Thursday, August 10, 2017

Purchasing a Time Machine from Joe Lansdale

While I've always enjoyed reading, I did not become the voracious reader I am today until after high school. Up to that point, I'd read a novel or a short story here and there as something caught my attention. Now, I'm never without a book on the nightstand. Honestly, I don't remember what it was that caused the switch to flip, but once it did there was no going back.

It was during this first frenzy of reading everything I could get my hands on that I discovered so many great writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Shirley Jackson . . . and Joe Lansdale. Most I discovered browsing the shelves in the Allen Texas Public Library or at the various Half Price Books in the greater Dallas area I frequented, picking up books at random and seeing what caught my interest. But not Lansdale.

I first heard about Champion Joe, of all places, on Dallas's alternative rock station, 102.1 The Edge (R.I.P.). I was working at Guitar Center at the time and a handful of us decided to go out for a late dinner after our shift ended. We decided on the Bennigan's (R.I.P.) off Northwest Highway and the Toll Road. I'd never been and this was before everyone carried around a handy GPS system in their pocket. My buddy Nathan gave me directions and I headed out. For those of you in suspense, I made it there fine, but not before first missing my exit. Not a big deal, except this was the last exit for something ridiculous like five miles. As a result, I was in the car for something like 15-20 minutes longer than I might have been.

During that time, I had the radio on to keep me company. Normally The Edge played alt. rock--Nirvana and Green Day and Sublime and Weezer--but for some strange reason that night the D.J. was talking about this crazy new movie called Bubba Ho-Tep, which was playing at The Angelika theater. In it, Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in a rest home in east Texas. He teams up with an African-American man in a wheelchair who may or may not be John F. Kennedy to--wait for it--defeat a mummy that is sucking the souls of the occupants of the rest home.

Now, if that doesn't sound like a great movie to you, then we have very different taste in cinema.

Don Coscarelli, of Phantasm fame, directed the film, and it was he who was talking to the D.J. In the process of doing so, he mentioned that Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a novella by a Texas writer named Joe R. Lansdale.

I committed the name to memory. Anyone who would come up with such a concept was someone whose work I wanted read.

Some time later (I don't remember how long, though probably not more than a few days), I ascended the stairs to the fiction section of the library, searching out Mr. Lansdale's work. (I also made it a priority to see Bubba Ho-Tep ASAP, and if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor.) The library had a handful of Lansdale titles, mostly novels. I'm pretty sure they had The Bottoms and I'd be willing to bet there was at least one Hap and Leonard mystery in there. But what drew my eye was a short story collection called Bumper Crop.

I'll often start with a writer's short stories when picking up his or her work for the first time. For one thing, I love short stories. And for another, I figure I'll get a wider sense of his or her writing that way. If I happen to pick up a stinker of a novel, I'll have spend hours of time reading it and it may turn me off of said author for some time. But if I run across a bad short story, well, that was twenty minutes of my life I'll never get back, but I can always go on and see if the next one is more to my taste.

In the case of Lansdale, I needn't have worried. I've read dozens of novels, short stories, and essays by the guy and I've loved every one. Including all the stories in Bumper Crop. If you like short horror fiction, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Recently, I was at ArmadilloCon, in Austin. It's Lansdale's "home-base" convention. He's there, so far as I know, just about every year. Lansdale rents out space in the Dealer's Room, selling books and chatting with folks who drop by. I always make it a point to pay his booth a visit and pick up a couple autographed copies of his books. This year, I picked up High Cotton, another collection of his stories and--you guessed it--Bumper Crop. I'd seen Bumper Crop around in various used bookstores from time to time (sadly, it's out of print, though available as an ebook), but never plunked down the dollars to buy it. I figured I'd already read it and there were other Lansdale titles to spend money on. But when I saw a new-old-stock copy sitting on Lansdale's table, and with the knowledge that he's sign it to me, I went ahead and took the plunge, figuring it would be cool to have a signed copy of the first Joe R. Lansdale book I'd ever read.

I hadn't particularly been planning on re-reading Bumper Crop. Though I hadn't planned on not re-reading it. I figured it would look nice on the shelf and when I was feeling like a Lansdale short, I'd pull it down. But when I got home from the convention, I started paging through it. Soon I was reading the thing cover-to-cover. (I'm about a third of the way through as I write this.)

Let me just say that Bumper Crop is a total time machine, for me. Re-reading the stories contained therein transports me right back to that time when I was first discovering so many great stories, novels, and writers. Reading Bumper Crop is like putting in a mixed tape (or in my generation's case, a burned CD) of all your favorite songs from high school--and they all still hold up! Something I can't say for the actual songs I listen to in high school.

In the years since I first read Bumper Crop, I've read thousands of short stories, and in doing so have become, I'll admit, a little jaded. While revisiting Champion Joe's early stories, I'm the guy I was when I first heard that interview on The Edge and couldn't wait to get to the library to check this guy out.

A time machine for twenty bucks. Not a bad deal.

Monday, August 7, 2017

ArmadilloCon 39 Report

Another ArmadilloCon is in the books, and I must say, it was a good one.

Highlights included but were not limited to:

- Hanging out with great folks.

- Barconning until it was much, much too late. (Seriously, guys. I fear I'm getting old.)

- Sitting in the audience for some great panels.

- Being on some great panels.

- Closing out the convention by attending Howard Waldrop's reading for the first time.

- Listening to folks read their kickass stories.

- Doing my first reading at a convention. (Big, big thanks to everyone who was able to be there! I love you all!)

- I'm sure I'm forgetting a ton; it's quite the whirlwind.

Lowlights were:

- The tasteless and yet somehow still gross-tasting Subway sandwich I scarfed down between panels on Sunday.

- That's it! So overall, I'd say it was a big win.

Looking forward to next year!

Friday, August 4, 2017

ArmadilloCon 2017

My ArmadilloCon schedule is below, in case you want to come stalk me this weekend--which is totally fine by me!

**You should especially come to my reading on Saturday at 9 p.m. in the Conference Center. THERE WILL BE FABULOUS PRIZES!**

Full schedule:

Sa1100BD Short Fiction, Magazines vs. Online
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon Ballroom D

Sat 9:00 PM-9:30 PM Conference Center

Su1100DR Signing
Sun 11:00 AM-Noon Dealers' Room

Su1200BD Clarke Centenial: 2001 Space Oddysey
Sun Noon-1:00 PM Ballroom D

Su1400BF What Shorter SF&F works should you have read this year?
Sun 2:00 PM-3:00 PM Ballroom F

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli

I don't really read science fiction novels much these days. With as many science fiction short stories as I read in order to assemble The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF series, when it comes time to wind down with a book, I find myself reaching for different genres. When I do read a science fiction novel, I tend to gravitate toward older works that I've meant to read but haven't gotten around to. All this to say, if a science fiction novel came out in the last three or four years, there's a stunningly good chance I haven't cracked its spine.

But I made an exception for Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet. The premise was just too interesting. I couldn't resist.

With Another Girl, Another Planet, Lou Antonelli gives us the 20th Century we deserved rather then the 20th Century we got. It's an alternate history story in which Admiral Robert A. Heinlein (yes, that Robert A. Heinlein) convinces the United States and the U.S.S.R. to work together on a joint space program, rather than against one another in an escalating arms race. As a result, by 1985 (when our story is set) there is a thriving colony on the Moon and the frontier has moved to Mars.

The hero of the story is Dave Shuster, a low-level bureaucrat who is sent to the Mars colony to take over a vacant administration position. Once there, however, he discovers that the Martian governor has died while he was en route. Shuster is now interim leader of the colony.

The engine for Antonelli's plot is an Asmovian mystery involving a mysterious robot and android factory on Mars and a missing girl (an old flame of Shuster's) back in New York City. The mystery is well-done and kept me turning pages, and Shuster, who narrates the novel, is a likable protagonist with a great voice.

But the real joy of the novel is the world that Antonelli has created. For one thing, it's incredibly well thought out. More than that, it's just downright fun. In Another Girl, Another Planet, familiar faces from our timeline turn up in different settings throughout. Familiar technology such as fax machines exist alongside Moon-to-Mars rocketships. To say too much would be to ruin the fun of the novel, so I'll just mention two things that typify what I'm talking about. The first is when Dave Shuster finds a cassette of Buddy Holly's early material, from 1957 - 1961, before he and The Beatles became engaged in the U.S. vs. Britain Music Wars. Another is that we find out what happened to famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper in this timeline.

If I have a criticism to level against the novel it's that, from time to time, the forward movement of the plot is sidelined so that some aspect of the alternate timeline and/or retro-futuristic technology can be explained. But these diversions are so entertaining that it's hard to say that they should have been cut. I certainly would have missed them. Readers not as enamored with 20th Century history and pop culture might find themselves a little lost in all of the references, but I suspect that, for the most part, they will just sail on by, not causing a distraction.

Published by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's Wordfire Press, Another Girl, Another Planet is available now. Here's a link to it on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, you can buy a DRM-free version from

If there were more books like Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet, I'd read a whole lot more modern science fiction novels. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anatomy of a Paragraph: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

Anyone who has talked to me about books and/or writing for more than ten minutes has probably heard me fawn over the crime writer Lawrence Block. I've read more books by Block than any other author. (It helps that his published novels run into three digits.) Though he's been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and won multiple awards in the field, I still think he's criminally (pun!) underrated. His sales, so far as I know, are quite good, but it's a crying shame that he doesn't regularly top the bestseller lists.

One of the things I like so much about Block's work is how deceptively simple it is. He is by no means a flashy writer. You don't pause in reading his work to marvel over his sentences. You don't set the book down to appreciate his intricate plots. As a writer, when you read his work, you think, "That doesn't look so hard; I could do that."

And then you try to and you realize just how difficult writing as "simply" as Lawrence Block really is.

Block reminds me of Count Basie's longtime guitar player Freddie Green. Green spent his entire career playing one-, two-, and three-note chords, in a swing quarter-note rhythm. Easy, right? Well, many is the jazz guitarist who has spent a lifetime trying to ape Green's style, only to fall short.

Or think of Sinatra. The dude makes singing those classic songs from the Great American Songbook look effortless. Yeah, well you just try sing that well and make it look so effortless.

That's what Lawrence Block's writing is like. He makes what is actually very hard look incredibly easy.

I was reminded of this fact when reading the sixth Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. In the second chapter of the book, Scudder is taking the reader on a tour of the summer of 1975, when the novel is set, as well as through the New York neighborhood in which he lives. Scudder tells of the bars that he frequents, and then he narrates the following paragraph, which is what I wanted to talk about, to illustrate Block's deceptively simple style:

On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other. One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty. I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar. The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Nothing special right? Dude is just talking about a couple restaurants. Who cares? Why is this even in the book? Shouldn't a good editor have told Block to cut this so that we could get on with the story?

Let's take a closer look, sentence by sentence. Because I think this paragraph is secretly brilliant. It gives us so much information in such an economic way.

Sentence one: On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other.

First the obvious. Block (through Scudder) is telling us that this particular block in NYC features two French restaurants. Okay, got it. But notice how he places them "one next to the other." This tips us off to the fact that we are going to be comparing these two establishments side-by-side. They're positioned so that we can't help but think of one except in terms of the other. Maybe not the most revealing sentence of all time, but it's laying the groundwork for what is to come.

Sentence two: One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. We get the name of one restaurant, but not the other. Mont-St.-Michel is important in a way that Other-French-Restaurant isn't. It's in the second clause that we learn how. It is always three-quarters empty. Not a quarter empty. Not half empty. And certainly not a quarter full. The line is "always three-quarters empty." So Mont-St. Michel is a perpetual loser. They don't attract a crowd. They're a little rundown in the heels. It's not the sort of place you would take a date to impress her. Only . . .

Sentence three: I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar.

. . . Matt Scudder does. In this sentence we tip to what Block is doing. He's using Mont-St.-Michel as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Notice Scudder doesn't take "dates" there. He doesn't take "girlfriends" or "partners" there. He takes "women" there. This is the most casual term Block could have used, the most distant way of describing these relationships. Because Matt Scudder (at this point in his life) isn't the sort of man who has romantic relationships. It also tells us what kinds of evenings out these were: he took the women to a nearly empty French restaurant. Now, perhaps Mont-St.-Michel is one of NYC's "best kept secrets." Only we know damn well it's not. Block doesn't mention the food. He doesn't mention the decor. He doesn't mention the atmosphere except to say that it's "three-quarters empty." Scudder may like the women he's taking out to dinner, but he's not out to impress them.

We also learn that he stops in from time to time to have a drink at the bar, alone. Now, if you've read the first chapter and a half that leads up to this paragraph (to say nothing of the five books in the series that come before), you'll know that Scudder is an alcoholic. But even separated out from context, we get a hint of that. Who but someone with a drinking problem is going to stop in at a deserted French restaurant to drink at the bar by himself?

Sentence four: The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Block could have stopped at sentence three and this would still be a paragraph worth talking about. But he doesn't, and it's this fourth sentence that elevates this passage from good to great. Scudder starts the paragraph setting up two French restaurants. He then gives us information on one but not other. He uses this first restaurant as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Now, in the fourth and final sentence, he addresses the second. And it is in this fourth sentence that our impression of Matt Scudder is cemented. He never gives a name to the second restaurant. It is "the establishment next door." He tells us that it "had a good reputation," implying that the first establishment does not, and that it "did a better business," implying that the food is better, the atmosphere is more lively, the service more genteel. And yet . . . he never "set foot inside it." Notice the total disdain in his tone. He doesn't just not eat there. Not "setting a foot inside" an establishment strongly implies a code of conduct on the part of the person whose foot isn't being set inside. Scudder won't go there, won't take dates there, purposely. It's not that Mont-St.-Michel is more conveniently located or that he likes it better. Scudder frequents it not in spite of but because it's rundown. He's attracted to the gutter. He refuses to go to the nicer restaurant that is right next door, because that is not who he is.

All of this from what seems like a throwaway paragraph about a couple of restaurants. One paragraph, four sentences, not even ostensibly about the protagonist of the book and yet the reader comes away from it knowing who Matt Scudder is down to the core.

Block's work is full of stuff like this. Simple, straight-forward prose that doesn't draw attention to itself but that conveys an incredible amount of information and emotion.

Block makes it look easy, but writing that simply takes a lot of hard work.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The Dead Thing" in Disturbed Digest

My short story "The Dead Thing" appears in the June 2017 issue of Disturbed Digest. You can pick yourself up a copy here.

"The Dead Thing" was originally written for the Hank Davis-edited anthology Things from Outer Space. It started the way perhaps half of my short stories start: with a title. Shortly after coming up with the title, the first few words popped into my head. They are: "We found the dead thing . . ." From there, I just kept writing (with one major interruption, more on that in a second) until the story ended, not really knowing what was going to happen or how things were going to turn out. That's not particularly common for me. Usually, I have an idea of how a story is going to end, and I often outline the whole thing. But not always, and not this time.

The danger of flying by the seat of your pants that way is that too often you get lost or paint yourself into a corner and the story never gets finished. For a while, I thought that would be the case with "The Dead Thing." I hit a roadblock about halfway through and put it aside, hoping that I might find my way to the ending, but assuming that I wouldn't, that the story would remain incomplete.

Then, I sat down one day, opened up "The Dead Thing" file on the trusty ol' laptop and . . . kept writing. It took a few days, but I made it to the end of the story, and was really quite pleased with how it turned out. I sent it off to Hank, hopeful that he'd accept it.

However, Hank wasn't able to use the story. It was a good story, he assured me, and he'd like to put it in the anthology, but the ending was too similar to that of another story that he'd already purchased for the book. The two stories were really quite different, and the endings weren't identical, but they were close enough that they would feel odd sitting next to each other in a table of contents. Such are the breaks!

But I really liked "The Dead Thing" and didn't want to relegate it to the trunk. I'm glad to see that it found a home in Disturbed Digest's Fifth Anniversary Double Issue.

Incidentally, when Hank said he wasn't able to use "The Dead Thing" for Things from Outer Space, I assumed I'd missed my chance to be included in the anthology. The deadline was looming and I didn't have anything appropriate to send in and no ideas for a new story.  Then my story "As It Lays" popped into my head, fully formed, one morning. I sent it off to Hank and he said he'd be glad to use it in Things from Outer Space.

[Paul Harvey voice]: And now you know . . . the rest of the story!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Trilogy of Terror

Today, we continue our Karen-Black-a-thon with what is probably the movie for which she is best know, 1975's Trilogy of Terror. Usual disclaimers about spoilers: there are spoilers here.

Directed by Dan Curtis and written by William F. Nolan and Richard Matheson, based on three short stories by Matheson, Trilogy of Terror was an ABC movie of the week. As the title suggests, it is an anthology film, comprised three separate stories. The three segments all star Black and are named for the protagonist of each segment (Julie, Millicent and Therese, and Amelia), but otherwise no effort is made to connect the three segments, which is probably just as well.

It's interesting to note that two of the principle contributors to the film were reticent about it. Matheson wasn't keen on the idea of an anthology film, believing audiences wouldn't get invested in the characters or story lines, and Karen Black at first turned down the part(s), only agreeing later when her then-husband was cast as the date-raping Chad in the first segment, Julie. Matheson has since praised the film, but I'm not sure Black is pleased she changed her mind about starring in the movie. As I said at the top of this post, Trilogy of Terror is Black's best known work, and since starring in it, she's been forever associated with the horror genre, much to her chagrin. Up to this point, Black had been an A-list actress, garnering an Academy Award nomination for her role in Five Easy Pieces. After Trilogy of Terror, she pretty much became a horror icon. That said, she delivers four standout performances here, so while it's a little awkward knowing Black probably regrets doing the film, it doesn't really diminish its effectiveness.

Let's talk about the movie, then, shall we?

As I said, each segment was based on a Richard Matheson short story. Matheson is, of course, the author of so many classic science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, as well as being an accomplished screenwriter. He wrote, among other things, the classic Twilight Zone episodes, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and The Invaders (more on this later), as well as the novel I Am Legend, which, if you've only seen the Will Smith movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. William F. Nolan adapted the first two segments, with Matheson adapting the third.

After watching the movie again recently, I went back and re-read all three stories. I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the stories with the segments of the film. Fortunately, all three are in Collected Stories of Richard Matheson, Volume 3

So on to segment 1: Julie

Chad is a college student who has an interest in photography (this will become important later). One day, he and a buddy are sitting around campus, checking out all the hot young co-eds, whom Chad refers to as "dogs." Then Ms. Julie Eldrich, their English lit teacher, walks by and Chad finds himself wondering what she looks like "under all those clothes." Julie is as school-marmy as they come, wearing high-buttoning collars and long, full skirts, her hair up in a  Victorian bun.

Chad peeps at Julie's window where he sees her undressed. Inflamed by this, he asks Julie to go see a drive-in movie with him. She demurs, saying she could be fired for dating a student, but Chad is relentless and Julie agrees. At the drive in movie Chad drugs Julie's coke (!) and takes her to a motel where he photographs her in various compromising positions (!!) and date rapes her (!!!).

Later, he shows Julie the pictures he's developed and blackmails her into being a kind of sex slave for him. (There's also a gang rape pretty strongly implied. Chad says he wants her to come over to "meet some friends of his." Yikes, 1975!)

Three months pass and it is taking a toll on Julie. Her work is suffering and she isn't acting herself.

Then we get to the classic Matheson twist. Chad demands Julie do something or other and she refuses. Chad reminds her who is in charge only for Julie to blow him off. You see, Julie has been behind this all along. She's the one who planted these ideas in his mind. (How is never stated, but something supernatural is implied.) She's been pulling the strings. And now she's bored. She tells Chad not to feel bad, she always gets bored sooner or later. Chad begins to choke on the drink Julie's just given him. He collapses, dead. Julie drags the body into his darkroom and lights the developing chemicals on fire.

The next day, Chad's death is reported in the paper. Julie snips the article and puts it in her scrapbook, which is filled with similar headlines of attractive, young men who have gone too soon to their deaths. Just as the segment ends, there's a knock at Julie's door. A young man saw her ad for tutoring. She invites him in and, we are too assume, the cycle begins again.

Julie is the second best segment of Trilogy of Terror. The performances are strong and the twist is appropriately twisty.

It was based on Matheson's story "The Likeness of Julie," which I think works better, however, if only slightly. In the story, we get more of a sense that Chad (whose name is Eddy in the story), is not in his right mind. He's disgusted with himself when he gets the idea to drug Julie's coke. He can't understand why he's become so obsessed with her. This makes the twist ending make more sense. In the film, Chad is presented as the kind of sleezeball who would come up with just such a thing himself. His pursuit of the older, homely Ms. Eldrich seems like a bored kid wanting a challenging conquest. One change that Nolan made that improved the story, however, was making Julie a teacher rather than a fellow student, as in Matheson's story. The power dynamics make for a more interesting tale and Julie's reasoning for not wanting the photos to be make public (losing her job as well as ruining her reputation) are more plausible.

Fun facts:

The movie playing at the drive-in where Chad drugs Julie is a black and white copy of The Night Stalker, which was written by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis.

Nolan peppers the script with references to his literary heroes. Julie's last name in the story was "Eldridge" but Nolan changes it to "Eldrich" a play, no doubt, on H.P. Lovecraft's favorite word "eldritch." When Chad checks in at the motel, the false name he gives is "Jonathan Harker," as in the character from Dracula. And finally, Ms. Eldrich lists Dashiell Hammett among the greats of early twentieth century literature. Nolan is a huge Hammett fan; he has written a Hammett biography and has included a fictionalized version of Hammett in his detective series "The Black Mask Boys."

Segment 2: Millicent and Therese

Millicent and Therese are twin sisters, though the two of them couldn't be more unalike. Millicent is a wholesome, conservative lady while Therese is a wild woman who seduces men and practices witchcraft and other dark arts. Though neither woman can stand the other, they are forced to live together in their deceased father's house. Until one day Millicent gets an idea. She'll use Therese's voodoo against her. She creates a voodoo doll of her sister and rams a needle through its heart.

We then cut to Millicent's psychiatrist friend. He comes over and discovers the dead body of Therese. As the ambulence takes Therese away, the doctor removes Therese's wig and wipes off her lipstick and we see that she was Millicent all along. He tells the orderlies that Millicent and Therese are the same woman, and that she had the most advanced case of multiple personality disorder he had ever seen.

This is the slightest segment of the movie, but that's to be expected given that the original story on which it was based is about two pages long. Nolan did a fine job of padding the story out without it feeling at all padded, and it works very well. It works better here as it's more of a real story rather than a vignette.

Millicent and Therese continues the kinky sex party started in Julie. Millicent reveals to one of Therese's boyfriends that Therese told her all about the weird lovemaking they engaged in. Once again, it's not stated, but is pretty heavily implied that there's some S&M stuff going on. Also, Millicent tells Dr. Ramsay that Therese seduced and slept with their father. So add incest to the list of weird sex stuff in this movie. And somehow this was on primetime TV back in the day.

The twist at the end is something of a cliche now, but that's something that can't be helped. I do think, if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, that it's still a rather shocking and well-done twist, even if it's one that has been done elsewhere before and since.

Not as much fun trivia from this segment, but fans of Punky Brewster will recognize Dr. Ramsay as Henry Warnamont.

Segment 3: Amelia

Oh Shit!

And here's what we've all been waiting for. The first 2/3 of Trilogy of Terror are excellent. Don't get me wrong. But Amelia is what pushes the movie into all-time great status.

Amelia is a young professional, living in a sub-leased apartment, away from her overbearing mother for the first time in her life. She likes her newfound freedom, though she and Mother still go out every Friday night.

Well, this Friday Amelia has other plans. She's been dating an anthroplogy professor from the local college and it's his birthday and the two were going to spend the evening together. Amelia calls her mother to tell her this and it goes . . . not well. She tries to change to conversation to something lighter by telling Mother what she got her boyfriend for his birthday: a genuine Zuni fetish doll. About 18 inches high, the doll has a face not even a mother could love, with beady eyes and rows of jagged teeth. It holds a spear and around its waist is a gold chain. A scroll that came with the doll informs her that his name is He Who Kills. That the spirit of He Who Kills is trapped inside the doll, held in place by the chain.

Amelia gets off the phone with her mother and sets the doll on the coffee table. Then the gold chain falls off and the shit hits the fan. The doll comes to life and chases Amelia around her apartment, inflicting some serious damage with a kitchen knife and his teeth. In the end, Amelia traps the doll in the oven and we see him burn to a cinder. Then Amelia opens the oven door. Something rushes out at her and we cut to what would have been a commercial break.

In the next scene, Amelia places a call to her mother and apologizes. She invites her mother over. Then she removes the largest knife from the block in the kitchen and crouches down to wait. The camera zooms in and Amelia's face splits open in a hungry grin, revealing rows of sharp pointed teeth. She is now the vessel for He Who Kills.

Amelia was based on Matheson's story "Prey" and I think that the two versions are pretty well equal, though I might give a slight edge to the movie version. The doll should look ridiculous--and to some eyes it might--but it works for me. It's genuinely menacing. I think the filmmakers made a brilliant decisions to get gory pretty fast. That helps to up the stakes here. And the design of the doll is really pretty grotesque. It also helps that Curtis went the Jaws route and didn't show the doll as much as he might. It's mostly glimpsed in short bits, never still, always moving. Again, this helps keep the appropriate menacing tone.

Amelia/"Prey" is one in a long line of living doll horror stories, but I think it might just be the best.

Fun Facts:

Matheson originally conceived this idea as an episode of The Twilight Zone, but was told it was too grim. He reworked it with a science fiction twist and it was aired as The Invaders. Later, he wrote it as a short and then adapted it for Trilogy of Terror.

Stephen King wrote a very similar story called "Battleground" that was undoubtedly influenced by either The Invaders or "Prey" or both. (King is a huge Matheson fan.) In it, a hit man is chased around his apartment by an army of toy soldiers. "Battleground" was adapted to the small screen for the King anthology series Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The teleplay was penned by Richard Christian Matheson, Richard Matheson's son. In one shot, we see a curio cabinet in the hitman's apartment. In it is a replica of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror. Also, the episode has no dialogue, a tribute to The Invaders, which is dialogue-less until the final few minutes of the episode (excluding Serling's opening narration).

The pointy teeth Amelia sports at the end of the movie were Karen Black's idea. She was afraid audiences wouldn't understand that Amelia had become He Who Kills otherwise. Dan Curtis was at first against it, but decided to try it. It's a good thing he did. I think most folks would have figured out the story without them, but those teeth add a great little stinger at the end.

Majestic Studios offered a replica Zuni fetish doll for sale a few years back. You can find one on eBay right now for $200. So if anyone is looking for a present for me . . .

Overall, Trilogy of Terror is absolutely worth your time. As of right now, it's streaming  on Amazon (free if you're a Prime member). Sadly, the DVD is out of print, but used copies can be found for reasonable prices.

If you like Twilight Zone, Tales from the  Crypt, Night Gallery, etc., you absolutely have to check out Trilogy of Terror.