1990s Album Covers: B&W, Please, and Don’t Forget the Fire

Been on a bit of a nostalgia trip recently — no connection to turning 42, I’m sure — and I noticed all these album covers from 90s alternative bands that are in black and white, and usually with something on fire.

Don’t believe me? Ok, here’s exhibit A:

Better Than Extra’s Friction, Baby. Released 1996. No fire here, but it’s a grayscale image, and the fire is implied, no? That torn piece of paper, plus the album’s title, captures the moment just before the match is lit.

Here’s another one, where the fire moves from implicit to explicit:

Hole, Celebrity Skin, released 1998. Sharper tones in this one, more contrast. Shot of the band in the foreground, looking nonchalant as a tree burns in the background. Did they set it aflame with the power of their rock? Was their cool just too much for the tree to take? We’ll never know.

The trend wasn’t just for American bands, oh no. Here’s German band Fury in the Slaughterhouse’s cover for their 1992 album, Mono:

Super-extreme stubble close-up. The face is weary, resigned. Shot is overall very dark. Meant to evoke the ennui in the album’s hit single, “Every Generation Got Its Own Disease”?

Content Warning for the next two: Self-Harm, Nudity.

I’d be remiss not to mention the cover of one of the greatest albums of the 90s, released by one of my favorite bands:

Rage Against the Machine, self-titled album, 1992. If you don’t know the history behind that photo, well…here’s the wikipedia link. Suffice to say that it perfectly fits the album’s themes of resistance to (racist, capitalist) authority.

But how far back does the trend go? One of the earliest examples I can find is from 1988, with Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking:

Notice all the elements are already there: the fire, the black and white retro chic, the nonchalance on the human faces. Ahead of their time in more ways than musically?

Keeping Score: April 9, 2021

Writing this past week has been…well, difficult is too small a word for it. When my motivation for even getting out of bed has been snuffed out, it’s impossible to convince myself that the words I’m setting down are worth anything.

And yet they must be written. Because who knows how long this funk will last, and in the meantime the novel needs to be completed. Need to get this draft done, this junk draft, so that I’ll have something to edit later. Not that I’m looking forward to later, exactly, but I know it’s coming.

Thank goodness I stopped being an inspiration writer — that is, someone who writes only when inspired to — a good while ago. Because at the moment, inspiration isn’t just hard to summon for me, it’s completely gone. I’m writing like someone re-learning how to walk: laying down one word at a time, till a sentence is formed, and then moving on to the next. Word by word, line by line. Till my daily word count is reached, and I close the laptop.

I’m not blocked. I’m not afraid of the scene I’m working on. I’m just depressed.

I’m trying different things to lighten my mood, of course. I started walking in the mornings again, and I can now vouch for the runner’s high as a way to trick my body’s chemistry into lifting the sadness for a bit. It’s doesn’t last, but for a little while I feel…not normal, but I stop feeling like crying all the time.

Crying is a constant danger at the moment. Anytime I’m left with my thoughts for too long, I start to tear up. Which makes writing dangerous, in a way; I’ve got to think to put these words together, but every time I start to imagine the scene before me, my thoughts will veer into taking an inventory of all the reasons I’m worthless and unneeded, and I break down again. I know it’s my brain inventing reasons for my sadness, but still. It’s surprisingly good at it!

And trying to do the opposite — take inventory of all the things I have to be happy about — doesn’t help, either, because it just gives me a list of reasons I’m an ungrateful wretch for daring to be sad.

There’s no winning here. There’s just endurance, and a hope that it will pass. I’ve had dark moods before — never this bad, but still — and they’ve all come and gone like clouds in a thunderstorm. This one will, too, given time. I hope.

42

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

There are lots of ways to find out you’re depressed. For me, it was breaking down crying in the kitchen Monday morning, after berating my wife for my (upcoming) birthday present.

Not my finest moment.

I turned 42 yesterday, my second birthday during the pandemic. And I want to say I’m going to throw a big party once we’re all vaccinated, that I’m fine, everything’s fine here, how are you?

But I’m not fine. I’m tired of being scared, of having to leap out of the way of folks walking by me on the sidewalk. Of asking delivery people to back up from the door and pull up their mask before I step out to show them my ID. Of wondering if this is the week I get the call that my mom’s in the hospital with Covid, that there’s going to be another family funeral I can’t attend.

My wife says I don’t like surprises, and she’s right. This year has been one long series of surprises, one after the other, combined with constant waiting for the other shoe to drop and the disease to claim me, or someone else close to me, or all of the above.

So I’m not fine. I’m lethargic and blasé and if I pause for too long between activities, I start to cry. I can’t get excited about…anything. Not something silly like the new Godzilla vs Kong movie (which, pre-pandemic, I would’ve flipped for). Not something abstract like my wife and her mother deciding once and for all that she will not be moving in with us, giving us a sense of stability we haven’t had since 2015. I want to be excited. I want to be joyful.

But I can’t, and before my wife made me turn and look at my depression, I thought the problem was in the things themselves, not me. I had all kinds of rationalizations for why her news wasn’t exciting (“because she could change her mind”). Why I couldn’t make it through a re-watch of the first two Godzilla movies (“they’re boring”). But those were just excuses, mental defenses to keep me from admitting that I was not, in fact, doing well.

And I think I haven’t been doing well, for at least a few weeks now. I’ve just been covering it up. Hiding it.

I hope that wherever you are, mentally and physically, that you’re able to be honest with yourself. That you’ve got someone who will keep you honest. And that if you’re feeling down, that you let yourself feel it, and don’t try to fight it off or deny it, which just makes it worse.

This time will pass, as all things do. But while it’s here, let’s not pretend. Sometimes, we’re just not okay. And that’s all right.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.