Book Review: Deep Cuts, Volume 1: (Some of) All of the best of Jesse Jones on STAB!

Jesse Jones collects his verbal comedy best in the print edition of Deep Cuts
© 2017 Jesse Jones

Condensed Wit For Erudite Sickos On The Go!

It should comes as no surprise that for its first review of the printed word, Fields Point Review should cast about for high-minded material, offering tasteful and lasting enrichment to readers old and young. In like fashion, it figures that this frustrated search might later veer headlong into a bewildering anthology of willful provocation, acidic satire, and decidedly child-unsafe comedy that one critic (possibly this critic) once described as “so grim it makes your hair fall out.” Without further fanfare (well, not much further), may we present Deep Cuts, Volume 1: (Some of) All of the best of Jesse Jones on STAB!

If the book’s title throws you off, you may be missing vital context. Sacramento-area comedian Jesse Jones is co-creator of, and a permanent panelist on, the live comedy show STAB!, which reaches the world beyond Northern California in the form of a podcast also cleverly entitled STAB! A group of comically minded folks, fed writing prompts on short notice by show host John Ross, recite their most outrageous freeform humor before an audience of their peers.

[For more about the STAB! program, including our interview with John Ross, look here!]

What Jones has done with Deep Cuts is compile one hundred assorted segments he has performed over the show’s run, illustrating the madcap, patternless and altogether unpredictable landscape of STAB! It pays to warn non-initiates that STAB! is built for and around extremely dark comic sensibilities. Jones himself warns in the foreword that “taken out of context, some of the things you’re about to read COULD be horrifying.” True enough, but what makes his work more than merely off-color is the ability to give a clever and original slant to the material. Tackling taboos calls for skill. Some will inevitably be put off no matter what, but fearless reader/listeners will find that STAB! comes at even the most loaded topics with due irony and forward-thinking candor. “These are jokes,” Jones also thinks to mention, and seldom if ever does a bit come across as tasteless for its own sake. There are thoughts here, ripe for the provokin’.

The themes in STAB! have names evoking party games, which they more or less are. In “Reorganization,” well-known acronyms receive new meanings. Jones interprets the computer protocol HTTP as “Heterosexual Threesomes Take Precision,” a treatise on tackling gay panic in male-heavy encounters.

If at any time you come into contact with the genitalia of the other gentleman involved, it is proper and indeed encouraged to simply shout “Sports!” at which point the incursion will be forgiven as an accident and the threesome may continue without incident.

“Topical Haiku Challenge” calls for a formally correct poetic meditation on the latest national news fiasco. Writing of the Washington Redskins, Jones targets an unguarded flank of the controversy, observing

Of all tragedies
heaped upon native people
this year’s team is worst.

Not all items are quite so edgy. Some are surreal, some merely silly, and yet some go much darker. There are dating profiles, marital vows, tourist brochures, and festive celebrations planned for scores of whimsically inappropriate subjects. A manifesto written in dual commemoration of the Unabomber’s birth and Pac-Man’s arcade debut opines

They feed us pills, telling us that they’re our real power, but they don’t make the ghosts go away! The pills make the ghosts fear US, but only for a fleeting moment, only to return once the high has subsided.”

Assuming you are fundamentally on board for the style of humor, the chief negative of this book is not actually hearing Jones, a master presenter of his own material, shouting it at your head. The best and highest function of Deep Cuts is as a companion piece to the voluble library of STAB! episodes, available wherever listeners choose to acquire their podcasts. In addition, hearing the other show panelists (not pictured here) riff on each topic before Ross bellows at Jones to “BRING IT HOME!” is well worth the time it takes to listen. But to date, none of these other folks has put together a best-of reel that sits on a nightstand or e-reader, poised to assault the eyes with strange and delightful remembrances previously reserved for your ears. Whether as a collectible supplement to the audio adventures of STAB! company, or as a free-standing comedy panoply in the tradition of Bob Odenkirk’s A Load of Hooey, Jesse Jones’s Deep Cuts Vol. 1 is handy provender for the misfit sense of humor.

Pick up a copy of Deep Cuts, Volume 1 in your preferred format here!

Follow Jesse Jones and the STAB! comedy podcast for high-venom comedy dosage.

Movie Review: The Eyes Of My Mother

Nicolas Pesce makes a brutal horror debut with The Eyes of My Mother
© 2016 Borderline Presents/Tandem Pictures

Teach Your Children Well


Francisca (Olivia Bond), a young girl, lives with her parents on an isolated farm. Her mother (Diana Agostini), once a practicing surgeon in her native Portugal, instructs the girl in both the spiritual and scientific marvels of nature, encapsulated by the devoted veneration of her namesake Saint Francis. Francisca’s taciturn father (Paul Nazak), while not outwardly cruel, appears to suffer from an excess of rural repression. Horrible tragedy befalls the family one day, at the hands of a leering drifter named Charlie (Will Brill). Nicolas Pesce’s debut film The Eyes Of My Mother moves this far down a predictable genre path, and no farther.

Following the emotional example of her family unit, Francisca confronts her trauma with unnerving dispassion, and even a certain scholarly interest. Rather than cope with her grief, she embarks on a study of its causes. Faced with the human capacity for senseless brutality, she notes both its devastating effect and its prurient allure. She accepts both in the spirit of education, an ironic perversion of the intellectual curiosity her mother imparted with the best of intentions. Gradually, in subtle glimpses of her life, the film reveals Francisca as a perfect storm of love, fear, clinical stoicism and spiritual hunger. Each of these qualities, we learn, is marked by the ugliness life has dealt her. Privately she burns with humanity, but within her may also lurk sufficient inhumanity to cancel it out.

Outwardly, Francisca grows into a lovely young woman (Kika Magalhães). She carries herself in a near-constant attitude of birdlike observation. Only in utter solitude and darkness does her demeanor slip to show the true ruin that loneliness and horror have made of her. From minute to minute the film invites its audience to ache with sympathy, tremble with revulsion, and sometimes do both at once.

The Eyes Of My Mother is a short and, at least in its formal construction, a simple film. Discussing individual scenes out of context might do them disservice. A somber black-and-white palette, an understated narrative pace, and frequent ellipses in action mask intermittent moments of pure, soul-scorching horror. As the story progresses, less is implied and more is shown of Francisca’s dreadful secrets. Her sporadic interactions with the world outside are sincere efforts to know love and fulfillment in the eyes of others. Even so, each desperate act yields more hideous results than the last, tightening the confinement of her arguably doomed existence.

Francisca is, without doubt, a monster. It is fair to say that she was made into one, but at such a crucial stage of her formation that it may be inseparable from her nature. Psychological points of escape, moments where she might turn aside and spare herself a monster’s fate, are never certain until they have passed. The film’s chief dramatic question seems to be whether Francisca will be able to touch another life without turning it monstrous as well.

Be aware. This is a horror film, and a savage one. It is often beautiful, occasionally even tender, but no less harrowing for that. Personal sensitivity to depictions of physical and emotional suffering may face a strenuous test or two. The rewards of such an ordeal are the promise of explosive catharsis and the pleasure of sharp, economical drama presented for its own sake.

Kudzu House publishes “And Every Living Thing…”

My short story “And Every Living Thing After Its Kind” has made its published debut in the 2016 Winter Solstice Issue of Kudzu House Quarterly, a literary journal concerned with the human race and its place in the natural world.

Story excerpt:

In this land of looming cataclysm, a small enclave of academics had gathered to catalog one more speck in the staggering geological, anthropological, bio-botanical history of South America. Primary tests put the eruption which filled this valley, and stewed at least one Quichua village, between three and four hundred years ago. That range of time saw violent episodes from almost all the major peaks in the region, so any chance witness to Taquinarumi’s eruption would have seen it as a footnote. One more apocalyptic belch in the wind. How hysterical it would be if this tiny, isolated bowl of dry lava were to yield a discovery of historic moment on par with… well, maybe not Pompeii, but…

Click here to read the full story.

Movie Review: Hush

Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel create weave soundless horror in Hush
© 2016 Blumhouse Productions/Intrepid Pictures

Now Hear This

To date, director Mike Flanagan has helmed two successful horror films. The first is Absentia, a poignant and absorbing yarn in the style of a creepy urban myth. The second is Oculus, a blistering fable about family dysfunction (and haunted mirrors) told in parallel timelines. For his latest film Hush, Flanagan steps off the supernatural plane, applying his visual storytelling prowess to a more straightforward suspense thriller. Straightforward it would seem anyway, but the script by Flanagan and lead actress Kate Siegel (also seen in Oculus) has just as many sneaky tricks without conjuring ghosts or other forces from beyond. Brace for old-fashioned hometown horror with some keen new ideas.

Maddie (Siegel) is a novelist caught in the chasm between publishing a successful first book and the nebulous, looming horror of penning an equally brilliant follow-up. Her main stumbling block is the ending. Early in the film she agonizes over a suitably powerful and satisfying denouement for her new story. Are you getting a prickly feeling about where this narrative might be headed?
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Podcast Review: STAB!

by Dan Fields

Outrageous Live Comedy, Deadly Sharp

“Roughly 24 to 92 hours ago*, STAB!’s team of comedy scientists commissioned 4 specific humorists** to give various potentially comedic takes on several random topics, which they’ll now perform for the first and likely last time, in front of a live studio audience, in a show called…

STAB!”

With these words of introduction, welcome to a world of high-spirited, fiercely funny, savagely dark entertainment. Stab! is a live comedy show featuring a rotating lineup of the freshest young comics you ought to be hearing. Lucky for those outside the show’s home territory, the performances are available as a weekly podcast. Created by Sacramento comedians John Ross and Jesse Jones, Stab! began as a friendly teamup of like minds looking for a new kind of comedy project.

The format of Stab! is simple, but open to endless possibilities. Each night’s panel of humorists take turns presenting sketches, poems and monologues based on a series of prompts they have received only a short time in advance. The format incorporates the wild variety of a standup open mic, the careful composition of a sketch show, and the madcap spontaneity of improv. There are few if any limits on the material, and the results while often inspired tend to be mighty edgy. People wishing to know more of Stab! should take a clue from the show’s title. It is not safe or comfortable comedy. Let those with delicate sensibilities be warned.

*Despite what the introductory voiceover cites, panelists routinely berate John Ross, the show’s MC, for sending them prompts less than a day in advance, much to general amusement.

**Stab! has since cut the original 4-performer lineup down to 3 (and occasionally 2), but rather than waste the signature voiceover track by John Alston, show audiences have made a game of yelling out these inaccuracies as the intro plays. Tradition is important. And do you think these folks are made of authoritative voiceover? They are not.

Earlier this year, the Stab! crew performed at the 4th Annual Los Angeles Scripted Comedy Festival, held at the prestigious iO West Theater. Some will know iO West, or its mothership theater in Chicago, under the former title of ImprovOlympic. By a happy chance, the timing worked out for Stab! to record its 100th show at the festival. Fresh from triumphant conquest in LA, show host and co-creator John Ross shares his perspective on the history of Stab! as it (sort of) turns a century old.

FPR: First of all, how was the Comedy Festival?

John Ross: Overall, it was great. We had a good time, and it was fun to be able to perform at iO, which is kind of a bigger theater. Danielle [Mandella, one of the show’s producers] and Jesse [Jones, a regular featured panelist] are both iO alums, so that was kind of a homecoming for them too.

Is this the first time Stab! has gone “on the road?”

JR: Predominantly we’ve kept it in Sacramento, and that was the first time we’ve gotten to LA.

Most people’s access to the show is limited to what they can find on iTunes, maybe 70 or 75 episodes. How old is Stab! really?

JR: I think we just put our 71st episode on. It’s funny how it landed when we did the Comedy Festival at iO. That was actually our hundredth show! When we first started, it was about three years ago. Jesse and I were producing different shows, like the 48-Hour Comedy Festival. That was an all-night marathon. I had done a show prior to that called Comedy From The Couch. I would host it. Three comedians would be on a couch, and then I would write a couple of bits that we would play with. Most of it was to bring the green room to the stage, where they’d have a comedian on stage and we’d interrupt each other, just talk trash about each other on stage.

So the seeds of Stab! were there.

JR: Yeah. We did that for a few years, and eventually for the 48-Hour Comedy Festival, I’d bump a format to Jesse like “Hey, here’s something I think you’d be good at,” because he’s an excellent writer. We were both working at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, which is sort of a UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade)/iO of Sacramento. It’s more improv and sketch based. I was teaching a standup program there and he was running the sketch program. We had never done anything creatively together. We were at a bar after some shows, and were like “Why are we not working together? We need to work together on something.” And we came up with the idea of Stab!
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Movie Review: The Witch

Robert Eggers weaves New England period horror in The Witch
© 2015 A24

The house began to pitch, the goat to twitch…

Some horror fans have complained that The Witch failed to scare them. Too bad for them. It is certainly a horror film, but not one whose pace or tactics will be to everyone’s taste. There are moments of pure shock and horror, but these rely on long periods of foreshadowing and quiet dread to set them up. Something important to note is the opening title card, which announces The Witch as “a New England Folktale.” That is exactly what viewers should go in expecting. The key themes of the film are the reality of frontier life, the dour trappings of superstition, and a lingering ambiguity about where the two might intersect. The Witch is a fanciful, fatalistic yarn that a master storyteller would take an entire evening to tell. As with any story told by candle or campfire light, the more you open yourself to The Witch the more firmly it can grip you. Those hoping for the squirm-a-minute pace of James Wan’s The Conjuring, or even the abstract visceral menace of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, may not find what they want here. Those willing to stew with painful slowness in suspense and paranoia will find their patience well rewarded. The Witch is very scary.

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Sanitarium Magazine publishes “Jonathan Apples”

I am honored to announce that my Gothic novella “Jonathan Apples” appears in Issue #39 of Sanitarium Magazine, a UK-based journal for Horror Fiction and Dark Verse. I began the story as a style exercise – a rough riff on Poe, if you will – but it soon grew well beyond the scope I anticipated.

Excerpt from “Jonathan Apples”:

Until the day I took Cecily for my wife, I never suspected that I might be a wicked man. I did love her. I know that I must have. Her sweetness, piety and affection, in short her very decency, ought to have inspired my reverent admiration. It was just so at the beginning, yet almost from the hour of our union before God, I felt my heart assailed by base and sardonic notions. Her guileless face reminded me, above all, of how blindly we give our trust to strangers, heedless of their capacity to harm and deceive us.

Read the full story in your brand-new copy of Sanitarium Issue 39 (December 2015).

Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Bill Condon directs Sir Ian McKellen as the great aging sleuth in Mr. Holmes
© 2015 Roadside Attractions

The Game Is Adrift

Those reasonably familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes tales will know that the master sleuth dreamed of retiring to Sussex once his cases were all solved, specifically to raise bees in solitude. Bill Condon’s film Mr. Holmes, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, imagines just such a scenario, in which Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has outlived nearly all his old comrades and, just after the close of the Second World War, dodders about his coastal cottage nearly a century old.

Many authors after Doyle have added their ideas to the Sherlock Holmes canon, with varying degrees of success and wildly divergent levels of regard for the source material. Some stories, including a few by Doyle himself, toy with the classic Holmes format by flashing significantly forward or backward in the life of the great sleuth. More than one fiendish problem has imposed itself on his placid country retirement, but in almost all such cases Holmes retains his razor-keen intellect no matter how physically diminished by age. Hatcher’s screenplay, by way of Cullin’s novel, presents another more poignant possibility. What if the mind of the world’s greatest detective (sorry, Batman) began to fail him with one crucial mystery left to solve?

This premise, though rendered with due respect for the character’s history, seems to cast a glum shadow over the happy retirement which Doyle must have meant as a parting gift for his greatest character. The two other inhabitants of the cottage are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes, notoriously brusque with fellow humans throughout his life, is no easy charge. Though softened by old age into a genuine fondness for the precocious boy, he functions in a near-constant state of abstraction that wears on the mother. Obliged to take up the duties of a home nurse, at “cook’s wages” as she puts it, she frowns upon her son’s worship of the august Mr. Holmes. A modest woman tried by grief and sacrifice, she feels her relationship with Roger slipping as Holmes fosters the boy’s ravenous curiosity. She adores her son and admires his cleverness, but fears he may grow to look down on his own humble roots. Having lost much in life herself, she may also hope to spare him the ravages of grief when his decrepit hero inevitably dies. She tries to impose distance between the two when she can, without much success. Linney does typically excellent work in this role, wielding a convincing Southern English accent that never intrudes on a strong and moving performance.

McKellen, a vibrant and energetic actor now in his middle seventies, plays the precarious physical state of a hard-worn chap in his early nineties with conviction. His rich intonation is known to most moviegoers by now, but he acts just as eloquently with mournful eyes, trembling hands, and a stubbornly jaunty flourish of his walking cane. It is surprising that this should be his first turn as Sherlock Holmes.

Roger, meanwhile, trails Holmes wherever he goes, begging him to continue a half-written manuscript correcting the late Dr. Watson’s account of the very last Baker Street case. At several points the film gets playful with the slippery nature of Holmes the person. Sherlock Holmes, as we know him, is a fictional character so familiar that he often seems like a real figure from history, while in the world of Mr. Holmes he is a real person conflated to legendary status on page, stage and screen thanks to all manner of literary license. Throughout his career Holmes has tolerated discrepancies between life and legend, such as the briar pipe and deerstalker hat he claims he never used, but evidently Watson’s account of his final case has the facts so wrong that Holmes feels compelled to set them right.

Young Milo Parker, who plays Roger, is a rare find. He looks every bit the simple country lad, but his presence and delivery are laudable. There are many fine young actors (which is, after all, how we get fine old actors), but few as young as Parker have the chops to act alongside dramatic veterans like Linney and McKellen. He steals as much of the camera’s attention as they do, and this early performance ought to start his career on a good path.

The details of the lost case itself are better shown than explained. They involve a curious course of music lessons, a grief-stricken lady (Hattie Morahan) wandering London to the dismay of her husband (Patrick Kennedy), a somber visit to postwar Japan, a mysterious foreign host (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the peculiar life cycle of bees. All the ingredients are ready-measured for a classic Holmes adventure, but the race against his ailing faculties is a new enemy for the old sleuth to conquer. Supporting turns from such seasoned players as John Sessions and Frances de la Tour will delight cameo spotters.

The film is beautiful. Carter Burwell’s score drifts through shades of wonder and sorrow. Long shots of breezy coastline and the saturated colors of Holmes’s hyper-idyllic seaside garden are constant reminders that this, too, is yet another story for the collector’s bookshelf. Even London, as recalled by Holmes in his nightly writings, resembles the set of a well-staged murder play or an illustration from Doyle’s own books.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, Condon’s film has another sort of beauty as well. Holmes’s eccentric manners and comic arrogance have always offset his intellect. Doyle found many deft ways to hint that his combination of talents formed a blind spot regarding certain points of basic humanity. Despite observational prowess and a preternatural grasp of forensic links most people never see, Holmes could, on occasion, find his frosty reason bested by chaotic whims of the human heart. Though he seldom tipped the cards of his own capacity for affection, it did happen more than once as Doyle brought the chronicles to a close. Mr. Holmes takes those glimpses of tenderness as a starting point to show a brilliant man at the end of his life, quite overcome by a depth of feeling he never knew himself to possess. Once, in a sly reversal of Doyle, McKellen’s Holmes misses a vital clue because, possibly for the first time in his life, personal investment trumps his unquenchable thirst for cold hard evidence.

There are many forms of latter-day Sherlock Holmes tale. Reinventions, critical revisions, satires and outright spoofs of the great consulting detective abound. Possibly next to Count Dracula, no literary figure of the period has been more widely appropriated. Mr. Holmes story takes all this into account, yet hearkens to tradition with great respect. Its unfamiliar pathways ultimately complement the legacy more than they challenge it. Presuming that the original conception of Holmes in retirement was meant as a reward from his author, this further elegy suggests a Holmes who, despite the cost in grief and physical pain, may go to his grave having found the final, elusive piece of the human puzzle. The journey promises to be tragic and even terrifying when the heart takes up slack for the brain, but the hope of balance and peace may well justify the risk. Perhaps the “real” Holmes would have been content to die without such an epiphany, but the emotional payoff is fine indeed for his generations of fans.

Fiction: Beyond Borderlands publishes “The Ruins Of Cynopolis”

My new story “The Ruins Of Cynopolis,” appears in the latest issue of Beyond Borderlands, a journal of weird, occult and paranormal topics. The story is a mythological noir inspired by ancient death rituals, taking place in a desolate city given over to perpetual night.

Excerpt from “The Ruins Of Cynopolis”:

In sleep, the city gave a long sigh. It was not so ancient a city as others he had known, but from certain angles it had a familiar aspect, the same sort of dreadful majesty as a Thebes, a Nineveh, a sprawling Babylon.

The quiet fell so deep that Jack Bainus heard only the dying wail of an ambulance, miles away and disappearing perhaps for good. The blue swirl of Marlboro smoke around his head was the only moving thing. Not so much as a working stoplight shone, but he knew the street well enough to stroll without light. Reaching with his keen senses into the dark, he scarcely noticed as the callused fingers of his left hand stole up his right forearm, scratching gently at the bandage there.

Bainus was tuned in for signs and signals, but the night withdrew from him the more he strained. He stood still long enough for the cigarette to burn out. The dead filter slipped from between his lips, dropping short of a sewer grate blackened with scum. It would not be the first time he had received a false or premature call, but pointless ventures into the night were a growing irritation to him. More and more now, he preferred a good sleep when he had the option. Still, when calls came, he answered every time.

The night air chilled the sinews in him. He had the amusing notion that his either his coat or his flesh had worn too thin for winter. Amusing because of who he was, and (little though he now resembled that long-ago self) how his peculiar constitution had secured his vocation. His ears, his nose and his discerning eye had been the key points, and while they endured nearly as well as always, hardly a thought had been given to his joints, his temperament, and his long-term tolerance to eons of cold moonless nights. If one were to say that Bainus had been doing his job forever, it would be as close to literal truth as the limited precision of human language allows.

Read the full story in Issue 2 (July 2015) of Beyond Borderlands