Today I have a tale of art, synchronicity, enthusiasm, nostalgia and the internet. I’ve just had a good couple of days pursuing connections between personal obsessions. This particular tale might not resonate with you because my own interests are idiosyncratic, but perhaps the example will inspire you to explore paths of synchronicity uniquely suited to your own interests and cherished memories.
It started with me recording a sword and sandal epic called The Colossus of Rhodes on TCM. Sword and sandal pictures or peplums were usually rather cheap Italian action films popular in the days before spaghetti westerns (late 50s to mid 60s). They featured heroes such as Hercules, Maciste, or Atlas fighting evil and oppression. Shot in Spain or Greece mostly with badly-dubbed Italian casts with a few washed up or D-list American actors, they were an attempt to piggy back on the popularity of Hollywood successes such as Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus.
Now there was only one reason why I wanted to see The Colossus of Rhodes: it was the first film directed by the great film director Sergio Leone. His later spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West is arguably one of the best films ever made. Well, suffice it to say The Colossus of Rhodes is not one of the best films ever made. It is a rather routine would-be epic helped along by a serviceable and professional acting job by American actor Rory Calhoun. Calhoun was adept at rugged tough guy roles such as cowboys and gangsters. He had actually served three years in jail in his youth for robberies and car theft. In 1955, his agent leaked the scandal of Calhoun’s prison record to a gossip rag as a substitute for a story he convinced them to suppress, an exposé on his other client Rock Hudson’s secret homosexual life. So, in a sense, Rory Calhoun’s greatest contribution to film was that his sacrifice made possible the post-1955 career of Rock Hudson. No Rory Calhoun, no Giant or Ice Station Zebra.
Anyway, I had never seen The Colossus of Rhodes, and now I had. Yay. Of course, TCM was showing several other typical examples of peplums that week, which leads me to my experience of Atlas. Naturally if there was money to be made by Italians ripping-off Hollywood period epics, could schlock-meister Roger Corman be far behind? Shot in Greece on a budget that would make the Italians cringe, Atlas was movie-making on the cheap: Spartacus cost $12 million; Atlas cost $108,000, and it shows. The warriors’ shields look to be made of tin foil and cardboard. Also, it’s hard to make epic battles convincing when only fifty inexperienced extras show up.
So, Atlas ought to be a simply awful film. But here’s the thing: it’s not. First of all, it’s got a reasonably literate, intelligent script by Charles B. Griffith. Griffith is a sort of underground Hollywood legend, penning lurid scripts for Corman, usually cranked out in a few weeks for a few hundred dollars. Griffith is responsible for the acerbically satirical masterpieces A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors (a musical version of which, my wife’s nephew Stefan starred in locally a few years ago). Griffith not only wrote Atlas, he also managed the production, was the assistant director, and acted as an extra. The dialogue is often subtle, witty, and even legitimately philosophical.
The intelligence of the screenplay was aided in no small part by the acting of a quartet of D-list actors who at that time were a sort of Corman stock troupe. The villain of the piece was played with an infectious charismatic integrity by Frank Wolff. An underrated actor who committed suicide at 43, Woff played most of his roles in low-budget Italian productions. His most prestigious role was as Vartan Damadian in Elia Kazan’s America, America. But let’s not forget a small role he played in the previously mentioned Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. He is the farmer, Brett McBain, murdered by Henry Fonda early in the picture. (Do you feel the tendrils of synchronicity lurking beneath the disparate details?)
The star of Atlas was Michael Forest. Although his face, voice, and physique were instantly familiar, I couldn’t originally place him. Fans of anime might recognize Forest’s voice as he is in a good number of dubbed versions. But his most famous role, for me, was as the Greek god Apollo in the original Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais,” in 1967.
The theme of my wandering story so far has been hard working D-listers producing as much excellence as they can manage in the outer slums of the artistic world, sometimes rising above their origins to realize their potentials as with Leone, sometimes coming tantalizingly close to greatness only to die young and forgotten as with Wolff, but most often just tooling along producing the occasional memorable diamonds in the rough as with Griffith and Forest. As with all synchronicity-based stories this one could be spun out forever in fascinating ways, but I’ll end with an uplifting little coda showing that the work of scratching out tiny moments of brilliance despite the restrictions of poverty row production is ongoing and inspiring.
While researching all the above interconnections I discovered that the star of Atlas, Michael Forest, had played the role of Apollo in Star Trek more than once. Paramount Pictures has allowed the production of fan-fiction based on its Star Trek franchise so long as it is not made for commercial ends. So, crowdfunded and largely cast with amateur fan-actors, we get the web-based “fourth season” of the original Star Trek series Star Trek Continues. With meticulously recreated sets and costumes, talented pastiches of the original casts’ performances, canny use of the possibilities of modern special effects, and some writing that would make Roddenberry proud, Star Trek Continues is as close as I’ve seen to watching the original series.
And I only discovered this remarkable series because I was researching Michael Forest, an obscure actor from an ultra-cheap sword and sandal picture from the 1960s. 46 years after playing Apollo in that original Star Trek episode, Forest reprised the role in the first episode of Star Trek Continues, “Pilgrim of Eternity.” His acting in the original episode was brilliant and it was again in the new one. It made my day. And in this day and age of over-produced Hollywood mega-blockbusters (the recent Star Trek Beyond had a budget of $185 million), you can still find thriving let’s-put-on-the-best-show-we-can-with-what-we-can-scrounge gems. Vic Mignogna (actor, writer, director, producer, etc. of that first episode of Star Trek Continues) funded it out of his own pocket. He funded the next 3 episodes with a Kickstarter budget of $126,000. That is about $16,000 in the currency of Roger Corman’s 1961 Atlas era. (And as a personal note to my mother, yes, Vic, who plays Kirk in the new series, does have a scene where he appears without his shirt—I think you will be pleased!)
I hope you have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of synchronicity and I hope you get as much pleasure while undertaking your own rambles in search of synchronicity and inspiration.
Mark Phillips (2016)
Note: All of the data assembled above comes exclusively from Wikipedia.
A worldwide observance of Humiliation Day occurred on January 3, 2017, in an effort to raise awareness of the negative effects of humiliation. Unlike humility, which is a virtue characterized by inner strength, humiliation is a degradation of another human being through intimidation, unwarranted criticism, or mistreatment that results in the lowering or loss of that person’s self-respect. Many times, it is a tactic employed by people to cut other people down in order to feel good about themselves, usually a sign of insecurity. That same insecurity comes through as a defense mechanism if a person feels threatened by the words or actions of another. Often, we defend ourselves automatically to cover our own inadequacies or to avoid having to face our own private demons.
For example, parents feel they have a right, nay, a duty, to “teach” their children, a concept often used to excuse using hateful, hurting words that cut into a child’s mind and heart. Such criticism is destructive rather than constructive, and can linger a lifetime. For example, every time I visit my mother, she asks me why I’m still fat, knowing full well the roadblocks I battle daily, including diabetes, depression, and a sinus arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You would think, being a Registered Nurse, she would at least show her own daughter the same compassion as one of her patients, right? Wrong. Being verbally abused and unloved as a child, she seems determined to repeat the same, horrendous behavior toward yet another generation. What if she had said, “I’m worried about your health. Is there anything I can do to help you with your weight?” To me, that would have been a bouquet of flowers in comparison to hot coals, and instead of being defensive and crushed, I would have felt assured of her love and deep concern.
Recently I was privileged to experience a presentation by author Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, who has written several histories based on the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest and Canada. Her focus has often been on aviation and the overlooked role of women and First Nations pilots during WWII. Also, she is the editor of a book titled In This Together in which she compiled fifteen stories from Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers in Canada, explaining how the history of colonialism impacted society and how the country “might move forward on the path toward reconciliation.” Her words brought to mind my own country’s history of humiliation and degradation toward those not of Eastern European descent. This includes not only the slaughter and subjugation of the indigenous Native Americans whose country was claimed by invading Europeans, but the Japanese placed in internment camps during WWII, the Chinese who built our great railroads, the African Americans, who are still struggling toward reconciliation, the undocumented immigrants who are now being told to go home, and more recently, innocent Muslims caught in the middle of a mad search for terrorists. With our own history of fear-mongering, slavery, and blatant discrimination, the United States may have more to regret and/or apologize for than other countries when it comes to the humiliation of others. And yet, it continues even today, with a lingering fear of those who are considered “different,” and we still give vent to that fear with unwarranted actions and hateful words.
In “The Power of Words” by The Huffington Post, Yehuda Berg says words possess “energy and power” and have the ability “to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” (emphasis added)
The article exhorts us to listen, to think before we speak, to view gossip as trivial and a waste of our attention. It mentions Nelson Mandela and how his years of solitude in prison taught him how “precious” words are. Mohammed Quhtani, a world-renowned speaker, says words, “whether verbally or in writing,” determine how others perceive you, and that they can build or destroy relationships. Perhaps, in our world of social media, we should think before we speak, so as not to hurt ourselves or others? How many times have I humiliated myself by speaking (or texting) before I thought? Humiliation is not something you want to pass on.
As writers with the possibility of reaching a wide range of readers, we need to be continually cognizant of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 quote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proved how words can change an entire society for the better, and Adolph Hitler proved the opposite, leading millions into a spiraling whirlpool of hate, death, and destruction. King Solomon, in Proverbs 18:21, said that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Even more awe-inspiring are the words in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, when God spoke the world into being and the morning stars sang together. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.
In 1624, John Donne wrote a simple little poem called, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” referring to funeral bells being rung when a person dies. His words, often quoted by others, inspired Ernest Hemingway to use it as a title for a book. In his poem, Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man in a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Imagine the beautiful music echoing across the land if, when we humiliated another, we had to toll a funeral bell for causing the death of an innocent spirit? Perhaps, and not just on Humiliation Day, we should harken to John Donne’s parting words, and avoid humiliating others. It only serves to diminish the humanity in us all.
As writers, we all must come to grips with the ongoing dilemma of humility versus self-promotion; it is far less complicated to look at the role of humility in our characters than in ourselves.
As in life, humble people often possess a quiet, inner strength that plays well against an obnoxious main character. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. Definitely not humble. Yet, his dependence on the humility of Dr.Watson is subtle, yet powerful. Watson not only admires and supports Holmes, it is the doctor’s steadfast loyalty which makes Holmes a household name. And while Watson highly disapproves of Holmes’ use of mind-enhancing drugs, he will still go out of his way to save the life of the indisputable genius.
In the same way, in Gone With the Wind, Melanie’s quiet, unassuming character serves to highlight and heighten Scarlet O’Hara’s self-centeredness. Is Melanie remembered? Of course she is, for her humble spirit and shy nature. After Scarlet has been caught being “comforted” by Ashley Wilkes, it is sweet, unassuming Melanie who offers friendship and forgiveness, heaping “coals of kindness” on her cousin’s head. It is interesting how this seems to confuse the enemy, yet it is stated in many articles that a spirit of humility is the best deterrence when confronted with anger, resentment, or jealousy.
In the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd, Rutledge is a main character whose energies are spent solving intricate murders. The stories take place shortly after World War I. Using a brilliant character flaw, Todd gives Rutledge PTSD at a time when it was unknown and/or condemned as an indication of cowardness. Detective Ian Rutledge must contend 24/7 with the voice of a soldier he was forced to shoot for refusing to take his men over dead man’s land one last time. Throughout the book, the ghostly “Hamish” makes his presence known in critical observations and angry remarks. This strange use of PTSD adds an extra layer of suspense to the book as a whole, yet holds Detective Rutledge in a complex grip. The condition not only denies him the opportunity of either promotion or marriage, it allows a deep insight into the pain of others, while contrasting Rutledge’s inner strength, which he must always hold in check, against the obnoxious resentment of his immediate supervisor, who is both arrogant and demeaning.
The world-famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie, created a boastful, arrogant, and far from humble Belgian, with a love of chocolates — definitely not a liability, right? Hercule Poirot’s true weakness is his strength. Come again? Poirot knows himself to be a brilliant detective and, much like Sherlock Holmes, only appears humble when the occasion demands it or when doing so will ingratiate himself to others. Indeed, he is totally convinced of his own intellectual superiority, and Christie uses this very attribute, not only as quasi comic relief, but to bring the short Belgian down another notch. Upon missing a vital clue, Poirot curses his own stupidity, something that would never be tolerated coming from others! While Poirot is truly “an unforgettable character,” I often catch myself thinking that one more reference to “those little gray cells” will surely cause me to scream and run amok. Maybe he’s just not my cup of tisane.
In contrast, Christie’s other brilliant detective is Miss Marple, who is so unassuming, many forget she’s even there, including the killer. Marple is given a peace, an inner strength that others sense; they migrate towards what they perceive as a naïve kind of dignity, confessing their darkest secrets to someone who listens to their every word while instilling an unspoken sense of confidentiality and caring. In true humility, she sorts through the facts and zeroes in on the perpetrator, who never suspects the little old lady of anything other than dementia and an obsession with knit one, pearl two.
Finally, Harry Potter. In tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin calls Neville Longbottom “the most important person in Harry Potter.” Why? Because it is this unassuming, humble, kind minor character who “determines the course” of the entire series. Wow. “Neville understands that it’s not about being loud and brash every day, it’s about picking your battles and knowing what’s dear and worth fighting for.” In other words, he makes Harry Potter look really good. Need I admonish you to place close attention to your minor characters? While not “remarkably talented or suave,” Neville is trusted. He “makes all the hard choices that Pettigrew refused the first time around.” Pettigrew allowed the weakness of hero worship to affect his decisions while Neville, knowing he could have been where Harry Potter is now, bears no grudge. Instead, he develops a fierce determination to do what he can to help the group as a whole. Asher-Perrin calls it “a lesson in self-worth under stronger personalities that most human beings could do with at some point or another.” Neville Longbottom, in effect, makes Harry Potter possible.
In the workplace, a spirit of humility can encourage others to shine. In relationships, humility can bring a deep calm to troubled waters. In fiction, a character with quiet, inner strength can add depth and contrast to your writing, and take it to the next level.
- J. Sweet
“Night Vision” – Short Story, First Place, Writer’s Digest 2015 Fiction Contest, Thriller Category
“White Rabbit” – Short Story, Honorable Mention, Saturday Evening Post 2016 Anthology
“The Organ Chaser” – Short Story, The Final Twist “Denizens of the Dark” Anthology 2016
Find more about C.J. Sweet at her blog, https://cadenstclaire.com/tag/caden-st-claire/.
Hello, all you ghoulish writers out there. It’s time for another haunting episode in The Final Twist blog space. As you are all probably aware, it’s time to dust off the ol’ witches’ hat and re-mount our collective fall holiday decorations. This year, there’s a better alternative to giving just a few calorie-loaded, hyperactivity-inducing sweets to the wandering superheroes and evil vampires that appear on the gloaming of All Hallows Eve.
Most of you that read this blog have a trick in your treat-bag that could be just what the zombie ordered! This is the perfect time of year to make those skeletons rattle with a bone-chilling short story. Whatever creepy-crawly you may want to employ for your tale, I’m going to give you 10 words to use for a treat that you can raise from the grave to delight your friends and strangers alike. We would love to see what you come up with, if you choose to share.
The purpose of this post is to give everyone who reads it several stories to use for the evening. Your rendition will be used by strangers far and wide to provide a proper scare to local trick-or-treaters. Shorter is better. We don’t want to make the audience disappear before the finale because they are apprehensive at losing their valuable candy-collecting time. Stories should be short enough that you can print up your favorites on a sheet of paper to slip into plastic pumpkin buckets. Please keep reply posts to 500 words or less.
After you’ve written the story, don’t forget to set the atmosphere! For ambiance, try setting up several dark blankets in the driveway or yard with chairs or pillows (that you don’t mind getting dirty). Settle the children in a semi-circle around the story-teller, and don’t forget to let the accompanying adults in on the fun. For an extra surprise, you can do a double-walled blanket enclosure and have a costumed assistant (or a willing parent) ready to jump in from behind at the most exciting part! Just make sure you have enough room to not trample anyone.
Another fun idea is to make a fireplace without the fire by attaching some light-weight red, orange, and yellow cloth strips on top of a wooden or cardboard box (not too large) with a LED battery-powered light and fan inside. Several online resources are available to help with ideas. Here are a few:
Onto the writing fun! The 10 words I challenge you to put in your story are:
Submissions (use the Leave a Comment button below) will stay open for seven days, then we will begin voting to see who gets bragging rights for having “The SCARIEST story anyone has heard!” Don’t forget to check back often to pick out your favorite stories for use on Halloween so that you can memorize them or print them out for practice. May your thoughts be frightfully productive, and Ghoul luck!
I recently watched Stephen Hawking’s Genius series on PBS Channel 8 in Houston on the possibilities of time travel. Three people were shown numbers that constituted an invitation to a party. The numbers represented the intersection of 46th Street and 11th Street, and a 15-story building. But when the people arrived, the party had long been over; they walked dejectedly among the half-inflated balloons, empty cups, and food remains. Hawking had given them the where of the party, but had neglected to give them the when. My writer’s mind immediately made a connection between the elusive dimension of time and the importance of time when applied to the setting in a story or novel.
I had just finished Mary Buckham’s book, “A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting,” explaining how setting adds depth to your character, and a time tangent led me to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”:
“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon and after their three o'clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There's no hurry, for there's nowhere to go and nothing to buy…and no money to buy it with.”
I realized it was time and circumstance that Harper Lee used to draw me into the story. She didn’t just tell me the where (Deep South) and the when (1932), but she used specific details to show how the people reacted to their circumstances at a specific time in history. Being a native Texas, I certainly knew what to expect in the way of heat and humidity, but she wove the setting in such a way that it brought depth to her characters. It was a different place and time, and a remarkable first paragraph. Of course, someone who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line might not relate to the difference in time−that there’s a heap of difference between the Republic of Texas and the Deep South, not just in speech, but in mindset. Or that in the pre-Civil War Deep South, things moved so slowly it was even said that “time stood still.” So how relevant is time to circumstance, and how do they relate to setting? Sometimes, the addition of a sentence or two can explain both. Buckham demonstrated this with the following two examples:
“The day I left Paris, I knew I would be returning as soon as possible.”
“Paris had dressed in her best to see us off. A warm spring sun peeked through the pearl-grey skirts of early morning gog. And a light breeze stirred the new leaves on the Champs-Elysees as if waving farewell.” −Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass
The first sentence tells us where (Paris), but doesn’t really explain how the character feels about leaving. The expanded paragraph tells us not only the when (spring) and the where (Paris), but takes us deeper into the character’s circumstance of being forced to leave a city she’s grown to love, and shows us how she feels. Buckham also includes a negative, rainy-day reaction when the setting changes. We all look at things differently, and how we filter what we see depends on who we are and where we come from, our character. And how that character reacts over time can change as well, from child to adult to a senior citizen. Time can just as easily refer to the time of day/year/month/century as it can a person’s time in life. Hawking seemed to understand this elusive nature of time, and demonstrated in his documentary how we cannot move back in time without meeting ourselves−a complicated circumstance, to say the least. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right when he said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Time of life, or actual time?
Back to Buckham’s book. Setting also uses time to create conflict (future) or show backstory (past), hopefully without making it an “info dump” that pulls the reader out of the story. Each of us reacts to feelings in different ways, and setting can evoke positive as well as negative reactions, depending on time and circumstance. Buckham reminds us that backstory matters only if it is relevant to current choices, decisions, or events in your story. She gives an example of using setting and circumstance to trigger a memory that serves to contrast what the character is seeing and thinking. And she incorporates sensory details as well:
“A watery sun was shining on it [the house]. There was a faint breeze and the smell of woodsmoke in the air and a kind of intense cold-afternoon quiet all around us. It was the kind of place you would have wanted your grandparents to live…it reminded me of the places in the picture books they gave me in Manila and Guam.”
This is a vast improvement over:
“I had been a child who had grown up on miliary bases around the world, who had never had what I saw as a traditional American home.”
A lot was said about the setting and the character’s reaction to it, which took him back in time and revealed another level of his character. You can draw the reader deeper into the character’s point of view (POV) by triggering a memory that causes the reader to care. If place and time form an integral part of your story, take extra pains with it early on to anchor it in the reader’s mind, but Buckham reminds us to be careful about pacing. When is setting too much setting? When it takes away from the story. Take your character into the setting, and use the setting to take the reader deeper into the character. And remember that elusive dimension of time, so nobody misses the party.
It’s been said that you can’t tell a book by its cover. While this may be true, if the cover doesn’t grab the reader, he may not open the book. I will not discuss cover art here, but there is something else to be found on the cover—the title. It is the first print the reader sees. Does it capture your reader’s attention? Does it make him want to open the book and read your story? The title should suggest the main subject of your story, usually with a twist.
Examples of titles that suggest the story:
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Star Wars”, “The Expendables”, “Forbidden Planet”, “Song of Fire and Ice” (Movies are usually based on books.)
Titles cannot be copyrighted and can be re-used. However, I would not suggest that you grab someone else’s title. Your title should be a short-hand introduction to your story, not someone else’s.
Sometimes it’s hard to come up with a good idea for your story. In such circumstances, some suggest “Read a newspaper” or “Get a magazine on your favorite subject”. Those suggestions are good, but here’s something that might help kick start you into your story. I call it the Superlative Starter for both your story and your story title.
Generally speaking, a superlative is a word ending in “est” although there are some superlatives that don’t follow that rule. Here are a handful of examples: Best, worst, tallest, shortest, first, last, smartest, dumbest, fastest, etc.. When you use a superlative in a title it immediately tells the reader what to expect from your story for it asks a question that, hopefully, your story will answer. After reading your title, the reader is forced to ask the question “Why?”
The title format is very simple. It’s just “The <superlative> <noun>”.
The Last Ship
The Smallest Monster
The Richest Woman in Town
The Smallest Hero
The Last Drop of Water
The First Man on Mars
The Shortest Cop
The Fastest Car in Bogota
The Sharpest Pencil in the Box
The Hottest Day on Earth
From “Creative Writing Essentials” by L. Stewart Hearl
Available for $2.99 on Amazon Kindle
I closed my eyes, emptied my mind
Entered deep, deep inside
I searched for clues to what had happened
When did I let go of my trust
When did I stop being loving
When did I confine myself only to existence
To only a shadow of a real person
I felt deep sadness, emptiness, and fear
I opened my eyes quickly and promised
To let my heart be free again
Like a child, curious and trusting
Ready to experiment and to love
To be like a bird in the sky
A cloud high above
Until it meets the cold air
And becomes rain and snow
To fall on the ground