Wanna Hear A Scary Story?
One summer, when I was a child, my father scared the shit out of me.
We were on a Cub Scout camping trip. The day had been filled with tying knots, fishing, swimming, and bb gun shooting. The dads had cooked some hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner and now we were sitting around a fire, telling ghost stories. The other kids’ dads told the classic chestnuts about hooked-handed psychopaths and shaggy dog tales that were as corny as they were spooky. I bugged my own dad to tell a story and he acquiesced.
My dad recited a tale about a young woman who was forbidden to go to a dance but did so anyway. She ignored her mother and father’s warnings and danced with every boy who asked for a turn. Eventually, she wound up in the arms of a tall, dark stranger. She was smitten, continuing to dance with him through song after song, late into the evening. It wasn’t until the clock struck midnight and she happened to look down at the floor that she saw her dance partner had cloven feet.
The story is, of course, a classic one - heavily told in the Hispanic community. It’s a moralistic tale about respecting your parents, lest the Devil come and take you away. As a six-year-old boy, though, the story sent chills down my spine. It wasn’t that I feared finding myself in a position where I might waltz with Satan - it was because of the way my dad told the story. He nailed the delivery - pausing at all the right moments, hitting all the right narrative beats. He had the audience wrapped around his finger and he crushed the punchline.
And so, looking at my dad with admiration, I announced to the audience sitting around the campfire I would like to follow him up with my own story. The problem was that I didn’t know any stories - not really. I tried my best to hit all the plot points in a Bruce Coville short story I had read a few weeks back but the results were significantly less effective than my dad’s. I sputtered through the plot, rushed through the set-up, and whiffed the payoff. I mistold jokes, tried to do voices, and - as a whole - failed miserably. I was not the natural storyteller my dad was, that was clear.
I still struggle with being able to tell a good story to an audience. My writing has gotten better than it was when I was a kid, but my ability to tell a story or a joke without reading it off a sheet of paper is non-existent. That’s why I respect the art of telling stories. There’s a skill to this that, when you’re in the presence of a good storyteller, makes the act seem like a magic trick. Just as with close-up magic, not everybody is cut out for telling stories.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS
This past week I listened to the audiobook for Stephen Graham Jones’ THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS. Jones is, of course, a masterful storyteller in his own right. His novel MONGRELS is - besides being the best werewolf novel I’ve ever read - all about the stories we tell ourselves and how stories are our legacies.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS follows a group of American Indian men who made a bad choice in their youth while on an elk hunt and now, a decade later - that choice comes back to haunt them, literally. The novel is a spooky story that takes the “rape-revenge” structure of ‘70s exploitation cinema and applies it to a socially relevant tale of Reservation life and the tight, unbreakable tendrils of tradition. The characters of THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS are hunted down by their past because not only do they believe the stories they were told in their youth, those stories are, in fact, real and deserve to be believed. Folklore and mythology aren’t just moralistic warnings, they are rules of society and to break these rules invites the worst kind of death.
I love Jones’ prose but listening to the audiobook as read by Shaun Taylor-Corbett was a whole different experience. Taylor-Corbett nails the art of telling a story. He understood and masterfully translated the pattern and rhythm of Jones’ writing, delivering an amazing audio experience that felt like you were listening to somebody's dad deliver a tale around the campfire. The pauses, the inflections, the repetition - it was all there to be heard and admired, both in Jones' writing and in Taylor-Corbett's delivery.
I can’t recommend Jones’ THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS or its audiobook enough. Stephen Graham Jones is a great horror writer (great writer, period), and its only fitting that a fantastic narrator like Shaun Taylor-Corbett would be chosen to help bring his writing to life via the audiobook.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is a story about the importance of stories and I look forward to many more stories - both important and scary ones - from Stephen Graham Jones to come.
Back in January - what seems like a lifetime ago - I had the chance to attend the Sundance Film Festival. This festival is a great one because not only do you get to see an amazing slate of films, you get to do it in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. When the sun's up, at least. When the sun goes down, Park City, Utah becomes a whole lot scarier. Walking back to the condo I stayed in was a two-mile trek through dark patches of empty isolation - where dangers such as wolf attacks, serial killers hiding behind snowbanks, or just slipping on a patch of ice seemed all too real.
That's why I love watching scary movies at Sundance - not only do you get to enjoy the scares in the theater, you get to marinate in them on the walk back home after the screening.
One of the best movies I saw while at the festival was Josh Ruben’s SCARE ME. I loved Ruben's College Humor videos back in the day and was pleasantly surprised to discover he had directed a horror movie.
In addition to writing and directing the film, Ruben stars as an aspiring writer who rents a cabin in the wilderness to try and crank out a screenplay. When the power goes out, he and a woman staying at a cabin nearby pass the time by telling scary stories to each other. In this way, SCARE ME is kind of a horror anthology - it’s a collection of spooky tales featuring everything from werewolves to demons to ghostly dogs.
What makes SCARE ME so exciting of a film, though, is the fact that it tells these stories the way people tell stories around a campfire. Ruben and his co-star Aya Cash deliver these stories with such energy and commitment to the material that you forget that you aren’t actually seeing the stories play out on screen. Through vocal and physical performances, Ruben and Cash transport listeners out of the cabin and into these terrifying tales of bloody murder and supernatural shenanigans, without the production ever leaving the confines of the cabin.
SCARE ME is a weird, fun riot - a celebration of the magic trick that is perfect storytelling. It captures the gleeful joy I remembered as I listened to my dad tell his story at Cub Scout camp 30 years ago. It's a film that takes a tried and trued formula and blows it up - attempting to do something on screen that you don't really see very often. It could have easily been an audio-only production but Ruben doesn't skimp on the visuals either. Creative camerawork and a colorful visual pallet bridge the gap between CREEPSHOW and TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE.
Ruben has recently wrapped a werewolf movie and I can't wait to see what else comes from this talented filmmaker down the road.