got started with a poem about a girl, or whiskey, or whatever.
“Cheer up, man!” Brady shouted. He was a hick that did comedy folk songs about pro wrestling and gays. He heckled me weekly.
“Kiss my ass, redneck.”
The MC started looking pissed. Something said loudly, ‘not tonight, guys.’
I read a vignette, pacing back and forth. Nearly kicking my pint over several times. When I finished I knocked back the rest of the stout. She was watching me with an amused look on her face. I winked at her and did another poem about a girl, or whiskey, or whatever.
The Saint was at the big table in the back where he held court, he shouted “Testify!” I shouted back “Can you dig it?!?”
I nearly fell off stage, which garnered more applause than my ‘poetry’. She caught my arm as I passed.
“I like your stuff.”
“Sit down, I’ll buy you a drink.”
She ordered two shots and two pints then told me her name.
“So who do you read?” She asked.
“Um, well…Selby, Flannery, Rollins, Burroughs, um, I like Michael Crichton and Clive Barker…”
“Do you read Kathy Acker?”
“Start. Celine?”
“No. Optional.”
“Where are you from, your accent is intriguing.”
She scoffed, “everywhere, man.”
“But not here.”
“Well, no. This is just a stop.”
“Where are you staying?”
“My friend has an apartment a couple of blocks from here. She’s in New York for a week with a group of her drama students. My timing for a visit is unfortunate. I got here in time to see her off and I’ll be here long enough to welcome her home.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Suffice to say, I’d like a friend to get me through the next few days. So far, my choices have been, ok, just sort of typical.”
“I’d love to fill that role and I’ll try to be as atypical as possible.”
She patted my hand almost mockingly, “that’s all I ask, love.”
She kept ordering drinks and I was getting blotto. Leaning closer to her putting my arm around her talking into her neck. I could be an affectionate drunk and not an angry one sometimes. I was feeling in a ‘snuggle’ way that night. She seemed amused. She noted that we were being rude, sitting in front of the stage getting to know each other while all the singers and poets were trying to do their thing, so we moved to a booth on the other side of the bar. She would lean in to me and we’d clink our glasses together as we rattled on about Wenders, Zorn, Poe, Argento, Fellini, Lynch, Goddard, Waters, The Swans, Flesh Eaters, Nick Cave, Gary Numan…We told dirty jokes and teased each other. The drinks kept coming even after we no longer needed them. 
Some time after midnight she led me out. I shouted goodbye to the Saint, who raised his eyebrows and his glass to the lady dragging me out. Taylor gave me a standing ovation.
“I’m way too drunk to drive,” I told her outside.
“Don’t worry the apartment isn’t far.”
It was freezing and we huddled together against the wind. I followed her past all the bums with their hands out. Past all the raver kids outside of the Underground. She and I had different definitions of ‘not far.’ The apartment wasn’t in a great neighborhood and I told her she shouldn’t walk through here alone. She waved me off. The apartment was in the basement of a rundown building in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. I had other friends in the Fort, but they were not as aloof about their surroundings as she seemed to be. Around that time there was both a serial rapist and a serial arsonist at large there and rumors of a possible serial killer had started to generate in the last week, with the police denying there was a definite connection between the three decapitated bodies. A girl I knew, named Elle, had said her brother was there when one of the bodies had been pulled out from under a parked car. He said the neck looked ravaged, rather than cut off. People were generally on-guard here, now it was all heightened.
The apartment stank of pot and incense. There were four cats and liquor bottles everywhere. The furniture was all second hand and beat to hell. The posters on the wall were mostly of old movies. A few band flyers from the eighties. Apparently the friend was old school punk. There were books stacked on every available surface, two deep on every shelf. Every Beat writer, liberal activist, decadent intellectual, plus Joyce, De Sade, Miller, Becket…Vegetarian cook books, how-to books, cat care, a wide selection of children’s literature, and underground comix. I was momentarily lost in paradise, until she pulled me back, asking me if I wanted a drink.
She came out of the kitchen with two water glasses and a mason jar with a clear liquid in it.
“What’s that?”
“Moonshine. From Ireland.”
“Oh.” I preferred my liquor to be amber and come in a square bottle with a black label. I didn’t trust this stuff that you could run a car on. She poured my glass half full and handed it over. Not being a chicken I took a sip quickly and nearly threw up. It was the harshest damn thing I’d ever put in my mouth. She grinned, drinking hers casually.
We started talking about where we’d grown up, our school life, home life. Then we went back to talking about writers we liked, which led to a fight over Faulkner, who she couldn’t stand. Eventually the conversation started to die down. We’d laughed a little bit at each other’s drunken behavior and tales of excess.
Around five she was laying with her head in my lap, on the couch. She’d taken the bow out her hair, and it was fanned out like a calm ocean. I had one hand resting on her belly, feeling it rise and fall. I put my empty glass down and started running my fingers through her hair. She was smiling up at me with a lonely invulnerability.
I cupped her breast as she rose up to kiss me. She awkwardly got on top of me, hiking her dress up over her hips. We held each other tightly as we kissed. Our tongues in each other’s mouth, our hands going where they felt like. We moved to the floor and undressed each other. She was soft with beautiful curves. She wasn’t shy at all and took control quickly.
The sun was peeking through the shades when she bent over the coffee table and I moved behind her. She reached between her legs and guided me in.
“Gentle at first,” she said.
I worked slowly, trying to peer through the cobwebs of my mind. All the liquor was kicking my ass, but I was bound and determined not to blow this opportunity. Getting laid was never easy for me.
She pushed back into me, grinding her ass into my belly. I gripped her hips, then ran my hands up her back to her shoulders.
Later, we were naked under a sheet on the living room floor. She packed a bong and we got cool. I called out sick from work and we slept through half the day.
We walked around the Old City, past Manhattan’s. I looked in the window to see if the Saint was there, but his table was empty. We ran into a distant friend of mine from high school, named Mark, singing songs for change on the corner. His guitar was in rough shape from where a couple of guys had rolled him the previous weekend while he was on his way home. His face was pretty swollen still, but he just waved it off. He was the forgiving type, and didn’t even call the police.
“It’s awright, man. Ya know, it’s like all they know. Coz our system is so fucked up, what choice do they have?”
Siobhan was hanging back patiently. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t introduced her yet, so I quickly remedied that. She invited Mark to dinner with us and announced she was paying. Mark didn’t hesitate. He shoved his guitar in its case and off we went to a diner at the foot of Summit Hill.
She ordered a lot of food and encouraged us to do the same. We didn’t need much convincing. We both ordered the biggest burgers on the menu, double French fries, milk shakes and Cokes. We ate like starved dogs.
Mark’s stoner swagger was hypnotizing to women. He could talk for hours about nothing and lull them into his arms and be off with them. I could tell she immediately liked him and was maybe falling under his spell, as he told her of his misadventures in New Mexico and Arizona. She laughed a lot and asked several questions about his travels. I had been to New York and Boston, but had never been further west than Nashville, or further South than Cedar Town, Georgia. I didn’t have Gonzo-esque tales of misadventure to relay. I’d seen Mark swipe many a woman away from many a man, and now the bastard was doing it to me. To keep from getting pissed I kept telling myself he didn’t realize what he doing.
I knew I’d be walking back to my car alone. I stood with Mark as she paid the bill. Mark didn’t say much, just kept watching his feet as he shifted his weight from one to the other. I was surprised when she came over and took my hand and told Mark it was nice to meet him. It was satisfying to look back and see him standing there alone outside the diner.
She wanted to dance, so we went to the Underground. It was a place I preferred to avoid, because too many frat boys hung out there. But as a study in society peacefully coming together under thudding beat, it was interesting to see rednecks and jocks sharing the dance floor with drag queens, Goths, and nerdy ravers. Ninety percent of the women there all dressed the same: barely.
Siobhan ordered drinks and we knocked them down quickly and then she dragged me out on to the dance floor. I couldn’t dance, never had, unless you count slam dancing, so I just tried to do what she did. When she started to grind on me I just grabbed her hips and tried to hang in there.
She never seemed to get tired and it seemed like we danced to the same song (if you can call that shit music) for hours. Finally she pulled me into a dark corner and went into her purse. She had a baggy full of pills she took two out and put the baggy away. She put one in my hand, and led me to the bar. We took our pills with shots of whiskey and she smiled a devilish smile.
“What’d I just take?”
“Oh. I’ve never done that before. What’s it gonna do to me?”
“Loosen you up!”
Before long we were back on the dance floor. My body wasn’t my own anymore. I was dancing. I don’t know how well, but my whole body was coursing with the rhythm of the music. My head was warm and pulsing. I felt alive and full of love. We mauled each other out there. She wrapped one leg around me and I had two handfuls of ass. We kissed long and hard. I was turned on. We danced the rest of the night.
In the early morning darkness we walked back to the apartment, stopping once behind a gas station where she gave me a blowjob. When we got in we screwed till the sun came up.
While she made eggs and toast I called out sick again. I told my boss I couldn’t keep anything down and was barely strong enough to go to the bathroom. He was understanding, but couldn’t keep from guilting me about how hard it was to cover my shifts on such short notice. But I worked through the guilt eating delicious eggs and slipping under the sheets with Siobhan and sleeping through the day.
We found the Saint holding court at a hole-in-the-wall bar on the edge of the Old City. The usual cast of miscreants, poets, musicians and artists were hanging around. The Saint had everyone roaring with laughter, as usual.
I introduced Siobhan to everyone and she was greeted warmly and accepted into the family. We sat down and listened to the Saint finish his story;
“And so my father says to me, ‘Son, pay no attention to this Native American crap. Yer just a god damned Indian.’!”
The table erupted in laughter.
“Here’s to my old man, dammit!”
He looked over at me with a sly grin.
“How’d ya trick this lovely creature into hanging around with you?”
“With my charm and devilishly good looks, you old fart.”
The Saint laughed loudly and reached out to shake my hand. His grip was firm, but gentle, full of warmth and love. He winked at me then turned his attention to Siobhan, who smiled like a coy schoolgirl, when he leaned across the table with the devil in his smile and a sparkle in his eye.
“How’d you like to get outta here and go have some fun.”
“You don’t think I’m having fun with him?”
“Oh, the kid’s awright, but he don’t know shit. Except what I’ve taught him.”
“That’s right, actually.”
“You should have seen him before I found him. Quiet as a mouse, scared of the world.”
“I wasn’t that bad.”
“No. I’m just kiddin’. You know I love ya, boy. He’s like a son to me. Really is. Sit down!”
We laughed and drank and talked and drank. Siobhan leaned into me and my arm melted around her. I got drunk to the point of not hearing words- everything was a series of buzzes. Drinks kept appearing in front of me and I kept knocking them down. My eyes were getting heavy and I would close them for a few seconds to relieve the pressure.
It took me a while to realize I was sleeping with my head on the table. I slowly sat up and looked to my left. Siobhan was gone. There was no one left, except the Saint sitting across the table, smiling like a great, drunk Buddha.
“I’m sorry, kid. She left.”
“I don’t blame her. ‘Fucking passed out.”
“It’ll happen. I couldn’t tell you how many times I passed out on a date.”
“Who’d she leave with?”
He kept smiling, but there was only empathy, no joy, behind it. He looked down at his beer. His eyes were moist and he looked like he was remembering something sweet and tender.
“Who’d she leave with, you old fart?”
He chuckled and looked up at me. He kept smiling.
“She left with Mark.”
“Fuck me.”
“I have no idea. Shit. It’s real shitty and he knows it. Let’s go stomp that little fucker and get your girl back, god dammit!”
I chuckled. Then he laughed loud and so did I.
“We’ll gut him like a fuckin’ fish and hang’em by his toes!”
He slammed his fists on the table, “We’ll take him out to the country and tie’em to the back of your car! Drag his ass across Roane County!”
We laughed like Vikings and the waitress brought us the last round of the night. We raised our glasses and knocked them together, then knocked them back and slammed them on the table. Then we staggered toward the door and stormed the streets, shouting like a couple of psychos on a day pass.
The next day on my lunch break, I was sitting in my usual sandwich shop and ignoring the girl behind the counter for a change. In my stupor I found it easy to let Siobhan go, after all she was leaving soon anyway and she didn’t seem like the settle down type. No good bye felt right, but waking up alone and sober, my heart was feeling a void. The sandwich girl, Liv, tried to make small talk, but I was distracted and didn’t say much. She had the TV on and the local news was running through the usual litany of bullshit. Occasionally I’d look up without really seeing the news item, until Mark’s high school year book photo flashed on the screen.
Mark was dead. His body had been found early that morning stuffed between a garage and a house in the Fort. The police weren’t releasing any more details.
I asked Liv if I could use the phone. She let me come behind the counter and use the one hanging on the wall. I looked up the Knoxville Police Department’s number and after being transferred a couple of times, I landed in the homicide division talking to Detective Wilson. I told him who I was and that I knew Mark and knew that he’d left with a girl and I was trying to find out if she was all right.
“There was no one else found at the scene. Where does she live?”
“Not here, she’s visiting from…uh, England, I think.”
“You don’t know where she’s from?”
“We just met a few days ago.”
“What’s Siobhan’s last name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she staying?”
I gave him the address.
“Can you hold the line? That’s very close to where we found your friend.”
“Yea, of course.”
There was a long silent pause, several minutes past, then Detective Wilson came back on the line.
“We have officers at that apartment right now. The door was unlocked and they’re searching the premises. Where did you meet Siobhan?”
“At Manhattans. We got drunk and I went home with her.”
“Did you see her afterwards?”
“Yea, practically all of the next two days. I got drunk last night and passed out Skip’s. When I woke up she had left with Mark.”
“How’d you feel about that?”
“Shit, it sucked. But she was leaving soon anyway. Not like we were going to get married.”
“Uh huh.”
“How’d you get home?”
“Took a cab.”
“Where’s home?”
I gave him my address.
“Ok…hang on…”
The line went silent again, but he came back much faster.
“Where are you right now?”
“Johnny Quick’s Subs, off Cedar Bluff.”
“Don’t leave.”
Shit. Wilson had hung up. I put the phone on the cradle, then picked it back up and called work. My boss was far less understanding.
“A murder investigation? Who the fuck did you kill?”
“Listen one, maybe two, of my friends are dead. The cops are coming to pick me up for questioning. I’m not a suspect, barely a witness.”
“Have them write you a note!”
He slammed the phone down and I went back and finished my sandwich and waited for the cops to arrive. Liv had a lot of questions, more than she asked, I think. When two uniforms came in to pick me up, she gasped. The cops were nice guys when they asked me to come with them, but when we got outside they grabbed my arms and put me over the hood of the car. They were didn’t get rough, so much as they were firm. One patted me down while the other apologized, saying that hopefully this wasn’t what it looks like, but they have to take precautions. I tried to downplay my fear, saying that I understood and I’m ok. They cuffed me and put me in the back, then hit the sirens and we tore across town to the Fort, right to Siobhan’s apartment. The officer that didn’t drive helped me out of the back and walked me into the building. There were plain clothes and uniform cops going in and out.
Inside the living room, an older black detective fixed me from across the room and said my name.
“Yes sir.”
He nodded to the hallway and started down it, I followed with one of the officers keeping a hand on my arm.
The detective stood by the utility closet in the back, someone from forensics stood back out of the way. The detective reached over and took me from the officer and stood me in front of the closet.
On the ground, partially wrapped in plastic was a blonde woman, probably in her forties, wearing broken glasses, with several contusions on her face.
“Is this Siobhan, sir?”
“No, officer…I’ve never seen this woman before?”
“Really? You were in and out of here the last three days and you never saw the woman that lives here?”
“Siobhan said she was out of town…in New York City, um with the drama group for a school trip…”
“Well…her sister called the school last week and said she was very ill and wouldn’t be back to work for several days. They’ve called a few times to check on her and her sister has answered the phone each time. This woman has no sister.”
“Holy shit…”
“She’s been in here the whole time?”
“We’re guessing about eight days.”
“Holy shit…”
“Officer Davis, I think it’s safe to take his cuffs off now.”
“Yes, sir.”
“My name is Detective Barnes and I want you to tell me everything you know about Miss Siobhan.”
We sat in the kitchenette and I went through the whole story from the beginning with a tape recorder on the table between us, while he jotted notes on a little pad. Occasionally we interrupted by forensics or another detective and the whole thing took about two hours with Barnes rewording some of the same questions, I guess to see if I’d slip. I was surprised he did the interview there instead of taking me down town, but was relieved when he had the first two cops take me right back to work, after promising to call him directly if I thought of anything else or heard from Siobhan.
After work, I stopped at the video store and rented Legend Of The Overfiend and Down By Law and got Taco Bell for dinner. I didn’t have cable, food in the cabinets, or furniture, aside from my writing desk, so I sat in the floor with my large soda and sack of tacos, watching fucked up anime, trying to keep my mind distracted from some obvious horrors.
Then someone rang the doorbell and my blood went cold. I paused the movie and got up. The door was at the far end of the apartment and the hallway felt twice as long as I slowly made my way to the door. In the mean time, whoever it was rang the bell three more times, which made me jump each time.
I pushed the curtain on the little window aside and saw a tall blonde man in a black leather jacket standing on the landing.  He looked like a real bruiser, middle aged, flat nose, thick neck, mean, small mouth.
“Yes?” I said through the door.
“I’m looking for my sister.”
“There’s no one else here.”
“I’m looking for Siobhan.”
“Please open the door. This is very rude.”
“I don’t…” I sighed and opened the door. Why the fuck not?
“She’s not here, man. I haven’t seen her since last night. The cops are looking for her.”
“Yea, I’ve noticed. Where is she?”
“I have no idea.”
He leaned forward and sniffed the air.
“She’s been here.”
“No, that’s not possible. She doesn’t even know where I live.”
“I’m not stupid, mate.”
“I didn’t say you were, but I haven’t seen her in almost twenty four hours.”
He walked past me casually, but carrying a real threat.
“Yea, come look around, please.”
He grunted, looking in the bedroom, then the bathroom.
“Hey, listen, I’m going to write down some numbers and an address for you. One number is for the head detective on the case…”
I went to my desk and ripped a sheet of paper from a composition book and started jotting down numbers while he wandered around my apartment. He hovered over me while I wrote, looking over my desk. He tapped my Brother word processor.
“You write?”
“She loves writers. Slept with some of the greats. I prefer the cinema. My eyes, they’re sensitive. Makes it hard to read.”
“I understand.”
“Watching a cartoon?”
“For adults, from Japan.”
“Japan is nice. You been?”
“No, never been out of the country.”
“You should travel. Good for the soul. My sister and I have been traveling the world for so long.”
“I hope I can some day.”
“Me too.”
There was a sense of a threat in that last statement that gave me a chill. I turned and held out the list, but he just stared down at me.
“I hope you find Siobhan. I really like her.”
He took the list from me and nodded. He went down the hall and let himself out, heavily walking down the three flights of metal stairs.
I locked the deadbolt and put the chain on, then went into my closet and got my machete and baseball bat. I brought my food to desk and absently pushed tacos in my mouth, wondering how worried I should be.
I could imagine Siobhan being capable of a great many things, but decapitating people just seemed a little too far fetched. Her brother on the other hand, I could certainly imagine him tearing someone’s head off with his bare hands. Was he following her around, killing me that fucked with her, or that she liked? Where had he been the last three days? The last week or so?
After an hour or so of quiet I was relaxing again and tired as hell. I shut all the lights off and took the bat and machete to my room and crawled into my sleeping bag. I didn’t realize how worn out I was, but he last few days had been pretty eventful and I dozed off quickly.
I was shocked awake by someone in the dark whispering, ‘it’s the hour of the wolf.’ I sat up fast, heart pounding in the darkness. The digital alarm clock read 3:00 AM. It was the only light in the room. I felt around for the machete, touched the blade, found the handle, and held it up, trying to peer into the darkness.
I was not alone.
Someone was in the room.
I tried to quietly free my legs from the sleeping bag. My right arm was asleep and I needed to piss badly. Whoever was with me had the obvious advantage. I felt a fear I hadn’t felt since I was a very small child, when we spent six months in a rental house Newport, Tennessee that was haunted by a very unfriendly spirit. I would wake up at night and feel unearthly eyes looking down on me in the dark and I’d lie awake terrified, staring into the dark until dawn. At that moment, half tangled in my sleeping bag and on the verge of pissing myself, I felt that terror again.
“W-who the fuck is there..?”
“I’ve got a machete and I’ll bisect your fucking head, mother fucker!”
“I know you’re there, damn it!”
A sigh.
A woman’s sigh.
Then the presence was gone. And with it a bit of the darkness, as if the presence cast an extra shadow, blocking out the street lamp’s glow outside my window. 
I quickly got to my feet and started turning on lights, checking the doors and windows. I was alone. Not just alone, but isolated. Like my apartment had been dumped in some frozen wasteland, thousands of miles from help. After I pissed, I started turning lights off again and then went into the living room and looked out the window.
It had been snowing since I fell asleep and there was a white coat on the world. There wasn’t a soul out there, no footprints, no lights on in any other apartment. Just the orange glow of the street lamps. I started to pull the curtain closed when a person suddenly appeared in the courtyard below. As dark as it was, I couldn’t make out any distinguishing features, but one thing that jumped out at me, besides the fact that he or she had not been there just seconds ago, was the lack of footprints.
My eyes were suddenly blurred, I couldn’t even see the window inches from my face and I felt dizzy, but it passed as quickly as it came on. The mystery person in the courtyard was gone.
When dawn came, I breathed a sigh of relief. I showered and went to work early and threw myself into my job, staying as busy and distracted as possible. I spent as much time as I could on the cherry picker organizing the top stock in my department.  I worked four hours over and would have gone until we closed, but my boss kicked me out.
It was snowing again while I sat in my car waiting for it to warm up. Everything felt wrong about the night. While on lunch earlier, I caught a news report of another homicide that had occurred over night. It was much, much closer to my apartment.
I drove around the city, popping into my usual haunts, looking for anyone I might know, but found no one. I drove over to the strip and found a parking spot and walked up to a little coffee shop that I sometimes did readings at. I got a large coffee and got a table in the back, as far from the jazz duo of a saxophonist and drummer as I could, not because I disliked them, but because my nerves were raw and I didn’t need the skwawk and crash rattling my brain anymore than it already was.
After three refills, I’d convinced myself that I was being childish. No one was in my apartment the previous night. No one was in the courtyard. I was paranoid and scared after being so close to death and/or an actual killer(s). There was no reason to think that either Siobhan or her brother were still in town, or that I was in danger. If they were in fact killers they would have moved on now that the heat was on.
I put my cup on the dish cart by the tray and walked out into the snow that had started blowing sideways with the heavy winds. I pulled my hood tight around my head and shuffled as fast as I could down the slick sidewalk. The strip was still busy, full of college kids recently back from Christmas break. My car was parked in the lot behind the bank a block away. The path between the bank and the neighboring building was well lit and well traveled, but the lot was pretty devoid of people, other than a small group at the far end rushing and slipping and laughing on their way to one of the bars.
I got my keys out and heard the crunch of snow behind me. I spun around and got my fists up, but instead of Siobhan or her brother it was a grimy junky with a dirty, snow-flecked beard. I started to breath a sigh of relief when I saw he was steak knife. Not a big one, just a normal table knife. Yes, it would still hurt and draw blood, but this scrawny fuck wasn’t exactly instilling great fear in me.
“Gimme yer wallet.”
“No. Give me yours.”
“Fuck off, before I stick that knife in your dick.”
His was getting increasingly redder. He glanced around and took a step closer.
“Don’t make me hurt you, dude.”
“I guess you learned to be a junky mugger from watching TV?”
He was crest-fallen, like he was on the verge of tears.
“Just walk away. There are programs to help guys like you. They can turn your life around. Besides, the amount of money in my pocket isn’t-“
He lunged at me, but at the same time there was a powerful gust of wind that slammed me into my car. Siobhan was suddenly between us with her back to me. From the look on the junky’s face I could tell things were about to go south.
Siobhan looked over her shoulder.
“Go to your apartment, I’ll meet you there soon.”
“Siobhan, the cops are-“
“I know. Get out of here, you don’t want to see this.”
“See what? What are you going to do to him?”
She pivoted, pulling him around. The knife was sticking in her belly and she had her hands clamped over his wrist and arm, holding him.
“I’m going to punish him for ruining my jacket. I got it in Brussels.”
She straightened his arm out (he was half-heartedly trying to break her grip, but was clearly weak with fear) then gave his elbow an upper-cut, breaking the bones at the joint, making his arm bend the wrong way, tearing the skin, and exposing bones.
“For starters,” she said. “Go home and wait. And do not call the police.”
The junky pleaded with me for help, but I got into my car knowing he was beyond my help. Siobhan watched me back out and drive away. In my rearview mirror I could see her jerk his head to the side before plunging her face into his neck. I got the fuck out of there.
Logic told me I was likely not in any immediate danger. After all, if she was going to kill me, why not do it back there? Or why save me from getting stabbed?
I got into my apartment and put on a pot of coffee, God knows what was about to happen, but it was bound to be a long night.
Several minutes passed before there was a knock on the door. I was sitting on the counter sipping a cup. I hopped down and rushed to the door, yanking it open without checking who it was first.
The next thing I knew I was trying to get up off my bedroom floor with her brother rushing in after throwing me.
“Shut up! You’ve seen her!”
“Yes! She’s coming here!”
He yanked me off the ground and tossed me into the painted cinder block wall. It knocked the wind out of me and my ass hurt from hitting the floor, just inches from my pillow. He came over and put his dirty boot on my chest and started pushing down with all his weight. I beat on his knee with both fists, but it didn’t seem to affect him a bit.
Suddenly he hit the ground hard, exhaling a with grunt. Siobhan was standing over him.
“Baby brother, you know better than to piss me off!”
“Siobhan, sister…I’m sorry, but this filth touched you and still breathes!”
She stomped on his balls as he rolled over.
“I let him touch me. I wanted him to touch me. It’s none of your business!”
“Not mine,” he moaned, “the family’s…they sent me to bring you home…”
“I will go home when I’m ready, you snotty shit.”
She reached out and helped me up.
“I smell coffee.”
Catching my breath, I nodded. “Want some?”
“I’d love a cup,” she said with inconceivable smile.
In the kitchen, we leaned against the counter watching each other over our cups.
“So, ask.”
“What are you? A vampire?”
She laughed loudly. Even her brother was chuckling as he came into the kitchen.
“God no. Not vampires, love. We’re old earth folk.”
“I don’t know what that means. Sounds pagan. Witches?”
“Close enough.”
She left the kitchen sipping her coffee, followed by her brother. In the living room she was looking through my manuscripts.
“I’m leaving town, love, but you knew I was doing that anyway…I’m not going with this dumb ass, though. You, baby brother, are going home. I’ll belong when I damn well feel like it.”
“Mother will be upset.”
“Mother is always upset.”
She put her cup down and walked to me. She paused for a moment then embraced me, biting my ear playfully.
“I had fun, love.”
“Me too, darling.”
“Maybe I’ll pass through again.”
“I bet you say that to all the boys.”
She gave me a big, dirty grin.
“Oh no, love. I usually just bite their heads off.”
I shuddered.
She picked up one of my chapbooks and hugged it to her breast.
“To remember you by…Pay him, brother.”
And she walked out without looking back. Her brother stood over me breathing hard, then shoved me into the wall.
“You had your filthy cock inside her. Payment enough.”

And he left, slamming the door behind him.    

MOTELS ON FIRE will be out early 2017

Monday, December 12, 2016


So, here we go with the next installment of our new series DEAD OF WINTER, where we explore through new reviews the best winter themed horror films. Today I'm tackling a film that I'd just as quickly hold up as a perfect example that not all remakes suck as I would THE THING or THE FLY; it's 2010's LET ME IN, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jekins, Cara Buono, and Elias Koteas.

Before you roll your eyes and yell at me for not reviewing the original, let me direct you to another excellent review of both the original LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and LET ME IN, by one of our recent guest posters, Albert Muller. He wrote an impassioned piece about both films that is absolutely fantastic and you can read it HERE. I agree with every word of his review right down to slightly preferring the remake over the original for personal reasons. Additionally, for the purposes of this series, to review both on the heels of Muller's piece teeters on overkill. LET ME IN was already at the top of my list for this series before I read Muller's and I chose to not cut it, because of how highly I regard the film and how much I wanted to write about it too. I think there's enough room in the world for heaping piles of praise on a good movies anyway.

Ok! Onward!

Directed by Matt Reeves, who loved both the original film and the book it was based on, LET ME IN
was an honest and impassioned attempt to re-adapt the book with cues from the original movie and set it in a small town in New Mexico. The characters' names were Americanized and the actors were asked not to watch the original film before shooting. The effect, while not too far from the original, made for a deeply personal, beautiful, and truly creepy film. The cynics among us may cry that the re-make didn't change enough, but I disagree. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, as wonderful and engrossing as it is, has an emotional detachment that LET ME IN doesn't have. That may be a simple cultural disconnect with me, but I related more to Smit-McPhee's Owen than I did with Kare Hedebrant's Oskar, because I was Owen. I was a bullied little loner in a small American town in the 1980s.

LET ME IN, at heart, is a coming of age story of friendship between two outsiders. The vampire angle adds that level of tension and visual interest that sets the movie apart from a normal character drama. It's rarely excessive, even in an intense attack scene where we see Abby (Moretz) attack and kill a man in a tunnel-which is one of the film's most startling moments- Reeves is able to ramp up the tension with subtly, where most horror films would take the viewer into more visceral territory. Not that the film is lacking blood and gore, it's just doled out in a methodical pace, making those scenes more horrific, where they could have been cartoonish.

LET ME IN is such a lovely, slow burn descent into both friendship and the horrors the world lays
out for children. Smit-McPhee and Moretz fully embody the outsider, misfit, weirdo, that a lot us were/are. As I said, I was Owen and in a way Abby represents the books and movies that I fell in love with, that got me through my youth and gave me a reason to keep going, keep getting up, regardless of the bullying that I had waiting on me at school-hell, at home too. Abby does horrible things, she's a monster, but she's also Owen's friend. She provides him comfort and fills that void of loneliness. That's what Stephen King, Clive Barker, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter did for me with their work. I don't know that John Lindqvist intended his book, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, to be a metaphor for horror nerds, but I see it as that. And the final bloodbath, when Abby makes all of Owen's bullies pay for their transgressions-that wasn't too far from what I wanted to do the kids at school who knocked me down in the hall, smacked my books out of my hands, called me faggot, ruined my lunch, made me afraid to go into the bathroom, ganged up and beat the shit out of me...I would have laughed to see them ripped to shreds and I'm not a violent person.

The winter setting itself is almost a character in the film. Every out door shot really telegraphs just how frigid it is and may also be seen as a metaphor for Owen's life. Especially, the frozen loneliness of the playground at night where he encounters Abby. Before she appears to him, Owen is like the moon, alone in the cold darkness (Muller also notes a reference to the moon, just pointing that out lest one thinks I lifted an idea). Reeves and company did a great job with the setting and bringing the winter chill into the audiences' theater/home. I've rarely found a movie so engrossing that even the sets can trigger emotions and physical reactions.    


Thursday, December 8, 2016


Welcome back, fiends! I don't know how the weather is where you are, but up here in New York we've already had a major snowstorm. After thirteen years in North Carolina, I'm so happy to be back in the north. One thing I've missed greatly since leaving Boston is the snow. Real snow. Being up here has also given my creativity a huge boost as well. Seriously, when the temperatures started to drop around Halloween, my imagination was like a prowling beast.

So, here we go with the next installment of our new series DEAD OF WINTER, where we explore through new reviews the best winter themed horror films.

In 2010, Glass Eye Pix released James Felix McKenney's HYPOTHERMIA, a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON inspired horror film that takes place during a family ice fishing trip. The desolate, frozen setting and strong performances from Michael Rooker and Blanch Baker help carry the film. Rooker fans may be surprised to see the usual hard ass playing a nice family man for a change.

The Pelletier family (Rooker, Baker, Benjamin Forster, and Amy Chang) expected to spend a quiet weekend on the ice fishing, but their peace is spoiled when another father and son (Don Wood and Greg Finley), from the city,  arrive making a lot of noise and generally acting like douche bags. To make matters worse there's something under the ice; a toothy, eel-like humanoid starts to hunt the two families and it becomes a fight for survival.

The frozen setting plays a large part in the overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness in HYPOTHERMIA. The creature is also a nice throw-back to the days of an actor in a rubber suit as
are the practical gore effects that look really good. McKenney takes the less-is-more approach giving us mostly short glances of the creature, which is kind of too bad. Some critics have been unkind to the monster suit/design, but had there been more full shots and action they may have had a different opinion.

The pacing is deliberately slow with an over-all downbeat feel, which is not too different than another Glass Eye Pix film, directed by Larry Fessenden, called WENDIGO. (I like these two films as a double feature.) Though it's a slow burn, HYPOTHERMIA is only an hour and thirteen minutes long, so the slower pacer shouldn't be a turn off for those looking for something a little punchier.

Really, the only thing I would complain about, besides there not being enough creature action, is that I wish the ending was a bit less ambiguous. (SPOILER ALERT) In the end Baker and Chang's characters are the only survivors and are chased off the ice by the creature. They collapse on the shore, clearly done for, but Baker starts trying to talk to the creature and then it leaves them. While some view this as a what-the-fuck moment, I don't think it was her speech that got them spared. I figure the creature is somewhat empathic and doesn't view them as a threat to it's hunting ground any longer. That's why they don't get killed. I don't know what the real intention of McKenney's was, but it's really a minor gripe for a film that is overall a very good horror flick.
McKenney also makes some kick ass art toys called SEA BORGS, check them out HERE.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


I have loved George Romero's living dead world since catching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on TV one Halloween, it had quite a profound effect on me. DAWN OF THE DEAD, the first sequel, even more so. In 1985 Romero released his third dead film, but it flopped, but there was another dead film that was connected to NOTLD through a direct reference in the film and by one of the writers. John Russo had co-wrote NOTLD and co-wrote the story of 1985's DOTD competitor, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, with Rudy Ricci and Russell Streiner (who also produced NOTLD)(Dan O'Bannon, who wrote Alien, wrote the screenplay and directed after Tobe Hooper backed out to make LIFEFORCE.) Though it came out a little prior to my full immersion into horror, I remember the trailer and thought it looked awesome. I begged to see it and the answer was a flat 'no, shut up.'

By the time 1993's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3; ZOMBIE PUNK appeared on the cover of Fangoria, the first two ROTLD were well loved favorites of mine. Pre-internet, most of my horror movie news came from either Fangoria or Siskel and Ebert. So finding the new issue of Fango with Julie Walker (Mindy Clarke) on the cover with the glass and spikes sticking through her skin and looking like some kind of goth punk queen made my heart go all a'flutter.

Directed by Brian Yuzna (BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, SOCIETY, FAUST), RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 continued from the first two films with the military continuing to experiment with the compound that reanimates the dead. A military kid and his girlfriend accidentally witness one of the zombies being revived. Later, after having an argument with his dad, the boy and girl take off on his motorcycle and then get into an accident. The girl gets killed and the boy sneaks her back into the military compound and bring her back to life. Wackiness ensues.

If you know Yuzna, you know he makes amazing, over the top, gory films. Unfortunately, the rated version of the film is a mess (as it often is). It appears to have been edited for content by a butcher, so it's important to get the unrated version. ROTLD3 ups the comic book zaniness over the two previous films and makes Julie an amazing living dead anti-heroine. Aesthetically, Julie is one of the most interesting zombie characters ever to grace the screen and I wish she could have been spun off into her own series of films, or comics at least.

The newly re-animated Vestron Video is re-releasing ROTLD3 and giving the Blu Ray the red carpet treatment with audio commentary from Clarke and plenty of interviews. It's one of those must owns for me.


Laying back a bit for the month of November. There will be posts, but fewer than there was in October, as we prepare for our next big series of reviews; DEAD OF WINTER; The Best Winter Themed Horror Films. Right now I've got three guest posts lined up and they are kick ass writers and I'm very happy to have them on board.

DEAD OF WINTER seems like a no-brainer since, ya know, winter is coming, but really Stranger hasn't spent a lot of time in the snow and there are some really good movies I've been itching to write about, but just haven't gotten there yet.

I hope you've been enjoying our filmography series, which will be ongoing. If you've missed it, so far I've covered Rob Zombie and David Cronenberg and guest poster Albert Muller wrote an extensive and fantastic John Carpenter in the 80s piece. I plan to tackle Bill Lustig, Frank Hennenlotter, Abel Ferrera, and Wes Craven in the near future. I see this series as a sister piece to MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MONSTERS. Speaking of...

I had always planned fifty chapters of MHHABM, before I turned the series into a book. Well, Part 50 is right around the corner, but instead of ending the series I believe Part 50 will instead be a chance for a bit of course correction. If you've been with me a while, you'll have noticed (I hope) an improvement in content, presentation, and focus, because admittedly I had an idea about what I was doing, but at times lost focus. The big relaunch in October was meant to signal the first part of this course correction, and Part 50 will catch up and reboot MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MONSTERS and it will start to become more like the book I've always envisioned.

Since the October relaunch the site's numbers have been great! So thank you all for stopping by, I can't tell you how much it means to me to have so many people read my dumb little blog. I mean, lets face it-Stranger With Friction is far from the only horror blog out there and that you take time to pop in and read one of my articles, that's very humbling and awesome! I wish I got some comments though! I'd love to become more interactive with my readers. Let me know what you think, even if you think I'm full of shit.

Ok, I've got to get back to writing. I'm committed to getting my next book, MOTELS ON FIRE, out HERE.
early next year and it ain't writing itself, sweet heart. In the mean time, the first 'single' from MOF is available on Smashwords for you e-readers and a physical copy will be available very soon. The story is called THE LAST MASS and I'm really wearing my love for Fulci and Carpenter on this one. The 'b-side' is called SEEING HER AGAIN and it's a bit more of a down beat, slice of life story. You can get that e-book

Keep watching the sky, nerds!

Thursday, November 3, 2016


Something I love is a good music biography or music history book. A rock bio is often my refuge when reading fiction is starting to corrupt my own writing style. I could give you a massive list of highly recommended biographies, but there are three books I'm high lighting today, which inspired this Sound Attack; Greil Marcus's MYSTERY TRAIN and INVISIBLE REPUBLIC (aka OLD WEIRD AMERICA) and Nick Tosche's COUNTRY; THE TWISTED ROOTS OF ROCK AND ROLL.  These books have inspired a multitude of horror stories, film ideas, and comic book projects, not the least of which my last novel CITY LONG SUFFERING
Dock Boggs "Pretty Polly"
Robert Johnson "Hellhound On My Trail"

Townes Van Zandt "Snake Mountain Blues"
Howlin' Wolf "Evil"
John Lee Hooker "Burnin' Hell"
Hank Williams "Alone And Forsaken"
The Louvin Brothers "Knoxville Girl"

Monday, October 31, 2016


Original art by Stephanie Murr 2016
Where to start with John Carpenter, exactly? Do you start at the beginning? With his childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky, growing up the son of a classically trained composer & music professor (a detail that could have some connection to his own musical abilities)? Do you jump straight to his years in film school, where as a student at USC he helped make a short film called "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy," which ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film? Interesting and auspicious, to be sure, but one could easily begin with the current period of his career. As of this writing it has been six years since a new John Carpenter film has premiered before audiences, yet he seems energized recently after releasing not just one album of original musical material but two, and has been touring the globe in support of those new releases as well as playing his older film-score favorites to sold out, appreciative crowds.

It's not a bad time to be John Carpenter. Sure -- it could be BETTER, but when has that not ever been the case? I can't think of another director who was so consistently and almost problematically ahead of his time; not because the movies weren't good, but because they were often a masterpiece of one kind or another that was simply too much for audiences at the time to appreciate. Look at The Thing, today rightly considered one of the greatest horror films ever made in the history of the medium. Witness the love Big Trouble In Little China gets from people who grew up with it on cable or VHS, or have discovered it in the last decade or so, and remember that at the time it was released that it was considered a giant failure. Neither of these examples are news to anyone who follows or has interest in these sorts of things, and this legend that's grown up around the man as being, as his first onscreen antihero Napoleon Wilson would also be thought of, "a man out of time" is now old hat to many. We hear it and almost dismiss it -- water's wet, the sky is blue, and John Carpenter shoulda had a better career. He shoulda been more appreciated when he was really going for it.

Well, he wasn't. And yes, this is a shame. Perhaps if The Thing had been the hit it should have been things would have been different (it almost certainly would have been). Prevailing wisdom tends to blame the period of time the film was released for the audience's unwillingness to follow Carpenter into the nihilism & cynicism of that film, having just left the dark decade of the 70's and their predilection for something uplifting like E.T. (released earlier that same summer of 1982), which became the highest grossing film of all time. The Thing didn't even become one of the highest grossing horror films of all time; it flopped unceremoniously and, as Carpenter himself will tell anyone who asks him, was not so much rejected by the general public as it was despised. "Hated," he has said on more than one occasion. Which is something that seems ridiculous now, but still -- that happened (and it happened to Carpenter more than once, this was merely the first time the perception of failure would get its claws into him).

It doesn't seem to help now when it's pointed out to Carpenter that The Thing is beloved, is appreciated, is one of The Very Best That Has Ever Been -- and really, why would it? Just because he HAD made a great film (no one really argues that point anymore except for the contrary or agenda driven) doesn't mean it was accepted as such at the time. The reality was that Carpenter's talent did not fail him, nor did the movie he helmed fail as a film. But the moviegoing public of the time could give a flying fuck about his movie, did not go, and ultimately WE as a whole failed him. We hurt him with our rejection, and I'll repeat: how could he not take this personally to a degree? The man makes one of the greatest horror films the world has ever seen, then and now, and mainly no one seems to care. Carpenter's heart was broken, and it was the disgust and indifference carried within that rejection that did it. Yet he soldiered on.

This is where the narrative splits, if we're going alternate Fringe-style universes and paths. Had The Thing been the hit everyone was hoping for, Carpenter would have moved right to an adaptation of Stephen King's novel Firestarter that he was already prepping for Universal Studios. Had that movie come to pass, it's safe to say that Carpenter's career would have been markedly different. As much as the fans of Firestarter (they're out there) may love Mark L. Lester's take on the material, this much is known: Mark L. Lester is not John Carpenter. It's safe to say that Carpenter would have brought something different to the whole enterprise, and likely made a better movie overall. But that never happened -- at least not in this timeline. What happened in our world was this: The Thing came out. No one went. Those that did, fucking hated it (by and large -- remember, we're talking not just about perception but the reaction of the film watching populace as a WHOLE -- if we're talking just about the reaction of the hardcore horror fans then we're talking about something else entirely, even if the flick was too much even for some of THEM). So Universal Pictures read some writing on the wall without bothering to have someone translate it for them first, and their reaction was to remove Carpenter from their Firestarter adaptation. His reaction to this was to simply go out and get a job directing -- that is, after all, what he was. He made movies. If it wasn't going to be a big damned headache, he felt he could deliver something solid based on the material, and (this is a HUGE and) if you paid him properly, there was a discussion to be had there. That's how Christine came about with Columbia Pictures; most interviews Carpenter has given regarding that movie, in print and on film, are him simply saying "it was a job, and I was a director who needed a movie to make and a job to do," more or less. From there he took another gig with Columbia making Starman -- I have always loved the irony in that, as ultimately he ended up directing the movie that Columbia essentially pulled off a baseball trade with Universal Studios for when they swapped it for E.T.

Sidenote: this is absolutely true -- each studio had done research that had them believing, regardless of the quality of these two scripts, that there wasn't an audience out there for the one they currently had (really). Somehow they made a deal between them for the script the other studio owned. Spielberg made E.T. and we all know what happened with that (John Carpenter remembers it well); Carpenter ends up directing Starman a couple years down the may be aware that it is not as well remembered as E.T. is. Even if, as I and some others feel, it is a very, very good movie.

Circling back to my earlier point -- it's not a bad time to be John Carpenter. When it comes to the films, he sums it up with "Eventually, they've all made money." Most importantly to us as fans, they still hold up. As a genre director, some may look down their noses at him, but the fact remains that there are legions of us who dismiss those snobs out of hand because the pure truth of the matter is this: John Carpenter is the greatest director of horror films there's ever been. Some may read that sentence and disagree, but think about it. Who's better? Who had a longer, more sustained run than John Carpenter did, in the entire history of genre cinema? Sure, we can drop names like Hitchcock (one would be an idiot not to include that master filmmaker), Wes Craven (without doubt another master whose films will live on for a very long time), George A. Romero (who basically INVENTED an entire genre that shows no signs of going away anytime soon, and perhaps more than any other horror director introduced strong, if often blatant, social commentary into his work), or even Guillermo Del Toro if we're talking about directors of our time (and when it comes to Del Toro we positively SHOULD because there has never been a creative genius quite like him, one that we are all very lucky to have). All of those directors, and others I didn't name but may be your personal favorite, produced a number of strong entries ranging from good-to-great that shall undoubtedly enjoy a sustained and celebrated shelf life among horror fans.

But for my money, if we're taking into account both quality as well as quantity, it's impossible to beat Carpenter as the single best director the genre has given us. You can't do it. You simply can't. All you have to do is look back at when it was the BEST time to be John Carpenter: the 1980's.

Second sidenote: to be clear, when I say "the BEST time" what I mean is that this is the era when he produced almost all of his finest work, not that he had a particularly easy time of making them or getting projects off the ground (here's where I pour one out for his never produced remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon, a flick that was announced as an upcoming film of his on a couple of different occasions that never came to pass...can you imagine?) 

Carpenter started his string of winners back in 1976 with his first full feature film (Dark Star was a student film that was turned into a feature) Assault On Precinct 13 and truly broke out with 1978's Halloween. We're all familiar with those -- and if you're not, what are you doing, go watch them NOW -- and since this is an overview of his Eighties work, we're clearly starting with 1980's wonderfully atmospheric and spooky ghosts-on-a-rampage-of-revenge flick The Fog, which saw him collaborating with co-writer/producer Debra Hill again. Reteaming with Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis from Halloween, the film marks the first time Carpenter worked with Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook and (in her own first big screen turn) Adrienne Barbeau, his wife at the time. Despite some reshoots after Carpenter viewed a rough cut of a film he felt just didn't play, which added the eerie opening sequence of the town being affected by spectral forces along with a couple insert shots of gore and some extra onscreen kills, The Fog as we all know it still gets it done. It's a refreshingly straightforward ghost story that's simply gorgeous to look at (as with most of his Eighties output, Carpenter's director of photography on The Fog was the great Dean Cundey, who outdid himself here) as well as listen to; the sound design is sharp and effective and Carpenter provides one of the most haunting scores in his filmography. A superb campfire tale-type horror flick (witness the great John Houseman's cameo in the opening sequence for proof of this), The Fog is a solid entry in the Carpenter canon.

For 1981's Escape From New York, Carpenter fought to cast an actor he'd worked with previously in the made-for-TV miniseries Elvis, one who was trying to move beyond his Disney roots: Kurt Russell. As we all know, and have reaped the many rewards of, Carpenter won the battle and, working closely with Russell, a new screen icon was born in Snake Plissken. Having already dipped his toes into the waters of the antihero (as previously mentioned) with Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter here dove headfirst into the pool of the grizzled, cynical badass brimming with a deep distrust of a system that's done him wrong and hard-earned contempt for corrupt authority figures & institutions. If all Escape From New York had done was introduce the masses to Snake Plissken we'd think of it as a resounding success, but Carpenter, like his protagonist, wasn't feeling so great about the social situation in America. Unlike Plissken, he had some things he had to say about it (a little more, anyway) and went about putting notes of satire and pointed commentary into his propulsive action-thriller. The spoonful of rich, dark genre sweetness went down easy alongside Carpenter's other, angrier notions about a country so out of control with crime that the whole of New York City has been turned into a prison for the nation's many outlaws. Years later Carpenter & Russell would reunite for a sequel (Escape From L.A.) that was less well received, and is one of the rare Carpenter movies that hasn't gone a thorough reassessment among film fans and achieved favor years after it was released. I think it should be, regardless of its semi-remaquel status; for me, the original Escape From New York is the gritty, brooding graphic novel while Escape From L.A. would be the broader, goofier comic book, and both are a lot of fun (even if only one is a bonafide classic). Regardless, Escape From New York was a hugely influential film -- alongside that same year's Australian release Mad Max 2 (known to us ugly Americans as The Road Warrior), it created a kind of cinematic shorthand for post-apocalyptic/urban nightmare settings that was ripped off time and time again -- and a success with audiences.

However, as I said before, The Thing (the second cinematic collaboration between Carpenter & Russell) did not exactly set audiences afire in 1982 upon release. You sure couldn't tell these days, though. This adaptation of the John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" (previously filmed in 1951 and produced by Carpenter's hero Howard Hawks as The Thing From Another World), scripted by Bill Lancaster, was and is the high water mark in the horror master's career. The story involving a group of scientists besieged by an monstrous shapeshifting alien in a remote Antarctic outpost played upon the terrors of the unknown right up until FX wunderkind Rob Bottin's outrageously intricate and beautifully crafted practical effects creations took center stage. There's been some speculation throughout the years that the unrelenting viciousness and flesh-tearing gore in these scenes are also what contributed to audiences turning on the film, which is bitterly ironic as the mind-blowing creature work from Bottin (with an assist from Stan Winston in one key scene) have continued to stand the test of time and are STILL as effective today as they were over 30 years ago. Add on top of that the stellar ensemble work from a cast of extraordinary character actors (led by Russell as pragmatic, no-fucks-to-give R.J. "Mac" MacReady) perfectly sketched by Lancaster; the evocative chill of the location you can almost feel through your screen; stark, icy visuals perfectly captured by ace DP Cundey, still as good as the game; as well as (in one of only a handful of films not scored by Carpenter himself) a haunting score by film legend Ennio Morricone. All of these add up to a nail-biting exercise in fear that hasn't been topped before or since, I feel. If asked -- and often even if I'm not -- I'm always going to put The Thing out there as the best horror movie ever made. If you haven't seen it and are a fan of horror, you simply must rectify this. Repeatedly.

After The Thing was released and virtually sunk like a stone, Carpenter signed on for an adaptation of the Stephen King novel Christine, and brought all his considerable skill and style to bear on this tale of a love affair between a teenage boy and his car gone horribly, bloodily awry. Future directors in their own right Keith Gordon and John Stockwell do fine work (particularly Gordon) as the leads, while Alexandra Paul (basically playing the role of "The Girl") does less well but is adequate enough for the film in any case. What makes Christine go and perform as efficiently as it does, beyond Gordon's lead performance charting his character's evolution from loser to winner before spiraling into a villainous role, is almost all due to Carpenter. The look of the film is, as per usual, impeccable; Carpenter's score is one of his most underrated and insistent, his "sonic heartbeat" in full force here. King's effortless storytelling (adapted well by Bill Phillips) and Carpenter's filmmaking work together well and result in a solidly crafted film that retains its power to enthrall moviegoers.

In a change of pace, Carpenter's next film, 1984's Starman, is a romantic science fiction road trip featuring Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar due to his amazing work here) as an alien who, taking the form of a widow's (Karen Allen) late husband, must cross the country in order to return home before his new body dies. Starman is most likely the largest outlier in all of Carpenter's filmography (even more so than Memoirs of an Invisible Man) due to an underlying sweetness throughout the movie. Sure, it's got dark moments, some thrilling danger and threat within it, but any rough edges are negated by the romantic soul within. Personally, it's one of my favorite John Carpenter flicks simply BECAUSE it's so different, and is just a very entertaining, enjoyable story. Bridges & Allen are utterly wonderful in their roles and possess great chemistry together; that's most likely what made it stand out to a 10 year old kid who saw it and loved it back in the winter of '84 (I truly did) and what makes it resonate with me today all these years and many viewings later -- I buy the love story between these two. They make it work and sell me without feeling like they're exerting too much effort doing so, and as such I simply fall into the story and in love with the characters.

Speaking of falling in love: if you are a person of a certain age and grew up with Big Trouble In Little China, chances are you're more than a little smitten by it. I'd go so far as to say you fell, and fell HARD, for it (if you didn't, don't tell me, seriously, I don't wanna know). Reuniting with Kurt Russell once again, Carpenter brings the fun and good times in a major way with Big Trouble In Little China as he introduces us to one of cinema's most likable buffoons, Jack Burton. A truck driver catching up with an old friend in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jack suddenly finds himself in over his head as he gets involved with street gangs, kidnapped fiancees, and Chinese black magic -- and his truck has been stolen, by the way. Therefore: sonofabitch must pay. BTILC is, quite simply, a blast. I wasn't kidding when I said if you don't like it, I don't wanna know; I try not to be a judgmental person but I don't know that I could truly trust anyone who doesn't love this flick. Another Carpenter special that underperformed upon release but found a receptive and adoring audience over the years, it's easy enough to say that BTILC was just ahead of its time. I can't think of many movies before this one that so gleefully blended influences and tones as this did, or as masterfully: it's got action, comedy, monsters, kung fu, wizardry, and more wrapped up in a brightly colored, fast paced package of screwball joy. It feels like they were making it up as they went along sometimes but it never feels as if it's about to fall apart. One can always feel the sure hand of Carpenter, guiding along his cast and story like a conductor leading an orchestra in an acid-jazz improvisation that takes a particular pleasure in flouting expectations and tropes. It's a true delight, and if you somehow haven't seen it, get on it. Big Trouble in Little China is probably the most purely entertaining film in John Carpenter's entire filmography...and that, my friends, is saying a LOT.

A year later, Carpenter returned with 1987's Prince of Darkness. A dread-infused mixture of metaphysics and science teaming up with religion to battle (literally) the Ultimate Evil, the film has a group of graduate students and their professor spending the night in an abandoned church where Something has been found. Spoiler: it's a canister holding the devil, which for whatever reason is currently taking the shape of a swirling green liquid inside said canister. I cannot express how much I love writing those words, or this movie for that matter. It sounds kinda stupid, and okay, it probably is, but really? Carpenter is smart enough to take this potentially ridiculous setup and plays it completely straight, for keeps, and dead fucking serious. As the satanic force begins to exert influence over things both within and outside the church -- witness the homeless people who essentially become zombies -- everything goes to shit and it's a return to the siege story that Carpenter knows how to tell so well. The flick has atmosphere for days, another score that rips ass all over everything, and some excellent scares to go with some nicely bloody kills. I'd call Prince of Darkness one of Carpenter's most underrated horror flicks without hesitation, and I'd never regret getting a chance to see Donald Pleasance (returning from Halloween), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (pulling back-to-back duty for Carpenter after BTILC), Lisa Blount (of another terribly underseen chiller, Dead & Buried), and Jameson Parker (plus plus PLUS his mustache) all in the same movie together. Bottom line: Prince of Darkness provides dark and creepy chills done the John Carpenter way, which basically means it is a great goddamn time.

The last movie Carpenter made in the Eighties, They Live (1988), is sort of the perfect note to go out on for that decade, as it more or less stands as the director's statement on the Reagan years of America. Satirical and biting, this tale of a drifter (Roddy Piper) who discovers that the unchecked greed of the ruling class methodically destroying the working class havenots isn't due to humans simply being selfish, stupid and horrible. Nope -- we've all been brainwashed by an alien race taking over the world and putting us to sleep as they make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and turn our planet into another homogenized chain store in the mall of the galaxy. Once Piper can see the truth, it's on. Lots of bullets will be fired, alien heads will explode, bubble gum would be chewed were it present, and Keith David will meet Piper in an alley fight that may be the single finest onscreen hand-to-hand battle in film history. If not, it is certainly the longest; the alley brawl in They Live is probably best compared to the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan, not because it's horribly grueling or bloody but because it just goes on and on and ON. If that sounds like a chore, I am sorry; if, like most of us who enjoy happiness and fantastic things, that sounds like the best fucking time ever, rejoice. Because I am here to tell you, They Live is indeed one of the best fucking things ever. Most movies dealing with social satire, especially one so grounded in a very specific era, tend to date themselves as the years pass. They Live is not that movie -- insanely, it has only continued to become more and more relevant with every day. One could point to the cynical side of Carpenter as to why this is the case; there is an argument to be made that as long as people in power fuck over the little people (who then rebel) that They Live will always be relevant and will continue to be as long as human beings exist. There's definitely some truth in that. It's not a shiny happy truth, either -- but you can't deny that the movie those ideas come in isn't a stellar 90 minutes of entertainment, because They Live is very much that. People still watch it today for the fun; the beauty of it is that the flick lingers in the memory because of the ideas it plants in your brain. There's only so many films that have done that, and Carpenter's is a sterling example of having your cake and eating it too.

Looking back at those films, I'm gonna say that my point has been proven: John Carpenter's run in the 1980's goes a long way towards cementing his position as the greatest horror director who's ever been. Not all of those are horror, but the ones that are range from very good to absolutely superb to the best horror film ever made. Carpenter would have other winners in the Nineties (I personally feel In The Mouth Of Madness is one of his all-timers, and have a lot of fun with Vampires), but it's virtually impossible to name another director who had that long a stretch of quality from very early on in his career (I'd say that Walter Hill's run as an action director around the same period is the only one that comes close, but that's a completely different essay for another day). What I'm saying is simple...John Carpenter, y'all. It simply doesn't get any better. And if you're looking for one of his champion flicks that will deliver the goods, you could do worse than throw on one he made in the Eighties.