Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Ghosts of October

I can sometimes still remember, even all these years later, what autumn smells like.

I’m not talking, mind you, about the artificial fragrances manufactured and sold to us by Starbucks and Yankee Candle.  No, I mean that sweet decay of wet leaves clumped into a strangled quilt in the gutter, carried along by a chilly gust from the Hudson River that would sweep across my Bronx neighborhood, rattling single-paned windows of prewar houses and apartment buildings and hurrying us home before the overcast skies ruptured.  That was my favorite time to be out—when the wind was blowing but not raging, the thunderheads gathering though not yet sobbing.  Such moments were when you could enjoy the stormy sense of danger autumn provoked precisely because you knew, with unshakable certainty, you could beat it home.  I would quite literally venture into the woods, despite Mother Nature’s ominous admonitions, because it felt so good, after thirty of forty minutes of taking in the scented air and golden hues, to finally come in from the cold.  For as far back as my memory extends, I have loved the fall season.

But I barely recollect what the cold feels like any more than I do the perfume of dead leaves.  Real cold, that is—not the regulated airstream that pumps out of the A/C all day and night and lets me pretend, in concert with the aroma of Pumpkin Spice Latte, I’m someplace else.

This is my sixteenth autumn, such as it is, in seasonless Southern California, and now more than ever I miss the changing weather and weeping skies this time of year used to bring; I miss the drives we’d to take up to Sleepy Hollow (the actual one) and Bear Mountain, with its panoply of colored foliage, and riding the Bx9 bus past the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage on the Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road.  I’ve always missed those things—since the day I moved to L.A.  It’s just become more pronounced in recent years.  When I was young and immortal, I was entirely reassured by the infinite number of autumns ahead of me, confident I would get back to them… somedayBut I turned forty earlier this year, a rite of passage which inspires no small degree of existential introspection, and now I wonder how many more I’ll miss out on here in the Land of Sunshine and Strip Malls, with its palm trees that remain as reliably green throughout the year as the weather stays hot and dry.  These days, my favorite holiday, Halloween, mostly just reminds me of the particular autumnal delights even Hollywood, for all its world-building artifice (those signature palm trees aren’t indigenous), can’t credibly reproduce.

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

Someone asked me, quite recently, why I love the spooky season so much, and I found myself, as I answered, really thinking through the issue for the first time in my life.  Why do I love Halloween?  Why do l love monster movies?  Why do I love these things that, ostensibly, inspire such fear and dread—that represent death instead of life, dark instead of light, cold instead of warmth?

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Collapse of the Tentpole: Why Hollywood’s Grim Summer Is Good News for the Rest of Us

Hope springs eternal—and by that I mean it was just this past spring I was lamenting Hollywood’s hopeless addiction to nostalgic, twentieth-century brands, from superheroes to Star Wars, and its incorrigible aversion to original genre works in favor of endless sequels and remakes (I will not cave to social pressure by calling them “reboots” just to assuage the egos of filmmakers too precious to be considered slumming with the likes of—heaven forbid—a remake).  And yet…

And yet what a difference a summer can make.  Let’s review the scorecard, shall we?

Batman v Superman took a critical beating (to say the least) and, despite sizable box-office returns, underperformed to expectations, an inauspicious opening salvo in Warners’ would-be mega-franchise (and something tells me, no matter how tepid the public response, they’re not going to take “no” for an answer on this one).  The follow-up, Suicide Squad, performed well even if it didn’t fare any better critically, though one could argue both movies actually did the health of the budding cinematic universe more harm than good in that they tarnished the integrity, such as it is, of the brand; DC is thus far not enjoying Marvel’s critical or popular cachet.  And you don’t build an ongoing franchise playing only to the base.

Other expensive underperformers:  Warcraft; X-Men:  Apocalypse; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Out of the Shadows; Neighbors 2:  Sorority Rising; Star Trek BeyondJason Bourne opened well but suffered a steep second-week drop-off—it had no “legs,” in box-office parlance.

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the "ghosts" of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the “ghosts” of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Plenty of other “surefire” sequels outright bombed:  Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters (not a sequel, but it was promoted as one), The Huntsman:  Winter’s War, Zoolander 2, Independence Day:  Resurgence, and The Divergent Series:  Allegiant, the last of which has resulted in a particularly embarrassing—and unprecedented—predicament for its studio, Lionsgate, which, following in the footsteps of previous YA adaptations Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, unnecessarily split the last movie into two parts, and now they’re stuck with a commitment to a final sequel (or half of one, anyway) without an audience anticipating its release.

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Going Fishing: Classic Movies for the Summer Season

It’s the dog days of August here in L.A., and I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite summer flicks—the ones set in or somehow about the sunny season.  Like my St. Patrick’s Day compilation, this only reflects my personal preferences, not the Best Summer Movies Ever.  As a bonus, I’ve included each film’s Save the Cat! genre classification.


The ‘Burbs (1989)

Genre:  Whydunit (“Personal Whydunit”)


It didn’t get a particularly warm critical or box-office reception upon initial release, but time has bestowed much-deserved cult status upon Joe Dante’s stylish, quotable horror-comedy, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher.  Hanks is a Middle American suburbanite who begins to suspect, over the Memorial Day holiday, that the peculiar new neighbors on the block may in fact be satanic murderers.  Dante managed quite a tonal balancing act here in a movie that’s aged remarkably well, and the chemistry and comedic interplay among the cast is aces.  It’s the perfect movie to cozy up to with “a couple hundred beers” when, like Hanks’ hapless protagonist, you’ve opted for a holiday-weekend staycation.  The ‘Burbs is in some respects about the trouble we get into when we have too much free time on our hands—one of three movies on this list to tackle that subject, and all, oddly enough, co-starring Corey Feldman.

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“I Heard You Were Dead”: What the Career of John Carpenter Demonstrates about the Nature of Legacy

I write all my fiction to movie soundtracks.  Instrumentals only—lyrics in my ear are too distracting while I’m trying to compose words, and I usually wind up tuning that noise out entirely, in which case:  What’s the point?  At the beginning of a project, I’ll choose a good mix of selections from movies that represent the tone or theme I’m going for, then compile a playlist that cycles in the background—turned up just enough to register but not actively listen to—for as long as it takes to complete the manuscript; that playlist serves as an aural compass, or “temp track,” keeping me in touch with what the world I’m creating should look and sound like at all times.

Just the other week, I finished the first draft of what will be my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island.  The influences on EFRI are too numerous to quantify, but include novelists Richard Price and Elmore Leonard, as well as filmmaker John Carpenter.  In both title and premise, Escape from Rikers Island owes a great creative debt to Carpenter’s exploitation thrillers Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.  His movies, love ‘em or otherwise, have a look and feel all their own, owed in part to his eerie, synth-driven soundtracks; he is one of very few directors who’s scored most of his own movies, so writing EFRI to his music seemed like a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, right around the time I began the draft, Carpenter released his first album of original material, Lost Themes, so EFRI got a soundtrack of its very own, with music I now almost exclusively associate with my work of fiction rather than any specific film of his.  One of the cuts, “Vortex,” even became, to my mind, the novel’s unofficial theme song:

John Carpenter is touring this summer to promote Lost Themes and its just-released follow-up, Lost Themes II, and I went to see him perform last month at the Orpheum Theatre here in Los Angeles with my friend and fellow horror enthusiast Adam Aresty.  Adam is a burgeoning master of horror himself, having written the literal bee movie Stung (now streaming on Netflix), the chilling short story “Recovery” (which evokes—and I mean this as the highest compliment—Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 literary classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and the brand-new sci-fi novella The Communication Room.  Don’t take my word for it, though:  Sample for yourself some of the free fiction on his Web site, including one of my favorites, the James M. Cain–style noir tale “Wrought Iron”.  If you like what you read and you live in the Los Angeles area, perhaps consider coming out to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday, August 2nd at 7:00 p.m. to hear Adam read from The Communication Room.

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Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

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The Exodus Is Here: On Saying Goodbye to the Who

There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering.  All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.

My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume.  He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument.  (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?)  When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster.  I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!”  (He did so often.)

The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know):  When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM.  Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of.  It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”

My mother considered that for a moment.  “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”

It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).

I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond.  I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point:  The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis.  The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal.  Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.

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This Is 40: On the Goals I’ve yet to Attain and All the Friends I Haven’t Made

“The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen”

—“The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels (2012); lyrics by Neil Peart

2112, the trippy sci-fi concept album and breakout opus from enduring Canadian prog-rock band Rush, turns forty this month.  The music of Rush has had a profound influence on my own art and worldview, so the occasion of 2112’s anniversary—and what’s an anniversary but an acknowledgment of the future’s disappearance into memory?—is one I am compelled to observe with no small degree of private rumination (meaning I won’t bore you with it here).

Rush 2112

Consider for a moment, though, some other things turning forty this year, in no particular order:  Richard Donner’s horror classic The Omen.   Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  Apple, Inc.  NASA’s first Mars landing.  Ebola.  The laser printer.  The Toronto Blue Jays.  The Muppet Show.  The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something…

Ah, yes—me.

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On Tap: What to Watch This Saint Patrick’s Day

I grew up an Irish Catholic kid in an Irish Catholic Bronx neighborhood, the northern half of which was so heavily populated with off-the-boat immigrants, in fact, brogues were commonplace.  I spent half my childhood in the bars along Broadway while Dad and I were ostensibly out “running errands,” and it was only upon the unforeseen revelation of his alcohol addiction when I was eleven that all those afternoons spent in the company of middle-aged men with apparently nowhere else to be but some dim, smoky watering hole under the intermittent rattling of the el tracks took on new, illuminating context.

While in college, I worked at an Irish deli on Mosholu Avenue for a married couple, a former cop and housewife with grown children, who eventually sold the business and retired to—you guessed it—Ireland.  (Wish I knew whatever became of them.)  Scenes from the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt IRA thriller The Devil’s Own were filmed at a nearby neighborhood bar (a friend of mine even took video footage from his apartment window of Pitt exiting the establishment), presumably for the kind of authenticity no amount of Hollywood set dressing can properly replicate.

Most people I know genuinely hate the sound of bagpipes—was it Frank McCourt who said they sound like dying cats?—but, for me, they are a reminder of my own heritage and upbringing; I recall the muffled wail of them every Saint Patrick’s Day from behind the door of 2C, the apartment in our building occupied by my dad’s best friend, when we’d come home through the second-floor service entrance adjacent to the garage.

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Challenge of the Super Friends: A Scholarly Counterpoint

For those who read my recent analysis of the state of superhero culture—or perhaps, given its uncalled-for length, you’re still reading it—my friend J. Edward Ritchie, whose debut novel, Fall From Grace, was studied here on the blog, just this morning published a friendly, thorough rebuttal to it on his website.  Jeff has been an avid comic-book consumer for most of his life, and spent many years in Hollywood pitching, developing, writing, and selling screenplays to major studios, so he comes from a background comparable to mine, yet brings a perspective to this matter all his own.  I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read his take and leave a comment (just so long as you make sure to agree with me!).

Upon reading “The Great Escape,” my wife suggested I change the blog’s tagline from “Writer of things that go bump in the night” to “Highly academic discussions of really dumb shit”!  My thanks to J. Edward Ritchie for being my kind of discourser—for engaging in exactly the type of highly academic discussion I think this really dumb shit deserves.

Fall From Grace is available through

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The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

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