Inspiration: The Grudge

This is not so much a review of the movie The Grudge as it’s about a topic sparked by its theme.

So The Grudge is a movie from 2004, based on a Japanese horror film of the same name (called “Ju-On” from 2002). I forget exactly when I first saw it, probably a year or two after, as I did not watch it in a theater, and I’m thoroughly glad I didn’t.

Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea.

Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea. Most of the images online are a bit too gruesome than I’d prefer to have posted here.

Once, I swore I would never watch that movie again. As of this writing, I only just saw it a second time, with someone new, who insisted we watch ‘the scariest movie I knew.’

God dammit.

The Grudge follows a number of tropes in common with the ever-popular title “The Ring” also from 2002 (“Ringu,” 1998, in Japan). In this humble writer’s opinion, the American versions are significantly scarier, as they retain the psychological horror aspect as found in the original Japanese versions, but with the added American flavor of jump-scare emphasis.

If you haven’t heard of any of these pieces, or are largely unfamiliar with the J-Horror genre of psychological horror movies, I don’t know how to prepare you better than to say: Beware. For many people around the world, this kind of stuff is really bloody frightening.

The common theme among nearly all of these sorts of movies – not only J-Horror, but K-Horror (Korean) as well, and throughout a much of East and South-East Asian cinema, is a paranormal manifestation the likes of which probably everyone in the world would recognize on sight.

I’m talking about what the Japanese call a yūrei, what the Koreans call a gwisin, what the Vietnamese call a ma. You know, ghosts. And, just like the word “ghost” in English can mean a number of things, these are all generic categories. What I’m talking about, though, is a specific type.

The vengeful, Long-Haired Ghost.

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And yet, oddly beautiful. Or am I just a freak?

They’re quite iconic, and almost never pleasant. They’re most commonly spirits of dead folks who have been wronged, and are generally hateful of anyone or anything that interacts with them, or the places/objects they haunt. This, at least, is the common thread linking the majority of these films, and some of us can’t get enough of it.

I went through a phase once, a couple years back, where I watched I watched a Korean ghost movie almost every night – at least once every couple of days – over the course of a few months. This resulted in my seeing shadows in the corners of my eyes during the day for many months after the fact.

Oh yes, those were good times, working in a health food store only to whip your head around to make sure there wasn’t some pale, bloody phantasm creepily herky-jerky-ing its way down the vitamin aisle.

Most of the time it’s been nothing.

But there were some horrendous nightmares that come every now and then. Heck, I still get them sometimes – things I’d actually prefer not to describe at present – so yeah, on that note, let’s talk about why this stuff is awesome.

For one thing, I’ve actually grown braver about a multitude of things. Or perhaps a little desensitized – is there a difference? Certainly, the line between bravery and stupidity is notoriously thin, but then again so is the line between confidence and actual ability. At any rate, the point is that I’ve been able to explore topics and media that in the past I might have otherwise been averse to exploring. Fear is something that interests me, and not only with the Long-Haired Ghosts, but other creepy things, but with other things creepy and terrifying.

As I’ve said once or twice before, things that are creepy are scary.  Just ask H.R. Giger. Man, do I love linking that VSauce video.

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Five Night’s At Freddy’s, one of the most horrifying games I’ve ever seen. As of this post it’s pretty new, too, check it out.

This has, in fact, benefited my writing as well as my outlook on life.

The Long-Haired Ghost is something I’ve found to be repulsive and inspiring. While not directly appearing in my fiction, it has, like I said, allowed me to discover other things – and write about other things – that one might normally find difficult to entertain, or write. On the other hand, situations, creatures, or scenes that might be considered horrific by many are fairly normal to me.

Re: desensitization/bravery. I feel that as a writer, this valuable.

Besides, seeing The Grudge for the second time did raise the hairs on my arms and back of my neck, but it wasn’t quite as scary.

My guest freaked out readily enough, though, so mission accomplished.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by A Tale of Two Sisters, a K-Horror that stands as one of my favorites. I’ve seen the movie twice – once, alone, during that phase earlier mentioned, and once with another person and it was significantly less scary…

The soundtrack is actually, in this humble writer’s opinion, much more delightful than the movie itself, though I’ll never forget the initial emotions evoked by my first viewing. Truth is, my mind paints a slightly different picture whenever I hear this music, and the picture in my head is better than the picture on film. Be that as it may, check out the soundtrack, if not the movie, and see what ideas appear upon the paper before you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Month In

I’ve come to learn a dozen things about myself in this last month since landing in Viet Nam. Some things personal, some thing superficial, others intellectual and emotional, and even a few things practical.

 

Like turning coconuts into planters.

Like turning coconuts into planters. What you see here is dying aloe I found in my house, rescued and given another chance at life.

Writing-wise, I now publicly confess that for the majority of the time since landing (and even a week or two before, as the excitement for the flight grew) was not spent putting down prose. Quite a bit has been dedicated to travelogue’ing, sure, and as important as that is, my fiction has lacked.

I haven’t had a short story idea in months. And we’re approaching the Writers of the Future 4th Quarter of 2014!

My novel project has slowed as well, and I tell myself (and my writing peers) that it’s mostly on account of life simply being too damned interesting to fantasize. That is a falsehood, though. It’s been laziness as well.

But I found a solution.

As a creature of habit and routine – most humans are, in fact, whether they know it or not – a daily or weekly plan often helps with keeping organized. This is no secret, but still I’ve come to understand that my ideal working environment may, in fact, not be at home.

Viet Nam has, among other things, cafes in abundance. With sweet, potent iced coffee readily available for $1 a cup, one finds it difficult to refrain from drinking too much. Two is usually enough before I have to run to the bathroom squealing. But the cafes themselves make for excellent work environments.

One of my new offices.

One of my new offices.

For one thing, there’s the (iced) coffee, which is refreshing in the heat, tasty in the sweet, and caffiene is good for every writing feat.

But there is something uniquely special about going to a place away from home with the specific goal of working. It works just as well as dedicated writing time, except for me (and many other people, I’ve read), a change of environment is generally conducive to creativity anyway. I’ve known artists in New York City who rent out studios, no doubt because working at home is out of the question due to space issues, but I wager there’s something in common here. There’s a psychological script at play when coming to a dedicate workspace:

“I came here to work, so I better make use of the time.”

This, of course, is the mental dialog of the occasionally lazy yet anxious mind of yours truly.

Turning off the WiFi connection helps, and is recommended – I don’t have a VPN setup (yet), and it’s generally considered a less-than-safe-thing to connect your laptop to any public network anyway. Phones and tablets are usually more secure on account of them being built for said purpose, but one cannot used Scrivener on a phone or tablet. The willful lacking of an internet connection naturally eliminates – or at least reduces – distraction; at least the self-induced variety.

Having strangers approach me, the only Westerner to ever set foot in that cafe (probably ever), and engage me in conversation tends to happen from time to time.  It is a fun distraction, since through this method I’ve met a banker, a chemist, and a technical engineer. Combined, their English skills make for only the most basic of conversations feasible, and I recall one instance (with the engineer), where it took about an hour to express why he disliked the French and why he liked Americans. The short answer is because he reads history. But, after defacing my notebook with dozens of notes and sentence fragments from each of us to illustrate our points, I found myself being told of a history lesson regarding things I already knew.

Still, I admire folks whose practical ability of English is severely limited, yet they work up the courage to approach me anyway. Most simply don’t, or can’t.

Yet in spite of distractions such as this, one finds focus more thoroughly attained in a cafe than at home. Worse case scenario, I don my over-ear headphones and turn up the volume – headphones, I believe, are a universal cue for “Do not disturb.” Multiple soundtracks later I will have found thousands of words (of prose!) written.

Raw creative prose is among the most difficult things to write for me. Writing this blog post, for instance, is something quite different – it’s more a stream of consciousness, thoughts-put-on-paper kind of process. Weaving worlds and character interactions is something quite different, and I am overjoyed to find a small niche.

The outstanding coffee (caphe) is just delightful icing on the proverbial cake.

And, with cafes found every couple of shops apart – no really, they’re everywhere, my home is within walking distance of six or seven on one street alone – I have taken to taking my work with me to a variety of different places. It is as much an adventure exploring the stores and cafes as it is hopping on a motorbike and taking off in a random direction for an hour or two.

I’ve even found inspiration in the most unlikely of ways; in one cafe they had very low tables, and even lower chairs with simple cushions. I promptly fell in love with the furniture, and knowing the extent of my own skills, I paid thorough attention to their make, and decided I could make the chairs and tables myself. Perhaps there will be a post about that as well, as I have plans to construct (among other things) a garden, a bed frame, numerous shelves, and now, chairs and tables. With such ready access to cafés, and the reasons listed and unlisted for why I seem to be more productive in them than at home, one comes to question their prior aspirations of even bothering with home office furnishings.

Funny how this writing blog has (de?)evolved into ramblings about furniture.

Happy writing, dear readers.

~~~

Today’s track is a calm, nifty beat from an old favorite soundtrack of mine: K-Pax, by Edward Shearmur. It doesn’t take much for me to sit down and pay attention when the name Kevin Spacey is mentioned, but the movie itself I found to be strange and eccentric enough to keep in my memory well into a decade after first seeing it. The music, listened to countless times, has a very dreamy quality to it.

There very well could be my own personal attachment to it – i.e., enjoying the movie therefore hearing the tracks remind me of fun moments and good feelings – but on its own the soundtrack truly is unique. One could easily fall asleep to this and drift to another world.

 

Inspiration From Unexpected Places

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In my time here in Viet Nam, I have been exposed to countless things applicable to writing a fantasy world. Between foods, animals, and just the simple alternative way of thinking and doing things, there is a wealth of inspiration to be found in any place far from home.

Let’s cut to the chase. Agent Orange; otherwise called Dioxin by locals here, was a chemical herbicide used during the American War. The history and lore behind dioxin is long, complicated, and disgusting. I will do my best to not get political here, as it’s very easy for a man to get passionate about this sort of thing.

Though the politics alone set the stage for a wealth of stories.

Suffice it to say that the use of this stuff is among the coldest, most inhumane and irresponsible things done by the U.S. government. And there’s quite a long list of inhumane and irresponsible things for which America is responsible; I say this as an American who reads.

Not an American-hating foreigner.

Originally used as a defoliant during Operating Ranch Hand (1962-1971), Agent Orange was intended to keep Viet Cong and local farmers alike from using the land, whether reduction of cover for guerrilla fighters or simply obliterating everyone’s food supply. The use of Agent Orange had devastating effects, leaving behind a residue, a legacy, that persists to this day.

Because of Agent Orange, and other chemicals used in that black mark of history known distantly to many Americans as the Vietnam War – an event that has been largely reduced among us to jokes about “Charlie in the trees,” or “digging an elaborate series of interconnected tunnels like the Viet Cong” (Fuck you, Mike Myers.) – people today still suffer.

A lot of them.

Drinkable water comes only in bottles, presumably imported from less toxic parts of the world. While my experience so far stretches only within Sai Gon, I think it is a safe assumption that one simply does not drink the water anywhere in this country.

Yet the Vietnamese are resilient. They carry on, they rebuild, and they make the best of what they have, which is more than I can say for what I and many people I’ve known have done.

Agent Orange succeeded in defoliating the land. It also succeeded in depopulating villages, not only from starvation and outright poisoning, but other, sinister long-term effects. Plants in sprayed areas no longer grew, and people in affected areas gave birth to stillborn or disfigured children – or simply could not have children anymore at all. I won’t share images of the physical effects had on people here. If you want to know, they are readily available.

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This is truly a sad, sadistic thing.

And we as writers can derive inspiration from the darkest places.

In my mainline novel setting, there exists a substance that, to keep it simple, allows magic to be used in an otherwise magic-less environment. I call the stuff sujhurite, a word derived from the Korean word for crystal, and this substance in its rawest form is hazardous to handle. Close proximity to a sujhurite formation causes madness in some folks and, in a rare few, can cause the thoughts of an individual to take form in reality. Whatever they think of becomes true, manifesting before them; in other words, magic.

Usually it doesn’t go well for anyone involved, since the effects are unstable and most people lack the capacity to grasp what’s going on, and how to control it.

Think Akira + Sphere.

So sujhurite is dangerous enough as it is, but when refined and fashioned into idols, or ink (written on scrolls), it becomes much more controllable. Scrolls being more common; write a word in sujhurite ink and that word manifests from the reader’s mind. Example:

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

Once read, the scroll is consumed, it’s charge spent. Anyone familiar with games would recognize this mechanic in play. Sujhurite idols or statuettes, though, contain multiple charges, and are considered less stable than scrolls. Objects created with sujhurite with this purpose are known as dhirunes, and dhirunes have been weaponized to varying effect.

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I would not be the first to admit that the Japanese have a fascination with big explosions, and perhaps deservedly so.

The use of a single dhirune on an otherwise magic-less world altered the course of history, a pinnacle moment in the novel.

But I am not satisfied with the risk of a dhirune simply being “Be careful, it could blow you out of your fucking boots if you drop it.” No, combustion or otherwise immediate effects are a risk, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m going for.

Enter Agent Orange. Sure, a dhirune blast will kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, but now there’re unforeseen aftereffects to their use. Those exposed to dhirunes suffer later in life, and within the blast zone there lingers a long-term effect on the environment.

Plants no longer grow. Nearby villages find their birthrate slowed or halted, and something’s wrong with those children who survive. Living creatures avoid these dead zones at all costs, and stumbling into one is nothing short of hazardous. A number of dhirune blast marks dot the landscape, and it is not until decades later that connections are made between the blasts themselves and long-term effects on the population.

I will essentially be adding traits of Agent Orange to a pre-existing situation in my work, in part to add depth, but also to spread awareness. After all, Viet Nam is not the only place effected by dioxin.

This concept solves a few setting/plot holes as well, some major some minor, and I shan’t get into them here. That’d be tedious. Suffice it to say that dioxin, and its effects, is but one of the multitude of inspiring (albeit dark, angering and depressing) things I’ve come to discover her in Viet Nam.

There are other things. Sexuality and marriage, language, customs and architecture based off the climate, even the mentality and attitude towards foreigners – or other Vietnamese – I find all of it fascinating.

But those will be for another time.

~~~

Today’s music selection is, as they tend to be, completely different.

Among a small pile of movies watched on the plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. I believe this is a movie everyone should see, and I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Hard to describe it in words other than great or good, but this one would vote that the movie is worth your time, and it was surprisingly applicable at the time of watching it.