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Chasing C. Robert Cargill's 'Dreams and Shadows'

AICN veteran on goblins, research, and if he's done with criticism
Richard Whittaker, 3:30pm, Thu. Feb. 28, 2013

It's an old insult: If critics know so much about films and books, why don't they write them? That's exactly what C. Robert Cargill has done, and he argues that being a critic made him a better writer. He said, "I went into every movie trying to learn from it as much as I was trying to dissect it."

Cargill will be reading from and signing his first novel, Dreams and Shadows, at Bookpeople tonight, starting at 7pm. Meanwhile his first feature film script, Sinister, is just out on DVD and Blu-ray. But he really cut his writing teeth as Massawyrm, one of the defining writers at Ain't It Cool News.

If it sounds like leaping from fox to gamekeeper, then for Cargill it's all part of the natural progression. "I knew that I wanted to write books from the time I was eight years old, and eventually as I got older, I knew I wanted to write film reviews and I wanted to write movies." Being a critic was a strenuous, endless crash course – maybe even a master class – in what does and doesn't work in a story. He said, "It's very hard to teach writing in a true college setting, because it's as much an art as a craft. So what I set out to do was to use my career as a film critic as a course in storytelling." That experience "fully informed" the experience of penning both Sinister and Dreams and Shadows. He said, "It's entirely me trying to avoid tropes, knowing what tropes and shorthand work with audiences now and which ones don't, which one's they're tired off and which ones to avoid."

Dreams and Shadows takes old European mythology and transposes it on to the Texas Hill country. But don't worry, there's no pixies in cowboy boots: These are the old ways, the old creatures, and they are beyond simple human influence. They are ancient and deadly and, even in their best intentions, they forget that humans are fragile things. When two boys – Ewan, a child snatched by fairies in a changeling exchange, and Colby, the boy who can see everything – become enmeshed in the machinations of the Limestone Kingdom, no good can come for anyone concerned.

Much like Sinister, which he called "a morality tale about a guy who put aside his family for his career, and and ultimately destroyed his family and himself," Dreams and Shadows has one inherent truth: This will not end well. Cargill's tale is one of blood and mystery, which is dyed into the warp and weft of the tales of the Fae. He said, "When you look at a lot of the older folkore and mythologies, they really are just religions that people don't believe in any more. And so many of them, especially when you look at the Northern Europeans, the beliefs of the UK that came out of these bloody, dark times, they all have these great morality tales built into them." That's really what drives his interest. He explained, "What I'm attracted to in genre to begin is that I love how it's a huge playground for human morality. It really is a great tool box to put people into very different situations and see how they behave."

Cargill's intention, he said, "was to take these existing folklores and not change any of them, only add to them in ways that I needed to bring everything together in one organic universe with a rule set that made sense." The result is what Cargill dubs "the grand unified theory of folklore," but to create it he had to immerse himself deeply into the stories. He said, "I love the research process. I'm somebody that loves just soaking this stuff up. When I set out to do something, I usually pick up a whole stack of books, clear out some space on the bookshelf, and then just start pouring through books."

Dreams and Shadows is suffused with a whole of creatures of the wild places, from the obvious, like pixies, to the slightly more obscure such as the Erl King and the Wild Hunt, to true arcana like the orders of fairies. That opened new possibilities for Cargill as he found new narrative components of the old ways. He said, "The idea of the Leanan sĂ­dhe may have evolved from the succubus, and the succubus may have evolved from it, but we've seen that story before: The seductive creature that feeds of the energy of a man in sexual ways. But what happens when that creature is in love with what is essentially its food. I'm attracted to those kind of stories, and the idea of the humanity wrestling with its better and lesser angels."

Cargill is scarcely the first film critic to move to the other side of the creative equation (As he noted, "The French New Wave was entirely a bunch of critics who said, 'We're fed up with films, and we have our own theories, and we're going to make our own movies.") In part, he credited Austin as "just one of those towns where people appreciate the creativity, and don't exalt celebrity in the way you see in other cities. You'll see people around town that have made movies or are musicians and such, and they're treated like everyone else. So it makes it much easier to do stuff and not have everybody looking at you differently and treating you differently. You're still just Cargill, the guy who talks too loud in the coffee shop."

With Dreams and Shadows barely on shelves (and getting rave reviews), he's already working on its followup, and is busy on the script for the movie adaptation of Warren Spector's Deus Ex for CBS Films. But while writing about film will always be part of the story of Cargill, those days may be over for him – and it's not because he's jumped some fictional fence from critic to creator. He said, "I did it for so long but, more importantly, the environment online is really changing. When I started out, back in 2000, 2001, on a slow news day you could go out and write a piece about films that inspired a recent film that we all love, and introduce people to that, and people would be like, 'Oh, wow, this is great.' You'd get almost as much traffic as you would on a news piece or on a review. Now nobody cares about a movie that opened up a few days ago. Everybody's looking two or three weeks down the road."

C. Robert Cargill will be signing Dreams and Shadows at Bookpeople, 603 N. Lamar, Feb. 28, 7pm.

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