Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Do you fall in love with all of your clients?"


Recently I got an e-mail from a reader that said, in part:

"Eddie LaCrosse with a girlfriend is not the same as Eddie LaCrosse wandering companionless through the world. The lonely but worldwise Eddie LaCrosse seems like a stronger character...Burn Me Deadly starts out great, but as soon as it went to the town scene with his girlfriend it lost something immediately (for me), and I think it was seeing him act like a wuss."
(quoted by permission.)

It got me thinking about why I wanted to give Eddie a romantic partner in Burn Me Deadly, and that made me consider Eddie's literary lineaage. I covered some of this back in June 2009, at a guest post on Erica Hayes' blog, but for this I want to focus a bit more on relationships.

Consensus agrees that Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story with "The Purloined Letter" in 1844, and the hard-boiled detective was created by Dashiell Hammett in his "Continental Ops" stories and novels beginning in 1923. Poe's Auguste Dupin was, as most of his characters, mostly a cipher in service to the narrative, and while the Op definitely liked women, his job always came first. It wasn't until the appearance of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe that the literary detective gained a full-blooded moral dimension in his relationships with women.

Marlowe, who first appeared by name in 1939's The Big Sleep, is cynical, disillusioned and fully aware of the world's evil. Yet he's also capable of comprehending innocence, both in the criminal sense and the moral. He sees the world for what it is, and remains aware of what it could be if the right people were ever put in charge. Marlowe also liked women, a lot, and wasn't shy about expressing it. But he seldom lowered his guard with one, and when he did he ended up regretting it.

Marlowe seems to be a confirmed bachelor, but Chandler actually married him off in his final novel Poodle Springs (unfinished at the time of his death in 1959). In 1989, the man considered Chandler's literary heir was asked to complete it; more on that to come.

Although Marlowe lived and worked through World War II, it took Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer to truly embody and explore the post-war world. Introduced in 1949's The Moving Target, Archer is considerably less witty than Marlowe, but he's also more overtly sympathetic. Marlowe could be dragged into cases he didn't want, but it was in his capacity as a detective; Archer gets pulled into things as a human being. Archer had once been married and occasionally connected with women from his cases, but never for long. Unlike Marlowe, who always saw the world's inadequacies as the impediment to love, Archer accepted that his own weaknesses were to blame.

When Raymond Chandler's estate searched for a contemporary author to take the four chapters of Poodle Springs and turn them into a finished novel, they chose Robert B. Parker. Parker's own Spenser novels combine Chandler's wit and Archer's empathy with a self-conscious literary element (Spenser is incredibly erudite and well-read). Since his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he has appeared roughly once a year in a series that is still going, if not exactly "strong," at least still capable of pleasant surprises (for example, 2005's Cold Service casts Spenser in the sidekick role in an adventure mainly involving his friend Hawk).

The biggest fundamental change Parker wrought on his predecessors was the addition of Susan Silverman in his second novel, God Save the Child. Susan becomes Spenser's long-term romantic partner, comfortably unmarried yet fully committed to the relationship (as is Spenser). With Susan, Spenser can drop his defenses and reveal his true feelings. But Susan has a deeper function as well: as a psychiatrist, she can give Spenser insights he might otherwise lack, often providing crucial psychological clues.

Eddie LaCrosse could have easily been a loner like Marlowe and Archer, forever mourning the one great love he lost. But in a lesson learned in part from Sam Peckinpah (see prior blog), I didn't want to make Eddie a rigid character; despite his world-weariness and seen-it-all cynicism, he's still capable of learning and changing. I also wanted to give him both someone to talk to, and someone who'd call him out on his mistakes.

I understand my reader's comment above, but I respectfully disagree with it. I don't think having a girlfriend makes Eddie a wuss. Believe me, there are days when I'd rather face big men with swords than work through issues with my wife. But that's as important a battle as anything fought with weapons, and I firmly believe that it makes Eddie (and me) a more interesting character.

(The title quote is from the strange, strange 1947 film adaptation of Chandler's novel The Lady in the Lake. Marlowe's response: "Only the ones in skirts.")

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Robin Wood, R.I.P.

Film critic Robin Wood died on Friday, December 18, 2009. You can read the New York Times obituary here to get an idea of his importance in his chosen field. I want to tell you about his influence on me.

To repeat something I seem to say often here, I grew up in a small, isolated west Tennessee town. I loved to read, but books were expensive and hard to come by, since the town had no library (and barely a school). Movies, though, were free on television. And because my dad loved Westerns, I grew up watching a lot of John Wayne movies. My preferences were always for science fiction and horror, but you can't be constantly exposed to something without developing an affection for it. Thus I love John Wayne Westerns. But as a teen, I started to comprehend that some (True Grit, Rio Bravo, The Searchers) were markedly better than others (Chisum, Cahill: US Marshall, Big Jake).

In college, still enamored of film and toying with ideas of screenwriting, I began to learn why some movies were better than others. I discovered that the Wayne Westerns I loved the most--including Red River, which I'll proclaim my favorite film of all time--were directed by Howard Hawks, a man of such gargantuan talent that he made an acknowledged classic in damn near every genre. And without a doubt, the leading Hawks scholar was Robin Wood.

(the cover of the edition I read in college)

From the library at the University of Tennessee at Martin, I checked out Wood's monograph on Hawks. It had just been republished, I believe, so the edition was shiny and new, lending it an immediacy (and it was again republished in 2006). I learned about Hawks films I'd never seen (the original Scarface, unavailable then) and discovered brilliant connections between films as different as comedy (Bringing Up Baby), wartime intrigue (To Have and Have Not), musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and even historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs).

In other words, I learned why his work, worked.

I never became a screenwriter, obviously. And it took me a long time to become a real writer. But a lot of what I know about how and why a story works (in any medium) comes from studying the films of Howard Hawks, and Robin Wood--ironically best known as an expert on Hitchcock--gave me the key.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buford Pusser addenda

Thanks to my pal Thom who still lives in Tennessee, here are pictures of the markers from the site of Buford Pusser's fatal car wreck. See my original blog post on Pusser here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Belatedly, Dracula The Un-Dead

Before we start, a caveat. Sequels to classic novels, written long after the fact by new writers, annoy me. It's one thing to be influenced by the classics, it's quite another to co-opt settings, characters and atmosphere (the heavy lifting of writing) to bring life to your own derivative plot. It's worst of all when capped by the hubris to claim something is "THE sequel to..." as opposed to "A sequel to..."

I'm a huge fan of Bram Stoker's original novel Dracula. Not a scholar: I leave that to smarter folk. But I read it at least once a year, usually around Halloween, and when I wrote my own vampire novels (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) I referred to it constantly because it's the gold standard.

Which brings me to Dracula: The Un-Dead, released just before Halloween 2009 and touted as THE official sequel.

It seems to be less a follow-up to Bram Stoker's Dracula than to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Coppolla's 1992 bodice-ripping version of the story. For example, the book accepts the film's connection of Renfield to Jonathan Harker's law firm, something the Stoker novel never mentions. Lucy Westernra's hair is described as red, as in the film but never in Stoker. Some descriptions sound like instructions to the CGI crew: "Their eyes turned black; their fangs elongated." In Stoker, no transformation is so blatantly described, which creates an even more powerful ambiguity. And Mina, who in the novel suffered only one symbolic rape, is depicted--again as in the movie--as having succumbed willingly to Dracula's charms.

Worse is that the authors, perhaps playing into the currently-marketable "dark" trend, have the original heroes who defeated Dracula ruined by the psychological after-effects of their experience. These noble men, who in Stoker always tried to do the right thing even at great risk, are now drunks (Jonathan Harker), drug addicts (Jack Seward), whiners (Arthur Holmwood) and hypocrites (Van Helsing). The authors also manage to throw in random bits of Victoriana and vampiric history; thus Elisabeth Bathory, the "blood countess," is a character, Jack the Ripper is invoked, and even the Loch Ness Monster gets his moment.

Then there's the wink-wink-nudge-nudge series of in-jokes, in which minor characters are named after famous actors who have played the Count: policemen named (Raymond) Huntley, (Louis) Jourdan and (Christopher) Lee, a Dr. (Frank) Langella and so forth. And a final revelation, straight from The Empire Strikes Back, that's so foreshadowed it becomes laughable.

There's a weird "meta" aspect as well. Bram Stoker is a character, and his novel Dracula exists in the story's reality. Quincey Harker, ostensibly our hero, thus reads about his parents' adventures in a book the author (within the sequel to his own book) stresses is a novel. So this book literally can't be a sequel to the original, since the original was not the "true" story. And Dracula, in his guise as the actor Basarab, finagles his way into playing the character Dracula in the stage version of Stoker's novel.

And the thing is, none of this works if you're a true fan of the original book. It becomes a pile of meaningless references, in-jokes and pandering to the current vogue in vampire action and romance. It's a cash-in, packaged and presented as a literary event but, with scenes such as a katana-wielding Mina battling a flying female vampire on the streets of London, plainly more interested in getting that big-bucks movie deal. Hell, it even turns out that Dracula, one of literature's greatest villains, isn't a villain at all but a misunderstood hero. All that remains is for him to start drinking artificial blood and enroll in high school.

So who's behind this? According to the IMDB, co-author/screenwriter Ian Holt has two credits: a 2005 horror film called Dr. Chopper and, "in development" guessed it. In the novel's second afterword (the afterafterword?), Holt confirms that the book was originally planned as a screenplay, which explains its film-treatment feel. And Dacre Stoker, great-grand-nephew of Bram, seems to have been involved mainly because of his DNA. Both authors insist this sequel was a labor of love, but the cynic in me doubts that; this smacks of packaging, from the involvement of an erstwhile screenwriter to the overwhelming marketing push (tie-in Visa and MasterCard credit cards, for example).

I don't mean to say this is a badly written book. It's adequately written, if sloppily edited (on page 15, Elisabeth Bathory makes a small cut on a naked young woman's throat who's then hung upside down, yet according to the text Bathory's "otherworldly eyes remaining focused on the single drop of blood now sliding down her victim's chest." On page 185, someone is referred to in the narration as a "pour soul." And so on). No doubt most readers will find it adequate. If it had been presented as just another vampire novel, perhaps I would've found it adequate, too. Because I wanted to like it.

But at a time when I could've used a reminder that occasionally things are done for something other than monetary profit, that maybe someone wrote THE sequel to Dracula because they loved it as much as I do, I was instead reminded that, for many people, profit is the only reason for anything.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day

Today is Agent Appreciation Day, created by Kody Keplinger.

To celebrate that, I want to praise my agent, Marlene Stringer. Not only is she the best advocate I could ask for, she's unfailingly astute, insightful and honest. She's never given me bad advice, either for my career or my writing, and she's never tried to steer me away from what I wanted to write.

I found her through research in the "Agent" section of the Novel and Short Story Market Guide. I contacted her with a blind query, she asked for sample chapters and, finally, the whole manuscript (see, it really does work that way!). In 2005 I signed with her on the basis of that still-unsold manuscript. For two years (!) she stuck with me without selling any of my novels, for which I am eternally grateful. In that time we got to know each other, so that when she finally did begin to sell my books, we had a good relationship already established. She's never failed to return calls or e-mails, to give advice when asked, and to provide an honest opinion.

I had two other agents prior to Marlene, neither of whom knew what to do with what I wrote. Marlene got it, at once. And she still gets it, along with my lasting gratitude, respect and appreciation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser

NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

There aren't many heroic figures to come out of flat, muddy west Tennessee. Elvis is one, obviously, but he's a special case. Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock in diminutive Nutbush, is certainly heroic, but she's not really associated with the region. But we do have one genuine, larger-than-life hero to our credit: Buford Pusser.

The legend goes like this: former pro wrestler and ex-Marine Buford Pusser returns to McNairy County, Tennessee and is appalled at the rampant injustice. When he's beaten and robbed at a local gambling joint run by the well-connected State Line Gang, he goes back for revenge. At his trial for this assault, his righteousness convinces the jury to take a stand against the gangsters, and he's acquitted. Emboldened, he runs for county sheriff and wins.

As sheriff, Buford doesn't carry a gun. Instead he wields a big stick, literally: four feet long, made of concrete-solid hickory wood. He pursues the criminals and bootleggers that formally had a free ride in the country. He's shot and stabbed, but nothing stops him, until the morning of August 12, 1967. In an ambush, his wife is killed and he's shot in the face. But he survives to continue fighting the good fight, until he's killed in a 1974 one-car wreck that had "suspicious" written all over it.

This is the story you'll find in the trilogy of movies based on his life: Walking Tall (1973, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser), Walking Tall Part 2 (1975, with Bo Svenson taking over) and Walking Tall: the Final Chapter (1977, again with Svenson). The truth, as you can imagine, was quite a bit less black-and-white and can be found in detail in the books The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue and The Twelfth of August, both by W.R. Morris. As with all real people, Pusser was neither all good nor all bad, and nothing changes the fact that he took a lot of punishment in his capacity as sheriff, not least of which was losing his wife.

If my memory is right, when I was 11 I shook Pusser's hand at the Humboldt, Tennessee Strawberry Festival in the spring of 1974. He was part of the annual parade, along with the governor and various strawberry-related dignitaries. I remember mainly his size, and the off-kilter aspect of his reconstructed face. I was also disappointed he didn't look like Joe Don Baker.

But the public figure of Pusser--an indestructible man with a huge stick, ready to dispense justice--has more reality than the man himself. Elvis may have worn the cape, but Buford Pusser is West Tennessee's superhero.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Julius Caesar, fair and balanced

One of my favorite books to pick up and read random sections from is Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. He means the title literally: "Our ideas as to what makes the self authentically human owe more to Shakespeare than ought to be possible." I don't know if I'd go that far, but no writer can deny the primacy of Shakespeare, and you ignore it at your peril.

In high school, everyone has to read Julius Caesar. It's a perfect introduction to Shakespeare: narratively it's a simple play, it has a speech second only to "To be or not to be..." in the public consciousness, and it features gang murder and ghosts. I remember reading it aloud in English class, and marveling at how the archaic-looking speech came to life when spoken. Then I got beat up for being a dweeb.

But Julius Caesar has a surprising timelessness. Consider the speeches of Brutus and Antony following the assassination of Caesar. Both face a crowd of panicky, easily-swayed citizens (described earlier as "you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things," almost as if they sat home every night watching The Hills and Dancing with the Stars) who demand an explanation.

Brutus speaks first. He is calm, rational, and he lays out the reasons for killing Caesar in a logical fashion. He appeals to the citizenry to judge his actions for themselves ("...censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge."). And then, in one of the dumbest moves ever (right up there with "Put on those gloves, O.J."), he lets Caesar's friend and acolyte Mark Antony address the crowd.

(Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in 1953's Julius Caesar)

Antony, in observing the chaos when Caesar's death is leaked, makes a key observation: "Passion, I see, is catching." In his famous speech, he turns the crowd entirely against Brutus by appealing to their emotions, by producing bogus documents ("But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar; I found it in his closet, 'tis his will.") and of course by claiming he isn't trying to do exactly what he's doing ("Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny."). The result is civil war.

Not to belabor the point, but Antony would fit right in with the calculating, maniacal voices on the Right screaming about socialism and Gomorrah with virtually no interest in actual facts; Brutus, while he does have the courage to get his own hands bloody, is as effective a public speaker as Al Gore on the campaign trail. And the Roman citizens, as already noted, are just as content to have their opinions handed to them as many of us are.

So what, ultimately, does the 400-year-old Julius Caesar tell us?

About ourselves: that in the war between passion and intellect, passion always wins.

About Shakespeare: that Harold Bloom just might be right.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Epiphany in slow motion, with blood

A few months ago I found myself seized with the urge to see anything and everything by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Up until then I'd seen only the highlights of his career--The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, The Getaway. So I started watching, in no particular order. I wasn't sure why I was driven to do this, but I get these periodic obsessions, and time has taught me that it's the muse's way of telling me there's something I need to learn.

I discovered one film that's rapidly rising on my personal Top Ten list (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and at least one other masterpiece that stands alongside The Wild Bunch (his second feature, Ride the High Country). I also watched incoherent and half-assed efforts like The Killer Elite and The Osterman Weekend, as well as the brilliant, unclassifiable Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Along the way I was kept company by the insightful, warm-hearted camraderie of the Dog Brothers, four film critics (Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Nick Redman) who have all written books and/or made documentaries on Peckinpah and whose audio commentaries brought Peckinpah and his creative process to life.

As I watched, I read as well. Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration by Paul Seydor, analyzing the director's five westerns, was a big revelation. And I considered what this compulsion to immerse myself in Peckinpah might be trying to tell me, either about myself or my own writing.

At last, I figured it out.

It's a subtext in Ride the High Country, and virtually the subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It's a strong element in The Wild Bunch as well.

Simply put, it's this: the common wisdom about age vs. youth is fundamentally wrong.

Old men (and women) are often presented as rigid, set in their ways and utterly unmoveable. They represent the standards of the past doomed to fall before the new world's often more permissive society. But that's not true. Old people have the experience to understand the need for compromise, rethinking and changing direction. My own point of view has changed in just this way, so that things I said "Never!" about when I was twenty have become "Eh, possibly," in my forties.

In Ride the High Country, gray-haired former lawmen Randolph Scott and Joel MacRae have both changed with the times, and although they don't like it, they recognize the need for it. Conversely, their young compatriot Ron Starr has to learn through experience that sometimes things aren't as black and white as he thinks.

In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, middle-aged Garrett understands that the west is changing, and is willing to change with it; he abandons his life as a bandit to become a sheriff. Billy, though, deliberately turns a blind eye to this. When Garrett tells him, "It feels like times have changed," Billy says, "Times, maybe. Not me." It's not lost on the audience, or Garrett, that Billy represents Garrett's own youthful certainty and idealism, and that by killing him Garrett is killing part of himself.

So thank you, Mr. Peckinpah, for helping me see past the cliche of the upright, unbendable old man. My older characters will be much richer for it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Brother Blue (1921-2009)

Brother Blue passed away earlier this month at age 88.

If you know of him at all, it’s probably from the George A. Romero film Knightriders.

In this Arthurian story of jousting motorcyclists, Brother Blue played Merlin, advisor to King William (Ed Harris). He was the troubled king’s lone confidante, and the one person who understood William’s desire to maintain a chivalric code against the world’s materialistic temptations. If this blog post does nothing else, I hope it encourages you to seek out Knightriders for yourself.

I met Brother Blue in 2001, as part of his main gig as a professional storyteller. The National Storytelling Festival, held every year in Jonesborough, Tennessee, attracts yarnspinners from all over the world and gives them a large, respectful forum for their talents. Brother Blue was not listed as an official participant, so when I saw his distinctive form--a bald African-American with butterflies painted on his face, in a blue robe and carrying a walking stick--I thought I was mistaken. But no, it was him, Brother Blue, Merlin from Knightriders.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to say hello. He was tremendously gracious, and when I told him how much I loved the film, he said I reminded him of Romero. I thought he meant that, like Romero, I was a big guy with a beard. But he told me differently, and while I don’t feel comfortable sharing exactly what he did say, the memory of it is a treasure.

But that wasn’t all. A week later, when I got ready to do the laundry from my trip, I found his card in a pocket. I know he didn’t give it to me; he must’ve slipped it there when I wasn’t looking. Or was it magic?

To me it was. And is. And although I never saw Brother Blue again, I still feel as if I met Merlin.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm a "Guest Squeeze" at the Poetry Juice Bar

I'm a "guest squeeze" at LK Thayer's Poetry Juice Bar.

Guest-blogging at RomCon

Over at RomCon, I'm guest blogging about Eddie and Liz's relationship in Burn Me Deadly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

RELEASE DAY! (whew...)

Today is the official release day for BURN ME DEADLY.

If you've pre-ordered it, you're awesome. If you buy it today, you're only slightly less awesome. If you buy it eventually, you're still on the awesome scale.

And the winner of the "Name a drink at Angelina's Tavern" contest is...PARANOYD, for suggesting The Rogue's Stiletto, also known as the Back-Stabber (your profile doesn't have an e-mail address, so contact me with your mailing address).

And now, back to work on Dark Jenny. See you soon!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Release day TOMORROW

Tomorrow, November 10, BURN ME DEADLY is released in hardcover from Tor Books.

Thanks to my awesome fan Dori, I now have a Facebook fan page. Join up, invite your friends.

There will be gradual updates on my oft-neglected website, since I now have new HTML software for the iMac.

And I'm deep into work on the third Eddie LaCrosse novel, Dark Jenny. I can't say much at this point, but I will tease you with one of the story's big influences:

See you tomorrow, when I'll also announce the winner of the Angelina's Tavern Name-a-Drink contest! (It's not too late to enter, BTW.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Coffee, tea or a signed copy?

If you've read The Sword-Edged Blonde, you know about Angelina's Tavern. Eddie LaCrosse has his office above the kitchen, and spends a lot of his off-time sitting at the bar. It plays an even bigger role in BURN ME DEADLY.

Now we all know about mead, and ale, and rum, and all the standard tavern drinks. But what would be on their specialty drinks menu? Suggest a drink for Angelina's Tavern in the comments and be entered to win the first signed copy (well, first after the one I sent my mom) of BURN ME DEADLY.

(And maybe your drink will show up in Eddie's next adventure, Dark Jenny.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One more week until BURN ME DEADLY!

One more week until the November 10 release of the second Eddie LaCrosse novel, BURN ME DEADLY!

Learn what happens to Eddie and Liz after the end of The Sword-Edged Blonde!

Who are Lumina and Solarian?

Find out more about the mysterious moon priestesses!

What secrets are found in Angelina's attic?

Discover what the deadly dragon people are after!

And see why reviewers as different as Publishers Weekly, Locus and Romantic Times all give it high marks!

(Okay, I agree, that's enough exclamation points. I'll stop now. But do check out the book, I think you'll like it.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

By request: from Halloween to Thanksgiving

Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter I requested topic suggestions for today’s blog, and obstinately chose the one from a Buddhist lama that required real effort. So as Domo Geshe Rinpoche so intriguingly puts it, “The weeks between thanksgiving and halloween transform us from ghouls and silly folk to virtuous and grateful people. How magical!”


There is an interesting progression among all three late-year holidays (and if you don’t count Halloween as a holiday, you’ve never been a kid). The common denominator: acquisition. That seems to be a pretty Western idea, which makes sense since Christianity forms the core of all three holiday observances.

Consider Halloween, originally a Celtic harvest/new year’s festival. The spirits of the dead could visit on that night, along with less savory denizens of the otherworld: hence the lighted pumpkins to scare those away. Christianity made everything pagan, satanic; now it’s not about honoring the dead and the harvest, but about controlled mischief which can then be blamed on the devil. The children say, "Give us candy or suffer our wrath." We pay the treat to avoid the trick.

A month later we have Thanksgiving. Hardcore Christians left Europe for a chance to freely repress themselves and ended up in New England with few survival skills. The first winter should have killed them (and what would the world be like if it had?) but instead the neighboring Native Americans helped them out, for which the Puritans were “thankful.” And we all know how that thankfulness worked out. Yet we still observe the concept, if not the history, as a chance to show our appreciation for what we have, usually by belching and falling asleep watching football.

I can’t help my sarcasm. I was raised among the best of hypocrites, who paid lip service to these holidays while using them as excuses to fatten themselves literally and metaphorically. But what if we did view it as Domo Geshe Rinpoche says? What if that change from the immaturity of “trick or treat” to the maturity of “I am thankful” really happened? What if we as a society publicly cycled from adolescence to maturity within the space of the month? That truly would be magical.

Saturday night I watched my sons go trick-or-treating and saw their delight with the candy they received. In a month I’ll see them around a table loaded with an obscene amount of unhealthy food, which will not demonstrate thankfulness to them in any meaningful way. It never did to me as a child, either; I’m not sure what would.

Maybe as a child, you shouldn’t be allowed to eat your candy on Halloween night. Maybe you should have to keep it, out of sight and out of mind, until Thanksgiving. You'd be thankful then, boy. Or maybe we need to somehow give “I am thankful” the same sense of fun as “trick or treat.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Madison Vampire Coven strikes!

Last night, the Madison Vampire Coven had its second official Halloween reading, this year at Borders West. From left: me, Fred Schepartz (author of Vampire Cabbie and Jordan Castillo Price (author of the Psycop series).

(BTW, those aren't stains on my shirt, they're spots on the camera lens. I swear.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of Kings and Nobel Laureates

King Arthur is the vampire of fantasy.

By that I mean that everyone has written about him, and he's come full circle from vicious Dark Ages battle leader to tragic romance hero to YA fantasy fixture. To write about King Arthur is to stand in a line that starts in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth and shows no signs of ending:

Still, most Arthurian revisionists don't bring the chops that John Steinbeck did.

Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the United States Medal of Freedom. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and East of Eden. So when he decided to delve into Arthuriana, it was significant.

Alas, he didn't live to finish it. Begun in 1956, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was based on the original Arthurian novel, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck did massive amounts of research into Malory, intending to retell the stories without losing the flavor and atmosphere that had so affected him as a young reader. And he got it right...mostly. Its unfinished status means it's hard to know if what we now have is truly the manuscript Steinbeck intended. He retells seven tales, beginning with the life of Merlin and ending with Lancelot and Guinevere's first embrace. But in only the final two stories do the characters, events and moral themes really come to life.

In "Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt," three questing knights meet three women who specialize in leading knights on quests. The adventures themselves are exciting and action-packed, but what's really intriguing are the relationships between the men and women after they pair off. Each knight learns something about themselves without consciously realizing it, and each lady demonstrates the power women could wield even when denied swords and shields. The final line of Marhalt's adventure, in fact, sums up the gender issues with bone-shuddering succinctness.

But it's Ewain's adventure that finishes the chapter, and rightly so. An untried knight, he finds that his questing lady, though older than the others, is also a brilliant tactician and trainer. She schools him in technique and discipline, and presciently warns him that the longbow, a weapon easily obtained and mastered by commoners, will spell the death of the knights and their feudal society. Then she accompanies him on his first battles.

The final chapter, "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot," brings the world's best knight front and center. We learn what kind of man inspires such a fearsome reputation, and we see how his best intents derail him toward the tragedy we all know is coming. The story ends, in fact, with the first irrevocable step on that path, and it strikes the reader's heart almost as vividly as it does Lancelot's.

These two tales alone make the book worthwhile, and with the exception of Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day, are the best contemporary Arthurian stories I've read. Oddly, in both Steinbeck and Stewart Arthur himself is a supporting character. But while Stewart chose to tell her story through Mordred (and in her earlier trilogy, the tiresome figure of Merlin), Steinbeck adopts Malory's tactic of jumping wherever the action is.

I disagree with Steinbeck when he says, as quoted in a letter, "Arthur is not a character. Perhaps the large symbol figures can't be characters, for if they were, we wouldn't identify with them by substituting our own." To me Arthur is the character, and all the others exist only to illuminate aspects of his personality. As Christopher Reeve once said (apropos of playing Superman as a fairly normal guy), "You can't play the king; the people around you play to you being king." Those people need the king as much as the king needs his people.

Who wrote (or played) your favorite King Arthur?

Monday, October 26, 2009

The trailer for BURN ME DEADLY

The music is "Belthane Fires by Laura Powers. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hammering the Count

Thanks to the patience of my wife, aka the mater familias, we've celebrated the Halloween season by marathoning Hammer's Dracula series. Starting with Horror of Dracula, we've watched Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula has Risen from the Grave and most recently Taste the Blood of Dracula.

I've seen all these films before, but this is the first time I've watched them in sequence, and close together. And you know what?

Hammer seriously dropped the ball.

No, really. They got a lot of things right: atmosphere, suspense, music. But they blew it all in the story department.

How? By making a dozen successful Dracula movies, and making none of them about Dracula.

This is doubly sad since they had a definitive Dracula, Christopher Lee, in harness. Tall, good-looking, with a tremendous voice, he was an ace just waiting to be played. Yet he never was. He became simply a standard monster, who more often than not had little motivation for his actions. And that voice? Relegated to a few lines per film (hell, in Dracula: Prince of Darkness he doesn't say a word). In most of the series he never even has a conversation with another character. He stalks through the films, cape aswirl, beckoning young women to their doom. And that's about it.

It says something about Lee's onscreen presence that, despite these restrictions, you remember him so vividly. To see just how good an actor he was at this stage in his career, you have to track down films where he played secondary roles, such as The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll for Hammer, or his turn as Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He could be charming, funny, relaxed and debonair. Yet his signature role took advantage of none of this.

As I said, this isn't news to anyone, especially Lee. He's gone on at length about how he struggled to get screenwriters (particularly John Elder, the pseudonym for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) to do more with the character. But Hammer, one of the last "factory" studios, thought it knew what sold, and so kept using Dracula as a boogeyman in tedious stories about youth both Victorian and (in Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula) contemporary. Or, as the mater familias put it when the films would cut from Dracula to one of these nondescript period teens: "Oh, God, not more character development."

With the current vampire craze, as well as the seemingly unending cycle of horror sequels and remakes, it's interesting that no one's tried a new series with someone like Gerard Butler (who played the Count in Dracula 2000 but not its sequels). Hopefully if this happens, they'll let the actor do more than walk through musty sets sporting red contact lenses and melted-crayon blood.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Big announcements

With the release of BURN ME DEADLY just around the corner (mark your calendar: November 10), I can now officially say it won't be the last Eddie LaCrosse novel. Eddie will return in DARK JENNY in winter 2011, followed by a fourth (currently untitled) adventure in summer 2012.

In addition, I'll be introducing a brand new world in fall 2011 with the release of THE HUM AND THE SHIVER.

Tor Books will be publishing all three. More details on each title will be forthcoming.

Thanks to all the readers who responded to Eddie and his world. I hope to keep him on the case for many more adventures!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

And the winner is...

Sorry for the delay in posting this. The winner of the signed copy of BURN ME DEADLY is...

Sarah Jean, a.k.a. Kierae.

I don't have an e-mail address for you, so if you read this, contact me!

Thanks to everyone who commented, and there will be more giveaways in the near future!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiery surprise: the awesome beasts of Dragon Storm

In an earlier post, I promised to reveal the only other cinematic dragon that came close to rivaling the awesome Vermithrax from Dragonslayer. I discovered it quite by accident on a Saturday night, on the SciFi Channel (now known phonetically as "SyFy").

Those of you familiar with these weekend original movies know they're usually one thing: crap. Bearing titles like Mansquito, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Rock Monster, these movies sport bad acting, Photoshop-worthy special effects and the same Eastern European scenery whether set in East Tennessee (Megasnake) or the mythical land of Lockland (Attack of the Gryphon). They used to be fun, in an MST3K kind of way; lately they've just been dreary and worst of all, boring. Occasionally there's a great idea (as in Warbirds, in which an all-female WWII bomber crew fights pterodactyls) but it's usually derailed by inept and sloppy execution (as in Warbirds).

And yet occasionally, like the daisy blooming atop a manure pile, you can spot an incongruous bit of beauty. Such a film is 2004's Dragon Storm.

I'm not proclaiming this a great film; far from it. It suffers all the defects typical to made-for-SciFi/SyFy movies: bad acting, illogical writing, "kingdoms" populated by less than two dozen people and metal props so clearly made of plastic they wave in the wind. Maxwell Caufield, in a Barry Gibb wig, plays the woodsman hero and handles his bow and arrow with all the dexterity of a porpoise trying to send a text message. John Rhys-Davies, who can't possibly need the money this bad, is the evil monarch in a crown that looks like it came from a Burger King kids' meal. Former Playmate Angel Boris plays the strong-willed princess (there's no other kind, after all). And the whole thing is directed by the actor who played Flounder in Animal House.

So what makes this movie so special? The dragons.

I don't know how they managed it, since the rest of the movie looks like it cost about five dollars. But the dragon effects are absolutely top-notch CGI. Somebody clearly went above-and-beyond the call of duty here. The beasts are designed well and logically, they're composited into the scenes with care, and they have a tangible reality that many of the flesh-and-blood actors don't manage.

The credits list Yancy Calzada and Stephen J. Brooks as the visual effects team leaders; I can only assume one or both of them has a soft spot for dragons and put in lots of overtime to make these look as good as possible. They look so good, in fact, that they make the rest of the movie appear even worse. It's as if Industrial Light and Magic designed the UFOs for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Here's the trailer, with glimpses of what I'm talking about.

If you've seen a SciFi/SyFy original movie that surprised you by being, at least in some aspect, actually good, leave a comment about it before 10 PM Saturday and you could win a signed copy of my upcoming novel Burn Me Deadly.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And the winner is...

The Madison Horror Film Festival is over, and the winner of the DVD of Blacula and the signed copy of Blood Groove is...

R.K. Charron!

I also consider myself a winner, since in spite of the bludgeoning pain of having my wisdom teeth out, I still managed to get to the festival and meet director Stuart Gordon:

Thanks to everyone who commented on my blog, and look for more horror-related posts and giveaways as we get close to Halloween!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The lair of local dragons

Two weeks ago, I described my quest to discover the origin of the Norwegian dragons lining some of the roofs in my new home town of Mount Horeb, WI. My quest led me to a secluded valley outside town where I found Little Norway. Immediately I knew I'd come to the right place: note the dragons along the top of the visitors' center:

These aren't the original dragons, though, that inspired their kin in Mount Horeb. Those are found guarding Little Norway's crown jewel, the Norway Building:

The Norway Building was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was designed and built in Norway, then disassembled, shipped to Chicago and reassembled. After this it was moved to an estate near Lake Geneva, WI before being purchased by Isak Dahle and moved in 1935, for the final time, to its permanent home outside Mount Horeb.

(The history of this extraordinary building is covered in great detail in The Norway Building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.)

And the dragons?

In 1992 the building went through a major restoration and refurbishment. For this first time since it resided at Lake Geneva, dragon ornaments graced all three roof levels. These dragons were crafted and installed by Scott Winner, Little Norway's current owner:

"Dragons were put on buildings and vessels to ward off evil spirits," Winner told me. "The dragons originally on the Norway building had rotted due to old age, and were replaced with identical new carvings treated to make them more durable. This included six coats of Lucite paint."

And the dragons in Mount Horeb? They were created using templates Winner provided to the industrial arts department at Mount Horeb High School.

So my quest had ended. I knew the origin of these enigmatic guardians. But this knowledge made them no less impressive, and not one bit less magical. How could they be anything else?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The briar patch for a horror fan*

Here's the stack of short films and full-length features I have to get through by Saturday.

And don't forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a DVD of Blacula and a signed copy of Blood Groove.

*If you don't know the reference, check here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Scare fare laid bare (i.e., my favorite horror films)

In anticipation of Halloween, and to get in the mood for my upcoming gig as a judge at the Madison Horror Festival, I thought I'd talk about my favorite horror films, why I like them so much and what I like (and don't) about horror films in general.

My favorite horror film remains George A. Romero's original 1979 Dawn of the Dead. The reasons are many, but here are three:

1) It captures the true quality of a nightmare. Zombies shambling through a brightly-lit shopping mall could easily be one of those dreams where the commonplace turns, with no warning or explanation, horrifying.

2) Time has only made the film's commentary on our consumer culture more prescient and biting. Zombies pawing at displays of things they desperately want but can't possibly use could be a metaphor for everything from the subprime lending debacle to Wal-Mart's strangling of small businesses.

3) It has a pie fight.

The second tier is made up of films that have shown a consistent ability to terrify at a truly visceral level. First among equals is The Exorcist, after a quarter-century still a film many people refuse to see. It does everything current horror films avoid: takes its time to build character, crafts a realistic setting for its horrors, and then, when it's got you good and hooked, lets fly without restraint. All those PG-13 "horror" films pale next to its relentless visceral and intellectual onslaught.

Joining Friedkin's classic is John Carpenter's masterpiece The Thing. Halloween might be a more traditional choice, and it's certainly a worthy film. But The Thing wins due to its intensity, its effects that show more imagination and skill than anything rendered on a computer, its refusal to suck up to the audience, and an ending that dares to leave the monster, the characters and the viewer uncertain who goes there.

Next to The Thing is another Carpenter jewel, In the Mouth of Madness. Perhaps my avocation as a writer predisposes me to like this one, but the idea that a novelist with Stephen King-like success could alter reality through the combined will of his fans is just too juicy. It's also told as a private-eye story, one of my favorite genres, and follows its premise to its logical conclusion.

The original version of The Wicker Man is a one-of-a-kinder: a horror film for sure, but one with musical numbers and without a single suspenseful scene set at night. Still, when Scottish policeman Edward Woodward realizes his fate at the end, horror takes the day.

Madison Horror Film Festival guest of honor Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator might not be true HP Lovecraft, but it has both the wit and the balls to show us extremes never before (or since) put onscreen. With a star-making turn by Jeffrey Combs and a level of gore as unrestrained as it is absurb, it created the sub-genre of horror-comedy that manages to serve both masters.

The most recent film to make the list is Session 9, in which an overworked asbestos crew cleans up an abandoned mental hospital. Using little besides filmmaking skill and a supremely awesome location, this low-budget shot-on-video flick shows that imagination and conviction are really the only things needed to make a horror film work (and does The Blair Witch Project one better by actually making sense).

There are some big names missing from this list, but there are reasons for that. I admire Wes Craven's massively fertile imagination, but his sadistic streak (he lingers on pain, not horror) turns me off. Guillermo del Toro's horror work is uniformly brilliant (I even like Mimic), but somehow they don't feel like horror films, more like dark fairy tales.

And if I thought Craven was sadistic, it's nothing compared to the whole torture-porn genre: horror films should be about more than merely watching people suffer. Likewise, the YARM syndrome (Yet Another ReMake) does little but line the pockets of people who have nothing but contempt for the horror audience (Dawn of the Dead and The Wicker Man have both endured pointless remakes, and The Thing is in the pipeline.*)

And I used to love Dario Argento; but Mother of Tears, the long-delayed conclusion to his Three Mothers trilogy (with Suspiria and Inferno), was so godawful and worse, so insulting to the fans that had clamored for it, that it left a sour taste that spread even to his monumental early work. I recognize this as a personal response, and make no pretense to objectivity. I simply know that whenever I see his name now, I think not of the brilliant color schemes of Suspiria or technical wizardry of Tenebre, but of Asia Argento literally crawling through shit, laughing hysterically.

So that's an overview of my take on horror film, which I'll be bringing (as well as a fanboy's glee at getting to meet Stuart Gordon) to the Madison Horror Film Festival the weekend of October 3-4. Leave a comment here before the end of the festival and you'll automatically be entered for a chance to win a DVD of Blacula, a movie featured in my vampire novel Blood Groove (and heck, I'll throw in a signed copy of the book as well).

*I know, Carpenter's The Thing is technically a remake, but it's actually a much truer adaptation of the source material. That's a whole different topic for a whole other post.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On the trail of local dragons

I knew about the trolls. They're all over town. And the Mustard Museum, for a while at least, remains here in Mount Horeb, WI.

But I'd never noticed the dragons.

That's irony for you. My upcoming novel BURN ME DEADLY deals with a belief in dragons, and here I was in a town that actually harbored some. I'm sure I'd seen them before, lurking from the eaves of the Chamber of Commerce building, or stretched along the top of the Military Ridge Trail shelter. But somehow, they didn't register. And then, as if some sort of magical cloaking spell had been broken, I saw them looking down at me, belching their stylized fire.

They look harmless enough. And their Scandanavian origins were plain. But there was mystery afoot, because when I asked at the Chamber of Commerce, no one knew where they came from. They couldn't remember a time when they hadn't been there. They pointed me toward City Hall, where my luck was no better. I left my phone number in case anyone did recall, but I didn't hold out much hope. Clearly the dragons were experts at hiding in plain sight.

A visit to the Prairie Bookstore and a talk with its wise bearded proprietor gave me my first clue. The dragons, he said, were inspired by those of nearby Little Norway.

So, accompanied by my ferocious Viking sidekick...

...I pursued my lone clue and headed for Little Norway.

To be continued in two weeks....

Monday, September 14, 2009

The core problem with JJ Abrams' Star Trek

(Warning: this post really shows my geekiness. I make no apology for it.)

I finally figured it out. And now, I have to share it.

I went to JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot prepared to dislike it. I generally hate remakes, even good ones, because no matter how well done (i.e., Battlestar Galactica), their success is merely a reflection of those who did the original work. But I ultimately did enjoy the film. It was fast-paced, funny and the liberties it took with canon did not seem to be arbitrary (i.e., "Let's make Starbuck a girl!"). But still, something bugged me about it.

It's the "Chosen One" syndrome.

In the original Trek, Captain Kirk was notable for being Starfleet's youngest captain, but beyond that, he was not singled out as special. He came up through the academy and served on different vessels in various capacities before finally being promoted to the captain's chair. And there was the implication that, as wild as they were, Kirk's adventures might not be unique; perhaps every other Starfleet captain was out there experiencing the same kind of excitement.

I don't presume to know Roddenberry's reason for this, but I sense it might be grounded in his own World War II military experience. In that war, everyone served; heroism was neither rare nor overly praised, and the idea of contributing to a greater good was crucial. You can see those aspects in the Star Trek he created and supervised (for example, in "Court Martial," Kirk encounters other members of his academy graduating class).

But then along comes Star Wars, and a subsequent generation of filmmakers who have spent their lives only as filmmakers. They bring nothing new to the table, no life experience or unusual perspectives, just all the films and TV shows they grew up watching (and their king is, of course, Quentin Tarantino). And everyone of that generation grew up watching Star Wars, where first Luke Skywalker, then in the prequels Anakin, assume the status of divinely chosen avatars.

So now we have a Kirk who was born in miraculous circumstances, found in a backwater burg by wise older warrior Captain Pike who then awakens the Force (whoops! I mean, his sense of duty) and invites him on a quest. In short order this mentor is eliminated, and Kirk must rely on the help of Han Solo (dang! I mean, Mr. Spock) to defeat the supervillain of the moment. If Eric Bana's Nero had said at the end, "No, Kirk, I am your father," it wouldn't have been that surprising.

And then there's a moment that's so contradictory to the previous incarnation of James T. Kirk that it soured the whole film for me. Kirk offers to rescue Nero's crew, but Nero refuses; Kirk then lets them all die. This is supposed to be (at heart) the same character who told the Metrons he wouldn't kill the Gorn captain? Who, when Maltz the Klingon protests "You said you would kill me," replies, "I lied"? Who repeatedly, after enduring violence and humiliation, offers friendship instead of punishment when he regains the upper hand?

Roddenberry's Kirk was a man who, at his best, was exactly who we'd want boldly going where no man has gone before. Abrams' Kirk is a boy delighted with his new toys, and is not even remotely who I'd want representing the human race.

Monday, September 7, 2009

At the Fiery Altar: the dragon cult of Burn Me Deadly

When I knew dragons -- or at least the belief in them -- would figure prominently in the second Eddie LaCrosse novel BURN ME DEADLY, I began to read as much as possible about their meaning in various societies, with an emphasis on those of Europe and the United Kingdom. The trope I wanted to examine was the classic (or cliche', as it may be) fire-breathing serpentine dragon, with wings and claws and an agenda such as hoarding gold or protecting a certain cave.

As I stated in an earlier post, my starting point was the dragon Vermithrax in the film Dragonslayer. That creature had it all: fire, wings, a physiognomy that could suspend disbelief and a ceremonial relationship that bordered on religion with nearby humans. But even with that as a template, I wanted to learn more, to make my folkloric dragons Lumina and Solarian into something substantial within their fictional frame of reference. After all, people worship and believe in them, so their mythology had to, bluntly, kick some ass.

I had a template in my own experience: southern Pentecostal snake handlers. They don't believe the snakes themselves are deities, but they certainly look on them as messengers of God's will. The belief that a pure heart will protect the faithful from a deadly creature works whether that creature is a rattlesnake or a dragon.

To create a comparable mythology for dragon worshippers, the indispensable book for me was British Dragons by Jacqueline Simpson. Written in 1980 (the second edition came out in 2001), it's a concise, eminently readable volume that deals with the origin of dragon stories in the UK and the concrete details that manifest when a society believes in dragons.

In it, I found an unexpected detail. In a majority of the dragon stories tied to specific locations and times (i.e., "this happened right here, fifty years ago") the stories end with the dragons being slain. So in addition to deifying the dragons, my worshippers would need a tale of a dragonslayer as well. That also had its origins in Christianity. St. George was the most famous dragonslayer, but hardly the only one; St. Columba supposedly faced down the dragon-like Loch Ness Monster.

As I studied tales of "dragonicide," one element I noticed was that the book's stories leaned heavily toward outsmarting and tricking the dragon, as opposed to the storybook image of the noble knight matching his strength against the dragon's. A dragon in Somerset, for example, is choked on a rock thrown down its throat prior to a roar. "More of More Hall" kills the Dragon of Whatley by kicking him with a spiked boot in his only vulnerable spot: his (as the book delicately phrases it) arsehole. And Sir John Lambton kills the Lambton Worm by studding his armor with spikes and letting the creature attack him.

I asked Dr. Simpson, who has collaborated with Terry Pratchett and held various offices in England's Folklore Society, about this. She said, "I think that whether the dragon is killed in straight heroic combat, or by a saint's holy power, or by a clever trick, depends chiefly on the genre of literature or tradition in which the particular tale is preserved. Saints' lives and heroic epics or sagas are serious stuff, produced by and for the elite, and aim to impress; folk legends often aim not just to thrill but to amuse as well. Clever tricks by which the an apparently weak or inferior person outwits and destroys the strong are popular -- an old woman defeating the Devil, an cobbler or tailor defeating a giant. I would assume that both the heroic dragon-slayings and the tricky ones go back an equally long time, but that the heroic ones look older because they have been preserved in old sources such as Beowulf."

Still, I liked the idea of outsmarting the beast rather than overpowering it. So in my story, the dragon is killed by a variation of Sir John Lambton's tactics. It's a folktale, of course, and no one, especially my hero Eddie LaCrosse, believes it for a minute.

At first.

But you'll have to read the book to find out more.

BURN ME DEADLY comes out this fall.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Past imperfect: recreating 1975 for Blood Groove

When I decided to set my vampire novel Blood Groove in the seventies, in particular the year 1975, I gave myself an interesting dilemma. It was a period I remembered (I was 12 in '75), but not with the historical details I'd need to recreate it. So I had to do a fair bit of research to make sure I didn't get any of the particulars wrong.

From the 1975 JC Penney's catalog:

What I did remember, and vividly, were the attitudes of the time, both among the people around me and as presented in the media. By "media," I mean TV, radio and print; these were all we had, and even they were incredibly limited compared to today's all-access culture. For example, there were only three TV networks, and each major city had one station for each. With such a limited choice, we had the kind of cultural nexus almost impossible now. We all watched Happy Days, for example: it was something you had in common with just about everyone you met, regardless of age or ethnicity. We all knew both the latest ABBA song, and the new one by the Ohio Players, because the same radio station played both (and few radio stations were cooler than WHBQ in Memphis). And while there were numerous music magazines, the clear touchstone was Rolling Stone.

We had divisions, of course: American Bandstand vs Soul Train was a big one. So was Led Zeppelin vs Lynyrd Skynyrd. But cultures overlapped far more than they separated, because with so few outlets, you couldn't afford to be picky or you'd miss something.

On a more immediate level, 1975 was an interesting melting-pot of consciousness and obliviousness. It was after the big events of civil rights and the women's movement, the former of which made a significant mark on the South. In my home town of 350 people, the races had no choice but to get along, with the result that, for us kids at least, racism seemed both dated and unwieldy. (A caveat: I realize I'm speaking from the point of view of a lower-middle-class white boy, and my African-American schoolmates may have a vastly different view of our shared history.)

As for the women's movement, for us it existed primarily on television, where Mary Richards, Ann Romano and Maude Findlay made us laugh at the sexism they constantly battled. It certainly had little or no relation to the women we saw every day: our mothers, teachers and older sisters. I don't mean they didn't care about such things, but if they burned any bras it was in the privacy of their own homes, and if they resented the glass ceiling it wasn't mentioned at the dinner table. Southern gentility was much more of a priority than any political movement.

So those things I recall vividly. And in doing research for my very specific place and time, I confirmed that it was, essentially, like that. And what can I say? We did call each other "jive turkeys," warned potential combatants to "get the funk out my face," referred to an attractive woman as a "fox" and a "brick house," and (God help us all) expressed our approval with "Dy-no-MITE!" Using this slang in the book does date it, but that's the point. If Baron Zginski had appeared five years earlier or later, or in any other place, the story would've been entirely different.

So when a reviewer mentions the "...appalling treatment of female and minority characters," and another commenter states that "the blaxploitation dialogue was lame," I can't offer a defense. From the perspective of 2009, those comments are undeniably true. But to tell the story I wanted to tell, and deal with the thematic issues that interested me, I couldn't set this novel in 2009. And I couldn't recreate 1975 without accurately depicting the attitudes of the time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Announcing the cover of Burn Me Deadly

Here's the cover of my next novel, Burn Me Deadly. The artwork was done by Jean-Sebastien Rossbach, who also did the paperback cover for The Sword-Edged Blonde.

So what do you think?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Read chapter one of The Sword-Edged Blonde

You can read chapter one of The Sword-Edged Blonde by going here.

And don't forget to leave a comment here for a chance to win a signed copy of the paperback edition (and maybe an advance copy of the sequel, Burn Me Deadly.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

First dragons: Vermithrax from Dragonslayer

My upcoming novel BURN ME DEADLY involves, in part, a group who worship fire-breathing dragons. Because really, if you're writing fantasy, eventually you have to deal with dragons in some fashion. They're a trope, like swords and/or sorcery. Ignoring them would be like leaving the horses out of a western.

Not that I mind. Dragons continue to fascinate us because, much like vampires, they can symbolize practically anything a writer wants them to represent. Just look at the cultural differences between Asian dragons and their European counterparts, and the richness of the creatures as metaphors becomes apparent.

Still, everyone has a "first dragon," the one that awoke their sense of wonder about the creatures. For many it's Anne McCaffery's elaborate world of Pern, where genetically-engineered intelligent dragons bond with their riders; for others it's Smaug in The Hobbit, guarding his hoarde deep in a cave. But for me, it was the awesome Vermithrax from the 1981 film, Dragonslayer.

At the time of its release, Dragonslayer got a bum wrap for "ripping off" Star Wars. There's a naive young hero (Galen, played by Peter MacNicol) who is mentored by an old wizard portrayed by a distinguished British "Sir" actor (Ralph Richardson). There's a semi-magical weapon (a special lance, the "Dragonslayer" of the title) and a big, black-clad villain (Tyrian, played by John Hallam). Even Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, has a small role as a village priest.

Of course, in the hindsight of twenty-plus years we can see these as simply standard fantasy elements that Lucas borrowed as well, and it's more interesting what the film does differently. Yes, there's a noble and strong-willed princess, but she's not the heroine. There's a Twelfth Night element in one bit of masquerading (the sole part of the film that simply doesn't work). And the medieval setting is vividly realized, helped by the suitably ponderous Alex North score.

Then there's the dragon.

First and foremost for me, Vermithrax maintains the integrity of basic biology. She's clearly a reptile, and so has only four limbs: her wings are modified front legs, similar to a bat's, or fossil pterosaurs. I'm endlessly annoyed by the six-limbed dragons (four legs plus wings) depicted in standard fantasy. No vertebrate has more than four limbs, and that counts wings. Saying, "it's a fantasy story," is a dodge, not an acceptable explanation.

Second, Vermithrax is scary. She eats human sacrifices, breathes fire and leaves a path of destruction. When she first appears, emerging from a literal lake of fire to tower over the hero, she's awe-inspiring.

Third, she doesn't talk. The dragons of Pern communicate telepathically, which is justified since they're genetically engineered to do that. But the chatty Draco in the inanely hokey Dragonheart has started a trend of talkative dragons that would embarrass even Walt Disney. Dragons are reptiles: they have no lips, and no mammalian voice boxes. Again, saying, "it's fantasy so it's okay," is an evasion, not a justification.

All subsequent dragons have been measured against this considerable standard. In fact, in the twenty-plus years since Dragonslayer, I've only encountered one other dragon that came close to equalling its impression on me (more on that in a later post). When it came time to create my own dragons, Vermithrax was my starting point.

The dragons worshipped in BURN ME DEADLY are folkloric, ancient creatures that, if they really existed, lived long before the dawn of man. They flew, and breathed fire, and laid waste to everything in their paths. They have qualities (intelligence, a compulsion to vengeance) that don't quite mesh with reality, but much of this is caused by the way stories change over time. Were there real dragons in the story, they would be much more in line with what I describe above: plausible, genuine, and terrifying.

But there are no real dragons...are there?

Leave a comment about your own "first dragon" before the end of this week and be entered to win one of three signed copies of The Sword-Edged Blonde paperback. One lucky winner will also receive an advance reader copy of Burn Me Deadly.

BURN ME DEADLY hits stores on November 10, 2009.

(There's a perceptive review of Dragonslayer here.)