The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Part 1, Chapter 1

Part One

Shy and Tam

 

1

Tamyn Taval looked at the dead man in front of her, his empty eyes glaring into hers. A moment ago he was alive, but now, he was like a doll, silently staring. The arrow in his throat was meant for her. It skimmed by her cheek, ripping skin.

She ducked, fell from her horse and hit the ground hard. Her shoulder disagreed with that tactic. She rolled and found cover under a fallen tree. From under the tree, she looked back and saw who the arrow had struck. It was Jenns. The big man was holding his throat, the arrow sticking out between his fingers. That was when the second arrow struck him in the chest. He fell from his horse, his neck making that sick sound of breaking bones. He fell right in front of her, his eyes looking at her. His dead doll eyes.

It was less than a breath ago, but everything moved so slowly. She saw more arrows hit the other riders. They fell, too. She heard the screams of the dying all around her. Seven men and five women. The men and women of Count Jonsen’s Courage.

She looked to the woods, trying to find her attackers, but the forest hid them from her. Her cheek began to ache. She touched it, saw blood on her fingertips, and for a moment, she was surprised. She had forgotten the arrow. She tasted something bitter on her tongue. Then, someone whispered her name.

“Tamyn,” the voice said. She looked up and away from the dead man.

“Over here!” the voice whispered.

She found it. Just beyond the body, hidden well in the green. A small man with dark hair and blue eyes who looked like he could squeeze through a beer bottle if he had to. It was Shyver.

“Shy?” she asked.

He nodded. For some reason, she marked that he had no arrows in his throat or in his chest. For years, she would remember this moment, not understanding why.

“Are you hurt?” Shy asked, keeping his voice low.

Tamyn shook her head, not saying anything.

“They were waiting for us,” he said. An arrow flew by, but he did not need to dodge. It wasn’t for him.

She nodded. “Agreed.” Tamyn took a breath. Her thoughts were coming back to her now. “We will deal with that later,” she told him. “We need to get out of here.”

“Who is left?” Shy asked.

She dared a look around. Tamyn saw many bodies, none of them moving. She looked back at him. “Just us.”

“You’re right,” he said. “We need to get out of here.”

Tamyn thought about what he said. They were waiting for us.

She looked at Shy. “Whoever gave us up is also after the count.”

Shy didn’t understand for a moment, then his eyes showed her that he did. “Pull us away from him,” he said.

She nodded. “We have to get back to the castle.”

As she spoke, three more arrows hit the tree she hid behind.

“That is going to be more difficult than it sounds,” Shy told her.

Tamyn looked around. Between her fallen tree and Shy there was only open ground. She could run, but she would be an easy target. She thought for a moment.

She looked for a horse. None within reach. Then, she looked at the dead man. She saw nothing to help her.

Tamyn shouted to Shyven. “Do you have any oil?”

He nodded, ducking back into the green. He came back with an oil pouch. “Here!” he shouted, tossing it to her. She caught it and worked off the top.

She could hear movement in the woods. They were closing in.

Keeping close to the ground, she poured the oil over the fallen tree. As she did, Tamyn thought, My mother would never forgive me for this.

Then, she took out her smoking kit. She pulled out one of the black matches and struck it against the box. Nothing.

More movement. They were closer.

She struck it again. This time, it caught. She tossed the match on the tree and the oil caught, erupting into flames.

And she ran.

She kept low, hoping the fire would cover her movement. She ran fast, pushing against time. Then, when she reached Shy’s tree, she jumped. A swarm of arrows flew by her. She heard shouting from the archers. She looked at Shy and he smiled.

“Lucky,” he told her. “As usual.”

She touched her cheek. “Close this time.”

“We are near Invir Falls,” he said. “We can get horses at the way station there.”

More arrows flew by them, but the archers were just shooting blind now. She looked back at the bodies she was leaving behind. Then, she looked at Shy. “They’re all…”

He shook his head. “We won’t do Count Jonsen any good if we join them,” he said.

She nodded and turned away from the woods. Shy ducked down, running low. She was right behind him.

A few miles down the road, they found the Invir Falls way station. The guard recognized them from when they passed earlier. His name was Reg. Tamyn remembered thinking he was too young to be a guard when she first saw him. That was barely an hour ago. Seemed like a year ago.

“You’re a sight!” Reg shouted out to them. He ran, bringing a flask of water. Tamyn took it and drank deep. Then, she gave it to Shy.

“We need your horses,” she told Reg.

He nodded. “Of course. Anything for the count’s courage!” He ran off to the stable, grabbing saddles and preparing the horses.

She looked at Shy. “I’m going to fix this,” she said, pointing at her cheek. Shy nodded and drank more water.

The way station was small and unequipped. A building with two rooms and a sorry excuse for a stable. They were lucky there were any horses at all. She walked inside, found a washing basin and a mirror. She threw off her backpack and got her sewing kit out. She looked at her face in the mirror.

She saw her father’s brown hair fall down over brown eyes, all covered in dirt and blood. Human hair, human eyes. From under that hair, she saw her mother’s features: high cheekbones and elven ears.

She washed the blood and dirt off her face. When she looked back in the mirror, she saw Shy standing behind her. He was shorter than her, but only a little. Her mother’s blood again. He smiled when their eyes met in the mirror.

“You need help with that?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes.” Her voice made her sound relieved.

“You never were any good with blood,” he told her.

“I know.”

He took the needle and thread from her thin fingers. His were thick and strong, covered with callouses.

“So why do this?” he asked. He threaded the needle.

She sat down and braced herself. “All the years we’ve known each other,” she told him, “and you’ve never asked me that.”

Shy leaned forward and pinched her skin together. He looked her in the eyes. “You should be drunk for this,” he said.

“One or two sips would do it,” she told him, smiling.

He laughed. “Thin elven blood.”

“Half-elven,” she corrected him.

He smiled. “I know.” Then, he stopped smiling. “Hold still,” he said.

She clenched her fingers against the bench and clenched her teeth together.

He frowned. “This isn’t the first time we’ve done this.”

She sighed. “Always feels like it.”

The needle pierced her skin and she winced.

“So,” he asked again. “Why do you do this?”

“You should be asking why do we do this.”

“All right,” he said. “Why do we do this?”

“The coin,” she said.

He shook his head. “More money doing other things.”

“It’s an honest living.”

She winced again and he put more water on the wound, cleaning away the blood. “Stay still.”

“Trying,” she said.

He put the needle through her skin and pulled it back out. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“I’ve given you answers,” she said. “You just haven’t liked them.” She winced. He tied off a knot.

“Done,” he said. “As well as can be expected considering the circumstances.”

She looked in the mirror. A bloody mess.

“Not your first scar,” Shy said.

She touched it. “Are the horses ready?”

He looked out the door. “Looks like it.”

She stood up. “Then let’s go. The count needs us.”

The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Prelude

Back when I was working on Wicked Fantasy, I wrote a novella set in that world called “The Courage of Tamyn Taval.” Years later, I expanded the novella, adding a whole bunch of new words and some subplots. It’s been sitting on my CPU for a couple of years, not really doing anything. This seemed like a good opportunity to make it public and let folks read through it. I’ll be releasing one chapter per day. Enjoy!

 

* * *

 

THE COURAGE OF TAMYN TAVAL

by

John Wick

 

 

courage

  1. The ability to act despite fear, withstand danger and difficulty
  2. mercenaries hired by a noble, usually to preserve the law and protect the noble’s subjects

The Reign Scholar’s Lexicon

After decades of civil war, the ten Cities of the Reign finally found peace, united as individual city-states. They established a Senate, complete with representatives of each City, to resolve internal issues as well as establish relations with the foreign nations of elves, orks, and others.

A History of the Reign, by Donnington True

 

 

Prelude

Tamyn stood perfectly still. Stay still and say nothing. That’s what her mother told her. Tamyn did as she was told.

The trees blocked out the sky. All she could see was green. Tamyn felt their presence, felt them watching. She looked with her eyes but did not move her neck. The trees spoke in song. She heard it. Distantly, like an echo, or like a voice from the other side of a hill. Their voices in harmony. Deep and low.

Tamyn’s mother stood beside her, holding her hand. Tamyn bit her tongue. She could feel her mother’s nervousness in her grip, right on the edge of pain. Tamyn felt her mother’s fingers trembling. Felt her pulse. Felt the heat and sweat in her grip. She was afraid. All her life, Tamyn never knew her mother to be afraid.

Standing among the trees were the elves. They were taller than anyone Tamyn had ever seen before. Their hair was silver or gold or midnight and fell down as low as the ground. Their feet were bare. Their gowns shimmered like moonlight. They wore swords that did the same. When the first one spoke, her voice was like it was spoken in bells.

“Who comes before us?” the voice said. Tamyn winced. The sound wasn’t painful, but it rang in her ears and echoed for long moments after.

“I am Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl.” Tamyn’s mother said. “And I bring my daughter, Tamyn.”

“Let us see her,” the voice said.

Sylvel let go of her daughter’s hand and Tamyn knew what to do next. She stepped forward onto the wet, cold forest floor. It was like stepping onto frozen grass. It crunched as she put down her feet. But it was still green. And when she lifted her foot, the grass resumed its shape as if no one had ever stepped there for a thousand years.

Tamyn stepped until the voice said, “Stop.” She did as the voice commanded. Even now, she doesn’t remember how long she stood in that spot, but it seemed like a dream. An eternity stretched into a single moment. She stood still until the voice said, “Go back to your mother.”

The voice ran through her like a cold wind cutting through her bones. Tamyn turned on her heel and ran back as quickly as she could. She put herself against her mother’s side.

“Why did you bring this to us?” the voice asked. The bells were deeper, darker. Tamyn covered her ears, but she could still hear it echoing in her head. She felt her heart pounding against her chest, her belly quaking.

Sylvel said, “She is my daughter. My blood.”

“She is a man child,” the voice said. “Her father’s blood.”

Sylvel shook her head. “No. He is not her father. She has no father. He does not know her.”

“You were reckless with your seed,” the voice said.

Tamyn felt her mother’s fear turn to something else. She felt her mother’s muscles stiffen. Felt her breath get short. She could almost hear Sylvel clench her teeth.

“She is my daughter,” Sylvel said. “And you will not speak of her in that way.”

Laughter then. All around them. Tamyn’s knees shook.

“You dare to speak to the Council of Trees with a threat in your voice?”

“The Council of Trees…” Sylvel said the word with plain and pure contempt. “…does not represent me. My lineage isn’t pure enough.”

“Take your thing back to the Reign of Men,” the voice said. “Take it back to where corruption thrives.”

Tamyn looked up at Sylvel. “Mother?” she asked.

“Do not listen to them,” Tamyn’s mother said. She did not look down at her daughter, only at the circle of elves. “They do not know you. They cannot see what I see.”

Sylvel put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and walked away from the circle of trees. A voice called after them.

“You are no longer welcome here, Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl. Do not come back until you have cleansed yourself of the filth in your blood.”

Sylvel stopped. She turned to look at the elves and the trees. She shouted.

“One day, you will regret your foolish aristocracy. And you will pay for it.” Then, she turned away, leading her daughter from the forest. Laughter followed them until they hit sunlight.

#

They camped at the base of a mountain, the start of the long and twisting road leading up to the City of Tamerclimb. A city in the Reign of Men.

“It will be a long way up,” Sylvel told her daughter. “But we will find shelter there.”

Tamyn nodded and stoked the fire. She built a small wood structure to hold their pot above the flames. The water boiled and Sylvel dropped herbs she crushed into it. Tamyn wanted to ask about the Council of Trees, but knew it would upset her mother, so she said nothing.

A little while later, a young man approached them, walking along the stone road. He stopped. Tamyn saw his fine, dark hair falling over blue eyes. She thought he looked handsome. He looked at the stew and said, “I have carrots.”

Sylvel gestured for the man to sit. He opened his pack and retrieved three carrots. He offered them to Sylvel and she broke them into pieces, tossing them into the stew.

The man extended his hand. “Oliver,” he said.

“Sylvel,” she said, then gestured to her daughter. “This is Tamyn.”

“Hello!” Tamyn said.

Oliver touched his fingers to his brow. “Pleased to meet you.”

Tamyn kept stirring the pot, making sure the water did not boil over. They all sat quietly until Oliver said, “Going to Tamerclimb, then?”

Sylvel nodded. “We are.”

Oliver sighed. “Not my place to say so, but…” he paused. Tamyn saw his face turn to concern. “There are plenty in Tamerclimb who would give you grief.”

Sylvel looked confused. “I thought Tamerclimb was the home of the palatines?”

Oliver nodded. “That’s true.” He took a flask from his pouch and sipped from it. Tamyn smelled something awful from the other side of the fire. She made a face. Oliver saw it. He smiled and raised the flask. “Whiskey,” he said. “Not for little girls.”

“Smells like it isn’t for anyone,” Tamyn said.

That made Oliver laugh. “Probably true, little one.”

Sylvel said, “Why shouldn’t we go to Tamerclimb? The palatines are sworn to protect the Reign.”

“Exactly,” Oliver said. “Protect the Reign…from elves and dwarves and orks and the rest of the non-human peoples.”

Sylvel shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Oliver took another swig of his whiskey. “You see, the Reign isn’t exactly friendly to elves. Or orks. Or anything that isn’t human.”

Sylvel nodded. “I’ve noticed. But I thought Tamerclimb would be different.”

Oliver frowned. “It is. In a way. You may find a few who aren’t…you know…”

Sylvel nodded. “I do.”

“But they’ll be few and far between. Most of Tamerclimb hates elves.”

Sylvel shook her head, throwing her stirring spoon into the pot. “Then where are we to go? The elves won’t take us! The Reign won’t take us! Where? Where?” Sylvel tucked her head down and put her hands over her face.

Slowly, and carefully, Oliver put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry. But Tamerclimb…I don’t think it’s the right place for you.”

Sylvel lifted her head, her eyes red and ready for tears. “Where then? Where can we go? To the orks, maybe?”

Oliver shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. But…maybe…”

Sylvel looked at him. “Yes? Tell me. Please.”

Tamyn saw him thinking. Considering what he would say next. Finally, he spoke. “Jinix,” he said. But he said it, jinx. Something Tamyn would remember.

Sylvel shook her head. “What? Why? The city…”

“City of thieves,” Oliver said. “Yes. That’s what the other Cities call us.”

Sylvel tilted her head. “Us? You are from there?”

Oliver nodded. “I am. Born and raised there.”

Tamyn saw her mother look at the hand on her shoulder, then quickly look down to check her belt pouch.

“Relax,” Oliver said. “I’m not here for that. Besides, I took a vow. Rob no widow or orphan.”

Sylvel did relax, but only a little. “How do you know I’m a widow?”

He took his hand away and reached into the pot, quickly grabbing at the wooden spoon. Took him two tries, but he got it. He wiped his hands on his trousers, hissing through his teeth. “Why else would an elf and her daughter be on the road alone?”

Sylvel shook her head. “All I have learned of the people of the Reign is to not trust them.”

Oliver nodded. “That makes sense. But I hope I have earned a little trust?”

Sylvel looked at him for a long time. Finally, she said, “A little.”

He smiled. “Good. Let me tell you why I’m here. Perhaps some honesty will earn a little more.” He stirred the spoon, preventing the soup from boiling over. “I’m here to pick up something and bring it back to Jinix.”

“What is that?” Syvlel asked.

“My nephew, Shyver.” He stirred a bit more, then he said, “I think it’s ready.” He tasted the stew from the spoon and nodded. “It is.”

Oliver served it out and they sat together and ate. Tamyn listened as he spoke.

“He came here with his sister. But it isn’t working out. She asked me to come get him.”

“She’s giving her son to you?” Sylvel asked.

Oliver nodded. “Seems he’s ‘not appropriate’ for Tamerclimb.” He sipped the stew and made a warm sound with his throat. “This is good.”

“The herbs make the soup,” Sylvel said.

Oliver sipped more. Then, he put down the bowl and reached into his jacket. He pulled out a letter, handed it to Sylvel. “This is from her.”

Sylvel took the letter and read it. Tamyn watched her eyes move over the page. She knew how to read the language of the elves, but not the Reign. Not yet. Her mother folded the note and gave it back to him.

“I understand,” she said.

Oliver put the note back in his jacket then took the bowl back into his hands. “I’m picking him up. Bringing him back to Jinix. Raise him there.”

Sylvel almost laughed. “You’re taking him from Tamerclimb to raise him in Jinix?”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “It’s a funny story.” He pointed at Sylvel with his spoon. “Come with me. We’ll travel together. Better to travel like that.”

Sylvel considered it.

“I thought I’d have to make the whole trip on my own,” he said. “It’d be good to have company.”

Tamyn watched her mother. Finally, Sylvel smiled and nodded. “Yes. We will.”

“Good,” Oliver said. “Let’s finish the stew. I have some whiskey, if you want it.”

“We have a tent,” Tamyn said, her sudden enthusiasm startling her.

Oliver looked at Sylvel. “I wouldn’t presume.”

“It is big enough for all of us,” Sylvel said. “And your nephew.”

Oliver nodded. “All right then. It’s a deal.”

They all ate together until the stew was gone. Sylvel sipped some of the whiskey and made a sour face. Oliver laughed. “Told you. Not for young women.”

“I am no woman,” Sylvel said. “I am an elf.”

“Not for elves, either.” He lit a pipe and laid back, his hand on his belly. Tamyn washed the pot in the nearby river, using sand and water to get it clean. When she returned, Oliver and her mother were speaking. They stopped as soon as she could hear their voices. Oliver began telling stories. Tamyn spent all night listening until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She felt her mother putting her into the tent.

Later that night, she heard the both of them talking again, outside the tent by the fire. But her eyes were heavy and she fell asleep.

 

Cthulhu and the Wreck of the Sloop John B

(This is from a spelling I performed on my 50th birthday and part of a roleplaying game called “Secret: A Little Game about Magic,” which will be the last RPG I ever publish.)

Thursday November 15, 2018

Spent all day listening to different versions of the Sloop John B. All day.

The Kingston Trio version invokes the original language of Nassau. “Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” Every song a sailor sings is about going home.

When I first heard Brian Wilson’s poppy, happy, melancholy chimes and perfect chorus, I thought the music undermined the lyrics. It wants me to feel happy, but sad. But then I learned more about Wilson, and it made sense.

His depression. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. And I hear the song differently now. Just a little knowledge, and my whole impression changes.

When one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, brought the song to Wilson, he originally rejected it. “I don’t like folk music.” But Jardine changed the chord structure to better fit a Beach Boys song and re-presented it. He left the studio, and the next morning, Wilson phoned him to come back in. He had re-arranged and recorded the song in less than 24 hours. That kind of obsession only comes coupled with a crippling depression that makes a man never want to leave his home. When the Barenaked Ladies sing “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did,” that’s the Brian Wilson they’re singing about.

I listen now and I hear the boppy music and the melancholy lyrics and it feels like the song was his own Voice of Depression thrown at a mixing board.

When I was a boy, my depression was a ghost hovering over my shoulder, constantly reminding me of ways to kill myself.

“You could do it now. Just jump off the bridge.”

“You could do it now. Just swerve the car into traffic.”

“You could do it now. Eat all the pills in the medicine cabinet.”

And the only time I felt good was in the shower. Just standing under hot water pelting my naked body. That made me feel good. I felt warm and safe. I’d take fifteen minute showers. Thirty minute showers. Just standing there in the hot water. My thoughts would turn to anything other than suicide. In fact, hurting myself was never an option in that place. My best ideas come from standing in the shower, just thinking.

Making music must have been the same way for Wilson. Imagine him, sitting behind the mixing board, focused on the harmonies and chord changes, his mind completely devoted to his work. Thoughts of razors and pills and traffic long gone, kept away behind the locked studio door.

When he says, “Why don’t you let me go home?” I know exactly which voice he’s talking to.

Twenty-four hours. And he made a song that people still sing. Almost as if he had no choice in the matter. As if it was protecting him from something.

I’m only thirteen years old when I find Call of Cthulhu in the Spencer’s Gifts. Walking in with ten dollars from mowing lawns, I planned on spending that money at the arcade next door, but I stopped here first. The people at Spencer’s Gifts have no idea what it is and have marked it down to ten bucks. They don’t even charge me tax for it. “Just take it, kid.”

I have no idea what this thing is. But I know the names “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu.” But it’s a game, too? Like Monopoly or Clue.

I open the box. The sweet smell of freshly printed paper rushes up to greet me. I have my first roleplaying game. Within 24 hours, I have friends over to try it.

I don’t need thirty minute showers anymore. I have something else. I can tell stories.

More than thirty years later, I’m running Pendragon for my friends. The game begins with Uther becoming the King of England and ends with Arthur being taken away to Avalon. It’s a long haul. Sometimes as long as two years of real time.

Six months into the game, my friend Rob writes this:

 

 

And I remember why I run games. I love movies. Nobody can say that about movies. I love books. Nobody can say that about books. Nobody can say that about plays or comics or television shows.

RPGs are a unique medium that has unique effects on the audience. Performs a unique kind of magic. Alchemy. The art of telling the story that transforms the audience and the artist.

Greg Stafford wrote about this in Runequest. In his world of Glorantha, you can accompany a shaman into the Hero Realm and undergo an adventure, reliving a hero’s experience in his eyes, walking in his footsteps. Returning to the world, you are transformed by the experience. Whether he knew it or not—and I like to think he did—Greg made a roleplaying game about the roleplaying game experience: the Game Master helps you enter the world of heroes and gods, where you walk in a hero’s footsteps, seeing through her eyes, and then return to the world, transformed by the experience. By taking you on that journey, the shaman, or the GM, also cannot help but be transformed.

A true magic trick indeed.

And now, all of that rushes up into my head, all at once. A full throttle firehose blast of information. Sailing on the Sloop John B with Cthulhu off the starboard side and Greg in his captain’s hat just smiles and says, “We’ve got this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you home.”

Unreview: 1917

 

Unreview Rules:

  1. I must pay for it.
  2. I must like it.
  3. I try my best to use E-Prime

 

The only thing that eclipses my hatred of war is my admiration for soldiers.

— J. Berek

 

My favorite war movies are are about soldiers, not battles.

I lived for five years in Georgia. Before that, I lived in Minnesota and a little while in Iowa. While I lived there, I heard the Southern version of what happened during “The War of Northern Aggression” in history class. In the middle of 10th grade, I moved back to Minnesota, just in time to learn about “The Civil War.” Also just in time was the Ken Burns epic miniseries, and I watched every minute of that in rapt awe. It was then that I learned the best way to study a war is not going over battle plans, but reading the letters soldiers sent home. That’s when you learn what a war is “about.” Memorizing details about battles, tactics and strategies is fine—I’ve done my share of that, too—but if you want a first-hand account of what really happened, you read it from the hands and minds of the soldiers who fought it. When you do, you learn what war is really like. That’s why the Christian concept of Hell never frightened me. I’ve read about it in letters written in terrified hands, hoping someday all this horror will end.

If you don’t know already, 1917 tells the story of two soldiers in the middle of WWI’s No Man’s Land, racing to deliver a message before 1,600 British soldiers walk into a trap. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deacon paint a great and terrible landscape for them to navigate. Ruins and corpses cover the beautiful French countryside, and oftentimes, the soldiers have to crawl over them both. WWI stands as a prime example of what happens in war: the armies fight using tactics and strategies from the last war, while technology has advanced far enough to make those tactics and strategies useless. Every war has this rule. Every war. The side who eventually wins usually realizes this first and starts fighting with the technology of today. The War to End All Wars had no answer for the accuracy of the firearms they used, for mustard gas, for armored militia, for aircraft, for anything. And because of that, millions of people died. For those who have no idea how humans burned through their own population, this movie will show you.

The only people who want to go to war don’t know what it is or how it works and the people who get stuck fighting it often wonder why they’re fighting. All through this film, the soldiers ask themselves and each other what they’re doing there. Nobody knows. Sure, they know what they’ve been told, but why are they really there? The soldiers reminded me of an old phrase from the American Civil War: “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” That line didn’t start in America, and it’s been true for a lot longer than we’ve been around.

And yes, let me spend one moment talking about the gimmick: the story starts with the camera on the soldiers and it doesn’t leave them. From the moment they’re given the orders, the camera follows them. Using clever editing and CGI (both of which are seamless), there are no cuts. We’re with them the whole way. And it’s an endurance contest. It’s a marathon. Going at top speed, hoping to reach their destination in time to deliver the order that will save 1,600 souls, we follow every step. I spent the whole movie glued to the screen, afraid to blink.

The audience laughed. They gasped. Some of them turned their heads. Some of them covered their eyes. Nearly all of us cried. I didn’t until I was in the car, but once I was there, it came like water works.

I would see this movie again in a heartbeat. I may go to the matinee tomorrow. I loved this movie. What’s more, I think we all need to see this movie. If, for no other reason, we should all be reminded what we ask—no, what we order soldiers to do when rich men decide to go to war.

Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.

Unreview: Doctor Sleep

 

In 1980, I was twelve years old, reading the books my father brought home and stuck on a small shelf in our living room. There were never more than five or six, but all of them were big. My dad likes to read, but he reads very slowly, and he likes to enjoy books, he likes savoring them. That’s how I got my hands on Dune. My dad was reading it, taking his time. I read it in a weekend. That was one of the few things my father and I shared: reading big, heavy books.

One day, he brought home a book called The Stand by a fellow named Stephen King. It was the first edition paperback with the creepy blue cover, the picture of a half-man, half-bird staring out at you from a dark sky. I read that book over the course of a couple days and went to the library looking for more. I found ‘Salem’s Lot and loved it. I found The Dead Zone and loved it (still my favorite King book). And then I found The Shining. Of all the books King has written, that one scared me. Generally, literature doesn’t scare me, but The Shining had me up at night. And it wasn’t the ghosts. It was the thought of being locked in an old hotel with a creature that used to be my father, chasing me with a roque mallet. That’s what scared me. Now, my father never laid a hand on me, but his temper got the better of him from time to time. And as much as I loved him, I was also scared of him. And King knew exactly how to tap into that love/fear children have for their parents, especially when alcohol gets hold of them.

When I saw the trailers for the movie version, I knew I had to see it. I was a fresh convert to the Cult of King and I wanted to see my favorite writer’s images on the big screen. Back in those days, our movie theater had two screens with the concession stand in between them. The left screen was for G and PG movies and the right screen was for PG and R. My friends and I had a way to get into the R movies. We’d buy tickets for the left theater, go into the men’s bathroom on the right side of the lobby, then sneak into the right theater. It worked one hundred percent of the time. The theater owner either didn’t look or didn’t care. That’s how I saw Conan the Barbarian and Alien. And on that Saturday afternoon, I was going to see my main man Steve King’s creepy novel about ghosts, alcohol and abuse.

I was twelve. Sitting in the theater, a victim of all the dirty tricks Kubrick used in that movie. Kubrick’s manipulations are subtle and genius. One of the most brilliant was the abrupt murder of a character who lives in the book, who is key to the ending. Once that happened, I cried. I mean, I @#$%ing cried. And after that moment, when Nicholson slowly rises up into the camera’s view, that smile on his face, looking directly into the camera, I heard exactly what Kubrick wanted me to hear.

Yeah, you’ve read the book. That’s cute. Now, you have no idea what’s going to happen next.

Since then, I’ve seen it probably one hundred times since that first time, shivering in the darkness. I’ve studied the movie from beginning to end, nearly memorized it. And I know King hated the film and his fans are divided about it. I love both of them. They’re different creatures with different endings. Both were designed by masters of their craft to scare me, and both succeeded. Damn, did they both succeed.

So, when I heard King was writing a sequel to The Shining, I got excited. While I’m no longer a huge fan of his work (I love his prose, his characters, and hate-hate-hate his endings), I looked forward to what he promised: a look at Danny Torrance at 40. He promised the cycle of alcoholism and violence. And while I was suspicious of the ending, I decided to pick up the book and read it all the way to the end.

I didn’t make it.

Around page 150, I got bored. The plot hadn’t even started yet. He was jumping around between multiple characters and it seemed Dan Torrance was the least important and least interesting. I didn’t care about his gypsy vampires, I didn’t really care about the little girl with magic powers…

Okay, I have to explain something.

In The Shining, Danny’s “power” emerges in subtle ways. He can’t “push” people nor can he start fires (like Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie). He’s just hyper sensitive to things most people don’t notice. In Doctor Sleep, the little girl (subtly called “Abra,” as in “Abracadabra,” you know) has magic powers. She’s a wizard. She has telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, psychometry… I mean, she’s really Doctor Strange. And honestly, it turned me off. I didn’t like it.

Also, I felt that I knew what was coming. The plot was so clear: Dan Torrance gets himself clean so he can protect a magic girl from psychic gypsy vampires. And yeah, I know the tale is in the telling, and King’s plotting isn’t his strong suit, but this time, I felt I knew where it was going and didn’t see any turns or twists in the road. So, I got on Wikipedia, checked out the Plot header for the book and read what I suspected. Yeah, that’s exactly what I suspected. Okay, don’t need to read this one. I dropped the book off at my local used book store.

So, you may ask, Faithful Reader, why I went to see the movie?

Well, I like the director. I like Ewan McGregor. In fact, I thought the casting was pretty smart. I liked what the director had to say about the differences between The Shining book and movie and how his biggest challenge was reconciling the two. He wasn’t going to be entirely faithful to either of them, but make a movie that addressed both. And then I heard him say that he changed the ending and King himself approved. The last time that happened was The Mist (one of the very few very good King adaptations). All right. I’m in.

A few weeks before, Ken St. Andre and I went to Harkins Classic Movie night and we saw Kubrick’s version. Ken had never seen it before and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since 1980. I wanted to see it on the big screen again and I wanted Ken to see it so we could watch Doctor Sleep together. The audience was full of old and young people: those who had seen it and those who had not. Kubrick’s film had its desired result. The audience did not scream. They didn’t jump. They sat in quiet horror. This isn’t Friday the 13th or Halloween. This isn’t jump scares and gross outs. It’s being that frog in the pot of water slowly heating to a boil…

Armed with that recent viewing, Mr. St. Andre and I went to see Doctor Sleep. After the credits ran, we sat quietly. Finally, Ken said, “I really liked that.” I nodded. “So did I.”

And the more I think about it, the more I like it. The director, Mike Flanagan, turned the gypsy vampires that seemed so kitch and cliché to me in the book into a startling, terrifying pack of wolves. Clever, hungry and deadly. Ewan McGregor was exactly what I wanted to see from a mid-40’s Danny Torrance. The perfect mixture of his father’s rage and his mother’s empathy. And Rebecca Ferguson transformed Rose the Hat into a creature both beautiful and terrible. And yes, even the magic girl—played by the charming Kyliegh Curran—won my heart.

Now, those who have both read and seen The Shining know there’s a huge problem. The fate of the Overlook Hotel. The director was right: that was his biggest challenge. The way he handled it impressed me as both a storyteller and a fan.

I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. If you want to see it, let me know. I’m more than willing to go again. But watch The Shining first. And, if you can do it in a weekend, read the book. Both will only amplify your enjoyment.

Unreview: The Lighthouse

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime.

 

Jennifer and I were married once. We live different lives now, but we keep up with each other, send book and movie recommendations, chat about this and that. She loves a good ghost story, and has exceptional taste, so when she told me to see The Witch, I knew I should check it out. When I was done, we chatted for an hour, talking about the different implications of the ending.

That started me on a binge of movies that I liked to call “new horror.” They all seemed to have the same philosophy: lots of mood, beautifully shot, absolutely terrifying, but no jump scares. Because I hate jump scares. They’re easy and cheap and predictable. What I want is to feel the horror of the movie long after the lights come back up. The Witch gave me that. All the way through the film, I felt the tension I saw on the screen, creeping under my skin. And the ending… just floored me. The whole movie was a build up to the final scene. That final shot. I was weeping. I was terrified. The film accomplished its goal.

(When I talked to my friend Jaz Colbath about it, they told me, “I love that movie! And it has a happy ending!” I’m not going to tell you why they think it’s a happy ending—that would spoil the ending, and you should absolutely see The Witch—but when they told me, I laughed so hard, I almost choked.)

Jennifer’s second suggestion, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, found me trembling and weeping at the end as well. It Follows sent a cold shiver down my spine, amazed at how easily it made me feel alone and vulnerable. I stumbled on Happy Death Day which left me both scared and laughing. And I liked this trend. A new kind of horror movie, unreliant on cheap scares, but long, deep creeps aimed at my heart.

When I heard the director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, was working on another film, I got excited. Out of all the new horror I watched, The Witch stuck with me more than the others. When I heard the movie was inspired by The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, I could not wait. And tonight, I sat in a dark theater of strangers (more full than I expected), and watched The Lighthouse.

I have no intention of trying to tell you what the film is about or even what happens. I don’t want to tell you anything. I’m loathe to tell you even simple facts about the film, such as Eggers shooting it in black and white with a perfectly square ratio (rather that widescreen), which adds to the authenticity of watching it. The Lighthouse doesn’t feel like a film, but a journal entry or a window into the event, and both elements add to the claustrophobia the characters experience and Eggers wants you to feel as well. No jump scares. No seemingly immortal maniacs with masks or costumes. Just two men with disparate tempers on a small island for weeks with no other company and nothing but painful, exhausting, back-breaking work and what happens when one (or both) of them start to crack.

The performances from the two leads kept me on the edge of my seat. I expected no less from Willem Dafoe, but Robert Pattinson really stood out to me. Both bring an authenticity that made me feel they were real men stuck in a bad situation. The language both men use is thick with accents and jargon that forced me to pay attention. Dafoe sounds exactly like an old sea dog full of stories that are equal parts truth, lie and exaggeration. But the camera sticks with Pattinson’s character, giving us a…

… you know, I should shut up now. And there’s a reason why.

I want you going into this movie knowing exactly as much as I did. You can google the real story and know that much, but that’s it. The trailer won’t give you anything and neither will I. Don’t read any reviews. Don’t look it up on Wikipedia. Just pay the cash and see it in a dark theater with strangers. Then, after you’ve seen it, you and I can talk. 

I can’t wait for Jennifer to see it. I want to talk for an hour about that ending.

My D&D Character: Barbarian

My name? I do not have a name. I am called The Heinig.

My people were a peaceful tribe living in the mountains. We abhorred violence, but we understood its necessity. That is why I was chosen to carry the wrath of the tribe. When I was old enough, I went with the other children of my tribe to stand before the shaman. I remember it now. A dark night, we sat around the fire and drank what she gave us. We went before the Goddess, and we were tested. When it was done, the Goddess chose me. And I became the wrath of my people. I was given this axe. I would be their protector. So my people would not need to commit the Gravest Sin, I carried this axe.

What is the Gravest Sin? It is murder. Why do you not know this? Why do your people and your gods not teach you this? Is there any sin greater than that?

This is why I am The Heinig. I carry this axe so no other in my tribe needs to.

But I failed them. A horde of humans ran through my village with steel and fire, killing them all. They left me alive. They thought it was a game. They were all dead and their protector is still alive. And that is how they left me: with my axe and my tribe bleeding in the snow.

When I am very quiet, at night, I can see them. Trapped in this world, unable to pass into the next, for their spirits are unavenged. They sing to me. They do not sing me songs of shame, for they are too kind for that. They sing me songs of strength, so that I may carry on. To let me know that I do not carry this shame alone. They are still with me. And when I am weak, they carry me. When I weep, they laugh. When I doubt, they remind me of what I am.

That is why I shaved my head and my beard and that is why I travel the world. Not for riches. Not for magic. All these things are a means to an end.

I hunt those who murdered my people for sport. And when I find them, I will kill them. Because I am The Heinig. The wrath of my people.

And they will be avenged.