Angel‘s “The House Always Wins” and Pissing It All Away

Angel, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as so many other good shows throughout television history, still occasionally suffered from the odd episode that was clearly filler and failed to really connect with fans.  “The House Always Wins,” the third episode of season 4, was one such installment, but it has one particular plot device that still speaks to me today, which I feel somewhat redeems what is generally regarded as an uneven, bland episode.

The Spin-and-Win, a gambling wheel rigged by the episode’s villain, the casino owner Lee DeMarco, is only accessible by guests chosen by the casino.  DeMarco uses Lorne’s ability to read people’s auras and see their futures, and with this information, chooses the ones with the most profitable destinies.  They are given a special gambling chip to play the Spin-and-Win, with a million-dollar prize as the lure.  When his mark takes the chip, it is imprinted with that person’s future destiny, and when they inevitably lose, they are left virtually mindless, their destiny taken away along with their ambition, and they spend the rest of their lives in a dull haze, listlessly spinning away quarters in the casino’s slot machine.

Most fans feel this is a pretty heavy handed attempt to equate gambling with throwing away one’s future, and while that’s not a completely off-kilter supposition, it’s one I never really connected with gambling in spite of the context.  The Spin-and-Win, along with its devious ‘destiny chip’ component, may have existed in a casino, and been in the purview of gamblers and those who loved games of chance, but to me the symbolism went a lot deeper.  The trap that the Spin-and-Win represented could take any form, and entrap just about anyone, as long as they obsessed enough about it.

Yesterday I wrote about creation vs. consumption, and how Stephen King’s It both represented that struggle and how it’s helped inspire me to throw off (at least for now) the trappings of consumption so I can create.  The image of this thing, the Spin-and-Win, from this episode of Angel, was another of the primary motivators that came to my mind’s eye as I came to this realization.  The Spin-and-Win, in my estimation, could be anything to anyone, much like It could take on the form of anything that its victims feared.  It wasn’t just about gambling, although I suppose my vice of gaming could easily be argued to have many parallels to that pastime.

For me, the Spin-and-Win represents video games. For someone who loves food too much, the Spin-and-Win represents food.  For others, it could be sex, alcohol, television, movies, music.  More broadly, the Spin-and-Win represent excess, the overindulgence of an otherwise harmless vice that creeps into your life and steals from you.  Time, energy, devotion to otherwise creative or self-improving pursuits.  It’s an easy retreat into something that’s comforting, but otherwise and ultimately, pointless.

I admit, “The House Always Wins” is not a great episode of Angel, though I still enjoyed it just fine.  But the idea of someone throwing away their destiny because they see an easy (but rigged and unattainable) win in front of them is a powerful one that has stuck with me through the years.  It’s always been there, in the back of my thoughts, and I’ve at times wondered why that particular form of that vice stuck when there have certainly been others that may have been more apt.

Now I know why, and I’m sending up that image to pull free of my own tendency to put of creating–writing–with something easy to consume–in this case, video games.

It may not be the prettiest or most eloquent way to break free, but so far it seems to be working out well for me.


Creation vs. Consumption

Even though I’m only just now getting around to reading the novel–well, I suppose “reading” as in listening to it on audiobook–one of my favorite horror stories of all time is Stephen King’s It.  The 1990 made for television miniseries scared the hell out of me as a tween, and I loved it for it.  There was always something about Pennywise, as portrayed by Tim Curry, and more recently by Bill Skarsgard, that really succeeded in both creeping me out and eliciting a delightful sense of terror in the whole killer clown as a villainous entity.  I’d been unsettled by them before–Poltergeist jumps readily to mind–but this story really gave the trope new life in my imagination, and remains impossible to forget to this day.

I don’t know all of the lore behind It (hence the reason I’m listening to the audiobook), but I’ve certainly heard quite a bit of it, even without having read the notoriously doorstop-sized tome King wrote.  I’ve been regaled with tidbits from the more cosmically inclined pieces of lore from the story by countless enthusiasts on YouTube.  Friends who have read it have explained to me, in great levels of detail and with appropriate shock, the infamous group sex scene that has never been given life in the films.  And I’ve heard, from friends, YouTubers, and internet boards at large about how It and its characters and settings connect with the rest of King’s larger dark universe.  It’s fascinating stuff, and I plan to explore it as time and energy allow.

It’s no surprise to me that, at its heart, It is a story about consumption versus creation.  Pennywise, as the titular It, consumes the children of Derry, Maine every 27-28 years before returning to its slumber.  While It has no qualms about taking adults, It prefers children, particularly when they’re scared (the analogy of fear as a ‘sauce’ or ‘salt’ to the ‘meat’ that is the children).  It consumes, then sleeps for nearly thirty years, then returns to consume again.  Derry’s precarious prosperity seems tied to It’s existence, and even when Pennywise slumbers, It’s influence still manifests in subtle ways, which only seems noticeable to the town’s children.

Even the story’s heroes, the Losers Club, are plagued by the forces of consumption in their lives outside of Derry.  Sure, they joined together as kids to defeat It, but once they moved on they forgot each other and their shared experience.  They forgot about Derry, and It.  And though they may have made prosperous lives for themselves, none of them ever managed to have children.  The narrative suggests this is a result of It’s influence over them, even from afar, making Pennywise/It–already a consummate consumptive entity–a force that stops them from creating life of their own.

If It cannot consume the precious life you create, then you will not be allowed to create.  Pretty dark stuff.

And it’s at this point that I tie that theme into my own life, and the lives of many artists, writers, creators, and humans at large.  I learned a long time ago that, when people have free time, they basically spend it doing one of two things: creating, or consuming.  Consuming food, consuming entertainment, consuming air, water, energy, and so on.  Creation, while satisfying, is a lot harder to pull off, or at least do well: writing stories, painting, building, sculpting; hell, even cooking dinner is harder than eating it.

We rely on creators for the things we consume, and for many of us, having things to consume is all we need.  There are a ton of creators out there, of many and various things, after all.  But there are many of us who need more than to simply consume. Whether it’s a need to prove onself, or because someone has an idea or a thing they simply need to share with the world, there are creators.

For the past few months, I have not been one of them.

I’ve been caught up in the throes of consumption, and it’s not always easy to break out of them.  For me, the poison tends to be video games, which are so very entertaining, but which also aren’t exactly good for encouraging moderation in their consumption.  I haven’t written in this blog for several months, and have done little in the way of writing that wasn’t either directly related to my job, or directly related to video gaming.  I have become obsessed with having the highest score, unlocking the latest reward, or getting the latest piece of shiny equipment for my characters.

All of which, aside from the straight objective of entertainment, serves no real purpose.

I’m not saying that entertainment in and of itself is a bad thing, but when you’re putting most of your spare time into it, it becomes an obsession.  It takes you away from friends and family.  It takes you away from creating–or in my case, writing.  And ultimately, it can chip away at your soul.  Your potential for doing other, greater, things is simply sucked away.

And I’ve finally started to feel that.

I’ve known it, intellectually, for some time.  But knowing it and feeling the large swaths of time passing in idle bouts of doing essentially nothing are two separate things.  The obsessive abandon you put into consumption of a particular thing eventually wears off, and you start to realize there’s more you could be doing, if you weren’t sinking all of your time, and energy, and passion into something that wasn’t already made simply to be consumed.

I’m not saying I’m kicking my video game habit.  I’m not sure I’m strong enough for that.  But I am saying I’m aware of it enough to be apprehensive.  I’m trying to break free of it, or at the very least strike and maintain a healthy balance between my gaming and my creativity.  I’m going to try to write more, though of course I can guarantee only that right now.

Hopefully this is the start of many more successive and regular blog entries.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get a bigger chunk of my novel edited and ready for publication.  Hopefully I can find the strength to leave behind the obsessions with which I distract myself from creating.  Hopefully I can do all these things and much more.

Because hope, as Stephen King also wrote, is a good thing.  Maybe the best of things.  And while that line may not be from It, It is also ultimately about hope, and its power (along with that of friendship) to overcome darkness.

So, as I continue to listen to It, I also have hope that I will continue to write regularly, and create regularly.

Happy New Year–Now Let’s Get This Ball Rolling

I need to see how possible it is to crop GIFs while retaining the motion, if only so I can clean up this post’s featured image some day.  Never forget, people: Google is your friend, at least if you can’t take multimedia classes.  I’ve learned a lot of DIY skills through Google (and YouTube, for that matter), and while I’m no expert, I’m smarter than before I started searching.

maxresdefaultAt any rate, as the doubtless imaginative title of this post suggests, I’m all full of New Year cheer, and eager to get underway with my resolutions.  All the more remarkable about it is the fact that, by and large, I don’t formally make resolutions, at least not during New Year season, as I find them arbitrary, trite setups for failure that can really be made at any point during a given year with equal importance.  And I’d say that’s still a relevant attitude I sport towards them in general, so it’s fair to say that I’m not going to be making any new resolutions for the coming year.

But new resolutions aren’t a requirement these days, as I have plenty of old ones I’ve either failed at or left behind, as well as existing ones that, while I haven’t failed, might do with a new twist.  Those are the resolutions I’m happy to focus on for the coming year. Here are some ideas

  1. Get healthy–or at least, heathier. Always easily said, I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to getting fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. On the down side, I was diagnosed as being pre-diabetic last year, but as a result, I’ve implemented at least a basic exercise regiment that has stuck pretty well these last few months. My biggest enemy here tends to be stress, as it makes me go to comfort food whenever things get tough.  There are a few ways I can continue to improve and uphold this goal:
    1. Take up a more intense form of exercise, such as martial arts.
    2. Get better at avoiding sugars, such as sodas and desserts.
    3. Eat less in general, while doing more.
  2. Continue to write, and write more.  I once wrote in a blog every day for six straight months, and this was back when I had a full-time job, so I know I can do more writing than I recently have been.  I profess to want to write, and yet I way too often find myself wasting time on video games, Youtube, and other idle pursuits.  Stress, again, tends to be the enemy here, so I should probably look into ways to manage it.  Specific to writing, a few possible goals are spinning in my head, among them:
    1. Resurrecting 187,500.  This is a 500-words per day mandate, at the end of the year of which I should have 187,500 words written.  I’ll detail the rules of this self-created goal some other time, but it’s significant that each year I’ve tried to accomplish it, I’ve failed.
    2. Creating themed day posts for my blog. Madcap Mondays, Terrible Tuesdays, things like that.  We’ll see.
    3. Find a writing exercise every day, and do them.
    4. Work on my novel(s).
    5. Write X number of {short stories, articles, novel excerpts, etc.} per Y unit of time.  Taking suggestions on how much of what in what amounts of time.
  3. Work towards a writing career.  Similar to the previous resolution, it’s more focused on publication and earning income.  Some possibilities:
    1. Finish a novel manuscript and start shopping it around.
    2. Enter x number of writing contests this year.
    3. Find websites and magazines that pay for writing, and start submitting applications.
  4. Make things.  So many possibilities with this one.  Writing is technically included, I suppose, but I’m thinking in a more broad sense.  Some examples:
    1. Learn to play an instrument (make music).
    2. Create superhero costume parts/pieces (make cosplay).
    3. Raspberry pi/arduino projects (make fun and useful technology).
  5. Read more–or at least, consume more audiobooks and podcasts.  Aside from graphic novels, which I love, I just haven’t found much time to actually sit down and read.  I’ve found that audiobooks and podcasts have been much more conducive for when I’m doing things like exercise, driving across town, or simply working on chores, writing, or other tasks.  Some things I’ve considered:
    1. Ask friends for podcast recommendations.  Try out a new podcast every week, and expand my current base of podcasts.
    2. Listen to both fiction and nonfiction in audiobook form.  I’m loving The Dresden Files so far (James Marsters reads them!), and am almost done with Stephen King’s On Writing, which he narrates.
    3. Where possible, listen to these things for free.  Library cards are your friends in this endeavor.
  6. Educate and teach others.  I do this more or less every day as a librarian (case in point: want to learn how to use your tablet or smartphone to access your library’s e-books and e-audiobooks? I and other librarians can help you!), but I’m hoping to do so this year in a more formalized sense.  Some ideas:
    1. Host a program or programs at work on a topic I’m knowledgeable in.
    2. Participate on a panel at a conference or convention on a topic I’m good at.

Quite the list there, eh?  I’ve been working on a lot of these for a long time, and hopefully can just build on them as the years go on.  There may be more new ones as the year continues, and I reserve the right to modify or abandon these as I choose (at my own risk, of course–I’m sure if I eat too many more chocolates, I’ll go into a diabetic coma), but this is a good base from which to work as I try to make 2017 as good a year as I can.  It is my hope that each and every one of you can achieve the goals and dreams you set for yourself this year.

75cfb75b958e159f647988b804a4ce36aa1d2ace5be9328ddb1eaf505ec4e1e1Happy 2017, and may it be a great year for us all!  Now, let’s get this ball rolling, and knock it out of the park as best we can.

Tony’s Lists: That Which Frightens Me, Then and Now (and in the Future)

I was one of those kids in grade school.  The one who wished Halloween was a year-round thing, and that ghosts and monsters and the scares they brought were real.  When my class went to the library and most people were looking at books about cars, and cats, and Garfield and so forth, I was always the person in the folklore and mythology section, searching high and low for books that collected scary stories.  Occasionally made fun of for my predilection for horror and the macabre, I was actually mostly allowed to pursue my weird little guilty pleasure in peace.

Nowadays, with the internet and mobile computing so ubiquitous in our society, it’s easy to reach out and get a scare by doing a few quick searches, and I couldn’t be happier for it.  These days we have creepypastas, freaky image lists that can keep you awake far into the night, and even web series in addition to the horror films, books, and shows that come out with such regularity to the mass markets.  Heck, it’s not uncommon for me to fire up a list of Youtube videos about creepypastas, strange encounters on video, or other scary stories and encounters to play in the background while I work on other things.

So clearly, I’m one of those adults now.

My affinity for a good scare has come from a fertile background of horror and slasher films, scary stories, and that feeling you get when you see a particularly gruesome, life-like piece of artwork.  To that end, I’ve created a list of those things that have scared me as a kid, which give me a good little rush today, and at least one upcoming phenomenon that (I hope) should deliver a nice fright in the future when it releases.

This is by far not an exhaustive list, and I’ll have a list of honorable mentions at the end, but a nice little Top 10 (in no particular order) that I hope you’ll enjoy and comment on.

  1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (book series)
    Okay, so maybe there’s some slight order to this list, at least where my #1 is concerned.  I just couldn’t start this list without the series of books that I discovered as a child, and whose grim, gruesome stories collected and revised by Alvin Schwartz and nightmare-fueled illustrations by Stephen Gammell caused more than a few silent gasps when I first beheld them.I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who kept these titles circulating at the libraries when I was young, even if this series has ended up being one of the most challenged series of books in their collections (for the exact reasons listed above).  An “updated” edition was released a few years ago that swapped out Gammell’s illustrations with comparatively much tamer artwork by Brett Helquist, and while I’m sure those versions won’t be as challenged by lily-livered concerned scaredy-cats citizens, they just don’t pack the punch of the originals, and in my opinion are not worth reading.

    It’s pretty telling that, in an iHorror article just recently released about the best stories from these dark tomes (and which may or may not have served as inspiration for this list!), I thought of three particular stories that both scared the hell out of me AND were really good.  It turns out they were THE TOP THREE stories in the article.  I won’t spoil what they are (and doubtless won’t need to for many fans of this series), but I will take that as evidence that I’m both a visionary and a messed up individual.

  2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (movie series)
    Freddy 2I don’t think it helps that my first exposure to these films was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where Freddy seemed particularly more vicious than I’d see in the later films (though the first classic one was also a pretty good horror film on its own thanks to Robert Englund’s performance).  Not only was he killing people in their dreams once they fell asleep–a terrifying enough premise all on its own–but he was also possessing one particular teen-aged character once he fell asleep in order to do it.  In any case, the terrifying, claw-gloved antagonist of this series would go a long way in making sure I resisted the urge to fall asleep as much as possible for many years.  It probably helps explain why I’m such an effortless night-owl by default.I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to take Freddy seriously when they made him more of a clownish killer in the later Nightmare movies, but Wes Craven’s Final Nightmare did a good job of establishing how and why this character existed, and temporarily renewed my interest in him.  I wish they would have explored that when they rebooted by series a few years ago, but unfortunately they didn’t, and I was left wanting for another good Nightmare film.  Hopefully someday, someone with the right skills can come along and make Freddy frightening again.
  3. Stephen King’s It (movie)
    Oh my wow.  Pennywise, you magnificent bastard.old-it-clownThis film, along with honorable mention Poltergeist, is no doubt responsible for more than a few people’s irrational fear of clowns, though I myself never succumbed to this.  And with Tim Curry’s simultaneously comical and vicious portrayal of the character (or rather, the main physical manifestation of said character), it became one of the movies that came quickest to mind whenever I thought about things that scared me.  A creepy… no, scratch that–terrifying clown, who you couldn’t even really kill, and who could psychically torment you across distances?  A monster in disguise made to lure children to their doom?  Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.

    But there’s also one other scene worth mentioning.  It’s one of the very few that really gave me a good jump scare when I first saw it.  Look below:


    Yeah.  That may been tame by today’s standards, but it made me jump the first time I saw Bill looking through the scrapbooks and comes across this picture of his younger brother Georgie, who was just recently murdered by Pennywise.  And suddenly the picture winks at him.

    The still picture FRICKING WINKS at him!

    I jumped in fright, and I feel no shame in saying so.

  4. Spasms
    These pieces of three-dimensional nightmare fuel in the form of a Halloween decoration you can buy (yes, seriously) are creepy enough on their own, but I first encountered these things as the featured images in connection with a creepypasta called “The Russian Sleep Experiment” (which is, on its own, a great creepy story that you should totally read if you haven’t already).  The clear intention of using the Spasm was to give an approximate visual representation of what the sleep-deprived, slowly feralizing prisoners were becoming, both in terms of their looks and their natures.

    Wanna snuggle?

    And it was very effective.  I mean, just look at the twisted little bastard.  It looks mostly human, though with some serious deformations.  The first time I saw this image, I immediately asked myself what depraved movie would have had a character like this in it?  How was that look achieved?  And oh my jeez, how the hell could I get that image out of my gorram head?

    I can’t, so here it is for all of you.

  5. Garfield: Alone (comic strips)
    hqdefaultI remember reading this series of comic strips during a week in October when I was around 10 or 11, and it was a harrowing experience to say the least.  For a comic that had had a consistent style and premise, both of which revolved around the life and antics of a surly, lazy cat and his companions, this abrupt shift in tone and mood was unsettling from the get-go.  The premise, that Garfield was in fact a lonely, starving cat who lived in a dilapidated and crumbling house, and that his actions with Jon and Odie in the warm, well-kept abode readers had come to know are merely the self-delusions of an individual suffering from starvation and extreme denial, left an indelible mark on my appreciation for Jim Davis to tell a good horror story when he wanted to.There’s an article by Chris Sims on Comics Alliance that I pretty much try to re-post every October on my Facebook, and he breaks down the specifics of why this series of comic strips is so effective and frightening far better than I could.  I highly recommend you read it if you want to know more about this series of strips, if for no other reason than he includes the entirety of their run in his article.
  6. Night Terrors (mobile game)
    This one’s not out yet, so I don’t have much to say about it, other than it looks to be frightening as hell, and I’m really excited for it.

    Click here for a video demo… if you dare…

    As much as I am a gamer, and a fan of horror, I actually don’t play very many horror video games.  I’ve seen a few of them, and even played a couple (Slender: The Arrival and Five Nights at Freddie’s being a couple of semi-recent examples) from time to time, but I can’t claim to really want to play them very often.  I guess there are limits to the extent I want to immerse myself in that particular medium.  Maybe that will be the case for this one as well, but some reviewers’ claims that this is “Pokemon GO for horror fans” guarantees that I’ll at least check this one out.

  7. The Thing on the Doorstep (short story)
    strandedinsalem-thethingonthedoorstep2This isn’t the most famous of HP Lovecraft’s stories, and certainly suffers at times from his tendency to over-verbalize, but this first exposure to his works instilled in me both a love for the writer and a visceral sense of terror at this story’s premise.  It mostly comes down to the central premise about the story being about possession, and the extremes of one particular entity’s willingness to take over the bodies of others, but there are other elements and themes of this story that creep me out as well.  That this little gem of a horror story both begins and ends with the author’s imprisonment in a mental facility leaves the reader more than a little discomfited at the entire experience, which is exactly how you should feel when reading Lovecraft.  Well done, Mr. Lovecraft.  Well done.
  8. Exploring haunted locations
    A thing that I sometimes do is grab a friend after reading an article about haunted locations and going and exploring to see what we can find.  I don’t think I’ve ever found anything overtly paranormal or supernatural, but there have been one or two experiences that I haven’t been able to fully explain, and they certainly chilled my bones at the time.  Below is a picture and link to a video I made when my sister and I went to Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Houston.13095976_10154134572918899_3850412281435318771_n
  9. Horror film remakes
    ImageIn the last decade or so, there have been a slew of remakes of old horror films that have really driven home the scares.  Not that the originals aren’t perfectly hair-raising on their own–I can recall more than a few of them keeping me up at night–but the sheer level of visceral terror involved in such films as Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween and Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reimagining of The Evil Dead just make it seem like the creators were really out to get moviegoers.  There’s also no doubt that with the advances in movie effects, films such as these are ripe for an upgrade.
  10. Slenderman (egregore), and Marble Hornets (web series)
    Slendy 2I pretty much couldn’t close out this list without mentioning Slenderman (a.k.a. the Slender Man), whose emergence onto the internet and into the collective consciousness of a generation has been both fascinating and horrifying to behold.  The unnaturally tall, thin, blanked-faced character dressed in a black suit tends to stalk, abduct, and otherwise traumatize people, disrupting video feeds and often causing others to disappear without a trace.  Having only graced the internet with his presence since 2009, Slenderman is a very new phenomenon that demonstrates just how powerful a well-conceptualized image and premise can be online.It’s Slenderman’s fame in particular that intrigues me, as he’s basically gone from a nonexistent thing that has no influence on the world to a nonexistent thing that now exists very strongly in the minds of others, and who very arguably influences the world in which he doesn’t exist, fitting the definition of an egregore.  This is very evident not only in the number of stories, creepypastas, artworks, video games, and other multimedia in which the character continues to pop up, but also in the unfortunate attempted murder of a young girl in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 2014.  Her classmates believed the Slenderman to be real, and that by murdering their classmate, they would become his proxies.

    marble hornetsClosely related to Slenderman is the web series Marble Hornets, which utilized the mythos surrounding the character as a framework for them to create a horror series.  While there are several very unnerving shots of the Slenderman (known as the Operator in the series) throughout the 90 or so short episodes, many of the series’ scares rely on what isn’t seen, or at the very least more conventional horror tropes, such as being attacked by a man in a mask.  This has the effect of making the times the Operator does appear to be that much more significant and frightening.

Honorable Mentions: Stranger Things (Netflix Orginal series), Berserk (anime and manga by Kentaro Miura), Poltergeist (movie), The Shining (movie, 1980).