Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

For the curious, a chapter of the fantasy novel I’m going through edits on now, Of Rooks and Ravens, the first part of the Ravensgate Chronicles.

Chapter Two – Preston

I was dragged into an aching wakefulness by the creak of floorboards. It was a particular soreness, attributable to falling down stairs in pursuit of an elusive Lunar Warbler the night before, a pain echoed by the bone-deep dread of what I was hearing.

I opened my eyes to the morning dimness of the cold apartment, turned them towards the wooden partition which divided the large top floor into separate living & studying spaces. It was happening. Odgred was moving out.

“Are you sure about this?” I croaked, voice thick with lack of sleep. To my relief, my roommate of the past semester and a half paused near the top of the stairs rather than kept walking. “I’m sure if you stayed…”

Odgred swept a stray lock of her unkempt black hair out of her face. She looked like a frightened bird which made her leaving that much more poignant. The third year necromancy student bit her lip as if trying to hold back a curse that she had been caught sneaking out. “What. If I stay you’ll somehow not be his daughter? Like when he finds out I’m living with you he won’t somehow take it out on me? He’s the head of my department, Pres. Or I guess it’s actually Anna, right? You should have told me.”

I flinched at the use of my birth name. I stopped using “Anna” over six years ago. “No. It’s Preston. And my dad doesn’t need to find out,” I winced as I tried to prop myself up on one elbow. Sweet Aleph, I hurt. I might be bruised from shoulder to knees along my left side. If I was lucky, nothing was broken. It was little relief that the fall could have been worse.

Odgred scrunched up her brow, defiant but at least not still in flight. “No. He doesn’t need to find out. But if he does, what then? It could make a difference between a career track at the college or stirring the beetles at Bonepicker Hall.”

My mouth opened to protest but snapped closed just as quickly. Odgred was right. My father, Toumel Preston, known by most of Ravensgate as Toumel the Black, didn’t need to know. But that was no guarantee he wouldn’t find out. “See you around Little Crow Row, I guess.”

And at least rent’s paid up through the end of the month.

I watched Odgred haul away her oversized tapestry bag packed with clothes, surgical tools, and tins of smoky teas. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but Odgred could have grown to become one. I couldn’t blame her for leaving. My father poisoned everything he touched, even abstractly. This was no exception.

I waited until the footsteps faded into the echoes of echoes on the wood stairs of the four-story walk up. When I was certain she wasn’t coming back, I turned my gaze towards the crude table of wooden crates and planks, overladen with books and abstracts that had seemed a reasonable expense when I had irregular consulting income and a roommate to split rent. I forced myself into a sitting position on the edge of my bed, despite the aching protest of my injuries. Last night, when the fall was still so fresh that the bruising had not yet set in, the pain had been too much to bear. I resorted to several vile swallows of a potent herbal liqueur to facilitate sleep. Before slumber pulled me into its embrace and under the playful interrogation of Odgred, I let slip the truth about my birth name, the truth about father. And now, a quiet apartment I could not quite afford.

I scowled at the neck of the green glass bottle from last night, poking up behind a pile of cheap text books. I should know better now to avoid that poison Mac introduced me to. Nothing good ever comes of it. Read the rest of this entry »

If you managed to miss the first half of this list, or even why this list exists in the first place, here is where you’ll find it.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. The other half of the list.

Masque of the Red Death (1964) — Roger Corman

masque There were a slew of movies based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe in the 60’s, some more faithful than others. For instance The Raven (1963) which was also directed by Corman from a Richard Matheson script had little, if anything, to do with the poem. But Masque of the Red Death was a beast of a different color.

With a script by the brilliant Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, in addition to one of Vincent Price’s finest performances as the Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero, the real star of this movie is cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Roeg would go on to be a director in his own right, making the classics Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Masque of the Red Death managed to fold the great Poe short story “Hop-Frog” into the script and it’s a natural fit.

Not only is it an opulent-looking example of period piece horror, it’s a heck of a good movie. With over 400 production credits to his name, Roger Corman still considers this one of the two favorite movies he ever made. It’s easy to see why.

Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) — Mario Bava

POSTER-TWITCH-OF-THE-DEATH-NERVE-BAY-OF-BLOOD As a general rule, I dislike gore films. So seeing this film on the list might surprise people who know my taste.

Made in Italy by genre master Mario Bava, it is also known as Blood Bath or A Bay of Blood. It was originally released in the states as Carnage then re-released as Twitch of the Death Nerve where it delighted drive-in and grindhouse audiences across the country. It is considered the grandfather of the slasher film genre, featuring thirteen incredibly gruesome murders. As for plot, don’t over-think it. Twitch of the Death Nerve makes Friday the 13th read like Thomas Pynchon.

Speaking of Friday the 13th, fans of that series should be especially interested in this movie, as the second Friday the 13th movie featured two murders that were virtual shot-by-shot remakes of ones found here.

When people look back at the high-body count horror movies that overtook American horror cinema starting with Halloween in 1978, they ultimately need to look back at this movie. Of all the directors on this list Bava may be the most important, so it’s a shame he’s not well known outside of die-hard horror junkies. He directed some of the first giallo films, helping define the thriller genre in Italy in the sixties. He pioneered a kind of sci-fi horror with Planet of the Vampires (1965) that bears a striking thematic similarity to Alien which followed fourteen years later. And many elements of his masterpiece Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) were hugely influential in the wave of Asian horror that followed decades later.

That said, I draw a distinction between influential and enjoyable. While I respect his amazing contributions to the genre, his movies, particularly the blood bath that is Twitch of the Death Nerve, are not easy watching.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — Brian de Palma

phantom-of-the-paradise-movie-poster Ok, bear with me here. Yes, Phantom of the Paradise is a massive cheese-fest.

Combining the stories of Faust, Dorian Gray, and Phantom of the Opera into a musical epic with musician Paul Williams as the antagonist is, at best, a gamble. In fact, despite the Academy Award nomination for the music, it was an abysmal box-office failure everywhere except Winnipeg, Canada where it was an inexplicable hit.

So, why is it on this list?

For one, it’s incredibly fun. Paul Williams sells the hell out of the devilishly evil record producer, Swan. For two, the music is great, with this fascinating fusion of glam rock and classical/opera. In fact, Winslow Leach who goes on to become the Phantom is obsessed with his cantata which is not exactly a music form that was burning up the radio in the early seventies.

And it is from box office failures that cult movies are born. Clad in black leather with a face obscuring helmet, the look of the Phantom (as well as his recording studio) was a huge visual influence on Darth Vader, as well as Daft Punk, the pair having bonded over the movie as kids, seeing it together over twenty times. When he was gearing up to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright hosted screenings of the movie for his cast because he was such a huge fan. But perhaps best of all, Paul Williams tells a story of being approached at a concert in Mexico City to sign a copy of the soundtrack for a kid in the audience. At the time, he considered the film a flop, so the incident stood out for him. Years later, he would come to find out that the fan in Mexico City was Guillermo del Toro, which led to him working on a musical version of Pan’s Labyrinth.

You never know where someone is going to find their inspiration, it seems.

Alien (1979) — Ridley Scott

Alien-1979 You probably know this movie. Heck, if you’re a horror geek and you haven’t seen this movie, I’ll be surprised.

Unlike the films which followed this in the franchise, the original Alien was straight up horror. When it came out in 1979, people weren’t prepared for what they were going to get. I was a kid at the time, but still remember stories of people getting ill and having to flee the theater. The chest-burster scene in particular has burned itself upon our collective psyche, and is one of the most recognizable moments in American cinema of the past 50 years.

My favorite part about the chest-burster scene is that the cast had no idea what they were in for on the day of the shoot. Their reactions were pretty damn authentic. It’s not the first time horror directors got authentic terror by keeping the cast in the dark. There was a memorable scene in The Birds (1963) where real, live birds were used, much to the surprise and dismay of a terrified Tippi Hedren.

At it’s heart, Alien is a gothic haunted house story, just substitute a massive, dark spaceship for the haunted castle. A group of people meet their fates one by one as they seek some way to escape the death that lurks all about them in the shadows. Sci-fi horror had been done before, but never this well. And there were many imitators that followed, from Galaxy of Terror (1981) to Event Horizon (1997). And the xenomorph that H.R. Geiger designed for the movie went on to be one of the most iconic monsters in cinema.

Videodrome (1983) — David Cronenberg

M4DVIDE EC001 “Long live the new flesh.”

No one does body horror quite like Cronenberg.

A disturbing and surreal critique on a media culture of sex and violence, Videodrome is, itself, a masterpiece of weird sex and violence. It gets difficult to distinguish what is real and what is hallucination, and ultimately questions if there’s really a distinction to be made between the two.

Like many of the films on this list, Videodrome did not fare well commercially but remains an important work. Andy Warhol considered it “A Clockwork Orange of the ’80’s.” Many critics hated it, either turned off by the weirdness, the violence, or the bleakness of the ending. Even so, it endures, finding its way onto multiple lists, including Total Film’s Weirdest Films of All Time and the Toronto International Film Festival named it as one of most essential films ever made.

But perhaps the best thing that can be said about Videodrom, comes from R. Barton Palmer in his book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. “A groundbreaking film of the commercial/independent movement of the 1980s Hollywood, David Cronenberg’s story about the horrible transformations wrought by exposure to televised violence wittily thematizes the very problems that the director’s exploration of violent sexual imagery in his previous productions had caused with censors, Hollywood distributors and feminist groups… Videodrome remains one of Hollywood’s most unusual films, too shocking and idiosyncratic to be anything but a commercial failure.”

Courtesy of Post Secret It’s no mystery to anyone who really knows me that I’m a horror movie geek.

It’s not just that I enjoy horror movies. I know a lot of people who like horror movies whose eyes glaze over when I start talking about favorite films and why they’re favorite films. And that’s fine. Everyone is free to enjoy art at the level of their choosing. If you like the scares and that’s it, great. If you like the technical aspects of the special effects, that’s excellent. To each their own. For me, I enjoy their history, their influences, the whole meta aspect of the medium.

To that end, I’ve been interested in running a salon series for a while: a viewing of a film followed by discussion. Heck, make it a class in the history of horror cinema. Impractical, I know. But it’s the dream.

So in lieu of that, here’s the first half of a list of what I consider to be Ten Essential Horror Movies (and why). The second part of the list will follow tomorrow as I felt it a good idea to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Feel free to watch on your own time. Most of these movies are fairly old and should be available easily. And if you ever want to discuss them, or your own list of essentials, I’m game.

Freaks (1932) – Tod Browning

freaks There’s a good chance you’ve heard about this movie. There’s a reason for that. Some people may know director Tod Browning for Dracula which he directed a few years earlier. It made Universal a lot of money and launched Bela Lugosi into stardom. It also gave Browning some freedom as a director/producer. He used that freedom to make Freaks, in some ways inspired by his experiences with a travelling circus.

Yeah. He ran away to join a traveling circus when he was 16.

Apparently people did that.

Anyway, Browning’s star had been on the rise, but this film pretty much killed his career. The studio cut it from the original 90 minute run time (removing much of the film’s climax), and tacking on prologue and epilogue for a total run time of 64 minutes. The movie was a financial failure, and even recut by the studio it was banned in the UK for three decades. Sadly, most of that cut footage was lost forever. The movie was finally re-released in the sixties where it got the counter-culture adoration it deserved, influencing Frank Zappa, the Ramones, and whole generations of outcasts who were drawn to the story of the most unlikely of protagonists–and what they’re capable of when pushed.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) — Jacques Tourneur

Iwalkedwithazombie When people think of zombie films, they generally think of the post-Romero zombies: literal shambling corpses hungry for human flesh.

However the zombie has deeper cultural roots that are even more terrifying. The old-school voodun zombie of the Caribbean represents the double-edged fear of plantations who could work people to death and even beyond and of a unstoppable workforce and group of people that greatly outnumbered the “masters.” Old-school zombies were a narrative in class and race, the horrors of slavery and it’s echoes translated through a lens of the supernatural.

I Walked with a Zombie was the second film produced by Val Lewton, master of the B-movie horror. It’s not without violence, but it’s primarily a thinking person’s zombie film. Stylus Magazine named it the 5th best zombie movie of all time in 2007, but I’d rank it higher, personally. Like much of Lewton’s work, this movie is deliberately ambiguous on the supernatural, which lets it work on more levels than a straight-up horror film. What’s worse, really: the threat of magic or the idea that you can naturally become so worn down that you become less than human?

As a meditation on the conflict between cultures/classes/religions in the Caribbean, it’s excellent. As an example of smart horror from before zombies were gore-dripping things looking for their next meal, it’s a must see.

Peeping Tom (1960) — Michael Powell

Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (1960)

Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (1960)

No conversation on the subject of tragic career-ending films would be complete without a nod to the 1960 classic Peeping Tom. Released in the UK two months before Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the US, both movies have a somewhat familiar footprint with one jarring difference. The film’s POV, which jarred audiences and critics so badly that Peeping Tom was doomed right out of the gate.

The movie follows a voyeur and young film-maker who devises a special camera with a spike on the tripod for the sole purpose of filming people at their moment of death. But because the movie put the audience in the head of the killer, it made them voyeurs as well, and gave them a sense of culpability. It was an unforgivable sin at the time, a violation of the compact between film-makers and audience.

It’s also a brilliant film. Martin Scorsese had been hearing about it since film school and finally saw it in 1970 and became a ardent fan, saying, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about film-making…”

Reviled upon release, it is now considered a masterpiece of British horror. Total Film ranked it as the 24th British film of all time (2004) and 18th greatest horror film of all time (2005). And a British Film Institute poll ranked it as one of the best British films of all time. Honored with a Criterion Collection re-release it’s now easy to find, 55 years after Len Mosley of the Daily Express called it “…more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta.”

The Haunting (1963) — Robert Wise

HAUNTING When I think of haunted house movies, this invariably ends up on the top of the list.

Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, this is the grandmother of “group of occultists/psychics go investigate haunted house” films. It might not have been the first (honestly, I have to assume someone did this kind of trope prior to 1960), but like Jimi Hendrix covering Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” this trope belonged to The Haunting as of 1963. Over 50 years later and I don’t feel it’s been equaled.

Now, that’s not saying they haven’t tried. This kind of formula is rote for horror movies these days. And why not? It’s a story everyone recognizes now. It’s cinematic shorthand: put a group of people in a spooky location and hijinks ensue, usually chock full of gore and spooky visuals. Whether it’s an old brownstone in the ghetto (Bones – 2001) or a run down mental hospital (Session 9 – 2001), we know this set up. Of course in any movie made with this model since the 80’s, most of the cast will be dead at the end, because scary.

I call bullshit. I mean, I sincerely enjoyed Bones and absolutely love Session 9.

But you know what’s scary? The Haunting from 1963. And that’s because it doesn’t show anything! That’s a lesson that the shit-tornado of a remake from 1999 could have stood to learn. Nothing is as scary as the human imagination when it’s all wound up and ready to go.

Kwaidan (1964) — Masaki Kobyashi

kwaidanLet’s take a trip across the sea to explore some horror cinema in Japan decades before the J-horror explosion of recent decades.

In the sixties, anthology horror was all the rage. Some were amazing. Most were less so. But none of them came close to reaching the art house style horror of Kwaidan. Case in point, none of them were nominated for Academy Awards like this one (Best Foreign Language Film). Based on folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn around the turn of the century and directed by Masaki Kobyashi, this is a collection of slow-burn and atmospheric ghost stories.

One of the things that sets Kwaidan apart is the visual language of the film. Owing a debt to stage and German expressionist film from decades earlier, much of Kwaidan features large, colorful backdrops or are filmed on obviously artificial sets to lend an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

If any of the four stories feel familiar, it could be due to the influence they’ve had on Japanese horror cinema that followed. The visual style even influenced some of Akira Kurosawa’s later works, like Dreams, and . Or maybe you saw the Tales from the Darkside movie in which “The Woman of the Snow” segment was remade as “Lover’s Vow.” And that scene in Conan the Barbarian where his body his painted over with words to protect him from spirits? Kwaidan did it first. And better.

Come back tomorrow for the second half of the list where I take you the rest of the way to 1983 with films from David Cronenberg, Brian de Palma, Ridley Scott, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman.

Dark but for the Stars (2014)

Dark but for the Stars (2014)

Now available for your Kindle!

The darkness is where stars shine their brightest. It’s where we find what sustains us, what keeps us pushing on. Like when:

A young man learns his family’s darkest secret from a faded circus clown.

Shoemaker elves pit Old World craftsmanship against New World cunning.

The last soldier of the empire confronts an uncertain future in 1950’s San Bernadino.

A children’s entertainer has a crisis while looking for his ex-girlfriend in Puppetopolis.

The darkness is all around us.

Sometimes the darkness wins, but we need the darkness in order to shine.

Dark but for the Stars collects eight stories from the past few years, including one never-before published, and every one of them is weirdly special to me. I didn’t realize that until I was looking doing the final proof and format. Maybe that’s true for every author, or maybe I’m just stranger than I gave myself credit for.

“Bethlehem Grove” was written for an anthology that needed a very specific niche filled: set in the 1980’s featuring a storm and the Cthulhu mythos. There was a story I’d been wanting to tell about a lost place in Southern California for a while and setting it in the 80’s gave me a layer of context that fit like a glove. This and “Fishwives of Sean Brolly” jockey for favorite Mythos story in my head.

“Fists of Felt” is my first puppet story. It’s a thing for me. Spurred by a single nightmarish mental image that I ended up working into the reveal at the end of the story, it’s long held a special place in my heart. Plus, how many chances does a guy get to write “existential puppet noir?”

“Odd Jobs” is the lone sci-fi story in the collection. The support character of Roi had been rolling around in my head for years but every attempt to write her prior to this story fell flat. I loved the character, but I never had the right story for her. Now that I’ve finally given her an origin, I hope to revisit her later in her career arc as she evolves into the badass of my original vision.

I wrote “Last Dragoon of the Inland Empire” for my brother Matt. I went to visit him and his family over the holidays several years ago, and one morning he took me on a drive around Redlands. Seeing his adoptive hometown, I was able to understand how magical the town was. Plus, it gave me the chance to write a little historical fantasy which I don’t get to do often enough.

“Ink Calls to Ink” spun out of a random conversation with friends I don’t see often enough these days. While I loved the story, it took Angel Leigh McCoy’s suggestion to turn it into a novel. Of all my long form works, the novel Ink Calls to Ink is my personal favorite. And it never would have happened without this little story as a seed.

I have a friend who doesn’t like clowns. While watching a rodeo clown with him a few years ago, I came up with the clown portrait hallway that appears in “Saint of Clowns.” I’d only written about clowns once before, a super short piece I put in Christmas cards one year. This little coming of age story marks my first non-genre publication (despite the clown justice), and manages to complete the story started in that Christmas card.

“Kid Gloves” was my first publication. I wrote it as a ghost story of sorts, a tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Like the story that precedes it, this is ultimately a story about fathers and sons. I was in a kind of rough place when this story was picked up, and its sale was a light in the darkness. As a side note, Large Laurence was based on a former co-worker of mine. The job was shit, but he was always great.

Where the hell do I even start with “The Price of Cream?” Sometime I’ll have to make the original ending of this story available. In the initial draft, an abusive employer is turned into a pair of high fashion boots. The problem was that to fit the anthology, the abusive employer had to win. So I rewrote it. The new ending turned out to be much, much darker. What’s not to love about that?

Dark but for the Stars is now available, complete with author notes.


Amy Kucharik - Cunning Folk (2014)

Amy Kucharik – Cunning Folk (2014)

If you had told me ten years ago that “Ukulele Girls” would be a thing, I would have mentally filed your opinions in the category reserved for Y2K believers and Holocaust deniers. But mysteriously, the ukulele has become standard issue for hipster girls with clunky glasses, vintage style dresses, and awkwardly overwrought adorkableness.

Which, honestly, I don’t have a big problem with. I figure the more people creating art and music, the better place the world is. And I’ve loved the ukulele since seeing Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters play “Tonight You Belong to Me” in The Jerk (1979). Really…35 years ago, and that song is still goddamned magical. But to illustrate how ubiquitous the ukulele girl phenomenon is, searching for a video of the aforementioned song turned up Zooey Deschanel & Ben Schwartz playing the same song. Feel free to skip it, but Martin & Peters is well worth checking out.

Which brings us to Cunning Folk, the first full-length album from Boston-area musician Amy Kucharik.

This album is also well worth checking out, and not at all what I was expecting. Instead of quirky ukulele tunes with a paucity of full arrangements and at least a few covers of standards, Cunning Folk is packed with original songs more akin to front-porch blues with most of them featuring her full band, her Friends (With Benefits). Seriously. And not just the washboard, guitar, bass, and drums. I’m talking piano, strings, and horns. I’m still kind of amazed that this CD exists. And if I didn’t know better, I’d fight anyone who suggested it was an independent production.

Cunning Folk doesn’t sound like an independent effort. It’s goddamned accomplished. But it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard out in the musical wasteland recently. The closest comparisons I can make would be the late, lamented Asylum Street Spankers from Austin, Texas. Though the musicianship is not as tight as the Spankers, that’s a damn high bar which leaves Kucharik and the Friends still well ahead of the pack. Kucharik’s voice even evokes the sultry strength of the Spanker’s Christina Marrs. Though the entirety of the band is rock solid, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Ansel Barnum on harmonica who made me realize how much I missed hearing the instrument. Kudos.

It’s difficult for me to pick a weak track on Cunning Folk, though if fingers had to be pointed, it would probably have to be “Like a Boss,” which is unfortunate as that’s the first video that was created for the album. The song itself is perfectly competent, and fun. And absolutely filthy, packed with enough clever workplace sex innuendos to make the producers of office porn blush. Seriously, this song is straight up fuckin’ set to music without actually saying it. It just doesn’t feel as strong as the rest of the songs on the album. Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on innuendo that leaves the song feeling just slightly tongue in cheek. Once you’ve had the chuckle there isn’t quite enough spine to sustain it. But even so, it’s still a fun song and makes a nice transition piece between the opening track “Prodigal Son” and the black-magic tinged “Doesn’t Need to Know.”

In fact, you can almost interpret tracks 1-8 as the “Descent of the Wayward Daughter,” bluesy tunes drenched with sin while tracks 9 and 10 act as icing on an already delicious cake.

Take for example the opening verse of the rollicking front porch blues of the first track, “Prodigal Son” (with a lovely bass solo by Greg Toro and full accompaniment of guitar, washboard, accordion, drums, harmonica):

My grandma grew up in the Depression
That woman knew that life is hard
And whenever I’d complain that it just wasn’t fair
She’d tell me in Heaven’s where I’d get my reward
But Heaven seems like such a long way away,
And you’ve got no guarantees — it’s just faith
Well, here’s what I say: Let’s have some fun today,
And enjoy our Earthly pleasures just in case

And then contrast it with lyrics from track 8, the truly outstanding “The Snake” which opens with a string arrangement that evokes Eastern European folk music and layers in a full horn arrangement finished with Jeremy Valadez weaving sinuously through the arrangement on clarinet (sheer perfection, btw) :

Walked along a crevice in the road
Went all the way down to hell if I know
Met a truck with a devil at the wheel
And as he ran me down, he said, “I do not like the way you deal”

In between those two songs I felt a narrative, perhaps unintentional, of joyous hedonism and occasional regret. Kucharik wrote all songs and lyrically they betray her background as a poet without being snooty about it. Where else could I could catch references to the Bible, Buddha, and Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” in the same song? Highlights for me include “Doesn’t Need to Know” which flat out drips with sex, booze, voodoo, and murder while building to a great horns arrangement and, if I’m not mistaken, the whole damn band (though at just shy of 6 minutes, it’s way too long for radio play). “Buzzards Bay” is a rollicking klezmer-styled song which earns special points for me by being named after a location in my next Cobalt City novel, and I’ve always had a soft spot for klezmer. “Stranger“, a fragile song where, for the first time, the ukulele takes the lead with the gentle accompaniment of strings and harmonica is hands down my favorite song on the album. Lyrically, it’s gorgeous, and the arrangement manages to be both simple and lush at the same time which is no small accomplishment. “Clocks and Bottles,” the final track on the album descends into full on Dixieland ass-kicker by the end of the song and is a marvelous way to round out a stellar debut CD.

The full album is available on bandcamp as a digital download for only $10. That’s barely the price of two mochas. You can’t even see a movie for that kind of money anymore. And for ten tracks you’re going to listen to again and again while supporting a new musician who really knocked it out of the park? Pffff…trust me. Drop the ten-spot on these tracks and you’ll have no regrets. Or go hog-wild and buy the physical CD which comes packed with art, liner notes, and the full nine-yards for only $5 more. I recognize that some of you might have more narrow musical tastes, and that’s dandy. Someone has to buy those damn Robin Thicke albums, I guess, and it ain’t going to be me. But thanks to the magic of bandcamp you can stream the album in it’s entirety or sample it track by track if you want to see if it scratches your itch.

Consider my itch scratched.

The Ramones Have Left the Building

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Music

For me, I suppose the revolution began with Dave Eckenrode in 1984, though the fire had been lit 10 years earlier on a stage at CBGB.

I grew up in a small town in Colorado. It took a long time for things like punk music to filter down to us there. If not for my friend Dave, with his love for German tank tactical board games, Paddington Bear, and punk rock, I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to be introduced to punk.

People who got bit by the punk music bug can name off their list of favorite bands. They wear them like a badge of pride. They were into the Sex Pistols before they were just a t-shirt kids buy at Hot Topic. They remember when Talking Heads and Blondie were still cutting edge. They drew Dead Kennedys or Black Flag logos on their blue canvas 3 ring binders in school. But for me, the sound of punk music will always be the Ramones.

Dave introduced me to the band, probably hanging out in his room reading comics or playing games with other friends, and I was hooked. Undeniable energy, a sense of absurdity (Seriously, have you really HEARD the lyrics to “Pinhead” before?), and packed full with rebellion. They were everything I needed at that age. That year I got two of their albums for Christmas: Pleasant Dreams (1981) and Subterranean Jungle (1983).

There had been long gaps in the 30 years since I discovered them where I didn’t listen to the Ramones. My musical cravings move through cycles. But I recently started going back and binging on the music of my rebellious youth. Notably, those two old Ramones albums in particular, as well as some of the older ones that had lit the fire in me to begin with.

I woke up to the news that drummer Tommy Ramone died today at the age of 62. The last of the original line-up, he had been in hospice care for bile duct cancer. The rest of the band was already waiting for him in the great CBGB in the sky; Joey having died in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004. The Ramones defined an era and shook up a music scene that had been going stagnant.

We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard in 1974, there was nothing to listen to anymore. Everything was tenth-generation Led Zeppelin, tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced or jus junk. Everything was long jams, long guitar solos. We missed music like it used to be before it got “progressive.” We missed hearing songs that were short, and exciting, and…good.

-Joey Ramone

It’s easy to listen to Ramones tracks now, decades later dismiss them as just, well, rock. And fairly tame rock at that. Sure, there were songs about recreational electroshock therapy (Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment), drugs (I Wanna Be Sedated and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue just to name two), racism (The KKK Took My Baby Away), and violence (Beat on the Brat). But there was a brightness to the sound, an undeniable pop hook that reflected their musical influences: the Beatles, the Stooges, the MC5, Eddie Cochran, the Kinks, and the Beach Boys. Someone coming to the band new in 2014–hell, even 1994–would be missing the cultural context for just what a game-changer early punk was for the music scene of the time.

It wasn’t just music in the Ramones: it was an idea. It was bringing back a whole feel that was missing in rock music – it was a whole push outwards to say something new and different.

-Tommy Ramone

You’ll see a lot of retrospectives in the next week: musicians and music writers telling you how much of an influence the Ramones were. They touched a lot of people in their time.

For me, the Ramones were Punk.

Though the band broke up eighteen years ago Tommy’s passing marks the end of an era. The final, sad note of a song we never wanted to end.

Rock In Peace, Tommy. You’ll be missed.

Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

I suspect that most authors, at some point in their career, get asked who influenced them as a writer. The question came up again in a round-about way this afternoon with a writing cohort. And because of the way we got to the question, I realized I’ve been answering the question all wrong.

Maybe I’m not alone.

The instinct, at least for me, is to point to authors who shaped my style and voice. But those are things that are honed once you’re getting serious about writing. They’re conscious or semi-conscious attempts to emulate the things you like in the writing of authors.

Yes, I learned a lot about pacing from Tim Powers, and how to build and unveil a consistent magical system. And I learned a lot about dialogue from Joe Landsdale and Harlan Coben. I learned a lot about how to set the hook in short fiction from Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Without a doubt, they had a huge influence on the kind of writer I turned out to be. And I’m still learning from other authors and adding in those skills and tricks. It’s a never ending process.

But who influenced me to become a writer is a sticky wicket. And it’s very telling in unexpected ways.

See, the friend I was talking with today doesn’t care for short fiction. As a result they’ve never been compelled to write it, but are now considering that path. And there are good reasons to write short fiction. Beyond polishing your craft, it’s a good chance to build a market and name recognition. And ultimately it’s easier to get short fiction published than it is to get someone to plunk down an advance on a novel. It’s just simple math.

All of which is kind of an alien mindset for me. I write short fiction because I love short fiction. Because when some kids were playing ball or reading the classics, I was devouring anthologies, collections, and magazines like candy.

To put these influences in perspective, let’s consider when I first realized I wanted to be a writer. I was twelve when I tried to write my first novel. I’d been writing poetry for a year or so before that. Horrible, horrible poetry that I can trace to three very specific influences: Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allen Poe, and the two A.A. Milne collections, “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We are Six.” I’m sure some of those poems still exist somewhere, tucked away in a folder, forgotten at my mom’s house. They were probably illustrated, too. They were bad. And dark. And they rhymed. I’m honestly surprised my parents didn’t put me into therapy because of them.

But by 7th grade, I decided my project in Independent Study was going to be a novel.

Ambitious, I know. And a horrible idea. It was science/fantasy and sprung from a rudimentary reading of King Arthur stories. And honestly, I don’t really know where that idea came from because in 7th grade I was reading very little fantasy. I’d seen the Hobbit, but not read the book. By strange coincidence, there was this hippieish pizza place in town called Hobbit Hole Pizza, and I had a stronger association with it than with the worlds of Tolkien. I remember two fantasy novels from that year, Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, and The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin.  I had probably read the Prydian Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander the year earlier, as well as the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Oh, and The Sword of Shanarra which I consumed in a week in 6th grade. That might have influenced a lot of what I thought of as “Fantasy” novels up to that point.

But I was a heavy reader. I had started reading the Hardy Boys books somewhere around 4th-5th grade, and blazed through them until I realized it was all a formula. I switched to Nancy Drew for a big chunk of time, and though I quickly realized it was the same formula, I liked the characters better. But I could also knock one of her books out in an afternoon. Then I switched to The Three Investigators which I consumed like a wildfire sweeping down on a tinder-dry KOA campground. Gods, but I loved mysteries. And there was a certain spookieness to the Three Investigator books that appealed to me.

This was due, in no small part to all the non-fiction I was reading in 6th grade. Mysteries of the Unexplained stuff. If there was a book on UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle, or crystal skulls in the Yucatan, I was all over that. If the library had it, I read it, both in the kids collection downstairs and then upstairs in the main library. I squeezed those shelves dry. I kept notes on famous hauntings and alien abductions on index cards. You know that weird kid who, at age 11, could talk your ear off about the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, or Betty and Barney Hill (first reported alien abduction, in 1961)? I was that kid.

Actually, that weird kid still lives inside me.

You never shake your early influences.

And I was already tainted by Edgar Allen Poe at that point. Both by Poe and by things with Alfred Hitchcock’s name attached, which led me to a beloved collection of horror stories I got at a tender age. Christmas, when I was 10, I believe. There are pictures of me holding up the book, happy as hell. That summer I made a little shelter in the side yard against the chain link fence so I had shade and a breeze, and read the whole damn thing cover to cover. And from there to every horror anthology I could find, notably the anthology series Whispers (I could swear that was the name of that series) and Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant. Somewhere in there, I discovered Ray Bradbury, possibly thanks to my dad who brought a complete collection of his home from the college library for me.

By the time I hit 7th grade, I was a junkie for short fiction. Couldn’t get enough. It just stuck with me.

Sure, I read novels. Weirdly, a period of reading of Louis Lamour westerns hit sometimes that year and I read a good dozen or so of them, and several Destroyer novels picked up at garage sales for as little as a nickel each. Both reflected a love of pulpy action, despite the difference of subject matter. *Speaking of which, my parents were asleep at the switch in the whole child-rearing department. I suppose they were glad that I was reading, but the Destroyer novels were trashy. I mean, tremendous fun, and really well done for what they were, which was “Men’s Adventure Fiction.” But damn. Not reading material for young boys.*

So when you consider the influences question in context–not who influenced my style, but who influenced me to write–you get a much better feel for why I write what I do. I write short stories because I love short stories. Most of the ones that I read in my formative years were horror, which echoes my short fiction output now. I have a fondness for the supernatural, but also for mysteries and that rugged western feel, which factor heavily into the flavor of my Cobalt City stories (especially Gato Loco). I have a fondness for short, fast, pulp novels, and I’ve written a few. I’ve found NaNoWriMo to be perfect for that, actually.

Will I ever write a big door-stopper of an epic fantasy series?

Probably not. I don’t really READ them. Sure, a few in the last decade or so, but it was never my thing as a kid. It’s not a style I know intimately enough to work in. To date, my longest novel is Cobalt City Blues, which is only around 108,000 which makes it longer than the first three Harry Potter books. Barely, in the case of Prisoner of Azkaban which clocks in at 107k and change. Order of the Phoenix is 257k, while the first four books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice average out to around 300k each. I can’t even imagine writing a book that long. No, I think I’m likely to stick to the 50-95k range which is where I’m most comfortable. It’s what I know. It’s what I like.

More importantly, it’s where the stories I like to tell tend to fall.

As to the unasked question of should you write short stories, my answer will always be the same. Write the story you want to write. Everything else is just marketing.


My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

Some wars are silent.

Not secret, mind you. They happen right out there in front of you. They’re happening all around, even now. You might be fighting one now and not even know it.

They are uprisings that happen gradually, stretched out over a period of years.

Soft wars. Culture wars that leave the society changed. That have winners and losers and casualties.

I myself am a proud veteran of the Great Geek Uprising.

Never heard of it? I didn’t either. Not at the time, at least. These things usually don’t get named until a winner is declared. When you’re down in the trenches, it’s easy to lose sight of it all. You see your struggles as personal. You don’t realize that everyone is fighting their own demons. To be a teenager is to be myopic.

At least that’s how I remember being 15. I was a comic book geek even back in 1984, and we were lucky to get a comic book movie in any given year. In fact, though 1984 was a decent year for sci-fi movies (Buckaroo Banzai, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Night of the Comet, Starman, Dune, and Last Starfighter stand out), there were no big comic book movies. My comics were purchased off a spinner rack at Circle-K or a grocery store. The closest actual comic book store was eight hours away in Denver. It was a specialized hobby, one that set you apart.

To be passionate about something outside of the accepted mainstream was a cultural death sentence in a small town. Star Wars action figures and Transformers were great if you were 12. But you better get over that by the time you hit high school or learn to hide it. I had a Star Wars spiral notebook in 7th grade that had a tear-out form to join the fan club. I don’t know if I ever sent it in, but I filled it out, inviting mockery from the next desk over. Once the mockery starts, once the label sticks, I don’t think there’s ever a way to shake it.

I was bad at “hiding it.” I don’t know why. Maybe it was the rebellious spark that The Ramones stoked into a full on flame in 1983. Maybe there was something chemical in me that refused to back down, refused to pretend to be someone else. Something was going to draw me to the attention of the wolves. All I know is that that I started getting bullied regularly for being on the school’s Knowledge Bowl team, and once started it never let up. Because being smart was a stigma in Durango. Being creative was a stigma. Being different was a stigma. Being weird…

You get the picture.

Teenagers are cruel. Maybe it ties into that myopic thing. The only pain that matters is your own pain. To take the focus off how much you’re hurting, you hurt someone else. School was hell for a geek. We were the bottom of the food chain. Our culture was a sub-culture. I know things are bad now. I’ve seen how vicious social media can make people. Having not gone through 21st century cyber-bullying, I wouldn’t even try to compare the experience. But I can speak to one constant, and that is there seems to always be a group of people driven to make life hell for others. And far too many people stand around and let it happen.

But for my people, us geeks, things started to turn around in the eighties. I like to point to July 20th as the turning point of the Great Geek Uprising, the rallying cry that spread out and pointed the way to our victory.

And that was Revenge of the Nerds. Ok, let’s be honest, the last 5 minutes of Revenge of the Nerds. There is a lot of problematic material in that movie. As far as raunchy college comedies of the time, it wasn’t breaking a lot of new ground there.  It’s a bit thick on stereotypes (both for heroes and the evil athletic fraternity), and holy crap does it do poorly in a feminist context.

But that last five minutes where Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) and Lewis (Robert Carradine) confront their rival athletic frat and bully coach (John Goodman) at a bonfire pep rally was priceless. I can’t watch it 30 years later without choking up. Maybe it’s the use of Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Or maybe it was that they gave outcasts the locker room speech that we needed at the time.

Gibert: I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we’re smart? Cause we look different? Well, we’re not. I’m a nerd, and uh, I’m pretty proud of it.

Lewis: Hi, Gilbert. I’m a nerd too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I know there’s alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you’re a nerd or not, why don’t you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on.

Gibert: Just join us cos uh, no-one’s gonna really be free until nerd persecution ends.

Yeah. It’s simplistic. But I’d argue that it was something that we needed to hear. It was a reminder that what makes us human, what makes us unique, what makes us special, are our passions and our differences. And in those differences, we have unity. There truly are more of us than there are of them. It’s the drawback of cliques. If you define your exclusive group as “us” vs. “them” there will always be more of “them.” It’s just the math.

And therein lies one of the lessons we need to learn from wars of the past: it is painfully easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor when power changes.

Having survived the long, lean years of being a geek in any field, be it sci-fi, comic books, or video games, does not make anyone a gatekeeper of that fandom. If anything, those scars should remind us of what we fought for. They should be a lesson that no one should have to justify their love of something. Set aside your elitism. You’re a veteran of the Great Geek Uprising. You fought so that others didn’t have to. Enjoy that. Stop protecting your turf. The war is over. Join the rest of us in enjoying the geeky bounty that we have brought.

We’re triumphant. The geeks have inherited the Earth. If you doubt it, remember that one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer is based on a comic book staring a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree, and the biggest show on TV is based on door-stopper fantasy novels.

Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

In an earlier Blog Hop post I mentioned editing as a big part of the process. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been doing this for a while. At least I would hope it’s not a surprise. But coming in, you might not really get how important editing is, and how involved that process can be.

Professionals edit. And rewrite. And edit again. You can certainly self-publish or submit to markets without all that work, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Some writers might be under the illusion that the second draft is nothing more than fixing grammar and spelling. While that’s a big part of it, you should be prepared for a lot more. Because unless you shit bestsellers, no first draft is perfect. And while ultimately you’ll want to filter your work through an outside editor given an opportunity, there are still things you can do to tighten up your manuscript before handing it off.

As I’m deep in the middle of that fight on one book now (with another two looming), I figured this was a good opportunity to share my list of 5 crucial things I look for when doing a second draft. Individual mileage may vary. But it’s important to note that I generally don’t get working on the real second draft until I’ve let it sit for a bit. A little distance from the manuscript makes it easier to look at it critically. If I dive right back in, I find that I’m still familiar enough with the story that I’m not approaching it as new reader.

So, give it a week. Hell, give it a month. But once it’s had the chance to rest, drag it into the garage, lay down a tarp, and get to work.

Everyone ready? Ok, let’s get our hands dirty.

  1. Continuity: Does a character have blonde hair in one chapter and auburn hair in another? Is that unique character name spelled the same all the way through? Is the kitchen on the right or the left of the entry hall? A lot of this can be avoided with good set up before staring the first draft–solid character notes you refer to as you write, maps if necessary. But even with that, people make mistakes. If you don’t catch it, you can be damn sure someone else will. I love my little notebooks for this (in particular, I love my Field Notes, which have a super-slim profile so I can carry it with me everywhere. If writers could get sponsors and wear their logos when they work, I’d do it for them in a heartbeat). When I’m doing the read through, I keep a page open and jot down any important detail that might come back and reference the notebook when it does.
  2. Pacing: There are two things to look out for here and both can usually be caught by reading out loud. First, sentence length helps set the flow. Long sentences are relaxed. Short, clipped sentences are tense, fast, direct. Sentence length is like the throttle on a motorcycle and it controls the perceived speed of what’s happening in the story. Mix it up. Vary the speed if even just a little. Second, (and this is crucial for me), is to look for stream-0f-consciousness. When I’m writing, exposition and action sometimes jockey for priority. Sometimes it comes out in the order it needs to. Other times you have to strip that whole section out, take it apart piece by piece, and put it back together in an order that makes more sense and flows more cleanly.
  3. Sensory Details: Ideally you’ll be putting sensory details in with your initial draft. But sometimes you might go pages without them and you lose that connection with the story happening in a real place. This is your chance to fix it. Consider background sounds, smell, heck, even taste if you can make it work. “He smelled lilacs on the wind,” is okay. “The cloying sweetness of lilac blossoms assailed him,” is stronger because it’s more than just dropping in the word of something that smells. But how about giving it an emotional resonance? “The scent of lilacs brought a sad smile, reminding him of the last time he had seen his mother.” Some authors have a threshold of one sensory details every page. I’m not saying you should stick to that standard, but every few pages is not a bad idea.
  4. Flow of Information: You know how the story ends. At least you have a good idea if you’ve bothered to outline. The second draft is a good opportunity to make sure you don’t reveal anything big too early. It’s also a great opportunity to foreshadow in ways that you couldn’t without having the full manuscript laid out before you. In a mystery, this is a good chance to polish up the Red Herrings and put the clues to the truth in in0btruisve places so the reader has a chance. In the revisions I’m working on now, I realized that I gave up the identity of the big mover/shaker too early. I needed to scale that back and not give the readers a clear view of the bad guy’s master plan, so I ended up making some big cuts.
  5. The Fat: Speaking of cuts… There are likely to be several places where you delve into back-story, history, and motivation in your first draft. It’s important to know that stuff when you’re writing. But you may not actually need it the story itself. In the second draft, now that I have the whole thing laid out, I’m bit more critical about what needs to be there and what’s slowing it down. When I find those places, I find it helpful to open up a blank document or two and do surgery on these sections. I take that one or two pages on the hero’s childhood (for example), copy them into a blank document the cut them from the manuscript. Then I take a hard look at those pages as a separate entity. What’s essential? I condense it as much as possible. Heck, a few well chosen words or a sentence or two might be all that’s really needed. I can imply that information, give a hint, but I don’t smother your reader in it. And I don’t want it to slow things down. It needs to be lean. Sleek.

If I consider those five things when I’m going through the solid second draft I feel like I’m in good shape to send off to another reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get up on a soap box here.

This is the BARE MINIMUM level of edit that you should subject all of your work to if you intend to publish or submit elsewhere. Ideally, you’d get feedback, incorporate that in another draft, and do a nice, smooth polish on all the rough edges as well. But if you’re not doing at least this much…well…good luck.

Now, go out there and edit. Edit like the wind!

Whither Parminder Nagra

Posted: May 15, 2014 in Random Geekery
Parminder Nagra as Meera Malik from NBC's The Blacklist

Parminder Nagra as Meera Malik from NBC’s The Blacklist

There are certain actors who I will always cheer when they get a steady gig.

Actors for whom I wish to create dream projects for when they are inexplicably between roles.

Parminder Nagra is one of those. I’ve been a fan since Bend it Like Beckham. And though I never watched a single episode of E.R., I thought she was delightful in Alcatraz (along side Jorge Garcia who I also include in this category of favorite actors).

So it was with great joy that I saw her join the cast of NBC’s The Blacklist as tough-as-nails CIA agent Meera Malik. It’s a solid show and they make a lot of smart story decisions on it. Plus, who doesn’t love watching James Spader chew scenery?

If you’re a fan of the show and aren’t caught up or think you might like it but haven’t seen an episode yet, I suggest you stop reading now. Because beyond here lie spoilers.

Seriously. Last chance.


Ok, if you’re still with me, Ms. Nagra is likely looking for work right now and I’m going to deeply miss her character. Agent Malik was excellent and I’m sad to see the last of her on the show.

With that in mind, I’ve turned my mind to come up with three new TV projects she’d be great for. If you’re a producer, call me and we’ll work something out. But really, call her and cast an amazing and versatile actor.

  1. Untitled Contemporary Supernatural Mystery — Parminder and uncast bookish guy are a married couple who used to work for a top secret government agency handling supernatural threats. He was the occultist. She was the muscle. But they’ve seen too much crazy shit and have decided to retire to a quiet town on the coast of Washington where they intend to write a book about their experiences. Gradually they come to realize there is more going on in the town than they could have ever imagined, and that there’s a reason their former supervisor agreed to the retirement in this hotbed of cults and world-ending supernatural conspiracy. Think of it as Eureka by way of H.P. Lovecraft.
  2. Untitled Fantasy Project — Parminder stars as the warrior priest of Mahrut, the Inside-Out God of Madness in a lush fantasy adventure with a tropical tone. She travels around the jungles, high mountains, rugged coasts, and wild rivers with the occasional accompaniment of a young priest of the God of Thresholds. What adventure lurks in the City of Stone Faces or the City of Bright Feathers? Magic. Action. Intrigue. Demonic talking animals. Think Game of Thrones meets Jungle Book without all the rape and snow.
  3. Untitled Sports Drama Project — A devoted mother in a Michigan town that loves it’s hockey, Parminder Nagra takes over coaching her son’s hockey team when the regular coach storms out of the rink. Her command of the team impresses a minor-league hockey manager whose son is on the other team that she beats. Needing to fill a gap, he offers her a job as assistant coach to his struggling minor-league team. Throughout the first season, she has to earn the team’s respect and the respect of the town while balancing her duties as a wife and mother.

There you go, world. Make this happen.

I’d certainly watch the hell out of all of them.