Game of Shout-outs

Game of Thrones is a class act. Yes, the show is so eager to display the naked female form engaged in sexual acts whenever possible that I sometimes think Paul Verhoeven took over the camera to make a medieval version of Showgirls. Yes, the previous season’s depiction of how Theon was transformed into Reek (which took place mostly offstage in the novels) played like outtakes from Salo.

But in the second episode of the new season, King Joffrey (aka Caligula Bieber) brandished his new sword and wondered aloud what to name it. “Stormbringer!” someone shouted off camera. “Terminus Est!” someone else shouted, just as another called out the name used in George R. R. Martin’s novel — Widow’s Wail.

The plot rolled on and I rolled with it, but not before I had my little glow of appreciation for the shout-outs to Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe. What is turning out to be the greatest fantasy series ever made for television took time to give props to two other fantasy greats. Terminus Est is the massive sword used by Severian, the apprentice torturer in Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.  Stormbringer is the soul-devouring weapon featured in Moorcock’s long-running series about Elric, the semi-human albino who needs the sword to keep himelf alive.  So — a class act.

If someone had also called out “Graywand” or “Scalpel,” thus referencing Fritz Lieber’s classic Lankhmar stories, the episode would have scored my personal heroic fantasy trifecta. Maybe another episode. I’m sure they’ll get around to it. This show is, after all, a class act.

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The King in Yellow and the Herring in Red

Now that the final episode of True Detective is out of the box, it becomes clear that all the time we adepts spent delving into Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow would have been better spent doing . . . well, just about anything else. With its elaborately unsatisfying climax and ThePledgedeliberately hokey wrap up, True Detective brings to mind not The King in Yellow but The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “Requiem for the Detective Story,” which used the genre’s tropes to cock a leg over the very concept of the detective story.

In other words, I got suckered, just like you. Turns out that True Detective was meant all along to be nothing more than an eight-hour piss take. Rust Cohle’s nihilistic mumbo jumbo and the ominous hints about Carcosa were just bread crumbs leading us to a dead end. Throughout its eight-episode run, True Detective deliberately used the most hackneyed mystery story devices — the mismatched partners, the tormented genius detective, the perpetually angry supervisor — but burned through cliches with doomy swampland atmosphere, hints of something bigger and scarier just around the next corner, and, above all, the forceful acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. 

With the season finale, series creator Nic Pizzolatto trotted out every standard move from every serial killer tale you’ve seen since The Silence of the Lambs. The killer’s isolated house. The detective chasing the bad guy into his dungeon, when years of police training and simple common sense would have dictated securing the area and calling for backup. The bad guy’s disembodied voice taunting the detective as he picks his way through the chamber of horrors. (Nice set design, by the way.) The tormented genius getting a chance at inner peace and redemption. Even a cheesy joke at the end to show us the combative partners are now BFFs. When Marty’s family showed up in his hospital room, their fixed smiles and robotic stares had me expecting some kind of last minute explosion of weirdness. But that’s not what Pizzolatto was after.

Durrenmatt’s story showed a brilliant police detective who becomes obsessed with finding a serial child molester, long after the case is officially closed, and loses his mind when his foolproof plan to capture the killer goes unresolved. Durrenmatt’s point was that the random workings of chance played a bigger role in life than the insights of genius detectives. Point taken. I guess Pizzolatto’s point was that viewers may be intrigued by hints of real evil, but really what they want is a formulaic resolution and a cup of warm milk before bedtime. Point taken. Now go bug somebody else with your postmodern narrative critique.

There’s some undeniable nerve involved in creating a series that ends up giving its viewers the back of its hand. But if there is a second season of True Detective, I’m not so sure I’ll be around to see how it turns out. Fool me once . . . you know the rest. Or maybe you don’t. In that case, have fun with the second season.    

 

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The Frighten Side of Me

I’ve been a lot of promotional work on my latest nonfiction book, American Dictators, including a March 8 appearance at the Secaucus Public Library that should be fun.

But when I’m not writing about political bosses and labor wars, I write crime fiction of the dark, gritty variety that inhabits a territory where John Sandford, Patricia Highsmith, Georges Simenon, Jim Thompson, and Joyce Carol Oates overlap.

Those of you who are Kindle compatible will get a chance to download my two novels We All Fall Down and Echo as ebook freebies, from Monday through Wednesday. The first is a police procedural about a troubled woman police officer named Karen McCarthy, who will be making a return sometime next year. The second involves an even more troubled heroine, Theresa Costanza, and the story is a dark psychological thriller modeled after Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels.”

Download them with my compliments, for three days, at any rate.

 

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Back to the swamp!

My February calendar is clear (so far) but I’m back on the American Dictators promotional trail in March, when I’m set to appear at the Secaucus Public Library on Saturday, March 8, at 11 a.m. They love Frank Hague stories in those Meadowlands towns, and listeners of a certain age often have stories of their own to tell. Read all about it here.

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‘True’ grue

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I watched the first episode of the HBO series True Detective with low expectations. Very low expectations. The promos made it look like yet another Thomas Harris knockoff; even the standard-issue baroquely defiled murder victim, a woman displayed with antlers bound to her head, was anticipated by Hannibal. The tormented genius detective (Matthew McConaughey) threatened to be a photocopy of Will Graham in Red Dragon, and the idea of pairing him with a stodgy by-the-book partner (Woody Harrelson) went from moldy to mummified round about the first Lethal Weapon flick. The pyramidal twig thingies brought back unfortunate memories of The Blair Witch Project. Somebody even stood over the corpse and said, “He’ll do this again.” (At least he didn’t use the term “unsub.”) Did I say “low expectations”? Try sub-basement, dungeon-below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel expectations.

I hope you haven’t fallen asleep by now, because True Detective turns out to be a master class in bringing fresh, vigorous life to fossilized tropes. A big part of it is the Louisiana setting, all swampland menace beneath merciless sun, with a dash of Flannery O’Connor as the investigation brings in a revival-tent huckster with a pompadour that could have been applied with frosting from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. But the salty byplay between the two leads gives the show its hammering pulse. Three episodes into this season, McConaughey’s detective is entirely believable as a bunch of shredded nerves that defy all attempts at self-medication, and Harrelson’s good old boy persona is flaking away to reveal a picture of quiet desperation. The framing device — an after-the-fact investigation of how the detective solved their case — promises all kinds of interesting revelations.

The second episode gave me a pleasurable surprise with a shout-out to The King in Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that influenced H.P. Lovecraft and, through him, a host of other horror writers. (You can download it for free from Project Gutenberg.) The title refers to a fictional play Chambers suggests has been banned because of its disturbing power; the play appears only as fleeting excerpts used to introduce the individual stories. The murder victim in True Detective turns out to have kept a diary that refers to the King in Yellow and the city of Carcosa, which also figures in Chambers’ work. Chambers was a fan of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, notably “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and he swiped the name Carcosa along with other bits of Bierce-invented nomenclature. Lovecraft, in turn, admired The King in Yellow and emulated Chambers’ technique by salting his stories with vague references to forbidden works like The Necronomicon. The Bierce-invented deity Hastur also turns up, much mutated, in Lovecraft’s weird cosmology, where he has remained. As the saying goes, talent borrows but genius steals.

How all this will play out in True Detective is anybody’s guess. The yellow deity is absent from the third episode, which ends with a glimpse of a meth-cooker as monstrous as anything in Lovecraft. We are almost halfway through the first season, after which — assuming the ratings are good — the series will reset in its second season with a new story and a fresh set of characters. Maybe it will turn out that Cthulhu is slumbering off the Louisiana coast. After the BP oil spill, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.       

ADDENDUM: Art of the Title, one of my favorite Internet time-sucks, has an informative piece on the very cool title sequence for True Detective.

     

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From Montclair to Marlton

After next week’s book event in Montclair, I’ll be heading to South Jersey for a Dec. 1 appearance at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Marlton. The talk starts at 2 p.m. and, as you would expect, there’ll be books on hand to sell and sign.

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See you in Montclair

At the Montclair Public Library, to be exact. That’s where I’ll be on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. to talk about American Dictators and the lives of political bosses Frank Hague and Nucky Johnson. Come by, say hi, buy a book and I’ll sign it for you.

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American Dictators – THE FIRST REVIEW!

American Dictators just got its first book review. It’s from the Star-Ledger, and it’s great:

“A smartly written chronicle studded with serio-comic vignettes, a narrative of greed and violence, and the thorough research of an author who clearly relishes his subject.”

“Hart mines this trove artfully and seductively. He knows Jerseyans have a certain fascination with Jersey-strong miscreants. American Dictators is enhanced by such tidbits as the explanation of kickbacks to each machine (Hague preferred the term “organization”) by municipal workers.”

Read the whole thing here.

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Rising for the fall

Just finished my first official newspaper interview to promote American Dictators, which will appear in the Jersey Journal in advance of the Jersey City Library Book Festival, just around the corner on Sunday, Sept. 15. The writer, Chinedum Emelumba, got a lot of history poured into her ear, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of it ends up in the finished story. I also got in a few plugs for my upcoming second novel, Echo, of which more anon.  

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Second edition

For Web 7-1-13 WAFD

Say hello to the spanking new second edition of my first novel, We All Fall Down. You will note that the new cover is not only much spiffier, it also capitalizes on the nice things the New York Post and The Star-Ledger said about the book when it came out.  Not only is the cover better, but the interior text has been reformatted for a cleaner, tighter look. This is a book you can display with pride on your shelf, your coffee table, and your beach blanket, where it will cause all the other beach reads to slink away in silence. I’m serious. Buy the book, take it to the beach, and see what happens.

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