Wednesday, October 31, 2018

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror: A Natural History of Hell

Happy Halloween! For the last of my horror-themed posts this month, I'm taking a look at "A Natural History of Hell," a collection of weird tales from Jeffrey Ford.

Horror has long had a metafictional streak (rest in peace, Wes Craven), and many of the 13 tales in Jeffrey Ford's "A Natural History of Hell" concern supernatural storytelling. Whether it's Emily Dickinson trying to divine a counterspell for living death ("A Terror"), or dolls being instilled with words to harness a child's imagination ("Word Doll"), words have terrible power in Ford's universe, and he explores the consequences in neat, evocative prose.

The collection isn't strictly fantasy or horror, and it's at its weakest when it veers from those genres. "Rocket Ship to Hell" is straight-up sci-fi, and the worst entry, "Blood Drive," is a gun control fever dream - "The Handmaid's Tale" for hoplophobes. On balance, though, Ford is a good writer and this is a good collection, so it's worth a read.

Until next year, dear reader - have a great Halloween!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Miscellany: Dragon Con 2018 Recap - Time is the one thing we can't make, but we can kill

As is my wont, I visited Atlanta over Labor Day weekend to attend Dragon Con with my friends. This year's con had a musical feel - I took in several formidable performances, including one by a living legend. Here are some highlights of our adventures.

"The Armory" exhibit of historical weapons was quite different this year, in that it omitted all firearms. I hope it wasn't for the sake of political correctness; in any event, the exhibit now basically ignores the last 500 years of human warfare.

For my "Into the Badlands" costume, I had to craft a makeshift sheath and jury rig some bracers.

I also dressed up as Seraph from the "Matrix" movies - it's a relatively minor character from a 15 year old movie, but I still got recognized for obvious reasons.

This year, we were hosted by Rob and his family - he was Han Solo, so he was asked to pose with everyone and their brother.

Since we were cosplaying "Into the Badlands" characters, the big celeb draw this year was Nick Frost, who plays Bajie on the show. He was a pretty cool guy, but good Lord, are these autograph prices getting expensive.

Us as the Widow, Gaius Chau, and Sunny:

I took in the "Battle Bots" competition this year - fun, but the robots weren't as good as the ones you see on a televised competition.

Mostly, I spent time watching some awesome performers - Crystal Bright, Unwoman, Gray Rinehart, and, incredibly, famous author Peter S. Beagle:

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror - Halloween (2018 sequel)

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Here's my review of "Halloween," the 2018 sequel directed by David Gordon Green.

The best entries of the "Halloween" series involve the original film's final girl, Laurie Strode. Played by Jamie Lee Curtis, the greatest scream queen of them all, Laurie is key because she represents a worthy foe for the implacable Michael Myers. Otherwise, Michael just wades through a forgettable horde of horny babysitters and hapless police officers - expected for a slasher flick, but still boring.

Laurie fought Myers to a savage draw and then apparently defeated him in 1978, confronted him again in 1998, and she returns to face him one last time in this year's sequel/reboot, confusingly titled "Halloween":

The 2018 film ignores every sequel (even "Halloween II," which was written by series creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill). Instead, 40 years after the events of the original movie, Michael and Laurie are both old souls and weird mirror images of each other. He's locked up in a sanitarium, she's locked and loaded in a rural compound with a bunker full of food and weapons. So, when Michael inevitably escapes to wreak havoc on Haddonfield once again, it's up to Laurie to save the disbelieving townsfolk (and her estranged family) by becoming predator to the most evil prey.

Director David Gordon Green gets it right in the broad strokes. The movie wisely omits any backstory or motivations for Michael's killing, avoiding the cardinal mistake of the Rob Zombie remakes. It also has respectful nods to every film in the series, even the cult standalone classic "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." And most importantly, Jamie Lee Curtis turns in a stellar performance as a damaged Laurie Strode, itching for one last cathartic battle.

Where the 2018 "Halloween" fails is in the details. The drastically increased body count and constant humor might be de rigueur in a modern horror flick, but they prevent the movie from developing much tension or paranoia. And while John Carpenter provided the film's score and executive produces, the movie still lacks his subtle shot composition and gift for pacing. I think it deserves to be a hit, but hopefully it drives the youngsters of today to see where it all began.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Guns: The Tacticool Remington 870 Wingmaster, Part 3 - Onboard Ammo

I converted my vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster into a modern home defense shotgun. In Part 1 of the series, I swapped out its barrel, and in Part 2, I swapped out its stock and foreend. Now, let's start cramming some more ammo into this puppy:

The default capacity on a Remington 870 is 4+1 shells, which is not a ton when you consider that most people keep their home defense shotguns with the chamber empty (as do I). So, if you want to have more than four rounds available to deal with an attacker, or if you want to be able to switch to a different type of shell on the fly (say, a slug for a longer shot), you're going to need a way to carry more ammo on the gun.

Magazine Tube Extension

The most obvious way to increase an 870's capacity is by lengthening the magazine tube with an extension. Pros? Such extensions are cheap, fairly easy to install, and don't add too much bulk to the gun. Cons? The longer tube necessitates a new spring, which must be thoroughly tested for reliability, and the extension introduces a "weak link" into the magazine tube that can fail or break where an un-modified firearm wouldn't.

One advantage of using an older 870 for a home defense build is that you avoid having to deal with the infamous "dimples" that interfere with the installation of magazine tube extensions. It's such an annoyance that Brownells even has a tool to remove them:

I picked up a Remington factory 2-shot, 2-piece extension from MidwayUSA that worked just fine with the old Wingmaster..


Even a large tube extension only adds a few more rounds to the gun. If you need to carry 5 or more additional shells, a sidesaddle is a better option.

There are two main types of sidesaddles - rigid aluminum or polymer ones that attach to the receiver using special fasteners, and nylon-looped shotgun "cards" that attach using Velcro tape. I opted for the second type, which I found to be cheaper, easier to install, reliable, more secure, and easier to pull off and on.

Upgrade still to come - sling...

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror - Deadlight

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Tonight's post is a review of "Deadlight," a zombie apocalypse video game developed by Tequila Works.

"Deadlight" is what they call a cinematic platformer. The game's protagonist, grizzled ex-park ranger Randall Wayne, can't leap 20 feet into the air or safely fall from four stories up like Sonic the Hedgehog. Instead, Randall realistically runs, jumps, and climbs through a somber post-apocalyptic Seattle, all while being hunted by the infected "Shadows" (can't use the "z"-word) and a brutal militia known as "The New Law."

The world of "Deadlight" is beautiful and atmospheric, especially considering this is a 2012 downloadable game running on Unreal Engine 3. The game also smartly discourages direct combat with the infected - come upon more than two or three of them, and you're dead meat unless you have a gun or you run for it. The controls might feel a bit stilted and alien if you've never played games like the original "Prince of Persia" series, "Another World," or "Flashback," but they work well enough.

The game's real problem is that it's only 3 to 4 hours long, with linear gameplay that's too shallow to support multiple playthroughs. I understand the developers originally planned an inventory system, which would have enriched the puzzle-solving and combat; as it is, all you get are uninspiring box puzzles and trial-and-error traps. The hackneyed zombie B-movie plot doesn't help things, either.

I still liked "Deadlight" overall, but it's definitely a $5 game, not a $15 one.

Rating: 73/100

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Books: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a video game developer. In middle school, I dutifully coded elaborate adventure games in QBASIC, and in high school, I studied up on Doom WADs and level design. Reality sunk in somewhere around freshman year, when I realized the terrible trials and tribulations game devs go through: zero job security, ever-shifting directives from management, and, most of all, the dreaded "crunch" (stretches of unpaid, wall-to-wall overtime that can last for months on end).

Now, it's arguably all worth it to create a classic video game that will live in the minds of millions of people, but it is still a steep price to pay. "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels," by Jason Schreier, is a peek inside that world. Each chapter is a compelling behind-the-scenes narrative about the making of a famous game, with plenty of interviews from the developers and publishers themselves. The selected games are a good cross-section of the industry - everything from Kickstarted indies (Pillars of Eternity, Shovel Knight) to AAA titles from major studios (Destiny, Diablo III).

If you're not a gamer, the book might be a little bland, and if you read game blogs regularly, some of this material will be old hat. If you enjoy video games, though, and you ever wondered what it takes to make one, you'll probably like this book.

Politics: Justice

I try to keep Shangrila Towers apolitical, except for gun rights. However, since D.C. v. Heller, where the Second Amendment was literally one vote away from being gutted like a fish, the politics of the Supreme Court are very much relevant to gun owners. This is because the Constitutional protection of the right to keep and bear arms is far from settled - the Heller dissenters are on record about wanting to "reconsider" the decision at the first opportunity.

So, when Justice Scalia unexpectedly passed away, I didn't mind the Republican-controlled Senate blocking Judge Merrick Garland, based on his terrible record on guns. And I breathed a sigh of relief when Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in despite the sexual assault charges that had been leveled against him, because Kavanaugh would likely be a fifth vote to reaffirm Heller:

I'm not particularly proud of viewing the Court in such a nakedly political manner, but it will take a couple of decades for Heller to become settled law like Roe v. Wade has (the Court will never overturn it - there'd be riots in the streets).

Saturday, October 06, 2018

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror: The Twilight Zone

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Today, let's look at some of the scariest episodes from Rod Serling's classic TV series, "The Twilight Zone."

The After Hours

Rod Serling wrote the vast majority of the first season's episodes, and "The After Hours" is one of his scariest. The story starts with, as Serling puts it, "a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand" - Marsha White (Anne Francis) tries to buy a gift for her mother in a department store. Things rapidly go south when Marsha is accidentally locked inside the store after it closes. She's all alone - or is she? The script gets maximum mileage out of an otherwise ordinary setting, and it even manages to work in Anne Francis's signature mole...

Twenty Two

This is one of six Twilight Zone episodes that was taped instead of filmed, in a vain attempt to save production costs. It's a shame, because the story (an adaptation of E.F. Benson's short story "The Bus-Conductor") is quite suspenseful. The episode follows a woman being hospitalized for nervous fatigue. She has a recurring nightmare of a creepy nurse beckoning her into a morgue. But where does the dream end, and reality begin?

The piece is anchored by a great performance from Barbara Nichols, who basically spends the entire runtime in abject terror.

The New Exhibit

In most Twilight Zone episodes, there isn't any gore or body count to speak of - this was '60s network television, after all - but a gleeful exception to this rule is "The New Exhibit," starring Martin Balsam.

The episode follows the curator of a wax museum, who is forced to shelter the wax figures of famous murderers (e.g., Jack the Ripper) in his basement when the museum closes down. The figures are astonishingly lifelike - almost too lifelike...

It's not particularly lurid by modern standards, but it still makes for a fun time, especially since this is one of those hour-long episodes from Season 4.