This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

This is, in part, a review of the new Amazon Prime series Red Oaks. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in the necessity of narrative consistency. There will be some mild spoilers, but i argue that I’m only spoiling something rotten–the bruise on the banana that is best cut out and avoided so you can enjoy the rest.

Read at your own risk.

So, a bit of background: Amazon is producing it’s own programming now, shown as part of their Amazon Prime digital video. It’s kind of ambitious, and they have thrown several things at the wall to see what sticks. Some of what I’ve watched has been great. In fact, of the programs that did interest me, they were as good if not better than network programming. And like Netflix original programming, they make the entire season available at once.

Red Oaks is described as a “coming-of-age comedy set in the ‘go-go’ 80s about a college student enjoying a last hurrah before summer comes to an end–and the future begins.” It has a great cast (shout outs to long time favorites Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey as the parents, Paul Reiser as the club president and supplemental father figure, and Teen Wolf alum Gage Golightly as the aerobics instructor girlfriend with epic 80’s hair). It has a fine stable of directors such as David Gordon Green, Hal Hartley, and Amy Heckerling. And the soundtrack is an astounding playlist of music from my misspent youth–some painfully familiar, and some I haven’t heard in 30 years.

Overall, the series strikes a tone of the typical sentimental coming-of-age story. 20-something kid takes summer job, putting him in contact with both peers he grew up with and a new world that is promised by the range of experiences and new contacts made at the job. Red Oaks is not trying to break new ground here.

Nor is it trying to go for a laugh-a-minute sit-com. In fact, it isn’t interested in telling jokes. Yes. It’s funny. But it’s a soft, character driven humor. If it weren’t for fact that episodes were only 30 minutes long, I’d almost characterize this as light drama than comedy. Several of the characters are painted a bit larger than life–the accountant dad who wants the son to follow in his footsteps despite the son being bad at math and uninterested in being an accountant, the chubby best-friend pot dealer/valet in love with the hot lifeguard, the sleazy photographer with his eyes on the sweet and perhaps too-naive girlfriend, the mysterious, worldly daddy’s girl. But despite the reliance on these archetypes, the series remains pretty grounded, telling believable stories you can relate to if you were ever a white kid from the lower-middle class in the eighties.

And here’s where the series fails.

In episode seven, the family goes to a Benihana style restaurant, where father and son are having a failure to connect. Now, it’s only natural things are somewhat strained between the two. The series opens with dad having a mild heart attack while they’re playing tennis and, fearing the end is here, spills everything about his doubts and fears, including details about his unhappy marriage and how he thinks his wife, the mother, might be a lesbian. Further, the son is realizing more and more that there is a big world out there, and being an accountant like his dad is not at all what he wants to do–he just doesn’t know what the answer is, yet, and is feeling trapped.

And then the mysterious old Asian man steps in with a special birthday drink, some kind of liquor with a humpback whale on the label, forcing father and son to share three shots of the “special birthday drink.” We fade to black, and when the characters wake up, they find that they have magically switched bodies.

Imagine the sound of a record scratching to a stop. This is, essentially, what happened to my brain. The fact that this episode was directed by the gifted Amy Heckerling could in no way save it. It doesn’t matter how well acted it is (and both Richard Kind and Craig Roberts do outstanding jobs here), or how well scripted it is (which it isn’t, to be honest). The trust has been broken. For one, the strange, magical Asian guy trope is dated at the very least, if not flat out racist. But also, the rules of the world, set up in the previous six episodes, have been broken, only to be returned to status quo at the end of the episode with no consequences.

It’s such a bizarre choice it makes me wonder if someone lost a bet. Yes, the body-swap story is a classic of the 80’s. But the movies that tell that story are self-contained. They make sense within the fucked-up rules of that particular world. Even the TV show Community knew that when they did a body-swap story during the “Gas Leak” year that was season 4, making the body-swap not a magical occurrence, but a way for Troy to run away from responsibilities while Abed played along for the sake of his friend (and because he always wanted to do a body-swap episode.)

But you can’t introduce blatant magic into the middle of a story that hasn’t even hinted at it, and then pretend it never happened in the next episode. Imagine if they had an episode of Law & Order involving Satanic sacrifice where Satan actually shows up, and then the next episode it’s back to the status quo.

Fuck you, Red Oaks.

Specifically, fuck you episode 7.

Other than that, I highly recommend the series. I love the pacing and the character development. I’m even willing to overlook the manic pixie dream girl/rich daddy’s girl trope as most of the characters are painted with pretty broad strokes. They do some smart things I’m not used to seeing. The friend’s pursuit of the life-guard is a sweet and well done arc. The trajectory of Nash, the tennis pro who is looking to better his situation, was surprisingly charming. The parents coming to terms with what’s going wrong in their marriage was sad and strangely perfect. And Craig Roberts who plays the lead, David, is outstanding. I’ll watch him in anything now.

All in all, it was a great way to spend 4 1/2 hours.

But seriously, skip episode 7. You’re not going to miss anything.

Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

There are a several checkpoints when you’re an author–little squares on the career Bingo card that are pretty much inevitable. They’re marked with things like “Join Writing Group,” or “Submitted First Short Story,” or “Finished First Novel.”

One that all writers who’ve been in the game long enough encounter is the one marked “Meet person who dismissively says that they could write a novel.” Now, I won’t lie, there used to be time when I met that statement with a bit if ire. No one wants to have their accomplishments dismissed, diminished.

And let’s be clear. Writing novel is an accomplishment. Doesn’t matter if it’s good. Sitting down and putting in that kind of effort, word after word after word–at least 50,000 of them, for example–that’s something to be proud of.

To have someone who, to the best of your knowledge has written nothing since college, proclaim that they can do what you just slaved over, and do it like it’s nothing. Well, yeah. It can hurt.

But I’ve learned to take a different track when I hear this. Because I’m never going to stop hearing it. And I’ll be damned if I want to be dismissive of someone’s goals!

Because what? You can write a novel! It’s not like other arts where materials are expensive (for instance, my cohort might sell someone’s kidney for high-quality markers in the near future). Writing requires pens and paper at the very least, access to a computer with a word processor being even more ideal. That’s a threshold most people can reach. The only other thing that’s required is encouragement, an idea, and effort.

That’s why I love National Novel Writing Month so much. The goal is to write a novel in a month. 50,000 words. 1,667 on average every day for 30 days. It isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. It is both easier than you think and harder than you can ever imagine. And it’s a challenge I encourage everyone to take.

For everyone who thought they had a novel in them, this is their chance to find out. For everyone who needed an excuse to start that great book, get writing on November 1st. Don’t find time to write. Make it. Carve out and dedicate an hour before work or school, or maybe an hour when you’d usually watch television. There are a lot of empty hours we fill consuming media that you don’t actually need. An hour a day. More if you can. Aim for that 1,667 a day and don’t beat yourself up and quit if you fall behind. Look for a weekend to try and make up the deficit. You’ll get faster as the month goes on which will make up for the days when writing 100 words is as painful as peeing a flaming bowling ball. But you have a novel in you, and sometimes birth takes a bit of pain.

In short, put up or shut up.

Because I believe in you.

You can write a novel.

All it takes is to do it.

Taksara abides

Taksara abides

A continuation of the Drawlloween experiment. A short piece from what was originally an art prompt, each individual piece no more than 500 words. Fun-size, if you will.

This was where things began to take a strange turn for me, where the daily exercises became something different.

Parts 6-10 follow.


6 – Pumpkin

The key, his dad taught him before he could walk, was to be fast. Create the image of what you want to carve and hold onto it. Burn it into your mind. The triangle eyes. Goofy, toothless smile. Visualize and when you can draw it with your eyes closed, it’s time for the knife.

Not before.

Once it came time to cut, it was all fast strokes. No hesitation.

That’s why he was the best.

It was his favorite time of year. The sound of leaves under foot. The smell of the changing season. He missed the farm where he grew up, the harvest festivals. And everywhere, pumpkins.

He sat in the dark, fingers rubbing a groove in the black wood of the knife’s grip as he concentrated until his head hurt. The vision was perfect. The knife felt sure in his small hand. All he needed was a pumpkin.

He heard the jingle of keys in the hallway outside. The neighbor lady was finally home. His grandmother who had taken him in after the accident with his parents called her a “filthy hoor” but he didn’t really know what it meant. He figured it had something to do with her late hours. It was already past 2. His grandma had been asleep for hours already, breath heavy with her medicine.

The keys rattled in the lock.

Silent as a statue behind the arm of the sofa, he waited. The front door swung open, casting a silhouette of his neighbor across the floor in the hallway light. She stepped in and closed the door, not even bothering with the lights.

That was fine. He didn’t need light to carve the pumpkin. He was almost on top of her when she turned on the lamp and saw him, just shy of four feet in Sesame Street Underoos, blank face, wicked knife in his little hand. They both froze for a second before she started screaming. And then he moved, slashing a smile through her blue dress with deep, sure strokes.

7 – Haunted House

As haunted houses went, Mark Obiyashi had seen a lot worse. Wind howled through the windowless frames in the wall, a yawning abyss of darkness beyond. The lights flickered and swayed. Somewhere, deeper within the house, someone was sobbing, but he’d already checked those rooms and confirmed that he was alone.

“You sure this is the place?” Grandfather Yoshi said.

Well, alone except for the ghost of his grandfather, his near-constant companion for most of his life. But despite being a ghost himself, the former soldier was crap at picking up on others of his kind. He didn’t have the gift. Not like Mark. Otherwise he would have seen the matched set of tormented dead that had just appeared, cowering against the near wall.

They were both in pajamas, he in wide-lapel flannel, she in an ankle-length cotton nightshirt, sleeveless. Both of them bore the wounds that killed them, the by-now familiar knife wounds in their abdomens. The husband also had deep knife wounds across his bleeding palms, indicating he might have woken up and tried to block the blade. Husband and wife also had carved pumpkins worn over their dead faces.

“That’s a new one,” Mark muttered under his breath.

“You found the first ones?” Yoshi said. He sounded skeptical.

He ignored his grandfather and edged closer to the new ghosts. “I’m here to help,” he said calmly, palms out. He could feel the ectoplasm in the room, curling around his fingers like warm taffy. It was that same tenuous trail of ectoplasm which had led him here from his apartment, from the Screaming Woman. “You knew them. Whoever did this to you, you know them.”

The wife lowered her pumpkin head, shook it in denial. Mark figured she had likely been dead before she woke so she hadn’t seen the attack anyway. The husband whispered something. A single word slipping between pumpkin teeth.


“Who is Trevor?” Mark said, hoping the name might jar something loose in the wife as well.

“He’s just a boy,” the woman said.

Was just a boy, Mark figured. If Trevor was still alive at this point he’d be well into adulthood. The Screaming Woman had been sometime in the mid-80’s. These two, sometime before that. It had been a good thirty years. That was one hell of a head start, but at least he had a name now. With that and an approximate year, he could fill in the details. Not impossible, but difficult.

But if Mark was going to put Screaming Woman to rest, he had to try.

8 – Zombie

Jerry shuffled into the kitchen in the same jeans and t-shirt he had passed out on the den sofa wearing. He blinked against the morning sun streaming in the sliding glass door, searching for bacon, the scent of which had roused him in the first place.

“Bacon?” He mumbled to Wendy who was setting out plates on the kitchen table.

“In the oven,” she said. “And I’ll make eggs just as soon as you get back from the Millers.”

“The Millers?”

“You still owe them an apology for last night. I’d tell you to shower because you look like a damn zombie, but they love Halloween so, maybe that works to your benefit.”

He dimly remembered disrupting their backyard party. He smacked at the stank-mouth he woke up with and wondered how much of that had come from trying to kiss or maybe bite their big Golden Retriever, Michael. “I’ll be back,” he mumbled.

Slippers retrieved, he crossed the dewy front lawn to the Miller’s split-level tract home. They’d already gone all-out decorating for Halloween, despite it being two weeks away. Decorative pumpkins, some real, some plastic, littered the lawn. The man of the house was already up, sitting on the front porch with a cup of coffee next to him. A pumpkin sat on his lap. As Jerry approached, he saw Trevor Miller raise a wicked looking carving knife to the orange flesh of the pumpkin. He felt like he was interrupting something sacred, and his heart caught in his throat.

“Jerry,” Trevor said calmly.

“Hey, Trev. So, I screwed up last night. I went off my meds and…”

“This about the barbeque?”

“Yeah. I made an ass of myself and I’m so sorry.”

Trevor shrugged. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Jerry. His face was a void of emotion. “It’s not a problem, Jerry. No harm done.”

It was a huge relief. Or it should have felt like one. The way Trevor watched him still made Jerry nervous. The Millers had only been neighbors for about a year. And it wasn’t like they were close. “Great, Trevor. That’s great.”

The knife slipped effortlessly into the orange flesh of the pumpkin and Trevor smiled, eyes closing slightly. “I’ll be seeing you, Jerry. Happy Halloween.”

Jerry headed back home with more urgency in his step than before.

9 – Eyeball

The lights flickered on in the underground garage, though the big man didn’t need them to see. He was used to being a lot further underground than this. But his companion was still a creature of the light, though he had high hopes for her. He led her to a high shelf at the back of the space, their heels clicking and echoing off the perpetually damp concrete. He’d tried to do something about the moisture, but even Hell’s contractors had limitations. The miracle workers largely went to the other place.

“This is surprisingly serial killer of you,” the woman at his side said, voice tinged with respect. She stepped closer to the shelf overburdened with small boxes and jars. Some of the jars held dry items. A finger here, an insect husk there. Some contained objects in liquid, only a few of which were identifiable. She pointed to one wide, jar full of pale green liquid with thick shapes floating within. “What’s this?”

“Pickles,” the big man said. “This place in Brooklyn makes them. They’re out of this world. I always keep a jar handy.” He made a sound of discovery and retrieved a jar from high on the shelf. “Here. This is what I was looking for.”

She took the offered jar. It was small, like something you’d use to store gourmet jelly. A single eye floated within, the iris cornflower blue. “Who did this belong to?”

“A guy in Kansas who saw too much,” the big man said. “He made me a deal, and I got the eye when he died. If you’re going to work for me, you’ll need it.”

She held the eye up to her own eye, amused how it seemed to track the big man. Doubly amused with how even a disembodied eye could look scared. “I’m still not entirely sure what you want me for.”

“There’s this kid named Mark Obiyashi. He sees ghosts. It looks like he’s going to stick his stupid nose in something I’ve been setting up for thirty years. If I deal with it myself, I tip my hand.”

“So, Hell subcontracts?”

He smiled big and bright. “You my girl, May? You have the drive, the juju to stop a deadspeaker?”

“I’m your girl, sir.”

10 – Alien

Mark put the five lollipops on the gas station counter and fished cash out of his Velcro black and white checkerboard wallet. The candy stared up at him, the multi-colored alien faces seemingly indifferent to their eventual fate. He unwrapped one of the cinnamon flavored ones while the clerk counted back change.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting by the front door, and easily kept up as Mark dropped his longboard to skate back towards home. “How many do you think he killed?”

Mark was reluctant to give concrete numbers without counting the ghosts himself. An hour in the library with the assistance of a recently deceased reference librarian had given him a chilling estimate, however. “At least nine,” he said.

But he knew the real total was likely more. The most recent body had been found six years ago in Ohio and had been dead for a few more years before that. It was only fate that it got discovered at all. Over time, Trevor had gotten good at hiding his activities. After killing his parents and then a year later Jackie, the woman currently haunting his apartment, he’d gone to a psychiatric facility. He’d been released late November, 1995, theoretically cured. The second of November, 1996, another body turned up, torso carved like a jack o’lantern, but he was already long gone.

“It’s possible the Ohio murder was the last one,” Mark said around the cinnamon flavored alien head sucker. “It was nine years ago, and no more bodies have been found. So maybe he died. Or maybe he hides them better. But the fact that these ghosts are still out there looking for closure, I’m thinking he’s still alive.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” Mark kicked down the street. “Now we find as many of his ghosts as we can. We bring them home. And fast. Because Halloween is right around the corner.”

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

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

A challenge appeared on Tumblr a few weeks ago. Drawlloween. Intended as an artist prompt, to draw a little something from each of the 31 daily prompts through the month of October. I love Halloween. I consider October Halloween month. And while I do art on occasion, that’s way too ambitious for my limited skills. So I decided to undertake the challenge as a writing exercise–a short piece, each under 500 words, for each prompt.

As things often do, it became something… else.

I’ll be re-publishing them in blocks of 5 throughout the month here.

1 – Ghost

The blood curdling sounds of someone being stabbed to death in the next room woke Mark from pleasant dreams about the ocean. He blinked in the direction of his bedside clock. 2:25. Right on schedule. The Screaming Girl was back.

With a groan, he rolled out of the narrow bed and shuffled through his discarded clothes to the door. He fumbled with the light switch on the brick wall next to him, illuminating the single space that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen in his small Bronx walk-up.

Screaming Girl stood in a pool of phantasmal blood wearing a party dress circa 1985 with the shoulder pads to prove it. The dress was pale blue except for the front where a knife had carved up her abdomen like a Halloween pumpkin leaving the ragged remains slick and red-black. There was no assailant present as they’d had something like a three decade head start. Screaming Girl’s head was tilted back, mouth hung wide like a Cottonmouth snake in anguish, a scream that would shake the windows if the windows were psychically sensitive cascading out of it.

“Hey!” Mark said a bit too loudly, causing the scream to strangle off as she looked at him, momentarily confused. “I have classes tomorrow morning. Could you maybe not?”

“You can see me?” Screaming Girl said.

She always said that, every night since he moved in a week ago. Ghosts, man. Memory span like a chronic pot smoker. Absent-minded sacks full or rage and pain. “Yes. I can see you. I can hear you too. “

“Oh.” She looked confused. She looked at Mark then down at the killing wounds she’d been carrying ever since someone gutted her in her living room. “I’m dead.”

“Yeah. Are we done for the night?”

“I suppose,” she said. “Sorry.”

Screaming Girl faded out, taking the phantasmal gore of her murder with her.

Could be worse. At least she wasn’t like the poltergeist in that place in Denver that broke all his shit before he could move out. With a sigh, he turned out the light and returned to his bedroom.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting for him, staring out the window at the still unfamiliar neighborhood, the yellow street lights showing through his wispy form. He was still wearing the military uniform he had been buried in one fine April morning, 1944. “Can you believe some people?”

2 – Devil

The bullets stopped—hovered in the air in a suddenly crystalline moment. He counted four: one that would surely miss, while three flew true. The one mere inches from his face was the most troubling as, like the bullets, Grant was also frozen in place.

He felt a chill that prickled the skin on the back of his neck mere seconds before he heard the voice. “Freaks you out a bit, doesn’t it.” A dapperly dressed, thick-set man stepped nimble as a baby dear into his vision, avoiding the rivers of blood on the off-white linoleum floor. Not fat. No, he’d never call this strange man with the sharpened smile fat. Thick.

“What’s going on?”

The stranger looked around as if for the first time, eyes mockingly wide. “Well, Grant, what’s going on is that you walked into this clinic, guns blazing, wounded eight women and killed five more. That’s what’s going on.”

“I was doing God’s work.”

The smile did not falter, but the eyes turned hard, like the big man wished he was biting the head off a chicken with those perfect white choppers. His voice was cold as he tapped out a cigarette and lit it with the tip of one finger. “So you said at the time. But I’m afraid you were mistaken. I’m the one here who’s doing God’s work.”

Grant found that being frozen such as he was, he couldn’t even void his bladder, though his instincts to do so were strong indeed. “Are you an angel?”

“Not so much. Needed room to stretch my wings, so I moved out of dad’s place. Moved downtown, if you know what I mean.”

Grant sized the big man up. It wasn’t exactly how he had pictured the Devil. “You’re here to take me to Hell? After everything I’ve done in God’s name?”

The mirth returned to the Devil’s face. “Buddy, it’s because of what you’ve done in His name that Heaven doesn’t want you. To be honest, I don’t want you either. You’re kind of a sad and petty asshole, and I’d rather not have to see you around. It would depress me.”

Grant was confused. “So, I get to live?”

The Devil’s laugh boomed. “No. You get to wander forever, burdened by all the pain you’ve caused. Invisible. Intangible. Forgotten. Now fuck off.”

With a puff of brimstone, time resumed.

3 – Goblin

The bars were long empty, the beleaguered cocktail waitresses and bartenders settling into cracked leatherette booths of all-night diners for a post-work dinner while their former customers staggered home or slept it off in their cars before attempting the drive on foggy Karlsburg streets.

And then there was Henry and Amy, leaning against each other for support as they snuck noisily into the dark playground of Nathan Hale Elementary. “You sure this is a good idea?” Henry asked, “Won’t the police have a problem with us being here after dark?”

“No one comes in here after dark,” Amy said. “Not after the dun dun DUN incident.” She punctuated her dramatics by turning and walking clumsily backward, making a spooky hands at her companion. She overestimated her ability to navigate backwards in her current condition and was sent sprawling on her ass in the shredded rubber chips around the slide with a yelp.

Henry looked a shade more sober than before as he looked around, eyes wide. “Wait, this is the school they say is haunted? The one where they found that body a few years ago?”

“Five years ago. And it’s not haunted,” Amy said, waiving off the help to stand that Henry, in his fear, wasn’t bothering to offer. She used the slide’s corrugated metal later as a brace and struggled to her feet. “Haunting are ghosts. No ghosts here. At least I don’t think there are any ghosts here. Never heard of any when I went here.”

Henry decided there was safety in numbers and edged closer to Amy next to the bulk of the old metal slide. “You went here? I thought you said you moved here from Boston.”

“I went to Boston for college, but I grew up here.” Amy waved her arms wide. Her voice took on a note of melancholy. “I grew up right here. You know, they say this city’s name is derived from the word kobold.”

His attention was split between Amy and the deep darkness of the unfamiliar space. He could swear he heard skittering footsteps on the surrounding asphalt. “Kobold? What’s a kobold?”

“Goblins. Like toddlers gone horribly wrong. Big, black eyes. Big scabby ears. Smile that looks like a rusted hacksaw.” Amy grabbed ahold of his hand as if for safety and he squeezed it reassuringly. “They don’t like the light. And they’re always hungry.”

Through the alcohol haze, he felt the cold touch of a handcuff around his wrist. He tried to pull away in shock to find the other end attached to the sturdy frame of the slide. Amy stepped out of arm’s reach. She seemed more sober than before. “Stop fucking around. This isn’t funny.”

But she wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, her eyes searching the dark playground, arms wide, inviting. “I brought you another offering,” she shouted. “Five more years! That was our deal!”

Henry was sure there was movement in the shadows now. And they were hungry.

4 – Vampire

The jangling bells of the princess phone next to the bed woke her well before her alarm, before even the sun had cracked the horizon. In that transition from drowsy to full wakefulness, she dropped the receiver on her face trying to answer it, a whine of “Ow” before her mumbled “Hello?”

“Jackie, it’s Hamilton. Sorry I woke you but I needed to talk to someone before the end.”

Jackie sat up in bed, heart racing. She hadn’t spoken to Hamilton since he’d broken her heart two weeks ago, but she hadn’t stopped loving him. “Before what’s over? Ham? Are you about to do something stupid?”

“Things are moving too fast,” he said. “The world, I mean. The world is moving too fast. There was a time I thought I could keep up, but ’85 has been a weird year for me.”

“Baby, what are you talking about?”

“There are things I haven’t been completely honest about. When I said I was born in New York in ’59, I meant York. In England. And I meant 1659.”

Jackie opened her mouth to try and talk sense into him, but suddenly a lot of the things that had caused stress in their relationship started to make sense. The objections that formed in her brain came out as a simple, “Huh. Vampire?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I wanted to be honest with you, and I guess better late than never.”

Now that she knew the truth, she wondered if there was a way to start over, a way to make things work. Sure, he was a creature of darkness, but he was a lot better than all the other guys she had dated. “It’s okay, Ham. We can make this work. You want to come over? I can keep the blinds down.”

Hamilton was quiet on the other end of the phone. She thought she could hear the hiss of truck brakes in the background. “Love you, Jackie. Had to call and tell you that. I’ve been feeling lost and afraid for a long time and you’ve been a bright spot in the dark. And I want to see the sun again.”

Fear chased the last of the sleep from her blood. “Where are you?”

“The park where we met, near the bench with a great view of the sunrise.”

She hung up and threw on clothes. The park was only six blocks away and panic gave her feet wings. But it wasn’t enough. The sun was fully up by the time she reached the park, the bench with the view, and the glass phone booth. A block of wood braced the door closed from the inside.

And on the floor, a fine, gray dusting of ash.

5 – Werewolf

The back door was ajar, though he would have burst through if it hadn’t been. It would take more than a sliding glass door to stop a mighty werewolf! He knocked over the trashcan just inside the door. A discarded milk carton and soggy filter full of coffee grounds toppled out onto the linoleum. He howled, staggered into the center of the kitchen and howled again.

A woman’s voice from the next room. “Jerry?”

He stopped in his tracks, teeth barred.

His wife entered the kitchen with a rolled up copy of Marie Claire. “Jerry! The Millers called. What the hell has gotten into you?”

“Get away, Wendy! I’m a werewolf!” He growled at her, menacingly.

She sighed. “No, Jerry. No you’re not.”

Jerry lunged for her only to be smacked on the nose with the magazine. He backed down with a whimper. “I’m the Alpha.”

“You’re an idiot who doesn’t realize he’s not a kid anymore, who took three hits of acid you got from hell knows where, and then decided to crash our neighbor’s barbeque, crap on their lawn, and bite their Golden Retriever.”

“He was a Beta…” Jerry started only to be whacked into silence with a few more blows from the magazine.

“You’re going to sleep this off on the sofa in the den,” she said, pointing a manicured index finger at him. “Then you’re going to take a shower and go apologize to the Millers. I’m not moving because of you again.”

He cowered, eyes down, tracing lines in the damp coffee grounds on the floor next to him. “Yes dear.”

“Now clean up your mess,” she said, returning to her book club in the other room. “And get your shit together, Jerry. Or I’m buying a gun with some goddamned silver bullets.”

Behind the Story: The Last Real Man

Posted: September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized
Art by the amazing Luke Spooner

Art by the amazing Luke Spooner

You know how I know that I’m living right?

I’m surrounded by amazing, talented, creative people.

Around about the time I was scaling back on this small press thing, frequent collaborators Jeremy Zimmerman and Dawn Vogel started doing this great publication called Mad Scientist Journal. If you haven’t checked it out, I encourage you to do so as it’s free to read online. Or you can get the quarterlies in print or e-book for the device of your choice that contain fun bonus material like classifieds. It’s an inspired project and it fills me with joy knowing it’s out there.

Last year they put together their first anthology, That Ain’t Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley which I was delighted to be published in. “Goat,” my story for that, was a short piece about Texas high school football and New England traditions that go back a bit further.

This year, they were talking about something a little different–an anthology of end of the world stories inspired in part by a poem that Dawn Vogel had found online.

Now, end of the world stories really aren’t my thing. I mean, I’ve read my share, and l love them. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clark (1953) is a particular favorite. And as the anthology began to take shape, I got talking about possible end of the world scenarios with Dawn. Somehow, and I’m not entirely sure how, I promised her a story about werewolves.

God as my witness, I really don’t know how that happened, as I’ve never written a werewolf story before. But I started to get obsessed with the idea of what the end of the world could mean. Somewhere in there, I found a story about a manly kind of man, a former logger in a small town in Oregon that’s changing before his eyes, a story about a man facing a very personal apocalypse as muddy pickup trucks are replaced with Subaru hatchbacks with “Organic” and “Eat Local” bumper stickers.

Thus was “The Last Real Man” born. I wasn’t really sure if it was what they were looking for, but hey, they accepted it. Then I saw the cover and I started to get excited. I’ve been reading my copy since I got it and I’m blown away. They’ve managed to gather 23 stories from around the world, paired them with a sharp layout and gorgeous interior art, creating an anthology I’m crazy proud to be a part of.

So, if you’re a fan of small presses, check Selfies from the End of the World out. Jeremy and Dawn are the real deal, a pair of inspired editors with a great eye for a talent who sacrifice sleep and sanity to put out an amazing product.

If you’re a fan of apocalypse stories, they have 23 of them for you, each one a gem.

And if you’re a fan of werewolf stories, I have something weird lying in wait starting on page 81 just for you.

Autumn, Sleep, and the Writer

Posted: September 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Triple DoorIt’s been a long, hot summer out there. Much of the state burned while Seattle just had heat and smoke, so it could have been a lot worst. But for those of us without air-conditioning (meaning most of us), it was a slog, and sleep was hard to come by in those hot nights, tossing and turning in knotted, sweat-soaked sheets.

Getting through a regular work week when you’re under-slept is rough. A week when you’re trying to write, edit, promote a book, generally do anything other than collapse at the end of the day is a special kind of trial. But you do what you have to do, fight your way to tiny fists full of sleep until the heat breaks around 4am and then maybe 3 good hours until you have to get up for work.

You survive. It’s what you do, because vacations in cooler climes or nice apartments with air conditioning is for other people.

So it was a great relief when cooler weather and rain started swept into the city, apparently to stay for a little while. The smell of rain, the hiss of tires on wet concrete, the tapping of heavy drops on my kitchen’s fan vent–it was enough to bring a tear to this old writer’s eye.

But here’s the thing: I have a history of not doing well with sleep. I call it the Hamster Wheel phenomenon.

Ten years ago when I was living on my own again and really had no life other than work and writing, I would put the coffee on at any time of day or night and just stay up and write whenever I wanted to. I could get by with a few nights of 4-5 hours of sleep and then catch up and it wasn’t exactly a bad thing. I set some really unfortunate sleep habits. But hey, it wasn’t like I had a lot of traditional self-destructive author vices. I barely drank and even then not to excess. I didn’t smoke and never cared for drugs. A little Bohemian self-indulgence, staying up to satisfy my muse, that seemed acceptable. I was also prone to the trap of staying up to what sounded like a reasonable bedtime rather than listening to when I was actually tired.

It wasn’t a huge problem. Except for the nights when I wanted to sleep but couldn’t, tossing and turning with a racing brain, cat-napping through the night. Turns out it’s a neuro-science thing that’s been shown with brain scans. The brain waves when you’re in a creative space are not the brain waves you need to be working with for sleep and relaxation. And I got too used to cycling my brain up at night time, a constant barrage of active mental engagement rather than letting go and sinking into an Alpha state.

My sleep suffered. As a result, my health suffered. So I had a bit of a breakdown a few years ago to just listen to my body. If I was tired at 7pm, by damn, I was going to go to bed at 7pm. There was no shame in it. And I more tightly regulated when I’d write or be creative in the evenings. One, maybe two nights a week. The rest of the time it was morning and afternoon.

And it worked. It helped. My sleep evened out. But last year I knew that with NaNoWriMo coming, I’d be writing more frequently in the evening, and I knew sleep was going to be a problem. I got my doctor to prescribe me Ambien, and with occasional use, I was able to get my bad sleep under control. But doctors are careful not to let patients rely on Ambien, so I got a refill or two nothing since maybe January. And other than the heat wave, it’s been okay. I’ve gotten the sleep I needed.

The heat has broken. Rain is pounding on the windows. And my sleep patterns are broken again.

See, it wasn’t just the heat keeping me awake this summer. I had two books come out, and I was crazy busy with editing and promotional things and thinking I needed to be working on what was next.

I don’t know the last time I finished something. My story in the just released Selfies from the End of the World, probably? And that was in the Spring. I’ve started several books. All have run aground somewhere short of 25k. I don’t think I’m going to finish two of them. I stopped one after the first chapter and I’m going to take a run at the rest of it once I outline it–maybe in December. A shorter piece I just started last weekend I need to finish laying out, but I hope to get it finished in September. But at this rate? I don’t know. I have a short story I want to write for an anthology that’s due mid-December. It might happen. I have two different projects outlined for November, which I should be able to power through under the auspices of NaNoWriMo, my 10th year since writing Greetings from Buena Rosa in that shitty basement apartment in the U-District while I rebuilt my life.

My brain is a coked up hummingbird in a cage of meat and bone.

I go from a night of broken but acceptable sleep to a night where I can’t cycle down, can’t fall asleep until 2 or 3am and go to work exhausted. Then that night I get to bed right after dinner, as early as 7pm, sometimes with an over-the-counter sleep aid, and I sleep for 11-12 hours solid. And then the cycle repeats. The Hamster Wheel is spinning so fast it’s starting to smoke. But it’s spinning in place, producing nothing.

I need to find a solution–something sustainable that isn’t medication. Will be trying reading before bed, maybe some focused meditation the next week. With luck, that will help me get ahead of this. If not, it’s going to be an interesting Autumn.

Available September 1, 2015

Available September 1, 2015 Cover by Luke Spooner

The following is an advance look at the next Cobalt City book, a grim look into the underworld of the city from which no one returns unchanged. Cobalt City: Ties that Bind will be available exclusively for the Kindle on September 1st, 2015.

Chapter Two—Bantam

If you keep your ear to the street like I do, you tend to hear things. For instance, I heard about group of hero nerds who created a complicated ranking system of all known capes, whether they’re heroes or villains or those like me who sort of fall in-between. They evolved this into online message boards and, believe it or not, a sort of fantasy league. I clean up on my office fantasy basketball pool but this was a kind of alchemy beyond even me. My activity on the fringes of the Cobalt City cape and cowl proved to be little to no help. But even if I wasn’t going to win any tournaments, I found their system of defining the relative “weight class” of given super powered individuals fascinating.

I was stunned to see that even I was ranked on their boards. I thought I was being discreet. Or at least as discreet as a vigilante in a rooster mask could be in this town. Apparently I wasn’t discreet enough because there I was, sixth from the bottom. To be fair, in addition to being new I hadn’t displayed any powers, just a pair of tonfa fighting batons, toe-spurs on my boots, and compact glider wings built into my costume. It made sense that I’d be feather weight. Bantam weight, if you will. The only capes ranked lower were ones I tended to think of as jokes or tourists who were going to get themselves killed in spandex. Snowflake, the panda who flew the plane for the Protectorate ranked above me.

I’ll admit, I was kind of hurt by that at first. But I had to be honest with myself. Knockabout could stop an army, locking them in place with the gravity of a dying sun. Mister Grey was a terrifying, immortal cloud of crematorium ash in human form. I could beat on a fool with my sticks. The rankings hurt, but not as much as having my spine ripped out.

I joined the cape fantasy league and was slowly figuring out the system. I made a point not to draft myself as I felt that would be unethical, especially after the corruption scandal that hit the Cobalt City Blue Blazers last season. In addition to keeping me occupied with another fantasy league, I used it as a guide to make informed decisions. When I pulled on the stylized rooster mask, I made it a habit not to pick fights outside of my weight class.

I don’t know what kind of medical plans other Cobalt City heroes might have, but I was stuck on the police department’s plan. If I showed up at my HMO with a proton blast wound, questions were going to be asked. The more questions I could avoid, the happier I’d be.

Bad enough I had a dead dad with a criminal record. Bad enough that I was woman, and barely met the department’s height guidelines at 5’ 7”. Bad enough I didn’t play well with others and hadn’t been assigned a partner since Olson transferred to vice in January. If word leaked that I put on a mask to do things as Bantam that I couldn’t do as a cop, I’d be out of a job.

I learned to embrace anonymity. You hear of people like Tree Frog or Midnight Thunder or even Gato Loco because the press loves the glamor of people in costumes stopping other people in costumes from committing crime. I vowed to keep it simple to keep under the radar. No capes. If they had a costume or powers or a name like “Dr. Destruction” or “The Reaver,” they were someone else’s problem.

I didn’t need press to feel I was making a difference. I didn’t need to climb the ranks in the fantasy league. There was still plenty of crime in Cobalt City committed by ordinary people making very bad decisions. No, it wasn’t glamorous. But even without costumes or powers, they were real monsters. They didn’t bother to wear masks because their victims were their own family, their neighbors. So I was able to work in the shadows because acknowledging me meant admitting that a person don’t need a death ray and an iron mask to be evil. No one wants to read that over their morning coffee.

When I heard that there was someone with a gun spotted entering an old hotel around the corner from me, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check. Give me a guy with a gun over some psycho with telepathic wolves any day of the week. He was relatively easy to spot, too. It was hot as balls out, and this joker was wearing a trench coat.

In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.

I didn’t recognize the fucker until he pulled on his mask at which point it was too late. He was distinctive with the mask: a black full-head affair with a giant blue circle over the face. A contract killer, new to the Cobalt City scene, he signed his two kills as “Regret.” The report said he carried two custom guns that fired a wide variety of specialized ammunition, which he proved to be true by whipping them out in the hotel lobby.

As the two midnight black hand-cannons appear from under his trench coat, I scanned for his potential targets. Despite my rooster mask, he hadn’t seemed to really notice me yet, and trained killer or not, he telegraphed his targets like a goddamned amateur. Two people stepping out of the fancy hotel bar across the lobby, a man and woman in their fifties, both white, both distinctly middle-class—not the kinds of people one usually pictured as the targets for a paid assassin. What could they have possibly done except maybe let the front lawn get a bit out of control? But in my years in Cobalt City, I’d seen people killed for less. And here I was, the only person between a contract killer and his paycheck.

There was no time to think, not even to second-guess myself. I launched a flying kick straight into Regret’s back. The impact was enough to knock him over, and the toe-spur in my boot sliced through the back of his coat. He tumbled across the worn gold-flecked maroon of the lobby carpet and came up in a crouch facing me, no worse for wear. It gave me the first good look at what he was wearing under the coat.

Kevlar body armor. Shit. That’s bad news.

I had my tonfa out, the length of each club down my forearms, ready to block. But two guns beats two sticks, especially with fifteen feet between us. I told myself that at least I bought the intended targets some time, but both of them had frozen up next to this potted plant, a big bastard with wide, deep green leaves that looked more at home in a jungle than a hotel lobby in New England. So much for hoping the rabbits would run.

“I don’t know who you are,” Regret said, “But you’ll bleed like the rest.”

Several years on the force and even more growing up in my dad’s shadow taught me the sound of a guy putting on a fake tough-guy voice. Despite the Kevlar, mask, guns, and stated occupation on his theoretical business card, this guy was not the world-class bad-ass he liked to project himself to be. That said, he was still a confirmed killer with specialized gun, body armor, and the drop on me.

He was out of my weight class. No doubt about it. would probably have given me long odds on dropping him. 45 to 1 was my guess. He opened up on me with one of his guns, and I had the good sense to recognize he wasn’t just waving them around as a threat. I flipped backwards and the shot passed inches below me as I got the hell out of the way. I came down on the other side of a leather sofa that looked as solid as a mid-sized sedan which had taken the bullet meant for me. The shot had dented the leather but not punctured it. Sandbag rounds. Non-lethal.

I doubted someone put him on retainer to tenderize this couple, so he might have balked at the idea of killing a cape. I might not be high profile, or any profile, but that kind of thing puts a target on a person’s back. There were far worse rounds he could have unloaded in my direction. His last kill had burned up from the inside out. While that target had been a sleazy banker connected to a billion dollar fraud scheme, immolation was still a hell of a way to go. At least he was going easy on me so far. I didn’t care much for his condescension, though it may have been the only thing keeping me alive at that particular juncture.

Regret must have figured me out of the fight and turned back towards his targets. I hurled one of the heavy sofa cushions at his arms with every ounce of strength I had. It might have been out of spite at being dismissed so readily, but it was enough to throw off his aim. The huge bronze-finished planter holding the jungle plant paid the ultimate sacrifice and showered the two screaming targets with dirt and ceramic dust. That was enough to get them moving, and both husband and wife, or I’m guessing husband and wife, dodged back into the hotel bar. If there was no back exit, they just boxed themselves in, but it was still better than standing in plain sight with thumbs up their respective rectums.

It still put me no closer to stopping Regret. I could close the distance, but the likelihood of getting shot at least once was phenomenally high. I crunched the numbers in my head, a skill that would have made me a great insurance actuary had I not dreamed for something different. It was automatic, an learned response to pick out this assassin’s weak points. He had his weaknesses. Everyone did. Despite the body armor on his torso and probably lighter weight armor in plating on arms and legs, his joints were still relatively unprotected. His mask looked lightly armored, flexible like ballistic weave, so it would stop penetration from a bullet and prevent slicing, but he would still be vulnerable to a blunt force trauma which I could provide in spades. But seeing a weakness and being able to exploit it were two very different beasts. For me to press my advantage, I had to get within striking distance or fling my weapons at him which was one hell of a gamble. With no practical cover between me the chances of losing my weapon or catching a bullet were high.

He must have seen my considering making a stupid decision and fired off two more shots in my direction to dissuade me. The first hit the sofa and froze it solid. The second filled my area with a choking smoke that forced me to pull back even further, behind a pillar on my left.

That’s when she showed up.

I had seen Velvet in the news for a while now, first attached to Starcom innovator Jaccob Stevens as something of a troubleshooter, and then as a member of the local superhero collective, the Protectorate. She was hot-headed. A scrapper.

As weight classes went, Regret was in for some rough learning.

He managed to squeeze off two shots at her, both of which hit her cloak and fell useless to the ground. Then she was on him, the fingers of her left hand curled in his armored chest piece like it was nothing. She lifted him off the ground and slapped him unconscious.

Not punched.

Slapped. Open palm. From where I stood, it sounded like the world’s largest belly flop and he was out like a light.

I swear on my father’s name, she looked disappointed.

Still holding the limp body of the hitman, she turned to face me. I saw her weighing the costume: rooster mask, brown bodysuit with wide stripes up the side in a deep russet. If she saw the toe spurs, she didn’t react. Most heroes didn’t wear blades. Too much risk of killing someone, which most heroes were careful about. But I wasn’t most heroes.

“Who are you?”

It would have made me happier if she had dropped Regret, but I suppose it was safer to hold onto him until the police arrived. “They call me Bantam.”

“Who calls you that?”

It was a legit question. I worked solo and struck fast, so it wasn’t like I had any serious press outside of the fantasy leagues. No one had called me much of anything out loud, let alone Bantam. I had been careful. But that had been my father’s name when he wore the same costume and it seemed every person on the damn planet had a camera on their phone now. One more thing to blame Jaccob Stevens and Starcom for, I guess. “People.”

It was enough of an answer for her and she nodded her head towards the captive. “Guess that explains the chicken mask. And what’s his name?”

I didn’t feel it was worth correcting her on the difference between rosters and chickens. “The papers call him Regret.”

She laughed, a lighter sound than I would have expected from someone with her presence, her visible strength. “Regret? Oh, that’s got to suck for him. Did he lose a bet?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” I said. “While you’re at it, you might want to ask who hired him.”

I imagine her eyebrows shot up beneath her mask though I couldn’t see it. Her entire demeanor shifted. “He’s a contract hitter?”

“Yes. No idea who hired him, but his intended targets are the couple in their fifties currently hiding out in the bar, likely reeking of their own urine. I’d really like to know why they were targets.”

Velvet looked in the direction of the bar, at Regret, back to me in quick succession. “And why should I trust you?”

“Because I held your playmate there off long enough for you to get here and stop him,” I said. I heard the approach of sirens. This part of town, they were likely from my precinct, too. I couldn’t linger. “Roof of St. Joan at midnight. I’ll share what I know.”

I got half of a nod from her. It was enough. And it was still a few hours away. Plenty of time for me to do some digging. I bolted for the stairs and took them two at a time until I hit the rooftop, somewhat winded. I wasn’t cut out for this. I knew it. Hell, Velvet probably knew it as well.

But I needed to know. It was going to drive me crazy if I didn’t. I took a few seconds on the rooftop to catch my breath before plunging off the north side of the building.

Arms out to my side, the glider fins caught the air, sent me soaring on a thermal updraft. I rode it all the way to my downtown apartment, sighting on the yellow rug hung over the railings as an easy marker.

I opened up the small plastic tool box on my tiny patio and rooted through the plastic baggies of incense until I found the pack of cigarettes I had buried there. I only allowed myself one a day, and damn if I hadn’t earned it today. Mask on the table next to me, I opened the sliding glass door to let my apartment cool off a bit while I sat at the little bistro table in the dark and smoked.
Violence was a funny thing. In the heat of the moment, anyone could be a target. But premeditated violence was something different. Give it enough forethought to hire someone to do the killing—that was something ugly and cold. It was impersonal, wanting someone dead but not needing the release of doing the act yourself, in fact cultivating that distance from the target.

In my experience, there were three kinds of people who went that route: someone who didn’t want to get caught, someone who wasn’t capable of doing the act themselves, or someone who simply believed the other person just flat out needed to die.

It made me wonder which we were dealing with.

And why.

Strong female heroes don't get much stronger than Velvet

Strong female heroes don’t get much stronger than Velvet

Frequent readers know that I have plans to put out another Cobalt City book this fall. I might have mentioned it once or twice. I might also have mentioned that it’s a bit dark.

I’m deep in my final edit pass right now, with a goal to have it formatted by the end of the month. I’ve also been talking to a cover artist who has done great work for some friends and fellow publishers. I think he’ll be a great fit for the material.

Here’s the thing.

It’s dark.

“But dude,” I hear you say, “You write horror. That’s already dark. Isn’t that like warning us that the ocean is wet?”

Yes. And so very much no.

Let me share a bit of an anecdote. Years ago I used to collaborate with a good friend of mine on screenplays. The first two were horror, and we reached an early understanding: he’d do horror, but not serial killers. His reasoning was that it was one thing to write about supernatural horrors, but he didn’t want to write about human monsters. Ultimately, he didn’t want to feed into our inherent distrust of one another. And I respect that, so no serial killers.

Yeah, I write horror. But pretty much without exception it has all been supernatural horror. I have no problem making people look twice at potentially evil finger puppets, or question what might be lurking, evil and eternal at the bottom of a cold lake. But I have pretty much steered clear of human monsters.

The next Cobalt City book is not horror. It is very much a crime story. And like Greetings from Buena Rosa, the roots of the story lie in very real life horrors. In the case of Buena Rosa, it was the large number of unsolved murders in border regions of Mexico, and police torturing innocent people into confessing so that they could show some sort of progress or resolution. In the case of the new book, it was the industry of sex trafficking.

The truth of sex trafficking and human slavery is horrifying. It’s real easy to see why we as a culture are so quick to turn a blind eye or pretend that it “doesn’t happen here.” But it does. It’s a shadow industry that, according to some studies, collectively generates more money than fast food. We’re talking billions of dollars.

It’s the kind of situation that makes me want to see heroes step in and address the problem. And rather than send Gato Loco in again, I found my heroes in Protectorate favorite Velvet and a new character named Bantam. They’ll be joined by Xia Lo, the Harlequin, enforcer for the city’s criminal syndicate. Maybe “joined” is too strong of a word…

In many ways, this book (originally called Thicker than Water but now titled Ties that Bind), is an exorcism. It’s become a deeply personal project for me. All of my point-of-view characters are female. 2/3 of them are Asian. One character is gay, another bi. In watching them navigate and confront the linked industries of human trafficking and sex slavery, I get to see them grow and change. For purely selfish reasons I get to confront a problem I find deeply problematic on a variety of fronts. And as I’m closing in on the end of this final edit pass, I recognize that it’s a damn good book despite being a brutal ride.

Yeah, it’s grim subject matter. The journey is not a fun one. Imagine Andrew Vacchs writing superhero comics in the 80’s. It felt necessary for me to write this, but I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it. Sure, there’s a glimmer of hope. These are heroes, after all. That said, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever written in Cobalt City.

But I’m publishing it anyway. I’m shelling out cash for a cover I can be proud of. I’m making the text as polished as it can be. And I’ll be dropping this dark little slice of Cobalt City out into the world sometime in late September. A tiny slice of hell at about 50,000 words in length.

I’ll be honest, it’s entirely likely that I won’t sell a single copy. While it’s certainly not the goal, it is the realistic expectation. I know that Cobalt City: Ties that Bind is a good book. It’s a book that I’m proud of. I don’t need sales or reviews to convince me of that. If you want something less grim, I encourage you to read any of the other books in the Cobalt City universe, either those written by me or by several other talented authors. Completely ignore this one. That’s fine. I don’t blame you.

But if you’re ready to take a peek into the darker corners of Cobalt City, I have a book for you.

(Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why)

Posted: July 22, 2015 in Music

Ink cover

So, I was asked to do this thing recently while promoting Ink Calls to Ink: pick something for a favorites list, then you know, build the list. Long time readers of my blog know how much I love music, so I chose ten favorite songs. Unfortunately timing didn’t work out and the list was never used.

Until now.

Without further ado, my (Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why):

Close Behind — Calexico — Not only does this instrumental capture the feel of the desert and the spirit of the greatest western never filmed, over the years I’ve come to think of it as my theme song. And if my Gato Loco stories are ever turned into a tv series or movie, I want this song over the opening credits.

Heaven On Their Minds — Andrew Lloyd Webber — There’s a reason that Judas is such a key figure in Ink Calls to Ink, and that reason is entirely Carl Anderson’s amazing performance in Jesus Christ Superstar. I’m not typically much of a Webber fan, but this song rocks and has always made Judas a sympathetic character for me. “Your followers are blind. Too much heaven on their minds” also comes back as a theme in my novel.

Night Lights — Gerry Mulligan Sextet — A delicate and simple piano tune leads you into the lush beauty of one of my favorite all time jazz songs. Listen, just listen, close your eyes and imagine looking out over a city at night. It’s absolute magic.

Tristan and Iseult — Tarkio — A great storyteller in rare form with the band he was in before the band that made him famous. For me it’s all about a good hook, and this has a great musical hook. And that line “He whispers soft, god, I love you but you trouble me, said Tristan to Iseult” just slays me every time. Because love shouldn’t be easy, otherwise what would we write about?

Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) — Joe Jackson — The horns slay, the bass pops, the guitar crackles, and the message turned my life around. You really can’t get what you want until you know what you want. No way around that. Once I realized what I really wanted was to tell stories, the rest of my life finally made sense. Plus, that astounding Graham Maby bass solo joined shortly by the Vinnie Zummo guitar solo and finished by horns is sheer perfection.

Jungleland — Bruce Springsteen — Sweeping strings and an epic story combine to show why Bruce Springsteen is such a master. The final song on his damn-near perfect Born to Run album, Jungleland felt like the thematic culmination of the rest of the album. Musically flawless with a sax solo courtesy of Clarence Clemons that will save your soul and lyrics that were sheer blue collar street poetry. It proved to be an influence on my novel Ink Calls to Ink in some strange ways. “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it be. And in the pit of the night they reach their moment and try to make it on a stand, but they wind up wounded and not even dead.”

Like Rock n Roll and Radio — Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs — One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, it’s the sound of loss set to music, the sound of drifting apart slowly but irrevocably. Sometimes this track will shuffle into my playlist and I’ll just listen to it on repeat five or six times in a row and let my heart get torn out again and again. To be able to do something like that with words is truly amazing, and something I aspire to.

Wild is the Wind — Nina Simone — Nina Simone is a force of nature that cannot be denied. Her voice was pure emotion. This has been my favorite song of hers for a while now. No list is complete without it. Her “Hmm” at 2:54 before the line “Don’t you know you’re life itself?” is worth the price of admission alone.

Rock and Roll Suicide — David Bowie — This song has been the basis for two short stories of mine, and I won a karaoke contest with it a few years ago. Again, this has a great horn section that sweeps in midway through. And when he bursts out with the “Oh no love, you’re not alone!” the song really flies into hyperdrive. Always a show-stopper, and still a staple in my karaoke repertoire.

All This and Heaven Too — Florence + the Machine — I’m somewhat of a latecomer to Florence + the Machine but this song blew me away almost immediately. That struggle to put words to something you can’t find words for set to a sweeping, symphonic arrangement is the very definition of epic.

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn by saying that everyone has fears, whether you’re able to articulate them or not. There’s nothing wrong with fear. In fact, there are some who consider a true lack of fear to be a neurological disorder.

The emotion, the reaction, is hardwired. It’s a survival tool from our earliest ancestors warning us when there might be danger.

And as a frequent horror writer, fear can be marketable. Just ask Stephen King.

Since I was nine, I’ve had a fear of ventriloquist dummies. The commercial for the movie Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret was the triggering factor there, though the seeds had been planted for a while. Now, no one I knew had a ventriloquist dummy. It was as rational as being afraid of zeppelins. But I still had stuffed animals at that age, and I began to distrust them as collaborators. I wasn’t afraid of the stuffed Smokey the Bear, mind you. But I couldn’t trust him. So they were all bundled up in black plastic garbage bags and moved into the basement.

My dad’s reaction was to tell me, “Well that’s just going to make them angry.”

That was very likely key in turning a silly, childish fear into a full-on phobia for a good portion of my life. But that was dad just being funny. I know how it goes. It’s kind of fun to scare your kids with things that you don’t think will stick. I know I did it to my own kids and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to their sleep schedules because of it.

But here’s the thing: I know the ventriloquist dummy thing is silly. I wouldn’t be comfortable around one in a dark room overnight, but I’m not really afraid of them anymore. My real, deeper fear is something else entirely. And by coincidence it also has it’s roots in something my dad said to me, though he wasn’t being funny at the time.

My paternal grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have it. He depended on his wife to help with his medications, but when her Alzheimer’s became serious the family needed other options. That option was to pack up and sell their house and move them across state to live with my parents.

It was the first time I’d seen my grandfather in a few years, and it was the longest I had seen him since I was a baby. But living there with my parents, I was sometimes called on to take him to appointments. I loved my grandfather. He was always incredibly kind and a hell of a gin rummy player. He had a bushy gray mustache and a fondness for plaid shirts and suspenders. They lived close to the train tracks in Denver, so I could hear the train at night and remember that grandpa used to work the line when he was younger.

But I had a hard time dealing with him when he came to live with us.

He could barely speak. The Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he just couldn’t form the words easily and eventually he kind of gave up trying.

My dad told me that grandpa was still sharp–still fully aware and smart as ever–but he was effectively locked inside his body.

My grandfather died a few years later. Shortly thereafter my dad started showing signs of Parkinson’s as well.

You might say it’s a family tradition.

So, let’s segue into the world of geek media, shall we? That seems like a nice, safe diversion! Surely nothing in, let’s say, MTV’s Teen Wolf could trigger a phobia, right? Not that sweet, goofy show about bare-chested young werewolf boys!

Enter the second half of Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. (If you care, there will be spoilers from this point on. But this season is over a year old so whatever.) Stiles, the goofy comic relief character, the normal human in the group whose primary contribution is that he drives a Jeep, has a baseball bat, and his dad’s the Sheriff, was part of a story arc that put him halfway between life and death. One of the consequences of this (for him) is an inability to know if he’s dreaming or not.

Now, usually this is an opportunity to do a lot of dream within a dream within a dream fake outs (and yes, they take that trope and run with it). But one of the elements of his dream-state is that he finds himself completely normal circumstances and be unable to read anything. The letters jumble up. Or move around. Or everyone uses sign language. Gotta give them props for originality. It’s the indicator to him that he’s dreaming.

Needless to say, Stiles is deeply emotionally fucked up by this situation.

And I’ve never seen anything on television that terrified me so deeply and so profoundly.

Fuck ventriloquist dummies. Fuck spiders or clowns or any external object that is typically a focus of fear. I mean, if you’re afraid of them, fine. To each their own. But your own brain betraying you? That’s scary.

I watched those episodes and remembered my grandfather, still sharp, still fully aware and smart as ever, but effectively locked inside his body. I remembered him spending the last several years of his life either trying desperately to communicate and being unable to do so effectively, or giving up on trying. It’s difficult for me to look back at that and not see him spending his last years in a prison of his own flesh, all the things he wanted to articulate but couldn’t locked up in there with him.

It’s the scariest thing I can imagine.

And all I can do is hope that I don’t follow in the family tradition.