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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Skip the Boring Parts

The Overwhelming Tome: The Lord of the Rings
   I'm a bit discouraged by a post I recently read at Goodreads, in which a reader was advised to skip the boring parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. You know what I'm talking about, all those stupid poems, and all that nonsense about Tom Bombadil, and anything that has to do with a historical backdrop. Then there's all those long, descriptive passages of topography, and the scenery. Just chuck that crap, who needs it?
   At first, I thought these people were just illiterates who perhaps find reading to be so difficult they really need to skip the long words. But that isn't it. Of course not. What they really meant was that they just can't concentrate on anything that doesn't have running and stabbing and peril. Actually, I get the feeling that battle scenes like that might just bore them as well. I mean, after all, such things do take up your time. And that's the crux of the problem. I don't think people feel they have the time any more to read. They just want to get it over with.
Lengthy books are far easier to handle on a Kindle.
   We've been raised by our televisions, where we get the whole story in two hours or less, with plenty of commercials in the middle to give us a chance to stretch and graze in the kitchen, or go check Facebook. What we do not want to do is sit down and really take the time to read. One reason I love my Kindle so much is the little per cent bar at the bottom, which tracks my progress. I've always loved to play math games with any book I was reading, calculating how much of it I had read or how much was left. I even will make the effort to time how long it takes to read a page or two, then do the math to see how long it will take to finish. I have no idea why I do this. I usually hate to finish a book I read. But the point is, I know how long it takes me to read a book. If I were to read non-stop, some longer books can take around 20 hours to read. Broken up over so many days, that can be really tough for people to do. Shorter, more common genre books take 7 to ten hours to read. This is still difficult for many people in our busy world. But is it?
   Two football games on Sunday last almost seven hours. Many people watch two or three hours of TV every night. The fact is, we have lots of time to read. People just don't do it. But what of self-professed book lovers who do read? Why would someone like that wish to read The Lord of the Rings by skipping the boring parts? What point is there in reading a book that you find to be full of parts you don't like? That's where pride steps in, I believe. Perhaps people, whether on Goodreads, Shelfari, or other social book-lover sites, are so keen on impressing their fellow book-lovers that they want to add books to their list that will look impressive. Maybe they want to be able to tell people at a party that they've read the The Lord of the Rings but just can't bring themselves to outright lie about it. I don't know. What I do know is that if you find the great majority of a book boring, don't skip those parts. Put down the book. Find a book you do like. There are so many out there, it is not like you should feel obligated to force your way through any book.
Spend a month on Tolstoy?  Or just a few days with James Bond?
   When I went looking for a copy of Les Miserables to read, I read the notes on the abridged version, one that left out Hugo's extensive descriptions of the Paris sewers, among other things. Why? Can't readers take the time to learn a little something? Does everything have to be candy?  I fear the biggest need for these abridged versions is the fact that our society is sliding into ignorance.  That most people just can't handle reading anymore.  It is a terrifying thought.
   At this point, I calculate that only about ten per cent of the people who started reading this post are still with me. Possibly you're reading this part because you skimmed most of what was written before. I'm guilty of doing this in magazine articles; this generally happens when I'm just searching for specific information. But I've never thought to skim sections of a novel. I just never thought an author put parts in there that he did not really intend for people to read. I figure it is all a part of the story. And I've read many long works: Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamozov, Les Miserables, Last of the Mohicans, and the list goes on. I've also abandoned books. But I can't remember skipping parts of a book.
Have books outlasted their shelf-life in our busy society?
   One book by James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, has been a real sticky wicket for me. I love Cooper's writing, and love the Natty Bumppo character. Three times I've tried to read The Pioneers, three times I've put it down. I can't really say why. But I do know I've never considered just skimming it, or skipping over large chunks of it. What would be the point? It is now like an old familiar defect in my house that I will one day correct. I'll finish that book eventually. I really will.  If I only get the time.
   Or, if it looks like my time on earth is going to be cut short, I might just skim the darned thing and mark it down on my Goodreads list as read.  After all, as Julia Childs liked to say: who's to know?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Quick View of a Great Sound (Parov Stelar's "The Princess")

Taking a break from pontification to share a little music.  This post features one of the best musicians to come along in a very long time.  Producing music under the name Parov Stelar, Marcus Fureder, of Austria  is known as the founder of Electronic Swing.  His compositions utilizing old swing recordings have brought back the fun, foot-tapping sound of the 1920s.  But as with many great musicians, his music has evolved over time.  His latest album is The Princess.  While cuts like All Night and Silent Shuffle jazz along to his early electro-swing sound, he manages to display some deeper, rather obscure influences, including the Roberta Flack-tinged Nobody's Fool and This Game's driving piano which I would swear is channeling Bill Conti.  Lilja Bloom returns to add her haunting vocals to several cuts, recreating more of her magic from Parov Stelar's 2007 album Shine.   All of it includes an atmospheric, moody backdrop that is perfect for cranking up the stereo and turning down the lights.  Kerry Livgren, the genius behind the epic band Kansas, said in his autobiography Seeds of Change that as a young music-lover, he built a box with mirrors and lights and speakers into which he would stick his head for an enhanced music experience.  If there were ever an album worth Livgren's headbox, it would be The Princess.
Two cuts from the album can be heard here.  If you are tired of the same old music coming out of the United States, be sure to snap up this truly amazing album.  (It is a double album, with extra cuts on the second CD including live recordings.  You can listen to it free on Spotify.)
To download the album, or buy the CD, just use this link:

Two cuts from the album can be heard right here:
The Beach, from Parov Stelar's The Princess (2012)

Nobody's Fool, featuring Cleo Pantherfrom Parov Stelar's The Princess (2012)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Whatever Happened to the NFL?

Howie Long, stalking the line.
Time flies so fast it seems just like yesterday that I used to watch this fun little sport called American Football.  I try to tell my kids about it, but to be honest, I think they believe I'm making it all up.  But I'm not.  And many of you out there know what I'm talking about.
  I suppose what sticks out foremost in my mind are the images of men, I mean real tough hombres who used to line up against each other, stare each other down through a two-bar face mask, wait with the patience of statues (none of this false-start-every-other-play crap), then, at the snap of the ball, they would proceed to try very, very hard to rip each other's heads off.  At the same time, assassins trolled the deep waters of the secondary, scaring the snot out of wide receivers.  This was a time when linebackers had never considered trying to strip the ball from your hands because they were too excited about the chance to make you cough up a kidney.
  Another antique vestige of this former game was something called a quarterback.  These guys were nuts.  They would stand in this small target space called a pocket, and if those hairy apes I mentioned in the above paragraph didn't break them in half, they'd either throw the ball, or tuck it deep in their gut and try to keep that kidney from popping out.  If they saw an escape route and bolted for it, their only hope for survival was to pray that they might make it to the sidelines, otherwise, sliding wasn't going to do them a bit of good.  Those assassins were going to find them, and punish them for entering their domain.
Two power players, Riggins and White collide.
Headaches on the house!
  But for those of you who remember this funny little game, you'll probably want me to point out that throwing the ball was not the first option.  Primarily, the ball was handed off to some tough little bulls known as running backs, who more than likely would run just a bit off tackle, where, instead of being buried immediately, they would actually hit the pile and moved it two or three yards each time.  These not-so-little guys knew how to use their bodies like battering rams, and they weren't afraid to keep at it.
  The funny thing about this is, that the owners of these teams used this spectacle to build up one of the biggest, most popular (and lucrative) sports of all time.  Sadly, some time in the nineties, this sport was deconstructed and no longer exists.  It has been replaced by a game that consists of the far less glamorous Touch-Football-League, where grown men slide to avoid being hit, they can't keep still long enough for the ball to be hiked, they flail their arms at the ball carriers as if they're doing wind-mill exercises (and this is called tackling) and they even have made an art of rushing the punter so as not to ever accidentally bump into him.
  Oh yeah, and did I mention that in the old days, these guys knew how to block on kick-offs and punts without drawing  a flag on every run back?  Or did I mention that place-kickers routinely made 45-yard field goals without much celebration?  In this new football league, we sigh with relief when a twenty-five-yarder squeaks through.
The Steel Curtain abusing the Vikings
  And I don't remember all this discussion of records being set.  First of all, quarterbacks weren't protected to the point that they could stand in the pocket and ring up passing yards like an old lady at a slot machine constantly yanking on its shiny silver handle.  These players were just another one of the guys, toughing out each game with fear and trembling.  And they couldn't pick up a first down any time they wanted to by throwing a bomb at a covered receiver with the assurance of nicking a pass interference call.  Forget that!  Corners and safeties had as much right to fight for the ball as anybody.  Remember, these were men who didn't spend all of their time between plays crying to the refs and begging for flags.
  And they played this crazy game outside, in the cold, in the heat, in the rain, and in the ice and fog.  The fields were actual fields, with potholes, mud holes, grass and sod that stuck in every crevice of their uniforms and exposed body parts.
Vince Lombardi-- a man you did not mess with.
  What my kids really can't understand is that these teams of men were led by some rather strange, scary beings that were known as coaches.  Think of your dad, when you were about four years old, and he looked about four times bigger than he does now, his voice, when angry, made you wish you were still wearing diapers, and his word came from about the same elevation as Mount Sinai.  (It's no coincidence for me that my father was a dead ringer for Chuck Connors, a scary guy who didn't even need that totally crazy-awesome rifle he loved to fire off from his hip.  My dad didn't need that rifle either.  Us kids knew you simply did not mess with The Rifle Man and you did not mess with Dad!)  Sorry, I'll get back to football.  Anyway, these coaches ruled with an iron law that has not been known since the days of Ivan the Terrible.  They weren't evil.  They were just the local deities who required absolute obedience and sacrifice.  I do not remember anyone ever arguing with Tom Landry on the sidelines, except maybe Danny White, who did one time, and I don't think they ever found Danny's body, despite the very well organized efforts of a search party led by Texas Rangers.
  So anyway, it's all just a long lost memory now.  At least we can still access old game film on YouTube, and I do, if only to prove to my kids that this strange league actually did exist.  For now, we're stuck watching the clean, fast, artificial touch football that passes for the NFL today.  After all, what else are we going to watch for entertainment, basketball?  Don't get me started.
  Hold on one minute!  I forgot to mention one other thing.  Fans back then were a lot tougher too.  They stood by their teams, regardless of their standings, because they had no one else to cheer for.  They didn't play this selfish Fantasy Football garbage, where everyone is cheering for guys they have no business cheering for.  And you could invest some emotion in a player that you knew was going to be on your team forever.  Reggie White ended all of that, though, didn't he?  Now, the guy you draft today will be your rival's best player in three years.
Dick Butkus holds the line.
  Last point, honestly.  The old NFL had referees who actually knew their jobs.  There were no huddles for consultation and coin-flipping decisions.  And certainly no instant-replay.  What my father once predicted when instant replay first came into effect has finally come true.  Questioning the referee has led to the inevitable situation where the referees question their own judgement, are hesitant to even make a call now, and since coaches can challenge a call, every player out there thinks he can too.  Major League Baseball understands this.  (At least for now.)  You do not allow anyone to argue balls and strikes.  Period.  The NFL should have realized this a long time ago.  It's too late, however, to go back now.
  Right now I'm wishing I could sit down and watch Jim Plunkett take the Raiders into the frozen realm of Soldier Field or Three Rivers Stadium with the happy knowledge that I would have a front row view of a good-old-fashioned battle.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My View of Dickens on the Strand

Every year, the town of Galveston Texas turns into a Texan-styled Victorian England.  At Dickens on the Strand, you'll find the old downtown barricaded off to modern traffic and the streets full of Lords and Ladies and Pirates and street urchins.  The world of Charles Dickens and his fellow writers comes to life for a few exciting days.
The Ghost of Christmas Future leads Scrooge
on a tour of Dickens on the Strand
  If you are a historian who feels that accuracy is the key to the success of such a venture, stay far, far away. Period consultants need not apply.  But if you enjoy a little dress up, play-acting, and general fairgrounds atmosphere, then this is place for you.  You'll be able to grab a leg of turkey to gnaw on, have a cup of Glogg (hot, mulled wine) and my favorite, a hot steaming cup of Wassail.  (As in--Here we go a'wassailing.  Wassail is a traditional drink made of eggs, cider, apples, orange juice, pineapple juice, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, all of which forms a very tart and spicy drink.)
  Along with the expected characters you'll see, such as Jacob Marley's ghost, Scrooge, the Spirits of Christmas, and Father Christmas himself, you'll also find many that Dickens did not envision.  Pirates fill the streets, which certainly did exist in this time period, as well as Texas/Confederate soldiers, who also co-existed with Dickens.  The Queeen Victoria shows up, and honors the soldiers with a review.  The latest group to join in the fun are the wildly creative Steampunk characters.  These actually have some literary heritage, found mostly in the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.  This is a genre that has evolved into something more modern, with all sorts of gadgets that Wells and Verne never dreamed of, but Hollywood has certainly helped to form.
  Now in its 38th year, Dickens on the Strand is considered one of the top ten destinations to visit for Christmas fun.  There are many singing and juggling acts, street performers, and parades.  It is family friendly during the day, though it gets a little rowdy at night.  All in all, it's a wonderfully fun day for everyone.
A clever Steampunker who thinks
he can fly.

These little beggars were
cluttering up the street.

A very distinguished couple. 

Father Christmas is always sure to be on hand.

Queen Victoria reviews the Confederate Troops.

Sherlock Holmes attempts to unravel the mystery
of why he is in Texas.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My View of Van Gogh (Part One)

Red Vineyards Near Arles, 1888
The one painting Van Gogh sold.
If everyone says you're dead, you need to lie down.
  Perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived took this advice too literally.
  Having spent spent ten years on his craft, sketching and painting over two thousand art pieces, unable to sell more than one painting, it is generally believed that Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in despair, perhaps while he was ill.  Astonishingly, the oil paintings we know him by were done in a five year period.  There are over 800 of them.  During this time, his brother Theo, an art dealer, supported him, as did other artists, though they could not find buyers for his work.

Self-Portrait, 1889 (Inset, Vincent at 18)
  Though we might believe that a man who painted 37 self-portraits was awfully vain, I think it actually shows us how insecure he was.  Study the many different ways he painted himself: his nose is crooked in some paintings, smooth in others, his cheeks, his eyes, even the shape of his head changes.  Was he, in fact, trying to find out who he really was?  Was he trying out different visualizations of himself, in order to avoid the one vision he could not accept- that of a failed artist?  Imagine if you were Vincent Van Gogh, with his artistic eye, and you were told that the works that you had painted were worthless.  It staggers the mind.  It did his.  It certainly staggered his soul.    And one day in July, 1890, either in a wheat field, or in a barn--his isolation so complete that no one even knows where he was that day--he shot himself, then walked back to town, dying 29 hours later.  The fact that no pistol was ever found, and the artist was not known to own one, leaves many questions.  The writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of Van Gogh: The Life, have even postulated that Van Gogh had either been accidentally shot by mischievous boys or shot by a teenager in town with whom Van Gogh was known to argue.
  Whichever it was, I know one thing.  Early on, Vincent was not the melancholy spirit I had always believed him to be.  I've been reading his letters, and have found that he was a very happy, enthusiastic young man.  He was not a revolutionary painter who wanted to redefine the art world.  He was always speaking of the great artists who had come before, as well as his voracious search for new artists.  He was not a genius who disdained the talent of others.  In January of 1874, while in London, Vincent wrote to Theo about his (Theo's) new interest in art:

     I'm glad you like Millet, Jacque, Schreyer, Lambinet, Frans Hals, etc., for as Mauve says, "That's it."  That painting by Millet, L'angules du soir, "that's it," indeed- that's magnificent, that's poetry.  How I wish I could have another talk with you about art; but we'll just have to keep writing to each other about it.  Admire as much as you can; most people don't admire enough.

  And so I offer these works of Van Gogh, for all to admire.  If you are interested in reading more about Van Gogh, Delphi Classics has a great ebook collection of his work (all of his paintings) as well as a biography by Van Gogh's sister-in-law, and over 800 of his personal letters.  It can be viewed on your browser, so you can see all of his paintings in color.  The collection is $2.99.  Find it here.
Prisoners Exercising, 1890
Backyards of Old Houses in Antwerp, 1885
Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Girl in the Street, Two Coaches in the Background, 1882
Crab (Upside Down), 1889

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Closing of the American Bookstore

I've been hearing this sob story lately about the decline of --insert a teary eye here--the decline of the American Book Store.  Just a few years ago B Dalton Books closed its last store.  There was talk of the decline of reading in our country.  Then, last year, Borders closed its last store.  A judgmental finger was pointed at Amazon as the leading cause of their downfall.  Now, we hear of Barnes & Noble stores being selectively shut down.  The end of the Brick-and-Mortar bookstore is now considered to be a near inevitability.
Books-a-Million Superstore, 1999
  Independent bookstores are in even greater peril.  First shoved aside by the large chain stores, the few that have been able to withstand such pressure are now collapsing under the competition from online sites like Amazon.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over this.  We are meant to pause, hang our heads low, and feel a bit of guilt over our complicity in the demise of these once great bastions of literature, these outposts of culture in our society.  Their magnanimous, selfless attempts to keep our society supplied with the power of the written word have been betrayed by the selfish, greedy public who would have benefited most from their altruistic efforts.
  To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter: Bull-Pucky!
  Allow me to disagree.
  If you know me at all, you know I am a capitalist at heart, and I do not begrudge any company from making money from its chosen business.  If the people are willing to pay for goods or services, then they ought to pay away, and any company should be allowed to pocket the profit.  But there are some things about bookstores people really ought to know.  Things that are, if not disturbing, at least change the image of this sad demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores.
  To quote Bill Nye the Science Guy: Consider the Following.
  Bookstores have an odd view of their inventory.  They seem to feel that they are entitled to stock their shelves at no cost or risk to their pocketbooks.  It's a great idea.  Who wouldn't want to do business like this?  Bookstores look at it like this: they are willing to stock books on a shelf, as long as they only have to pay for the book after it has sold.  So they accept a book for their shelves, and invoice it out to the supplier, which essentially means they agree to pay for it in about ninety days or so.  They might do this as a consignment, which is a more honest way of admitting they won't pay for the book unless it sells, but either way, the book is not paid for during those ninety days.  At the end of this period, the books are returned, which nullifies the payment.  A nice little trick here is to return the book on the 89th day, wherein the supplier then must accept the books back, and often by agreement, the books must be destroyed.  Now the bookstore is free to order more of these same books to be printed, and they'll go on the shelf again for another ninety day stint.  (Imagine what this does to the cost of books.  Or did you think the supplier/publisher takes the loss on this deal?)
  This sounds like something out of a Woody Allen movie.  (That may be giving them too much credit.  It might be more accurate to say it sounds like something out of a Three Stooges Movie.)
  Basically, the bookstore has stocked its shelves for zero cost, and they are free to return the books at no charge.  A pretty sweet deal.
The Paris Equivalent to Barnes & Noble:
Gilbert Joseph on Blvd Saint-Michel 
  Now on top of this the bookstores demand a 50-60% discount on the titles, so that they make at least fifteen dollars off a thirty dollar hardback new-release.  Remember that the next time you're thrilled when they knock off 10% for your membership discount.  A real sacrifice on the part of the bookstore.
  Just these two practices in themselves make you wonder how poorly run a store needs to be to lose money.
  But remember what I said earlier:  If the people are willing to pay for goods or services, then they ought to pay away, and any company should be allowed to pocket the profit.  And there's the rub.  The paying public has been educated by evil people like Amazon and they are learning they don't have to kowtow to bookstores anymore.  The increased variety available online has a lot to do with this.  And here again is a brick-and-mortar bookstore sin come back to haunt them.
  In the quest to reduce risk (and overhead), traditional bookstores have joined with the larger publishing houses to target the sale of particular books.  Unable to stock all the books that are being published, and eager to sell as many books without cramming their shelves with too many different titles, bookstores have set up massive displays of new releases and helped push particular titles, manipulating people into buying one book over another.  We see a huge display as we enter a store, see the big posters that declare this new book is the book of the year, and we eagerly snatch it up.
  Well, we used to do this.  Until someone taught us a better way.
  Yeah, you know who I mean.  Those jerks at Amazon.
  Through their algorithms, Amazon has found a way to help readers learn about books that might interest them by analyzing their purchasing and browsing history and then suggesting titles to the reader.  If you've spent any time on Amazons site, you'll soon discover that they are very good at helping you find books you never would have found before, and most of them are a perfect match for your reading tastes.
  Added to this new variety is the ability to find most books as a used book, which Amazon is only too happy to help you purchase.  Most of the time you can find a used book for around four dollars (which includes shipping).  In our troubled economic times, this is of great significance to book lovers, since we cannot keep ourselves from buying books, and most of us are not up in the tax bracket that President Obama is so eager to pillage.
  Oddly enough, some of the criticism aimed at Amazon has been that they are undermining the publishing industry, making it nearly impossible for authors to make a living as writers.  It has even been suggested this is un-American, as if they are going to destroy the artistic vein of our great country.  But to make this suggestion would also point the finger at public libraries all over the country, which are far more aggressively undermining the publishing industry by allowing everyone to share a book.  If public libraries haven't killed the publishing industry since Andrew Carnegie opened up 1,689 libraries across the United States in the early 1900s, then I seriously doubt Amazon will be able to.  (Don't think the library is agressive?  What about their guerrilla efforts to bring free books to the people by use of their mobile anti-bookstore weapon--the Bookmobile?  One of which I saw just the other day.  I had no idea they were still around.  Man, I loved climbing on board the bookmobile when I was a little five-year-old.  But I digress...)
  As a matter of fact, I've spent more money on books since Amazon has opened up than I ever did when bookstores and libraries were my only option.  Most of the time, to save money, I'd just go to the library to get the book I wanted.  Now, I never use the library.  I usually buy my books, from both Amazon and my local bookstore.
  I guess I'm just tired of hearing how evil Amazon is, and how sad it is that bookstores are being run out of business by them.  In my opinion, what we are really seeing are the results of an industry that has been overly greedy in its desire to protect and increase its profits.  Their customers have been educated enough to discover there is a better way.
An Independent Bookstore that has
managed to stay in business far longer
than B Dalton ever did.
  Do I mourn the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstores?  No.  I'll miss them.  I've always loved to wander their aisles, browsing the titles, pulling out each book, paging through it, wishing I could buy every book that caught my fancy.  But you know what, I do the same thing at Amazon, and though I cannot pick up each book by hand, I can browse through them, and even better, Amazon helps me find similar books far faster.  There are trade-offs that make it worthwhile.
  So the next time you feel sorry for a bookstore chain that is closing, think of all the books that were destroyed in order to allow that bookstore to make a profit.
  As for the small, independent bookstores, I'm not sure what can be done for them.  If the public cannot afford their mark-up, it is not the public's fault, nor is it the fault of the bookstore's.  Unless people are just willing to donate money to keep the store open, which has actually happened in some communities (efforts that I wholeheartedly applaud), perhaps there is nothing that can be done.  Our society is evolving, and some changes may just be inevitable.
  As for now, I have a small stack of books waiting to be read.  Some of them I bought new at my local Books-a-Million, some I bought either new or used at Amazon.  I also have used books that were bought at our local Goodwill.  I am eager to read all of these books.  No matter where I bought them, they're still a joy to read.
  (While I recognize the dynamic changes the eBook has wrought, I'll leave that subject, as well as the emotionally charged subject of self-published books, to another post.  Full disclosure: I am not a representative of Amazon, although I do have books available with them online.  Said books can also be bought online at Barnes & Noble or ordered in the stores.  I have books for sale in several Independent bookstores in the New Orleans area.  One more bit of information to disclose:  I've done my part to keep bookstores open.  Stop by my house.  You'll see you have to walk around the stacks of books that clutter it from one end of the house to the other.  The amount of books I've bought is somewhat ridiculous!)

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Veteran's Day View of Cities of the Dead

Free Ebook Downloads Nov 12th through the 14th
Due to my work schedule, I was unable to get this posted on Veteran's Day, but I am going to go ahead with it a day late.  In conjunction with our second promotional giveaway for Cities of the Dead, I will post a story from the book that has not yet been published in print or on the web outside of the book itself.
This story involves the spirits from a Confederate Artillery Regiment, whose bodies were buried together in a Society Tomb.  The memorial in question is real.  The story is fictional.  War is hell, as General Sherman said, but it doesn't always end when we think it does.

by Jason Phillip Reeser 

            Early mornings in the Firemen’s Cemetery are notoriously shrouded in mist.  Educated men might explain this by pointing out the land’s elevation in relation to the nearest waterways as well as the role played by local weather.  Those of a particular engineering bent would add the importance of Interstate 10 running along its western border.  Spiritually minded men might suggest that regardless of such natural influences, these sacred grounds are a nexus wherein heaven and earth join, allowing the passing of so many souls that a certain residue is inevitably to be seen with the aid of the day’s first sunlight.
            The Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association had consecrated these grounds in the year 1852 and tourists might believe the more mischievous tour guides who spin tales of ghostly smoke and water-sprays from spectral hoses.  The awkwardly dressed men with cameras enjoy the idea that firemen of old still battle it out with ancient fires for all eternity.  Their wives tend to shudder at this image; some of them familiar with the dread of waiting for a husband to return from a hazardous job, and some simply burdened with an ingrained human alarm towards house fires.
            Educated men scoff at notions of this kind and even spiritual men hesitate to give it credence.  And in the end the tourists will tuck their photos away in a box along with the tour guide’s fanciful tale and forget all about it.  Neither the scholars, nor the religious, nor the tourists will ever understand just how close to the truth such tales do come.
            Before the first ray of each new dawn, just as it seems as if the grip of night’s darkness will never be broken, those who sleep lightly in the Fireman’s Cemetery are disturbed by a muffled racket coming from a great, square society tomb.  Standing along one open lane, deep within the field of the dead, it is rather plain in appearance, and by starlight is dreary looking—a heavy, squat figure resembling a rundown tenement or forgotten bureaucratic cellblock.  Across the top edge of this monument, if the darkness were pulled away, one would see these words: Soldiers’ Home.
            A man’s tired voice murmurs a few words, the only reply a sharp clank of metal on stone.  Shuffling steps echo against the neighboring tombs, and then someone coughs.  There is the sound of running followed by jeering laughter.  A lower voice, wide and powerful, demands an answer.  For the first time, distinct words are heard.  “Yessir!”
            Now, a great many footsteps can be heard.  Rattling and clattering mix with coughing and veiled curses.  It is evident that as many as ten or twenty men are moving about in the dark.  If they are all of one purpose, it does not sound so.  A short quarrel, muffled by the shroud of pre-dawn but no less violent than if it were conducted in sunlight, is cut short by a harsh command.  The runner returns at the same time.  Most of the clamor is now out on the open lane, in front of the Soldiers’ Home.  There is less noise, though a few more words are clearer now.
            “Watch that,” a husky voice warns.
            “All right, all right.”  The lower voice concedes.
            “Battery,” a quick whisper.  The last of the muted clanks and shuffles comes to an end.
            All is silent now save for one figure who cannot stop coughing.
            “Battery.”  This time, the voice carries more authority.  The coughing stops for a breath, but begins anew.
            The low voice issues an order.  The coughing figure moves away from the others, back towards the dark block.
            “Battery.”  There is no more noise.  The black morning air holds for a collective pause.
            The forms of men can now be seen as the first bit of grey is mixed into the atmosphere.  There are four rows of men, five abreast, facing the Soldiers’ Home.  Before them stand two men, off to one side stands a thinner man.  By their silhouettes, it is obvious that the men are standing at attention, arms held at their sides.  Each man’s head is covered by a misshapen cap.  A few exceptions are bareheaded.  All are uniformed, though most of the blouses ill fitting.
            The thin man steps forward, facing the Battery.  He bows his head and speaks.
            “Our Father, which art in heaven…” his voice is as thin as his shadow.
            The Battery joins in.  The words of the prayer echo down the grassy lane, swallowed by the lingering night.  When they finish, they are silent for a full minute.
            From out of the Soldiers’ Home comes the sound of a stifled cough.
            “Detail.”  The word cuts the silence like an alarm, and the black forms break formation.  Each line of men makes its way to one of the corners of the Soldiers’ Home.  Most of the black night has been replaced by a heavy gray that allows the men to be able to see shapes but nothing more.  It is all that they need.  Each corner of the blocked structure is composed of a cannon barrel standing on end.  In the middle of the east and west walls stand two other cannon, though there are not enough men to work these.  The men toil swiftly, their carefully plotted routine insuring that each cannon is lowered without injury to the men or damage to the stone artillery pieces.
        As this is being done, two men from each detail pull open the nearest bottom vault and withdraw a stone cradle which will hold each great barrel.  As their comrades set the cannons into the cradles, they already begin to withdraw bags of gunpowder, as well as the rammers, cleaning worms, sponges, lanyards, and friction primers.  As one man seals each vent hole with his thumb, they first worm and swab out the barrels, removing any bits of masonry chips and dust that fell in during the process of removing the cannons from the monument.  The vent holes are then cleaned out in the same manner. By the time the cannons are secured to the cradle, each team is ready to load their gun.
            A bag of powder is rammed into place, and the brass friction primer is loaded into the vent hole.  A stone cannon ball, from a stack on the monument’s corners, is rammed into place.  The five men now come to attention as one of them chuffs “Ready to fire!”  One of the details is slow, and finishes ten seconds behind the others.  An officer fidgets with his pocket watch.
            “They’ll make it, Colonel.”  The husky voice tries to reassure him.
            “All right, all right.”  The Colonel’s low voice betrays his aggravation.
            “It’s Vincent’s men.  There’s only four of them.  Theirs was the man with the cough.”
            “Yes, I know that, Major.”
            Enough light has crept into the field to allow the two officers to see facial expressions.  The Colonel tries to smile.  The strain is unmistakable even in the dim light.
            “I don’t like the men to be slack, Major.  I was easy on them.  Too easy.  It’s why we’re all here.”
            “Begging your pardon, sir, but that’s foolish.  You’re not to blame.”
            “Battery!”  The Colonel’s command cracks out sharply, ricocheting off the nearest crypts.  The men stiffen, each gunner’s hand grasping tightly to his lanyard.
            “You know I’m right, sir.  This melancholy of yours comes and goes.  You’ll think better of it.  Just give it time.”  The Major gently touches his commanding officer’s arm.  “We’ve been over this hundreds of times.”
            The Colonel ignores the touch and the comforting words, staring instead at his pocket watch.  He draws in a deep breath and then, without pause, barks:
            The four cannons belch smoke and thunder as well as stone chips and plaster dust.  Quickly, as if their former lives depend on it, the men reload.  Vincent’s detail keeps up with the others and a second volley is fired.  They fire a third and fourth volley as the smoke obliterates what little light the morning has to offer.  Their world is no longer black.  It is grey and white, the air thicker than the silk lining of the finest coffins.
            “Shall they reload?” the Major asks.  His men wait for his order.  He steps closer to the Colonel in an attempt to see him clearly through the haze.
            “Why do you always insist it is not my fault?”  The Colonel snaps his pocket watch shut and rams it into his jacket.  “I told Division they were ready.  I volunteered them.  Insisted they be sent forward.  You call me a fool?  Only a fool would deny me this judgment.”
            “The men, sir?”  The Major waits for his Colonel’s decision.
            “Again, Major.  They’re off this morning.  And the sick man is not to blame.”
            “Battery, reload!”  The Major’s shout lacks conviction and carries emotion he had hoped to keep hidden.
            “Do not worry, Major.  I know you disagree.  You think I’m too hard on them.”
            “On yourself, sir.”
            The men are grimy with carbon, grout and sweat.  The chalky residue from the stone guns is smeared across their faces, making them appear all the more ghostly.  They work with determination, dragging out more bags of gunpowder, swabbing out the barrels, and ramming the loads in place.  It is hot work.  The cloying humidity, even in the early morning, attacks them.  They press on, knowing there is no respite unless they improve.  The Colonel has been known to push them until the late morning sun has finally forced them back into their graves.  They fear this as much as they fear real combat.  The sun is painful, and cuts deeply into their souls.
            Yet, in the face of this toil and pain, they persevere.  If they are ever to find peace, they know they must satisfy their Colonel.  They must show him that his will has driven them beyond their limitations.  That he has forced improvement upon them to such an extent that time can be reversed, they can be saved, and he can be redeemed.  By his own sheer resolution he must drag them out of the pit that he himself dug for them.
            He is demanding the impossible but they do not balk in the face of it.  Yes, it is hard work.  It is madness.  But they soldier on.
            Smoke rolls in every direction.  It filters down each adjacent lane, spreading its nauseating stench over and into tomb after tomb.  Many of the dead, long used to this barrage, keep quietly in their crypts, content to wait out the Colonel’s self-inflicted fury.  On this day, there are no new arrivals to annoy him, demanding that he stop.  The newest residents in the nearby crypts have already tried this and learned that the old soldier is as unmovable as Stonewall Jackson ever was.  They will hate him for a long time.  Eventually, as with the older dead, they will come to pity him.
            “Cease fire!”  The call is as loud and punishing as his earlier order to fire.  And it does not mean the soldiers will now get their rest.  Now they must move sharply, and attack the cannons in reverse, lifting the great barrels back into place, and stowing the cradles and tools without delay.  If this is not done right, they may be forced to do it all over again.  They work feverishly, both desiring to please their Colonel and fearful of his retribution.
            “You see, Major, responsibility must rest somewhere.  It cannot be passed along indefinitely.  Even if it could, it should not be.  Someone has to step in and take the weight of it.  You must surely see that this is so.”
            The Major watches his men struggle to lift the stone cannons.  In a way, his task is just as difficult.  Just as repetitive.  He has argued this point countless times.  But he has never given in.
            “Someone does take responsibility, Colonel.  Someone of a much higher rank.  You would not presume to make yourself His equal, would you?”
            “Look closely at these vaults,” the Colonel steps closer to the Soldiers’ Home.  The large memorial consists of five stacked rows of burial vaults.  There are four vaults to each row.  “As you are well aware, there are no names here.  Only numbers.  These men were destroyed beyond recognition.  Twenty men on this side, twenty on the south side.  Yet, we are only able to cobble together enough pieces to make twenty-four men.  My God!  I’ll be damned if I’ll stand for it.”
            The Colonel puts out a hand and leans heavily against a marble vault.  His breaths are short and awkward.
            “You insult your Superior by this proud obduracy.”  The Major is not moved by the Colonel’s emotion.  He once was long ago, but he has not been for a long time.  He makes an effort to win the argument nonetheless.  “Step aside, and admit your limitations.  You are not God, and He never expected you to be one.  There are times when other men’s actions—even sins—affect us.  We have no control over them.  We simply do what we must and the end comes out all of its own accord.”
            The men of the Battery, constructed from the detritus of war, reassemble on the grassy lane, now at attention.  Their eyes wide with the terror of expectancy.  Their ears still ring with the cacophony of their exercise, they tremble with an excess of adrenaline.  They only wait now to hear their commander’s judgment.
            The Colonel eyes them with weary assessment.  He has seen them perform better.  He knows it.  They know it.  But he is also aware they have done the best they could for that day.  The larger question he must answer is whether or not it is enough.
            “Step aside, you said?” the Colonel asks softly.  “How that I wish I might.”
            He tugs at his buttoned collar and looks over the heads of his men.  The smoke has spread out over the burial ground now, a white mist in the rays of the morning sun.  The smoke will clear eventually, and the sun will burn them if they do not get under cover soon.
            “Battery, fall out.”  His order is nearly a whisper, but the men hear it plainly enough.  They break ranks and step out of the wide, grassy lane.
            In the miasma of smoke and sunlight, the weary soldiers climb into their stone barracks, making little jokes as they go.  They need rest.  And at least for a day, they will get it.
            “Thank you, Major.  That will be all.  For this day.”
            The Major disappears around one corner of the large tomb.  His quarters are on the south side.  Left alone, the Colonel stands erect as the smoke begins to clear.  He endures the sunlight for a short time.  It burns, and he imagines it is necessary.
            “Not God.”  The Colonel chafes at the Major’s impudence.  “The man’s got gall, I’ll say that for him.”
            And then he is gone.  The Colonel lies in his vault, just another corpse in a tomb that he has built with the power of his pride.
            A cough is heard inside the Soldiers’ Home.  Then nothing more.
            The sun rises.  Early morning tourists remark upon the mist that lingers over the burial field.  Another day begins.

To all of those men and women who have given of themselves for our country, I say thank you, and may God grant you the peace that passes all understanding.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Abortive Proposal

  So now it is over.  That every-other every-other year when we wish that the framers of our constitution had set the length of a presidential term at twenty years.  (That's a comment on the painful process of electing one of these guys, not a comment on the my desire to hear sixteen more years of 'Now let me be perfectly clear...').  Seriously, I doubt the Constitutional Convention had any idea campaigns would be such a massive stew of gobbledygook.  But to be zen about it, well, it is what it is.  And tweaking the process would only screw it up more.  Don't even get me started on switching over to a popular vote.  (The current national trend would be to vote in Lady Gaga or Brad Pitt.  Thank God Justin Bieber is under 36!)
  But what truly amazes me each time we do this is the crazy debate over abortion.  A long time ago it occurred to me that the whole argument was flipped upside down.  And if the two parties would listen to me, it might just untangle some of the confusion that saturates the political landscape today.
So let me make this simple proposal.
  I propose that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party pry up their planks on abortion and trade them, nailing their opponents planks into their respective platforms.  Simple, really.  Democrats need to oppose abortion, and Republicans need to promote it.
  That's all it would take.
  I just think that the party faithful have been paying the price for a major political blunder that started nearly forty years ago.  You see, millions of Christian voters have been forced to hold their nose and vote for the party that worships money in order to salve their consciences as they vote to save the lives of countless children.  And so many tough-minded pragmatists have been strong-armed into voting for the Heart-on-their-Sleeve party in order to promote a practice that keeps the undesirable population as low as possible.
  Think about it.  In what world would the current political mess make any sense?  Christians vote in large numbers for a party who would rather cut welfare and increase the war machine.  At the same time, tender-hearted liberals, who only want to help the helpless, actively campaign for the right to murder little babies.  Only Woody Allen could have come up with a more absurd idea.
  An economic conservative looks at the world like this: cut expenses, cut the fat, tighten the belt, and make sure everyone is doing their share.  This will ensure that money is not wasted, and there will actually be money out there that can be accumulated.  Are we to believe that this man or woman is also a major advocate of adding over one million children a year to the population?  Children who are more than twice as likely to be born into minority families where the rate of poverty is seven times more likely?  Don't be ridiculous.  Any conservative worth his weight in the gold he desires to accumulate can easily see that culling the poorer classes is an ideal way to right our economic woes.  It just makes good business sense.
  A social liberal stands up for everyone: women, working men and women, minorities, the dispossessed, and certainly children.  But are we to believe they care so much for everyone except babies?  That's preposterous.  Forget Woody Allen.  This veers off into the morbid nonsensical world of Monty Python.  You cannot even begin to find an argument to defend this kind of lunacy.
  But as soon as I say this, I'll hear from everyone and their mother that I'm wrong.  Because we are so conditioned to this backwards way of thinking that no one is going to take the time to think clearly about it.  We get angry, we curse, we call down Heaven's wrath.  We will fight to defend our senseless positions.  We no longer allow any serious discourse on these matters.  We already have our battle flags, and we raise them high as we charge into the fray.  But I have a feeling most of us haven't bothered to see what's on those flags anymore.
  Parties switching positions is not unheard of.  Ronald Reagan, the poster boy of conservatism, was once a Democrat, and only switched to the Republican party when he took the time to look at his party and realize that is had abandoned that for which it had once stood.  In the case of abortion, it could just be that memos were mistyped, or sent to the wrong mail slot, and in fact each party has been stumping for the other parties' view all along.  The question isn't whether or not this kind of mix up is possible.  The question is, would the members of each party be able to recognize such a blunder?
  Judging by the last forty years of campaign rhetoric, I would have to say that so far, neither side has.  And I doubt they ever will.

Friday, November 2, 2012

My 12 Suggestions for Disney's Star Wars

Disney's latest addition.
Let's face it, regardless of the fact that we complain about Disney's Disneyfication of everything they touch, we tend to go along for the ride because they make everything fun.  Well, who wouldn't be excited to hear that the makers of Fun have taken control of George Lucas' Star Wars?  Yeah, people are saying there was no need for the second trilogy (and yet everyone went to see it, which disproves the point) and yes, it would seem there is no need for more of the same.  However, why not?  James Bond keeps going, and doing well.  If Star Wars is, as many would argue, the best Sci-Fi franchise to come along, why not keep making them?  Great world-design is difficult for Science Fiction.  Most of them are just copy-cats of what is already out there.  Populating those worlds with great characters is even more difficult.  For the most part, SW got that part right.  So don't scoff, huff, and tell me you aren't interested in more movies about Luke, Han, Leia and all the rest.  Let's get in the spirit of things and get this party started!

Here's a few ideas for the Disney Hacks who will be in charge of this thing.

1.  I would suggest the director of this next trilogy should be Quentin Tarantino.  This would put the war back in Star Wars.
2.  Let's get Seth Grahame-Smith to write it.  You know him, the man who brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Oh my, it is this kind of fresh blood that SW desperately needs.
3.  I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that we should use Industrial Light and Magic's technical magic to bring back Mark Hamil as Luke again.  I know, I know, he's still alive, but this way he wouldn't have to look like he is in his sixties, and Andy Serkis could do the motion-capture performance, which would allow Luke to actually have some ability to emote, and well, act.
4.  Leia could be played by Olivia Wilde, because, well yeah, that's why.  I'm not dumping Carrie Fisher.  We'll find a role for her.  SW ought to have Carrie.  She deserves to be a part of the fun.
5.  Han Solo could be Harrison Ford, since he's still playing Indiana Jones.  But let's give Ford a role something akin to Sir Alec Guinness' role in the first trilogy.  If the movie is set in the future, beyond the original trilogy, he could be an older, now angrier Jar-Jar Binks.  "You-sah gonna givems me-sah backa minah wifems or baaaadums thing-sah happens.   Bergabergabergaberga!"  (Hey, I don't even want to have the skills to mock Jar-Jar properly, so realize that any criticism of this will be gladly accepted!)
  So if Ford gets this juicy role, then Han Solo could be given to Jack Black.  That would be cool.  But you all know I'm just kidding, since Johnny Depp has already been secretly signed to be the next existential Han Solo.  (Trans-gender, as well, I'd guess.)
6. Disney will insist on a gay character, and we know the wise, sassy friend is their usual choice.  The best way to do this would be to simply out Chewbacca, and allow him to bellow and wail with a much hipper, snazzier tone.  This would allow some great chemistry and eye-brow raising interaction between him and the effeminate Depp/Solo.
Mickey Mouse's newest cousin.
7.   For kicks, I'd like to see how they are gonna get Boba Fett back into this, since he's the biggest star of the series now.  I think the opening scene could be something like the opening scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where we saw Gandalf fall through the abyss with the Balrog.  Only in this SW7, we would watch Boba Fett fall down the sarlacc's throat and see him plummet for about five minutes as he battles his way through it's digestive system.  I mean, really, even as a kid I never believed Boba Fett would die such a simple, accidental punk's death.  Did anyone else?
8.  Yoda's ghost will have to play a big part in this series.  He was a puppet in the first one, CGI in the second one, and I think Verne Troyer could play him this time around.  This would allow for a more comical, naughtier Yoda, with lots of scatological humor for Disney fans of all ages.
9.  I've just had a brilliant idea.  Disney could use this movie to point out how horrible and wasteful and Republican it is to wage war, and this would ensure an Oscar win for them.  Hollywood would swoon!
10.  Quentin Tarantino has just been axed due to a better idea.  Michael Bay should take the helm.  He would be uniquely qualified to take Lucas' fun, cute robots and turn them into intricate, complex, impossible to follow mechanically ridiculous robots that simply break everything around them, adding even more explosions and damage to the galaxy.  A merger between LucasArts and Hasbro will soon be announced.
11.  Seriously, there are just too many options.  I'm thinking of a reboot, with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.  Maybe let Guy Ritchie direct.  For the reboot, we could set it in the Jane Austen era, and make Obi-Wan a woman warrior.  Steam-punk the whole thing.  I'm getting shivers just thinking about it.
12.  If you don't see the humor in this, then I'll take a serious turn.  There is already a set of books that are perfect for a new trilogy, written by Timothy Zahn back in the early '90s.  It is a solid story line, with all the major characters.  They are considered the best books written in the SW book universe.  I say use them as a basis for the the next trilogy.  Please.
Zahn's Heir to the Empire
  A special Happy Birthday goes out to Simon, my son, who is now fifteen.  Here's hoping that by the time you're my age, you'll have been able to see twenty more Disney-made Star Wars movies.  Oh think of the possibilities!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A View of What Scares Us

This poster was everywhere in Paris in April.
I recently watched what is the latest in thing in Horror--a Joss Whedon special--The Cabin in the Woods.  This mash-up fright flick is basically a tongue-in-cheek look at slasher flicks of the past.  Not designed to scare you as much as make you think that Joss Whedon is ingenious and funny and just a little wise.  I'll give him funny, since there are as many funny lines in it as an episode of Home Improvement (though the movie is three times as long as a Tim Taylor episode), but if Whedon wants to mix comedy and horror, he should rent The Frighteners and take lots of notes.  I would have to substitute clever for ingenious, since the plot could be considered ingenious but the clipped, quick theatrical version of the film is just too short to handle the possibilities of such a plot.  As for wisdom, there isn't any.  Not even a hint of profundity.  It manages to project a few brief, ironic moments, as when partiers ignore a victim being brutalized on TV monitors overlooking the crowd.  It is not that this group of people watch violence like the crowds at the Coliseum.  They in fact cannot even become interested in the violence, much like movie-goers today.  And so the movie ends in horrific bloodshed with little to no suspense.
  Which left me wondering why we had just watched it.  I was expecting it to be what we old people (as in non-teenagers) would call a scary movie.  No, I did not expect to scream and shake in my seat.  But I can still find a movie now and then that leaves me disturbed, a bit hesitant to walk through the house in the dark, and unable to fall asleep without listening to the sounds of the house once the living have taken refuge under the covers.  Cabin in the Woods did none of that for me.  The most suspenseful moment was one of the oldest shticks in the film-makers bag-of-magic-shticks; that moment when you say don't go down in the basement.  Beyond this, there is nothing to make your heart pound.  Sure, there are zombies stalking the characters, and even an explosion of our worst nightmares let loose upon the screen that is more or less designed to make us say "oh-fill-in-the-blank-expletive".  But it never reaches scary.
Peter Jackson's 1996The Frighteners
  Perhaps Whedon would defend his film by declaring it was never meant to be scary.  I can buy that.  It would make more sense.  I wouldn't argue with him.  This is more about my own expectations and how this movie failed to meet them.  Maybe I should have read more reviews before I saw it.  Maybe I just shouldn't be so picky.
  But what exactly then does a movie need to be scary?  That's the question over which this movie left me wondering.  It is a question that has vexed me for some time as I work to construct a plot for a future novel of mine as well.  I mean, let's face it, the scariest things in life are never in the movies we call scary.  Where, for example, are the horror classics April the 15th, and The Mortgage from Hell.  Guys with chainsaws chasing you?  They can't compare to the bureaucratic horror of an insurance company's convoluted medical policies.
  Honestly, one of the scariest moments I ever saw in a movie was in a Jamie Lee Curtis movie called Mother's Boys.  The movie wasn't scary, but in one scene, a little toddler is running across a room in his fuzzy sleeper, with a large glass of water held out in front of him.  Right away, any parent worth their salt feels their heartbeat quicken, their forehead feels flush, and they want to shout "stop running in the house!"  Why?  Because we know those cute little sleepers have plastic feet that stick out too far, and they are slippery, and this kid is gonna...oh yeah, in slow motion, we watch him pitch forward, eyes wide, hands still holding onto that glass...and he falls face first into the glass, which shatters.  It is one of the most traumatic and scary moments I've ever seen.  I knew as soon as he started running it would happen.  I still don't know how they filmed that scene, but I'm disturbed that they did.  It was truly horrifying.
  So what movies have really scared us?  The Exorcist is often cited as the scariest movie ever filmed.  And it is, for someone who does not know the power of Jesus that is available to believers.  A simple movie about mountain climbing scares people who are afraid of heights.  Many things scare us on personal levels, and these cannot be objectively evaluated.  Bumblebees don't scare most people, they are slow, passive, and even sort of cute.  But if you've ever had one get caught in your bangs, you tend to have a troubling view of them.
The Skull in our display.  (And a shameless plug for our books.)
  Skulls don't scare me.  We were in the Paris Catacombs with millions of them and they never bothered me.  I find them fascinating, since we all have one.  In fact, we all have one that we will never get to see.  I just think that's weird.  But during a book festival, when we had a fairly realistic skull sitting on the table, a surprising number of people shied away from it, asking if it was real as they recoiled from it as if its jaw might suddenly open wide as it prepared to eat them.  I was actually shocked to see their reactions.  One lady, her eyes as big as the empty sockets on the skull, her head shaking back and forth like a bobble-head skeleton, answered my question "do you like ghost stories?" with the simple answer "no, no, no, no, no..."  Okay, so skeletons scare her.  Maybe one of them fell on her in a science lab once.  I dunno.
Julie Harris learns what it means to be afraid in 1963's The Haunting
  For good old-fashioned scary I would suggest you look for The Haunting or its British cousin The Legend of Hell House.  Both of these movies do a great job of examining the iconic haunted house story, with actual examinations of them as their plots.  Burnt Offerings and The Changeling do a nice job of scaring the audience.  Any time a movie has multiple moments when you say "stop going into that room!" it is worthy of inclusion on these types of lists.  For a more recent movie, I suggest Identity, which plays with the slasher formula much better than Cabin in the Woods, and leaves us not only afraid of a killer, but afraid of a mind that has gone very, very wrong.  You are forced to consider what it means to lose your mind-- a horror that Gogol examined in The Diary of a Madman.  The mind is a far more terrifying place than the world around us.  Even worse is the darkness of man's heart.  Something I examine in the short story What Scares Henry Payne.  (Another shameless plug!)
  And most people will agree that the scariest parts of any movie are the parts that are never seen.  It is why so many old movies are still respected.  Were the censors aware that they were creating more suspense and terror by not allowing things to be shown?
  So what is it that really scares you?  What movies have captured this feeling best?  Room With No View would love to know!