Celluloid Heroes Part VI: In The Pale Moonlight

Summer always seems endless when you are younger and the first week of summer vacation was always my favorite. School was wrapped up for another year, and the memory of those hallways, those lockers, those desks lingered fresh in the mind as we embarked on what was two full months of freedom from pencils, books, and teachers’ dirty looks. Living in Brockville Ontario at that time was a definite advantage; being a river town swimming and boating on the St. Lawrence were the norm and I recall many afternoons spent piloting the small outboard boat we owned around the bays and inlets lining the Canadian side of the river (and occasionally the American side as well – you could do that pre-9/11).[1] Before July and the official start of the summer season began, that last week to handful of days remaining in June were an oasis of calm before summer “really” started, with its jobs, its family trips, its obligations, and with its hopeful leisure time.

Summers for me back then was also extra-special because that was when the best movies were released. Not “best” as in critically because they frequently were pretty mediocre or downright bad, but “best” as in “this is a movie where you munch popcorn and allow yourself to be transported”. Unlike now where a “summer movie” can be released in the dead of winter) back then Hollywood made us wait until the warm months to unleash a horde of summer-friendly cinematic fun upon us. They didn’t have to be all-time greats; they just had to be good enough to be a good time[2] and I, like so many others of my generation, were fortunate to have lived through the Golden Age of the Summer Movie: Jaws, Star Wars, Grease, The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dragonslayer, Superman 2, Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, The Thing, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Tron, Blade Runner … and that carries us up to only 1982.

By 1989 movies were very much at the forefront of my mind as well as I was very much focused on pursuing a career in the entertainment biz. But doing so back then was difficult verging on impossible when you were a kid in a small-town far from the bright lights big cities of New York, L.A. and Toronto. There wasn’t much in the way of opportunity for a Brockville teenager like there was one who hung his or her hat in Studio City, Van Nuys, or Santa Monica. There also wasn’t much opportunity to learn the ins and outs of moviemaking, in this pre-DVD behind the scenes and audio commentary world of 1989. Learning the ins and outs of the movies themselves meant going to the cinema, renting the VHS, or watching every movie-related program TV had to offer.

Thankfully I had two great lifelines courtesy of TVO – TV Ontario to those of you not from Ontario Canada. If you are from Ontario though, those three letters will signify something. TVO was and remains the province’s public broadcaster, airing special interest programming, news, multilingual documentaries, children’s programming, all of it funded from the public purse. It is, like PBS in the states, one of the finest examples of our tax dollars at work we can genuinely see and access. TVO was also producer of two informational TV shows I watched pretty religiously.

The first was Prisoners of Gravity, created and produced by Mark Askwith; a well-known comics luminary (who I would come to know quite well as my career took off) who later went on to become a segment producer at Canada’s Space: The Imagination Station – Canada’s answer to the Sci-Fi, later SyFy Channel. Along with host Rick Green (of the famous Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics), Prisoners of Gravity chronicled the happenings in the sci-fi community with an emphasis on literature and comic books. Interviews with luminaries like George Clayton Johnston, Robert F. Sawyer, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Julie Czerneda, Tanya Huff, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison and Spider Robinson. Prisoners of Gravity (or “PoG” as fans referred to it) aired weekly on TVO between 1989 and 1994 on Friday nights and I watched it any chance I got. PoG dug deep into the art of writing, of ideas, of crafting stories that genuinely provoked thought rather than just passive distraction. Outside of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson I wasn’t a huge sci-fi and fantasy literature fan when I started down the PoG road, but by the end I was a full convert.

The second TVO show was actually a block of films that aired Saturday nights titled, appropriately, Saturday Night at the Movies, hosted by a kindly looking elderly bald man with glasses and a broad grin named Elwy Yost.

Elwy was what we would call one of the great ones; a man clearly in love with films, and whose love of them was infectious. The program for Saturday Night was simple; two films aired back to back, with an intermission comprised of interviews with the actors, filmmakers, and behind the scenes personalities behind those films. Hitchcock and Ford, Hawks and Curtiz, Donen and Wise were favorites of Elwy’s, but he also introduced me to the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut among others. Saturday Night excelled in introducing you to the movies that in some cases you couldn’t see elsewhere. While home video was certainly well-entrenched in the late 80s I would never had a chance to see 1968’s The Swimmer or 1964’s The Americanization of Emily without Saturday Night at the Movies.  

This is all to say I spent many a Saturday night at home, watching Elwy and TVO when other teenagers were out cruising the strip, getting drunk, and getting laid. It wasn’t uncommon to make up some excuse to friends as to why I couldn’t go out on a particular Saturday, just so I could stay home and watch Matewan with an accompanying interview with its director John Sayles, or Jason and the Argonauts because Elwy’s guest that night in conversation was none other than fellow Canadian James Cameron, who himself looked as delighted to be talking with Elwy as Elwy was with him.

The films aired without commercials and uncut, and my home library of video tapes back then included many episodes of Saturday Night at the Movies. I could have just set the VCR to record and gone out but for me watching them in the moment was a lot more satisfying, in the same way see in a film in the theater always is. It was the immediacy, the “blink and you’ll miss it” element that to this day has me leave my phone locked in the car or left on the dresser at home when going to a show.

In the list all-time Legendary Summers of my lifetime, three from the 1980s stand out. 1982 gave us Star Trek II, The Thing, E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, and Tron. 1984 had Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, The Last Starfighter, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, and The Terminator.[4] 1985, with Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Cocoon seems almost quaint by comparison. The trajectory by then was well-established, and movie critics would groan collectively as Hollywood dumped its biggest releases into the summer months, and pine for the relatively calmer, saner, “better” films of autumn.

But the Summer of 1989 was different and everyone recognized those differences in the moment. Dubbed “The Summer of the Sequel” we had Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, The Karate Kid Part III, License to Kill and Lethal Weapon 2 among the pickings, along with Honey I Shrunk The Kids, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally and Uncle Buck.[5]

But to look at 1989 and the Summer Film in general, we have to look at the third film from a quirky filmmaker who, after Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) was handed the reigns of a comic book character best known to audiences as the star of his very campy 1960s TV show. And while Tim Burton’s Batman, released to theaters 35 years ago this day of publication, is campy in numerous ways, it ably demonstrated especially to me the role a director played in turning the everyday into the extraordinary, in those rare cases when the right director meets the material best suited for him. Simply put: Batman 1989 would have been a very different film if it had been directed by anyone other than Burton.

Now let me add a quick little 2024 aside: I love Batman. I love the character, I love Gotham City and its Rogue Gallery of Villains. Heck, the wallpaper of my iPad is, you guessed it …

But in 1988-1989 Batman was kind of hokey to me. My prevailing memory of watching the old 60s Batman TV show likely dominated this belief, as did the old Superfriends cartoon series. And while friends in Brockville had talked up The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Killing Joke as being dark, adult stories, I had yet to be converted.

Burton’s film would change all this.

Like many of us, Burton was the weird kid. Growing up in sunny suburban Burbank California, he was obsessed with Universal horror, Vincent Price, Edmund Gorey, German Expressionism, and monster movies on TV. Graduating from Cal Arts he became an animator at Disney before branching out into directing. His unique visual style was his calling-card, and crossing paths with comedian Paul Reubens, Burton’s star would climb when Reubens picked him to direct Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He followed that with Beetlejuice; a truly odd film that proved to be a big hit, and introducing Gen X to one of its seminal poster girls (and personal movie crush); Winona Ryder. I saw Beetlejuice with a group of kids from school, and could hear the girls we were with unimpressed by Winona’s Goth Lydia Deetz, calling her gross and weird and creepy but those preppy teenage girls just didn’t understand the appeal of being strange and unusual.

It was shortly after seeing Beetlejuice in the theater in 1988 that a friend mentioned that Burton was directing the upcoming Batman movie. That Michael “Beetlejuice” Keaton would be playing Bruce Wayne, with Jack Nicholson taking on the role of the Joker. At first I thought this friend was having me on, but an issue of Starlog confirmed it all later that month. In that pre-internet age news traveled slowly; movie news particularly so. It wasn’t uncommon to learn a movie even existed until you plopped down in a theater seat and saw the trailer pop up on the big screen. This was the case when in early 1989 when going to see a movie whose title escapes me now, seeing the trailer for Batman. You can still find it on YouTube and it’s quite a stark difference from the slickly produced trailers of today (and to be fair even back then). There was no music, basic production sound, no narrative. Just clips from the film which looked like nothing any of us had seen before. It looked dark, gothic, expressionistic, seeming to straddle multiple eras all at once, with the duster coats and fedoras of the criminal gangs contrasted with the Batman’s hi-tech gadgets and car:

Bat-mania developed slowly over the first months of 1989. We all knew the Batman movie was coming, but so too were the returns of the Enterprise Crew hot off the smash success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the Ghostbusters were back as well. Even Indiana Jones had his Last Crusade, indicating this third film would be the final entry in the Indiana Jones series.[6] So yes, Batman; but would it be a hit? Would audiences who grew up on Adam West and Burt Ward and the notion that comic books were kid’s stuff respond?

In that sense, the decision to have Prince record songs for the movie, and be so enamored with the Batman mythos the Purple One recorded a whole damn album of songs was a masterstroke. Prince’s Batman album is widely derided now and even was so on its release, but you cannot deny it helped usher people – particularly the teens who made MTV, Much Music, and CBC’s Video Hits a staple of afterschool viewing. The “Batdance” video in particular was a real banger in that regard, with Prince appearing as himself, as a character calling himself “Gemini”, with dancing Batmen and Jokers and Vicki Vale’s cavorting about an obvious soundstage while music punctuated by audio clips from the movie. It’s one of those “only in the 80s would this work” moments in pop culture that burned itself into the memories of every GenX kid who watched it. It also made every school-age kid who saw it want to see Batman.[7]

I was looking forward to Batman like most summer filmgoers, but more so because by 1989 I was a big comic book fan. I had been one since 1984 when I discovered the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic series but my tastes had matured though by 1987 as I discovered books like Hellblazer, The Shadow, and Sandman. Brockville’s first comic book shop, The Comic Cave, opened in 1988 and I spent many hours there browsing the racks discovering a new favorite book almost every week. A friend finally convinced me Batman was cool when lending me his paperback editions of Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and most particularly The Killing Joke. That book was what made me most interested to see Batman, especially when in an interview in Starlog Burton made mention of it being an influence. It’s no surprise the version of Batman occupying my brain was a much different beast from the one we got. 

I actually didn’t see Batman opening day despite it actually arriving at the Parkedale Cinema in Brockville on day of release, because opening day and night were spent at my friend Casey’s lakeside cottage outside the city. Being teenage boys being boys the “sleep-over” became a “let’s stay up all night and play poker and burn shit in the camp-fire” so by the Saturday afternoon when I and my buddy Mark visiting from Toronto staggered back to my house to crash, we somehow decided seeing Batman that night was the much more prudent course of action than, you know, sleeping. But movies were important back then. They were cool back then. And back then you had to see it on opening weekend so you could say you had seen it. And so, after a hasty dinner of pizza the two very bleary-eyed of us staggered to the Parkedale to stand in line for tickets and crowd into the sold-out theater to take our seats and try to get through Batman without nodding off.  

Doing anything while sleep-deprived is a challenge. Seeing a movie while sleep-deprived makes for a wholly different experience. And I noticed it from the beginning as the Warner Brothers logo transitioned to a gloomy landscape as the credits rolled and Danny Elfman’s now legendary score played over what would eventually be revealed to be the Bat-symbol. The movie was dark, and it was dim, and while I was attentive to it, in its most gothic moments – the opening in Crime Alley, the raid on Axis Chemicals and the (re)birth of the Joker, all the way to the operatic showdown atop Gotham City Cathedral, I couldn’t be sure I was in the theater watching Batman, or having a dream about being in a theater watching Batman. As I recall afterward Mark felt the same way, and on the way home we quizzed each other (“Did the Joker really pull a massive gun from his pants and shoot down the BatWing?”) to confirm that yes we had actually seen Batman and hadn’t been dreaming the entire thing.

So I’d seen Batman. But did I like it? To be honest I couldn’t be sure, so I saw it again a second time in a state of full waking to make sure what I’d seen the first time was what I’d seen. And at the time I was kind of mixed. It certainly had atmosphere to spare, but the story was thin, the action clunky (Burton is many things but a director of action is not one of them). That’s not to say it wasn’t good because deep down it did what every film should do which is to transport you to a time and a place where you do not exist. Where you are just some silent presence observing the trials and tribulations of these characters and their world.

In Batman’s case the world is Gotham City, and what a dingy, dreary world it is; possibly the best representation of the city outside of Matt Reeves’ The Batman in 2022. Bolstered by Anton Furst’s gothic production design, the Gotham of Batman is very much that “third main character” after Nicholson’s Joker and Keaton’s Dark Knight.

As for the plot, well, there really is none. It’s an origin story. For the Joker. For Batman. And for the dominant form of blockbuster moviemaking that would really kick into gear in the late 1990s with Blade, the X-Men series, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, all of which paved the way for 2008’s Iron Man; a modest hit that ended up kicking off a cinematic universe to spread across screens big and small over the following fifteen years.

It’s surprising looking back even now to consider just why Burton’s Batman hit so hard because it’s so damn weird. Not weird like Batman Returns would be in 1992, not weird as in the “what the hell were they thinking” weird of Batman and Robin of 1997. Batman is a loose, almost plot-less film carried along by its stunning production design, moody cinematography by Brazil‘s Roger Pratt, loopy score by Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman, snazzy costumes by Bob Ringwood, and diametrically opposed performances by Keaton’s brooding, slightly off-kilter Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson’s very off-kilter Jack Napier/Joker. The premise of Batman – Batman must stop the Joker from poisoning the citizens of Gotham City – is pretty much the plot. The vibes are funhouse mirror though, with Nicholson chewing scenery and camping it up to the hilt while the normally just as loopy Keaton in the straight role of “man who dresses as bat”

Batman is an exercise in style and in mood. It is a brooding, shadowy nightmare of dark alleys, Lovecraftian architecture, and gothic styling. More than any movie I’d seen up until that point, Batman made me truly understand and appreciate what a director brought to the table. A Batman film by Tim Burton is diametrically opposed to one from Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, Zach Snyder, or Matt Reeves. And while all of the latter films are very much their own things all of them owe some of their vision to Burton’s first film. We certainly see shades of it in Batman Begins’ expressionist jumble of tenement slums and in The Batman’s nightmare version of Gotham. We even see it in 2023’s box-office bomb The Flash, which resurrected Keaton’s Caped Crusader for an extended cameo and did absolutely nothing interesting with him.

Batman 1989 was also quite campy, becoming more so as the Joker begins his campaign of terror. Like he’s hijacking the narrative, tearing away the brooding noirish atmosphere of the film’s first act and giving it a dose of his Smylex gas. Street mimes become Tommy-gun-blasting maniacs. Trenchoat-and-fedora goons get makeovers with snazzy leather jackets bearing a Joker logo. Gotham’s mayor, police chief, and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) break the fourth wall and look to the Joker on his TV screen as he interrupts their TV-screened press conference. The criticism of Batman from its fans; the heavy use of Bat-machine guns, Bat-bombs, Bat-missiles would seem to fly in the face of the legacy of a character who never used a gun, but this isn’t the comic book Batman; this is Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman is a Tim Burton movie.

In the wake of Batman’s extraordinary success, what was truly surprising though was the lack of any films Batman inspired. We really didn’t get any other “comic book movies”; no new Superman, Flash or Wonder Woman, no Spider-Man, Captain America, or X-Men either (Marvel’s finances were in a general shambles throughout much of the 1990s). Instead what we got were movies starring characters whose origins were pulled from the same Great Depression era as Batman and Superman. 1990 saw Dick Tracy, 1991 gave us the retro throwback The Rocketeer, 1994 gave us The Shadow, 1996 The Phantom. It was as though Batman’s enormous success somehow convinced studio execs that the movies the kids of the 1990s were desperate to see were the characters their grandparents grew up with back in the 1930s while listening to their exploits on the radio. None of these Batman-inspired follow-ups hit in the way Burton’s film did (and most of them bombed outright). What was even more surprising was that Batman didn’t inspire that wave of comic book movies; all the 90s brought us outside of modest hits like 1994’s The Mask and outright flops like Barb Wire were three more Batman movies.[8]

As to why it was such a hit though, I wouldn’t point to comic book fans, which even then were not a major force in a box office success. I would suggest instead that because so many of that summer’s movies were sequels audiences were just looking for something new even when “new” in this case meant a character first created in 1939 who’d been a recognizable piece of pop culture for the intervening fifty years. The Bat-Logo was hip. It was cool. Using it as the principal marketing hook was a master-stroke, and one that you can credit producer Jon Peters with; he alone may be the one most responsible for changing how movies were marketed and you can see the simplicity of Batman’s logo poster throughout the next thirty-five years of film. All throughout that summer and well into fall a Batman logo t-shirt was considered to be a “cool” fashion choice, even among the girls. Batman may not have been a great film, but it was a fun one, and one that just happened to be the right film at the right time for it to take flight.

I remain a Bat-Fan to this day. I have a massive Lego Bat-Wing mounted on my office wall. I have a collection of Lego Batmobiles spanning the Adam West-Burt Ward TV series through Robert Pattinson’s incarnation. I even grabbed a Michael Keaton as Batman circa 1989 from McFarlane toys just to have him on my shelf of 70s-80s movie-inspired action figures. To me Batman is the most malleable of the superhero figures comic books gave us. He can be dark and brooding, he can feature in a horror or action or romantic storyline, he can do “the Batusi” and appear in Lego form but always, always be that same character. His rogues gallery of villains are the best rotating cast of n’er do wells in fiction bar none, from The Joker and Penguin and Catwoman to The Riddler, Two-Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, R’as Al Guhl, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and Bane. The Gotham of Batman, like the Metropolis of Superman, is a fictional city everybody knows about and has probably visited at one time or another. There is quite literally a Batman for every occasion and inclination.

My Lego Batwing, hanging on the Bat-wall

I also remain a Burton fan, though when looking at the overall scope of his work, his most essential years to me remain his early ones, from 1985 and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure through 1994 and his biopic Ed Wood. Many believe he lost his touch after Ed Wood’s box office failure but I feel Burton has always been Burton; it was just in that decade or so stretch comprising Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Wood found his eccentricities in sync with the movie going public and the cultural shift as GenX took the wheel. It’s no big stretch to see a similarity between Beetlejuice and Scissorhands with David Lynch briefly entering the mainstream with Twin Peaks, and the Alternative Rock generation moving to the forefront. Strange and unusual was “in” for a time and then it wasn’t, and while there is a lot in Burton’s subsequent work to admire, notably Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd which feel more fully realized than his Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, and Dumbo. Tim Burton just became what all successful filmmakers do at some point; he became Tim Burton, Incorporated; a filmmaker with a certain style and language and outlook that becomes the selling point over what he’s actually selling.[9]

Lego Batmobile and minifig collection. Thank the pandemic for my Lego obsessions

1989 was the Summer of the Bat. It announced that the 1990s would be a much different decade than the 80s. A decade where the formerly weird suburban kids like Tim Burton would be handed the keys to the kingdom and both shape and be shaped by a cultural shift that would change everything that came before. As for me it was the summer my movie obsession and career path resultant really kicked itself into high gear. The next three years would be some of my most stressful but also my most happy even as my home life would take a turn for the worse. But, like Bruce Wayne, I would find reason to fly.

Just a portion of my 80s movie and TV figure shelf. You have to grow up but you don’t have to grow old.

[1] And occasionally the American one as well; the border was a lot more open back then compared to now.

[2] And if not? It was still two hours in an air-conditioned theater when the temperature outside hit 90 degrees.

[3] Contrast that with 2023, where we seem to ge a “summer” movie every month.

[4] 1981, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, and Escape From New York was no slouch either.

[5] None of these were as anticipated by me as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing but owing to its R rating and not making it to theaters in Eastern Ontario I had to wait for it to hit video before watching it multiple times.

[6] Unfortunately, and your mileage with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dial of Destiny may vary, it was not.

[7] And became a great punchline in Edgar Wright’s 2004 film Shaun of the Dead in the process. The “gag” which I won’t spoil wouldn’t work nearly as well if it had been any album but Prince’s Batman one.

[8] 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a hit but one still in production when Batman was released.

[9] He shares that similarity with Michael Bay of all people, whose more interesting films like Pain and Gain, 13 Hours, and the terrific Ambulance are lost in the shuffle of five (!) Transformers films.


Begging Bowl Blues

Back in 2010 I was a still freshly-minted New Yorker, still adjusting to my new life in the Big Apple. While I’d visited the city extensively in the eight or so years previous, this was now my home. Because of that I enjoyed something of a personal renaissance.

I have to admit here friends, before settling in NYC I was on a sad trajectory. I was entering my mid-thirties. My adventurous wanderings through popular culture had stagnated into keeping up with some favorite bands from the 80s and 90s like U2, Green Day, R.E.M., P.J. Harvey, Garbage, and Green Day. When I wasn’t listening to classic rock and alternative radio I was I was mostly listening to news stations and – shudder – talk radio.

The latter was a thankfully brief flirtation with the dark side of angry white middle-aged men who blamed “teh liberals” and “the immigrants” for every ill, not the least of which being a loser spending his day listening to talk radio. Though to be fair this was Canadian Talk Radio; a much friendlier, less-angry version of the stateside brethren. But I was a long way from the college-rock Lollapalooza-alternative music era of my youth.

It was, ironically, creating Mixtape that snapped me out of my reverie. I’ve written elsewhere but the basic gist was the discovery of my old comic book collection, old music magazines, and old boom-box in my mother’s basement that led me back down the memory path, listening to old mixtapes and thumbing through old magazines. I rediscovered the simple joys of music, and once settled into NYC, began digging into more contemporary artists who stoked those same feelings: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Sleigh Bells, Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, and a little-known, little-remembered Fratellis side-project called Codeine Velvet Club.

Spearheaded by John Lawler with Scottish singer Lou Hickey, their first and only album was short, sweet, jazzy, poppy, melodic, and to the point (and featured a great cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”). I’d love for you to listen to it but that’s going to be difficult outside of YouTube, and is sadly the point to this whole exercise in memory.

You can listen to the album here … but for how long is the real question

To listen to Codeine Velvet Club takes some effort. The album is long out of print and while you can stream it on YouTube you won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music. You can’t even buy it on iTunes and while used copies are available through Amazon a “new” unopened copy will run you close to 60 bucks. That’s just one example; one album released fourteen years ago this very year. There are many more. More movies, more TV series, more albums and books unavailable and in many cases largely forgotten, all thanks to this Streaming Apocalypse. Thankfully I own a physical copy of Codeine Velvet Club. I can listen to it whenever I want to because I own a physical copy of it.

Back in November came the news that for the first time since streaming movies and TV became popular you couldn’t find a single James Bond movie on any streaming service. Fifty years of 007 just vanished with nobody along to pick up the slack (Apple TV currently has the streaming rights so it was just temporary as long as you’re an Apple subscriber that is). I myself was unconcerned as I already owned the complete 25-film Blu-Ray box set so could actually watch any of the Bond films anytime I wanted. But their temporary disappearance was troubling on multiple levels because this wasn’t some obscure arthouse film; this was Bond. James Bond.

Pictured: Bond, James Bond.

And yet after years of loyalty to the various streaming services I believe consumers have begun to wise up to the fact that ownership of physical media – books, music, movies – means to curate, not just to consume and they have begun to answer this with a drive back to physical media. 4K and Blu-Ray copies of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer sold out everywhere on its release in December. People are anticipating the 4K Blu-Ray release of Dune Part Two to accompany their copy of Part One. It was almost as if we suddenly re-discovered the pleasures of unwrapping a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favorite television or film series.

I’m not the buyer of physical media or indeed any media that I once was but I am shifting more to curation. Over Christmas I acquired Blu-Ray sets of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film series, the complete 1978 Battlestar Galactica, the complete 1979-1980 Buck Rogers, the Criterion Collection’s remastered edition of Mean Streets, and the two Guillermo Del Toro films – Nightmare Alley and Pinocchio – I didn’t yet own but now do. They sit alongside my Blu-Rays of Star Trek (The Original TV and film Series), The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes film series. I own the Despecialized Star Wars Trilogy, all the Bond and Mission Impossible films, and roughly five to six hundred other assorted DVDs and Blu-Rays spanning the early silent era to recent releases. Thanks to physical media I can watch both the theatrical and TV versions of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, numerous behind the scenes documentaries, commentaries, and special features, any time I feel like it and even without an internet connection.

Of course there’s my still growing collection of Movie Novelizations as well which while tapering off in recent years still stands as a curation of yesterday’s trash paperbacks with a projected short shelf-live now containing books over fifty years ole.

With comic books my reading has mostly shifted to digital as time and money demands more of both from me in other areas. Yet over the last three months I decided to seek out and acquire a complete run of Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic book series which ran from 1982-1985 and continued the narrative begun in theaters with Raiders of the Lost Ark, running 34. Back issues remained easy and inexpensive to acquire, but furthermore outside of some astronomically priced trade paperback collections released by Dark Horse Comics in 2008, the only way to read this series was by acquiring the actual individual issues.

Which I did …

Between physical media resurgent and people stepping back from streaming it’s almost enough to give one hope for the the media we love. Even the studios seem to be coming around to admitting that for all their investments in services HBO Max and Paramount Plus, that Netflix is still top dog and that it’s a lot easier (not to mention profitable) to license their films back out rather than keep them under lock and key on their own services which cost a lot to maintain. Just a quick perusal of Netflix and Amazon offerings in January displayed a bounty of DC Warner Superhero titles and giant shark movies that while I had absolutely no interest in actually watching were at least an option whereas before I should have had to subscribe to Max to watch.

Thankfully I have a library; my home library and the public one in our town. That library has an extensive movie collection I can borrow from on a whim, and a library borrow is usually more than enough to scratch a particular itch rather than buy a movie, watch it once, and let it gather dust on my shelf ever after. We’ve come a long way from the days of Blockbuster Video and Tower Records, Borders, Virgin, and Barnes & Noble (the last of which being the only game less standing and even their DVD/Blu-Ray section is a shade of what it once was). I doubt those lost behemoths are coming back, and physical media’s position in our fat-paced world remains precarious, but as long as they’re still producing I’m still buying.

As was the case with the video rental and sales era, there was a golden age of streaming but that age ended with Disney Plus, followed by Peacock, Max, Apple, and all the services cropping up. What once was limited to Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix is now spread out over a dozen rival services. To have access to everything streaming would cost you hundreds a month and you’d never have time to watch all of it (I have films in my Netflix queue I added years ago I still haven’t gotten around to – probably time to admit as much and delete them). We’ve come full circle back around to the 500 channel universe cable TV once promised less than ten years after abandoning it for streaming.

Now, there are some great free ad supported services like Tubi and Plex. I binged in old episodes of CHiPs, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero, and fun lesser-known movies like Raise the Titanic, Southern Comfort, Rolling Thunder, Hell Night, Dreamscape, Strange Invaders, and a lot more. Thanks to PBS and my wife and I being supporters of our local affiliate we have access to a near complete library of documentary series on a variety of subjects. Frontline, Nova, Secrets of the Dead, the American Experience, and scads more.

Books? Obviously I still buy them, having devoted a fair amount of shelf-space to the Movie Paperback collection that carried me through the COVID era, but that too is winding down partially because the easiest “gets” have already been “got” and because I’m legitimately out of room to store them. That said there is nothing, nothing quite like a big bulky expensive book, like this massive Omnibus Edition of The Art of G.I. Joe, all 20 lbs, $150.00 of it:

Collecting things is my hobby, and a good hobby to have. Hobbies are good to have in general and you can tell the difference between those with and those without. The busybody condo association president or HOA member butting into everyone else’s business? No hobbies. The person glued to the daily outrage of their phones? No hobbies. Collecting books, movies, comics, toys, games and the like are a two-fold experience in both the acquisition but also the enjoyment of. I don’t think I’m ever as relaxed, as chill, as I am when stretched out on the sofa reading an actual book printed on actual paper.

That’s the other great factor in favor of physical media: it’s yours, and nobody can take it from you. With the plethora of special-interest groups out in the world agitating for and launching book bans targeting school libraries and public ones, it’s no paranoia to suspect at some point these “goose-stepping morons” (as derisively and accurately named by Henry Jones Sr.) might start gunning for what we watch as well. Not only external forces but internal ones as well. Disney made headlines last year when they began removing low-rated, low-performing original content (like their Willow series spinoff I was never able to find time to watch) from the service, leaving the people who hadn’t yet caught up with them adrift with no other means to watch other than sailing the high seas of Pirate Bay.

All of the above is very much on my mind for another reason as I work my way through the first draft of a narrative non-fiction book based on my popular Celluloid Heroes webseries. Over the course of its 140,000 or so words I take a deep dive into those bellwether GenX films that inspired me to become a storyteller myself. Some of these films are well known like Star Wars, The Goonies, E.T., Back to the Future, L.A. Confidential, The Matrix, and Avatar. Lesser known are films like Dragonslayer, Blue Thunder, La Bamba, Singles, Lone Star, The Limey, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Inside Llewyn Davis. To adequately research this book I couldn’t rely on the here today/gone tomorrow world of streaming; I had to draw from my collection of movies and, where lacking, purchase the physical copy of the movies I had yet to own (fortunately I’d say a good three-quarters of the films covered I already owned and the remainder were easy to pick up).

Frankly, the studios would love it if everyone ditched their physical media for streaming. They’d love for you to pay them ten to twenty dollars a month in perpetuity to have access to their respective libraries of films and exclusive streaming services as well. All the more reason to deny them that pound of flesh. Especially as we may be entering a golden age of physical media too, with the resurgence in remastered vinyl, 4K Hi-Def, an upswing in excellent behind the scenes features and more bells and whistles, like the near hour plus of deleted scenes that come with a very affordable version of Cameron Crowe’s grunge-era romantic comedy Singles. You won’t find that on streaming.

With a physical copy there are no ads. There are no disclaimers about content, no un-skippable notices informing you that Gone With The Wind, The Searchers, or even Blazing Saddles were the product of different times, and different mores. A physical movie will not be pulled from your library, and occasionally re-inserted minus offending scenes or minus politically “offensive” episodes, like Community’s infamous “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

Which was supposed to be offensive to point out why Dark Elf-face is wrong and … (sighs in irritation)

When art is owned by corporations that corporation decides how accessible it will be. Sometimes maliciously, often times pure indifference. There are many, MANY Canadian bands of my teenage-twenty something years whose music is nowhere to be found online outside of shoddy YouTube clips taped off Much Music thirty years before; National Velvet, Grasshopper, hHead, Glueleg, and many more I’ve forgotten about because they’re otherwise unavailable outside of used record and CD stores, themselves a dying breed.

For years I began to see my shelves laden with books and DVDs, my long-boxes of old comics stowed away in closets and storage spaces as something of a burden; the detritus of a life that’s seen many years, many cities, and many homes. There are e-books, e-comics, and streaming video; who needs physical media anyway? Well, as one who owns examples from all of the above that are out of print, out of circulation, not available to stream, and just plain rare, well, I like to think curating a collection of physical objects still has a place in this digital age. And because of that digital age where things can disappear at the click of a button, holding those objects closer feels more essential than ever.

I like owning things. I like my books, comics, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Lego sets, toys, and games. I enjoy having them around me, just like I enjoy being able to decide to pull Excalibur, Tombstone, No Time To Die, Ravenous, The Breakfast Club, The Irishman (thank-you Criterion), the “Space Vampire” episode of Buck Rogers, or binge watch Season One of The Twilight Zone by taking it down off the shelf. These things we own hold their own magic, their own alchemy. There’s still a little thrill I get when the DVD or Blu-Ray menu pops up on the screen and I select “Play” on the remote. In that moment I, not the studio, not the streamer am controlling the horizontal and the vertical. I am deciding what to watch, when to watch, and how to watch.

When was the last time any of us were able to say the same?

Infinite Content (or: Boredom: A Defense)

In January of 2000 I was sitting pretty high. RoboCop Prime Directives was nearing the end of its production cycle and I was living my life as a screenwriter with a bright future. I had money in the bank, I had just upgraded to a very nice apartment in a nice area of Toronto, and my Monday-to-Friday was occupied by writing. My weekends were movies and activities and hanging out with friends, at bars, at pool halls, or coffee shops. I’d even managed to pay back my student loans.

It was a much different life than the one I have today. Today I’m a husband and father; I live on a nice, tree-lined street in a prosperous suburb of one of New England’s larger cities. I still spend my days writing but those days are broken up by school drop-offs and pickups, chores and errands, and general day-to-day life stuff.

The world has changed. My world has changed. But one area where it has not changed, thankfully, is that I still allow myself the simple pleasures of being bored.

It’s why I gave up having a cell phone which makes me a rare beast in today’s connected world. I don’t like carrying any device on me, frankly, be it tablet or smartphone. I find them cumbersome, not for their size, shape, or weight, but for the burdens they carry; the expectation to be “Ponce de Leon, constantly on” (to paraphrase the Beastie Boys); that ever-present need to be online.

The Boys have never steered me wrong for I am a student of their teachings …

When was the last time you were bored? Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to keep you occupied other than your own thoughts? When was the last time any of you just sat there with nothing to fill the empty space?

If you have a smartphone on your person, I’m guessing the answer is “never”. Thanks to the smartphone you have the internet and all its distractions. You browse websites, you scroll social media, you shop, you watch videos, you listen to music. You constantly allow something in to alleviate that boredom, am I right?

I have a little thought experiment for you. Picture a drinking glass. This is a metaphoric glass we carry with ourselves at all times that is neither half empty nor half-full. It just is. And there’s always something handy to pour into it; mostly basic day-to-day stuff like waking up, eating breakfast, starting work, all through the day until your head hits the pillow later that evening.

All of the above occupies roughly two-thirds of that glass. The rest is filled by whatever you want; a TV program, a movie, a video game, some reading or listening to music, a walk, dinner with friends, some hobby or regular activity, or just relaxing.

But more frequently, thanks to the ever-present smart-phone and its infinite content, a lot of us – too many if I must be honest – never get around to the other more fulfilling stuff -because the algorithm is constantly encouraging us to hit “refresh” and keep scrolling. We’ll sit there, phone in hand, and tell ourselves “just lemme look this one thing up” and the next thing we know hours have passed. Even when we put the phone down and go back to the movie or TV we were watching we feel it calling to us; not literally, but the chemistry of our brains is telling us it wants another hit of that sweet, sweet dopamine that we’ve become addicted to.

I see this on afternoon pickup, when I trek to my son’s school, passing the middle-schoolers on their way home, nearly all of them walking with heads stooped as they stare at their phones. Same as the high school students who once gathered outside and huddled in groups as they smoked cigarettes; now they congregate and huddle over their phones, trading one addiction for another, and both of them equally damaging for different reasons. But it’s not just “the youts” as Joe Pesci called them in My Cousin Vinny; I see it in the parents waiting outside for their kids, noses buried in their phones. I see it in people much older gathered for dinner at a restaurant, all of them staring at their phones in lieu of conversation. I see it in traffic when the light has changed to green and the driver of the car ahead of me doesn’t move because I can see his or her head in that downward tilt that communicates they’re texting or fiddling with a handheld device.

And while I get that Pandora’s Technology Box is never being closed, I think we as a people and a society are ruining much of what makes life special and unique and interesting; being bored. Allowing our minds to empty of thoughts and just be. That constant access to bright lights and information that never stops filling the void has killed our attention spans in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

We truly have no idea how bad this still new technology is for our brain; it is simply not evolved enough to ingest everything it provides us, but that tech has permeated our society so much that it’s virtually impossible to divorce ourselves for it. I don’t think we should necessarily divorce it completely, but boy oh boy we are living in some wild times; and I’m just talking about the internet, I won’t dilute the point by mentioning all sorts of other major issues we are facing these days.

It’s just as alarming to see how wholeheartedly everyone seems to have embraced this new normal. We’re encouraged to “download the app” to make our experience dining and shopping and living so much “easier”. Restaurants have started to do away with paper menus in favor of a QR code to provide the menu (and allow them to raise the prices on appetizers and entrees during peak dining times without having to print new menus), doctors’ offices want you to download the app that allows you constant access to your medical file (while allowing the same app to harvest your data, from the exercise trackers you use to the number of times you order fast food through another app).

It’s not all bad. Some of my favorite apps come through my local library; Hoopla (the e-book, audio-book, comic book reader app), the Kanopy streaming service, and Libby for e-borrows. I still prefer to do my reading on paper though; with a physical book in hand I’m less prone to pause my reading to see who just emailed. The tablet is powered down and shoved into the desk drawer, not to be unearthed until the following morning. From five in the evening to seven in the morning it stays there; my free time must truly be free for me to actually enjoy it. And if that means being bored, all the better.

I was lucky enough to grow up being bored. When I was bored I hopped on my bike and rode through the neighborhood looking for friends. Better yet was when I’d hear that knock at my door or ring of the doorbell and open the door to see some pals standing there asking if we just wanted to go hang out. When I was older with nothing to do I hopped in my car, threw twenty bucks into the tank, and cruised the streets of my town looking for someone or something to cross my path. Now it’s all done online; the invites, the evites, the rest of it. We are connected 24/7, but that constant connection is what’s driving us further apart.

Getting back to 2000 and the entire point of this essay. It was late in January and I was on a GO bus heading south from Barrie to Toronto after a birthday celebration. As the bus rumbled down Highway 400 we hit a pretty swift blizzard as is common in that part of the province; the “snow belt” they call it, though snow doesn’t fall as heavy or frequent as it did back then. So picture it; me in my seat in the darkened vehicle staring out the window into the night, seeing the snow, feeling the shudder and sway of the bus as it powered through. I had nothing to read, I had no smartphone to distract me because in those days the internet was a place you had to visit through a home computer or internet café. You didn’t carry it with you. It was like TV; another distraction, but one with an “off” switch.

So there I was, staring out the window, and my mind was wandering. The trek reminded me of the trips I used to take on the VIA train between Toronto and Brockville. I started thinking about trains, and suddenly an image popped into my head; two figures atop a train hurtling through a blizzard, fighting for their dear lives. The wind is howling; the snow is blinding. I continued to free-associate and ask questions. Who were they? Why were they fighting?

And my brain provided the answers; one was a big-game hunter in the Alan Quartermain mode. The other … was a vampire. A bloodsucking member of the un-dead. And they were not just fighting atop any old train; they’re fighting atop The Orient Express as it hurtled along ice-covered tracks through the Austrian Alps. The year was 1901, and this Great White Hunter was member of a team of Vampire Killers, dispatched to the wilds of Transylvania to locate a member of their organization who has gone missing ; a man named Abraham Van Helsing, foil of the legendary Count Dracula.

By the time I made it home I had the entire story in my head. I raced to my room, grabbed one of the big yellow legal-size notepads I always used (and still do) when sketching out a new idea, and drafted a three-page outline for a story I would first come to title The Fearless Vampire Slayers, then World War V, before settling on The Gentleman’s Guide to Hunting the Undead. I would spend the remainder of 2000 drafting that outline into a screenplay that while has never been produced was probably responsible for me landing more paying jobs than anything I’ve written before or since. It was one of those great, in some circles legendary, spec screenplays that opened doors and set me before many producers, all of whom requested to meet with me because they read that screenplay and said “this guy has talent”. It was as much a showcase for what I could do as a piece of evidence I still return to now as proof that I’m a good writer. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars worth of work just because of that screenplay, brainstormed as I sat on a darkened bus, stating out a window into the snow, with nothing other than my thoughts to distract me.

Now picture the same set of circumstances. Bus. Snow. Night. And a smartphone. Had smartphones been around back in those days and were I in possession of one, would I have still cooked up that idea? It’s possible, but I am doubtful. I think The Gentleman’s Guide came about solely because of those circumstances of the bus ride; the time of year, the weather, and the fact my brain was seeking something to fill it and finding nothing but my own imagination to fill it.

Here’s my controversial take; social media, smart phones, and the age of infinite content are bad for us and particularly for creative types; I would go further and say that you can’t truly be a great writer, painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, or actor if you allow these outside influences to dominate your day-to-day. So much of art and creation relies on you being in that physical or metaphoric room with the door closed. It relies on you making your creative decisions in a vacuum of your own understanding, your singular perspectives. When you’re doom-scrolling Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever it’s called these days you’re letting other voices in to spoil the soup, so to speak. To create something certifiably you, you need to do it without influence or outside noise.

Let me be clear; I’m not talking about promotion and advertising your wares; that’s all a necessary part of the job assuming you want being an artist to be your job. But on the creative side, infinite content can become the death of that creativity. It’s art by algorithm; those invisible yet present forces that guide you by showing you want you want while also inflaming you by putting the things you dislike front and center to keep you captive to those algorithms. It connects in part to the current controversy over Chat-GPT and AI art; the end-result of a sort of Vampire Capitalism where everything must be monetized as cheaply and quickly as managed; a fatted calf for its exploiters to sink in its fangs and drain it dry.

Artists are needy people. We crave attention, preferably positive, but sometimes negative will do. We want to be acknowledged, we want to perceive ourselves and our voices to be important and respected. We crave that audience. But when the audience begins to guide our decisions as a creator pretty soon we’re creating for them, not for ourselves.  

There is a very current analog to this belief of mine that sprung up over the release of Martin Scorsese’s quite masterful three and a half hour epic Killers of the Flower Moon. “Too long, too boring, needed an intermission” people complained. Speaking as someone who was able to sit through Schindler’s List, The Return of the King, Oppenheimer, Magnolia, Avatar: The Way of Water, Seven Samurai, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without need of a bathroom break or to get up and stretch my legs, these criticisms of Flower Moon smack more of shortened attention spans than anything else. The people who can’t go more than thirty minutes without hitting pause at home to scroll through their phones (or who scroll absentmindedly through the movie) and act offended when you suggest they may have a mild tech addiction.

Yes it’s long but go to the bathroom before and you’ll be fine. Leave the phone in the car though.

Increasingly though I am not the only one who seems to be feeling this wariness. Many people I know in real life and online have begun to step away from this constant connectivity. They’re deactivating accounts, they’re deleting apps, they’re downgrading to more simple flip-phones that offer basic connectivity, texting, and no social media whatsoever. Some people have disappeared from online spaces entirely; people I had pleasant interactions with for many years who are now gone from my life. I don’t know where they are or how they’re doing, but I do wish them well anyway.

“There is a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sings in his song “Anthem”. And so my challenge to anyone reading this as we head into 2024 is the next time you need to go somewhere, either on a walk, a bike ride, or a trip to the grocery store or to go pick your kid up at school, leave the phone at home.

Going to a movie? A museum? A bar? Leave the device off. Engage directly with the world around you and you may be surprised to see people just out and about living their lives, and being much happier than the internet algorithm will try to tell you they actually are. See a remarkable sunset or cherry blossoms falling from a tree, or some remarkable cloud formation? Don’t fumble for your phone to snap a photo of it to share; see it, catalogue it, and file it away in your memories to crop up now and then without aid of a grainy photo that will never, ever be able to capture that moment. Be in that moment because those moments do not last, believe me.

If you’re a creative like me; resolve to create with the door closed, be it physical, metaphorical, or technological. You will find magic where you thought none existed, and you may just create something remarkable that you didn’t realize you were capable of.

Do all of this. Because it would be a tragedy to be at the end of your life looking back and seeing your memories of youth, of health, of love and being loved, all filtered through a smart-phone’s screen. This life only comes around once and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.

Far, Far Away …

I’m up to my neck in revisions to two separate manuscripts, and a non-fiction book proposal at the moment so there won’t be any major updates this month or possibly next. But my new short story “THE SUMMER KIDS” will be available to read on this website on July 1st so mark the date.

In the meanwhile, here’s a quick breakdown of 3-Act structure using STAR WARS Lego sets for your reading and viewing pleasure:

ACT ONE: The Set-Up

ACT TWO: The Confrontation

ACT THREE: The Resolution

May the force be with you …

October Country

October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.

And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.

I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.

Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.

Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:

Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.

Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.

No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.

I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”

Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.

In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.

It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that

Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.

On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.

Curiously the so-so filmic adaptation is *not* on Disney Plus despite being a Disney film …

That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.

Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.

I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.

It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.

Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.

Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic. 

I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.

And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory. 

It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.  

There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —

Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free?
We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea
But it was not to be
I knew you then but do I know you now?

Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.

My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.

The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.

But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.

ADDENDUM:

So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days:

  1. Old (2021)
  2. Candyman (2021)
  3. Firestarter (2022)
  4. Children of the Corn (1984)
  5. Little Monsters (2018)
  6. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022)
  7. X (2022)
  8. Hellraiser (2022)
  9. Carrie (2013)
  10. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2021)
  11. Hotel Transylvania (2013)
  12. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
  13. In The Tall Grass (2019)
  14. My Best Friends Exorcism (2022)
  15. XX (2017)
  16. Dead Calm (1989)
  17. Dracula Untold (2014)
  18. Halloween Kills (2021)
  19. The Sandman (Netflix Series)
  20. Dahmer (Netflix Series)
  21. Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
  22. Monster House (2006)
  23. My Friend Dahmer (2017)
  24. A Monster Calls (2021)
  25. The Midnight Hour (1985)
  26. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  27. Willard (2003)
  28. Peninsula (2020)
  29. The Black Phone (2021)
  30. Boo! (1980)
  31. The Thing (1982)