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Monday, September 30, 2013

Sleepy Hollow "Blood Moon" and "Sandman" Review

On paper, at least, "Sleepy Hollow" purports to borrow from Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." But other than the names Ichabod Crane, Katrina, Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman, the Fox TV series has turned to very different sources of inspiration.

In fact, it's more like a mix of "The X-Files" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It has borrowed the dynamic of Mulder and Scully, right down to the fact that Ichabod is a believer while Abbie is a skeptic. This mostly works, largely due to the chemistry between actors Tom Mison and Nichole Beharie. The only hesitation I have is that Abbie appears a little too willing to dismiss obviously supernatural events, not the least of which is the existence of a headless villain. Even Scully would have had a hard time finding a logical explanation for that one.

He likes my novels. Really.
But "Buffy" is obviously very present here too. It's probably not a coincidence that "Sleepy Hollow"'s second episode concerns witches, the same subject that Buffy tackled after her initial two-part series premiere. It's a way to signal to the audience, "Look, we're not just going to focus on one supernatural creature here. Anything goes." For Buffy, the witch episode was a sign the show wouldn't be about just vampires every week. In "Blood Moon," Sleepy Hollow drops the Headless Horseman (presumably only temporarily) and features other things that go bump in the night.

Overall, the episode continues to demonstrate all the qualities that made the pilot so enjoyable. There are strong action pieces, including a fiery battle in an underground tunnel, and some devilishly fun humor. The highlight of the show is easily Ichabod, whose rant about excessive taxation on donuts is just as enjoyable as his penchant for throwing away the gun after only one shot ("There were more?" he asks Abbie when she calls him on it). We only get glimpses of Ichabod's adjustment to modern society (a brief scene in the shower is priceless), but what we do get is consistently amusing. The writing for the character is also strong, as he uses old-fashioned language, like calling the "tax" a "levy" and generally using slightly outdated words like "Leftenant."

But it's clear the show doesn't want to leave Abbie behind either. Her scene with the late sheriff gives us a nice window into why she's sticking around Sleepy Hollow -- so that she can finally confront a traumatic childhood incident.

My new favorite Yoga posture
As for the evil witch herself, she's... fine. I have nothing against burnt witches who return from the grave, but it's hard to follow the Headless Horseman, who is a bad-ass among villains and, I'll say it again, the best figure in American Gothic fiction. The witch is serviceable enough, but she suffers in comparison. That's not to say that I'm complaining about old Headless' absence in episode two. If this show is going to work, he needs to be a powerful presence, and nothing detracts from that like over familiarity. "Sleepy Hollow" is right to keep him reserved for just the right moment.
I look awesome in this shawl. 

Fortunately, the next episode, "Sandman," brings us a more creative, and definitely more interesting, villain than just a crispy critter witch.  Faceless with hollow eye sockets, the Sandman visits those that have "turned their backs on their neighbors." The villain forces Abbie to come to grips with her tragic past while trying to atone for her sins against her sister.
This episode loses some of its humor and replaces it with horror. The Sandman is an echo of Freddie Krueger without the taste for sweaters, but he's still frightening as hell. Watching him flit around a farmer's house had me squirming in my chair. 
This brings me to another similarity to "Buffy" and "X-Files" -- dead characters don't stay dead. Two of the major characters offed in the pilot -- Sheriff August Corbin and John Cho's Andy Dunn -- show back up again in episode two. Cho's Dunn is particularly interesting because it's clear he's a reluctant villain. His resurrection, complete with snapped neck, is also deliciously creepy. 

But it's the final sequence, in which Abbie and Ichabod travel to a dreamworld to confront the Sandman, where the show kicks things up a notch. The first two episodes were all about action, but how they defeat the Sandman is decidedly more satisfying. It brings the show to a holistic conclusion in which it serves for a metaphor about fear. Indeed, the finale is definitively more "Buffy-esque" than any episode yet, relating a real-world monster to a more internal struggle.

And that's a good thing. So far, Sleepy Hollow has proven to be my favorite new show of the season, striking the right balance between horror, humor and great characters. I'm excited to see what happens next.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Headless Horseman Finally Done Right? A Review of “Sleepy Hollow,” Episode 1: Pilot

Let’s get this out of the way: I am a huge fan of the Headless Horseman and the original story that created him, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (You can download a free ebook version here.) I view him as the greatest figure in American gothic literature and re-read Washington Irving’s classic every year around Halloween.
Hell, I love him so much I wrote three novels featuring the Horseman, incorporating him into a brand-new mythology. Some people would even say I’m obsessed.  

Yet I am anxious whenever a new TV or film adaptation of Sleepy Hollow is announced. With the exception of the Disney cartoon, very few efforts to translate the story to screen work out. I know people love Tim Burton’s version, but I felt it neutered the Headless Horseman. The character was relegated to doing the bidding of a two-bit witch.  That said, Tim Burton was light years ahead of other versions, including one that starred former footballer Dick Butkus as Brom Bones. The less said about that, the better.

When I learned that Fox was making a new TV series, I was both excited and nervous. It had a great pedigree, authored by the writers of the rebooted Star Trek series, and directed by Len Wisemen (Underworld). The trailers for it also looked great. Yet it’s hard to pull off a Headless Horseman story, much less a TV series, without descending into camp. And as much as I love the concept — Ichabod Crane is pulled through time to square off against a resurrected Headless Horseman — there’s no denying the fact that it’s a ridiculous premise.

Still, TV is littered with ridiculous premises that work well — Once Upon a Time, for example. The question is whether they can make it entertaining enough to pull it off anyway.

So, after finally watching the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow, did they do it? Do we finally have an adaptation of the Headless Horseman that truly works? In short: is the show any good?

My answer? It’s friggin awesome!

In every way, this show gets it right. The writing is tight, the lead characters are strong and sympathetic, and the action is top-notch.

The basic plot boils down to this—the Headless Horseman is really one of the four horseman of the Apocalypse, returned to Sleepy Hollow in order to start the end days. The time-traveling Ichabod is the only one who can stop him.

It works, but only because the writers have made Ichabod significantly different than he was in Irving’s original story. In that tale, he was a foppish and greedy school teacher who spooked easily. But Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod, played with finesse by Tom Mison, kicks ass. A former British history professor — at Oxford, no less — he defected to the American side during the Revolutionary War and served as a spy for General George Washington. In the show’s opening moments, he shoots the would-be Horseman in the chest and then decapitates him when he gets up again. When Ichabod awakens in the future, he is confused but determined.

Overall, Ichabod is fantastic any time he’s on screen. Some denizens of the Internet are strangely attached to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod, but Mison beats him by miles. For a guy that’s out of time, he’s both cool and surprisingly funny, even if some of the humor comes from his fish-out-of-water perspective. I particularly enjoyed his asides about the Emancipation and the ubiquity of Starbucks (“Is there a law?”).

The show’s other lead, Abbie Mills, played by Nichole Beharie, is also engaging. It could have played like a bad buddy-cop movie to pair an 18th Century soldier with an African-American female cop, but the show’s writers do a good job of making it flow well. By providing Mills with a mysterious past, they also help deal with doubts as to why she would be sticking her neck out (so to speak) for Ichabod.

Best of all, however, is the portrayal of the Horseman. He’s everything you want and need him to be. He’s menacing, mysterious and wields a flaming axe. By the end of the episode, he’s even packing heat, using both a shotgun and a machine gun. He’s used sparingly in the first episode, but every scene he’s in really shines. He may be my favorite on-screen version of the Horseman ever made, and that’s high praise from me.

In fact, my only concern at this stage is the network the show appears on. Fox is the home of some groundbreaking sci-fi shows, including The X-Files and Fringe, both of which I loved. But those are exceptions from Fox’s habit of yanking TV shows before they have time to develop an audience. There’s Firefly or Dollhouse, just to name two recent examples. I’m already invested in the world of Sleepy Hollow, but I worry Fox will kill it before others can become equally attached.

I can only hope I’m not alone. The makers of Sleepy Hollow have created a terrific show filled with interesting characters, humor, horror and mystery. You’d have to be headless to miss it.

Note: I’m going to review every episode of Sleepy Hollow, but I will be unable to watch Ep. 2 until Sept. 26 due to work commitments. Please check back here then for my take on whether Episode 2 lives up to the promise of the pilot.

Shameless plug: If you love the Headless Horseman, be sure to check out my first novel, A Soul to Steal, which features the character like you’ve never seen him before—guaranteed. It’s just $2.99 for Kindle. (If you want a Nook version, just leave a comment on this blog and I’ll get you one.) 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Contest and Cover Reveal for Give the Devil His Due: The Sanheim Chronicles Book Three

It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost Halloween again. And that means only one thing: the release of the third book for The Sanheim Chronicles. I’m pleased to show off the cover for the book, which is once again the work of the very talented Travis Pennington. After you’ve checked out the cover, stick around for a brief non-spoiler FAQ on what you can expect from the book, as well as details on a contest to win an early copy of the book plus a $15 Amazon gift card.

Q: So what’s the new book called?
A: Give the Devil His Due.

Q: Wait, doesn’t that violate your legal agreement with the Charlie Daniels Band?
A: Yeah, about that… I posted a blog on April 1, 2013, in which I claimed I had settled with the Charlie Daniels Band after it had sued me. But it was an April Fool’s Day joke. Some people got it, but many did not, I suspect because they read it well after the date on which it was posted. So, to be clear, the Charlie Daniels Band has never sued me, nor do I expect it to. I do appreciate the folks who wrote to tell me they were angry with Charlie Daniels on my behalf. It’s nice to know people support me and I feel like a bit of a jerk for tricking anyone.

Q: When will Give the Devil His Due be published?
A: On Oct. 1, 2013, for Amazon and Nook. Typically Nook is a day or so behind Amazon so it might be more like Oct. 2. I will post updates on when the different versions are released.

Q: When will the print edition be out?
A: I’m hoping to put that out in October as well, but please view that as a best-case scenario. The print edition requires reformatting the book, which can be time-consuming.

Q: Can I buy a signed edition?
A: Yes! Just contact me on my Facebook page and I can send you one. It costs $15 (including shipping and tax), which is the same price as buying the print edition from Amazon. But this one is signed!

Q: What’s this book about?
A: It picks up several months after the end of Band of Demons. If you haven’t read that book, you really should do so before picking up Give the Devil His Due.

Q: Wait, that’s it? That’s all you’ll say?
A: I hate spoilers and ruining the experience for a reader, so I’m reluctant to say much. All I will add is that the ending events of Band of Demons have dramatically changed some characters’ lives – and at least one of them is not handling the situation particularly well.

Q: Is this book the last in The Sanheim Chronicles?
A: Give the Devil His Due is the conclusion to the trilogy I initially set out to write. It ties up most of the plot-lines people will want resolved. That said, I’ve created a mythology that I really enjoy. If there is reader interest, it’s possible I might write more books in the series. I can opine on this more once the third book is out, because I’m afraid of saying too much.

Q: Do you have anything else in the works?
A: Yes! I’ve started preliminary work on my next novel, which will be out next year. It is not directly connected to The Sanheim Chronicles, but if you enjoyed that series, I think you will enjoy this as well. It’s a mix of mystery, myth and the supernatural. I also have a couple of other projects I’m working on that may or may not come to fruition sometime soon.

Q: How can I make sure I know when Give the Devil His Due is released?
A: You can sign-up for my newsletter here:
I only send a newsletter when I actually have something to say, which is likely to be just a few times a year. I also plan to give out a free short story to subscribers, though I’m still working on that particular story.

You can also have Amazon notify you when I release a book by going to my Amazon author page and clicking “subscribe” in the upper right hand corner: You can also “like” the page if you are feeling generous (I have no idea what the point of those likes are).

I will also be trumpeting the news on my Facebook page and on Twitter.

To encourage folks to join the newsletter, I’m giving away an early ebook copy of Give the Devil His Due as well as a $15 Amazon gift card. All you need to do to join the contest is to sign up for the newsletter and fill in your details below. Good luck and I can’t wait to publish Give the Devil His Due!