Saturday, September 2, 2017

Those Dark Monsters Within...

“Those dark monsters within”

XFL Blog’s exclusive interview with Jason V. Brock, conducted via E-mail by Matt Allair

XFL Blog’s review of DVD documentary “The Ackermonster Chronicles”, and book review for “The Dark Sea Within” by Matt Allair

For many Philes, they might not be familiar with author and filmmaker Jason V. Brock, but he is a consequential and evolving voice in the field and subgenres of Horror, fantasy, and Science Fiction, he has also an admitted X-Files fan from back in the day. But my personal bonding with Jason came out of our shared passion for iconic genre writer H.P. Lovecraft, a figure we have written about on this blog. Jason is known for being very outspoken, and while open about his liberal leanings, he has been very vocal about the excesses of liberal political correctness, and has made no bones about the misguided aims behind such efforts in relation to deceased authors like Lovecraft. But his interests are varied, and range into a celebration of the life of first generation superfan, Forrest J Ackerman, a man who was involved in the evolving field of Science Fiction literature, and its fandom from as far back as the early 1930s. Ackerman had become the agent to a wide range of notable authors, and an avid collector of classic genre films and publications. Ackerman was also the creator of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, a magazine that, no doubt, X-Files writers Glen and Darin Morgan had followed as children. One can see the review of this great documentary below. His interests also extended into a documentary of television writer Charles Beaumont, whose work is notable in Rod Serling’s seminal series The Twilight Zone, which is another series I have noted that had an impact on the work of The X-Files.

Courtesy of the author

But Jason is notable as a short story author, and this second point might interest X-Files fans who are looking for something dark and interesting. His second collection of Poems and Tales has been issued by Hippocampus Press, ‘The Dark Sea Within’. While the following musings might appear to some fans as six degrees of separation in relation to The X-Files, I felt this would be a great interest. Jason has been gracious and generous with his time, and he is in person a very fun and charming person to interact with (we met during Alien Con in Northern California last year). His devotion to interact with other fans and other authors shows a real commitment to bridge gaps and find common ground in all areas. The format is broken into a review, then interview format, for both the documentary and his book.

“The Ackermonster Chronicles” – A compelling documentary from filmmaker, Author and Musician Jason V Brock about first generation genre super fan Forest J. Ackerman whom began his life as an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy pulps from the 1920s to the 1940s, and became an avid movie fan of all horror and science fiction films from the 1930s onward. Over time he amassed a huge collection of everything conceivable that related to those fields, as well as amassed a great number of industry contacts, both in film and literature. His tale has been occasionally told before, but not with the level of candor and earthiness that one finds here. Jason managed to interview Ackerman before his passing, and Brock managed, in the process, to get many revealing little tales about iconic figures such as Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison. But Jason also managed to get some revelations about Ackerman’s sexual fetishes - little of this white-washes anything. The presentation of the Documentary is also surprising, it doesn’t rely on nostalgic images or genre clichés in how it reveals the human story behind Ackerman and his circle, but rather edgy. He may have been a geek, but he still was a man nevertheless. This presentation seems like a tactic to appeal to Millennial’s whom have little idea of the man, or his role these fledgling fields of Science Fiction and Horror in the early years. The tactic evidently works. The number of people involved in the roster is impressive: Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Dan O’Bannon, John Landis, Joe Dante, Greg Bear, film historian David J. Skal, Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi, and visual effects icon Ray Harryhausen.

Matt Allair: I understand that you first started on the Forrest J Ackerman documentary (The Ackermonster Chronicles! [2012]) before others worked on similar documentaries about Forrest, and that you shot about 30 hours of material. Was it difficult to prioritize what to include?

Jason V Brock: It was, and my wife, Sunni, did an outstanding job as editor. The main reason was that there was so much to cover. Ackerman lived into his 90s, and was a pivotal figure in the development of several areas of popular culture, from fandom to the emergence of science fiction as a mainstay genre in literature and film, to the acceptance of horror by the masses via Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the legitimization of collecting. He was key in all of these roles, not to mention a beloved ham actor appearing in over 200 films and an agent and editor. Along the way, he even managed to cultivate a few outspoken foes (Harlan Ellison pops to mind!), and lifelong friendships with other people he inspired, such as the late Messrs. Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. Inevitably, Sunni had quite a job assembling everything, as I shot what I believe to be the longest interview Forry ever conducted, which ran about eleven hours! It was done in a single day, with a few breaks for food. Later we did some pick-ups to cover things missed in the original interview. To complicate matters, I shot in HD, which at the time was almost unheard of, so we had to have special gear to film and edit. It was sort of a nightmare, technically, back then.

And yes: Ours was the first documentary to be solely about Ackerman. Later, a few others came around and managed to get theirs out before we did, but that was only because they weren’t as thorough. I don’t want to say anything more negative, so I’ll leave it there. I will note that ours went on to win the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Best Documentary in 2014, so that tells you something.

We actually began the interview process in 2006, as I recall. During that time, we were encouraged to do another documentary about a man that Ackerman had agented at one time, the late writer for The Twilight Zone and some of Roger Corman’s Poe films, Charles Beaumont. Beaumont and Ackerman had many of the same friends and so on, so as I shot things for the Ackerman film, I also shot material for the Beaumont effort (Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man [2010]). During these interviews, Ackerman had a serious injury and was hospitalized. While he, we continued to work on the Beaumont documentary, and were able to finish it. After that documentary was done, we had an invitation to have the World Premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, CA. It went very well, with a near capacity turnout of around 400 people from all walks of life: Movie industry folks, reviewers, Twilight Zone fans, and so on. We also had an assembly of people who knew, worked with, or had studied Beaumont at this premiere, including George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, John Tomerlin, Marc Scott Zicree, Ray Bradbury, and Earl Hamner. Other screenings of the film took place all over the world, including a special showing at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas under the invitation of the Founding Director and science fiction legend James E. Gunn.

After about a year, we were able to pick-up with the Ackerman documentary; sadly he passed away before the film was completed, though he did live to see a short 10-minute preview. After the film was completed, we had the World Premiere, by invitation once again, at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica (which, like the Egyptian Theatre in LA, is part of the prestigious American Cinematheque), and panelists there for the audience Q&A included the widow of screenwriter/director Dan O’Bannon (Dan briefly lived with the Ackermans as a teenager), long-time Ackerman assistant Bill Warren, William F. Nolan (Ackerman was his first agent, as he had been with Tomerlin and Beaumont, among many others), and George Clayton Johnson. Again, we had a fantastic turnout, and the documentaries have since been shown numerous times all over the world.

Matt: What was the most difficult interview to secure?

Brock: Well, for Ackermonster, I would have to say it was John Landis, simply due to scheduling. He’s a busy guy. For the Beaumont film it was William Shatner, mainly for the same reason.

We’re completing a third film at present, entitled Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. For that, likely the toughest to secure was Prof. Ernst Fuchs. We had to go to Europe for the majority of the interviews, and he was at work painting an amazing mural inside a chapel in the capital city of Klagenfurt in state of Carinthia, Austria. We had to drive through the Alps from Vienna, and once we arrived, Prof. Fuchs had me deliver a small brass model of a proposed sculpture to him, but the City Hall made me leave my passport as collateral before letting me take it to him! That was a bit of an odyssey.

Matt: It’s one of the few documentaries that is so candid about the sexuality of his era, as well as his sexual fetishes and interests; was the decision to include that aspect of his life intentionally going against the grain about what you would usually see in such documentaries? Did that aspect just naturally unfold as you learned more about him?

Brock: Well, in my films I prefer to uncover the true essence of the individual or topic. As a result, I tend to use unconventional means to achieve this goal. One thing I don’t like—especially if the subject is a person—is to have a narrator. I find that to be an old-fashioned way of doing things. Instead I let the people who knew the person explain to me, in long and candid terms, what the person they knew was like. Over the course of 20 or 30 interviews, one can establish a fuller picture of all aspects of the subject as viewed by others. I call it “peeling away the onion layers.” It gives us, I feel, a much fuller appreciation of the person at the heart of the film.

With respect to sexuality, it was Forry who brought that stuff up. I never got the feeling he was embarrassed or ashamed of it (and he had no reason to be), so we went with it. I found it an interesting window into how his mind worked, and it tied in to idealized notions of the past (such as nudism) as they changed into what we see today. Forry was genuinely fascinated with the good in people, and was what I would deem an optimist. He truly felt that in the future, we would be living by the tenets of what I have come to call the “Utopian Triangle”: everyone speaking Esperanto, living on a spaceship, and nude. He was more complex than just an old guy who liked science fiction books. I wanted to show that.

Matt: The documentary has a very edgy, contemporary presentation, and isn’t packaged with many nostalgic clichés. Was the approach done to appeal to younger Millennial viewers who might not be aware of Forrest’s, or Science Fiction’s, early history?

Brock: It was not done in a contrived way to appeal to a demographic, but if it does, that’s fine with me. It was done as a way to humanize the past, actually.

Matt: When did you first meet Forrest?

Brock: We first met him at San Diego Comic-Con in 2005, where he was doing a signing with Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury.

Matt: Was there particular story you had to omit that you wished you hadn’t?
Brock: Several! There are so many stories told by different people I wished we could have included. Alas, there’s not room for everything! Perhaps more in a future edition. . .

Matt: In the commentary you mentioned being something of a neophyte about Ackerman when you started the project, did what you learn change your perspective about him?

Brock: Well, I understood his impact with respect to Famous Monsters, which I read growing up, but with regard to his importance in the larger scheme of things, that was surprising. To my mind, he’s the fulcrum of bringing this type of literature and film into the present. I say that not only because of his own achievements, but also because of his friendships with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. They have, collectively, inspired millions of people, quite literally. And all over the world. People who love the genre don’t even understand the impact of these men, and I predict none of it would have happened if Ackerman hadn’t been the catalyst.

“The Dark Sea Within: Tales and Poems” By Jason V. Brock – Personally, I find it difficult to be easily captivated by contemporary weird horror or fantasy fiction. Most mass market fiction has been so commoditized to pander to a demographic, and so many genre writers fall into a generic cul-de-sac that provides a comfort eye candy to the reader whom happily takes it all in, it is difficult to find a genre writer that has something to say, and something transgressive that leads to new revelations about the characters depicted. But the purpose of weird horror and fantasy should be to reveal to the reader something new about the human condition that hasn’t been considered. H.P. Lovecraft, within his obsessional interests and neurosis, did open up a view of man as minuscule in a greater scheme of things, that notion ran in contrast to the comforts of Christianity. While Lovecraft did not influence him, Clive Barker’s early work remains some of the most transgressive to come out of the eighties, he’s one writer that moved Lovecraftian sensibilities into new directions, Clive was also unapologetic in celebrating the other as something beautiful. Anne Rice is another example of someone who celebrated the sensuality of the other with new perspectives. Yet the point is that horror and fantasy cannot move forward unless it is transgressive, unless it makes the reader uncomfortable, yet shock tactics are not enough. The reason why filmmakers like George Romero and David Cronenberg remained so interesting is the depth of their best work to have something to say. I am happy to reveal that Jason Brock’s new book reveals an ability to write good, captivating prose, and meets many of the expected above points.

The first tale that I was most curious to check out was ‘Brood’, a Lovecraftian tale that acts as a contemporary sequel to ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, set in the coast of Massachusetts, a Sheriff and deputy investigate the bodies of mutilated half breeds off the coast, and this leads to as grim revelation. ‘The Dark Sea Within’ reminds me of a Clive Barker tale from his short story era – An art dealer, and his girlfriend, lured by the promise of rare art in Prague are lead into other realms.  ‘Memento Mori’ is a vignette that deals with an old man’s recollection of an unusual event from the Second World War. ‘Transposition’ is a surgical horror tale with a O’Henry twist. Thus far his work reveals a writer with a breath of influences. ‘The Shadow of Heaven’ is another Lovecraftian influenced tale of a Military unit in the Arctic that faces a grim outcome. ‘The Man With The Horn’ is another tale of a woman overwhelmed with curiosity about an apartment neighbor that leads cosmic revelations, this tale might remind others of Lovecraft’s “The Music Of Erich Zann’. The tale ‘Verlassen’ manages to have the flavor of a Ray Bradbury tale, introspective.

The tales ‘Unity of Affect’ and ‘Epistles From Dis’ manage to be structurally inventive, in the case of ‘Dis’, the title makes reference to the city in six level of Hell of Dante Alighieri’s poem, ‘Epistles from Dis’ manages to be an ambitious apocalyptic novella that demonstrates his sure hand with working in the longer-form format. In terms of his Poetry, many follow in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, or Lovecraft’s dalliances with Poetry, but they also demonstrate the influences of writers like Milton and Edgar Lee Masters. There are many sides to Jason’s influences and that breath is revealed with each piece. I should note that the book concludes with ‘notes’ about the writing, while this isn’t completely unusual, it is rare to see a writer willing to share his through process and inspiration behind each work. The closest example I can think is musician Pete Townshend who is very open about his creative process. Jason V. Brock is a writer with great promise, although already very accomplished, I would be intrigued to see where could go with a longer-form Novel. Fans who have an interest in the weird fantasy field should celebrate such a new voice, recommended.

Matt: Your second collection, The Dark Sea Within, is very eclectic in its prose styles; was the selection process difficult?

Jason V Brock: Not really, I have always written in a variety of styles and with a broad thematic base. I like to challenge myself, and I like to gently confound expectations. The main thing is getting the flow of the book to be a smooth experience for readers. Of course, some people dislike poetry, so they can skip those if they wish.

Matt: Since the publication of Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, how many years did it take to write the tales and poems in Dark Sea?

Brock: Well, not too long, actually. I had the bulk of the material together in a couple years. I write very quickly, and generally have three to five story requests in the hopper at any given moment. The longest part of the process for me is perfecting the pieces and handling final revisions before going to press on a collection. I am a chronic reviser, and enjoy that aspect of writing.

I did have to put in a great deal of work on the novella that debuted in Dark Sea entitled Epistles from Dis. I had been working on that piece—which clocks in at about 23,000 words—off and on for roughly ten years. It is a complex work, and involves a sweep of history as well as a lot of research related to the machinations of the disaster that unfolds in the story. It was fun to do, but tough as well. At the moment I am building the contents for my third collection, tentatively called Grotteschi: Further Explorations of the Kafkaesque. I hope to have it ready for early 2019. It’s about half-completed now; I have to wait for some of the pieces to appear in print before I can release it, though.

Matt: You are known for being an advocate for writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson: Is there a writer that has influenced you that would surprise most people?

Brock: I think most people would be very surprised to learn about one in particular. He was a fine literary writer named Richard Selzer. His work is lyrical, but rooted in reality. He began as a surgeon, and his book Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery is one of my favorites of all time. I had the chance to publish him once, and he was great to work with. A real gentleman. I also really admire the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Rod Serling, O’Bannon, David Bowie, William S. Burroughs. The aforementioned members of The Group, of course, and the cohort they influenced: Dennis Etchison, Peter Atkins, et al. (In fact, our publishing shingle, Cycatrix Press, is re-issuing Etchison’s Masters of the Weird Tale Centipede volume, It Only Comes Out at Night, in paperback.) Also the theatre has been a big influence; I was really into plays and theatre in high school. And the poet Dante.

Matt: Do you see a moral thread that runs through most of your story telling?

Brock: One theme is “be careful what you wish for.” I see others, but that one is recurrent. Also “things are not always what they seem to be.”

Matt: Is a lot of your story telling based on personal experiences? Is any of your fictional work autobiographical in some manner?

Brock: Most of my work has some tinge of biographical material. Many of my characters reflect amalgamations of aspects that I have, for better or worse. And liberal doses of imagination, of course.

Matt: I’m always fascinated with the issue of societal censorship, which seems to be an on-going scenario, and with artists—be they writers, musicians, painters, or filmmakers—the issue of self-censorship. Has there ever been an image, idea, or sequence that you thought of, to which you decided ‘It’s too extreme, I can’t go there’, when you were developing your work?

Brock: No. I am generally most interested in ideas that challenge or excite me. I have dialed back some of the baser elements of gore that I had in my earlier efforts. I was interested in medicine, and still am, and would frequently go for realism in describing things. Sometimes that grueling for a reader. So I learned to temper that with more flair with respect to style. It’s not so much about endurance as it is about conveying messages in my work. Sometimes the extreme parts stepped on that, though I have been known to be extreme from time-to-time!

Matt: Now that you have several story collections under your belt, do you feel ready to work on a long form novel?

Brock: I do, certainly. I have done a variety of long-form pieces now, ranging from 11,000 to more than 20,000 words. My literary agent, Cherry Weiner, is after me to complete my novel series, the first of which is tentatively called (UnSub). This is the beginning of a trilogy about a specific character, a woman named Sinthya Morrigan. She is an FBI investigator in the Behavioral Sciences Unit, and starts the series with her coming in to clean up a serial murder investigation in the Pacific Northwest, which is where I now reside. It’s a police procedural/crime book in part, but with a strong supernatural element. The trilogy is all mapped out; I’m finishing the first book.

I also have a Weird fiction short novel entitled The Kellen Diaries on the backburner. It will be a sort of lost document book about a specific character, and drawing on the Weird tradition, a bit of Lovecraft, and also Southern Gothic ideas. The latter is a natural draw for me, considering I am from the South, so it feels comfortable. Along the way, I plan on an S-F novel, and a couple others I have ideas for. William F. Nolan and I are working on several projects as well—one is his forthcoming Centipede Press Masters of the Weird Tale series omnibus (due in early 2018), and his memoirs, currently titled Nolan’s Run, due in 2018 as well from Dark Regions Press; I am serving as editor for those two. I have also outlined another novel—with Nolan’s blessing, as he wants me to assume the mantle for the literary franchise—which is an extension of the Logan’s Run universe, called Logan Falls.

Additionally, I have planned a couple nonfiction books of scholarship—one on The Group, and one about film, music, literature, and art, similar to, but wider in scope, than my Bram Stoker and Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award Finalist book from 2014, Disorders of Magnitude. Then there is my semi-regular ongoing print/online anthology/periodical Nameless Digest which will see two issues out this year, with some fantastic stuff in them, including original stories by Ramsey Campbell, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and a new Thomas Ligotti interview from Darrell Schweitzer.

Lastly, S. T. Joshi, the scholar, critic, and anthologist, and I are planning a new book called Future Weird for 2018. Should be pretty interesting, as it merges the non-Lovecraftian Weird with Science Fiction; we already have some excellent contributions for it. Very interesting admixture, that.

Matt: Are you optimistic about the current field of Science Fiction, Horror, or Fantasy Literature in 2017?

Brock: Overall, I suppose. Right now, there seems to be quite a bit of overtly preachy material out there. I think that will date badly as social mores change and people get tired of being lectured to; we’re not children here, for the most part. We can handle ideas that are different from our own, or at least I can, and the people I generally associate with.

There is also a bad trend toward PCism that needs to be kicked to the curb. “Artists” who are PC aren’t artists: They’re politicians yearning for acceptance, I feel. Now, there’s nothing wrong with addressing ethical concerns, or moral dilemmas, or recasting things contextually, but trying to dictate terms to people and hammer at them if they differ from your overly-rigid worldview is not only foolish, but dangerous. That’s mind control. Groupthink. I’m against it. I refer to these types as “Stalinists” but they aren’t that organized. They’re reactionaries, mainly. I am personally liberal, and find the very notion of people telling me what to think—or, even worse, the “correct” way to think—to be unacceptable. I’ll decide for me, thanks.

Along those lines, casting people into the lake of fire over a political stance is not only counter-productive, it’s a streak of self-righteous idiocy and narcissism that I find to be anathema to the tolerance, understanding, and compassion I was raised to be mindful of. It also stymies being the person who wants to grow as a creator and a human being; it involves too much talking and not enough listening; wanting to be “right” and not open to other points-of-view; even if someone has an outré or negative set of ideas, hearing them out is not an endorsement. It’s an acceptance that they are different in their perspective. That’s all. It won’t “turn you into _______” to listen, think, then formulate a reply rather than simply react in regurgitated, half-digested stereotypes and cockamamie ideas of pseudo-justice. We have to try and come to terms with one another, not just condemn people who are different than we are: How is that any different that being a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe, or an ageist? That sort of unenlightened “thinking” violates my personal ethos.

There’s been way too much of that in the literary community of late. Enough already. Don’t become what you hate.

Matt: Due to the nature of this blog, I understand you are an X-Files fan, do you have a favorite episode or season?

Brock: I do! My favorite is the one where Scully and Mulder visited the retired sideshow community in Florida. Season 2, episode 20: "Humbug." I especially love it as I am frequently treated like a freak in real-life by people who have a hard time appreciating my takes on things.
I also tend to gravitate toward the misunderstood; that, too, is a large thematic concern in my work. I can trace it back to my upbringing in the rural South: We were poor, and I frequently felt the sting of ridicule over that, which was out of my control, of course. Most of my friends were the same, and I had a bit of a split childhood, first with my mother, then later with my father (who was mixed race) and stepmother. Looking back, growing up that way, in those conditions, gives one insight into humanity that you can’t get any otherwise.

Jason is a fascinating figure, and all areas of his work are worth looking into. You can Purchase The Ackerman documentary here, as well as his new collection of tales The Dark Sea Within here. Or via Amazon.

You can find Jason V. Brock via his Twitter, his Facebook, or his website with his wife Sunni.

Special thanks to Jason for his time!


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