Author: Marc

Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”

New Music: Thee Rakevines

I stumbled upon Thee Rakevines yesterday, and they’re quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. Their tracks have a strong garage-rock vibe, but they’re also pretty eclectic. In other words, there’s no pigeonholing this group, which I love.

The first track on their Spotify playlist, This is “Thee Rakevines, is called “In a Time of Covid (I Need Fuzz),” and while what the world needs now may be love, sweet love (apologies to Burt Bacharach), it also needs this song. The cool (and appropriate, given the title) fuzz effect on the vocal reminds me of a lot of my favorite grungy song from the 1990s, including “Cannonball” by the Breeders. There’s also a blistering guitar solo. The sudden ending feels like hitting a brick wall and demands multiple listens.

The second song on the playlist is called “Damaged,” and it sends the clear signal that Thee Rakevines are not a one-trick pony. This track is mellow and almost jazzy, and a sublime vocal from Byddia Lewis (who reprises vocal duties later in the playlist on “Sticking With You”) is somehow both the polar opposite of the distorted vocal in “In a Time of Covid” but also its perfect counterpoint.

I’m hearing strong hints of Nirvana in “Just the Way that I Am,” and there’s a cinematic Spaghetti-western feel to “Another Time (Another Place),” a song that would feel right at home on the soundtrack of an underground 1960s film — or anything by Quentin Tarantino. The fade-out in “Thinking in Pictures” reveals the cool organ riff that undergirds the entire song — so don’t skip ahead when you’re nearing the end of that one!

The punk influence on Thee Rakevines is undeniable. Most of the songs (with the exception of “Thinking in Pictures”) are well under three minutes long. Nonetheless, the band draws on a wide range of musical influences, incorporating 60s garage rock, 90s grunge, psychedelia, and jazz into an amazing debut playlist. Weighing in at just under 23 minutes, This Is “Thee Rakevines” is definitely worth listening to in its entirety in a single sitting.

An Important Antidote to Stress: Curtis Smith Interviews Carol Sabik-Jaffe

Carol Sabik-Jaffe’s scripts have been recognized in numerous screenwriting competitions and optioned by producers. The International Family Film Festival awarded her three Best Screenplay prizes. #BCarefulWhatUWish4 and The Devil’s Due won Best Comedy honors and Living Again, Best Drama. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts granted Carol a Fellowship in Theatre/Scriptworks in 2008.

Carol holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and a BFA in Communication Design from Kutztown University. Her previous career was in advertising as an Art Director. She has taught Screenwriting at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Screenwriting and Writing for TV at Rowan University in New Jersey. She served on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Board of Directors from 2009 – 2019.

Carol is currently working with Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) to bring Victory Lane, a 1hr family drama to TV. In addition to seeking homes for several of her scripts, Carol is also at work adapting a few into books. FIRST NIGHT is her debut novel.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on First Night. Can you tell us about the novel’s origins? Did it start with an image? An observed moment? An imagined scenario? Once you had this starting point, how did the narrative unfold?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Thank you! And thanks for the opportunity to discuss this project!

Originally, I wanted to attempt to tell a story that took place, start to finish, in twenty-four hours. (Yikes!) And, for my first pass at writing this concept I decided as an exercise for myself I would try to write this as a screenplay AND a novel at the same time. I probably wrote the first fifteen or so pages of the script and the beginning of the novel, switching between the two forms. But each is such a very different way of writing I found it incredibly hard to do both at the same time! I quickly abandoned that idea and finished the script. The script received some positive feedback from Hollywood folks as I shopped it around. As some stories and characters do, these characters always stayed with me. I came back to this idea and finished adapting it to a book much later. As I was writing the novel, the script became a very helpful “outline.” (Just add words they said!)

The narrative itself came together as I explored the twenty-four-hour restriction I’d given myself. New Year’s Eve for many is usually fraught with grand expectations and some disappointments, and New Year’s Day in Philly is completely unique… so the setting and time frame became especially intriguing to me.

The importance of midnight and the tie in to the Cinderella trope evolved as I explored the relationship Maria had to her family, the family’s tradition of Mummering, and her wanting to live her own life. The Mummers Parade and the chaos that the characters are challenged with, and overcome, gave me the plot to keep them tenuously moving through predicaments. The common goal to save the day propels them through to the resolution of the story…  of course, it’s a ridiculous twenty-four hours filled with dilemmas and madcap moments that (hopefully) keep you laughing as they reach their triumphant conclusion.

In this story I also wanted to explore the idea of two lives colliding — the idea that people are destined to meet at certain times — Maria and Hunter’s paths crossing seems “serendipitous” but what if it was destiny?

Curtis Smith: The Mummers are in here! It doesn’t get much more Philly than that. I talk with my writing students a lot about place—its importance and what it can bring to a story. So why Philadelphia? What unique aspects of the city and its culture made their way into the novel—and what did these things bring?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Well… I live in the Philly suburbs, worked in Center City for years, and have spent all of my adult life here. Almost all of my stories are set in Philly or the surrounding area. As a screenwriter I was always looking at place as both character and setting. If truth be told, I was also scouting for locations – mostly because I wanted to shoot in my backyard if I could — so the visuals were important!

The idea of incorporating the Mummers into this story was propelled by the NYE/NYDay time frame. FIRST NIGHT is also about family and tradition and is hopefully relatable on those levels to readers. In addition to Mummers, much of the story is very specific to Philadelphia — Broad Street, South Philly, competing cheesesteak joints, restaurants, and bars, etc. — maybe it’s a way to visit the city right now without leaving home. And, as it turned out, the Mummers could not have a parade this year due to Covid, so a bit of Philly New Year’s Day flavor (maybe) served another purpose unbeknownst to me when writing and publishing.

Curtis Smith: I’m all in on the updated Cinderella vibe—and that brings me to a question about structure and form. I admire works that breathe new life into old stories. Was the Cinderella angle there from the beginning—or did it come later, as you got to know Maria? What were the challenges of using and updating this framework?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: The New Year’s Eve setting and the significance of midnight became a way to “loosely” incorporate a reimagined modern “Cinderella” into FIRST NIGHT. So, yes, the Cinderella angle was there from the start. Her life-of-the-party cousins (a twist on the evil step-sisters trope) talk Maria into attending the NYE First Night Ball where she crosses paths (for the second time) with a handsome “Prince” that she dumps at midnight when an emergency arises.

Her overwhelming responsibilities as the team’s solo costume designer (in addition to her real job) and her promise to salvage her family’s Mummer Parade performance further served the “Cinderella” as overworked character. Maria, though reluctant, takes the situation in her own hands without the use of a “fairy godmother” to solve her problems (though there are a few magical moments and people assisting in the background). So admittedly, I was influenced by the parts of fairytale, but did not stay precisely within the original framework. Maria is her own Cinderella.

Curtis Smith: Can I ask about the general vibe here? I admired the humor and the eventual winning of love, but this kind of positivity can be tough, especially given the shape of our nation and the world. Was this a challenge as you wrote First Night? Or was writing it a kind of catharsis?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I began FIRST NIGHT long before Covid-19 and the current challenges we are facing. I believe people always need an escape from their day-to-day and a reason to laugh. Humor is such an important antidote to stress… that said, I especially think it’s crucial right now. We all need a little positivity and an escape once in a while in our lives. I am also happier writing comedy or dramedy in general. Life is dark enough. I don’t necessarily want to swim around in bleak subjects for too long… though I have a psychological thriller I’m shopping around…

Curtis Smith: What’s next?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I’m currently working on the sequel to FIRST NIGHT, titled “A SECOND CHANCE at a FIRST DATE.” I want to explore these characters again… and they’ve been telling me that they have more to say and do.

I’m also working on revising a ½ hour tv comedy titled, MERMAIDS OF MEDIA, PA. — that script has gotten a little attention and I’d love to find a team for it. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu… can you hear me? (Haha.) Additionally, I’m in the process of searching for homes for my other TV and film scripts while deciding on the next one to adapt into a book.

As always, I have numerous ideas in various stages of development!

Interview by Curtis Smith

Agitprop for Bedtime

Let’s just assume that if you’re curious about a book called Agitprop for Bedtime, you have a half-decent sense of humor and will be okay with a very short textual reimagining of the Kama Sutra titled “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex.” On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t get an erection the moment you hear the opening notes of the national anthem, then many of the pieces in Charles Holdefer’s latest collection of miniature polemics, story problems, and humdingers might cut a little too close to the bone for your comfort. For everyone else, it’s a jolly, twisted, phantasmagorical romp through the American psyche.

As with Holdefer’s Dick Cheney in Shorts, this latest collection has a decidedly political edge, with a wide range of targets that include gun rights, healthcare, for-profit prisons and blind patriotism. In many ways, he’s depicting the cartoonish landscape that programmers at Fox News would have their viewers believe lies just beyond the safety of their gated communities. It’s an America where Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein trudge dutifully from house to house like errant trick-or-treaters taking fire-arms from gun-toting citizens while lonely white men on diving boards leap to meaningless deaths in empty swimming pools. It’s a weirdly bleak vision of a nation divided, but a hilarious one as well.

The proceedings, laugh-out-loud funny as they may be to a particular type of reader, offer more than just slapstick comedy. They’re also surprisingly nonpartisan—or at least as nonpartisan as a book of this nature can be. The funhouse-mirror version of America that Holdefer depicts is one that implicates us all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short piece titled “Here Lies a Myriad,” which finds a young couple perusing the menu of a fine-dining establishment whose delicacies, served by heroes, include air strikes, naval destroyers, and infantry while what goes on in the kitchen remains (mercifully?) out of view. Our ignorance, it turns out, is as purposeful as it is central to our continued comfort.

Stylistically, Holdefer is not afraid to take risks and play with form. Plot and character in his short works are often implied and arguably Rorschachian reflections of the reader’s psyche. Personally, I can’t help reading “Kickstart Me Harder, Harder” as a knowing critique of my own (shameful, shameful) past dalliances with crowdfunding and the icky feeling that the practice engenders, while “Love Kit” reads like a work of art-by-instruction gone horribly wrong. Fun, in other words, for the entire family.  

At the end of the day – which, as the title suggests, is arguably the best time to read this collection – Agitprop for Bedtime is a real humdinger that dares to ask the eternal question: Is hell other people, or is it just the coffee shop where they all hang out?